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The One Thing About Yemen Everyone Gets Wrong

No brokered diplomatic solution will succeed without on-the-ground legitimacy. And legitimacy is won locally.

Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

When protests inspired by uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia hit Yemen in 2011, the United States and the United Kingdom, the regime’s main backers, at first pooh-poohed the protestors’ grievances. Only after anger over the endemic corruption and the economy split Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime in two, sparking street battles between regime loyalists and Sunni military and tribal fighters, did Yemen’s foreign partners start to worry. Fearing Somalia-like chaos that would be exploited by the local Al Qaeda franchise, they brokered a deal for Saleh to step down.

Three years later, Western diplomats were celebrating the success of their “Yemen model” for dealing with political upheaval and suggesting it might work in Syria and Libya. But trouble was brewing. Despite a new president, the basis for a new constitution, and a genuinely impressive nine-month “national dialogue conference” attended by most major Yemeni factions including civil society groups, buy-in to the new-model Yemen—which looked an awful lot like the Yemen of old—was deceptively low. 

In July 2014, the entire post-Arab Spring arrangement broke down when the government tried to slash fuel subsidies, nearly doubling the price of fuel at the pump. The Zaydi Shia Houthi rebels accused the president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and his government of corruption and fecklessness. By the end of September, after several days of fighting, the Houthis controlled the city—something that had seemed impossible just a few months earlier. By the following spring, the civil war had begun in earnest. Saudi Arabia, viewing the Shia Houthis as a proxy for Iran, added heavy aerial bombardment to the mix. 

Four years on from the hype of the “Yemen model,” Yemen is mired in a devastating civil war that has triggered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Conservative estimates are that 10,000 civilians have died, although the total is likely much closer to 50,000. Upwards of 20 million need some kind of humanitarian assistance. A million people have been infected with cholera. And no end is in sight.

Often simplified into a proxy battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, in reality the war has devolved into multiple, overlapping conflicts driven by an ever-changing patchwork of rivalry and alliance. Salafists and secessionists backed by the United Arab Emirates often expend as much energy battling their nominal allies, Saudi Arabia-funded Islamists and loyalists of the internationally recognized President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, as they do the Houthis.  The local franchises of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State publish videos from the frontlines of battles against the Houthis in areas the government claims is under its control. A common thread runs through each of these internecine struggles: the desire—or the demand—for legitimacy.

I lived and worked in Yemen during the transitional period following Saleh’s ouster in 2011. Beyond the headlines, what I found was a country in the midst of a slow-motion collapse. It didn’t matter whether you were talking to Sunni Islamists or Zaydi Shia Houthis, southern secessionists or frustrated technocrats: Yemen was plagued with fuel and job shortages. The cost of living was soaring as incomes fell to zero. The government was unable to provide security and the judicial system, broken as it was before, had collapsed. The new “unity” government—made up of rival factions from the old regime—was paralyzed by infighting. Few Yemenis outside of the big cities knew or cared much about the political transition or dialogue process. They were too busy trying to eke out a living. For many, the main symbol of international intervention in Yemen was a regular succession of U.S. drone strikes that all too often killed innocent people rather than Al Qaeda militants. Unsurprisingly, secessionist sentiment was growing in the South while the Houthi rebels in the North were both making gains on the ground, and marketing themselves as a meaningful alternative to the old elite—as in fact was Al Qaeda. The legitimacy of the political order in Sana’a was in crisis, sparking a free-for-all.

Legitimacy, according to New Zealand political scientist Kevin Clements, “is about social, economic and political rights, and it is what transforms coercive capacity and personal influence into durable political authority.” It’s about “whether the contractual relationship between the state and citizens is working effectively or not.”

In the first decade of the 2000s, the political economist Sue Unsworth proposed a way of testing the overall legitimacy of the political order that underpins a state by asking four questions: 

1.     Does the political system comply with the agreed-upon rules of procedure (the constitution and the law) in the country in question?

2.     Does the state provide basic public goods (like healthcare, education, security and a legal system)?

3.     Is there a shared vision for the country among the ruling class and the ruled?

4.     Is there international recognition for the political order?

If you’re a diplomat or a local government official you are likely to think rules and recognition are the priority. But if you’re a normal person going to work or trying to find work, shopping for food, and bringing up a family, the services and a shared vision are likely the most important. And the worse conditions are, and the less likely they seem to change, the more appealing the idea of overturning the status quo becomes. 

For this reason, there is a simpler test for the legitimacy of a state, which is to ask whether the current setup is good enough that the population at large doesn’t feel the need to agitate for major change. If people take to the streets in huge numbers demanding the fall of the regime, even if the regime responds with violence – as happened across the Arab world in 2011—that’s generally a sign that the system is failing the test. From 2011 onwards, Yemen scored a pretty consistent F.

Western officials I spoke to in Sana’a between 2012 and 2014 recognized that the economy, the failure of basic services like electricity and water, and rule of law were big issues. But they were struggling to strike a balance between directives from their own capitals largely focused on counterterrorism, maintaining the fragile détente between Saleh supporters and their elite rivals, and keeping an increasingly vulnerable president Hadi grounded. Because they and their Yemeni counterparts were focused on Sana’a politics, that’s what they perceived as ultimate priority.

You’d hope that people would learn from past mistakes. But since a Saudi-led coalition entered the war in March 2015 with the stated aim of restoring Hadi, who fled the Houthi-controlled capital earlier that year, little effort has been made to restore the state’s perceived legitimacy in areas ostensibly controlled by Hadi’s government (which likes to call itself al-shareia, or “the legitimacy”). 

Most officials work from Riyadh, with the prime minister and a select few officials cloistered in the presidential palace in Aden. Yemen’s southernmost provinces were liberated from the Houthi-Saleh alliance in 2015 by local forces but lack basic services like electricity and water. The South remains deeply insecure. Forces loyal to Hadi clash regularly with UAE-backed secessionist militias. The security picture is better in Mareb, in central Yemen, where the Houthis were also largely ejected in in 2015. The province now exists as a largely autonomous region, run by the Governor Sultan al-Aradah, with little input from Hadi.

The Houthis aren’t doing any better: deeply unpopular in the territories they control in the highlands and the west coast, they rule largely through a mixture of fear and bribery. And for many Yemenis, the international community isn’t all that legitimate either.

In stark contrast to these slap-dash approaches, Al Qaeda seems to have been the group that thought hardest about legitimacy: When it took over the southern port city of Mukalla in 2015, it focused on service delivery and running its own local courts, with some success. This was part of a carefully-wrought strategy from then-Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) emir Nasir al-Wuhayshi, which can be seen emerging in letters to fellow Al Qaeda leaders in previous years. When Cyclone Chapala battered Southern Yemen in November 2015, AQAP-ruled Mukalla was best prepared for the deluge, evacuating residents from their homes and ensuring a steady supply of bottled water was available. (The group also filmed its work in Mukalla obsessively and heavily promoted videos of life in Mukalla that presented a softer vision of its mission than the then-ascendant Islamic State.) In April 2016, the group was forced out of the city by local UAE-backed forces.

The fact is, no one in Yemen is consistently perceived as legitimate across all cross-sections of society. And Al Qaeda and Marebi sheikhs aside, no one seems to be all of that interested in earning their legitimacy.

Why does this matter? Earlier this month, the new U.N. special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, tried to get Hadi and the Houthis to sign up to his framework for a peace process during meetings in Geneva. The Houthis ultimately failed to show, but Griffiths’s plan—which remains unchanged—is a familiar one: form a unity government and start a new period of political transition, and then bring other groups in later.

It makes sense that Griffiths wants to simplify peace talks for now. But the danger is that Griffiths’s backers—the member states of the U.N. Security Council, the Gulf states and others—will fall back into the same old patterns: They will quietly help install some familiar faces in government, look for technical solutions and bold visions for the future that exist only on paper, and react with surprise when a government made up of the elite of 2018 fails to do anything to build legitimacy on the ground and the events of 2011 and 2014 repeat themselves.

Western diplomats and officials have yet to accept that legitimacy is not the same thing as the broad, legal authority that the international community can confer on an individual or group like President Hadi. Nor does legitimacy automatically accrue to a central government, even when an election has been won.

Legitimacy is won at the local level, by listening and engaging with people on the ground, delivering services, and creating buy-in to the wider national system, with all the messiness and complexity that entails. It is won by setting realistic goals, one at a time, and achieving them, not just setting out bold new visions for the future, although these are unquestionably an important part of a longer-term process. Until people are ready to get their priorities straight in Yemen, the country is likely to remain deeply unstable.