Yemen’s Prospects for Unity Are Uncertain after Many Years of War

In 2018, the United Nations Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Yemen suggested that the Yemeni State had begun to fragment as a result of a conflict that is now in its eighth year. “Yemen, as a State, has all but ceased to exist,” the panel wrote. “Instead of a single State there are warring statelets, and no one side has either the political support or the military strength to reunite the country or to achieve victory on the battlefield.” Over the course of the conflict, a number of statelets did indeed emerge in Yemen. These include the armed Houthi movement’s area of control, which stretches across most of the northern part of the country, and the internationally-recognized Yemeni government’s nominal dominion over the rest. Complicating this picture is the United Arab Emirates-backed Southern Transitional Council’s de facto control over most of southern Yemen, including the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, in Yemen’s Marib Governorate, home to the country’s largest oil fields, the Yemeni government and Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islah Party have established a measure of shared control. And in eastern Yemen’s Hadramawt Governorate, the country’s largest governorate and producer of more than half of Yemen’s oil output, a combination of local community leaders and the Yemeni government are in charge.

Eight years of conflict have effectively divided Yemen into many parts. And with each new day the Yemeni people lose more and more of the ties that used to unite them. Increased religionism, as well as sectarianism driven largely by Houthi politics, are dividing the nation, as are diverse economic, political, and military factors. But the international community still appears to have little desire to acknowledge Yemen’s growing fragmentation, clinging instead to the increasingly unlikely prospect of reuniting the country into a single state. And with few notable exceptions, the country’s deep and perhaps irremediable divisions continue to be swept under the rug during each one of the international community’s stakeholder meetings and negotiations about the conflict. What has been most tragically ignored is the fact that the political will to stitch the various fragments of Yemen back together still exists on the local level. In April 2022, the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) was established with the explicit goal of doing just that. But it is uncertain whether this initiative will succeed, or whether it is simply too late to remedy the situation. In the end, the country’s various factions may just decide to mark existing divisions with an official split. But whether a permanent fracture is inevitable, or if there is still time to reunite the entirety of Yemen under one flag and government still remains to be seen.

Economic Division

Yemen is riven by economic divisions that are felt by citizens across the country. The decision by former president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to relocate Yemen’s Central Bank from Sanaa to Aden in September 2016 eventually resulted in the existence of two central banks, one under Houthi control in the capital, which is the country’s main commercial and financial center, and one in Aden that is overseen by the Yemeni government, and that is struggling to receive deposits and donations from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other members of the international community. The two banks also implement different sets of monetary policies, which has helped increase the sense that there exist today two distinct Yemeni states.

Today, Yemen’s various regions are governed by different customs regulations, revenue authorities, financial intelligence units, and telecommunications authorities, and by distinct laws and policies related to trade, banking, and taxes.

The splitting of the central bank has produced a domino effect across Yemen’s economic system. Today, the country’s various regions are governed by different customs regulations, revenue authorities, financial intelligence units, and telecommunications authorities, and by distinct laws and policies related to trade, banking, and taxes. For instance, the internationally-recognized Yemeni government has begun printing currency that is not accepted by the Houthis in the north, making travel and exchange between the north and south all the more difficult. This has also caused areas under Houthi control to face a major cash crunch, while the existence of excess currency notes in areas controlled by the Yemeni government has spurred inflation and the rapid depreciation of the rial’s exchange value. As of June 2022, one US dollar was equivalent to roughly 550 rials in Houthi-controlled areas and 1,100 rials in the rest of the country—less than half the value.

This dismal situation has done significant harm to the economies of both northern and southern Yemen, adversely impacting domestic trade and the prices of food, fuel, and other commodities, and also thoroughly undermining any sense of economic unity for the country. Indeed, the World Bank has stated that, “The Yemeni economy has developed more and more into a de facto dual economy.”

Political Division

There are currently an abundance of distinct governments and authorities in Yemen, the most significant of which are the respective political structures of the Houthis, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), and, of course, the internationally-recognized Yemeni government. These groups have established parallel political systems of power in the country, with the Houthis and the Yemeni government having formed separate executive branches, ministries, parliaments, and state news agencies. Adding to the confusion, even though the international community only officially recognizes the Yemeni government, diplomats and NGOs continue to engage with the Houthi’s executive body, the Supreme Political Council.

These political divisions are the most noticeable signs of the country’s fragmentation, both for Yemenis and for outside observers. For example, the existence of distinct sets of political policies has gravely affected mobility across the country. And the STC has even gone so far as to periodically engage in the deportation of citizens with northern origins from Aden and Socotra island. Meanwhile, the Houthis and the Yemeni government each assume the right to issue visas to visitors, which has led to disruptions for members of the international community working in the country.

On April 7, former President Hadi stepped down, marking not only a new phase in the conflict, but also the implicit end of the government he headed. From his base in Saudi Arabia, Hadi handed power to the newly-established PLC, which is composed of council chair Rashad al-Alimi and seven other members, all of whom possess distinct agendas. The circumstances under which the council was established also remain a constant source of suspicion, with many saying that Saudi Arabia pushed Hadi to resign. The fact that the council most likely was not the outcome of a Yemeni-led decision, and was instead the product of foreign intervention, signals the persistent absence of a genuine vision among the country’s leaders to unite Yemen’s different factions. Nonetheless, the PLC has been internationally recognized.

A little more than 100 days after its formation, the Presidential Leadership Council has failed to produce any of the significant changes that are necessary to fix the broken status quo.

The role of the council remains undefined, but the body encompasses a wide spectrum of anti-Houthi groups, and could eventually play a role in peace negotiations with the Houthis at a later stage. In addition to al-Alimi, a former minister who was close to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, members of the council include: Tareq Saleh, nephew of former President Saleh and a military commander who controls the majority of Yemen’s western coast; Sultan Ali al-Arada, a ​​prominent politician and governor of the oil-rich Marib Governorate; Abdel-Rahman Abu Zaraa, the salafi military leader of the Giants Brigades, an armed group in the south that is supported and trained by the UAE; Abdullah al-Alimi Bawazeer, a Muslim Brotherhood leader who was close to former president Hadi; Othman Hussein Megally, a prominent politician from the Saada Governorate and a close ally of Saudi Arabia; Faraj Salmin al-Bahsani, a military commander and governor of Hadramawt; and Aidarus al-Zubaidi, president of the STC, which is based in Aden.

Yemen’s political divide is further emphasized by the fact that in Aden today there are essentially two main political powers: the STC and the PLC. In April 2020, the STC declared its autonomous administration of the south—an implicit declaration of separation—but after pressure from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it quickly abandoned the position. But given the separationist ambitions it still harbors, it is nearly impossible to imagine the STC being merged into the PLC. What is more likely to happen is that as soon as the STC is given international political support, it will again attempt to break away.

Meanwhile, a little more than 100 days after its formation, the PLC has failed to produce any of the significant changes that are necessary to fix the broken status quo, such as instituting political and economic reforms, finally paying civil servants’ unpaid salaries, and fixing Aden’s chronic electricity shortage. Meanwhile, the Houthis are pushing for the UN Security Council to recognize them as more than a de facto government, but instead as an official government of Yemen, a prospect the international community seems uninterested in considering.

Military Division

The Yemeni government’s army has been in constant disarray since the Houthis, allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, stormed Sanaa in 2014, clashing with armed forces under the control of then President Hadi. The Houthis were able to capture the majority of the Yemeni Army’s missile stockpile, air defense system, and other weapons, thanks in part to Saleh’s assistance. Former President Hadi’s attempts to salvage the remnants of his army in Aden were in vain, due to the UAE’s effort throughout the conflict to create several armed groups in Yemen, which operate outside of the Yemeni government’s control. The UAE has provided these groups with weapons and training, as well as technical, financial, and logistical support. And recruits are often enticed into joining up by the promise of salaries that are often as much as five times those of soldiers in the Yemeni government’s army. However, the purpose behind the UAE’s intervention is unclear, since it has been supporting a mix of both separatist and non-separatist groups.

Some UAE-sponsored armed groups have played a major role in shifting the trajectory of the conflict. For instance, in January 2022 the Giants Brigades stopped Houthi forces from taking over Shabwa Governorate and part of Marib Governorate, with aerial support provided by a Saudi- and UAE-led military coalition. The group is one of the country’s most powerful armed militias, and indeed, one could argue that UAE-backed armed forces are stronger today than the Yemeni government’s military.

The fragmentation of the Yemeni Army and a growing number of armed groups that possess diverse allegiances is almost certain to frustrate any effort to return to and rebuild a united Yemen.

The UAE even challenged the Yemeni government for control of Socotra, and in 2018 invaded the island, which it continues to use as a strategic base of operations for its economic and military outreach into mainland Yemen and East Africa. A year earlier, in a heated discussion with then Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed, then President Hadi accused the UAE of behaving like an occupier in Yemen. Recent reporting also linked the UAE, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States in a plan to use the island as an intelligence base and missile defense site for what could possibly become a military alliance in the Middle East.

The fragmentation of the Yemeni Army and a growing number of armed groups that possess diverse allegiances is almost certain to frustrate any effort to return to and rebuild a united Yemen. How realistic, really, is the possibility of integrating numerous armed groups into one security sector after all the blood that has been shed? In seeking an answer to this question, all eyes are on the PLC’s newly-established Joint Military Committee, which has promised to restructure and unify all armed groups and security forces, as well as intelligence units belonging to the “anti-Houthi camp” within the PLC’s Defense Ministry. However, this committee is clearly facing an uphill battle, as are all of the individuals and organizations seeking to bridge the country’s ever-deepening divides.

The Way Forward

Imagining a future in which Yemen is united is impossible without first addressing the roots of the Yemeni State’s disintegration. But regardless, the current situation is so bad that at this point Yemen may be irrevocably divided. Ever since 2014, when the Houthis first captured nearly all of the state’s institutions, the group has been working tirelessly to consolidate its power. The Yemeni government, meanwhile, only exists due to the standing that comes with its having been recognized by the international community. But for citizens across Yemen, that government means next to nothing, since it has failed to meet its responsibilities to the Yemeni people.

Both the Houthis and the Yemeni government aim to rule over an undivided Yemen, despite the fact that both groups have enacted major policies that deeply undermine prospects for unity. Meanwhile, the STC’s main objective has been and continues to be secession. And some experts argue that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are planning to divide up Yemen according to the two countries’ economic and commercial interests. Many are recommending that steps be taken to prevent further divisions in Yemen. However, a far more fruitful avenue at this point would be for parties to the conflict and other relevant stakeholders, including those from the international community, to commit to an honest conversation and to face the reality of a divided Yemen, one whose cleavages have been carved by the country’s many belligerent factions.