Most of the world’s attention has recently been directed towards Syria. In the shadow of Syria, the conflict in Yemen has been left to its own devices, and Yemen is now set to experience an even greater humanitarian catastrophe than Syria.
In Syria, we witness the beginning of the end of one of the bloodiest conflicts in many decades. In Yemen, the conflict has barely begun.
In 2011, Yemen was seen as one of the few success stories from the Arab Spring. Major popular movements managed to squeeze then-President Ali Abdallah Saleh from power. New leadership under President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi succeeded in gathering all Yemeni political factions under an umbrella organization for national dialogue.
The setup looked remarkably similar to the initiative in Tunisia, who some years later would receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Dialogue is not enough
It turned out – who knew? – that dialogue was not the answer to all of Yemen’s problems. Just weeks after the National Dialogue Conference was over, the Houthi militia went on to attack groups allied with President Hadi.
This was the starting shot in an escalating conflict that has already had enormous costs – today, ten million of Yemen’s 25 million people are either completely or very nearly dependent on humanitarian aid in order to meet minimum food requirements.
The roots of this conflict can be traced back to regional differences between the north and the south of Yemen that have never been sufficiently addressed.
Today, the Houthi militia is the driving force in this conflict. They represent the Zaydi clan, a religious clan who claim a direct kinship with the Prophet Muhammad.
The clan, which is geographically centered in northern Yemen, have mobilized against what they believe to be neglect from the governments who have robbed them of governmental resources and access to the same benefits afforded to other groups in society.
Perhaps more importantly: the clan is of the view that, under the influence of Saudi Arabian Wahhabism and Arab Salafism, the government seeks to wipe out their form of Islam.
The Houthi movement is a separatist organization that is calling for more regional autonomy and a renegotiation of the regional borders within the country. Specifically, they want borders that provide their areas with direct access to the Red Sea.
Lacking an effective government
In these areas, it is in practice entirely possible for groups in Yemen to reach a consensus. But the Houthis have another non-negotiable demand: to retain their militia even after the conflict is over.
This is the central problem in Yemen today. But it also illustrates a more general problem, one that is becoming more pertinent as the Norwegian authorities increase their focus on so-called fragile states in aid and development policy.
Yemen is characterized by a total lack of an effective government. Ever since Max Weber, political scientists have highlighted the monopoly of violence as a fundamental aspect of modern states. A modern state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within a territory.
A large number of groups in Yemen, including the Houthis, have enough military power to challenge the state. The state is thus little more than yet another armed group in society.
For as long as this is the case, it will remain impossible to build lasting peace in the country. The conflict in Yemen is therefore not a question of religious, ethnic, or regional divisions. These divisions are what we may call epiphenomena – they are by-products of the conflict, not the cause.
In this, Yemen illustrates an extensive problem with what are now referred to as fragile states. Fragile states are characterized as states that are involved in armed internal conflict, or states where there is a high underlying probability that conflict will break out.
The reasons for this are to be found in the county’s political development. We talk a lot about socio-economic development. Political development, which forms the basis for socio-economic growth and prosperity, receives significantly less attention.
Political development is a long and often bloody process that countries go through in order to build states with a monopoly on violence, meritocratic bureaucracies, and democratic institutions that make the government accountable to the people. Yemen has only begun to get started on this process.
While the international community has a number of means to assist countries with socio-economic development, we have few measures that can effectively influence political development. It is political development that fragile states first and foremost need. Norway’s new strategy for fragile states, which is currently under preparation, must deal with precisely the kind of challenges that Yemen faces.
War or intervention
Though there are of course some nuances to consider, ultimately, we have two possibilities in Yemen. We can do as we did in Syria: for the most part sit on the sidelines, watch the parties fight, and wait until only one side is left. The alternative is an international intervention.
International interventions under the mandate of the United Nations are among the most cost-effective measures the international community can take to build peace and stability.
Peacekeeping operations generally only end up in the news when they have misfired, but there is currently a broad consensus within conflict research that UN operations have a real impact. They reduce not only the intensity of the violence, but the violence civilians are subjected to. They reduce the probability that the conflict will spread to neighboring countries, and greatly increase the stability of the peace after the conflict has ended.
Peacekeeping operations can solve a fundamental problem in fragile states: commitment problems.
A fundamental challenge in countries like Yemen is that there is no reason why the Houthis should trust the government or any other groups in the country. They may well be willing to sign a peace agreement, but how can the Houthis, and all the other groups, trust that the government will continue to honor this agreement five, ten or 20 years down the line?
After they have handed in their weapons, they have no guarantees that the government will not simply tear the agreement apart.
Peacekeeping operations play an important role in fragile states, because they can guarantee through force of arms that peace agreements are complied with. No dialogue process can achieve that. The UN is therefore yet again, for Yemen and other fragile states around the world, the last, best hope.
•This text was published in Norwegian in Aftenposten 19 February 2017: ‘Jemen er på randen av stupet’
•Translation from Norwegian: Georgina Berry