The notion of Yemen – as a nebulous place, without clear boundaries – predates the formation of Western nation states by more than a thousand years. Yet despite the best efforts of Yemeni ministers and technocrats, assisted by Western diplomats and international development consultants, the grand project of state building has never been completed. Why is this? As I discovered during the research for my new book – Yemen Endures – the modern Yemeni state developed, in part, as a reaction to regional and international changes set in motion during the twentieth century, including the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of Arab nationalism and the collapse of British colonialism.
To the north, the formation of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 exerted territorial pressure on the isolationist Imams ruling northern Yemen. Cold War politics further increased the need for the creation of effective state institutions, with Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser eyeing the strategic port of Aden, which lay under British control to the south. Across the region, Nasser encouraged groups opposed to Arab monarchs and their colonial allies, but Yemen’s Imams failed to moved quickly enough to diffuse the threat to their control that Nasser posed.
In 1962, Egyptian-backed army commanders overthrew Imam Mohammed Al-Badr, who fled to the northern mountains to mount a five-year fight-back against the republicans in Sana’a with Saudi assistance. When Egyptian airplanes conducted bombing raids in the border area with Saudi Arabia, Riyadh stepped up its arms purchases from the British and the Americans. Nasser’s troops were only forced to withdraw from Sana’a in 1967, after Israel inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Egyptian army in the Sinai Peninsula, during the Six-Day War.
With Nasser defeated, Riyadh was willing to recognize the formation of the new Yemen Arab Republic, with its capital in Sana’a; the parallel withdrawal of the British from Aden led to creation of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south. Turbulence characterized the 1960s and 1970s, with multiple plots, simultaneous assassinations, and plentiful accusations of external interference. On one occasion, in 1966, Sana’a’s entire presidential council found itself under de facto detention in Cairo. It was another decade before Ali Abdullah Saleh came to power in 1978, and even then, no one reasonably expected stability to follow.
However, the foundations of the modern republic were laid in the upheaval of the 1960s, and reinforced with unification, and the introduction of democracy, in 1990. Saleh himself bears much of the blame for running Yemen’s economy into the ground over the ensuing decades, leading to widespread loss of faith in the legitimacy of Yemen’s institutions. In 2000, Yemen agreed on a formal boundary demarcation with Saudi Arabia and from the mid-2000s, Yemen’s donors tried to encourage state-building measures and technical reforms, tied to Gulf aid pledges, in an effort to shift power from Saleh’s informal patronage networks to the formal institutions of state, but this approach faltered because Saleh had no real intention of dismantling his effective powerbase.
By the end of the 2000s, Yemen’s modest oil reserves were running out, amid widespread accusations of corruption. The Houthis were already in open revolt, southern separatism was on the rise and Al-Qaeda’s presence was growing. The youth-led uprising in 2011 also exposed internal divisions within Saleh’s regime. And while the street protests were initially peaceful, it was the prospect of fighting between Saleh and his elite rivals that prompted the international community to back a transition framework supported by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but all they managed to do was delay the inevitable confrontation.
When civil war broke out in Yemen in late 2014, the international community had spent three years investing considerable sums of money and political capital in a transition process that appeared to have hit a spectacular dead end. Diplomats saw the transition as a logical, technical process that could help Yemen progress towards a more viable, stable future but for Saleh and the Houthis, history was at stake. What brought them together, despite fighting each other for much of the 2000s, was their mutual sense of entitlement as northern elites. (The Houthis, as a modern incarnation of the aristocracy displaced with the Imams, had long-held scores to settle, while Saleh, as a beneficiary of changes that followed the Imams’ removal from power, was fighting to hold on to his privileged position).
Although the Houthi/Saleh surge to power has eclipsed the achievements of the National Dialogue Conference and the Constitutional Drafting Committee, these technical developments could yet pay political dividends in the future. It remains to be seen what can be salvaged from the ruins of the GCC agreement, and who will replace the southern-born transitional president, Abdurabbo Mansour Hadi. The moment for decisive technical intervention has not yet come because any peace deal for Yemen first depends on striking a viable political agreement between Gulf elites, which lies beyond the current mandate of UN negotiators.
Now, as in the 1960s, the outcome of the conflict will certainly be influenced by the preferences of regional powers. Riyadh might wish to play the winning hand but the decisive cards could well be in the hands of the Emiratis. By deploying Special Forces to Aden and Mukalla, the Emiratis have already shaped the facts on the ground and as a result of their grassroots outreach, they have established significant ties with local powerbrokers, including southern separatist groups. The international community remains formally committed to a united Yemen but the unified republic was founded less than three decades ago, and it is less than two decades since Yemen agreed on a formal border with its northern neighbor. As history shows, Yemeni state building is a long-term process, in which it is episodes of violent conflict that shape the periods of change and constitutional reform that follow.
Ginny Hill is a member of DeepRoot’s advisory board and a visiting fellow in LSE’s Middle East Centre. She founded the Chatham House Yemen Forum and recently served on the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen (2015-2016). Her first book, 'Yemen Endures: Civil War, Saudi Adventurism and the Future of Arabia' was published by Hurst this month.