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Commentary Book Review – Yemen: Poverty and Conflict

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

Yemen: Poverty and Conflict, by Helen Lackner, Routledge, 2022, 184 pp., $48.95 (paperback), ISBN 9780367180508, $170.00 (hardcover), ISBN 9780367180492.

An explosion of writing accompanies a war. Conflict journalism typically focuses on immediate outcomes of the fighting, humanitarian publications highlight the terrible human cost, and political and diplomatic observers proffer opinions on various strategic implications. But there is often a temporal gap in English-language literature between descriptions of contemporary violence and the most recent available histories of the belligerents. This is perhaps unavoidable. Comprehensive histories take time to research. Government archives and accurate data, and the trends that can be ascertained from them, are not available right away. Any modern history concludes the day the author finishes writing. They cannot know what crises await, or when they might degenerate into violence.

And as wars drag on, the sheer volume of reporting and analysis takes on a stature of its own. Explanatory timelines shorten as causation appears more immediate, and peace efforts drive speculation on postwar settlements and future prospects. Conflicts have internal dynamics – cyclical violence, the promulgation of war economies, and the destruction and reconstitution of political and social bonds. But shorn of recent political and economic context, the descent into violence can never be sufficiently understood, nor a sustainable peace appropriately formulated.

Helen Lackner’s excellent new volume, Yemen: Poverty and Conflict, is thus a welcome and necessary addition to these discourses. It is invaluable reading for anyone interested in the war in Yemen and the country’s future, or in the political and economic drivers of conflict and the nexus between them. What sets it apart is its lucidity in laying out Yemen’s diverse and complex political history, and how long-running questions of political and regional identity and elite competition engendered and shape the current spate of violence. This is interwoven and accompanied by an outstanding survey of Yemen’s recent economic trajectory, which makes for depressing if necessary reading on the sheer scale of contemporary challenges that will remain even after the conflict ends.

The book, which covers the contemporary period to late 2021, is divided in four: a history of the formation of the modern Yemeni state; a discussion of the contemporary political environment and its devolution into conflict; a survey of the Yemeni economy and its prospects; and a chapter on Yemen’s relations with other states in the region and further afield. The topic areas are well chosen. The political players, parties, and allegiances of pre-unification Yemen remain of critical relevance. The rise of secessionism, the salience of tribal identities, and the political role of religion are all given due attention, and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s increasingly corrupt and autocratic regime is well analyzed. Particularly impressive is the examination of the complex series of events that precipitated the 2011 political crisis, the 2013-14 National Dialogue Conference, and the onset of conflict. Analyses of ‘Arab Spring’ events have mercifully matured to better consider national variation in causes and effects, but rarely are the origins and influences of complex political environments elucidated as well as they are here.

The chapter on international relations is just as necessary – as the entire work makes clear, Yemen has time and again been at the mercy of its more powerful and wealthier neighbors. Saudi Arabia and the UAE hold the fate of the government in their unsteady hands, Oman remains a conduit for Houthi negotiating teams, and Iran’s overstated involvement has still meaningfully improved the Houthi arsenal. The US has played a key role, from its ‘War on Terror’ to the present, and Europe, through arms shipments, aid disbursement, and endorsement of the UN peace process, remains intimately involved. Any peace deal, postwar reconstruction, or rehabilitation of Yemen’s morbid economy will involve numerous outside players.

Lackner’s outstanding economic analysis is the most remarkable feature of this work. Aid appeals and discussions of Yemen’s dire humanitarian situation often point out just how poor the country was before the war began, likely to highlight how few local resources exist to cope with subsequent destruction and deprivation. But the scope and clarity of the survey presented here, detailing the deep challenges to economic development, make clear just how dire the situation had become by the eve of the conflict. And the forecast appears resolutely bleak: long-term issues of unchecked population growth, depleted aquifers and fishing stocks, mismanaged agricultural policy, a woeful training and education system, and a general lack of exploitable resources beyond minor oil and gas reserves. Lackner reserves special ire for failed International Monetary Fund and World Bank liberalization policies, whose widespread implementation in the 1990s and 2000s left a global legacy of increased inequality and political destabilization. But it is hard to envision a rosy trajectory even without them. And the traditional response to such circumstances – economic migration and the provision of remittances – now face pushback from a nationalizing Saudi Arabia.

This abysmal outlook has been downgraded by the war. The book gives special attention to the war economy, and notes how a lack of salaried employment pushes young men to enlist in various foreign-funded armed groups. It is likely such dynamics will lengthen the conflict, and increased securitization poses its own problems, particularly if military funding ultimately dries up. Perhaps the most surprising conclusion presented is Lackner’s insistence that Yemen could well be economically viable given its potential for tourism, renewable energy, and fishing. This would also require enormous agricultural and educational investment, and the Gulf Cooperation Council opening its doors to Yemeni workers. This may well be true, but the deterioration and ingrained mismanagement detailed elsewhere suggest it is unlikely to come to pass.

Quibbles are few. The historical section is quite lightly cited. The enforced brevity occasionally strips out narrative in favor of listing events. But its rapid availability for observers, researchers, and practitioners is an important part of its value, particularly given the speed of political developments in Yemen and ongoing efforts to end the conflict.

In short, this timely book is the work of an expert, and excels through the author’s ability to discern important details and convey them clearly and concisely. In a brief conclusion, Lackner sketches out possible outcomes of the conflict, should the sides ever agree to stop fighting. The truce and subsequent cessation of major operations has been an enormously welcome development in the period since this book was written. But Lackner makes clear the extreme difficulties that await any political reconfiguration, and the desperate need for enormous development assistance to prevent an exodus into neighboring states. The book serves as a reminder and warning that even a peace deal cannot be considered a finish line if Yemen is to avert catastrophe. The end is just the beginning.

Editor’s note: A new and updated edition of Helen Lackner’s 2017 book, Yemen in Crisis, has just become available, now subtitled “Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope.” Readers looking for a deeper understanding of the causes and consequences of the country’s plight would be well-served to find it.

Yemen in Crisis: Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope by Helen Lackner, Saqi Books, London, 2023, 416 pp., £12.99 (paperback), ISBN 9780863561931, 342 pp., £25.00 (hardcover), ISBN 9780863561931.