Preserving Legitimacy Through Transition: Lessons from the Republic of Yemen

Photo credit: Reuters

On April 7, 2022, the leader of the internationally recognized government of Yemen, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, announced his abdication and transferred his powers to a presidential council, led by his former advisor, Rashad al-Alimi. Hadi also dismissed his vice president, Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, who publicly stated his support for the formation of a new presidential council despite being fired the day before.  These efforts echoed the former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who in 2011 officially handed off his powers to Mansour Hadi, his former deputy, who was to lead the government through a two-year transitional phase. Although the self-removal of a three-decade-long dictator was welcomed, hindsight reveals how the Republic of Yemen (RoY) was unable to preserve its own legitimacy throughout the transition process. This failure left the country vulnerable to insurrectionist forces and ultimately resulted in its current downfall. By analyzing the RoY during this earlier transitional period, this paper will draw out takeaways that can be used to illustrate why Yemen fell to its current situation. First, this paper will provide a brief background of the country to illustrate how a unified Yemen is a historical oddity. Then, it will describe how the RoY lost its power within its own territory and how the subsequent rise of competing internal and external forces led to the ultimate downfall of the former government.

Yemen has had a North-South geopolitical divide since the 9th century, when the Zaydis, a Shia Islamic sect, became dominant in the northern regions. Throughout history, the Zaydis and the Ottomans clashed repeatedly, with the former finding themselves under sporadic Turkish occupation. The Ottoman Empire fell in 1918, and North Yemen regained independence under Zaydi leadership. The rest of Yemen reverted to self-governance under British colonial administration and nominally divided up as the Protectorate of South Arabia and the Federation of South Arabia. During the Cold War period, a series of revolutions split the country into the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in the north and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in the south. Saudi Arabia and Jordan supported the YAR, while the Soviets supported the PDRY. In 1990, the two sides of Yemen united and reformed as the Republic of Yemen, which was led by the President of the YAR, Ali Abdullah Saleh. North-South Yemen tensions continued to simmer and in 1994, Saleh and the northern forces decisively crushed the Saudi-backed southern secessionists in the Yemeni Civil War.

Saleh had also turned a blind eye to the returning mujahadeen from Afghanistan and allowed an Al-Qaeda (AQAP) power base to develop in Yemen. In October 2000, the U.S. destroyer, USS Cole, was damaged in Aden by an Al-Qaeda suicide attack that killed seventeen U.S. sailors. This led to the beginning of U.S. counterterrorism involvement in Yemen, which became fodder for anti-Saleh sentiment due to his cooperation with the West. Meanwhile, the spread of state-sponsored Sunni Salafism in northern Yemen caused a counter-Shia reaction where the Houthi clan began a movement to revive Zaydi traditions. This eventually led to six rounds of conflict from 2004-2010, in what is known as the Saada Wars. The Saada Wars pitted the RoY military forces, led by Saleh and Ali-Mohsin, against the Houthis. Then, in 2009, Saudi Arabia openly joined the fight against the Houthis. Finally, in 2011, international pressure stemming from the Yemeni protests during the Arab Spring compelled Saleh to resign. 

Lesson 1: A strong and apolitical leader who can provide a source of strength is necessary to provide legitimacy to the transition process.

The inconclusive results of the Saada wars, the inflamed youth and southern secessionist passions, and the rise of extremist violence altogether served as potential spoilers of the two-year transition process. However, Hadi had neither strong political allies nor any strong tribal affiliations that he could build a base upon. As Saleh’s vice president for the last 18 years, he remained anonymous and was tasked with following protocol. Hadi was appointed after the Yemeni Civil War of 1994 to appease southern Yemeni elites, but Saleh’s consolidation of power had since completely neutralized them. On one hand, a weak political figurehead is ideal for leading a transitional government due to the ease of removal once new terms and deals are finalized. On the other hand, a weak leader is also unable to prevent spoilers, especially heavily armed militarized actors. In 2011, the Houthis had not yet been subdued and Saleh remained the head of the General People’s Congress. Also, he still possessed a cadre of loyalists throughout the Yemeni government and the military. Furthermore, despite massive U.S. counterterrorism support, some of Yemen’s most horrific terrorist attacks occurred from 2011-2015. Eventually, the absence of a strong leader who kept the various parties in line, as opposed to the presence of a weak leader who encouraged cooperation in spite of, culminated in January 2015 when the Houthis allied with Saleh to storm the capital of Sanaa. Hadi’s failure to control Yemen’s internal security forces and prevent spoilers can be attributed to his inability to provide legitimacy to the transitional government.

Lesson 2: International effort must be unified in support of a single political process.

The international response during this transitional period under Hadi can be characterized as “distracted.” The UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, was left alone to shuttle himself back and forth trying to find a diplomatic compromise among the various Yemeni factions. There were negligible efforts on the parts of involved powers like Saudi Arabia and the United States to interfere and provide tangible support. Saudi Arabia hosted multiple rounds of the Friends of Yemen conference; although they successfully raised eight billion dollars in pledges, there is little to show for it. Furthermore, the outcomes of the conference were not tied to any of the UN diplomatic efforts shouldered by Benomar. Meanwhile, the United States conducted one of its most intense counterterrorism operations in Yemen and flooded the RoY with weapons and training for commando forces. The consideration that the Yemeni transition process might fail and the equipment could fall into the wrong hands seems to have not been a previous topic of concern. The UN diplomatic effort was ultimately handicapped due to a lack of leverage, which could have been provided by a more honest attempt at international coordination among the foreign powers. This ultimately provided time and space for the Houthis to stall, consolidate power, and to strike at their most opportune time. A unified international effort directly linked to the UN-led negotiations would have provided much needed legitimacy and external foreign pressure throughout the transition process.  

Lesson 3: Plan and prepare a security contingency so that the legitimate government can maintain monopoly of force in unoccupied areas.

A few days after the fall of Sanaa into Houthi hands, Hadi resigned and was put under house arrest. The Houthis declared their intent to form their own government. Several weeks later, Hadi escaped from Sanaa and resurfaced in the southern city of Aden, where he declared himself to be the president again. The Houthis, their ranks reinforced with Saleh loyalists, and freshly armed with military equipment that once belonged to the RoY, began their conquest towards the south. The capture of Sanaa disabled the RoY military command structure and Ali-Mohsin, the archenemy of the Houthis and the country’s most experienced military commander, was nowhere to be found. The RoY military units outside of the capital were unable to regroup and as a result, the government was unable to enforce its will on its own territory, even in areas not occupied by the Houthi. Stronger foreign support for the political process could have mitigated Hadi’s challenges of ruling through a transitional government, such as by offering security guarantees like providing a UN peacekeeping force throughout the negotiation process. A security succession plan in the event of a national crisis like Yemen would have prevented the quick collapse of the RoY by enabling a rapid response force to maintain rule of law and organize resistance against the Houthis.

Lesson 4: Strategically unaligned coalitions further exacerbate issues of legitimacy and stability.

The threat of a Shia-dominated state is unacceptable to Yemen’s neighbor in the north so a fortuitous letter from Hadi, while he was sheltering in Aden, was sent to the UN Security Council requesting for military intervention. Saudi Arabia built a coalition with neighboring gulf partners and launched Operation Desert Storm, which destroyed Yemen’s air capabilities – a large number of which were provided by the United States in addition to civilian infrastructure such as roads, bridges, supply dumps, ports, and garrisons. They also air-drop supplies and equipment to various “pro-Hadi” forces in the South. Three months later, the Emirati-led Operation Golden Arrow, retook Aden. From the north, Ali-Mohsin led Saudi-trained soldiers and established a foothold in Marib. As the war ground to a stalemate, Saudi Arabia and UAE interests diverged. Saudi Arabia was focused on securing its border from the Houthis and recruiting Yemenis to serve in border units. At the same time, Ali-Mohsen’s forces were unable to break out of Marib. The UAE viewed Ali-Mohsen’s affiliation with Islah as a problem, as the Emiratis consider Islah a terrorist organization. Thus the UAE turned to and supported various southern secessionist elements, while setting the groundwork for future claims on shipping rights along Yemen’s southern coast. Notably, both Saudi Arabia and UAE have provided little direct material support to RoY military forces. Furthermore, UAE-backed southern forces have become dominant political entities such as the Southern Transitional Council and Hadrami Elite Forces. To further compound the issues, AQAP continues to exert undue influence over large swaths of ungoverned Yemeni territory. As the above illustrates, the Republic of Yemen became further sidelined as Saudi Arabia and the Emirates became direct combatants of the war. There is little evidence to prove otherwise that the RoY has little to no decision-making with regards to material foreign funding and support. The deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure by the Saudis, the formation of militarily capable secessionist forces, and the continual suffering of the Yemeni people can be attributed to the RoY, which further damaged its own credibility. The government had been left to rely on the patriotic goodwill of others to willingly self-integrate back into the government.   

The current conflict map of Yemen is reminiscent of the majority of its history, when northern Yemen was ruled under united Zaydi leadership, while the rest of Yemen was governed via warlords and tribes. The downfall of the RoY was set in motion the moment when Saleh resigned. There was a small window of opportunity to strengthen the legitimacy of the transitional government and the UN-led negotiation process in order to make the government less susceptible to an armed takeover. However, a politically weak leader was chosen to take charge of a crisis that required national unity and the foreign regional powers failed to act in concert under a single political process. When foreign powers finally intervened, their actions only further destabilized the country. The current membership of the new presidential council is an indicator of the challenges still to come. The eight members represent a delicate balance of North versus South, Saudi vs Emirati-backed, and Islah vs Salafi affiliations. Each member has de facto control over their respective territory and represents a unique political entity; the Republic of Yemen, also now sometimes referred to as Government of Yemen, the Southern Transitional Council, Hadrami Elite Forces, the Giants Brigades, loyalist forces to the nephew of ex-President Saleh, the Marib governorate, and the northern tribes. Absent are the Houthis, who are arguably the most united and remain in control of Yemen’s capital and most populous areas. Today, the factions on the ground are locked in stalemate, and any military takeover is unlikely without strong foreign interference. With Yemen once again in a delicate period of transition, the question one has to ask is whether the lessons of the past have been considered and weighed, or will Yemen’s history repeat itself once again?  

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.