Senior Consulting Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

Yemen has become a ‘chaos state’ – a nominal entity that exists largely as lines on a map and as a concept in newspaper reports and policymaker briefings.

A Yemeni boy checks damage following a mortar attack in the city of Taiz, February 2016. Photo: Ahmad al-Basha/AFP/Getty Images.A Yemeni boy checks damage following a mortar attack in the city of Taiz, February 2016. Photo: Getty Images.

Summary

  • Popular depictions of Yemen’s three-year-old civil war suggest a chaotic, fractured and polarized country in which the differences between key fighting groups on the ground, and by extension between their international backers, are intractable. Such depictions also reflect an assumption that conflict covers much of the country.
  • In fact, until the death of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in December 2017 – as this paper was being finalized – the conflict had mostly settled into a pragmatic, if economically destructive, stalemate. Front-line fighting was confined to several largely static battlefields, with many actors increasingly focused on the internal politics of individual territories rather than on the wider conflict. The most dynamic aspect of Yemen’s multidimensional conflict in 2017 was the fracturing of the troubled alliance between Houthi militias and Saleh loyalists, a showdown ultimately resolved in the Houthis’ favour.
  • Narratives of the war rarely acknowledge the relative stability of the borders between different areas of territorial control, the continuing flow of goods and people between these areas, or the political competition occurring within them. Nor do such narratives recognize the complexity of factors driving and sustaining hostilities, or the multiplicity of combatants and interests involved.
  • Yemen has become in many senses a ‘chaos state’: a place where the central government has either collapsed or lost control of large segments of the territory over which it is nominally sovereign; and where a political economy has emerged in which groups with varying degrees of legitimacy cooperate and compete with one another. Yet ‘chaos’ is a relative term: although Yemen indeed appears to be chaotic from the outside, in the sense that general disorder visibly prevails, it contains its own internal logic, economies and political ecosystems.
  • Yemen more closely resembles a region of mini-states at varying degrees of war with one another, and beset by a complex range of internal politics and conflicts, than a single state engaged in a binary conflict.
  • The groups that hold the balance of power do not correspond directly to those engaged to date by the UN and key international powers – namely, the Houthis, loyalists of the now deceased Saleh, and the government of exiled President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. For most Yemenis, these parties, while nominally the principal belligerents in the war, are just several groups among many (with President Hadi, moreover, widely seen as a bit player whose importance is derived from legal technicalities, external support and access to resources rather than from hard-earned ‘grounded’ legitimacy).
  • The distinctions between state and non-state security and governance actors, and between the licit and illicit economies, were already blurry before the war began. Since then, these distinctions have become even more arbitrary.
  • Despite clear divisions between different territories, basic goods (including food and fuel) cross internal borders with relative ease. Arms and other illicit goods are also traded so widely that prices for guns and ammunition have fallen nationwide since the war began.
  • There is ample evidence that key political players and armed actors have benefited considerably from the war economy, and that their economic interests have been sustained by the continued national-level conflict. As a result, they lack incentives to agree to a peace process that might threaten the economic status quo.
  • The country’s few revenue-generating resources (oil and gas fields, and the infrastructure used to transport, process and export hydrocarbons), its major economic institutions, and its marine and overland trade infrastructure have become sources of political and military power. Even in the event of a negotiated political solution, these assets and institutions are likely to be the focus of increasing armed and political struggle. The contest for their control to date has been little analysed.
  • There is no easy way of transforming Yemen into a functioning, Westphalian model of statehood in the short time frame that many Western and foreign officials may wish for.
  • Any deal brokered solely between the parties engaged by the UN is guaranteed to create incentives for other players on the ground to act as spoilers – triggering renewed conflict if careful provisions for a new, genuinely inclusive political process encompassing all other Yemeni groups are not embedded into the current UN-led peace process.
  • An approach that ignores the role and nature of external actors and interests in Yemen will not be successful. The mediation process must include incentives for third parties involved in the conflict to act in good faith to support a negotiated political settlement, and must provide for punitive measures if they do not.
  • Current policies and frameworks for peace in Yemen are built around simplistic, binary models of conflict that bear little resemblance to reality and that often reflect wishful thinking rather than careful analysis. Learning lessons from the 2012–14 transition period, policymakers and mediators need to adjust their priorities accordingly. In particular, they need to lend as much weight to ground-up initiatives – complex, messy, difficult and time-consuming as these are – as to top-down processes.

Policymakers from the United Kingdom, the United States and other UN member states should support the recalibration of the current UN-led mediation process and expand it, formally or informally, to three equally weighted tracks that:

  • Address the role of third-party states – not limited to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, the US, the UK and France – in directly or indirectly prolonging the war and sponsoring military actors.
  • Intensify contact with, and mediation between, the parties formally anointed as the key belligerents by the UN Security Council (the Houthis, Saleh loyalists and the Hadi government). Communicate to them the need to expand participation in the peace process.
  • Address subnational and local political and conflict dynamics by engaging with key military and political leaders from each governorate and the senior leaderships from the current subnational divisions: the Houthi-occupied north and west of Yemen; the highland tribal territories of Al Jawf, Mareb and Al Bayda; Taiz; the separatist tribal south; Aden; Hadramawt (coastal and northern); and Al Mahra. Consider outreach to the Saba regional council, the Southern Transitional Council and other similar regional initiatives. Integrate these groups into the broader mediation process.

View a map of the key issues affecting Yemen