Goodbye Yemen

For most practical purposes the Republic of Yemen no longer exists. Whether it can ever be reassembled into a single state is, to put it mildly, doubtful – though that appears to be the objective of the Saudi-led military intervention.

Even in more peaceful times the writ of central government never extended much beyond the cities and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, for all his dictatorial tendencies, often had to defer to the power of tribes. 

Yemen's tribes may be an anachronism but they are also organised and resourceful, and capable of managing day-to day affairs (up to a point) in their own localities. Elsewhere, "popular committees" have been set up, performing a similar function. 

So we can expect to see ad hoc forms of government operating locally, at least in areas that are not plagued by heavy fighting, and at the level of human survival this may help mitigate some of the worst effects of the conflict.

The other side of this, though, is that it will probably hasten Yemen's disintegration. The longer the war continues, the more likely it is that the country will fragment into multiple armed fiefdoms with a complex mix of alliances and enmities, and re-establishing a functioning national government will become more difficult, rather than less.

The Saudis and their allies have plunged into bombing Yemen without explaining how the military offensive might translate into establishing a new national government – possibly because they don't know. At present the bombing seems mainly intended to weaken the forces of Saleh and the Houthis through attrition, presumably with the aim of forcing them eventually into political concessions.

One military scenario would be to attack the far north – the Houthis' heartland – in the hope of drawing their forces away from southern Yemen. That might open the door to reinstalling Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi as president in Aden, heading a government that claimed jurisdiction over the whole country.

However, it's fanciful to imagine that Hadi, who is currently exiled in Saudi Arabia, can ever become an effective president in a pacified Yemen. Internationally he is still regarded as the country's legitimate president but whatever legitimacy he does have exists mainly in the minds of foreigners. He has no significant and reliable support base inside Yemen.

He was installed as president in 2012 under the disastrous GCC-organised transition agreement and his position was ratified – after a fashion – in an "election" where he was the only candidate. That was accepted on a needs-must basis at the time because Hadi's term in office was supposed to last only for the duration of a two-year transitional period. He continued in office beyond two years because the transition process was taking longer than expected, but it has now collapsed entirely.

Trying to reinstall Hadi is very much a last resort. There is no prominent figure in Yemen at the moment who commands enough support to be generally accepted as a national president. 

One option might be a presidential council. Yemen has tried these several times in the past but they tend to be short-lived and quarrelsome.

A better option might be a weak – titular – presidency with a greatly strengthened parliament. Currently, Yemen does have an elected parliament but it was elected 12 years ago and its legitimacy has long since expired. Electing a new parliament is not a realistic proposition while the present conflict continues.

All this points to the conclusion that Yemen will not be established as a united functioning state in the foreseeable future.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 9 April 2015