The future of Yemen depends upon the state’s ability to restore its legitimacy. Both the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite revivalist movement based in northern Yemen, and President Hadi’s government have grown increasingly unpopular in the eyes of the Yemeni people due to the prolonged civil war and the resulting humanitarian crisis.
If the focus of peace efforts remains limited to securing a ceasefire between these two sides, the underlying causes of unrest, corruption, political patronage, and enflamed regionalist tensions will persist and continue. The only path forward for a united Yemen is an inclusive process that brings together all stakeholders and begins reconstructing the state along decentralized lines.
Since the unification of North and South Yemen in 1994, the sole republic on the Arabian Peninsula has struggled with internal contradictions. Unification was greeted with enthusiasm by most Yemenis, but has failed to live up to their expectations. The central government was marred by corruption as state largess was spent to bring tribal leaders and individuals of power and influence into line.
This network of political patronage caused popular discontent among those who were not well connected or lived in the provinces. Even before the civil war, state institutions outside of the cities were not effective or widely trusted due to corruption. Widespread corruption and political patronage further concentrated wealth and resources in the hands of a well-connected elite. Individuals living on the periphery often lacked the resources and access to the central government, and thus struggled with poverty and political marginalization.
A kleptocratic centralization of power was the government’s strategy to overcome the country’s geographic and demographic diversity. Beyond the major cities, tribal identity remains a critical feature of social organization and has been essential for providing goods and services during the civil war. In the absence of the central government, local tribes have taken security and judicial matters into their own hands. Religiously the country is divided between the majority Sunni Muslims and minority Zaydi Muslims in the north. All these factors serve to create strong regionalist identities that have continually resisted centralizing tendencies.
The change in government following the Arab Spring opened the door to the possibility of reform. The National Dialogue Conference (NDC) was created in order to address corruption, decentralization, constitutional reform and the equitable distribution of resources on a provincial level. While attendees were able to reach an agreement in theory on a wide range of issues, the NDC failed to address the critical issue of the structure of federalism in Yemen, and concluded without reaching a clear agreement on the federal structure.
With the failure of the NDC and the ensuing civil war, the central government lost control over large swathes of the country. The Houthi movement and its tribal allies still control large parts of the north, empowered by Iranian material and financial support. In contrast, the coalition— ostensibly fighting on behalf of the internationally-recognized government— contains numerous factions with independent agendas. This includes fighters who are personally loyal to President Hadi, tribal allies with local agendas, and southern secessionists/autonomists. The only reason some of these factions remain loyal to the pro-Hadi/anti-Houthi cause is because of arms, funds, and political pressure from other Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
In order to restore stability and lay the groundwork for a prosperous future, the Hadi government must implement reforms that address the root causes of unrest by dealing with the challenges of kleptocratic centralization. A new federal system must be devised with engagement from local stakeholders.
The rebuilding of the state is impossible without local buy-in, and federalism is necessary to address the root issues of corruption which alienated the Yemeni people and have contributed to the country’s breakdown. As IRI has seen in Kenya, decentralization makes improves government accountability and encourages participation from local stakeholders. Without these reforms, the central government will continue to grow ever more distant from local government and become more estranged from the Yemini people— prolonging the internal conflict, undermining the integrity of the state, and contributing to regional instability.