Yemen risks becoming a failed state

Friday 22/01/2016

Yemen looks set to remain in the regional and international headlines for some time to come. What happened in Yemen in 2015 will likely reverberate throughout 2016 and beyond.
Yemen desperately needs a new vision, one that has yet to manifest itself for a number of reasons, not least that the collapse of the regime that was established by Ali Abdullah Saleh was accompanied by the collapse of the entire system in Yemen and marked the end of the central government’s control over all of Yemeni territory, including the capital, Sana’a.
So what happens after the collapse of the Yemeni central government and the confirmation that the first president of a unified Yemen — Saleh — would also likely be the last?
There has always been conflict in Yemen. During the Saleh era, the conflict in Yemen was managed from Sana’a. There was conflict with the Shia Houthis in the furthest north of the country, which ended after the Muslim Brotherhood’s coup against the former president. Then the conflict was relocated to Sana’a itself.
The Muslim Brotherhood simply did not realise that it would be the Houthis who would fill the vacuum left by Saleh. During the early parts of the “Arab spring”, Saleh truly faced a popular revolution led by Yemen’s youth but this was ultimately hijacked by the Brotherhood, which sought, and failed, to monopolise power.
The Houthis’ takeover of Sana’a also did not stop the conflict, whether in Yemen generally or Sana’a and its environs specifically. This is a conflict that will go on and on, not least because it is impossible for a backward rebel group, backed by Iran, to control a city like Sana’a, let alone a country like Yemen.
More than this, nobody can imagine the alliance between Saleh and the Houthis lasting forever. These two parties fought more than six wars with a combined death toll of more than 30,000 during the Saleh era. What we are seeing is a temporary alliance based on mutual interests.
Until recently, Saleh had been known as a pragmatist but based on his alliance with the Iran-backed Houthis and the chaos that it has wrought across the country, it seems that he has completely misread the situation in the country and region. There has even been speculation that the ex-president is not in his right mind, with Yemeni former-prime minister Abdul Karim al-Iryani speculating that Saleh has become overcome with a desire for revenge after he was almost killed in a 2011 bomb assassination attempt.
Following the Houthi takeover, Arab Gulf states had no choice but to carry out this military operation to confront Iran’s attempts to take de facto control of Yemen. The fighting is ongoing, despite ceasefire attempts, and the Houthis cannot seem to understand that the Gulf coalition will not withdraw until it achieves victory on the ground and Sana’a is back under government control.
But many questions remain: How can the Arab Gulf forces return the situation in Yemen to the status quo, forcing the Houthis to retreat en masse from a number of different provinces? Even if they do pen them back in Saada, their traditional northern stronghold, what next?
How can we find a political figure capable of uniting Yemen’s disparate forces and filling the void left by Saleh?
More importantly, how can we confront al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) after the latest chaos in Yemen has helped terrorist groups take control of entire provinces, cities and neighbourhoods?
Yemen is teetering on being a failed state. What happens next will be crucial. Will there be a quick resolution or will the unrest last for years and what price will the Yemeni people pay?