by Ian Black
International interest in Yemen has been growing since the current war passed its second anniversary in spring 2017. But the poorest country in the Arab world was wracked by multiple crises long before the Saudi-led intervention. Ginny Hill’s detailed and highly readable account of the background is indispensable to understanding the story so far.
It is not easy to unravel the complexities of Yemen’s weak, patronage-based political system, before, during or since the 33-year-rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the tank driver turned president who proved himself a master of looting, manipulation and survival. Its domestic problems pre-date the unification of 1990 and the civil war of 1994. Dwindling oil reserves, water shortages, soaring population growth, poverty, unemployment, tribal loyalties and a corrupt and incompetent state have been linked for the last quarter of a century.
Yet Yemen, as Hill shows in this fine work of contemporary history, is far more than the sum of its dysfunctional parts: ornate stone tower-houses, fertile terraced landscapes and convivial qat chewing sessions in the local mafraj coexist with dangerously high rates of gun ownership and a generation driven to the edge by a conflict that has left two-thirds of the population needing humanitarian assistance. Air raids, cholera outbreaks, human rights abuses and blockaded ports are the current reality, along with a stalled UN-led peace process and strategic rivalry between the Al Saud and Iran, cheering on the northern Houthi rebels.
Yemen Endures includes an admirably clear explanation of the Houthis, whose Zaydi doctrine, a form of Shiism, is less at odds with the Sunni majority and more a political identity in Sa’ada, the Imamate of old and in modern times, a backward region fighting for power and resources. Hill rightly decries the simplification of sectarian affiliations, arguing that the Houthis, formally named Ansar Allah, enjoyed ‘an enviable degree of legitimacy’ and exploited anti-American sympathy to broaden support after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. She dismisses the propaganda that describes Sana’a as the ‘fourth Arab capital’ (after Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus), to ‘fall’ to ‘the Shi’a’, giving a cool assessment of Tehran’s strategy. Yemen’s war, in the words of one observer she quotes, is the flip-side of the 2015 US-orchestrated nuclear deal with Iran – which was bitterly opposed in Riyadh.
Saleh is the dominant figure in this bleak drama, subsidising and playing off his rivals and repeatedly fighting the Houthis but then allying with them after he was driven from power in what was supposed to be a ‘controlled transition’ and replaced by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in 2012 in the wake of the briefly optimistic Yemeni chapter of the Arab Spring. The formal goal of the Saudis, Emiratis and their allies remains to restore Hadi to power.
Yemen’s internal problems have always been compounded by regional ones, the author argues. Saleh backed Saddam Hussein over the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and triggered the mass expulsion of Yemeni workers from the wealthy Gulf states. Western interest since 9/11 has been driven primarily by counter-terrorism concerns that Saleh supported and simultaneously exploited – backing US drone strikes while (apparently) conniving with jailbreaks by the jihadis of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Barack Obama’s contribution was to authorise the killing of the charismatic American-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was better known for his English sermons than anything in Arabic. The US ‘shadow war’ was run by the Pentagon and aggravated Saleh’s relationship with the tribes.
Alongside the Houthis and AQAP, the southern separatists of the Hiraak movement were the other group challenging what little remains of central government in Sana’a, demanding a greater share of national resources. References to Britain’s long colonial rule in Aden – which ended half a century ago this year – provide useful context. So does the Egyptian intervention in the 1960s, when Nasser lined up with the Republicans against the northern Royalists. Hill cites an unidentified analyst who dreamed up the clever TAPE B formula to explain everything in Yemen: T is for tribes, A for the army, P for political parties, E for extremists and B for business families. Perhaps an F for foreigners (or an S for Saudis) should be added as well?
Yemen Endures is a pacey synthesis of existing research and hundreds of the author’s interviews, many of them anonymous but carefully footnoted – and honestly described as ‘informed comment’. Having worked on and in Yemen for a decade as a journalist, analyst and UN consultant, Ginny Hill is impressive proof that academic rigour, patient and persistent reporting, good contacts and fine writing are not mutually exclusive. Her book is full of vivid insights enriched by far deeper knowledge than can be accumulated during a brief visit by what she calls ‘shock and awe’ foreign correspondents with a strong but short-lived news peg for their stories.