Ten Points in Understanding Yemen and the Revolution

Ten Points in Understanding Yemen and the Revolution

Recent attention to Yemen has generated much analysis, or brought back from the archives, a lot of what has already been written. Sadly much of this has either been inaccurate or wrong. Even good studies produced by serious scholars are of limited value to an understanding of the macro and micro dimensions of the politics of the country due to the fact that their subject matter and analytical methods do not allow for a more general understanding of the country. Their scholarly quality can actually become a distorting element for policymaking, strategic planning and tactical formulations. The situation is exacerbated by the lack of Yemeni analysts who are equipped with local insight in addition to conceptual tools that can allow them to analyze, articulate and then communicate in an accessible language.

My goal here is not to list all the misconceptions made about Yemen. I will list 10 rules of thumb on issues that I believe play a special role in framing much of the analysis. I do not claim to get it right where others didn’t. But I do claim that what is being offered in much of the analysis in these 10 issues is problematic and should not be taken without serious questioning.

1. The first and simplest rule of thumb is simply to avoid assumptions about a complicated Yemen. Yes, of course Yemen is complicated, but not more than any other country. Instead of assuming its fathomless complexity, analysts should start questioning their favorite conceptual tools such as “tribe” and “sect,” but also the most basic such as the Westphalian/Weberian concept of a “state.”

2. Suspend analyzing Yemen as a Westphalian/ Weberian state, or WW State. This may sound odd, but for those who have actually experienced Yemen, this sounds natural. Yemen is not, technically speaking, a sovereign state. It cannot and has not exerted control over its territories for decades. There is no sense of genuine legitimacy that the central government can leverage on most of the real powers in Yemen. And there is absolutely no monopoly of power. This has been the case since the coup d’état of 1962. Thus concepts such as “sovereignty” and “border” are of limited use in an analysis. Their presence distorts the reality. Radical as this may sound, it is actually much closer to the reality on the ground. And I do not say this in a derogatory sense at all. Yemen is certainly a state in some certain sense, but not in the WW sense.

Once a WW model of statehood is suspended, borders blurred and sovereignty deferred, a new sense of Yemen’s statehood will be revealed – one made from an arrangement between local powers and Saudi Arabia. The main existing local powers are the president, the Hashid tribal confederation, Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, and, more recently, the Houthis. There are also other significant powers in the north and south that play various important roles, but the ones mentioned are the major players.

It may sound odd to consider the president as a local power among others, but this is the real fact of the matter. His power is not by virtue of him being president. He is president by virtue of his material power. Also, being a president anywhere is not inherently about holding an office that represents a state. Being a president is whatever the perceptions of the constituency make it to be. In Yemen, the office of the presidency is not primarily perceived to represent a state, rather its primary perception is that it represents the very person of Ali Abdullah Saleh and his inner circle, in particular his immediate tribe Sanhan. This fact is crucial for understanding Yemen. It is not a case of powers vs. a WW state, rather a case of powers against each other. The word “state” may even be redundant in this context, as it is always associated with the Westphalian and Weberian idea.

The point is not about the power units, rather it is about the power structure. But important to note is that the powers of Hashid and al-Ahmar were significantly diminished as their resources were depleted in their effort to defeat the Houthis. Yet both are still by far stronger than any other power in the country.

Another important point concerns the place of Saudi Arabia. As much as people discuss its role in Yemen, it is still not given enough emphasis. It has been at the heart of everything significant in Yemen since the mid-1960s. After the failure of the Egyptian army to defeat the Royalists, the Saudis turned toward a strategy of opting in tribal powers. By now, tens of thousands of Yemenis depend on stipends from the Saudi government either directly or indirectly. I would go as far as to say that Saudi Arabia played a role in shaping the political identity of post-1962 Yemen. At one point much, of this identity has been defined by “being on the other side” of the Saudi border. One needs to note that their power has been considerably undermined by the Houthi wars, as their main ally inside Yemen was the Hashid confederation which, as I mentioned above, has lost most of its leverage. There are, however, efforts to rebuild a coalition that can perform the previous role of Hashid.

The institutions and government exist as service providers primarily sustained by the requirements of the power structure. This is to a great extent what makes limiting corruption in Yemen so difficult. What others consider corruption is simply a process of acquiring legitimate resources. Power generates a sense of entitlement. Power takes what it decides to be its own. The local powers in Yemen, as elsewhere, cannot even fathom the concept of corruption; it is alien to them. This structure also explains the politics of providing public services. It is a matter of serving those with power, not serving citizens. This is why in many areas of Yemen, the government is relatively absent. And in quite a few areas, people don’t even feel the presence of government. An example can be seen in the areas controlled by the Houthis. Though anecdotal, my own experience has brought me in contact with the constant refrain: “We don’t feel the absence of the government because it never existed in the first place.”

Such a state structure casts doubt on the viability of military aid to counter terrorism. Actually, the current situation makes the existing counterterrorism approach seem counterproductive. Even if some results are achieved, they will not be sustainable. Given the power structure of the country, such an approach reinforces an unhealthy state of affairs. Yemen needs to evolve into a Westphalian/Weberian state and supporting one power against the others will impede that. The existing structure needs to reach a point where it becomes unviable for the existing powers. Without that, there will always exist a crack for terrorists and other forms of organized violence to thrive.

Also, such a structure limits the effectiveness of economical solutions. They may function as palliative remedies, but no matter how much money is brought in, it will always be divided according to the balance of material powers that are competing on the ground. Much of the cynicism that surrounds the 10 priorities program stems from this realization. It is perceived to be a tool that establishes an authority and legitimacy for the succeeding son of the president. This is not to speak of its naivety. Its stated goals with its stated timeframe makes one sadly smile.

3. Drop the term “tribalism.” Yemen is a tribal country, but tribalism doesn’t explain the fundamental problems the country is facing at the level of the power structure. It may explain other details, but for strategic and even tactical purposes, tribalism explains little. The way the people of Yemen respond to their problems is fundamentally similar to the way all societies do – by forming social structures that interact through a set of agreed norms that serve to limit the ambiguity of the various agents within those structures, creating a limited sense of security through predictability.

Some societies have a long tradition of social structures and well-established norms, thus diminishing the evils of anarchy. Other societies establish those structures in times of anarchy, which doesn’t give them time to establish norms. Thus a situation of all against all can become very violent and bloody. Apply this to Yemen and you see how similar it is to everywhere else. With the effective absence of a state, the population is functioning through a social structure that happens to be called the tribe. Tribal structures are old, stable and familiar. Thus the norms governing them have gained legitimacy and acceptance as effective means of avoiding a Hobbesian world. Instead they’ve developed a state of “enlightened survivalism,” so to speak. That is, “All against all but with rules.” The matter is as simple as that, though in a complicated way. Thus qualities such as “shuns central authorities,” “focuses on local and narrow priorities,” “opportunistic,” “self-centered,” and “believe in their legitimate right to use violence,” are all qualities of any social unit living in a state of anarchy, or in a state of an illegitimate central power. Those qualities are products of and contingent on a specific political and economic structure in which there is no monopoly of violence, which cannot protect those living within it, which is predatory, which has strong powers that sustain themselves on divide and rule. In other words, those qualities are not essential to the tribe as the research sometimes tries to depict, they are essential to that structure.

4. Understanding the Houthis is important. They control an area larger than Lebanon, and their situation and authority is only getting better. This has been reinforced by the recent release of hundreds of Houthis detained by the government. But their legitimacy grows mainly due to the security services they provide. People feel safe in their areas. And as is well known, feeling safe is a scarce privilege in Yemen. As of yet, the Houthis have no political platform, which makes defining them problematic, but they are in the process of developing one.

The rule of thumb here is to avoid understanding them in religious or sectarian terms. The leadership of the Houthi movement is of the Zaydi sect, but this is not a Zaydi movement. The wide support they have is not by virtue of being Zaydi, nor for the cause of supporting Zaydism. True, many of the leaders were frustrated by the situation of Zaydism as the republican regime has been systemically limiting their existence in Yemen. It is also true that many of their demands have to do with giving Zaydis freedom to practice and to learn. But still, Zaydism explains little or nothing of the social movement that has evolved in the past six years. It is a mistake to understand a social movement in terms of the theological or sectarian affiliation of its leadership or even members. Social movements need to be analyzed in terms of their leadership, real life needs, challenges and aspirations. They may express themselves in religious, nationalistic or ethnic terms, but that is discourse. The motivation lies elsewhere. Moreover in Yemen, one notices a large disconnect between Zaydi scholastic theology and Zaydi social identities. Speak to any Zaydi about what it means to be a Zaydi and you see how different it is from what is written about what it means to be a Zaydi.

“Hashemysim,” on the other hand, should be considered a critical tool of analysis. The Houthi family is from a prominent Hashemy family. And it will be difficult to understand this movement without understanding Hashemyism. Hashemys in Yemen have always played an important leadership role. They had a legitimate monopoly of the right to rule the upper highlands of Yemen for 1,100 years. They no longer retain that monopoly, yet they still retain much of their legitimacy. Understanding a social movement with a Hashemy leadership warrants understanding Hashemyism.

5. Avoid using the terms “Sunni” and “Shi’i.” They do not even remotely explain Yemen, which was never a sectarian country the way Lebanon is or Iraq is coming to be. There is no popular sense of a Sunni- Shi’i divide, and people in Yemen find it surprising that some writers insist on imposing terms that are completely alien to them.

6. Minimize the role of history, which explains little in many countries and in Yemen as well. One needs to go on the ground, map the actual views, understand local memories and extract active perceptions. The 50 past years of Yemen have been so dramatic that new structures are being created and dismantled at a speed that warrants an ongoing synchronic analysis. There is a process going on in Yemen today, and the events have to be understood through that process, not through its history. There are also quantum leaps within the process itself. A good example for a common overrating of history is about the Houthis. Trying to understand them through the history of the Believing or Faithful Youth doesn’t help. The fact that some of them were from that group explains little today. Moreover, trying to understand the Houthis today through the lens of the first war and the events leading to it is also of no help. The process that has been undergoing since then created new situations. We cannot understand the Houthis today by understanding the story of Hussain al-Houthi six years ago. Today is another arrangement; it is another world. The only history that matters is the memories and perceptions of the people on the ground. This needs to be mapped for any real understanding.

7. Avoid using the idea of “transition” to understand the process of state building in Yemen. It is used by some writers and policymakers to suggest that what is happening in Yemen is a natural symptom of “being a state in transition.” True Yemen is in transition, but not a “state in transition.” At the power structure level, the situation has been fairly constant. And when understanding the politics of Yemen, it is that level which matters. There have been changes at other levels, but those changes were not effective in guiding the country because their effectiveness depends on the underlying power structure of Yemen.

8. and 9. Avoid the terms “failed” and “fragile.” Both depend on the Westphalian/ Weberian state as a basic conceptual component. In Yemen, there is no such state. And in Yemen, the state has never played a role in the stability of the country. As mentioned above, Yemen defies classical theories about the state and its role. Drop those and things become understandable. There is however something failing or fragile in Yemen today, which is the existing power arrangement. But this is not a failed/fragile state situation and needs a different conceptualization.

10. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) existence, activity, sustainability and growth should be strictly understood in terms of the power structure that exists. They have no existence without it. They serve it and benefit from it. And they will never be eliminated as long as that structure benefits from them. AQAP has nothing to do with the usual suspects such as poverty. The whole population is poor, has been poor and will be poor for a while into the future. Poverty creates no terrorists in Yemen. What is creating havens for terrorists in Yemen is a need for leverage between the controlling and competing powers.

This is but a brief outline of some ideas that I believe to be important in understanding Yemen. I understand that the broad strategic directions taken on Yemen by various governments are not always based on a revised understanding of the country, rather they are based on institutionalized “articles of faith.” But I also believe that there are emerging realities in Yemen that will shake the existing articles of faith and, as that happens, there will need to be available an accurate assessment to serve as a basis for revising and developing a new set of articles of faith. This is a small step in making such assessments available.

Abdullah Hamidaddin is a political analyst.


1/23/11 19 opposition Yemeni activists arrested and protestors demonstrate in the streets.

1/27/11 Thousands of protestors demonstrate, calling for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.

2/02/11 Yemeni President Saleh says he will end his rule after the 2013 elections and his son will not succeed him.

3/08/11 2000 inmates stage a revolt in a prison in Sanaa and join antigovernment protesters in calling for Saleh to resign.

3/10/11 Saleh pledges to create a parliamentary system to stave off protests, but opposition figures reject the proposal.

3/13/11 Radical Yemeni-American leader, Anwar Al-Awlaki praises the Arab Spring in an English language online magazine, saying that the result of these changes do not have to be Islamic governments.

4/08/11 Saleh makes a speech accusing foreign actors of meddling in Yemeni affairs, refusing to step down.

4/17/11 Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis demonstrate across Yemen after weeks of protests with Yemenis being killed by security forces.

5/11/11 Yemeni forces shoot on anti-government demonstrators killing 18 people.

6/03/11 Yemeni President Saleh survives an assassination attempt. He goes to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment.

7/07/11 Yemeni President Saleh appears on television after the attack and says dialogue is the only way forward.

7/16/11 Yemeni protesters announce they are forming a shadow government to run the country should the current regime fall.

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