In the last two months, Saudi Arabia mediated the agreement between the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), and the Kingdom announced that it is now in indirect peace talks with the Houthis. A political solution to Yemen’s war thus seems closer than ever before. However, these successes will be difficult to translate into a UN framework for peace talks that does not fully recognize the degree to which the Yemeni state has fragmented.  The growing influence of local actors is deteriorating the internationally recognized Yemeni state, furthering social, political, and institutional fragmentation. 

Following years of fighting the Houthis with Saudi backing, the internationally recognized government under President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi has been battling the United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) over territorial control in the interim capital of Aden. After a coup in September 2014, the Yemeni government lost the northwest to the Houthis. Areas in central and eastern Yemen are Hadi’s last bastions of influence. The multitude of authorities in a fragmented state has undermined Yemenis’ belief in a united country. According to a survey conducted between May and July 2019 by the Yemen Polling Center (YPC) of 3980 Yemenis in 19 out of the 22 governorates, 46 percent of southern Yemenis support the southern movement’s call for separation. The south has less than a third of the north’s population—as such, southern opinions have been marginalized for decades. Meanwhile, in the north, 81 percent oppose letting go of the resource rich south.1  

Since the outbreak of the war in 2014, various local groups established and consolidated control over territories and state institutions. The al-Islah party has become a dominant force in Taiz. Local tribes have taken control in Marib, Shabwa, and coastal areas of Hadhramout. The STC won territory in southwest, and the Houthis have come to command the northwest. As they solidify their local influence, these actors are involved in bottom-up state building processes that are worsening state fragmentation. In central and southwest Yemen, for instance, the violent expansion of the Houthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2015 created a security vacuum, giving rise to local armed resistance forces. Saleh-loyalists granted the Houthis access in security institutions; with some officials rejecting the takeover, institutions such as the police, ultimately collapsed.  Given the collapse of state institutions and the rise of local militias, Hadi relied on these resistance forces to defend his government. As a result, informal resistance troops were integrated into state structures that eventually comprised the national army.  

Despite their formal integration, these resistance forces comprise disparate groups with conflicting historical trajectories and social and political agendas. These forces embrace local identities. The resistance that emerged in Taiz in the wake of the Houthi incursion stems from the armed opposition affiliated with al-Islah, the same group that defended the popular protests against the Saleh forces during the 2011 protests. Unsurprisingly, al-Islah eventually ruled the armed resistance and subsequent state-building processes in Taiz. Al-Islah directed the rebuilding of military structures through the integration of militias and the re-establishment of governing institutions. In Marib, local tribes that traditionally governed the area entered an alliance with al-Islah and shaped state-building. In Aden and al-Dhale, the resistance developed out of the southern movement, a broad civic movement that surfaced in 2007 and has, in parts, advocated for an independent state since 2009. The southern resistance defended the south from what it perceived as northern forces trying to regain control of the south to repress independence efforts. 

Vast security structures in the south are today independent from northern elites. Military officers from the former southern army—who Saleh forcibly retired upon unification in 1990—have risen in the ranks of military, police, and governing institutions in the south. As a result, the southern movement became more unified, more organized, and empowered than ever before. This allowed for the May 2017 establishment of the STC as a quasi-government in Aden with representations in the governorates. Since then, the STC, along with the support of UAE-backed forces, gradually took control of Aden. The UAE invested in the establishment of independent security structures, particularly the Security Belt Forces, to secure the port of Aden. Although these structures are nominally under state authority, the individual forces are loyal to their local identities, thus favoring an independent south. Southern Yemenis perceive these actors as state forces: 45 percent of those living in the south want UAE-backed forces to have at least some authority in the area.  

Southerners are divided in their view on the STC. According to the survey, about 37 percent of southerners believe that the STC should hold at least some authority in the south, 19 percent reject the council. This should be no surprise given the extreme nationalist positions the STC promotes. The council has restricted basic rights for citizens while its armed forces are involved in human rights abuses in the south. Nevertheless, 22 percent of those living in the south stated that the STC is positively active, while 25 percent believe the STC is not active at all (15 percent have never heard of the STC). Not all southerners who long for an independent south do so under STC authority. The STC’s strongest support base is in Lahj. The YPC survey shows that in other areas where secessionist tendencies run high, fewer people support the STC. This is the case in Abyan, the home governorate of Hadi, and Hadhramout, which has increasingly gained autonomy from the state since 2011. In fact, Hadhramout does not seek a union with STC-dominated southern governorates, in fact a considerable number of residents support the separation of the governorate from the rest of the country, including STC-dominated areas.

The northwest has also long drifted away from the internationally recognized government. Yet, the Houthis have kept the same state structures in the areas they have held.  In March 2019, the group released an 82-page document outlining its vision for the future Houthi state, indicating no possibility of relinquishing control. In the five years since the Houthis took control of Sanaa, they have inserted their governing system into the pre-existing state. Once they gained access to institutions through their alliance with Saleh, they dispatched supervisors from core Houthi areas into the institutions as a mechanism of direct control, and to learn the craft of state administration. After Saleh’s death in December 2017, the Houthis removed Saleh supporters from their positions and assumed direct control.  Given that the Houthis have used state structures as a mechanism of control, formal institutions have been strengthened vis à vis tribal leaders. For instance, police officials supporting Houthi rule argue that their work has become more efficient due to Houthi financing and political support. Indeed, residents in Houthi-held areas confirmed in interviews with YPC that the police under Houthi control were more vigilant.2   

The YPC survey reveals that 44 percent of residents believe the Houthi supervisors should have no authority. Despite opposition to their rule in the northwest and the host of repressive tactics deployed against opposition from civil society to marginalized officials, the Houthis have become entrenched. Many Yemeni officials accept the Houthi rulers because they present themselves as the “state” after a four-year presence on the ground. Many are also compelled to support them for personal gains. Much of the Houthis’ support stems from the Zaydi heartland north of Sanaa. Of those who live under Houthi rule, 15 percent believe Houthi-supervisors should have full authority, and 12 percent believe they should have at least some authority in their areas.  

The very integrity of the Yemeni state is at stake. According to the YPC survey, half of Yemenis do not consider a single actor in Yemen to be a legitimate authority. Approximately 19 percent of Yemenis support Hadi and the policies he represents, such as the division of Yemen into six federal regions. Recognizing the position the various groups hold on the ground, the international community should insert the notion of federalism, an outcome of Yemen’s 2013 National Dialogue, directly into the framework for peace talks. 

Mareike Transfeld is a PhD candidate at the Free University in Berlin, and Associate Fellow at the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient in Bonn. Follow her on Twitter @projectyemen.

* The article is based on field research and interviews conducted as part of the EU-funded project “Rebuilding Peace and Stability in Yemen” through the Yemen Polling Center. The author is a lead researcher in the study. 

Notes

The numbers included in this article are results from an upcoming survey conducted by the Yemen Polling Center.  The survey results will be published in December 2019.

2 The Yemen Polling Center conducted interviews and focus groups discussions with journalists and civic figures in Sanaa, al-Hodeidah, and Ibb between February 2018 and July 2019.  The results of the interviews are published in briefs and reports on www.yemenpolling.org.