Is Yemen Becoming a Failed State?

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News coming out of Yemen continues to point to a breakdown of state institutions and worsening sectarian competition. Since the 2011 revolution that brought down the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime, various sectarian and tribal groups have been jockeying for power. For now, that competition is being won by the Houthis, who now control most of the capital and other parts of Yemen. Their hold on power is being challenged by al-Qaeda groups, who have made some advances recently. Then there are the southerners, who have long held secessionist views and are now stirring once more. Amid all this commotion, various commentators have wondered what role the Saudis and the Iranians have played — if any — and whether the international community ought to begin considering what to do if Yemen joins the growing list of failed states in the region.

Commenting on the growing power of Houthi fighters, Yemen Times’ Nasser Al-Sakkaf reports on the concerns of the residents of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, many of whom are uncomfortable with what appears to be a silent take-over of the military and police functions in the capital: “Security personnel manning checkpoints around the capital have disappeared and been replaced by armed members from the Houthis, who call themselves ‘Ansar Allah,’ or ‘Supporters of God.’… While there remains a notable presence of rebels dressed in traditional garb, in recent weeks it has become increasingly common to see armed Houthis wearing military uniforms….Ali Al-Imad, a member of the Houthis’ Political Office, confirmed that ‘Ansar Allah is wearing the uniforms as part of the deal that was made with the government to keep the states appearance in Sana’a city.’ He said the government does have a plan to accommodate Houthis into the military, but refused to disclose any further details of the deal.”

But the Houthis are not the only ones threatening the integrity of the Yemeni state. In what the Gulf Today editorial has characterized as a challenge to the Houthi advances, “Suspected Al Qaeda militants have captured a town in southwest Yemen in a deadly attack seen as a countermove to advances by Huthis sweeping across the strife-hit country….The offensive came just hours after Huthis overran the provincial capital of Ibb located 20 kilometres to the east. The push into Udain appeared to be in retaliation for the Huthis’ capture of Ibb, a local official said….The steady expansion of Huthis has increased the threat of an open confrontation with Qaeda. Deadly fighting broke out Tuesday when the Huthis tried to expand out of the town of Rada in central Baida and clashed with Qaeda militants.”

In the south, meanwhile, the restless population have repeated their demands for secession from Yemen altogether. These are not new claims, but for Nadia Al-Sakkaf, coming as they do in the context of the Houthi and al-Qaeda takeovers, they pose a deep challenge to the integrity of the Yemeni state: “The news from the south is very disturbing. Already we are going through a ridiculous takeover by the Houthis in the north and it was yet another disappointment to have the Southern Movement, also known as Hirak, rise again with secessionist demands….Are the southerners demanding separation for the sake of separation or is it because they believe that the grievances addressed in the NDC document will not be fulfilled since the capital itself has fallen under the hands of one armed faction? Despite the alarming rate at which the Houthis have expanded their physical control over the north, I am certain that this is just a phase. It may last months, or even years but at the end of the day we will all have to come around and talk about our common future.”

Given the spate of bad news, no wonder then that some have begun worrying that Yemen will soon join the list of other failed states in the region. Gulf News’ Marwan Kabalan, for example, suggests that with Yemen’s neighbors, and in particular Iran stoking the fires, it will be only a matter of time before Yemen stops functioning as a country: “The fall of the Yemeni capital Sana’a to Al Houthi fighters on September 21 marked a new political era for the war-stricken country….As the link between Al Houthi rebels and Iran becomes all too clear, the occupation of the Yemeni capital is interpreted by many as a major breach of Yemen’s national security. Hadi was very frank on this when he stated that Tehran wants to bargain Sana’a for Damascus….With the growing structural damage to the state institutions (civilian, military and security) it is very likely that we will end up with yet another failed state in the Arab world. In this regard, Zakani may not be quite wrong after all — Yemen has joined the ‘fiasco club,’ which so far included Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.”

Yemen’s precipitation into chaos is not without risks for its neighbors, which is why the Peninsula editorial stuff has issued an appeal to the GCC member states to save Yemen: “Yemen is an important neighbor of the Gulf Cooperation Council states, and instability in the country will have huge consequences for the entire region. The capture of Sana’a by Houthis doesn’t bode well for the region. The Houthi group has been calling for greater rights for followers of the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam which predominates in northern Yemen, but has positioned itself as a national political movement since 2011 by exploiting anger at poor governance….Violence and cold-blooded killing is no solution to the crisis, and all parties must implement a power-sharing deal which aims to resolve the decade-long Houthi insurgency and pull the country out of the crisis triggered by the 2011 uprising that forced then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.”

Judging from Saudi Arabia’s response to the crisis so far, the Saudis appear to be fully aware of the complications arising from the situation in Yemen. Asharq Alawsat’s Salman Aldossary believes that is for the better since “Yemen—no matter who is in charge in Sana’a—will always need Saudi Arabia. If Riyadh ends its economic aid to the country, the whole of Yemen will be out on the streets calling for the Houthis’ departure….Saudi Arabia is serious about protecting its own national security and is very aware of the threat it faces from a group like the Houthis, fully in control of a whole country, its institutions, even its military. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is also serious about a danger that targets not just the Kingdom, but the entire region.”

But Saudis are not the only interested party, nor the only one that has become involved in trying to leave its imprint on its neighbor. The veteran commentator Amir Taheri strongly suspects Iran’s involvement in Yemen, but cautions that Iran’s early tactical gains in the country could come back to haunt it: “What is astonishing is that this growing danger is either ignored by the major powers or exploited for petty tactical advantage by regional rivals. In the latter context, Iran is pursuing a dangerous opportunistic gambit. Tehran official media wax triumphant because a few Houthi demonstrators in Sana’a carried portraits of the late Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor Ali Khamenei. The daily Kayhan, published under Khamenei’s control, headlined a report on the entry of Houthis in Sana’a as ‘the victory of our Islamic Revolution.’…In fact, no one can really control Yemen, or ever has. In Yemen, the question is one of the management of chaos rather than governance in the classical sense of the term. More importantly, Kayhan’s editorialist did not know that Yemenis with guns could always be hired but are never bought.”

The West hopes to see the warring factions in Yemen come together over a negotiated agreement, but are aware that it might not be enough. This is why, as is being reported on Yemen’s main daily Saba, France has endorsed the idea of ‘restorative justice’ in Yemen: “The French ambassador to Yemen affirmed on Thursday his country’s support for Brussels conference on restorative justice in Yemen to be held at the end of October in Belgium’s capital….He said that the restorative justice would create an appropriate political climate to implement the outcomes of the national dialogue and hold a referendum on the new constitution. The solution to the Yemen’s problems would be only provided by the Yemenis themselves, because they are more familiar with their problems and ways to solve them…The conference will discuss a program of restorative justice in Yemen in order to turn the page of the past and open a new page of joint political action without exclusion of any party, as well as compensating those affected during past events.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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