Yemen cannot trade present for future promise

18 September 2014

State is in danger of being ripped apart

It is now almost three years since Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president of three decades, finally agreed to step down after a year of street protests, brutal retaliation from the state and regime in-fighting that threatened to tip the Arab world’s poorest state into civil war.

Since then, the “Yemen Model” for transition to democracy has been hailed as a template for similarly fragile, conflict-riven states. But now, protest camps belonging to the Houthis, a revivalist movement for the Zaydi form of Shia Islam that is unique to the north of Yemen, are springing up in and around the capital.

With fighting between that group, Sunni Islamist and tribal militias and, of late, Yemen’s armed forces, moving beyond the outskirts of the capital Sanaa, Yemen’s peace plan is quickly unravelling. 

If the transition does come to a sticky end, it will be because too much attention has been paid to Yemen’s future, and not enough to its present.

The motives of the Houthis, who fought six wars in six years with the Saleh regime before taking a rapidly growing role in national politics after his removal, remain unclear. Their complaints, however – of a corrupt, weak, government that has overseen a collapse in service provision and done little to improve an economy devastated by the events of 2011 – ring true to many Yemenis.

If the Houthis were not using these issues to promote their cause, another group surely would.

Yemen’s government, including president Abdrabbu Mansour al-Hadi, has ignored the day-to-day needs of the people of Yemen, trading on the promise of a better future, for too long. If a civil war can be averted, Al-Hadi must prioritise present needs more or he will soon face the same problem.

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