Yemen: a way forward – or downward?

There was a very informative and wide-ranging discussion of the situation in Yemen earlier today, which I had the privilege of chairing. It was organised by CAABU, the Council for Arab-British Understanding. The speakers were Abubakr al-Shamahi, a British-Yemeni journalist, and Baraa Shiban who served as a youth representative in Yemen’s National Dialogue process.

Below is a rather long and detailed report of the discussion but I hope some readers will find it interesting and/or enlightening.

Brian Whitaker, 1 April 2015

The Houthi takeover

Baraa Shiban began the discussion by describing events in the run-up to the present crisis. 

On 21 September last year the Houthi movement came into Sana'a and physically took control of the capital. Many people were unsure whether to describe this as a coup or not, but in Shiban’s view the process that led to it began last July when the Houthis – who originated in the far north – seized control of Amran province, adjacent to Sanaa.

What the Houthis did in Amran, Shiban said, was very similar to what they did later in Sanaa. “They established many prisons in Amran, threw a lot of activists into prison. They changed Amran's main stadium to become one of the biggest prisons in the country.”

One puzzling feature of the takeover in Amran is that President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi did not resist it – at least initially – and Shiban suggested an explanation.

Hadi, he said, had sought advice from the international community – “and I'm talking specifically of the United States and the UK”. Their advice at the time was not to fight the Houthis because the Yemeni Islah party [which is Sunni and Islamist] was strong in that area, and fighting the Houthis could result in strengthening Islah. Better, therefore, to let the Houthis and Islahis fight amongst themselves, both weakening each other. But it didn't work out quite like that. Shiban continued:

“Hadi pretty much took the advice of the international community as he always did, and didn't seek to intervene inside Amran until August when the Houthis came closer to Sanaa and announced they wanted to reinstate fuel subsidies and implement the National Dialogue – a number of requests that just gave them excuses to start camping around Sanaa, and eventually get into the capital on 21 September.

“From the day when the capital was in their hands, they physically took control of the [government] offices inside the capital and replaced them with their own men, and started pretty much running the country – although there was still a president in place and he had government in place.

“The takeover of Sanaa was not going to happen without complete facilitation from the former president, [Ali Abdullah] Saleh. The forces that were still loyal to him opened the path from many different sides. One side was from the south entrance of the city, another was the north side, opening the path for the Houthis to come into the capital and take charge of the security and military locations, and eventually taking control and having huge influence over the government decision-making.

“On 20 January the Houthis fought with the presidential forces – special guard units that are supposed to protect the presidential palace, the president's offices and the president himself. Eventually they took control over the presidential palace and the president's own residence, and put the president and the prime minister under house arrest.

“Later on, on 6 February, they announced what was called the Constitutional Declaration. For many people that was the official announcement of a coup. It announced that they would form a presidential committee and a new government. Basically, that meant that the GCC initiative was over, Hadi's role was over. That was happening while the president and prime minister were under house arrest.

“On 21 February, Hadi was able to escape and fled from Sanaa to Aden. From there he announced that all decisions made since September 2014 were ineffective, and withdrew his resignation – again announcing himself as president.

"Again, the Saleh forces opened paths for the Houthis to keep moving south until eventually they were very close to taking control over Aden.

“On 25 February, Hadi requested intervention from the UN Security Council and the Arab League. On 26 February, the Saudis – along with a number of GCC countries – formed what was described as a very quick coalition which started airstrikes on Houthi and Saleh targets.

“We have a situation now where Hadi and the forces that are still loyal to him are in the south, in some of the provinces around Aden, and at the same time you have in the same provinces some of the forces that are loyal to Saleh and the Houthi militias fighting back. They are now fighting on the outskirts of Aden and the neighbouring provinces in an attempt to isolate Aden from receiving any more tribal forces coming to support Hadi's Popular Committees in Aden. At the same time we have a large number of airstrikes all over the country, not just Aden.”

Failure of the transition process

In 2011 a popular uprising broke out in Yemen, demanding an end to Saleh’s rule, which by that stage had lasted for 33 years. Saleh, however, clung to power ferociously but was eventually persuaded to step down under a “transition agreement” negotiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council and backed by the United Nations.

The Houthis’ takeover signalled the end of that transition agreement (which many had been sceptical about at the time). One of the problems created by the transition agreement – and undoubtedly the most serious – was that while Saleh stepped down from the presidency, he was granted immunity from prosecution and allowed to stay in Yemen. Shiban said:

“In an attempt to understand what went wrong in the transitional period – why have we reached where we are today – I think one of them is that Saleh was given immunity, despite many violations he committed, especially in 2011. Basically, you have a war criminal on the loose. Any political transition in the near future without ending the political life of Saleh will just be looking into a future war.”

But Shiban also highlighted several other flaws in the transition plan and the way it was (or was not) implemented:

“Militias are [now] in control of government offices and enjoy huge influence over them, and I think this is because there was so much focus on a political transition, and supporting the role of Hadi specifically, by the international community and not focusing on building the capacity a government that would be able to deliver services to the people – which means that we had a weak government but at the same time we had huge support being granted for President Hadi. I think that affected the whole transition.”

Hadi also failed to issue a transitional justice law which many people had been hoping for, to show that grievances were being addressed, Shiban said, and the failure to compile a new electoral register made it difficult to re-start electoral processes.

(A member of the audience pointed out that military restructuring was another neglected part of the transition plan. Restructing the military “was designed to take the Saleh networks out of the whole system and it just wasn't followed through”.)

In addition to that, the transitional government paid little attention to Yemen’s ailing economy, Shiban said:

“Without providing basic services to the people they don't feel that the political transition is actually touching them and it's only benefiting a group of elites who are in the capital and discussing issues that won't be relevant to them.”

This disappointing performance caused Hadi to lose support after coming to power in 2012, Shiban added. “The reason many people went out to vote for him was because they were hoping for a new future, that maybe he would be able to lead the country in a very different way from Saleh.”

Yemen and the Saudis

“Saudi Arabia considers Yemen to be its backyard,” Abubakr al-Shamahi said. “All other countries should go through the Saudis when it comes to things like foreign policy with Yemen.”

Looking at the driving forces behind Saudi policy in Yemen, he continued:

“The Saudis, in my opinion, have two foreign policy goals when it comes to Yemen. One is the prevention of the emergence of a Yemeni state that is independent of Saudi Arabia in one way or another – a state that has the ability to have a foreign policy in the region that is independent of Saudi interests, that may possibly go against Saudi interests.

“We can see this reflected in the way that the Saudis didn't want a united Yemen to emerge in 1990 and preferred Yemen to stay as two different states that would perhaps make it weaker.

“The other policy goal is to prevent a foreign power from dominating in Yemen. So, if we look at history in the 1960s you have a civil war in the former North Yemen between royalists and republicans, and the royalists are backed by Saudi Arabia and the republicans by the Egyptians.”

He suggested the Saudis were especially fearful of any foreign influences in Yemen that had “an ideological tilt” which might also affect the kingdom:

“When Yemen had a strong Arab nationalist bent to its government in the 1960s (thanks to the Egyptians) the fear in Saudi Arabia was that that would then influence people in Saudi Arabia and sympathisers with Arab nationalism to rise up. [It was] the same with the socialism and communism in the south in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, and then perhaps even with the emergence of a multiparty democracy in Yemen in the early 1990s where there was hope in Yemen that this democratic system would become entrenched – which it didn't.

“In pursuit of these goals Saudi Arabia has pumped billions into Yemen. It has pumped billions into the Yemeni economy to prop it up and ensure that the Yemeni state doesn't collapse. That is very important to the Saudis; they do not want a collapsed state on their southern border that will then lead to a potential influx of refugees and other such instability into the country.

“But equally, they have also pumped billions into non-state actors in Yemen – the tribes in particular. I remember about a year ago Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, announced they were cutting aid to Yemen because of instability. For me, the primary reason for that instability was the lack of a strong central state in Yemen and the funding of these tribes.”

In other words, the Saudis were simultaneously trying to prop up the Yemeni state and bolstering other – potentially anti-state – forces. This, Shamahi said, was based on a misconception that the tribes are a constant in Yemen and will always be more powerful than the state.

“Yemeni history to a degree has shown that the tribes' power can be weakened – it's just that if they are getting billions pumped into them they are going to get their own weapons (and heavy weapons at that) and they are going to be able to challenge the state's authority.”

(As a sidenote on Saudi funding, it’s worth point out that until recently the Saudis were payment Yemeni government salaries. That has apparently stopped and it’s unclear how salaries will be paid in future.)

Iran and the Houthis

Turning to the question of Iranian involvement, Shamahi said:

“Iran does have a role in Yemen and it does have a role with the Houthis but the Iranian role is also exaggerated. I haven't been able to look deeply into the question of weapons shipments but even if there were weapons shipments to Yemen it's perhaps not on the level of some other countries' deliveries. Yemen is a highly weaponised society already – it's not as if people find it difficult to get RPGs in the country. 

“Where the Iranians perhaps have influence with the Houthis is in things like strategy – military strategy perhaps, also PR strategy, media strategy, political strategy. If we look at the National Dialogue, it was the pronouncements made by Houthi representatives about democracy and the future of the state, the role of women, made the Houthis look like a liberal movement. At the same time you would be getting constant military advances, peace deals being not worth the paper they were written on. So with this double game they were playing, even in terms of their spokesmen in the media, the way they were able to speak to the Yemeni public was a very clever way that reflected other groups in the region.”

Three scenarios

Shamahi suggested three scenarios for the future, ranging from the most optimistic to the most pessimistic.

“One is a GCC reconstruction of Yemen, where this disaster that is going on now ends and the GCC, led by Saudi Arabia, decides that the only way they can ensure that Yemen remains in their sphere of influence and also does not totally collapse is by pumping hundreds of billions into Yemen and totally reconstruct the state and the military.”

This would require far more money coming into Yemen than previously, he added. “You would need to totally reconstruct the country, especially after what's going on now.”

However, Shamahi found the idea of a massive GGC-led reconstruction programme “pretty far-fetched”:

“Where are the reassurances from the Saudis? They have made no attempt over the last week or so to try and address Yemenis’ fears, and tell them: ‘Look, this is our plan.’ There is nothing. We haven't heard of a plan. We have heard various leaked comments about how this could go on for one to six months. Other comments are saying no, it's going to be over pretty soon.

“Even Yemenis who back what's going on want to understand what the plan is, so they can have hope. A lot of young Yemenis want to leave because they simply have no hope in the future of the country.”

A second scenario outlined by Shamahi would be the emergence of a southern Yemeni state. 

“South Yemen has a strong secessionist movement that is particularly powerful in terms of its popular legitimacy and support base on the ground. 

“But the Southern Movement is very, very divided. Despite everything that's going on now, the southerners and the Herak movement are still not able to unite and convince the regional powers that they are able to take over the south.

“I'm sure that if they were able to convince the regional powers that they were united and able to keep things steady they would have been given support, but they have not been able to do that.”

A lot of al-Qaeda activity has occurred in the south, which raises the question of whether a southern state would be capable of tackling it. Although Shamahi questioned the idea that al-Qaeda controls large areas simply by having a presence there, he said: “If you left it to the Herak, they wouldn't be able to deal with al-Qaeda because they haven't been able to deal with anything.” Speaking as a northerner, he continued: 

“A lot of us have sympathy now for the southern cause, because in terms of the total collapse of the Yemeni state we understand why the southerners think they would be better off on their own.

“And yet, we can't hand this to the southerners on a plate. They need to get their act together.”

With neither of these scenarios showing much promise, Shamahi turned to the third – and grimmest – one.

“My pessimistic view of the future, and one that I think is actually the most realistic, is the collapse of Yemen. It comes from what is happening now and the way this internal conflict has been turned into an international conflict and Yemen has been turned into a battleground for foreign powers, for Saudi Arabia and whatever message they want sent to Iran.

This is happening, he said, “with no real care for the Yemeni people and for the Yemenis who are stuck in the middle and who want nothing to do with this war.” The irony, he added, is that a country “which didn't have these sectarian problems has become the first place where the Saudis have actually gone in and fully intervened in their regional sectarian proxy war”.

Describing the sectarian issue as “massively over-blown”, he said:

“Sectarianism does exist in Yemen and it is growing in Yemen, but it is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The emergence of sectarianism in Yemen is to do with the current conflict. When you have a group like the Houthis getting into positions of power, and you have this media narrative and this political narrative in the wider region that talks of growing Shia power and things like that, you will then have a counter-response from Sunni areas in Yemen.

"For me, though, a tribesman from Marib (a Sunni region) would be opposed to a Houthi tribesman from Amran or from Saada coming down to his area. However, he doesn't oppose them because they are Zaidis, he opposes them because they are invaders from a different part of Yemen who are coming into his area."

Shiban agreed. Some Zaidi tribesmen, he said, oppose the Houthis because their tribal identity is stronger than their Zaidi identity.

What comes next?

As the Saudi-led air strikes continue it is difficult to see what they are going to achieve militarily. So far, they seem not to be impeding the Saleh/Houthi advance in the south. Shamahi said:

“The Saudi air force and the Gulf air power can not defeat the Houthis and Saleh on their own. If we look at the history there is no real evidence of a time when air power has been able to totally, on its own, win a war.

“The Houthis and Saleh are still advancing in the south, still advancing on Aden. So there is going to be a need for ground forces. Now, normally, we would use the military, but the Yemeni military is controlled, not all but mostly, by Saleh – and that is now being pumelled and decimated. All the important army and air bases are being struck, so there won't be a military to fight this fight.

“Then you have to look at militias and tribal forces that might step in to that vacuum, but none of the militias or tribal forces are reliable or strong enough to be able to fight the Houthis and Saleh and not be paid off by them as well (which has happened in the past). The other issue is that none of them will be able to represent the whole country. These are very much local forces and a lot of them will be secessionist forces as well, so they are not going to be fighting for Sanaa.

“That leaves one other [military] option which is a ground invasion by the Saudis and the Egyptians or the Pakistanis. Again, not a good idea. If you look at the geography of the north of Yemen and the history of foreign interventions, they don't go well. It will be a long, long conflict and disastrous for both Yemen and those external actors intervening in Yemen.

“Looking at Yemeni history, a lot of the time Yemeni internal conflicts are quite short, or they are protracted but it's not total war. The only time when there are years of conflict is when foreign powers get involved – and that's what we are seeing now.

“I do hope I'm wrong but I feel a disaster is on the cards.”

Even before the bombing started, Yemen was already in deep trouble at the humanitarian level. Shiban said: 

“There is absolutely no way you can have an operation this big while preventing civilian casualties. Despite how the Saudis would like to describe the strikes as being accurate and precise, and only focusing on military and Houthi targets, there is no way you can prevent civilian casualties when you are launching such a big operation.

“Yesterday, the ministry of education announced suspending schools for the children until further notice. This means more than 500,000 students in Sanaa will not be going to school, more than 150,000 in Aden will not be going to school, and the numbers continue all around the country. 

“Medecins Sans Frontiers also announced yesterday that they are in desperate need medical supplies and trained health personnel with the increased number of civilian casualties. They said that on the first day alone they received more than 50 injured to the hospitals of Aden; now they are reaching a point where the local capacity with MSF support is not able to cover the increasing number of civilian casualties.”

The conflict is also pushing up prices as food and other commodities become scarcer. “The situation before was already bad – 60% of the population were living on $2 a day,” Shiban said, but now that the country is blockaded it can only get worse.

“There are no [operational] ports, no airports, and you are pretty much depending on what's inside. People want to be reassured when this is going to end and how they are going to make it with their daily lives.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 1 April 2015