By Konstantinos Kokkolatos
The way we perceive Yemen is of great importance for the country’s future. Perceptions generate certain kinds of international intervention that may harm or help this war-torn country. For instance, current conceptualizations and theorizations of Yemen’s problems have led to the categorization of Yemen as an “embodiment of chaos,” “a failed state,” or “a complete disaster”. These characterizations come with a great political, economic, and military impact on the Yemeni people. They are deeply political, rather than just being a descriptive terminology. Perceptions usually reflect convenient presumptions of both policymakers and the public. We emphasize on these political factors –policymakers and the public– because, according to political theory and empirical knowledge they influence and affect the formation of the intervention strategy.
Therefore, as social scientists we should prioritize an information campaign aiming to foster our civil societies’ capacity to influence policy-making procedures. By fostering their capacity, we mean the enrichment of their knowledge on the subject, and/or the alternation of their current perceptions, which, as we presume, may be a result of me-dia misinformation.
For that purpose, we embed Yemenite grievances in colonial and postcolonial historical context. In this way, western citizens, as well as policymakers, will be better equipped for approaching and comprehending the contemporary Yemenite divisions and the ex-treme conditions of Yemenis daily survival. Comprehension is the precondition for ac-tion.
Secondly, we urge for a new kind of aid provision through intervention, based on Charles Call’s terminology. Using the terms legitimacy gap, security gap and capacity gap, Call (2008, 2012) aims to offer “conceptual alternatives” to the flawed failed-state theory, as well as its derivatives (fragile state, failing state etc.). He insists that failed-state theory misguides interventions’ strategies, leading them to cause more harm than good. That is because of three main reasons (Call 2008):
A) To categorize a state as failed or failing or fragile, policymakers use a wide range of indexes. These indexes measure various aspects of a state’s function, from in-stitutionalized political exclusion and fragmentation of elites to corruption and private militias, and many other. Yet, despite the plethora of factors that ought to combine for allowing the categorization, policymakers tend to formulate in-tervention programmes even if they detect (or “diagnose”, as Call puts it) some, or even one of the aspects of state malfunction.
B) This translates to homogenization of the problems and needs that in fact com-pletely vary and differ between states that are considered “failed”. Homogeniza-tion, by its turn, leads to intervention’s infectiveness, as it prevents from appre-hending needs and problems in fact highly embedded in a wider context than the state’s one. More specifically, it generates unidimensional policies aimed to foster capacity-building, thus neglecting legitimacy and the counter-productive security gap.
C) The term’s universalism interrelates with western paternalism. It delivers poli-cies that enforce state-building, even if there is evidence that state-building will provoke more violence than peace. Intervention policies that stem from the failed state theory also neglect alternative forms of political, social, and eco-nomic organization. The persistence with statehood is in the interests of major global power.
Legitimacy gap exists when “a significant portion of the [state’s] elites and society reject the rules regulating the exercise of power and the accumulation and distribution of wealth”. It is worth noting that an external legitimacy gap may also exist, meaning that “other states fail to recognize or accept the [state’s] borders or its internal regime […]” (Call, 2012).
Capacity gap refers to the incapability of the state to deliver minimal public goods and services to the population. What makes the term ambiguous, is the word “minimal.” It suggests a high level of relativeness, that we ought to eliminate with intense contextu-alization, which may illuminate what is considered minimal, excessive, not enough etc.
Lastly, security gap “exists where states do not provide minimal levels of security in the face of organized armed groups.”
2. The background – an introduction to the history of Yemen
To understand the context of the Yemenite Arab Spring uprisings, we turn back in time, when North Yemen was an Ottoman province, and South Yemen a protectorate of the United Kingdom. Between the two Yemens, different colonial systems shaped major differentiations in politics, governance style and finances, which still define modern Yemen.
Besides the above-mentioned divide, there is also another, equally defining, divide be-tween North and South Yemen, the religious one. There is a historically strong presence of Zaydists Shiites in the North and a predominance of Sunnis in the South. Religious differences, though, were latent, up until very recently, as they have proved to re-emerge only under political and/or economic pressures.
Between 1962 and 1970 a bloody civil war, between republicans and royalists raged in North Yemen. The war is termed “the Arab Vietnam”, as many regional powers of the region participated in it, militarily and financially. Egypt supported the rebels, while Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UK, and Iran supported the royalists. Eventually, the latter lost, but the new regime had to be formed with the support of factions of the royalists.
The war was a nodal point as it brought to the forefront a key-figure in Yemen’s politics, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who became president of North Yemen in 1978.
Meanwhile, the differences in political culture with South Yemen were patent. While the North remained close to the West, South Yemen became a socialist republic and developed close relations with the USSR. Despite the different political cultures and history between the two Yemens, the collapse of the Soviet Union was perceived as a window of opportunity for the unification which became a reality in 1990 under Saleh’s presidency.
Yet, unsurprisingly, four years later (1994) another civil war erupted between South and North Yemen. Even if an end was put rather quickly by the northern troops, the war proved the fragility of the new, unified regime, and the many political actors that had not been satisfied with the newly constructed relations of power. Of these actors, the utterly most significant are the Houthis – or, formally, the Ansar Allah (partisans of God).
3. The Houthis in the Yemenite context
The Houthis are, foremost, an armed family clan and a religious tribe with a long pres-ence. Among the many tribes of Yemen, Houthis are the most influential and powerful and their services were appreciated and used by the royalist regime in North Yemen. Houthis were deeply involved into the Imam’s patronage system. The Imam was of Hashemite descendance, and his authority was considered as being delivered and legit-imized by God. The country’s communal structure orbited around the imam in a highly personalized and hierarchical system. From their side, Houthi families have been per-ceiving the provision of political, economic, and social services as a duty, which stems from their Zaydist Shia political theology.
When the civil war resulted in regime change, Houthis were excluded from power. For a while, they left political life. But their belief in fated authority did not fade away. In-stead, it allowed them to persist and to seek once again their return to power.
Their struggle to regain authority was essentially a political rather than religious one. Religious elements only came to the forefront after the 2011 uprising, when their fight began to expand and transformed into something different, bigger and much more de-structive, namely the internationalization of what was till then an internal conflict.
The Houthis’ radicalization and religionization is closely related to their parallelly grow-ing anti-americanism which is being inflamed by hatred towards Saudi Arabia. The king-dom is perceived more as a conduit of hatred that ends to the US, or a proxy of the US, and less as an independent military and political actor.
Houthis’ campaigns against the Saleh regime first started in the 1990s. They were heavi-ly inspired by the Iranian Revolution (1979) and used ideological, religious, and political discourse against both Saleh and the USA. During the 2000s (2004-2010) they turned into an armed conflict. There had already been four such conflicts, known as Sanaa Wars, which resulted in victory for the national army.
The Houthis, even though defeated, gained valuable military experience which they deployed during the following years, up until today. Equally importantly, they drew the attention towards them, proving that they are serious political-military actors and con-stitute a threat to the corrupt Saleh government.
When, in 2011, Yemeni people rose against the authoritarian, corrupt and destructive regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis saw a window of opportunity for realizing their anti-government aims.
Saleh had been holding from a thin line and his popularity dropped considerably. He had damaged the core of democratic institutions, eliminated opposition parties and damaged the economy by misappropriating foreign and domestic capital. He had also tried to secure his regime stability by reaching agreements for protection with armed groups, creating eventually an uncontrollable network, and by bribing army officials.
The Yemenis rose against his economic policies, extreme corruption, autocracy, and the huge black market which had been constantly undermining the state’s capacities. They demanded the ousting of Saleh and the establishment of a whole new regime that would ameliorate, with transparency and accountability, their poor living conditions. Eventually Saleh resigned in 2012, also due to the Houthis who were rapidly rising to be a major guide of the revolutionary tide.
4. The beginnings of the civil war
The defeat of Saleh did not stop the political crisis, as the Houthis continued and, in famous turn of alliances, coalesced with Saleh. With his support, the Houthis conquered the capital, Sanaa, in 2014. Of course, the alliance was widely perceived as paradoxical, opportunistic, an indication of inconsistency. But it nevertheless allowed them to take over the city; this event marked the transformation of the civil struggle for power into an internationalized proxy war between two the rival Middle East powers, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
The fast expansion of Ansar Allah came alongside with Iran’s wider expansion of influ-ence, and Saudis saw this as an extreme threat over their interests in the region. With US support, but under their own lead, the Saudis formed a coalition against the Houthis, and imposed, a year later (2015) a destructive naval blockade against Yemen, which is responsible for many more deaths than the armed conflicts and has caused the worst humanitarian crisis in decades. Besides bombs, Yemen is plagued by diseases (cholera epidemic) and famine.
Yet, at the time of the blockade Iran-Ansar Allah relations were consisted only in verbal support. The Houthis were acting relatively independently. It was the Saudis’ violent intervention that threw Iran into the war, providing armory, money, and political sup-port to the Ansar Allah, who gradually tightened their relationships with Iran. Thus, the Houthis openly included themselves in the Iran-led Axis of Resistance, an informal alli-ance of states and non-states armed actors, which aims at further expanding Iran’s influ-ence at the expense of American and Israeli interests in the region. In 2017, Saleh pub-licly switched sides. Soon after, he was assassinated by the Houthis. Now, there was nothing to stop them taking control of the whole country.
5. The development of the war
Ansar Allah has conquered so far all the major cities in the northern region. They con-trol an area that hosts around 75-80% of the population. It is also the sole authority in these territories, performing economic, monetary, and political duties. On the other side, in South Yemen, the internationally recognized pseudo-government lacks legitima-cy, as the creation of the secessionist movement called the Southern Transitional Coun-cil (STC), proves. STC demands the autonomy of the South and controls the rich territo-ries of South Yemen, including the port in Aden.
Hence, Yemen is facing a de facto division of its territory, which could also evolve into a formal one, depending on the power relations at the peace talks.
So far, political actors participating in the negotiation table seem rather unwilling to recognize, and therefore formalize Houthis’ de facto authority, despite the latter’s es-tablishment as military and political authority in the biggest part of Northern Yemen.
During the past two months there has been a truce, which is about to extend for two more (as it is, for the 10th of June 2022). Everyone wants the war to finally end, and this highly depends on how the Houthis will be approached, in relation with the emerging STC. More specifically, by categorizing them once again as a Foreign Terrorist Organiza-tion (FTO) the peace process will be damaged. But it is also crucial that they keep prov-ing their will to convert into a secular political group, rather a religious-military one.
In parallel, the US should cease aiding the Saudis. Without the US military aircraft and funding, Saudis cannot operate missions against the Ansar Allah, and cannot feed the group’s anti-americanism and provide justification for their authoritarian rule.
Finally, it is not likely that a solution can be reached without either the division of Yemen, or at least its federalization, securing a high degree of autonomy to the South.
6. The aim of any future intervention
The Yemeni crisis calls for efforts to fill its security, capacity, and legitimacy gap. The Houthis are here to stay, and we must provide financial and human resources to make them realize their political program, named “National Vision,” even if they, paradoxical-ly, are probably reluctant to do so by themselves.
An article published in the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (link in Further Reading) presents the “National Vision” programme as an ambiguous attempt to establish a modernized democratic regime. The article underlined that [National Vision] “is steeped in the language of good governance, human rights, community consultation, and other staples of international development good practice.” Therefore, we may as-sume that the existence of the program indicates the persistency of the demand for participation and representation, which has survived and has been retained back from the days of the Yemenite Spring.
The National Vision program reflects the growing influence of the political wing of the Ansar Allah movement. This politization trend, though, is rather precarious, and it could get violently thwarted by the fundamentalists that are among the Houthis. Therefore, any intervention strategy must not strengthen the fundamentalists’ wing, while evaluat-ing the dynamic of between domestic policies and international policies. In the author’s opinion, securing a viable dynamic, demands an approach of the Yemenite needs that makes use of the three-gap theory.
7. Conclusions: Filling the gaps in post-war conflict
Following Call (2012), we underline that effective delivery of basic goods and services (social security, healthcare, schools – briefly put, capacity) does not generate legitimiza-tion by itself. Capacity is more of the ground for legitimacy to grow, rather than the latter’s embodiment. Equally importantly, the current lack of capacity is not entirely a result of Houthis’ mismanagement. This constitutes a further reason for providing the necessary resources that contribute to filling the capacity gap, as a precondition for building legitimacy. Of course, aid for capacity and legitimacy building could not inflow without political conditionalities.
In any case, without the establishment of participatory institutions, which gradually offer a sense of co-control of the public goods, there can be no legitimacy, and, to larg-er extent, no security – especially for those that are already excluded from Houthis’ distributions. We should not make, once again, the self-undermining mistake to pursue security via strengthening capacity. That is why, given the Houthi authoritarian govern-ing style, the usual top-down approach will harm the state-building process.
Instead, we suggest that the intervention’s focal point is the political society, with the adoption of a bottom-up strategy, which aims to formulate and input-output relation-ship with the Houthis’ government. This equals to enhancing political society’s abilities to participate, oppose, express itself. A unidimensional imposition and monitoring of elections will prove itself inefficient, especially if it is a first step.
Still, there are a lot of reasonable doubts that it is worth risking aiding an Ansar Allah regime. It is known that Houthis are forming exclusive identities, which define that the distribution of goods and services is not for everyone. There has also been evidence of violations of human rights, such as recruiting child soldiers and maltreatment of women.
Yet, there is no better chance to end the war in Yemen, and, thereafter, secure the end of its citizens suffering, without convincing the Houthis that materializing their political program is at their best interest, related to perpetuating, and further establishing, their anti-secular, oppressive regime, instead of converting it into a more open, nonviolent political structure.
• Call, C. T. (2008). The Fallacy of the “Failed State.” Third World Quarterly, 29(8), 1491–1507. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20455126
• Call, C. T. (2012). Beyond the ‘failed state’: Toward conceptual alternatives. Eu-ropean Journal of International Relations, 17(2), 303–326. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354066109353137.
For the war and the Houthis
For the Ansar Allah-Iran relations
For Houthis’ “National Vision”
For possible ways out of war
For the Southern Transitional Council