The preliminary peace talks in Geneva between the Yemeni republic and the Houthi movement, preceded by days of media hype and overly optimistic aspirations, lasted less than 48 hours and could not even succeed in bringing the two sides to the same table. Houthi tribal leaders were accused of deliberately delaying the start of the conference while representatives of the deposed-President Mansur Hadi’s representatives continued to refer to the Houthis as “rebels” rather than a legitimate political group in negotiations. The collapse of peace negotiations is emblematic of a failed republican state in Yemen. No amount of aerial bombing or ill-conceived negotiations can solve the country’s historical enmities. Rather, the solution requires a complete overhaul of the existing state structure to address the lingering grievances that have served as obstacles to regional stability for over five decades.
In September 1962, a 900 year old religious dynasty was overthrown by a secular Yemeni republic, leading to six years of bloody civil war and decades of political tension between northern tribes loyal to the deposed Imam and a civil service of foreign-trained Arab nationalists. The passing of Yemen’s revolutionary generation has left a void in the country’s political hierarchy and popular legitimacy, opening the possibility of Zaydi religious alternatives advocated by the current Houthi movement. After 50 years of marginalization, the Houthi tribes and their allies are unlikely to give up their recent military gains without concrete guarantees of political power.
The southern port city of Aden, the scene of the most intense fighting in the country, is the center of al-Hirak, the movement for South Yemen independence. Years of non-violent street protest following a brief civil war between north and south Yemen in 1994 have turned this once peaceful call for independence into a military alliance fighting for autonomy from the north. With each day of fighting between Houthi forces and a loose coalition of al-Hirak and President Hadi’s forces, it grows extremely unlikely that the supporters of the southern movement would ever agree to become part of national government alongside Houthi tribal leaders.
Over the head of the domestic turmoil in Yemen, the Saudi coalition continues its unrelenting aerial campaign which has expanded to include both Houthi targets and the homes of Saudi Arabia’s political opponents in Yemen. There is no exit strategy for the Saudi royal family as a cessation of bombing might imperil their country’s southern border to Houthi incursions. Saudi concerns for the security of their southern border date back to the first war between Saudi Arabia and Yemen in 1933 and the Saudi annexation of the three disputed territories of Asir, Najran, and Jizan.
Prior to the current hostilities, the overthrow of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the UN-sponsored transition government were praised as a model for stability in the region. The model, however, was not a complete failure. President Hadi proposed dividing of Yemen into six provinces, with the intention of dividing the Houthi stronghold into three sections. Although the idea garnered a great deal of ire from the Houthi leadership and sparked the Houthi march on the capital city of Sana’a, Hadi may not have gone far enough in his reconfiguration of the country. Rather than divide the country into six provinces along artificial lines, Yemen may be best divided into three states along the current battle-lines. That is to say the Houthis can maintain their northern stronghold surrounding the city of Sa’dah, al-Hirak can assume governance of a southern region centered around Aden, and the eastern area of Hadramawt, traditionally a relatively autonomous region can form a third state. These three federated states can be held together by a weak central government comprised of representatives from all three regions. Each state would be responsible for autonomous local administration and elections while the central government will represent the state diplomatically.
The federated state of three regions is a reflection of current political alliances and a restitution of historic conflicts impeding stability in the region. The northern tribes of the Houthi movement would be free to organize a state inspired by religious and tribal structures roughly within the same borders of Yemen’s 900 year old kingdom. The southern al-Hirak movement would be free to elect a southern governor and exercise a greater deal of control over the regional economy, easing tensions with the northern half of the country. The eastern region of Hadramawt would be free to form a closer economic alliance with Saudi Arabia, opening an opportunity to construct a long sought after Saudi oil pipeline leading into the Indian Ocean, thus avoiding the politically contentious waterways of the Straits of Hurmuz. A weakened Yemeni central government would also pose less of a threat to Saudi Arabia’s long term security concerns. In the short term, however, it would be necessary to establish a temporary international demilitarized zone along the Saudi-Yemeni border along the lines of the 1963 UN Yemen Observer Mission, in order to prevent Houthi-Saudi tensions from spiraling even further out of control.
What became clear to all parties involved in the 2012 deposition of President Saleh, was that a strong central government in Yemen fostered corruption, an ineffectual bureaucracy, an oversized national army, and a cult following surrounding a single leader for over 33 years. Replacing the centralized Yemeni republic with a decentralized federated state will open additional political opportunities on the local and regional level. In the hands of the young generation of Yemenis that took down a 33 year dictator, Yemen may emerge as a true model of stability and local political participation for the region still mired in the after effects of centralized dictatorial state models.