In early February, the UN announced that 74 influential Libyan politicians and factional and tribal representatives gathered in Geneva had successfully negotiated the formation of an interim national government, which aims to hold national elections later this year. That fledgling success, coupled with the dire state of the war in Yemen – currently characterized by a Houthi offensive in Marib and a desperate humanitarian situation – may tempt some to believe a similar approach might work in Yemen.
But that would be a mistake. Yemen is not Libya, and what worked in one country will not necessarily work in another.
Divergent Conflict Histories
Save for the war in 2011 that overthrew Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and the civil war that followed, Libya’s modern history has been relatively stable. Yemen, on the other hand, has lurched from one conflict to another. Simultaneous civil wars in the 1960s in both the North and the South, border clashes, and another civil war in Aden in 1986. Unification in 1990 was followed by another civil war four years later. Then, in 2004, the Houthi wars began.
The current conflict in Yemen stems from a number of factors, including past wars, regional and sectarian conflict, three decades of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s corrupt rule, and the failure of the transitional process after 2012. For example, the Houthi wars in Sa‘ada produced a generation of the fighters who now make up the leadership and the core of the Houthi militia. The forces have been fighting almost non-stop for the past 17 years – first against Saleh, then with him, and now on their own. In southern Yemen, the civil war in 1994 sowed the seeds of the current secessionist movement led by the Southern Transitional Council (STC).
Libya does not have a similar record of conflict; under Gadhafi, violence was largely monopolized by the state.
No Economic Incentive for Yemeni Parties to Stop Fighting
In Libya, the warring parties will have a source of wealth when the war stops. In Yemen, the current war economy financially benefits powerful actors on all sides of Yemen’s conflict, making it difficult to incentivize peace.
The 2019 UN Panel of Experts report noted several examples of Yemeni government corruption, particularly focusing on billionaire businessman Ahmad al-Essi’s shady dealings in the oil sector. Al-Essi is close to President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s son Jalal. (See the Sana’a Center’s interview with Al-Essi)
Meanwhile, Houthi authorities illegally collect taxes, bringing in an estimated US$1.8 billion in 2019 while failing to pay civil servant salaries in full or provide basic services for the people living in areas under their control. The Houthis also have routinely looted humanitarian food aid, diverting it to supporters and fighters or selling it for profit.
The war also provides both the Houthi authorities and Hadi’s government with an excuse for poor governance. Yemen’s three wealthiest governorates – Marib, Shabwa and Hadramawt – are also among Yemen’s most stable, and, not surprisingly, these three governorates have developed a significant degree of political autonomy over the past six years.
Nature and Complexity of Divisions Vary
In Libya, fault lines are primarily regional, tribal and ethnic. Yemen suffers divisions that are regional and tribal as well, but also from sectarian tensions. Although tribal and regional divisions might be solved through power-sharing arrangements, sectarian divisions are less easily accommodated.
In Yemen, the Zaidi Shia Houthi movement does not recognize the current constitution and refuses to do more than pay lip service to national elections. For the Houthis, authority is a divine right bestowed upon descendents of the Prophet Mohammed, and no one else.
On the other side of the Yemeni equation is the Islah party, a Sunni group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Islah believes the solution for Yemen is a federal system that would divide the country into six regions, a plan that was roundly rejected by the Houthi movement and southern factions when it was unveiled in 2014. Islah wants elections because it thinks it can win at the ballot box, given its ability to mobilize nationally and the fact it has turned out a large number of voters in past elections.
Meanwhile, many southerners, particularly the STC, envision an independent South Yemen. Other southern factions, such as the Salafist fighters associated with the Giants Brigades, are unwilling to compromise or be part of a state in which a Zaidi Shia group like the Houthis wields significant influence.
How, given these competing agendas and contradictory ideologies, can all of Yemen’s warring parties ever come together to form a functioning and unified government?
Regional Interests and the Luck of Geography
In Libya, foreign powers have intervened due to a number of different motivations, ranging from economic and geo-strategic to regional rivalries and backing preferred proxies. But in Yemen, Saudi Arabia intervened because it believes that Iranian influence in the country is an existential threat. For Iran, backing the Houthi movement is relatively low cost and low risk. With Yemen far enough from Iran’s borders to ensure any fallout from the conflict will be limited, Tehran is under little pressure to compromise.
Libya is blessed by geography in a way that Yemen is not. The former is just across the Mediterranean from Europe; the potential for refugees has made Libyan stability a priority for the international community in a way that Yemen’s is not.
There is no easy or obvious solution to the war in Yemen. Indeed, the UN may need to limit its ambitions. An inclusive, overarching political solution is not a necessary precursor to the cessation of conflict. Instead, a declaration of cease-fire on the current frontlines could swiftly end the fighting, with international monitors deployed to prevent violations.
These peace initiatives could be accompanied by increased international support for local governance and concerted efforts to address urgent problems, such as the potential threat posed by the abandoned FSO Safer oil tanker – which, if it were to rupture, would spark an environmental and humanitarian crisis on Yemen’s western coast.
It is also crucial to decrease the humanitarian suffering in Yemen, by, for starters, permitting the reopening of Sana’a airport and lifting the Houthi blockade of Taiz city. If the war machine could be stopped for a while, only then would space be created to deal with political issues.
This commentary appeared in Houthis at the Gates of Marib – The Yemen Review, January-February 2021
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic and security-related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.