Yemen: Will a Divided Nation End the State?

The nation, meaning the people of Yemen, will endure against all odds, as they have done throughout history, but the state has for all practical purposes ceased to exist. The Hadi government, long considered the legitimate and internationally recognized authority in Yemen has, after five years in exile, become incapable of serving any purpose for the people it purportedly represents. Many now consider it an arm of the Saudi monarchy that has hosted and sponsored its actions. The oft-expressed prophesy of the late president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, has become a fact: The state of Yemen, unified under Saleh for at least the last decade of his rule, has disintegrated into roughly four entities, alternately at war with one another and vying for international support to keep them afloat. The Riyadh Agreement, the latest regional and international attempt to bring peace to the country has fallen by the wayside, as has the Stockholm Agreement before it, sponsored by the United Nations Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths. Despite verbal agreement by both the Houthi/Ansar Allah movement and the Saudi government to an appeal for a ceasefire, made most recently by the Secretary General of the United Nations, the prospects for ending the war and reunifying the country appear dim at best.

Ever since the Houthis/Ansar Allah took over Sanaa, the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi have spent minimal time on the ground in Yemen, fleeing to Riyadh after a short stay in Aden. Critics note how governing remotely has by all accounts been profitable for the president and ministers alike, sparing them the rough experience of being on the ground in their devastated country while enjoying the benefits of widespread corruption. [1] In addition to traveling around the world in style for meetings in Europe and New York, the derisively-labeled “hotel cabinet,” resides and works from luxury hotels in Riyadh. Combined with inefficiency, this set-up has made it impossible for them to fulfill the sole purpose of government – to champion and meet the basic needs of their people.

Putting aside the lack of infrastructure, healthcare, and even clean water across the country, Hadi’s government has for the most part failed to pay salaries and benefits to public service employees and the military. Protests in the streets, appeals from international organizations, and funds from Saudi Arabia, eventually led to partial disbursements. Last year, the International Monetary Fund praised the government for payments made, but urged them to reimburse employees in the Houthi-controlled north as well. [2]

Security is understandably difficult to ensure in a war zone. Bombardment and shelling aside, however, there are still city streets, intercity roads, and government facilities that citizens need to frequent. Hadi’s official armed forces and police have not been able, or by some accounts often evenwilling, to provide this security to the general public. Part of the problem has been the hybrid nature of security forces. [3] The main problem however has been the continued perception of government corruption and the officials in its employ. Inflated numbers mean that officers collect funds for more troops than they actually have and political interests translate into the government providing security and payoffs to individuals, business, and tribes it considers allies to the exclusion of the public at large. [4]

Aden remains Yemen’s southern capital and exhibits both separateness and lawlessness. Competing militias have plagued Aden from the start of its “liberation.” Nominally under Hadi’s control, the city was considered from the start not secure enough for him to stay for prolonged periods of time, and lately even his prime minister has also been forced to spend more time in Europe and Riyadh than in Aden. Initially plagued with competing Islamist and tribal militias, the city was brought under more centralized control by the UAE-trained the forces of The Southern Transitional Council (STC). Tensions between the STC and Hadi’s forces, however, led to STC forces taking over the city early in 2018. Hadi’s forces reentered the city when Saudi Arabia intervened, and despite the mandate of a touted Riyadh Agreement, the two forces have not merged and Aden has returned to clashes, security incidents, and assassinations. [5]

The city of Taiz, the third largest in Yemen, has remained under pro-Hadi forces internally and has been besieged by Houthi forces from the north. Internally, the city is suffering from competing forces and lack of proper leadership, leading again to poor services for its citizens and lack of security, not to mention almost daily fighting that takes place across very close opposing front lines. [6] Islah is predominant, but the relationship with Hadi is tenuous at best.

Mahra, the south-eastern region of Yemen, adjacent to both Omani and Saudi borders, has been of interest to Saudi Arabia for more than a decade as a prospective site for a pipeline to serve as alternate route to export their oil. Last year, on the pretext of halting potential Houthi arms smuggling, the Saudis first sent intelligence officers to monitor the border with Oman, and then sent Saudi troops–roughly 1500–to help secure the important governorate. [7]

Ma’rib, until recently controlled by pro-Hadi forces, has been supported by Saudi forces, and has been generally calm after the Houthis were expelled in 2015. The governorate has now all but fallen to Houthi forces. This puts Shabwa, to the east of Ma’rib, within easy reach should the Houthis consolidate their control over the whole of the Ma’rib governorate. [8]

Talks between the Houthis and Saudis have been off and on for the past few months now. Comprehensive peace may indeed be on the agenda. Given entrenched regional presence, however, and the difficulty of national reconciliation and reunification at this point, a more cynical interpretation of these talks is that they may be more about consolidating de facto lines and demarcating zones of influence rather than about comprehensive peace. A new map of Yemen may see an expanded Houthi north to include Ma’rib, Shabwa and alJawf, Saudi control of the Hadramawt and Mahra corridors, and UAE control of Soctora and Aden – the latter through proxy forces. Lahj, Dalea’, and the city of Taiz may be left as contested areas between Islah forces and the Houthis – unless of course Islah agrees to become part of the deal being worked out. In this interpretation, it is speculated that Hadi’s government would remain in exile, a puppet legitimizing Saudi control in at least parts of Yemen of interest to them.

Dr. Nabeel Khoury is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at The Atlantic Council.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.


[1] “Beyond the Business as Usual Approach, Combating Corruption in Yemen,” The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies” September 2018

[2] “IMF calls Yemen gov’t to pay public sector wages across country,” Debriefer, July 20, 2019

[3] Ahmad Nagi, Eleanora Ardemagni, and Mareike Transfeld, Carnegie MEC, March 27, 2020

[4] Mohammed AlShami, “Safety and Security in Yemen: Main Challenges and Stakeholders,” Wilson Center, November 2015

[5] “Spotlight: Tightened security measures in Yemen’s Aden to curb spike of assassinations,” Xinhua net, December 10, 2019

[6] “’If Houthi shelling does not kill us, the diseases will’: Yemenis in besieged Taiz bemoan neglect,” MEE, November 17, 2019

[7] Bel Trew, “Inside east Yemen: the Gulf’s new proxy war no one is talking about,” The Independent, August 13, 2019

[8] “In dramatic counterattack, Houthis take Yemen’s Al-Jawf and eye Marib,” MEE, March 2, 2020


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