Yemen is a multifaceted country, described commonly as one of the biggest humanitarian catastrophes of the 21st century, often and most recently reduced in a caricatured geopolitical reality. Yet, as described by Walter B. Harris in his travel diary “A Journey Through the Yemen” in 1892 when visiting the country, the fertility of the region is astonishing and the landscapes flamboyant: “It can little be wondered at that Alexander the Great intended, after his conquest of India, to take up his abode in the Yemen”. Indeed, before being the ground for transnational and civil armed conflicts, making the country one of the least developed in the World, Yemen is a small but significant country in the Arabian Peninsula, as for history. For centuries, coffee, probably originating from Ethiopia on the other side of the Red Sea, was extensively produced and exported from the port of Mocha, in South-West Yemen. As recalled by Harris, the country had its glory period during Roman Times, where the territory was called “Arabia Felix”. Yet, over the past three millennia, there have been successive political entities in this southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, distinguished by written civilization, specific local languages or dialects, heterodox religious schools, and powers more or less independent from Great Empires, in particular during the Islamic period of the Abbasid Empire and the Ottoman Empire. It was only gradually that certain entities, which did not necessarily cover the territory delimited by the current borders, ended up being designated under the name of “Yemen”. This slow emergence of a Yemeni national entity, which today threatens to disintegrate and can already be considered fragmented, has therefore often taken side roads, and its history is paved with divisions and cleavages. Indeed, the country was split in two in the 19th century. In the North, the territory witnessed the creation of a theocratic state at the beginning of the 20th century, after a war of independence against the Ottomans, followed by a republican revolution creating the Yemen Arab Republic in 1962. In the South, a 120-year-long British occupation ended with the establishment of a Marxist state – the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen- in 1967. The Yemeni unity finally proclaimed in 1990 following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, only really materialized itself after a civil war in 1994, and remains problematic until now. The history of Yemen is therefore particularly complex, both before Islam and after its appearance in the zone, both in ancient times and in contemporary ones: it is the story of divisions, mechanisms of domination, and internal resistances. Many sociological and political aspects of it have their extensions in today’s society, and that is what we are going to examine, digging back to the root of cleavages, unfolding their dimensions. Yet, this history of Yemen is still far from being written, due to the inconsistent versions of the fighting or rival parts, and the difficulty for historians to highlight today a composite past and present of a nation in war.
A unity in fragmentation and domination
The administration of Yemen is known as complex along history: several dynasties succeeded to each other, ruling on part or totality of the territory. For almost a thousand years, Yemen was dominated by a very specific political entity, the Zaydite imamate, a theocratic regime founded on a heterodox sect of Islam. Zaidi is a branch of Shi’ism found almost exclusively in Yemen. The first imam Zaydite, al-Hâdî, settled himself in Saada in northern Yemen in 898: from then on, Saada area is the traditional Zaydite zone, as their ruling was maintained for nearly ten centuries. Sociologically, the Sayyids formed a religious and intellectual aristocracy.
In contemporary history, Yemen experienced, as many Middle-Eastern countries, the colonialist rule. In this sense, the North and the South Yemen went through strictly different realities. While North Yemen never experienced any period of colonial administration from a European power, South Yemen was a part of the British Empire from 1839 to 1967. Concerning the Zaydite power in North Yemen, it was overthrown in 1962 by a republican revolution during a six-year civil war, in which Saudi Arabia and Egypt took opposite sides, having for outcome the creation of the Yemen Arab Republic in the North.
In the South, the British left the territory in 1967, giving birth to the People’s Republic of Southern Yemen, soon renamed the Marxist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, a client state of Moscow during the Cold War. From 1990 on, and despite residual and punctual civil uprisings, former North Yemen was unified with the old South Yemen, thus constituting a new state, the Republic of Yemen. Unified Yemen has been burdened by chronic corruption and economic hardship, the divisions being based on religion, tribalism, and geography, altogether playing an important role in Yemeni politics today and supporting the idea of a fragmented country composed of internal divisions, resistances, and mechanisms of domination.
The Southern Cause: al-Ḥirāk al-Janūbiyy’s old grievances
Only four years after the country’s unification, in 1994, a war between the army units of the South and the North, which had not yet been merged, broke out. After the South lost the war, thousands of inhabitants from the area lost their jobs, especially in the army and the public sector, and most of the decision-making and legislative power was grabbed by Northern Yemenis despite a unity deal. Some Southerners were fired, as some were invited to withdraw themselves. People close to the regime of the long-lasting President Saleh were authorized to take farms and land in South Yemen while controlling the majority of the oil income (80 percent of Yemen’s oil coming exclusively from the South territory, richer and more fertile in general). A common feeling of exploitation came out from the seizure and new possession of the Southlands.
These Southerners left aside grew their anger and revendications along time, until forming a solid and organized political movement in 2007, ready to constitute a branch of the opposition to Saleh, in rivalry with the Houthis “Believing Youth” defending the North. The grievances of South Yemen and the ensuing demand for an independent South Yemeni state as before 1990 are collectively known as “the Southern Cause”, but is proactively claiming its revendication since the 2000s. Despite being legally and administratively a united country after 1990, the discrepancies between North and South, the corruption and plutocracy of the Northern elite advantaged for their relations with Saleh, the exploitation of the fertility and resources of the South, the remaining existence of tribalism and resistance in southern society, came together as roots of the 2007 al-Ḥirāk al-Janūbiyy’s Protests, growing, to later materialize in a Second Civil War in 2015, still burning. In that sense, The Southern Movement can be considered a piece of the fragmented and unequal puzzle of rivalities that Yemen represents.
The Houthis ‘al-Ḥūthīyūn’ : the Northern manifestation of Yemen’s religious and political fragmentation
As we saw, Yemen host strong geographical and political divisions, rooted in history, and from which cannot be unlinked the religious cleavages which made the Houthis group today the peculiar entity it represents, claiming back their historical domination. Indeed, Yemen’s religious division largely parallel the country’s geographical ones. Zaidi Shi’ism (the Houthi’s religion) predominates in the northern highlands and mountains, alongside a small Isma’ili minority, while Sunnis form the majority elsewhere. Yet, in the traditional Zaidi zone, the rise of political Islam has awaken tensions: we can quote the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islah Party and Zaidi Houthis, or the Salafism Sunni ideology. This religious factor was key to the emergence of the Houthi movement.
Indeed, after the unification in 1990, the cause of this minority grew its path against urbanization, foreign western powers, development of the South while the mountainous North was left aside, praising cultural revivalism among Zaidi Shiites, fuelled by local fears of encroachment by Sunni ideologies. The Houthis became part of the official opposition after 2003 with the slogan “God is great, death to the US, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam”, opposing Saleh for backing the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq -though later making with him an alliance against Hadi. The Houthis “Believing Youth” (created by Mohammed al-Houthi in 1992) became politically vehement in 2004, year of death of its creator. This movement, supporting their ideology and promoting Zaidi from Saada, soon spread to northern areas of Amran and western areas of al-Jawf. In 2011, during the Arab Spring, the Northern minority group profited from the global agitation to gain control of all their province of Saada, that they seized in 2014 while progressively expanding their control in Ibb province and al-Hudayda, in a weakened, fragmented and disorganized country’s government where the leading role was to be harvested. Indeed, in 2015, according to an Esquire magazine report of 2015, the Houthis were considered the most stable and organized political movement of Yemen.
The 2011 Yemeni Intifada “Revolution of Dignity”: the acme of Yemenis discontent
In parallel to these religious, geographical, and political divisions, Yemen, since the unification, suffered from striking economical inequalities due to the favoritism methods of President Saleh’s government. Poverty, unemployment, severe economic conditions were adding themselves to human rights violations and the general authoritarianism of the Executive. The anger and sense of oppression growing, the trigger point was without any doubt the president Saleh’s plan to amend Yemen’s constitution and eliminate the presidential term limit, in effect making him president for life. Inspired from the Egyptian Arab Spring, the Yemeni population went down and flowed onto the streets, violently and non-violently revolting through mutinies, civil resistance, army defections, and social media activism. President Saleh ended up stepping down, while the powers of the presidency were transferred to his Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who was formally elected president on 21 February 2012 in a one-candidate election.
Yet, the complete absence of central government during this transition process exacerbated several on-going clashes in the country, such as the armed conflict between the Houthi rebels of Ansar Allah militia and the al-Islah forces, a Yemeni Islamist Party composed of tribal religious elements affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, confirming thus both the tribal factor as fragmentation component and the fact that the Intifada constitutes in itself a step towards the split situation that Yemen is strongly experiencing since 2015.
The National Dialogue Conference: a failed attempt of moderation recuperated by the Houthis
After the Yemen Arab Spring, a National Dialogue Conference was held in Sana’s, as part of the reconciliation process, backed by the Security Council and as called for in the GCC initiative. With participation of all Yemen’s political groups (including representatives from the South, and the Houthi Ansar Allah) as well as civil society. The result of the NDC, concluded January 24th of 2014, was presented as a model of compromise and representation, as it extends Hadi’s term for a year to oversee the conclusion of the transition and multi-party elections, gives 50-50 representation between north and south in a legislative body, and guarantees freedom of religion, in a declared non-sectarian nation. Yet, the outcome did not satisfy the Hirak separatists nor the Houthi Ansar Allah coalition; clashes erupted the following summer, questioning the implementation of the agreement. The NDC was unable to come out with a solution for the Southern Cause, and the decided division of Yemen into 6-region within the federal system was strongly rejected by Southern Leaders, due to the unbalance created with the North being given 4 out of the 6.
Popular protests from the Southern movement erupted in Aden against the Hadi government in September, while the Houthis also got involved with the division issue, as the region that was to contain Saada was not guaranteed access to the Red Sea, which they had campaigned hard for throughout the NDC. Through the popular protest, the Houthis were able to take advantage of the situation and grabbed the opportunity to move militarily, breaking the NDC. Allied with former President Saleh, their former nemesis, they progressed toward Sana’a, forcing the President to flee in September 2014.
Internal fragmentation and external intervention
The Yemen conflict is, in its current form, the result of the Saudi response to the capture of the capital, Sanaa, in 2014 by the Houthi rebel movement. At Hadi’s behest, in 2015, Saudi Arabia fearing a hostile Shia’a uprising in a neighbor country and a setback in its rivalry with Iran, gathered a coalition to allow Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi to recapture power. In the operation “Decisive tempest”, the Sunni-majority Arab states of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched an airstrike against the Houthis. This coalition failed, and according to Farea Al-Muslimi, president of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, even reinforced the Houthis rebels. The 2014 arising of the Second Yemen Civil War has given foreign powers a stage for the expansion of their influence and defense of their interests, deepening the already striking divisions and cleavages of the country.
Indeed, the Saudi coalition is backed by the United States, aiming at guaranteeing security and stability to their ally’s neighbor, keeping their free passage in the Bab al-Mandeb strait through which 6.2 million barrels of oil per day transit; and a cooperative government in Sanaa for the U.S. counterterrorism programs (as AQAP, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was making its way through the exploitation of the country’s weaknesses). It gave Yemen $5.9 billion in military and law enforcement aid between 2000 and 2020, according to the online database Security Assistance Monitor. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom were compliant as well with the remissions by the coalition, with France being one of the biggest arms suppliers of Saudi Arabia.
On the other hand, the Houthis represented a prized opportunity for Iran, to harm the interests of Riyadh through inexpensive investments in the Northern region of Saada, ideally located to launch drones or missiles. Iran primarily supports the Houthis by supplying weapons and offering military and strategic advice. However, the relationship between the Persian country and the Houthis should not be compared with Iran’s influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, as the conflict in Yemen hosts a diversity of protagonists, actors, and claims that renders foreign influence difficult to be deeply significant. Indeed, both backing foreign powers that Saudi Arabia and Iran represent are exercising their support in a country filled with divergent religious armed militias, tribalism, and terrorism – AQAP benefiting from the chaos of war, and the instability of the country weakening all sorts of fighting against it. Supporting opposed parties according to their geostrategic interests in the region, the foreign intervening States favor in that sense the internal fragmentation in Yemen, since 2015.
Yemen is thus a country with a complex history of cleavages, the first inequalities dating back to the creation of the Zaidi branch, reinforcing themselves with colonialism, tribalism, geographical factors, and political movements along time, while being today nurtured by foreign influences and mechanisms of domination. The crisis faced by the country is unprecedented, as the United Nations reported that in 2019 that Yemen is the nation with the most people in need of humanitarian aid -about 85% of its population, or 24.1 million people in total. In November 2019, the President signed the Riyadh Agreement, which affirms that the revendicating factions will share power equally in a postwar Yemeni government. Yet, the separatists reneged on the deal in March 2020, deeply untrusting any governmental structures.
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