By Adam Simpson*
In March 2015, Yemeni President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi was forced to flee the southern city of Aden as Houthi rebels descended on his presidential palace. Since then, he and his government have touted their legitimacy primarily from Saudi Arabia, which is chief among the coalition of nations fighting on Hadi’s behalf to wrest control of Yemen from the Houthis and their ally, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) support Hadi, and many Yemenis as well see their country’s internationally-recognized government as the least-worst alternative to Houthi domination. However, as the conflict enters its second year, Hadi and his backers have not yet made the case that the government can articulate a viable future.
Following months of siege and conflict in Aden, Yemeni popular resistance forces were able to repel Houthi rebels from the city thanks to the July 2015 arrival of coalition infantry and armor. Though coalition troops and anti-Houthi forces have forced the rebels’ front lines northward, security and stability in Aden remain elusive. Extremist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Daesh (“Islamic State”), continue to operate in the city with near impunity. The popular resistance cadres that were instrumental in fending off the Houthis remain mobilized, yet outside the purview of the Yemeni government.
More worrisome is that the Yemeni government and its GCC allies appear to be immune to the realities of the southern half of the country. Khaled Bahah, Yemen’s Vice President and Prime Minister, has bragged that Yemeni forces are on the outskirts of Sana’a and that the 80 percent of the country is under the government’s control. How he arrived at this figure remains a mystery, with Houthis asserting strong control of most northern provinces, the conflict in Taiz showing no signs of resolution, and AQAP seizing more towns in Yemen’s south.
Since the conflict began in March 2015, AQAP has managed to keep Hadramawt’s capital of Mukalla intact despite the intensity of the Saudi-led coalition’s aerial bombardment. Since December, AQAP has also captured a network of towns, including Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province. Saudi General Ahmed Asseri, spokesman for the coalition, continues to insist that attacks by Daesh in Aden are actually the work of Saleh and the Houthis, attempting to subvert the interim government. While this assertion is not entirely far-fetched considering Saleh’s history, a denial of the Daesh threat in Yemen beggars belief, especially in light of the group’s attacks on Saleh’s Houthi allies.
The Yemeni government’s security deficit is not new. It is a symptom of predictable political failures and shortsighted elite competition and it shows no signs of improving. The Yemeni government has pledged to begin integrating between 50,000 and 65,000 of Aden’s fighters. These fighters feel entitled to financial recompense because of their role in repelling the Houthis, but they have yet to receive any payment. Although militia leaders face assassination by extremists like AQAP and Daesh, they worry that these extremists will be able to offer more attractive salaries to their fighters.
Dealing with Aden’s armed militias is the first critical step toward securing Yemen’s restive South. Reintegrating these fighters into formal security structures, at least in part, will be necessary for building a viable force to protect Aden. Equally important will be providing them with legitimate economic opportunities. Restarting Aden’s economic activity is essential, and Hadi’s GCC partners have already made significant financial commitments in the wake of the war. Multiple actors have broached the idea of a Marshall Plan for Yemen just in the past year, although the idea has been gestating for some time. The coalition announced its intention to implement such a plan via the King Salman Center for Relief and Humanitarian Aid, which boasts an impressive record of providing food security, shelter, water, hygiene, and sanitation assistance. But providing for Yemen’s economic future requires far more than blankets, food, and clean water. Offering access to an education and providing business ventures with microloans could successfully entice former combatants to re-enter civilian life. Moreover, such opportunities would represent a promise for Yemenis across the country.
These economic initiatives are difficult to realize by a government operating with low capacity. Given the government’s history of corruption and mismanagement of public funds, would the money provided by the GCC be effective? Hadi’s governance ability is heavily confined, presenting a considerable challenge, but nonetheless an opportunity. Ultimately, many Yemenis may come to see that decentralization – a policy preferred by the government and a crucial, even if undefined, outcome of the National Dialogue Conference – remains the best option for Yemen moving forward. Success in Aden can translate onto a national level. Widespread skepticism exists, however, that the government can commit to sharing power with its people, instead favoring to diffuse the current system of elite domination. By devolving power to local institutions, as well as to the governor of Aden, the Hadi government can not only enable economic renewal but can also demonstrate a commitment to the transparency and accountability of a government backed by many Yemenis. Moreover, the national government should make every effort not to stymy local government efforts and set aside long held suspicions of southern secessionist ambitions. In reality, the southern Herak separatists are tightly stitched to the Yemeni government, providing further opportunity for repairing relations between the government and aggrieved populations. Inevitably, failure to govern effectively is a greater threat to Yemen’s unity than Herak.
Economic and governance reforms are vital, but can be effectively implemented only within a context of security. This remains far out of reach, in part due to the Yemeni government and its coalition partners’ willful disregard for AQAP’s rapid expansion. The BBC recently reported that AQAP fighters were fighting alongside coalition forces against Houthi rebels in Taiz. AQAP cadres were also among forces battling the Houthi incursion into Aden. Hadi’s crisis of legitimacy is demonstrated on multiple fronts across the country, but AQAP’s unchallenged domination of the South constitutes a fatal flaw in his plan to recapture Yemen. Though he has yet to effectively articulate the vision he has for Yemen, any such message will be undermined by his government’s modus vivendi with AQAP, no matter how temporary. It is not clear when the Coalition plans to confront AQAP or how much of the country they will allow the terrorist organization to capture. Ultimately, the aforementioned popular militias are unlikely to demobilize while AQAP runs rampant across the South.
Hadi’s government is in crisis. Instead of a military victory over the Houthi rebels and the continued tumult and dysfunction that would surely follow, the Yemeni government must offer a vision for the nation’s future based on economic and political alternatives. It must oppose extremists rather than employing them against internal political adversaries. If the Hadi government wants to rule Yemen, it must convince Yemenis that it is fit to do so.
About the author:
*Adam Simpson is a Middle East focused researcher based in Washington, DC. He has been previously published in The Daily Beast, The National, and Atlantic Council’s MENASource blog.
Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt) originally published this article on March 11, 2016