Yemen has chosen a federal model of government to settle its problems. The change will not be as great as it might seem.

On 21 February, delegates at Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference decided to bring in a new, federal form of government to a country until recently seen as being controlled by just one man, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The move has provoked considerable debate in the capital, Sanaa, over the pros and cons of federalism. It has also served as a reminder to Yemenis that their country has never really been ruled by a single, centralised government.

For many Yemenis, federalism is simply an admission that a 50-year-old experiment with centralisation has failed

Saleh, who was ousted in 2011, governed by building coalitions and alliances between powerful military members and tribes, and never really managed to secure control of the whole country. From 2004 to 2010, his regime tried – and failed – repeatedly to put down a stubborn rebellion in the northern Sadah province.

It also struggled to beat back Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the local Al-Qaeda franchise, and to keep restive tribes in the oil-rich provinces of Al-Jawf and Mareb in check.

The Imamate that preceded the current republican setup was eventually undone by its attempts to centralise government: it was overthrown by the army it built up to that end.

For many Yemenis, federalism is simply an admission that a 50-year-old experiment with centralisation has failed. Yet the transition is unlikely to be smooth. Saleh’s inner circle grew rich and powerful under the previous system, and they are unlikely to let go of the privileges they accrued. Others, including southern separatists, may see federalism as a cue to strike out on their own as happened with the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.

Yet the plan’s backers remain confident. Rather than Iraq, they look to the UAE, and even Germany, for inspiration. By reverting to type, they believe, the country can rise again.