GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
First Name:
James M
Title of Paper:
Yemen: A Study of the Pitfalls of Political Transition
Paper Proposal Text :
Yemen’s political crisis involving the rise to power of a sectarian group, the effective collapse of the state, the incapability of the military and security forces to guarantee territorial integrity and law and order, and the upsurge of militant political Islam bears important lessons for the prospects of political transition in the Middle East and North Africa.
The crisis like the violence enveloping Libya, Syria and Iraq even through Iraq’s struggles were sparked by US intervention rather than popular protest highlights the fragility of many Middle Eastern and North African states that are as much the products of colonial history as they are of self-serving autocrats who increasingly were focused on survival rather than nation-building and development, and regional power struggles.

As a result, Yemen’s travails are not simply the result of revolution and counterrevolution in the wake of a popular uprising that erupted in 2011 as one of several revolts in the region but the cumulative long-standing manipulation of Yemeni politics going back to the years before the 2011 popular revolt and as far back as the Egyptian-Saudi proxy war in Yemen in the 1960s.

Unlike, other post-revolt countries
like Egypt where external powers played a behind-the-scenes in a counterrevolution that was primarily driven by domestic players, transition in Yemen was negotiated by Gulf states with Saudi Arabia in the lead whose agenda was one of salvaging existing power structures rather than accommodating the aspirations of protesters that could no longer be simply ignored.

The fallout in Yemen of Saudi mediation was inevitably linked to the kingdom’s broader regional policies, first and foremost among which a drive to undermine political Islam in not only its militant but also non-violent forms and its promotion of sectarianism as part of its proxy wars with Iran.

A long-standing Saudi ally who also enjoyed support from the United Arab Emirates, ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, remained a post-revolt political player who could help shape events even if he was unlikely to return to office in contrast to for example former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak whose political life ended with his resignation from 30 years in office.

It was a strategy that backfired.
At the opposite end of the political spectrum, the Houthis, a Zaidi Shiite sect in northern Yemen that resisted the growth of Saudi inspired austere interpretations of Islam and demanded an end to alleged discrimination, emerged as a key force opposed to the retention of the pre-revolt power structure.

Ironically Saleh, their erstwhile nemesis, broke with his Saudi backers to align himself with the Houthis, who like the Muslim Brotherhood were not seeking immediate full control of government, but ultimately saw a bid for power as the only way of achieving their goals. In doing so, the Houthis may well have fallen into the trap of regional politics. Their ploy for power was backed by the UAE, which with the appointment of King Salman in Saudi Arabia following the death of King Abdullah, has emerged as the most hard line Gulf state opposed to political Islam critical of subtle changes in Saudi attitudes.

At the bottom line, counterrevolution in Egypt where domestic forces were in the driver’s seat has succeeded for now while it failed in Yemen, where external powers were overt major players. Nevertheless, both cases illustrate that the emergence of stable states bolstered by credible institutions and successful political transition in the Middle East and North Africa requires transitional forces that cannot only marshal street power but have the wherewithal to manoeuvre the pitfalls of regional politics that inevitably conspire against them.