February 10, 2015
Ms. Nadwa Al-Dawsari, Executive Director, Sheba Center for International Development
Ms. Laura Kasinof, Author of Don’t be Afraid of the Bullets: An Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen
While many media outlets have been quick to define the Houthi takeover in Yemen as the latest instance of sectarianism and Iranian meddling in the Middle East– similar to Hezbollah’s takeover in Lebanon in 2008– this analysis is shallow, incomplete, and fails to highlight the role that GCC/Western-backed policies have played in sowing political discontent throughout the country.
Ever since the Arab Spring came to Yemen in 2011, the government in Sana’a and its Arab and Western backers have failed to address local grievances. Instead the government pushed ahead with their own policies, hoping that local tribes and civic leaders would simply conform to their vision. This approach was, from the start “a recipe for disaster,” according to Ms. Dawsari. While the reform process forced Ali Abdullah Saleh to give up his formal position as President, many of his military and political allies were allowed to retain their positions and thus keep Saleh’s hold on power intact.
Without real and substantial change in the political hierarchy, the reform process in Yemen never had much of a chance for success.
While Yemen has “never been a cohesive state,” according to Ms. Kasinof, the calls for secession in the South have increased following the failed attempt to enact meaningful government reforms. For years, Southern cities such as Aden and Ta’izz have functioned as pseudo autonomous states and been ruled by a local, tribally enforced justice system. The fact that business and civil life is continuing as per usual in these commercial centers even after the government’s collapse only underscores just how detached the central government had become from large swathes of the country.
On the other hand, the Port of Aden is just one such example of an economic hub that could benefit greatly from government assistance and targeted foreign investment. Despite being the largest, natural deep-water port in the region, the port has failed to become a global hub largely because it lacks the necessary, modern infrastructure and investment. The government – both before and after the reform process – has failed to capitalize on this natural resource and instead kept resources primarily oriented towards the country’s north where basic services – such as electricity – are still not fully provided.
While this exclusion of the country’s South has for a long time cost the country economically, this most recent wave of disenfranchisement and discontent is now threatening the country’s security and political stability. Historically regarded as “outsiders” in Yemen’s tribal culture, the Houthi’s unilateral takeover is evoking a strong response from the country’s tribal leaders – some of whom are threatening armed opposition to the takeover. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda elements within Yemen are garnering support by depicting this takeover in sectarian terms, depicting the Shi’a, Iranian backed Houthi rebels as a threat to the country’s majority Sunni population.
Should the conflict continue to escalate, both Ms. Dawsari and Ms. Kasinof are worried that Al Qaeda and some of the country’s Sunni tribes – two sides that have historically opposed one another – will form a partnership in response to a perceived common threat. Such a partnership would not only give Al Qaeda a greater foothold in Yemen, it will also erode the South’s stability, as divisions in the tribal community between those who do and do not support armed opposition will threaten the legal and social framework that tribal leaders have managed to establish.
In order to protect and ensure Yemen’s future stability, the country’s various tribes and leaders must reach a political solution; one that addresses the needs and concerns of the entire country. If this standoff turns violent, the only potential winners are Al Qaeda or Iran. Either way Yemenis will lose out. While 2011’s revolution failed to bring meaningful change to Yemen, one must hope that this time positive change can be achieved.