Book review: Yemen in the Shadow of Transition

By Steve Bell*

This book addresses an evident need in Yemeni society – how to secure a transition from the pre-2011 regime to a new political process which guarantees justice, security and the essential needs of the Yemeni people.  Under the impact of a popular rising in 2011, the existing state regime fractured with the armed forces splitting.  An externally engineered transition,  the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative was imposed from 2012-2014.  It collapsed under the weight of unfulfilled Yemeni demands and external restraints.

The Saudi led coalition war on Yemen from 2015 was a brutal attempt to change the internal balance of forces by military means, after the coalition’s diplomacy failed.  The war has created a humanitarian catastrophe, a military impasse, and a state of foreign siege and occupation in Yemen.  Every serious contribution to addressing these problems, such as this book, can only be welcomed.

Yadav covers recent history – from the unification of Yemen in 1990, through the 1994 civil war, the consolidation of the regime of President Saleh, the emergence of Ansarallah (“the Houthis”) and the rise of southern nationalist movements in Hirak.  The revolution in Yemen began on the concrete ground of mass opposition to regime corruption and neglect.  All the forces seeking progress combined in actions which spanned across the country’s geographic, ethnic, confessional, age and gender differences.

Caging the revolution

The radical nature of this rising was understood by the absolutist monarchies in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  This was shared by the US government which had recently lost dependable allies in Egypt and Tunisia.  The GCC Initiative was put together with the involvement of the US.  Yadav correctly notes: “The agreement was positioned to provide quick stabilization, not to enable the kind of durable change to which activists aspired.” (p.130)

Two key provisions showed that imperialism wished to maintain the practice, if not all the personnel, of the old regime.  Firstly, immunity was granted to President Saleh and his closest associates. Secondly, the interim President was to be elected without contest, allowing Vice-President Hadi to be promoted. These provisions severely limited the possibility of securing justice for victims of the regime.  

Alongside these provisions, the GCC Initiative established a “national unity” government made up of half of its members from the governing party, General People’s Congress (GPC), and half from the opposition parties.  This was sustained by an unreformed parliament with a GPC super-majority intact.  New parliamentary elections would only come after a new constitution was drafted by supporters of interim President Hadi.

Alongside this, a National Dialogue Conference (NDC) was established to draft policies for Yemen’s future. The NDC was composed of political parties, representatives from women and youth organisations, other civil society representatives, plus the movements of Ansarallah and Hirak.  Despite much investment in the work, the NDC failed, according to Yadav, it “promoted bargaining over consensus building”.

The mandate for the whole GCC Initiative ran only to 2014.  By which time it became evident that no consensus could be reached.  Hadi insisited  upon a governate structure which ignored historic deliniations.  This allowed a centralisation of power while cutting up geographic bases of Ansarallah and Hirak supporters. 

There was now no dialogue, no agreed constitution, and no elections scheduled.   In these circumstances of abject failure by Hadi, Ansarallah took over the capital, Sana’a.  Across the country, popular committees, based on local forces, took over security to prevent complete state disintegration.  Hadi resigned and fled to find refuge in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – where his ministers set up their “government”.

War upon Yemen

Lacking a substantial popular base, the Hadi government was kept alive by the US and its Gulf allies. A totally one-sided resolution was pushed through the UN Security Council in February 2015 – demanding Ansarallah retreat from all territoies, disarm, and facilitate Hadi’s return.  This was matched by the Saudi-led coalition launching the war on Yemen on March 26th – all to restore an unpopular, failed politician who was Vice-President in the previous corrupt regime.

After nearly eight full years of war, the humanitarian position is dire.  Most recent UNICEF figures give 23.4 million (including 12.9 million children) in need of humanitarian assistance.  4.3 million have been internally displaced since 2015.  Only half of the nation’s health facilities are operational.  The economy has largely collapsed, producing at around half of its pre-war level – with much of the infrastructure bombed out by the coalition.  19 million Yemenis are suffering acute food insecurity.

At the moment, a nationwide “truce” is holding between Ansarallah and the Saudi led coalition.  This has eased the suffering somewhat – but a coalition enforced siege and US led sanctions remain in place – prolonging civilian suffering.  Large parts of the south,  much of its energy resources and ports, are under effective control and occupation by GCC forces. Hadi has fallen, imprisoned in Saudi Arabia awaiting a corruption trial.  His government has been replaced by Saudi approved appointees without mandate from inside Yemen.

Are parties the problem?

Yadav’s book reveals much about the failure of the GCC Initiative.  However, her method of analysis is focused on promoting the most effective form of transitional justice.  This presumes a political process that brings peace to Yemen.  This Yadav tends to minimise, or counterpose to “peace-building” by civil society and non-governmental organisations.  She goes too far, defining parties as partisan elites, while implying civil society organisations are more universal in their policy.

Now, parties are most certainly “partisan”.  But they also summarise the accumulated experience and wisdom of sectors and classes in society.  They obviously represent different interests and experiences.  Indeed, some are fighting on different sides in the war.  Yet to render them unrepresentative (“elites”) in comparison to civil society organisations and NGOs is denying agency to large parts of Yemeni society.

Equally, it is pretence to assume that these civil and non-governmental organisations are uniquely independent, non-political, and authentically Yemeni.  Yadav makes a number of references to “donor pressure”.  A systematic examination of funding and policy would certainly reveal the role of North American and European funding in many of these bodies.  Of course, those of us outside Yemen have to be extremely cautious about Yemenis attempting to win justice and security inside Yemen.  But to mark off one sector of activists against another narrows down the options Yemenis have to progress to peace, justice and independence.

Yadav’s prioritisation inside Yemen has a knock on effect outside.  In a note on page 247 we read: “Progressive political campaigns in North America and Europe have focused narrowly on weapons sales to the Saudi-led coalition.  While this is understandable insofar as weapon sales are an accessible point of influence for democratic electorates seeking accountable foreign policy, it has a painfully reductive effect on understanding of the conflict and has not fundamentally challenged proxy framing.  Focus on Saudi airstrikes – while warranted, given investigations by the United Nations Human Rights Council Group of Eminent Experts and others – nonetheless casts too narrow a net and obscures the many ways in which Yemeni actors – Ansar Allah, certainly, and the STC, but also more – are causing civilian harms and violating rights.  Such campaigns seem focused on wanting clean hands more  than advancing an end to the conflict in Yemen.”

Without the contribution of the US and British governments the coalition’s forces would be grounded and unable to continue.  Arms, training, logistics and political support from these sources have sustained this war for eight horrifying years.  Seeking to end this represents a real contributiuon to the struggle of the Yemeni people. Focusing on the foreign intervention from the US and Britain, in support of the external intervention of the Saudi coalition highlights interference in the free development of Yemen.  Despite their differences, Ansarallah, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and Al-Islah are at least Yemenis – and as such they are an essential part of Yemen’s future.  Peace will come from Sana’a, Aden and Taiz – not from Washington, London, Riyadh or Abu Dhabi.

Yadav correctly rejects the suggestion that the war in Yemen is actually a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  She writes:”…the proxy war framing of Yemen as a contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia neither accounts for the conflicts emergence from Yemen’s own political ecosystem, nor reckons with the consequences of important internal fissures within the coalition.” (pages 171-2)

The framing of a proxy war is an attempt to justify imperialism’s support for the Saudi-led intervention.  Ansarallah arose quite independently from Iran.  Nor is there a simple confessional connection (“they are all Shia”).  The Zaydi community within Yemen has a different theology and supports a school of law similar to one of the Sunni schools.

Even the US State Department does not claim a substantial Iranian presence inside Yemen.  Relations between Ansarallah and Iran were insignificant prior to the war, but have not surprisiongly warmed since.  But it is a gross distortion to suggest Ansarallah are a satellite.  The whole issue of Yemen’s struggle for national independence (and unity) is ignored in the proxy war framework.  Yemen is occupied and governed, in some parts, by foreign forces.  Ansarallah is opposing that, not because of Iranian pressure, but because they are Yemeni patriots.

Yadav never analyses the role of the coalition and its backers. The reader is expected to place an equal sign between Yemenis opposing foreign occupation and the occupiers.  This suggest soverignty isn’t an issue – presumably justice trumps this.  Yet how can there be justice if Yemenis aren’t controlling all their affairs and territory? And how can the external movement in support of Yemen decide at great distance what the precise balance of justice is between contending Yemeni forces? Only Yemenis can solve these issues.  The book helps to focus on vital problems, even when the author’s own focus blurs.

“Yemen in the Shadow of Transition”, Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Hurst, 2022

Photo: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

*Stop the War Coalition


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