Iran and Houthis: Between political alliances and sectarian tensions

Iran and Houthis: Between political alliances and sectarian tensions

Houthis’ missiles targeting Saudi Arabia became more developed and far-reaching during the current war, thus prompting questions about Iran’s role in Yemen. Many stories circulated about Iran smuggling weapons to Houthis despite the blockade and tight control on all air, land and sea ports in the country. It is also believed that Iranian experts are developing Houthis’ weapon capacities.

Iran’s Role in Yemen Exaggerated, but Destructive

Iran’s Role in Yemen Exaggerated, but Destructive

Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia and ten other countries have been conducting a bloody airstrike campaign against the Houthi rebel forces in Yemen. The campaign, meant to counter what Saudis call the “Iranian Threat” in the Arabian Peninsula, had received limited support from the Obama Administration, but Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners are now operating with a freer hand from the Trump White House.

The endless battle in Taiz

The endless battle in Taiz

Taiz is the site of the longest-running battle ground in the Yemen war, which began when Houthi forces took over the city on March 25, 2015. Initially, the Houthis were confronted by peaceful demonstrations which they repressed heavily, killing six demonstrators in the process. The situation rapidly developed into armed conflict when the war erupted after the Houthis invaded the south, prompting the Saudi-led coalition to launch a counteroffensive on March 26, 2015. Taiz is centrally located in Yemen, and is the country’s third most populous city. Although large parts of Taiz were reportedly liberated from Houthi dominance, the “Taiz liberation operation” was never launched with serious intent.

Taiz has been described as the heart of Yemen’s 2011 uprising against the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Before 2011, Taiz witnessed countless demonstrations against the Sanaa government, the largest occurring in December 1992. However, the continuous unrest and ongoing battle in Taiz received little international attention despite the disproportionately high human cost in comparison to other Yemeni governorates. Taiz has been besieged by Houthi-Saleh forces for 18 consecutive months, adding to the high civilian casualties incurred by shelling, infighting, and air strikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition backing President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi.

Historically, Taiz’s active opposition against the central government has been the product of resentment towards the city’s marginalization. Even though Taizis has taken part in different state institutions—sometimes even in crucial positions such as interior minister—they held no real power to influence political decisions. The military and tribal circles dominated by the northern tribal elite remain in control. Tribal connections and nepotism, rather than state institutions, constitute the backbone of power in Yemen.

Taiz’s exclusion is not the result of current policy, but rather is rooted in Yemen’s history. Under North Yemen’s monarchy, from 1918 to 1962, the ruling Imam’s army, officers, and governors all belonged to a branch of Shia Islam unique to Yemen known as the Zaydi. About half of the population, including Taizis, belonged to the Shafi’i Sunni school of thought, but were largely excluded from the power structure. A coup d’état unseated the monarchy in 1962 followed by an eight-year civil war that left the country split among the Royalists—aiming to restore the Zaydi monarchy—and the Republicans, a force made up of a mix of Zaydi and Shafi’i fighters.

Taizis fought on the side of the Republicans, which in turn split into two factions in August 1968. One faction was leftist—mostly from Taiz—and the other was nationalist and conservative, from Sanaa and the north. This split was both ideological and regional. The Taizis found themselves pitted against the northerners and Royalists. The conflict resulted in the dominance of the more conservative north wing, backed by the tribal belt around Sanaa, and the exclusion of the leftist Taizi wing.

While Taiz is not the only victim of political marginalization by the northern tribal elite, it has been the most politically active, for several reasons. First, during Yemen’s colonial period from 1839 to 1967, most of the labour force in Aden came from Taiz. Contact with Aden opened the city to the modern world, in contrast to the isolated status of the northern part of Yemen. This increased Taizis’ desire to earn a modern education and raised their aspirations to improve living conditions and change the political system. The exposure that Taizis enjoyed and the political awareness they gained as a result of their proximity and migration to Aden is a key factor in their increased consciousness of their subsequent marginalization.

Secondly, Taiz is known for its commercial activity, with many prominent Yemeni business families hailing from Taiz, such as Hail Saeed family. As a result, Taizis pay the most in taxes according to an official in the Yemen finance ministry who asked to remain anonymous. Although most businesses are based in Sanaa, many businessmen from Sanaa never pay taxes because of their tribal or political connections. Because Taizis do pay their taxes, they demand that the state provide services in return.

Given this context, it’s understandable that Taiz became a center of opposition and rebellion against both the central government and the Houthi-Saleh alliance. Its opposition became even more politicized against the Sanaa government during the Saleh period, from 1978 to 2012. As the Houthis, allied with Saleh and the northern militias, have tried to take control of Taiz by besieging and bombing it, Taiz residents have turned against them.

There may be two reasons why the Hadi government, backed by the Saudi-led coalition, is reluctant to liberate Taiz from the Houthis. First, the UAE is reluctant to support the liberation of Taiz because the Islah Party, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood represented by local anti-Houthi-Saleh leader Hamoud al-Mikhlafi, was the first to take up arms against the Houthis in the city. Despite the presence of other political and religious factions in Taiz’s resistance forces, the UAE fears that liberating the city might give the Muslim Brotherhood—a group it has listed as a terrorist organisation—a chance to seize power. Army brigade leader Adnan al-Hamadi declared his loyalty to the President Hadi, but did not receive any support from the Saudi-led coalition. Instead, the coalition is backing the Salafi militia of Abu al-Abbas to counter the Houthis and the Brotherhood at the same time. This reveals that the coalition prefers to support religious groups over official institutions, because these groups are more easily controlled.

Second, the Saudi-led coalition is not in a rush to end the battle in Taiz, because they have built a media campaign around the city highlighting Houthi-Saleh attacks and violations. This has become useful leverage for the Saudis and their allies, allowing them to encourage international pressure against the Houthis and Saleh, and diverting attention from the coalition’s own negative actions. The situation in Taiz also helps the Saudi-backed coalition discredit the Houthis locally, by claiming that the Houthis are not fighting for patriotic or nationalist reasons, but are instead fighting for their own interests at the expense of other Yemenis.

The coalition was eager to start the war in Taiz to exhaust the Houthi-Saleh forces, but it does not have any vision of how to end this battle. In the long-term, Taiz and the political dissatisfaction it represents will continue to upset any chance of stabilizing Yemen. The only way forward is for the warring parties to address the underlying reasons for the war: political marginalization, favoritism, and inattention to the people’s needs. Taiz is the longest-running and most heated battle in Yemen and there is no end in sight, since those in power are determined to thwart all attempts to end the war by military or political means.


Maysaa Shuja Al-Deen is a non resident fellow at Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies and is a Yemeni researcher and political analyst based in Cairo. She has previously published in Al-Monitor, As-Safir, and The New Arab.

This article was originally published by the Atlantic Council.


Rapid currency depreciation and the decimation of Yemeni purchasing power

Rapid currency depreciation and the decimation of Yemeni purchasing power

By Amal Nasser and Alex J. Harper



International financial intervention is urgently needed to protect the value of the Yemen’s domestic currency. If this support is not forthcoming in the immediate near-term the Yemeni rial faces rapid depreciation; in a country that imports nearly 90 percent of its nutritional needs this depreciation would decimate the ability of most Yemenis to purchase food and other basic necessities.

The two-year-old civil war and regional military intervention in Yemen has already helped create the world’s largest food security emergency, with millions of people currently facing starvation; a steep decline in remaining per capita purchasing power would significantly accelerate the spread of famine.    


Warnings of currency instability

Economic pressures stemming from the two-year-old civil war and regional military intervention in Yemen have taken their toll on the value of the country’s currency. Between early 2015 and November 2016 the Yemeni rial (YR) lost more than half of its value relative to the United States dollar (USD); from November last year until early February 2017 the rial saw a slight gradual depreciation from YR320 to YR330 against the dollar in local market trading.

Amongst the factors weighing on the rial have been widespread collapse of economic activity, government services, security and humanitarian conditions, the cessation of oil exports (previously the largest source of foreign currency and government revenue) and the Central Bank of Yemen’s (CBY) decreasing ability to intervene in the market, given its depleted foreign currency holdings. The CBY has also been experiencing a severe rial liquidity crisis; in August 2016 most public sector workers – roughly a quarter of Yemen’s employed – lost their income due to the CBY not having the physical banknotes with which to pay them. In September 2016 President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, head of the internationally recognized government of Yemen, then ordered the relocation of the CBY’s headquarters from rebel-controlled Sana’a to government-controlled Aden, with the central bank’s subsequent dysfunction further complicating the country’s fiscal and monetary management.  

Factors that have helped mitigate the downward pressure on the rial have been the continuing foreign exchange inflows from international organizations operating in Yemen and remittances from Yemenis abroad – now the largest source of new foreign currency coming into the country. In addition, foreign actors in the conflict – notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – have for the most part been paying local forces, fighting on behalf of the internationally recognized government, in foreign currency.  

In early 2017 the Yemeni government in Aden received fresh rial banknotes from the printers in Russia, and in the first week of February started to distribute public sector salaries. The market quickly began to anticipate that the government would, for the first time in nearly half a year, distribute the full monthly public sector salary bill of 65 billion rials; the market was also aware that the central bank did not have the foreign currency reserves necessary to guarantee the rial’s value at the official exchange rate – currently YR250 to the USD.

By the second week of February – even with the government having distributed only a small portion of total civil servant wages – the rial began to depreciate rapidly in local market trading. This was compounded by importers’ increasing demand for foreign currency in the lead up Ramadan.[1] Yemenis receiving remittances from abroad then began refusing to convert these into domestic currency; panic entered the market and set off a run on the rial as people rushed to convert their savings to USD, in turn accelerating currency exchangers’ speculative pricing. Within days the rial lost as much as 20 percent in value, trading as low as YR400 to the USD in some parts of the country. In expectation of further depreciation many businesses across the country were carrying out transactions at YR450 to the USD.[2]


Stopgap support measures

The governing authorities and CBY administrations on either side of Yemen’s frontlines quickly recognized the rial’s weakness and moved to restabilize the currency. In Sana’a, CBY officials convened meetings with the heads of private banks and financial institutions to request their assistance in stabilizing the rial through providing the market with foreign currency. To curtail currency speculation, the so-called “Government of National Salvation” (GNS) – established in late 2016 by the Houthi rebels and allied General People’s Congress, loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh – ordered currency traders to cease operations, leading to the forced closure of several exchange offices and the arrest of traders caught violating the ban. The GNS then secured an agreement with major food and fuel importers in northern Yemen to refrain from purchasing foreign exchange on the open market for 30 days.

Meanwhile in Aden, the internationally recognized government halted the distribution of public sector salaries within several days of having initiated them.[3] Central bank governor, Monasser al-Quaiti, also met with exchange companies and banks in Aden to discuss currency stabilization, assuring them that CBY headquarters was soon to receive significant foreign exchange support.

By mid-February, the rial had stabilized at YR340 to the USD. The 30-day importer agreement not to buy foreign currency on the open market expired March 12, though continued GNS commitments that it will offer importers in Sana’a a better-than-market exchange rate has largely kept importers from entering the market for foreign exchange. The strength of such commitments was reinforced in mid-March when the GNS, through the Ministry of Telecommunications, sold US$30 million to the country’s three largest wheat importers.[4] Most importers have thus been accumulating rials through selling goods without placing new orders, depleting existing stocks of food, fuel and other imports and exacerbating shortages of these commodities in many parts of the country.

President Hadi then travelled to Riyadh on February 27 to meet with Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the Saudi deputy crown prince and defence minister. Following this Hadi convened a meeting in Aden with his prime minister and governors from across South Yemen, Taiz and Marib, in which Hadi announced that the Saudi government had committed $10 billion in aid to Yemen – $8 billion for reconstruction projects and $2 billion to help the CBY stabilize the currency and resume import guarantees at YR250 to the USD.


On the cusp of rapid depreciation

The CBY in Sana’a currently has foreign cash holdings of US$100 million and 200 million Saudi Riyals (SR). The CBY in Aden has at least $700 million in foreign account holdings but no means to access these funds; when President Hadi ordered the relocation of central bank headquarters from Sana’a to Aden last September, he did so without first securing at the new location the financial infrastructure necessary to connect it to the SWIFT network, which governs global financial transactions.[5] Governor al-Quaiti has repeatedly said that the Aden-based CBY would shortly be connected to the SWIFT network, however a financial observer speaking with the Sana’a Center said this is likely still months away.

Yemeni economists closely following recent developments have told the Sana’a Center that the only means the CBY in Sana’a currently has to support the value of the rial is to sell its foreign currency holdings directly to importers; given the CBY’s currently available reserves, this option would be feasible for roughly 6 to 8 weeks before the central bank’s foreign currency reserves were exhausted. It is unlikely the Sana’a-based CBY will voluntarily sell these reserves though, given that they are largely constituted by private Yemeni bank deposits. Despite this, pressure has been mounting from the GNS, which has been facing intense public pressure due to the unpaid public sector salaries. The Houthis in turn have increasingly been demanding that the CBY’s Sana’a branch sell its foreign currency reserves to pay these wages, fueling fierce conflict between them and the central bank, though the bank has so far resisted the pressure.

A CBY official at the central bank’s Aden headquarters told the Sana’a Center in early March that they were confident the $2 billion in Saudi support would arrive shortly. As of this writing, however, there had been no official Saudi confirmation regarding the proposed financial aid. In the uneasy calm that has thus prevailed in the market between mid-February and the end of March, the Yemeni currency has seen a slight gradual depreciation from YR340 to YR355 in open market trading. If the Saudi aid, or a similarly robust financial intervention, does not arrive in the very near-term to provide the market with foreign currency, however, Yemeni economists are anticipating that the rial will re-enter a phase of rapid depreciation.


Ramifications of evaporating Yemeni purchasing power

Before the current conflict began, Yemen had depended on commercial imports to supply almost 90 percent of the country’s nutritional needs – a crucial reason why the CBY has long been fixated on maintaining the value of the rial, lest average Yemenis be priced out of the market for food.

Yemen is also the poorest and least developed country in the Middle East and North Africa, with the World Bank reporting last year that between 2014 and early 2016 the incidence of poverty in the country rose from 34 percent to 62 percent, based on a national poverty line of $50 per capita per month (in 2014 prices).[6] Importantly, that World Bank report was issued before a quarter of the country’s employed workforce – some 1.2 million public sector workers – lost their salaries in August 2016; the poverty rate is certain to have risen dramatically since.

Simultaneously, the Saudi-led regional military coalition intervening in the civil war has for two years imposed a air and land blockade on northern sections of the country, while numerous impediments to cargo ships have dramatically elevated the insurance and transportation costs for sea imports. Coalition airstrikes, ground fighting and fuel shortages within the country have also hobbled distribution networks inside Yemen.

The cumulative result is that food shortages have taken hold in many areas, while in other areas many locals no longer have the ability to purchase the foodstuffs that are available. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization declared in February 2017 that “Yemen is facing the largest food security emergency in the world”.[7] The same month the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that 18.8 million people – more than two thirds of the population – require some form of humanitarian assistance; some 10.3 million Yemenis are acutely affected and require “immediate humanitarian assistance to save and sustain their lives,” and 3.3 million people, including 2.1 million children, are acutely malnourished.[8]

In the current environment, a sizable erosion of the country’s remaining per capita purchasing power – as would result from rapid depreciation of the domestic currency – would significantly accelerate the spread of famine.


Amal Nasser is a non-resident economist at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, based in Berlin. She holds an M.Sc. in Economics from the Berlin Institute of Technology.    

Alex J. Harper is an affiliated researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. 


*The authors would like to thank Spencer Osberg for his extensive editing and reviews.    


[1] Yemen traditionally sees a spike of imports about three months before Ramadan, as importers begin to prepare for the expected increase in consumer demand.

[2] It is important to note that due to the persistent liquidity shortage in rial banknotes there are currently two effective prices when making currency exchanges in Yemen (at both currency exchangers and private banks): one for cash exchanges and another for exchanges via bank accounts. Cash exchanges are carried out at the market price, while currency exchanges via check or electronic means are typically carried out at a rate equal to the market price plus 50 rial; such is an indication of the premium placed on physical currency as a result of the liquidity crisis.

[3] A consequence of rescinding the public sector wage payments has been sporadic strikes by workers and soldiers in government controlled areas.

[4] Tariffs on private telecommunications companies – paid in USD – are one of the GNS’s few remaining sources of revenue.

[5] “SWIFT” stands for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, and is a global communication network that facilitates 24-hour secure international exchange of payment instructions between banks, central banks, multinational corporations, and major securities firms.


[7] “Yemen’s suffering is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis today“, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, February 15, 2017.

[8] “Yemen: UN and partners appeal for $2.1 bln to provide life-saving assistance to 12 million people in 2017“, Relief Web, February 8, 2017.

The Limits of US Military Power in Yemen: Why Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continues to thrive

The Limits of US Military Power in Yemen: Why Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continues to thrive

By Farea Al-Muslimi and Adam Baron


Executive summary

Similar to US counterterrorism efforts in Yemen under President Barack Obama, the newly minted White House administration of Donald Trump has shown little appetite to explore non-military policy options to supplement the use of American firepower in Yemen. Indeed, shortly after taking office President Trump authorized the escalation of drone strikes and special forces operations in Yemen. The Trump administration’s 2017 budget proposal to congress also outlines massive cuts in US diplomatic and humanitarian spending, even as the UN declared last month that Yemen faces the largest food security emergency in the world. Such a myopic focus on the military option in the battle against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) indicates a failure to grasp why AQAP has expanded so successfully in Yemen despite well more than a decade of US counterterrorism efforts in the country.

Among AQAP’s core strengths is its membership’s understanding of the historical context and socio-political, tribal, security and economic dynamics at play in the areas in which the group embeds itself; this allows the group to tailor its tactics and leverage local circumstances to expand its support base, operational capacity, and absorb losses. Since the onset of civil war in Yemen, AQAP has exploited the country’s sectarian polarization, the collapse of the state and security institutions, and the catastrophic humanitarian crisis such that today AQAP is a more potent force than ever before.

In crafting its counterterrorism policies for Yemen, it is incumbent upon the new US administration to realize that the use of military force alone will almost certainly fail to defeat AQAP, and will indeed likely be counterproductive to that end given the civilian casualties heavy-handed military interventions inevitably entail and how AQAP is able to exploit these in its recruitment and propaganda efforts. To be successful, the battle against AQAP must be multifaceted, and include the promotion of efficient local governance, improved access to basic services, more equitable judicial mechanisms and the establishment of effective local security forces. Most importantly, counterterrorism efforts in Yemen cannot be approached in isolation to the country’s ongoing civil war and catastrophic humanitarian crisis – as long as such an environment persists AQAP will continue to thrive.

The following paper is thus an examination of the rise of AQAP in Yemen, and in particular how it has adapted and embedded itself within the social fabric of the three Yemeni governorates that have been most frequently targeted by American counterterrorism efforts – Al Bayda, Abyan and Shabwa.


A brief history of AQAP

Yemen is the ancestral home Osama Bin Laden and the country has long been a feature of the Al Qaeda founder’s designs for the global jihad. Mujahadeen fighters returning to Yemen from Afghanistan, following the war against the Russians in the 1980s, played a key role in defeating southern forces in Yemen’s 1994 Civil War.[1] Many of these fighter were then responsible for forming a succession of extremist Islamic groups responsible for carrying out attacks against both domestic and western targets in Yemen, with the most prominent of these being the bombing of the USS Cole in the port of Aden in the year 2000, which killed 17 American sailors and injured 39.

It was not until 2009, however, that these jihadi groups attained effective operational and structural coherence, when the Yemeni and Saudi Arabian branches of Al Qaeda integrated and publically announced the emergence of the new entity, Tanzim al-Qaeda fi Jazirat al-Arab, or Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The leader of the new joint-venture was Nasir al-Wuhayshi, a former personal secretary to Bin Laden who had escaped Yemeni prison in 2006, and his deputy, Said al-Shihri, a Saudi who was captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and transferred to the US Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba; he was repatriated to Saudi Arabia in 2007 where, after being released from a rehabilitation program, he traveled to Yemen and rejoined Al Qaeda[2].

AQAP soon began launching attacks under its new moniker, expanding its ability to hit both foreign and domestic targets inside Yemen and abroad. Incidents attributed to AQAP outside Yemen have included the Christmas 2009 failed attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a Northwest Airlines Flight as it was landing in Detroit, and the January 2015 attack by gunmen on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, which left 12 dead and 11 wounded. AQAP has also gained prominence through its use of English language media: the extremist Yemeni-American preacher Anwar al-Awlaki regularly posted video sermons online in fluent English, promoting attacks on civilian targets in Western countries, while also helping to establish Inspire, AQAP’s semi-regular English-language online magazine, in 2010[3].

In recent years AQAP has heavily exploited the increasing polarization of Yemeni society, the retreating authority of the Yemeni state and security services, and gained significant financial largess when it controlled the port city of Mukalla from April 2015 to April 2016, such that today AQAP and its affiliate Ansar al-Sharia are arguably stronger and wealthier than they have ever been[4]. AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia currently have an active presence in no less than 11 Yemeni governorates, continually launch attacks on Yemeni-government allied troops, the rebel Houthi movement and its allies, as well as ideologically opposed tribal leaders. AQAP also regularly boasts on its media outlets that the group is continuing to plan attacks in Western countries.


Continuity of US counterterrorism policy in Yemen

American drone strikes and other Western-back counter-terrorism measures in Yemen began under US President George W. Bush, with the Obama administration dramatically ramping up the frequency of drone strikes[5]. Both Awlaki and Inspire’s editor-in-chief, American citizen Samir Khan, were killed in a US drone strike in Yemen’s Al Jawf governorate on September 2011, while Shihri and Wuhayshi were killed in strikes in 2013 and 2015, respectively. AQAP has, however, shown operational resilience and has continually regrouped and rebounded from these losses.

Under the Obama administration, among the primary targets of US military operations against AQAP in Yemen were the governorates of Abyan, Al-Bayda and Shabwa; under President Trump these governorates have remained primary targets. Indeed the first counterterrorism activities of Trump’s tenure began the Friday he took office and continued through that weekend in a series of missile strikes against suspected AQAP targets in the governorate of Al-Bayda[6].    

Shortly after entering the White House President Trump then authorized a Pentagon request to have areas of Yemen deemed zones of “active hostilities”. In May 2013 the Obama administration had limited the military’s use of force to operations in which there was “near certainty” that no civilians would be killed; the Pentagon request Trump approved lowers that bar to allow for civilian casualties “as long as they are deemed necessary and proportionate to a legitimate military objective”, as reported by the New York Times[7]. On the morning of January 29, US Special Forces backed by Emirati troops then carried out a raid in the village of Yakla, Al-Bayda governorate, killing 14 AQAP affiliates – two of whom were members of a powerful local tribal family – and 25 civilians, including nine children under the age of 13[8]. Drone strikes and other US operations have continue since, with the most sustained barrage coming between March 2 and March 6, when an unprecedented surge saw an estimated 40 American airstrikes in the governorates of al-Bayda, Shabwa and Abyan[9].

Similar to US efforts under Obama, however, thus far under Trump there has been little American exploration of counterterrorism policy options to supplement the direct use of force. Simultaneously, the president’s recent budget proposal to congress lays out billions of dollars in cuts to US foreign aid spending and diplomatic efforts[10]. This, while the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization announced in February that Yemen faces the world’s largest food security emergency; 10.3 million people are considered to be in need of immediate humanitarian assistance in order to “save and sustain their lives” with some 3.3 million people, including 2.1 million children, being “acutely malnourished”, or in other words, starving[11].

Given the scale of the catastrophe in Yemen, the Trump administration’s singular focus on the military option is myopic and ignores the factors that have enabled AQAP’s continued expansion in the country. AQAP cadres have deep operational awareness of the historical context and socio-political, tribal, security and economic dynamics present in the areas in which they embed themselves. This has allowed the group to repeatedly tailor its operations to the specific circumstances it encounters, adapt, leverage local realities, the civil war and the humanitarian crisis to strengthen its support base, increase its operational capacity, and recover from tactical losses.

Any counterterrorism strategy that seeks to dislodge and defeat AQAP in Yemen that does not take in account the inherent complexities at play on the ground – and in particular in the areas where AQAP has solidified its presence – will almost certainly fail. The following is thus an overview of the specific socio-political, tribal, security and economic dynamics of the three Yemeni governorates – Al-Bayda, Abyan and Shabwa – that have featured most prominently in American counterterrorism operations in the country to date.    


Three centers of AQAP activity:


Al-Bayda governorate sits at the strategic center of Yemen, being the midpoint between the country’s historic north-south divide, sharing borders with eight other governorates as well as being the meeting point between various tribal areas. As such the province has featured frequently in Yemeni conflicts, both in the civil war of the 1960s and the ill-fated leftist insurgencies of the 1970s. While a number of Al-Bayda natives gained prominence as part of the “global jihad” – most notably Nasser al-Wuhayshi, who hailed from the southern district of Mukayras – AQAP and its predecessor groups’ activities were minimal here until the last five years.

This began to change after the death of Ali Ahmed al-Thahab, head of the powerful al-Thahab family from the Qaifah tribe, based in the Qaifah region in Al-Bayda’s northwest. Following his death in late 2010 there was disagreement within the family about who would succeed him as patriarch, leading a vicious and bloody conflict amongst the extended family.[12] Sheikh Tareq al-Thahab, the heir apparent, and his brothers Qaid and Nabil then sought out allegiance to AQAP to gain leverage over their opponents. While the brothers were related by marriage to Anwar al-Awlaki, and Qaid had previously been arrested for attempting to go to Iraq to fight against American forces there, the entwining of the al-Thahab family with AQAP was very much motivated by political and tactical expediency rather than to satisfy deep-seated ideological convictions.

In January 2012 AQAP-affiliated fighters – under the leadership of Sheikh Tareq al-Thahab – then seized control of the town of Rada, in the governorate’s northwest[13]. While tribal mediation later the same month secured the withdrawal of AQAP fighters from Rada – and shortly after Tareq himself was killed – the militant group’s presence in Al-Bayda, and particularly the area surrounding Qaifah, continued to grow[14]. This was in large part facilitated by the security vacuum left by the withdrawal of the Yemeni army when it split into factions following the country’s 2011 “Arab Spring” uprising – an event that led to the deterioration of the security situation and a boon to AQAP in many areas of Yemen. Military offensives by elements of the Yemeni army in the southern governorate of Abyan, particularly in the Spring of 2012, also drove many AQAP fighters to withdraw north into Al-Bayda governorate and the areas around Qaifah.  

Nowhere else in Yemen has AQAP been able to embed itself as deeply in the tribal fabric of society than in al-Bayda, and through continuing to expand and leverage its ties to key members of the al-Thahab family AQAP has been able create the narrative that it is a protective force for locals; a framing that has gained increasing acceptance even amongst those with little ideological sympathy with the group. Yemeni government attempts to reassert military control over the area – notably, a major offensive in January 2013 – and continued US drone strikes have resulted in a continuous stream of civilian casualties, fueling public anger and bolstering AQAP’s recruitment efforts as locals who have lost loved ones seek out the group as a means attain justice and vengeance[15].

Soon after the Houthi rebels and the allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh overtook the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, in September 2014, they invaded Al-Bayda governorate and seized control of Rada and large parts of the Qaifah region. Though some locals welcomed the purging of AQAP, others saw the Houthi advance as a general assault against the people of Al-Bayda and took up arms against the Houthis, often fighting alongside AQAP if not directly joining the group or its affiliate Ansar al-Sharia. As the sectarian tone of the Yemeni conflict has deepened, some have increasingly come to view AQAP as the lesser of two evils relative to the Houthis.[16] This framing was implicit in AQAP’s public statement following the US Special Forces raid on Yakla in January this year and subsequent drone strikes; AQAP claimed that the American military operations were aiding Houthi-allied forces, and that it would be a Houthi victory if AQAP were forced from Qaifah as Marib and Shabwa would then fall to the Houthis as well; AQAP then urged Yemenis to join the group to prevent this from happening.

It is important to note that amongst key social, tribal, religious and militia figures in Al-Bayda, membership or affiliation with AQAP is typically amorphous and measured by degrees and circumstances, rather than official status. This has been apparent in how those killed in recent US military actions have been variously identified: for example, Abdulraouf al-Thahab, among the targets of the January 29 raid, was cast by some elements of the internationally recognized Yemeni government as an important tribal ally against the Houthis, despite al-Thahab’s longstanding ties to AQAP[17]. Similarly, President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi – head of the internationally recognized government of Yemen – appointed Nayif Salih Salim al-Qaysi governor of Al-Bayda in December 2015; in May 2016 the US Department of the Treasury then declare al-Qaysi a “Specially Designated Global Terrorists”, calling him a “senior AQAP official and a financial supporter of AQAP”.[18] Al-Qaysi remains governor of Al-Bayda as of this writing.    


Abyan had been know as a bastion of radical leftism before is was one for radical Islam, with many from the governorate having had leading roles in the socialist and Marxist forces that fought the United Kingdom-allied sheikhdoms and sultanates of South Yemen in the 1960s, eventually leading to the creation of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Abyan initially saw many of its native sons rise to prominence within the PDRY administration, most notably, PDRY head of state Ali Nasser Mohamed. This changed following the decisive defeat of Ali Nasser’s forces during 1986 civil war in South Yemen, following which he and thousands of members of Abyan’s officialdom fled to North Yemen, leaving Abyan to suffer a dramatic decline in living standards and marginalization under the new regime.

North and South Yemen unified in 1990, following which Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the north set out to dominate the south through sowing political divisions, in particular through cultivating relationships with the elite among the Abyani exiles and leveraging their grievances against the other southern political parties. Most notable amongst these exiles was Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, whom Saleh eventually named vice president.[19] In parallel, elements of the Saleh regime also aimed to capitalize on the mujahadeen fighters returning from Afghanistan, facilitating their resettlement in the south to help erode the influence of the Yemeni Socialist Party.[20]

Among the returnees was Sheikh Tareq al-Fadhli, a scion of a highly-regarded Abyani family who had fought with Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, and who once back in Yemen used his network of connections to facilitate the relocation of other fighters from Afghanistan – both Yemeni and non-Yemeni – to the country.[21] These fighters coalesced into the Aden-Abyan Islamic army and carried out a slew of assassinations against Socialist Party officials, and later allied with Saleh and the other northern forces in Yemen’s 1994 North-South Civil War.

Over time many Afghan returnees settled back into civilian life; others, however, maintained focus on militant jihad and eventually began targeted attacks on the Yemeni government and security forces, as well as a number of operations against western targets, including tourists in Yemen and the USS Cole bombing. The Aden-Abyan Islamic Army was eventually subsumed into AQAP, and Abyan continued to be a center of the group’s operations.

As state control over much of the country began to recede in 2011, Ansar al-Sharia took advantage by seizing control of the cities of Zinjibar and Jaar and – despite remaining under a degree of pressure from both Yemeni government forces and American airstrikes – effectively succeeded in carving out Islamic statelets. The group established its own governance structures, imposed its strict interpretation of Islamic law, and began to providing public services that – owing to the central government’s previous neglect – were generally of higher quality than what residents had been receiving. AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia’s propaganda arms frequently promoted these governance efforts, with even locals ideologically opposed to AQAP speaking favourably of the militants’ focus on winning hearts and minds, even if the flood of internally displaced people out of Abyan attested to a more mixed reality.[22]

By the middle of 2012, a US-backed Yemeni government military offensive incorporating anti-Al Qaeda “Popular Committees”, made up largely of local tribesmen, forced Ansar al-Sharia to retreat from Zinjibar and Jaar, with the largest portion of the jihadist fighters redeploying to mountainous areas to the east of the city. Importantly, however, numerous members of the group simply reintegrated themselves into civilian life.

Despite initial government rhetoric regarding large-scale development and rebuilding, little was forthcoming following the recapture of the towns and the displacement of AQAP, while promises to Popular Committee fighters regarding financial support and incorporation into the army were overwhelmingly unmet, even as their leadership continued to be the target of extremist attacks. The subsequent weak security environment allowed AQAP and its allies to maintain their foothold and influence, with anecdotal evidence suggesting that various Popular Committee fighters began to “freelance” for AQAP in order to secure an income.[23]

The Houthi and allied forces’ 2015 advance south from Sana’a into Abyan, and subsequent attack on Aden city, significantly altered local dynamics. President Hadi called upon the Popular Committees to defend the city, which exacerbated the security vacuum around much of the rest of the governorate as these fighters left their posts for Aden. As the city then descended into brutal street combat, the Houthis and allied forces replaced AQAP as the primary threat and immediate adversary in the minds of locals. Indeed, AQAP militants were often fighting alongside pro-Hadi and mainstream anti-Houthi forces, who just as often would turn a blind eye to the jihadists’ participation in the battle.[24]

After the Houthis were dislodged from Aden, Ansar al-Sharia and AQAP were able to retake Zinjibar and Jaar under the guise of liberating the towns from the Houthis; members of the Abyan Popular Committees have alleged that President Hadi and his allies effectively gave up portions of the governorate to AQAP without a fight. The jihadist forces held the towns until May 2016, when mediation through local tribes led to an agreement whereby AQAP withdrew its fighters from Jaar and Zinjibar, though the group has since re-established a discrete but substantial presence in the towns.[25]

As the frontlines have moved farther north out of Abyan and the immediate Houthi threat has diminished, local authorities and notables in the governorate – often with foreign prompting – have begun shifting their attention back to combating AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia. The Emirati government, for instance, has trained numerous security entities and dispatched them across Abyan to combat militant extremists, though AQAP has continued to managed to sustain its presence and launch counter attacks against the Emirati-backed security forces.[26] Simultaneously, the lack of basic government services, such as access to water and electricity, has provoked widespread discontent and anti-government protests in Abyan.


Neighboring Abyan to the west is the Shabwa governorate. Home to the bulk of the Awaliq tribe – one of Yemen’s most powerful – local politics have historically been dominated by tribal dynamics, with tribal loyalties and considerations underlying essentially all social interaction. Central government authorities have typically had minimal purchase in the governorate. The population is mostly dispersed across rural areas and there are few large cities or towns, while the geography is a rugged mix of mountains ranges and deserts.

Upon the establishment of the PDRY in the early 1970s, the Yemen Socialist Party attempted to reduce tribal influence. The tribes resisted, resulting in regular violent clashes that eventually lead to the death or exile of the bulk of Shabwa’s leading tribal figures. The forced nationalisation of business interests across South Yemen also spurred a particularly steep decline in economic activity and living standards in Shabwa. The damage to the historical tribal social order and the concurrent failure of the socialist project eventually helped fracture many Shabwa communities.   

With Yemen’s 1990 unification, swaths the governorate’s exiled tribal elite returned and quickly began to rebuild the old tribal orders, including re-establishing a range of former allegiances, grievances and tribal structures for conflict resolution. The return to the tribal power structure was facilitated through both locals’ continued esteem for these leaders and their traditional ways, as well as the central government’s continued neglect of, and inability to assert control over, most parts of the governorate. It should be noted, however, that similar to what occurred elsewhere in South Yemen, various Shabwa elites who were previously socialist party members were also absorbed into high-ranking positions in Sanaa by the Saleh regime following the 1994 civil war.

The central government’s disregard for many locals was blatantly expressed following the discovery of hydrocarbon reserves in Yemen and the establishment of the Balhaf Liquified Natural Gas terminal along the Shabwa coastline. Despite being one of the largest industrial infrastructure projects ever undertaken in Yemen, the bulk of financial benefits were channeled back to Sana’a, passing over those in Shabwa itself.

This marginalization and disassociation from the central authorities, as well as the governorate’s rugged terrain, made Shabwa an ideal location for Al Qaeda to build clandestine networks and a base of operations. For instance, Yemeni-American extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who hailed from a prominent tribal family native to the governorate, found refuge here, as did Fahd al-Quso, an Al Qaeda operative who played a key role in the USS Cole attacks. Given the Shabwa tribes’ general animosity to outsiders, however, the vast majority of AQAP fighters who have sheltered in Shabwa are themselves from the governorate, a dynamic much more prevalent than other governorates in which AQAP operates. Ever mindful of angering the governorate’s powerful tribes, AQAP also maintained a relatively light footprint despite its significant presence, working to avoid conflict with tribal elders whenever possible; this has lead them to relocate during times of increased US drone strikes in order to avoid civilian casualties and any rise in local resentment towards the organization as a result.[27]

In 2011, Ansar al-Sharia escalated operations in Shabwa and established an Islamic Emirate in the southern district of Azzan, a longstanding area of activity, thus launching its first pilot governance efforts in Yemen. Unlike in Abyan, however, Yemeni government forces and their allies did not undertake any serious military effort to dislodge AQAP from Azzan, but rather the group withdrew voluntarily in 2012 after a negotiated tribal mediation.

Like Abyan, Shabwa was also the scene of a significant Houthi incursions in 2015. Owing to widespread popular anger at the Houthis’ heavy handedness – which included demolishing the homes of prominent tribal leaders opposed to them – Al Qaeda’s presence became a secondary concern for many, with focus instead turning to forcing a Houthi to retreat from Shabwa. Once the Houthis had lost control of the governor’s capital, Ataq, and other key areas of Shabwa, local conflicts between various tribes and AQAP sporadically occurred.

The governorate remains, however, a mosaic of competing armed factions. While fighters and tribes allied to the internationally recognized government control the lion’s share of territory, other tribes allied to either the Houthis or former president Saleh continue to hold ground. AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia also maintain operational space and continue to exploit the lack of government institutions and security forces, building local clout by carrying out effective governance functions themselves and performing conflict mediation between local groups.


Looking ahead

On current trajectories in Yemen – and in the governorates of Al-Bayda, Abyan and Shabwa in particular – AQAP is likely to both deepen its local entrenchment and expand its operational capacity. The increased use of American military force alone will almost certainly fail to defeat AQAP, and will indeed likely be counterproductive to that end. The destruction and civilian casualties heavy-handed military interventions inevitably entail have already, and will continue to, alienate civilians and potential counter-terrorism allies on the ground, increase popular sympathy for AQAP and similar groups, and bolster their recruitment efforts amongst the local population.    

The escalated use of US military force during the eight years of the Obama administration failed to produce more than a short-term disruption to AQAP operations. Today AQAP is arguably more powerful, resource-rich, entrenched, and operating with more institutional flexibility and adaptive capacity than ever before. There is little reason to believe that a further escalation of US military intervention in Yemen will, by itself, succeed in curtailing AQAP’s long-term ascent.  

The marginalized nature of areas where AQAP has found operational space in Yemen is crucial in this dynamic. While the lack of electricity or access to water, for instance, do not inherently convert rural Yemeni civilians into jihadi militants, there is an obvious correlation between an area’s impoverishment and isolation from official institutions and its susceptibility to infiltration by AQAP. The improved delivery of basic services and necessities that often accompanies AQAP’s occupation of an area indicates that the group’s presence is largely a functional result, rather than a cause, of marginalization. This calls attention to the larger issues that have created an environment in which AQAP is able to thrive, and the fact that combating AQAP cannot simply mean killing AQAP fighters: efforts to promote local governance, to improve provision of services and, perhaps most importantly, to establish security forces that locals view as both fair and competent, will ultimately do far more to combat terrorism in Yemen than heavy-handed military policy.

Understanding the historical context and the socio-political, tribal, security and economic dynamics at play in Yemen will be crucial for counterterrorism policy makers to foresee the most likely potential outcomes of their policy choices. It will also be necessary in order to identify, and understand the utility of, potential partners on the ground – American efforts to combat AQAP in Yemen will likely be futile if they do not involve cooperating with regional partners to empower local figures on the ground in Yemen to be able to enforce security in their own areas.

Counterterrorism efforts cannot be viewed in isolation from the wider conflict. As long as the larger war continues, the belligerent parties in Yemen will continue to prioritize the war effort over counterterrorism considerations, and more importantly will leave unattended the tasks of restoring coherent governance and strengthening state institutions. Policymakers are failing to properly assess the reality before them if they view counterterrorism in Yemen and the country’s ongoing civil war as independent policy issues – regardless of American military might, as long as Yemen continues its slide into failed statehood and catastrophic humanitarian crisis, AQAP and similar groups will continue to thrive.


Farea Al-Muslimi is chairman and co-founder of the Sana’a Center, and a non-resident fellow at both the Carnegie Middle East Center and the Middle East Institute.

Adam Baron is co-founder of the Sana’a Center and a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.


Authors’ note: This paper would not have come to reality without the extensive editing and reviews of Spencer Osberg. 


[1] For more on the history of Yemen see Yemen Divided: The Story of A Failed State in South Arabia, by Noel Brehoney, (London: IB Tauris, 2011).

[2] Top al Qaida leader in Yemen, Saeed al Shihri, reportedly dies“, by Adam Baron, McClatchy Newspapers, January 24, 2013.  

[3] Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Stephan Charbonnier was placed on a hit list published by AQAP’s Inspire magazine in March 2013.

[4] Ansar al-Shariah emerged in 2011 as a branch of AQAP more focused on the domestic insurgency in Yemen than international operations. While it is often described as an AQAP-front, the relationship between the two groups is somewhat ambiguous; Al Qaeda itself has a stated a policy that one can declare baya’a (allegiance) to Ansar al-Sharia without declaring baya’a to Al Qaeda.  

[5] Drone Wars Yemen: Analysis: US Air and Drone Strikes in Yemen“, International Security Program, n.d.

[6] The first drone strikes of the Trump administration happened over the weekend”, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Washington Post, January 23, 2017.  

[7] Trump Administration Is Said to Be Working to Loosen Counterterrorism Rules“, By Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt, New York Times, March 12, 2017.

[8] Nine young children killed: The full details of botched US raid in Yemen”, By Namir Shabibi and Nasser al Sane, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, February 9, 2017, and “President’s first Navy Seal raid was doomed from the start“, by Michael Evans and Richard Spencer, The Times, February 3, 2017.

[9] U.S. Air Campaign in Yemen Killed Guantánamo Ex-Prisoner“, By Eric Schmitt, New York Times, March 6, 2017.

[10] See “White House Seeks to Cut Billions in Funding for United Nations“, by Colum Lynch, Foreign Policy, March 13, 2017.

[11] See “Yemen’s suffering is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis today“, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, February 15, 2017.

[12] From author interviews conducted with local tribal elites in Al-Bayda in the autumn of 2012.

[13] Al-Qaeda militants tighten grip on Yemeni town southwest of Sana’a“, Al Arabiya News, January 16, 2012.

[14] Despite media assertions otherwise, author interviews with locals indicate that AQAP fighters largely redeployed to rural areas surrounding Rada’ and within a year were able to move with relative impunity in the city again.

[15] From author interviews with residents in various areas of Al-Bayda governorate. For contemporary on the January 2013 Al-Bayda offensive, see “Yemen moves against al Qaida-linked fighters after hostage talks falter“, by Adam Baron, McClatchy Newspapers, January 28.

[16] While the sectarian dynamic of the conflict gained vehemence following the Houthi conquest of Sana’a, AQAP had employed sectarian tropes well before September 21, 2014 – ones which would later be mainstreamed as the conflict intensified. As early as January 2012, when Tareq al-Thahab lead the takeover of the town of Rada, media reports noted the potential for sectarian fallout between the hardline Sunni militants and Rada’s historical Zaidi Shia presence. Also see ““Al-Qaeda” Takeover of Radaa: Saleh’s Latest Ploy?“, by Jamal Jubran, Al-Akhbar English, February 12, 2012.  

[17] Trump risks deeper entanglement in Yemen’s murky war“, By Noah Browning, Reuters, February 7, 2017.

[18] Treasury Designates Al-Qaida, Al-Nusrah Front, AQAP, And Isil Fundraisers And Facilitators“, The US Department of the Treasury, May 19, 2016.

[19] Hadi would, following the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, eventually replace Saleh as president.

[20] Among the most fervent proponents of this strategy within the Saleh regime was his right-hand man at the time, Brigadier general Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who would, decades later following the 2011 uprising in Yemen, break from Saleh and become his adversary.

[21] From multiple author interviews conducted with Sheikh Tareq al-Fadhli over several years.

[22] From author interviews with locals in Aden in the spring of 2013.

[23] From author interviews with locals in Aden in the spring of 2013.

[24] From author interviews with Southern Resistance leaders in spring 2016.

[25] Al Qaeda militants begin to leave two Yemeni towns: residents“, Reuters, May 5, 2016.

[26] UAE-trained Yemenis recapture city from Al Qaida“, Gulf News, April 15, 2016.

[27] From author interviews conducted with Shabwa tribal elites in the spring of 2013.



Professors, Students, Advocates from the United States and Yemen Warn of Disastrous Consequences to Trump’s Unprecedented Travel Ban

NEW YORK & SANA’A, January 29, 2017—President Donald Trump’s Executive Order banning entry into the United States for people from seven Muslim-majority countries is discriminatory, and will force families apart, deny refuge to persons escaping war and persecution, end education opportunities for students, and damage critical international research, say advocates at the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, a leading Yemeni think tank.

“This unprecedented move is retraumatizing the most vulnerable people in these societies, people who were looking to America as their refuge from harm,” said Waleed Alhariri, who heads the Sana’a Center’s New York office, and is a Fellow-In-Residence at the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute. “It has also created panic amongst those who fear they will now be indefinitely separated from their family members.”

The Trump Administration claims that the ban is intended to prevent terrorists from entering the United States. But in reality, the ban harms many thousands of innocent people in the United States and abroad. Among the many harmful consequences, the ban will prevent students, researchers, and academics from the banned Muslim-majority countries – Yemen, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and Libya – from coming to the United States in pursuit of the educational opportunities the United States offers, and will make it much harder for American students and academics to learn from their colleagues abroad, and to pursue joint learning and research projects.

“The Sana’a Center has joint projects with American research and academic institutions, yet because of the ban, colleagues from Yemen will not be able to join conferences or speak at seminars and policy forums in the United States,” explained Mr. Alhariri. “And, since conflict zones like Yemen are difficult for Americans to access, the primary source of quality information about Yemen has come from local civil society actors, who have often risked their lives to come to America and explain to U.S. policymakers critical developments. They are now barred from doing so.”

Educational exchange and collaboration are significantly threatened by Trump’s ban. Many research institutes and organizations in the United States have long-standing relationships with people and organizations based in those countries the President has now banned.

“President Trump’s de facto wall between students and researchers working in the United States and from these countries impedes the development of our learning and collaborative research,” said Ria Singh Sawhney, a student in the Columbia Human Rights Clinic.

Sawhney explained that her team has been working with the Sana’a Center to research the mental health effects associated with the violent conflict in Yemen. The groups had been organizing an interdisciplinary workshop to be held at Columbia Law School, which would have brought together leading researchers from Yemen, the United States, and other countries to design a new study to investigate and improve mental health in Yemen. Researchers from the Sana’a Center have given lectures to students at Columbia Law School on numerous occasions.

“The ban is dangerous and counterproductive,” said Professor Sarah Knuckey, Director of the Human Rights Clinic. “By cutting us off from our colleagues living and working abroad, the ban significantly undermines the kinds of international research collaborations that are vital to addressing global policy challenges.”

* * *

Media contacts:

The Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic works with civil society around the world to advance respect for international human rights on a range of marginalized, urgent, and complex issues. The Human Rights Clinic is an intensive year long course directed by Sarah Knuckey, the Lieff Cabraser Heimann and Bernstein Clinical Associate Professor of Human Rights and the faculty co-director of the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School, as well as by Senior Clinical Teaching Fellow Benjamin Hoffman. The Clinic brings together human rights work, student education, critical reflection, and scholarly research. Students are trained to be strategic human rights advocates, while pursuing social justice in partnership with civil society and communities, and advancing human rights methodologies and scholarship.

The Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies is an independent policy and research center that advances innovative, balanced, and well-informed approaches to understanding Yemen and the surrounding region. Founded in 2014, the Sana’a Center conducts research and consultations in the fields of political, economic, civil and social development, in addition to providing technical and analytical advice regarding key issues of local, regional, and international concern.



Trump and the Yemen war

Trump and the Yemen war

With America deeply enmeshed in Yemen’s multifaceted civil war, the policy choices of US President-elect Donald J. Trump will have major repercussions for Yemen and the wider Middle East. The question remains: what will Trump’s policies be?

by Adam Baron and Peter Salisbury


Obama’s record

Under the Obama administration, United States policy toward Yemen was largely driven by regional concerns and counter-terrorism initiatives, with the drone campaign targeting Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen today remaining among America’s most intense.

The Arab Spring uprisings, which reached Yemen in early 2011, complicated America’s regional relationships and seemed to sour Obama’s appetite for democratization. This became apparent in Yemen when the White House helped install a US-friendly administration in Sana’a after long-time ally President Ali Abdullah Saleh was ousted. Saleh was replaced with his own vice president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who promptly announced plans to rout Al Qaeda’s Yemen franchise.

In 2015, Hadi himself was forced from power by the Houthi Movement, a Zaydi Shia militia allied with Saleh. The Obama administration’s support for the subsequent Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen was largely driven by a perceived need to placate Riyadh following the Iran nuclear deal. This, despite many in Washington regarding the war as ill-conceived and expressing skepticism over the depth of Iranian support for the Houthis, which was the prime Saudi motivation for launching their military campaign in March 2015.


The unknowable Trump

US President-elect Donald J. Trump’s often contradictory and off-the-cuff pronouncements on foreign policy issues have led to bewildered speculation throughout the international community, with his potential Yemen policy amongst the fodder for confusion.

Yemen rarely factored into Trump’s comments on the presidential campaign trail. His most lengthy statement on Yemen was made at a rally at Iowa State University on January 19, 2016. His comments were, to put it charitably, somewhat enigmatic, signaling concern over Iran’s perceived influence in the country and the potential threat Yemeni instability posed along the Saudi border.i In an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly on January 4, 2016, Trump came out against direct US intervention in the Yemen war – which he cast as an Iranian-backed threat against Saudi Arabia – unless the US stood to benefit financially from its support.ii

During the campaign Trump specifically referenced a September 2014 case where a Yemeni-American immigrant allegedly tried to join the Islamic State with the aim of launching an attack against US military personnel.iii From these and other comments, it would appear that Trump lumps Yemen into what he has referred to as “terrorist nations.” Trump’s campaign statements on blocking either all foreign Muslims, or residents of countries with a history of terrorism, from entering or immigrating to the United States – reiterated since his election win – have thus caused anger in Yemen, which is likely to be on the list of banned countries.iv

Beyond this, however, the president-elect has offered few clear indications as to what his policies might be regarding Yemen – a reticence he shared with his presidential challenger and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who similarly completed the entire campaign cycle without discussing a Yemen policy.v


Reaction in Yemen

Before the US presidential election, condemnation of Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric was rife amongst the politics-obsessed Yemeni elite who, similar to many Americans and observers around the world, viewed a Clinton presidency as a In the wake of Trump’s victory, the most prominent reaction has been confusion. Yemeni politicians and media talk, without any real specificity, about the “earthquake” unleashed by the US election results.vii

Perhaps mindful of the extent to which his position is dependent on international support, President Hadi quickly offered his congratulations to Trump, announcing that he looked forward to cooperating with him — in effect clipping the wings of what his conservative Islamist allies might say.

Former President Saleh also offered his congratulations to Trump, and many of Saleh’s backers have openly celebrated Trump’s victory. This is at least in part due to their distaste for Secretary Clinton, who they criticize for her time as Secretary of State during the Arab spring. But it also reflects an optimism that a Trump administration will shift away from the Obama policy of backing the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, an idea rooted in Trump’s perceived ties to Russia, his frequent advocacy of a comparatively isolationist foreign policy, and his scuffles with numerous prominent Gulf figures, most notably Saudi billionaire al-Waleed bin Talal.viii

Saleh, no stranger to the use of populist rhetoric to achieve his political aims, may also see Trump as someone he can do business with, while many Yemeni elites seem to believe that Trump’s history of investments in Gulf Arab countries may translate into a more nuanced approach to the region than hitherto seen on the campaign trail. This optimism is, however, likely misplaced.


Hawks and hardliners

Trump is apparently considering candidates from across the ideological spectrum for posts in his cabinet, with the most important, from a Yemeni point of view, being the secretaries of Defense and State.

In the case of State, potential nominees that have been discussed ranged from the firebrand John Bolton, former US Ambassador to the UN and an intellectual leader of the neoconservatives of George W. Bush administration, to Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), a noted military hawk and current chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, to the relative pragmatist and former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney – until recently a prominent Trump critic.

In regards to Ambassador Bolton, he has advocated a more robust, direct American intervention in Yemen from his post at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, casting – in rather simplistic terms – the Houthis as dangerous Iranian proxies.ix Similarly, Senator Corker has openly opposed moves in the senate to restrict arms sales to the the Saudi-led coalition, framing the military intervention in Yemen as necessary to prevent the spread of Iranian power; Senator Corker has demonstrated a tenuous grip on regional realities though, at one point claiming the Houthis had access to the Strait of Hormuz, which is nearly 1,000 miles from the Yemeni border.x Meanwhile, Trumps’ consideration of Romney for Secretary of State appears to be partly based on the latter’s appearance, according to officials in the presidential transition team, who’ve said that the president elect thinks Romney “looks the part of a top diplomat right out of ‘central casting’.”xi

It is possible that the general tenor the Trump cabinet and his administration’s foreign policy leanings have already been laid in the cabinet selections announced to date. Among them is Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, a retired three-star general who Trump has tapped to be his national security adviser; Flynn has advanced the world view that the US is currently losing a “world war” against radical Muslims and is supportive of a violent reformation of Islam.xii

Trump himself, however, has frequently expressed avowedly anti-interventionist and isolationist sentiments, and thus his deliberations have left analysts and government officials in the US and around the world with few clues as to what his administration’s foreign policy would look like, let alone what policies he is likely to enact regarding Yemen.xiii

Limited humanitarian concern

For Yemenis concerned about human rights issues, including the civilian cost of the Saudi aerial war, US drone strikes, and pre-war allegations of illegal detention of terrorism suspects, Trump offers little hope. As a candidate, he said he would “bomb the hell” out of ISIS-held territory (he stopped short, however, of saying he would “carpet bomb” ISIS, as his rival for the Republican nomination Ted Cruz did), and that he would approve waterboarding and “tougher” interrogation methods.xiv The US, Trump has said, should “take out” the families of terrorists – to the consternation of human rights groups like Human Rights Watch.xv

There is also mounting concern among humanitarians over what a Trump administration might mean for US aid to Yemen.xvi Washington is currently the second biggest donor to Yemen, which the UN says is suffering one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. The US has given $267 million in 2016 to date, just $30 million less than the biggest donor, the United Arab Emirates, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA). The US has historically been Yemen’s largest source of formal foreign assistance, along with Saudi Arabia, but Trump, citing US aid efforts in Iraq, has cautioned against using US taxpayer dollars to fund projects abroad in “countries that hate us,” while US infrastructure and social programs “crumble.”

“I watched as we built schools in Iraq and they’d be blown up… And we would rebuild it three times. And yet we can’t build a school in Brooklyn,” he said in an interview with the Washington Post in March 2016.xvii

Fading peace prospects

In the immediate term, the most likely consequence of Trump’s victory is a sharp decrease in the US role in diplomatic efforts in Yemen and, potentially, an intensification of the conflict on the ground.xviii

Since early 2016, US Secretary of State John Kerry has played an increasingly central role in coordinating international diplomacy on Yemen, most notably through the so-called “Quad,” comprised of the governments of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the US, and the United Kingdom. The current peace plan for Yemen being negotiated by UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed is largely based on an initiative put forward by Kerry after extensive consultation with Riyadh. Yet Kerry’s failure to make two announced ceasefires hold in November 2016, and the increasingly dismissive tone of the Hadi government towards the US’ top diplomat, suggest that they and perhaps the Saudis believe if they hold out they will get a better deal with his successor.

Trump’s incoming Secretary of State, who will face a steep learning curve — heightened by likely turnover among senior officials — is likely to be more focused, at least initially, on reassuring foreign allies wary of a Trump presidency than ending wars in the Middle East. A mooted rapprochement with Russia may unlock peace processes in the region, or see the US move closer to the Russian position in places like Syria, with a domino effect on other regional conflicts.

At the time of this writing, Trump’s Yemen policy and wider regional approach is effectively unknowable. Yemenis — similar to people across the region, and indeed, around the world — will have to wait and see how the fallout from the American election will land on their shores.



i – While criticizing the Obama administration as being unable to confront Iran’s rising influence in the Middle East, Trump commented that “Now they’re going into Yemen, and if you look at Yemen, take a look… they’re going to get Syria, they’re going to get Yemen, unless… trust me, a lot of good things are going to happen if I get in, but let’s just sort of leave it the way it is. They get Syria, they get Yemen. Now they didn’t want Yemen, but you ever see the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia? They want Saudi Arabia. So what are they going to have? They’re gonna have Iraq, they’re gonna have Iran, they’re gonna have Iraq, they’re gonna have Yemen, they’re gonna have Syria, they’re gonna have everything!” For full transcription, please see “Campaign Rally with Donald Trump and Sarah Palin”, C-SPAN, January 19, 2016.

ii – For a transcription of this interview, please see “Trump: ‘I’m Not Going To Tell’ What I’d Do With ‘Disaster’ Iran Deal, People Don’t Have Right To Know How Far I’d Go”, Breitbart, January 4, 2016.

iii – Jenna Johnsen, “Trump now says even legal immigrants are a security threat,The Washington Post, August 5th, 2016.

iv – Trip Gabriel, “Trump says he’d absolutely require Muslims to register”, The New York Times, November 20, 2015.

v – Jessica Schulbert, “The US is part of a war in Yemen and neither Clinton nor Trump will talk about it”, The Huffington Post, October 11, 2016.

vi – In an election day tweet that expressed a widespread sentiment on Yemeni social media, Southern Movement figure and Secretary General of the South Arabian League party Mohsen bin Farid referenced his US education in the states to state that Trump does not represent “the America I know”.

vii – For a representative article on the elections, see “The Victory of Trump: a surprise earthquake”, al-Shaab News, November 9th 2016,.

viii – Ed Mazza, “Billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Trolls Trump: ‘I Bailed You Out Twice’”, Huffington Post, January 29th, 2016.

ix – For more on Bolton’s views, please see “The Fall of Yemen”, John Bolton PAC, January 22, 2015.

x – Steve Nelson, “Senators Struggle with Geography in Yemen Intervention,” US News and World Report, September 21, 2016. For an extensive take on the Senate Foreign relations committee’s discussion on Yemen — and Senator Corker’s role in them — see Coum Lynch, “US Support for Saudi Strikes in Yemen Raises War Crimes Concerns,” Foreign Policy, October 15, 2015.

xi – Ashley Parker and Maggie Haberman, “High in Tower, Trump Reads, Tweets and Plans,New York Times, November 19, 2016.

xii – Carlos Lozada, “Trump’s national security adviser says he’s ready to fight another world war”, Washington Post, November 22, 2016.

xiii – The authors have spoken to a number of US and foreign diplomatic officials since Trump’s shock win and have consistently been told that, given the contradictory nature of many of his comments on likely policy overseas, it is too soon to speak to his likely actions with any confidence.

xiv – Ben Jacobs, “Donald Trump on waterboarding: ‘Even if it doesn’t work they deserve it’”, The Guardian, November 24, 2015.

xv – Tom LoBianco, “Donald Trump on terrorists: ‘Take out their families’”, CNN, December 3, 2015.

xvi – Personal Interview, DC-based development consultant, November 2016; “Who’s afraid of Mr Trump?”, IRIN News, 14 November 2016

xvii – A transcript of Donald Trump’s meeting with The Washington Post editorial board, Washington Post, March 21, 2016.

xviii – While the Kingdom’s public stance has been somewhat conciliatory, in private conversation people involved in the Riyadh-backed war effort suggest that plans are in place for a major new assault aimed at pushing the Saleh-Houthi alliance into a peace deal on terms that reflect well on Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia and the principal architect of the war.

Beware of the failure of Yemen’s central bank

Beware of the failure of Yemen’s central bank

By: Amal Nasser

For the past 18 months, Yemen has been going through one of the most chaotic times of its modern history. Since the Houthi takeover of the capital, Sanaa, on Sept. 21, 2014, the country has been witnessing a gradual collapse of the state, which was accelerated when President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi left Sanaa for Aden and then for Riyadh. By March 2015, the Houthi rebel group was the de facto power running the country.

As the war continues, most of the country’s public institutions are barely functioning. The health sector cannot provide for the wounded and the sick with three doctors per 10,000 people, while 14 million people need help accessing health care. Education in schools and universities has been interrupted by the many rounds of fighting, and around 1.8 million Yemeni children are out of school because of the ongoing war.

One of the last standing public institutions in Yemen is its central bank. The Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) has been playing a major role in stabilizing the very fragile economic situation in Yemen since the outbreak of the uprising in 2011. It has maintained a very careful monetary policy in order to preserve the value of the Yemeni rial to spare the people of Yemen the agony of hyperinflation and devaluation during politically volatile times.

Since the Yemeni economy is a small economy, it took only a $1 billion deposit from Saudi Arabia in the CBY back in 2012 to provide some stability to the Yemeni financial system and enhance the trust in the CBY. In addition to that, Riyadh has been providing aid in the form of fuel and oil to the country since 2011 in a manifestation of its role in sponsoring the talks that led to the signing of the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative and its support for the transitional government led by Hadi.

The trust in the CBY took a blow in March 2015 when the government along with the president had to flee the country, leaving financial matters to be run by the governor of the CBY.

The technocratic and bipartisan leadership governing the CBY is what enabled its survival. The CBY governor, Mohammed Awad Bin Hammam, is a widely respected official in a country where bipartisanship seems almost impossible. His administration banned cashing foreign transfers in their original currency for a few months in 2015 to stop the dollar drain after trade significantly slowed down when the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes started.

This was a mechanism to curb devaluation of the Yemeni rial and substitute the inflow of foreign currency the country was supposed to earn from its oil exports, which were halted in March 2015. The CBY only lowered the value of the rial against the US dollar earlier this year by 17% — from 214 to 250 Yemeni rials to the dollar — to mitigate a bigger devaluation of the currency in the black market that was exchanging the dollar for 279 rials, 11.6% lower than the official exchange rate of 250. This is a signal by the CBY for the market to show it is recognizing the problem of the scarcity of hard currencies and is willing to adapt in order to regain the trust of the market.

While the foreign reserves of the CBY went down from $5.35 billion in 2013 to $4.6 billion in November 2014, the war and the cutting of sources of foreign currency — except for the remittances from Yemenis abroad — contributed in lowering the foreign reserves to $2.1 billion by the end of 2015, according to a report by Yemen’s Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation.

According to newly appointed Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr, the CBY’s foreign reserves reached an all-time low last month of $1.3 billion, which is 28% of the prewar level of reserves of $4.6 billion.

Although some might want to blame the depletion of foreign reserves entirely on the Houthi rebel group, which is in fact withdrawing substantial amounts of money from the CBY to finance its war efforts, the reason behind the dwindling foreign reserves is primarily the ever-rising demand for foreign currency in the country.

The depletion of the CBY foreign reserves limits the range of anti-inflationary monetary policies the CBY can implement to stop a free fall of the value of the Yemeni rial. This limitation led the Houthis to arrest many owners of currency exchange shops who did not abide by the CBY’s official exchange rate. If the CBY cannot stabilize the value of the Yemeni rial, more capital will leave the country for more stable economies, prices of basic commodities will go up beyond the 30% inflation rate the country witnessed in 2015, real wages and purchasing power will decline even if nominal wages were raised and the gap between the poor and rich, who own assets in foreign currencies, will drastically widen.

An April report on the country’s economic issues from Yemen’s Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation urges an immediate and sustainable political solution for the crisis and advocates for a $5 billion deposit in the CBY to save the Yemeni financial system from imminent collapse.

Even if the CBY continues to set new policies to tackle rising inflation and the devaluation of the Yemeni rial, its policies will not be effective as long as there is no political will to stabilize the situation. This puts a huge responsibility on the conflicting parties to come up with a sustainable political solution to spare the Yemeni people further misery and deterioration in the standard of living. The economists of the CBY are doing their best to save Yemen from a financial collapse and now it’s time for politicians to do the same.



Amal Nasser is a Non-Resident Fellow at Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies.

This Article was first published in Al-Monitor

How US counterterror strategy has crashed and burned in Yemen – and what to try instead

How US counterterror strategy has crashed and burned in Yemen – and what to try instead

Photo: Yemen Fox

By: Larry Attree & Farea al Muslimi

After 15 years of US efforts to combat terror and achieve stability in Yemen, a new study by Saferworld concludes that these efforts—as in the cases of Afghanistan andSomalia—have badly backfired. Today, Yemen requires not more military intervention, but strategies to counter corrupt and abusive government and to show its people that their security and rights matter.

Feeding off deep public resentment of an abusive and corrupt state, Houthi rebels and other militants have taken charge of large swathes of Yemen. With the country locked in a brutal civil war that has drawn in regional powers, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains strong and the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) launched several bloody attacks in Yemen last year.

As they faced off with al-Qaeda in Yemen, US Presidents George W. Bush andBarack Obama publicly praised the commitment of their counterparts, Yemeni Presidents Ali Abdullah Saleh and Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, to combat terrorism. But in reality Yemen’s government appears to have privately colluded with Islamist militants, allowing major prison breaks of al-Qaeda operatives in both 2006 and 2014. In some cases public committees on the government payroll (for example in Abyan governorate) include individuals who have fought for al-Qaeda.

In 2006, al-Qaeda began regaining momentum in Yemen, a development that proved lucrative for the country’s government. After the 2009 “Christmas Day” bombing, the Friends of Yemen (a group of governments convened to support stability in Yemen) was shaken enough to pledge $8 billion to the regime in subsequent years. The US alone provided more than $600 million in counter-terrorism and security assistance.

Yemen’s government, however, often used Western counterterrorism support to crush dissent and duck pressure to reform. President Saleh’s family controlled the elite counter-terror forces, trained with US support, and primarily used them to protect the capital and the presidential palace rather than pursue terrorists. More recently, US-supplied military equipment worth millions of dollars has ended up in the hands of Houthi rebels (whom the US is backing regional allies to fight).

In 2011, when popular discontent exploded into mass civil unrest, the US helped broker deals to get rid of President Saleh. But these transition deals left Yemen’s key elites and main political parties in charge, and failed to satisfy the Houthis, Southern rebels, and other groups. Although President Hadi’s administration talked tough on counterterrorism, it failed to address popular grievances, including food insecurity, water scarcity, commodity price hikes, and lack of services.

In fact, Yemen’s instability is driven more by abusive, corrupt governance than by terrorism. The Hadi administration is not only soft on terror groups, but also deeply corrupt. Thanks to foreign aid, the government’s 2014 budget of $14 billion was triple that of 2004. But this money apparently disappeared into a “black hole,” with practically nothing spent on investment and infrastructure.


Violence Begets Violence

Another strand of US counter-terror strategy in Yemen was its program of “targeted killings.” The US used airstrikes to attack al-Qaeda in Yemen without deploying significant ground forces. Some al-Qaeda operatives have been killed under the program, but targeted killings ultimately generated huge resentment and fed support for anti-Western militants. Local media have described drone attacks as massacres, and jihadi online fora have been filled with pictures of victims’ bodies. Al-Qaeda leaders have grieved with victims’ families and accused the US of waging war against all Muslims.

The US is now backing a Saudi-led regional military coalition against Houthi rebels, who the Saudis view as Iranian proxies. The bombing, blockade, and ground operations have devastated an already destitute population, with daily reports of deadly attacks on civilians, hospitals, schools, markets, or ambulances by all sides. At least 5,700 people have died in the hostilities since March 2015, with 2.3 million people displaced and 21.2 million people requiring aid.

Now, as violence becomes all too normal, al-Qaeda and IS seem poised to take advantage of the chaos. The strategy to counter terrorism and achieve stability in Yemen has failed. Worse still, the many Yemenis victimized in the process may well blame their suffering on the self-seeking security policies of foreign governments.

When counter-terror efforts in Yemen are compared to those in other contexts, it is both striking and depressing to note the parallels. Parallel studies in Afghanistan andSomalia document how counter-terror objectives and military approaches crowded out a focus on effective conflict management and peacebuilding. In both these contexts, violence, abuse, and corruption fed into grievances and militancy, while efforts to work with society to achieve reconciliation and shape better governing institutions have been neglected.

In Somalia, the US-backed invasion of 2006 was meant to prevent the country becoming a safe haven for terrorists, but it largely brought about the rise of al-Shabaab. Today, Kenyan forces, which the US is backing to stabilize Somalia, have been accused of intentionally attacking crowds of Somali civilians and sharing profits from illicit charcoal and sugar trade with al-Shabaab.

In Afghanistan, the ministries of interior, defense and foreign affairs and the national directorate of security were all given to known warlords in the first two post-Taliban administrations. The culture of predation became so profound that many communities came to see the Taliban as a more accountable alternative. Such examples illustrate how significant conflict drivers have been neglected, and explain why groups like al-Shabaab and the Taliban remain strong and active despite massive investments in forceful attempts to suppress them.


Taking a Different Approach

To move forward in Yemen—and in Afghanistan and Somalia—there needs to be a step-by-step process to achieve peace. This means finding alternatives to using force wherever possible, and showing Yemen’s people that their security and rights matter.

It also means rethinking security assistance to corrupt, abusive governments. Corruption and abuse have left the public destitute and, in some cases, ready to back armed rebellions. Going forward, the US must use all the sanctions and incentives available to press for actors in Yemen to abandon violence and start to work in the public interest.

In Yemen and the wider region, short-term energy, security, and economic interests have locked the West into support for Saudi Arabia. However, backing the Kingdom to play out its rivalry with Iran in Yemen has been an unmitigated disaster. It has failed militarily while causing tremendous human suffering and escalating the conflict for the long term. The West needs to find effective ways of challenging damaging behavior and encouraging constructive contributions. As part of this, the US, France, and UKneed to stop permitting billions of dollars in bomb sales for use in Yemen.

What is needed in Yemen is not more military intervention, but rather a strategy to bring all parties back to the negotiating table. And when they get there, the US needs to help amplify the voices of Yemeni society. Countries like Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen need, but seldom get, Western support for human rights defenders, civil society groups, community voices, local development initiatives, and moderate political, religious and tribal actors. If militants and corrupt elites are forced to listen to voices that oppose violence, the future could look much better for countries like Yemen.

 Larry Attree is Head of Policy at Saferworld and author of Blown Back, a new report on Western counter terror efforts in Yemen (Twitter: @LarryAttree).

Geography of War and Agriculture in Yemen

Geography of War and Agriculture in Yemen

Why is war a more common occurrence in some parts of Yemen than in others? Why do cities like Aden recover quickly from wars? And why do their youth rush to clean up streets and restore normalcy? Why do wars quickly cease in cities like Taiz and Ibb, but are quick to flare up over and over around Sanaa? It is basically a matter of the economy.

In the tribal North, where a war economy prevails, tribes thrive on conflicts. This contrasts sharply with the peasant tribes of central and southern Yemen that rely on an agriculture-based economy. In other words, war in Taiz hampers the agricultural economy and brings the lives of farmers to a grinding halt, while the war’s end in Amran results in unemployment and the demise of what has come to embody ‘normalcy.’

It is too simplistic to explain the existing disparity by comparing higher education levels in southern and central Yemen, with the rising illiteracy in North Yemen, or to argue that the long communist rule represented a boon to South Yemen. Indeed, the wings of that regime also fought horrible bloody wars along tribal and regional lines in January 1986. Notwithstanding, the southern Yafai tribes, whose way of life was similar to that of northern tribes and who had fought wars as far as Hadramawt in the East, clearly re-oriented themselves towards agriculture and industry.


Queen Arwa


During the Median Epoch (5th century AH), queen Arwa, daughter of Ahmad al-Sulayhi, ruled Yemen for five decades. Coming from the religious Ismaili minority, she was known for her mastery of religious jurisprudence (her fatwas were grounded in four different schools) and political skills. She famously persuaded her husband to move the capital from Sanaa to Jibla (in the Ibb governorate and one of Yemen’s most fertile regions), by telling him: “Here, Jibla the bread, and there, Sanaa the army.” Queen Arwa was conscious of her people’s diversity and plurality, and also of their geography and economy. She noticed that the people of Sanaa, who came to meet her, brought their swords, daggers, and other weapons, whereas the people of Jibla either carried their sickles, or brought their sheep and bowls of butter.

Thus, the North’s propensity for war can be traced back to queen Arwa days, and lived on as the legacy of the successive Zaydi states. It all started with Imam Yahya bin al-Husayn al-Rassi, who came from Hejaz (in 282 AH) and lured the people of Saada into religiously motivated fights against their neighbours, as a prelude to establishing his own state. He had expansionist intensions, and wanted to impose his personal interpretation of Zaydism. Conflict in Yemen is thus a culture that is not moulded by present circumstances, but by a long-standing history of war economy, which was cemented by successive regimes.


The Culture of Fighters


Yemen’s tribal North stretches from Dhamar, south of Sanaa, to Saada, close to the northern border with Saudi Arabia, is characterized by scarce rainfall. Its people are known to be belligerent, and often exact rampant acts of revenge. As a result of the Zaydi state, that extended, albeit intermittently, from the 9th century AC to the mid-20th century, fighting became the only means to make money. Northern tribes were used as reservoirs of fighters, since there was no regular army large enough to meet the Zaydi state’s expansionist drives and continuous wars–whether against enemies or among its leaders who were vying for power. But the situation changed in September 1962, when the revolution led by republican Abdullah as-Sallal overthrew the last Imamate ruler, the newly crowned Imam Muhammad al-Badr.

When the 1962 revolution broke out, throngs of tribesmen from the North joined the fight, some in support, and others against it. They fought, not as volunteers, but as groups following their tribal sheikhs. A tribal army (militia) was formed to fight alongside the Republic, with a make-up similar to that of the “Barani Army” that the Imam employed to discipline rebellious tribes. The fighters did not follow the orders of professional military commanders, but of tribal sheikhs, who were contracted out to wage wars and liberate specific areas. In return, they received arms and funding from the state and were earmarked a budget of their own.

As a result, the people’s allegiance to tribal sheikhs continued to take precedence, linked as it was to the wheels of the “economy.” The state cemented this practice, which remained unchanged after the revolution, by mobilizing tribesmen in its multiple internal wars, starting with the war between North and South Yemen (1972), the Central Region War (the Front) in the late 70s and early 80s, the 1994 summer war, the six Saada wars against the Houthis (2004-2009), and finally the current war raging in Yemen. Most of today’s Houthi gunmen have imbibed this tribal environment.

A 2007 World Bank reports that headcount poverty in Amran (which was the scene of successive wars) was higher than in the initially non-tribal governorate of al-Hudaydah. The deliberate policy of impoverishing the people, without offering them any prospects for education or decent life, enabled the ruling authority and tribal sheikhs to control the people’s fate, thus continuing to use them to fuel their wars.

Tribes in governorates like al-Bayda and the northern Amran have similar customs and composition. But unlike the North Yemen tribes, the tribes of al-Bayda were not embroiled in fights outside their regions, because al-Bayda was a governorate that received significant numbers of external money transfers. As a result, its economy relied mainly on remittances, not on wars, as was the case in the past.

The institutionalization (and glorification) of war and violence by the ruling authority and local leaders has stigmatised the practice of all trades. It was compounded by the fact that robbery and banditry were not generally frowned upon. This may explain why Jewish minorities a lot of whom migrated to Israel during the famous Operation Magic Carpet of 1948–were concentrated in the main villages of the North. There, they were known for their handcraftsmanship, which the tribesmen failed to master, and even shied away from as a social disgrace.

Many tribesmen from the North migrated to central Yemen across centuries, due to these harsh conditions. (To this day, families from Bakil and Hashid, the North’s largest tribes, remain concentrated to date in the central governorate of Ibb.) This migration was never counterbalanced by a reverse exodus from the central parts of the country to North Yemen. But after 1962, a number of teachers started coming from the densely populated areas of central Yemen.

Being a tribesman from the North entailed compliance with another set of conditions, including tribal solidarity (in good and bad times) as well as weapon-buying sprees. Needless to say, these conditions didn’t rely on public employment to be met. For this reason, many tribesmen shied away from education whose only outcome was perceived to be public employment.

During the late 1990s and at the start of the millennium, stability prevailed in Yemen. Some desert tribes, such as Marib tribes, began dealing with a new weapons-free economy. Young men enrolled in universities, many opting for archaeological studies in the hope that it would land them jobs as tourist guides. But wars had left Yemen devoid of archaeological
sites and tourists. Unable to find jobs, tribesmen thus returned to arms.


The Culture of Farmers


Unlike North Yemen, agriculture is common in central and western Yemen. There is higher level of rainfall, a lower number of disputes, and the number of army recruits there is lower than in other parts of the country.

There, people often resolve their disputes (few to begin with) through litigation, rather than revenge. School enrolment is also higher than in the North. Many migrated in search of job opportunities when agriculture failed to meet the needs of a growing population and the decreasing arable land per capita.

In another significant example, agriculture is sacrosanct for farmers, who only take up arms in winter, if need be. For them, war is a problem and an impediment, as their economy is grounded in stability and peace.

In the central and western regions of Yemen, many states came into being during the median history of Islam. Some states were renowned for their development projects, such as the Sulayhi state, or for their educational and religious institutions, such as the Rasouli and Tahiri states. They instilled, in times of stability, the culture of employment, education and production, in sharp contrast to the successive Zaydi states, which dominated the North, culminating in the era of Ali Abdullah Saleh that entrenched the culture of war and fighting.

In 1967, when the inhabitants of Tehama from central Yemen flocked to Sanaa to defend the 1962 Revolution that was bogged down by civil wars, they did so in their individual capacities, not as groups under the command of tribal sheikhs.

And when the war was over in 1968, they returned to their regions to conduct agricultural, commercial or other manual activities. Indeed, the leftist and nationalistic expansion there helped break the hegemony of sheikhs, and curtailed the people’s reliance on sheikhs in favour of state apparatuses. This also encouraged greater enrolment in education and promoted the concept of cooperative work as a partner/alternative to regional development.

In central areas (where trade and craftsmanship were valued and arms-bearers were considered troublemakers), those who joined the fight to defend the Revolution soon abandoned their weapons and joined the cycle of life again. Since their hometowns were not hotbeds, they collectively supported the revolution, unlike the tribes of the North and the

East that were torn apart between the two warring parties.



Yemen’s entanglement in successive wars, since the Houthi takeover of Sanaa in September 2014, has exacerbated fighting catastrophically in the central parts of the country–at the expense of other economic activities. What started as a fight of regional roots took an increasingly sectarian turn against the Zaydis.

In spite of this, the fighting did not spill over into agricultural areas and remains concentrated in key cities, like the culturally and ideologically like-minded Aden and Taiz, which are under the Houthis’ control (and that of their gunmen originating predominantly from North Yemen).

Farmers have failed to pass on their culture as well as peaceful and productive way of life to the North for many reasons, including geography and nature, but more importantly, because successive authorities were reluctant to shift their attention away from war. Even in 2007, when Ali Abdullah Saleh wanted to bribe tribes, ahead of his son’s accession to power, he reinstituted compulsory military service, but his decision was never implemented. The successive wars since 2004 have turned Saada, one of Yemen’s most beautiful and fertile northern governorates that is renowned for its pomegranates and grapes, into the capital of cluster bombs. Unfortunately, this region is no longer known for its farmers, but for its arms traffickers in Yemen and the Horn of Africa