In many ways, the political unity that Yemen achieved in its 1990 unification was an anomaly. The country’s spectacular geographic diversity has given rise to a richly varied populace composed of regionally distinct tribes. That diversity has both established a set of hierarchies and fostered struggles to upend those hierarchies, as regions and tribes compete for resources and power. Over many centuries, complex dynamics between Zaidi Shiite and Shafii Sunni sects have further divided Yemen into the two vastly different north and south regions — the regions that the unification brought together. Today as much as ever, the country is fractured not only by ethnic and religious differences but also by the civil war that has ravaged it since late 2014.
Yemen’s current war is, to a great extent, a rehashing of the struggles that have persisted throughout its history. With peace talks set to resume in Kuwait on July 15, the parties involved in the conflict will return to the task of finding a way forward for the country. And it will not be easy. In February 2014, a federalist system was proposed to solve Yemen’s discord, more than a year after a Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered deal forced longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign. That plan failed, like so many similar plans before it, stymied by the insurmountable difficulty of merging Yemen’s Islamist and tribal north with its more socially liberal south.
The Problem With Federalism
Neither the Houthis, who now lead the insurgency against the Saudi-led coalition in northern Yemen, nor the southern secessionist Hirak movement approved of the details of the 2014 plan, which both groups thought infringed on their regional autonomy. The plan left the balance of power between federal, state and regional governments totally undecided. While the specifics were being determined, the Houthi uprising accelerated, sparking the civil war that has raged ever since.
Because the plan did not adequately address the division of power or resources among its proposed regional governments, resource allocation once again became a sticking point. The Houthis depend on irrigation for water-thirsty crops such as qat. Ensuring that their water-strapped region gets enough water is part of what fuels the Houthis’ desire for greater representation in the government. Distribution of oil rents has only aggravated the country’s political problems in the past, even though Yemen lacks the considerable oil reserves of its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbors. Moreover, Yemen had just begun to reap the benefits of natural gas development and liquid natural gas exports before the civil war erupted.
Some parts of Yemen have suffered more from the country’s unequal distribution of power and resources than others have. As a result of tribal upsets in South Yemen during the 1980s, Abyan and Shabwa provinces lost some of their government representation. Throughout the war, the two regions have faced some of the fiercest fighting without the same level of foreign security and regional police presence that other parts of Yemen have had, and today they remain under the territorial grip of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Obstacles to Peace
Even though the discussions to solve the Yemeni crisis have not yet broached federalism, any resolution plans are bound to encounter many of the same problems that foiled Yemen’s federalist plans before. Some of the most pertinent issues under discussion currently will not come to fruition. On top of that, several circumstances in the country will complicate the peace process.
Today, all sides of the conflict are more heavily armed than ever. Some northern tribes have long relied on weapons to assert their dominance over other resource-rich areas, but now, for the first time, the Southern Resistance movement’s armed contingent is armed to the teeth. The number of weapons on both sides will complicate the effort to assemble transitional military councils. Even so, the Houthis have indicated that they may be willing to comply with the Saud-led coalition’s demands that they relinquish the weapons they seized from the state. Meanwhile, with each passing day of the war, President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi’s legitimacy has been damaged more. So far, no consensus candidate has emerged as a viable replacement.
A Regional Debate
Yemen’s challenges reach beyond its borders. For the GCC as a whole, the top priority in the Yemeni conflict is to keep the instability confined in Yemen. How best to do that, however, remains a subject of debate behind closed doors between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two most powerful GCC actors in Yemen. Moving forward, their competing ideas could further undermine Yemen’s stability.
Though the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are united in the fight against the Houthi rebels and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s loyalists, they historically have supported different factions in Yemen. In the late 1970s, Saudi Arabia began funding mosques and madrasas in northern Yemen to propagate the Wahhabist ideology that Saudi Arabia’s Muslim scholars have long espoused. Years of migration to Saudi Arabia, mostly from North Yemen, helped enshrine these philosophies in the social mores of many Yemenis. On the other hand, the United Arab Emirates has long supported southern Yemen. UAE history runs parallel to that of South Yemen: The British colonized and relinquished control of both territories at around the same time. Compared with Saudi Arabia, which wants Yemen to remain a single country, the United Arab Emirates is more open to southern secession.
In June, the chairman of one of southern Yemen’s many secessionist coalitions unveiled a plan for a transitional council strikingly similar to the one that existed in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen during the 1980s. In addition, he noted that a southern army had formed, likely a reference to the proliferation of Southern Resistance fighters, the armed component of a broad range of more peaceful secessionist supporters, including the Hirak movement.
Notwithstanding these claims, southern secession is unlikely unless a prominent leader emerges to unite the disparate strands of the Southern Resistance and Hirak. Already, Saudi Arabia has warned Ali Salem al-Beidh, the last president of South Yemen and an active leader in the Southern Resistance movement, to stop his efforts to incite secessionist sentiment among southern Yemenis. Even the UAE government, which is more tolerant of the southern secessionist movement, has recently tried to distance itself from al-Beidh (though the United Arab Emirates still provides safe harbor for former Vice President Khaled Bahah, who remains popular in southern Yemen). Secession is a dangerous notion for war-torn Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates will continue to advocate a more self-determined south only if it can be achieved without jeopardizing regional security.
Although the war in Yemen appears to be winding down, finding a viable power structure for the country remains a significant obstacle. As it has in the past, allocation of resources and power will continue to follow the familiar lines of region, religion and external backing.