How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Many diplomats and observers now see Yemen’s three-year-old civil war as yet another crisis that has barreled out of control. The conflict began in September 2014 when Houthi rebels from the north and groups loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh seized Sanaa, taking President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi hostage, first figuratively and then literally. In March 2015, their slow-burning coup escalated and internationalized with the intervention of a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia, which launched an intense but often disjointed campaign to restore Hadi’s government and counter the Houthis, whom the Saudis claim are an Iranian proxy. Over the last three years, the situation on the ground has dramatically deteriorated: today, nearly seven million Yemenis are at risk of famine and thousands have already died in the worst cholera outbreak in history. Yet even as the crisis worsens, efforts to stop the fighting have come up wildly short.
At the end of the month a new UN special envoy, the former British diplomat Martin Griffiths, will take over a peace effort that has lost all momentum over the past year and a half. His job may not be a mission impossible, as many fear, but if the latest attempt is to be any more successful than those that came before, Griffiths will need to take a radical new approach.
From the beginning, the peace process in Yemen has suffered from faulty assumptions and out-of-date-analysis. The current UN plan overplays the importance of the Hadi government and excludes the groups who are actually fighting the Houthis and providing the basic services normally associated with a state. Furthermore, many of the parties involved have little incentive to see the current peace process succeed—even as millions of Yemenis arrive at the brink of starvation, all of the key players in the conflict are profiting from a lucrative war economy. In many cases, the spoils of war have turned former paupers into extremely wealthy individuals. Yet the focus on elite politics—not uncommon in peace processes of this kind—has often obscured these dynamics.
Ending Yemen’s civil war and building a sustainable peace will require a plan that more closely reflects the realities on the ground. If the mistakes of the past are repeated, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis will only spiral further out of control.
Yemen is a chaos state. Although the country still exists as a nominal entity on maps or in newspaper reports, on the ground, the order that state institutions normally provide is largely absent. But there is signal in the noise: Local groups have stepped into the void and are creating their own local order. As my colleagues and I put it in a recent Chatham House report, “Yemen has been divided into areas of territorial and political control … each territory has its own leadership structure, internal politics, and external backers, to the extent that Yemen resembles less a divided country than a collection of mini-states engaged in a complex intraregional conflict.”
Although Hadi is the internationally recognized president, in reality his government has little skin in the game or even physical presence in Yemen. What he refers to as the Yemen National Army is really a collection of diverse groups, including northern tribesmen, southern secessionists, Salafists, and military units affiliated with Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist party. All of these groups are fighting the Houthis, but few have much time for Hadi, whose legitimacy is increasingly drawn from international recognition rather than local support.
Tribesmen in the central Mareb governorate, for example, have paid a heavy price for their part in the fight against the Houthis, but they have also been able to control and govern their own territory for the first time with surprising success. Beyond the frontline in the west of the governorate, security in Mareb is the best it has been in years, if not decades, and Mareb City has become an important military and trade hub. Islah has also become a key player in Mareb. The governor, Sultan al-Aradah, is widely considered to be a member and the main military units in the governate are loyalists of Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Yemen’s controversial, Islah-affiliated vice president.
In the south, pro-independence leaders of secessionist militias, who were among the first to reclaim territory from the Houthis, have formed the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which claims to be laying the groundwork for either outright secession or de facto autonomy in the style of the Kurdistan Regional Government. More recently, the STC has come into conflict with Hadi government over the Southern port city of Aden. The group accuses Prime Minister Ahmed bin Daghr of corruption and failure to restore basic services to civilians. In January, STC-affiliated forces clashed with pro-Hadi military units, eventually seizing most of the city and encircling the presidential palace where bin Daghr was based (he has since left Aden for Riyadh). Making matters more complicated, most STC forces are backed by the UAE, which is part of the Saudi-led coalition but also sees the secessionists as a bulwark against the spread of the Muslim Brotherhood ideology that it believes Islah-linked tribesmen and military units in north Yemen follow.
The Houthis have also secured their position. Until December, the Saleh-Houthi alliance controlled the northern Yemeni highlands and much of the western seaboard. But when Saleh announced his plan to flip to the side of the Saudis, the Houthis killed him. They are now the uncontested de facto military, political, and economic power in northwest Yemen. Since Saleh’s death, they have developed a tight grip on local security and taken over the state institutions in Sanaa, although they have done little to pay the salaries of many government workers.
As local groups have consolidated their power, a complex war economy has emerged. The cost to civilians has been great, but for the major players, the conflict has also created unprecedented opportunities.
Consider the Houthis. The Zaydi Shia religious movement turned rebel militia spent the years between 2004 and 2010 battling the Yemeni government and being pummeled by the Saudi air force in the mountains of northern Yemen. Now they control vast swaths of territory and, for the first time, are bringing in hundreds of millions a year, if not billions of dollars a year, in revenues. As they settle into the role of Yemen’s new elite, Houthi leaders are said to be buying up property, land, and luxury SUVs. Although they have lost some territory over the past year it is important to remember the huge gains that they have made overall. Many Houthi military commanders were impoverished teenagers when the first war with the government broke out in their northern heartland, Sa’dah, 14 years ago. Today, they are wealthy warlords.
The Hadi government has also profited from the conflict, by selling the oil produced in southern Yemen on the international market and capitalizing upon its stranglehold over trade entering the port of Aden. Meanwhile, the groups that are actually battling the Houthis have their own financial interests. By collecting taxes and using revenues from oil and gas sales, the governor of Mareb has been able to foster an unlikely economic boom in the local economy. The Hadi government has repeatedly demanded that Aradah hand over revenues, to no avail. Instead, he is using the newly acquired wealth to fund the local government and support new infrastructure projects.
On all sides, groups are profiting from a bustling war economy. With the Saudis often blocking trade destined for the port of Hodeidah on Yemen’s west coast, the price of basic goods transported overland has soared. Trucks crisscrossing the country with food, fuel, and other, less legal, goods, including arms, have to pay fees at checkpoints and taxes to the different local authorities. The fuel trade in particular has become highly profitable for a select few, which allegedly includes merchants with close ties to the Houthi leadership. In fact, those involved claim that there is a surprisingly high degree of collusion among the economic networks that tie together the Hadi government, local military leaders, and the Houthis.
So far, the UN peace process has done little to unravel this tangled web of alliances, rivalries, and interests. The deal currently on the table, which was built in part around a 2015 UN Security Council resolution (2216), calls for the formation of a unity government once certain preconditions, such as the Houthi withdrawal from Sanaa, have been met. This government would then try to centralize revenue collection and bring the disparate military units, militias, and other fighting forces under its control. But Yemen’s political geography bears increasingly little resemblance to the mediation process. The UN plan treats Hadi as the sole legitimate representative of the state, allowing him to select the other parties for the peace talks and ignoring the interests of the many groups actually fulfilling state-like functions.
Those defending this approach argue that expanding the talks would slow things down and add unnecessary complexity. But Hadi is not running a functional military or government, meaning that he is not an effective counterpart to his Northern rivals—a fact that the Houthis are acutely aware of. And there are few incentives for the diverse groups fighting the Houthis to agree to a deal that ignores their existence, especially if they stand to lose a considerable amount of power and resources in the process.
The experience of Yemen’s 2012–14 transitional period—when Hadi presided over a deeply ineffective unity government —along with the bin Daghr administration’s failure to provide any visible form of governance in areas liberated from the Houthis in the south, suggest that local groups would not benefit from submitting to a similar plan. In fact, had the 2016 peace talks in Kuwait been successful, the agreement could very well have ended the “big war” only to spark a series of complex small wars.
The parties at the table have few incentives to fully cooperate either. Agreements discussed at various points throughout 2016 sought to remove Hadi or at least sideline him from power, the trappings of which he and his entourage have become fondly accustomed to. There is more reason for him to resist a deal than to accept it—and he has consistently refused all new proposals since Kuwait. Likewise, the current peace process effectively calls for an outright Houthi surrender, but the Houthis see little reason to agree to a deal that assumes they have lost.
Finally, there is the issue of the external powers involved in the war—Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and, less visibly, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, which support the Saudi air campaign and the UAE’s work in the south. Since 2015, diplomats on all sides have parroted Riyadh’s line that it wants peace. What they have been less clear on is the conditions under which the Saudis would let a deal go ahead. Given that the Saudis pay for the Hadi government’s room and board in Riyadh and underwrite most of the military campaign against the Houthis, understanding their position is essential.
Saudi Arabia wants to end Iranian influence in Yemen. (It sees the Houthis as an Iranian proxy in the mold of Hezbollah.) In exchange for a peace agreement, and an end to their intensive aerial campaign against the Houthis, the Saudis are demanding that the Houthis announce a divorce from Tehran, hand over their weapons, give assurances on the security of the Saudi border, and rebrand as a political party. But it is unclear how the Iranians could prove that they had stopped supporting the Houthis, and it is highly unlikely that the Houthis will simply surrender, or that they will trust anyone—let alone the Saudis—to abide by the terms of an agreement once they are unarmed. The Saudis need to be convinced to pursue a more realistic set of demands. But this will not be easy. According to the Saudis, in 2016, when they were willing to pursue a deal that left the Houthis fairly well armed and gave them a place at the political table, the Houthis reneged on the agreement by launching fresh attacks over the border.
Meanwhile, Iran, has reaped fantastic returns on a modest investment, drawing Saudi Arabia into a destructive war it cannot win without a substantial investment of personnel or resources. But so far, Tehran has not even been brought to the negotiating table. And shockingly little attention has been paid to the UAE. By backing the STC and its allies, the Emiratis have been quietly building a state within a (failed) state in the south of Yemen. Given the UAE’s strong anti-Brotherhood stance and Islah’s increasingly entrenched role in Mareb and elsewhere in the north, it is hardly rational to assume they will go along with a deal that neuters their southern allies and gives Islah a place at the table
In his final briefing to the UN Security Council on February 27, the outgoing special envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed recommended that his successor use the current peace plan as the "cornerstone" of his efforts. But few believe this to be a wise course of action.
What, then, should the new envoy do? First, Griffiths will need to find ways to incorporate the many groups operating on the ground into negotiations. Research on peace processes overwhelmingly shows that excluding important parties creates incentives for them to spoil the ensuing agreement. A more inclusive approach would not make the situation in Yemen any more complex. Rather, it would reflect the existing complexity. It would also signal to Hadi, the Houthis, the Emiratis, and the Saudis that they cannot dictate terms that ignore the legitimate grievances and demands of key local groups.
Griffiths should also build a meaningful relationship with the Houthi leadership, something that Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who rarely visited Sanaa, failed to do. And he will need to speak directly with the real decision-makers in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi—crown princes Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan—and receive dispensation to talk directly and bluntly with Iranian officials. It is unclear what incentive Tehran has to cut ties with the Houthis, but if properly engaged, the Iranians might play a role in convincing the Yemeni rebels to limit their ambitions. Even a fragile peace is not possible without the cooperation of each of these parties.
Finally, Griffiths will need to address Resolution 2216, which has been a millstone around his predecessor’s neck. He should lobby the permanent members of the Security Council to issue a new resolution, or at least a statement, that gives him more leeway to negotiate and puts more pressure on the Hadi government and Saudis to be more realistic in their aims.
Any lasting peace must be built on the basis of reality as it is. This means embracing complexity, including more parties in the peace talks, and managing expectations over what an agreement might look like. Making these kind of changes is no guarantee of success. But one thing is certain: following the failed path of the past can only make an already intolerable situation worse.