The most appropriate way to chronicle the performance of the internationally recognized Yemeni government since the outbreak of war in the country is by listing its failures. The five years since the Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen on behalf of the government of President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi has seen misstep after misstep. These failings have occurred on multiple fronts – militarily, politically and economically. Owing to these failures, the government – still operating largely in exile in Saudi Arabia – is no closer to returning to power in Sana’a than it was in 2015. Meanwhile, its vital claim of possessing domestic legitimacy is more tenuous than ever as the Houthi movement has entrenched its rule in the north and the government’s ostensible allies challenge its authority in nominally government-held areas.
As a student of Yemeni politics, I am not surprised by this: failure has been a persistent feature of government performance over the past four decades. While this can be partly attributed to institutional weakness, the main cause was the nature of the regime under late former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The ruling elites, composed of Saleh’s inner circle and family, in coalition with other tribal, military and business leaders, often acted outside the law and bypassed government institutions with impunity. The Saleh regime’s informal patronage networks usurped the authority of government institutions and turned institutional oversight into a political instrument used by the ruling elites to enhance their influence and maximize their profits. Lack of accountability paralyzed institutions and instilled a culture of indifference to the extent that major undertakings could not be done without the direct intervention of the president, turning governance into a one-man show. Saleh thrived in that environment and enjoyed micro-managing state affairs where he could pit one elite against another and maintain overall control.
When Hadi assumed the presidency in 2012, his only frame of reference for leadership was Saleh, but the new president lacked his predecessor’s tenacity and skills of political maneuvering. Yet Hadi attempted to copy the centralized one-man rule model, with the result that the key weakness of the Yemeni government, lack of accountability, got even worse. During the transitional period (2012-2014) this state of affairs was further exacerbated by elites affiliated with the Islah party – most notably prominent sheikh and businessman Hameed al-Ahmar – who used the government as an instrument to further their own commercial and political interests.
In the lead up to the Houthi movement’s takeover of Sana’a in 2014, the Yemeni government was paralyzed, and it failed to develop a strategy to deal with the group at a cost acceptable to the nation. The rebel group, after fighting a series of wars in Sa’ada against the central government during the 2000s, began expanding to other governorates during the transitional period. At the same time the Houthis were participants in the country’s National Dialogue Conference before pulling out in rejection of Hadi’s proposed federal division for Yemen, which would have left the Azal region (which included Sa’ada governorate) deprived of natural resources and port access. The Houthis’ capture of Amran in July 2014 left the road to Sana’a undefended, and after the group’s arrival in the capital in September, the government was unable to negotiate a durable political agreement with the Houthis – which at the very least would have required adjustment of the regionalization scheme by expanding the Azal region to include Hajjah and possibly parts of Marib and Al-Jawf. As a result, the relationship remained adversarial and eventually devolved into a conflict that engulfed the country. The failure to come to some form of accommodation led the government to unleash a war that it could not control – particularly through the dubious authorization in 2015 to the Saudi-led coalition to wage a destructive military campaign against the Houthis.
Five years on, the Yemeni government’s weakness vis-à-vis its coalition partners is especially noteworthy. When the coalition began its intervention by conducting a massive air campaign targeting vital infrastructure, hospitals, food processing plants and sites of cultural heritage, the Hadi government said nothing. Indeed, this silence would prove to be an enduring feature the conflict, with the government seemingly content to allow Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two main partners in the coalition, to pursue their own agenda in the country, even if that agenda went against the government’s interests and those of the Yemeni population.
Following the collapse of the Kuwait peace talks in August 2016, Riyadh changed tack and began preventing government forces from advancing, preferring instead to rely on airstrikes and keep the level of fighting at an endurable level. Rather than trying to win the war, Saudi Arabia began using the Yemen conflict to agitate against Iran while waiting for the opportunity to execute its own strategic plans. For decades the Kingdom has harbored ambitions to control a land corridor to the Arabian Sea through either Hadramawt and/or Al-Mahra governorate so oil shipments could bypass the Strait of Hormuz choke point. While the Yemeni constitution does not give the president authority to grant territorial concessions, the deployment of Saudi forces in Al-Mahra since 2017 has given Riyadh de facto control over the governorate. For its part, the UAE has since the beginning of the conflict built and backed military units that do not recognize the authority of the Yemeni government. In both cases, the government has failed to prevent encroachments on Yemeni sovereignty by its allies.
Domestically, the government dramatically failed in building a unified political front against the Houthi movement, resulting in the fracture of government-held territory into rival spheres of influence. In the early stages of the war, the Yemeni government alienated the General People’s Congress (GPC) and turned away military and political defectors from Sana’a. It acquiesced to the Islah party’s fierce attempt at monopolizing power in Marib and Taiz. The UAE-supported faction of the GPC, led by Saleh’s son Ahmed, having formed a significant military force on the Red Sea Coast led by Ahmed’s cousin Tariq, refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Yemeni government. Meanwhile, President Hadi spurred the creation of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which would become the government’s chief rival in the south, through a combination of state neglect and personally targeting of southern leaders. The government’s refusal to recognize the STC’s legitimate right to represent its popular base in Al-Dhalea and Lahj eventually led it to insist on monopolizing representation for all of southern Yemen to the exclusion of Bedouin pro-Hadi factions in Abyan and Shabwa. This conflict broke out into open violence in August 2019 and despite Saudi’s efforts to patch over the differences, tensions between the parties remain simmering under the surface. In the meantime, Hadramawt quietly and astutely went about its business to lay the foundation of an autonomous Hadrami state, either within a federal Yemen or as an independent entity.
Perhaps the Yemeni government’s biggest failure has been in terms of governance, with its decision to weaponize the economy during the war having devastating consequences for the country as a whole. The reckless decision in September 2016 to transfer the headquarters of the Central Bank of Yemen from Sana’a to Aden is a case in point. As part of the move, the government pledged to pay salaries for all government employees (a promise it has not kept) despite the fact that most state revenues remained under Houthi control. Freed from the responsibility for paying public servants, the Houthi movement has been able to use these revenues to finance the war and enrich themselves on the side. The decision to fracture one of Yemen’s most vital institutions, which was still functioning across frontlines at the time, without the necessary planning and capacity to maintain its primary function – ensuring a coherent monetary policy – had immense negative repercussions on the economy and Yemenis as a whole.
The government did its utmost to weaken other Yemeni state institutions, thereby decreasing the resilience of the Yemeni state. In effect, because many of these bodies were based in Houthi-held Sana’a, the government was willing to kill them in order to “save” them from the Houthis. Its poor attempts at cloning institutions in Aden also failed to consider the fact that Aden was under the control of Hadi’s opponents in the STC. Even if that were not the case, most government ministries comprise a minister, a briefcase and a handful of assistants. This is reflected in the disheartening level of service delivery to communities under government control. Consequently, a government that derives its legitimacy from UN Security Council resolutions has lost it in the eyes of most Yemenis and is now beholden to its coalition backers.
Government failures on nearly every front have been a boon to the Houthis. Youthful, disciplined and ideological, the group during the war has established full control over the state institutions in Sana’a. It placed loyalists in key positions and activated the sectors that it cares about most: revenue collection, police control, local governance structures and mass mobilization instruments.
All the while, various factions within the government appear content with its poor performance as long as they are profiting off the war. One notable example of graft during the conflict is the practice of inflating the government payroll with hundreds of thousands of ‘ghost’ soldiers and civil servants, allowing officials to pocket the salaries. Competition over non-existent jobs and other opportunities for profiteering among segments of the government appears to outweigh any focus on effective governance or even good war making.
When the government does act, its action is often driven by the divisions that have crippled it from the start. The recent resignations of the civil service and transport ministers are a case in point. No one in the government quit in protest after coalition aircraft bombed government forces in Nehm, Al-Jawf, Taiz, Shabwa or Abyan. But when pressure was brought upon Hadi to reconcile with the STC, multiple ministers resigned.
While the Yemeni government continues to lose its relevance among the majority of the country’s population, it will nevertheless remain the legitimate representative of the people of Yemen in the eyes of the international community. Therefore, it will also remain the main negotiator across the table from the Houthi movement in reaching a final settlement of the conflict. However, for such negotiations to be successful, the government will have to be restructured to include representation from all Yemeni parties currently fighting under the umbrella of the anti-Houthi coalition. Failure to do so will unnecessarily prolong the conflict and cost more lives.
This commentary appeared in Five Years Since Decisive Storm – The Yemen Review, March 2020.
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, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.