Yemen in Conflict

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Jon Alterman: Helen Lackner is the author of Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. She's also the author of Yemen in Crisis: Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope, which is coming out in January. She's been working on Yemen for almost five decades. Helen, welcome to Babel.

Helen Lackner: Thank you very much. I’m honored to have been invited.

Jon Alterman: You have written a really remarkable book that puts Yemen into a broader historical context. Can you put the conflict in Yemen that we're seeing right now into the context of conflict in Yemen?

Helen Lackner: One of the interesting things that struck me when doing this book has been looking back and seeing that political, military, and even social conflicts have been going on there for many centuries, and that in that sense, what's happening today isn't an exception. It's more of a continuation of earlier problems. That was quite a lesson for me.

Jon Alterman: That struck me as well, and when I visited Yemen in 1992—and then again in 2008—Ali Abdullah Saleh was the ruler. He ruled Yemen for 33 years, from 1978 to 2011. Reading your book, it seemed to me that the Saleh period almost came across as a period of great stability in Yemen. It was also a time when north and south Yemen united. As you think broadly about the history of Yemen, what positive lessons do you think we should take from Ali Abdullah Saleh's rule, and what negative lessons should we take from Ali Abdullah Saleh's rule?

Helen Lackner: If you are talking about contemporary Yemen, it's impossible to do so without discussing Ali Abdullah Saleh. It’s also worth remembering that when he came to power in 1978, nobody thought he was going to last very long. I remember throughout the early 1980s, when I first lived in Sana'a, every morning, I would wake up and expect to find that he had been overthrown. Between 1977 and 1978, three presidents came and went, so his longevity is one of the relevant factors. I believe that he managed to stay as long as he did and rule the country through a number of skills that he had. One skill that he had was being quite a popular person. I don't want to use the word populist, but he was popular in the sense that he could speak and make very rousing speeches. If you compared his speeches to those, for example, of the leaders of People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY)—the former South Yemen—all of those guys would put you to sleep. He actually spoke to people as if he was addressing them in their house—as a human being—and I think that gave him a lot of support. I also think his implementation of Yemeni unity was a very important factor in his success.

Jon Alterman: This is when north and south Yemen united in 1990?

Helen Lackner: Yes. He initiated and dominated the unification process, but the fundamental fact is that Yemeni unity was an extremely popular slogan in both the PDRY in the south and the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in the north. This was genuinely very popular, whereas other political slogans really did not have much impact on the population. The 1970s were also a period of heavy migration to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, so living standard were rising. There was a positive tendency throughout what was then the YAR.

Jon Alterman: Although, Ali Abdullah Saleh famously said that ruling Yemen is like dancing on the heads of snakes, and there was a ruthless part of his rule. One of the things that struck me in your book is that you make a distinction in Yemen between the regime and the government. What did you mean distinguishing between Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime and the government of Yemen?

Helen Lackner: We hadn't really gotten round to talking about his negative features. I don't want to appear to be a great, great supporter of him, but at the same time, I do respect what he did. Basically, what happened in the YAR and then later in the unified Republic of Yemen, was that the regime was Ali Abdullah Saleh and his military, security, and other direct supporters—often described as cronies. They were the real decision-makers. The government (i.e., the ministers) were basically little more than clerks. The decision-making process did not take place in the government—from prime minister and ministers of this, that or the other. The real decision-making process was amongst Ali Abdullah Saleh and his very close associates. To me, that was the big difference, and I remember talking to people in ministries when that became abundantly clear. One minister once told me he didn't even have the authority to select his secretary. Somebody else made the decision. So, the regime was Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had very tight political control. To come to the “heads of snakes” image, one of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s skills was having an excellent memory and knowing and remembering people he had met. So, he had this personal touch when he met people. But he was also extremely well aware of communal situations—often described as tribal situations—and he very able to manipulate these to sponsor intra conflicts that gave him and his people the final authority. If he came across a tribal leader or a community leader who didn't really follow him or didn't do what he was told, he would have him undermined by having conflicts emerging in that person's areas. At the same time, his other tool for gaining control nationally was the General People's Congress, which, again, was really more of a patronage organization. It wasn't based on an ideological position—unless this tribe supporting Ali Abdullah Saleh has an ideology. He basically controlled most elements of the country through these different procedures.

Jon Alterman: One of the images I remember keenly from my travels to Yemen in the early 1990s was on the evening news, Ali Abdullah Saleh would often show up in four or five different outfits through the day. The evening news would capture what the president did, and he starts off in a suit and then he goes into a military uniform, and then he goes into dress typical of the north and dress typical of the south. It’s all about connecting, as you suggest, with different constituencies on their terms.

Helen Lackner: Yes, absolutely. He was a very skilled politician. I think one has to recognize that, but he did not operate in the interest of the majority of his population. That was not his objective.

Jon Alterman: One of the things that always puzzled me is that after he was forced from power during the Arab uprisings of 2011, there was a transitional government, but Yemen seemed to be on a better glide path than most countries. They had a National Dialogue Conference, and as your book recounts, it had 565 members. They produced 1,800 outcomes. It was a group that was 28 percent female. Yet, the outcome of this process was basically a civil war. It was a failure. In your mind, was the problem of this National Dialogue Conference a problem of conceptualization for how you go from this period of unrest after the Arab uprisings into a period of political consolidation, or was it just a problem of execution?

Helen Lackner: I don't think it was either. I think the problem was that the National Dialogue Conference took place on the sidelines of what was really going on in the country. Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced out of the presidency, but he wasn't forced out of influence—if not power. He retained his General People's Congress, which was at the time the main political organization in the country. He retained an enormous amount of power through that, and if you look at the transition agreement in 2011, it gave his organization half the ministries. The other half of the ministries went to a conglomerate of the opposition—the formal opposition parties from the parliament and what were described as the new forces of civil society, youth, and women. So, he was not excluded. Even in the National Dialogue Conference, that was very clear. I saw this on a daily basis in the period that I spent there. The meetings were in the mornings. Everybody was saying after lunch that they were going to have further discussions, and a lot of the people of the General People's Congress were basically saying, " We're going to the leader”—in other words, "to Ali Abdullah Saleh, to get our instructions." And while that National Dialogue Conference was going on, two other things were happening. The living conditions of the population continued to deteriorate, so there was not popular support for this conference. It was really regarded as a marginal event of the elite taking place in the one and only super luxury hotel in Sanaa. It was experienced as being completely unrelated to peoples’ problems. The other thing that went on is that although they were present in the National Dialogue Conference, the Houthi movement continued to build up their power over parts of Yemen that they controlled, and they expanded around them.

Jon Alterman: And this is in the far north of the country.

Helen Lackner: Yes—in the far north. They were expanding kind of further into the other parts of the country. Another fundamental issue with the transition is that—supported by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the United Nations, and the international community—it had been decided that the transition had to be completed within two years. That was a completely unrealistic timetable for such a complex procedure, and it meant that a whole host of its different elements had to take place at the same time. That included the fundamental one: security sector reform. Security sector reform was sabotaged by Ali Abdullah Saleh and his military. How can a state or government enforce any decisions if it doesn’t have a security mechanism to enforce them? So the transitional regime was not able to overcome the fundamental power of Ali Abdullah Saleh and his security forces.

Jon Alterman: You mentioned the Houthi rebellion, which started in 2004 and has been raging since. What are the roots of the Houthi rebellion, and why has it been so hard to reach a resolution?

Helen Lackner: The roots were essentially, again, something which you could blame on Ali Abdullah Saleh. He supported and encouraged the rise of a Sunni fundamentalist movement in the very heartland of Zaidi areas. The Houthis are Zaidis—who are Fiver Shi’a, different from the Iranian Twelver Shi’a and most prominent in Yemen—and the Houthi movement was a kind of revival Zaidi movement, which was rebuilding itself as a more religious movement against the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime and the rise of a Sunni Salafi movement. That movement had been encouraged, not just by Ali Abdullah Saleh but also by Saudi Arabia. That was the origin of the six wars that took place between 2004 and 2010—wars between the Houthis and the Saleh regime. There was a significant change between 2010 and 2014. The Houthis participated in national politics, as in the uprisings of 2011 and the National Dialogue Conference, but they did not join the government. And during this period, they found themselves in agreement with Ali Abdullah Saleh. That alliance between the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh really started around 2013, so you then had a situation where, allied with Saleh, they are in a position to take control of Sanaa city in September 2014. After that, there was a change in their political actions. The Houthis have now been fighting for the rest of the country since 2015. They got rid of Ali Abdullah Saleh and killed him in December 2017. Since then, they have been in full control of the part of Yemen that they dominate. It’s important to remember that although that area is geographically only about a third of the country, demographically, it is more than two-thirds of the population under Houthi control. So, they have become a much more powerful political and military force in the last few years.

Jon Alterman: Are you surprised that this conflict has lasted as long as it has? Are you surprised that the Houthis, after 18 years, are still fighting, and that they haven't been able to vanquish the rest of the country, but they also haven't been able to be defeated?

Helen Lackner: I think I may be less surprised than others. If you look back at my writings in April 2015, when the internationalized war started, I was asked by openDemocracy to write a short piece, and I wrote, "This is the beginning of what is going to be a very long and nasty war.” People around me later told me that they really thought I was crazy when I said that. They don’t say that any longer. To me, it was quite clear that this was not going to be a two-week battle—like the earlier conflicts we can talk about in recent decades—but that it was a very fundamental one that would take time. In that sense, I am less surprised. Another reason not to be surprised is that on the one hand, you have the Houthis—who have very clear, straightforward authoritarian control over their forces and appear united, even if there are differences below the surface. They are facing a completely disunited, so-called “internationally recognized government.” In recent weeks, it’s very clear that one of the many reasons that they felt that they didn’t need to renew the truce that expired on October 2 is that they can see that their enemies are so divided. A united enemy might have persuaded them otherwise.

Jon Alterman: What should we expect from negotiations to end this war? What do you think a moment would look like where a settlement is possible? What would the settlement look like?

Helen Lackner: The first thing to remember is that however fantastically brilliant and effective mediators are, as individuals, there is nothing they can do until the parties in conflict actually want to solve the problem. They can try their best, but until the parties involved want the solution, the mediators can’t really help. That’s an important element that needs to be taken into consideration. If you look at what happened in October, it's clear that the Houthis felt at the last minute, if not earlier, that they didn't need to renew the ceasefire. If you had a serious challenge to the Houthis, militarily, and if you had a united opposition to the Houthis, that might not be the case. They are surrounded, technically, if you look at the map. You have internationally recognized government forces in Marib in the east. You have forces surrounding them in the south and elsewhere, and you have Tareq Saleh’s forces on the coast in the West. If all those people could get themselves together and organized, the Houthis would feel under much greater pressure than they do at the moment.

Jon Alterman: And it doesn't look to me like any of the parties are feeling exhausted yet.

Helen Lackner: Thank you very much, Jon.

Helen Lackner: I think that's one of the most unfortunate aspects of this war. The civilians are the ones that are suffering. The ordinary people are suffering. The humanitarian situation has deteriorated even more, regardless of the six months of the truce, and the leaderships are doing okay out of this war. They’re getting richer, and they're doing okay. That’s one of the many extremely depressing aspects of this situation.

Jon Alterman: Given our whole conversation—that Yemen has had a tumultuous history, that there's been lots of conflict, and hat it's hard to bring everybody together—as we look forward a post-conflict environment, what does success look like? How much conflict is there in a post-conflict environment? What does the economy look like? Does Yemen have to have a huge outflow of population because there are too many Yemenis, and the population is growing too quickly to support everybody on land that doesn't have enough water? Or should we say, "This might not look great, but it actually is success in Yemeni terms." What should we be aiming for?

Helen Lackner: I think we can aim for a number of things. The water crisis is obviously extremely important, but Yemen doesn't have to be a country from which forced, environmentally caused water migration happens. Much of the water is used in agriculture. If you make sure that priority of water use is given to domestic usage and to livestock and not to agriculture, Yemenis can continue living at home. This is a possibility. You do need to also make fundamental changes in the agriculture system. There have been very misguided agricultural policies—focusing on irrigated export crops, which is absurd in the context of a country like Yemen. There is a lot to be done on improving rain fed crops, and we need to remember that 70 percent of Yemenis are still in rural areas. Moreover, Yemen’s rural areas—and you've been there, so you know—are in an incredibly beautiful country. There is fantastical potential for ecological tourism and hiking tourism. It has potential for all kinds of forms of very healthy and potentially income generating levels at the community level. That’s something that could be expanded. These are aspects that need to be taken on, addressed, and done. Regardless of these points, there is a need for the Gulf Cooperation Council to take a much more positive attitude to Yemen. Yemeni labor migration could be a factor to help both Yemen and the GCC states—as well as increasing the market for produce from the GCC. There are 30 million Yemenis. That's as many as there are Saudis basically, and a lot more than there are of anybody else on the Arabian Peninsula or in the GCC. There are many things that can be done. I don’t think Yemen's going to become a super wealthy country, but the situation could be vastly better than it is today.

Jon Alterman: But to have tourism and people investing in Yemen also requires an end to the cycles of violence that your book describes dating back centuries. As you note, a lot of that violence was avoided in the mid Twentieth century by heavy Saudi subsidies of a patronage system—which kept people bought off—but didn't really help Yemenis prosper. Is the answer to go back to a patronage system—an authoritarian system— which at least saves people from starvation and provides some infrastructure? Or do you see the necessity of a more democratic process and more indigenous industry and a more self-contained system?

Helen Lackner: Well, that's going against the current trend where authoritarianism seems to be very much on the rise—not just on the Arabian Peninsula, but in plenty of other places, too—but I believe that for Yemen, a much more democratic country which would give people the opportunity of expressing their views and having a regime that answers and focuses on their needs, rather than on the small elite, would be much more appropriate. But I also think that financial support from other states—including Saudi Arabia and the UAE—will be important. Though, of course I think the reliance on the UAE and Saudi Araba and the way a lot of international discussions are taking place where they expect billions to be poured in by those two states is misguided. If you look at what's happened on the humanitarian front for example, I think it is illusory to imagine that they are going to finance all the things that people are expecting them to finance. And their finance, like everybody else's, does not come without strings, so although external support is necessary, I don't think returning to a patronage regime would help. I think the important thing is to enable Yemeni citizens—men, women, and younger people—to participate and to build a country based on a lot of things that they are already doing. If you look at community level institutions—community groups and small community enterprises—all these things are happening and are the elements from you can built a political system which would give much more voice to the people.

Jon Alterman: Helen Lackner is the author of, Yemen: Poverty and Conflict, a new book out from Routledge. Helen, thanks so much for joining us on Babel.

Helen Lackner: You’re welcome. Anytime.

Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program