Understanding Yemen: Before, During, and After Conflict
A Conversation with Yasmeen al-Eryani and Stacey Philbrick Yadav
Organized and edited by David Siddhartha Patel
In April, the two main warring parties in Yemen—the Houthi movement and the Government of Yemen—agreed to a two-month truce brokered by the United Nations that has since been extended twice. After the initial truce, Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi handed power to an eight-member Presidential Leadership Council, a development that many Yemenis and observers hope will lead to an end of almost eight years of war in the country. In this Crown Conversation, we spoke with Yasmeen al-Eryani and Stacey Philbrick Yadav about efforts to end the war, the importance of inclusion in peacebuilding, and the myriad ways in which conflict and international humanitarian efforts have changed the nature of research in Yemen. Al-Eryani is the director of research at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, and Philbrick Yadav is an associate professor of international relations at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and a non-resident fellow at the Crown Center.
President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in several ways, represented a Yemen that no longer exists, and the eight members of the new Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) each has some amount of influence on the ground in Yemen. Does this place them in a better position to negotiate with the Houthis during the truce? What challenges does the PLC face?
Yasmeen al-Eryani: Ten years under President Hadi was catastrophic for Yemen. He actively blocked any openings for reviving peace processes. For Yemenis, he was an absent leader: He was reclusive and seldom addressed the nation, even in the most critical moments. As president, Hadi remained fixated solely on self-preservation and amassing wealth for himself and his sons. Thus, in contrast—and setting aside the questionable formulation on which the PLC was announced and the nature of its composition (mostly military men with clashing political agendas)—I can at least say that the PLC potentially provides us with an opportunity that was not possible under Hadi’s presidency. That being said, even though Dr. Rashad Al-Alimi, in his first address as chairperson of the council, stated that “this is a council of peace and not war,” most of its members head an armed faction or have a military background. We have yet to see if the PLC will set Yemen on a path toward peace or one toward further war.
When it comes to the prospects for the PLC to help end the conflict in Yemen, the internal and external challenges that it faces are enormous. However, it has one very important advantage: a degree of regional backing that coincides with the intention of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to move on from the Yemen war. If the PLC does not capitalize on this, we risk a situation in which Saudi and the UAE—after figuring out arrangements to secure their borders—orchestrate a rushed exit, absolving themselves from the responsibility for reconstruction and leaving Yemen in a state of a continuous civil war. There is also recent momentum with the UN-led peace process, which culminated in a truce that both preceded the establishment of the PLC by a few days and was extended for the second time in August for an additional two months. Under the truce, the parties agreed to halt all military offensives inside Yemen and across borders; reopen Sanaa International Airport to commercial flights (to and from Amman and Cairo) after six years of closure; allow fuel shipments to enter Hodeidah, the vital port on the Red Sea; and reach an agreement on opening roads to the battleground city of Taiz, which has been under a brutal seven year-long siege by the Houthis. The first three items in the agreement are holding while negotiations on access to Taiz are faltering. Meanwhile, there are reports of large-scale military mobilization by the Houthis around Taiz and Marib, and the Houthis held several military parades during the months of truce. The window to expand the truce into a national ceasefire seems to be closing rapidly with no clear plan for what would happen past October if the truce is not renewed. Similarly, the window of opportunity for the PLC to gain legitimacy by taking practical measures to improve living conditions and service delivery for people in areas under the control of the Government of Yemen, and unify anti-Houthi military groups under its banner, is also rapidly closing.
The PLC faces several challenges. The first is establishing a healthy equilibrium between its members, knowing that some of them have political projects that deeply contradict the mandate of the PLC. Next, the PLC must figure out a security arrangement that would allow it to operate from inside Yemen. Currently, the PLC chairperson and cabinet members who operate in Aden depend on the security protection of the Southern Transitional Council, a South Yemen secessionist movement whose president is the deputy chairperson of the PLC. Another challenge that the PLC must deal with is a potential resurgence in the South of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP controlled much of the governates of Abyan and Shabwah from 2012 to 2014 and carried out numerous assassinations. It took control of Mukalla in 2015-2016. The PLC also must wisely manage and respond to angry mass protests in Aden that are a result of deteriorating economic conditions, rising fuel prices, and a lack of improvement in public service delivery. Compounding these challenges, the supporting bodies that are meant to provide the infrastructure for the PLC—such as the legal team set to draft the PLC’s regulations and decision-making mechanism, the economic team, and the reconciliation commission—are stumbling, with several members stepping down. Additionally, the US$3 billion economic package that Saudi Arabia and the UAE pledged in Riyadh upon the establishment of the PLC has not been disbursed yet.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the Houthis are engaged in discrete negotiations in Muscat without the PLC. This could be seen as sidelining Dr. Rashad Al-Alimi and his council and signaling that the PLC may not be in a better negotiating position with the Houthis than Hadi was. Meanwhile, the Houthis, who have been steadfast in building their own governance and military structures and keeping the population in their areas heavily taxed and heavily policed, have shown no interest in power-sharing.
Stacey Philbrick Yadav: For several years already, Yemenis have been quite clear that President Hadi had limited representational authority and could not be expected to effectively negotiate a sustainable outcome. So, from that perspective, the shift to a presidential council is a late-arriving recognition of that reality. But the current diplomatic framing is still one that emphasizes a fundamentally binary conflict between some kind of “Government of Yemen” and the Houthi insurgents. I am concerned that this is an unrealistic approach for two reasons. The first is that it underestimates the extent of fragmentation and conflict within the “government” camp, and the second is that it underestimates the extent to which governance has been institutionalized by the Houthis. The fact that the Presidential Council hasn’t met in weeks speaks to this point, as does the fact that the primary violations of the truce have thus far fallen outside of the framework established by the truce and unfolded largely among different Yemeni factions. While the truce has contributed to a significant reduction in cross-border conflict between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition, it has not addressed Houthi violence against domestic adversaries, which is still substantial, or conflict among the weakly-integrated members of the PLC.
The Houthis have controlled at least some of the Yemeni bureaucracy for seven years, and their de facto authority has also enabled the implementation of new institutions and practices in areas under their control. It is not enough to consider the Houthis as a threat to the state—they are, though they are not alone in this—but they have also effectively assumed the role of the state in some parts of the country. That is a different kind of peacebuilding challenge than, say, defeating an armed insurgency: It means really reckoning with the prospect of some kind of postwar power-sharing. The longer the war goes on, of course, this prospect becomes more unpalatable to many Yemenis, and understandably so. Looking at other analogous conflicts of internationalized civil war, however, underscores why some kind of planning for post-conflict justice is so important. In contexts where there has been little or no accountability for wartime injustices—like Lebanon, for example—the postwar political integration of former antagonists continues to be a driver of instability.
The UN and many aid organizations often emphasize the importance of inclusive peacebuilding in conflict-affected states. What does the Yemeni experience tell us about what “inclusion” does and does not mean?
Yasmeen al-Eryani: I think the word “inclusion” in the context of peacebuilding always calls for more scrutiny: inclusion of whom, when, and how? Is the inclusion embedded in structures that empower those who are meant to be included: Do they feel empowered to affect change? How do we define the categories of those who should be included, and who is left out from these definitions? I think that once you get into answering these questions in the context of peacebuilding in Yemen, the limitations and shortcomings become evident.
The war in Yemen was preceded by an attempt at a national dialogue (the National Dialogue Conference, or NDC, of 2013–2014) that—even if not adequately inclusive—was expansive and witnessed a dynamic civil engagement. Some may be critical of the process that was followed, but few would deny that the conversation then was broader than it is now. The stark contrast between the period before the war and the period following the outbreak of war is quite telling of how war, literally overnight, can redefine who gets included and who is excluded from peacebuilding. From that point on, the peace process focused solely on “bringing to the table” the conflict parties: Those with the guns got to dictate the parameters for peace.
Sidelining civil society that was activated prior to and around the NDC as soon as armed conflict started was a miscalculation. It created a rupture within Yemeni civil society. Shortly after, many civil society actors became internally displaced or fled the country, and it became difficult for them to organize after losing existing networks and an operational framework. It took time for some to reorganize, to adapt to the new reality, to establish networks in Yemen and in the diaspora, and to rethink their advocacy work as the war took on international and regional dimensions. The UN, which is mandated to lead the peace process, watched as civil society was being suffocated in Yemen and did little to counter that or establish new operational frameworks for civil society to mobilize during the war period, particularly in the early years of the war. This demonstrates how, in practice, inclusion in the peace process continues to remain superficial.
Women rights organizations, which form a dynamic and big part of civil society organizations in Yemen, were relegated after the outbreak of war to an advisory role with little power to affect change, shape peacebuilding approaches, or be included in direct negotiations. In the past few months, with the current UN special envoy, Hans Grundberg, there have been attempts for broader consultations. But it remains unclear whether these will result in anything meaningful.
At the same time, you have an array of international NGOs (INGOs) and a few Yemeni NGOs working on middle- and grassroots levels of informal peace initiatives, which are more inclusive and flexible compared to the formal peace process. However, their work is still restricted by the priorities of the UN envoy’s office and is not without problems. There is always a question of power imbalances and hierarchical relationships in the context of INGOs and Yemeni organizations. Competition over resources and limited incentives for collective action and coordination make the work of INGOs on peace atomized and disconnected from each other. This again may be a result of a lack of an operational framework that could support and empower parallel tracks for peace building, especially local ones. It is important to note that no one organization or single initiative alone can or should be expected to achieve an adequate level of inclusion. This is only possible if the peacebuilding environment in Yemen, especially those efforts financed by international aid, becomes more conducive to collective initiatives and less restricted by a single formal peace track.
Furthermore, we still need to investigate a bit more what we mean by “inclusion” in terms of who gets included. Do we include victims of violations? How do we go about including people in remote rural areas? How do we reach the 40% or more of Yemenis who are illiterate? What about ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities? I have not seen these questions tackled seriously by those leading the peace process in Yemen.
In my view, without taking inclusion seriously and creating the frameworks and mechanisms that are permissible for it, we risk having a very short-lived peace that doesn’t address root causes of the conflict and reduces peace to a settlement deal shaped by the narrow interests of armed groups and a mere interlude before future conflicts—if we even reach that point at all.
Stacey Philbrick Yadav: I couldn’t agree with Yasmeen more on the need to scrutinize the language (and practice) of inclusion. This is something that fascinates me, from a research standpoint. There really does appear to be a substantial gap between what international organizations and their representatives mean when they talk about inclusion and what it seems to mean to many of my Yemeni interlocutors. This is not a new distinction, either, but one that goes back (at least) as far as the post-2011 transitional framework.
In very broad strokes, I characterize the two approaches as one that emphasizes the importance of voice and one that seeks to shape outcomes. There is a relationship between these two, of course—voice can be used to shape outcomes. But some people, particularly civil actors, express frustrations at being called to the table to offer “input” or share perspectives, knowing that actual decisions are being made by others. These others include humanitarian and international organizations, of course, but also conflict actors. I have seen some encouraging examples, usually in hyperlocal contexts, where being invited to offer input has resulted in the development of consensus and has produced identifiable outcomes, such as bringing members of previously-excluded groups into local government at the municipal level where they actually exercise some decision-making power. But I hear a lot from activists, researchers, and other civil actors who feel discouraged by years of giving input, to little effect.
Yemen remains one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, with over 20 million people in need of assistance. How has the influx of aid operations from international donors and transnational aid organizations affected NGOs and think-tanks on the ground in Yemen?
Yasmeen al-Eryani: Yemeni civil society, including NGOs, were very mobile and active in the decades prior to the war. They developed networks within human rights groups regionally and internationally, and some had experience in advocacy work and legislative reforms. Women’s organizations were, and remain, very active and dynamic. When the war broke out there was an obvious rupture in civil society: Many people involved in civil society organizations fled the country, became displaced, or were fearful of speaking up. The space for civil action shrank drastically over a period of a couple of months. Those who remained readjusted their operations from human rights and advocacy to humanitarian aid, which is—in principle—non-political. But the power dynamics in aid-funding mechanisms created unhealthy structures, with Yemeni organizations taking the highest risk while acting as subcontractors to international NGOs or UN agencies who have limited presence on the ground.
However, I think politics always finds its way through the cracks. In the Sana’a Center, I work closely and on a long-term basis with NGOs from across Yemen, and I do not sense that they have become less political or have given up their work in advocacy, accountability, human rights, and women’s and youth participation. And, just as importantly, some gained commendable experience in peace processes and peacebuilding. This makes me hopeful that they will be the ones to do the heavy lifting once the guns fall silent. It is however important to empower them now and prepare for this transition to avoid yet another rupture.
Stacey Philbrick Yadav: It is clear that donor-directed projects are shaping research, as well as programming. In a project I worked on that involved mapping peacebuilding civil society organizations (CSOs) across the country, people talked a lot about the humanitarianization of peacebuilding, even if they didn’t always use this language to describe it. CSO staff talked about pressure that they have faced to abandon programming oriented toward reconciliation or mediation in favor of needs assessment and direct delivery of aid. On the one hand, it makes sense because CSO staff may have the research skills to do the assessments and the networks and capacity to deliver aid in areas that are inaccessible to international organizations. But, on the other hand, it also reflects a different understanding of the relationship between conflict and need, where Yemeni peacebuilders are more likely to view conflict as a driver of humanitarian crisis, not the reverse. And some worry that realigning their work is stripping the peacebuilding sector of important resources and reducing Yemeni agency in important ways. The Sana’a Center, where Yasmeen works, published an excellent series of papers on some of the ways that donor-driven humanitarianization is extending the war: It was a tough subject to take on, and I appreciate that they wrestled openly with internal discussions at the Sana’a Center about whether to even write it. It underscores the essential role that Yemeni-led organizations are playing as knowledge-producers and reflects an important perspective that helps explain, at least in part, why the war in Yemen, eight years in, remains so difficult to resolve.
Before 2014, Yemen was one of the most dynamic sites of research in the Arab world. How has the war affected what is being studied in and about Yemen and how the country and its people are understood? What is not being studied now?
Stacey Philbrick Yadav: There have been qualitative and quantitative changes to what is being written about Yemen, I think, especially if you consider materials produced in English. When I started doing research in Yemen in the early 2000s, there were relatively few foreign researchers there, and we tended to rely on ethnographic field research, whether or not we were in the field of anthropology. This was a function of research infrastructure and the kinds of questions people were asking. But this tended to produce an unavoidably fragmentary portrait of the country, where individual researchers knew a great deal about a specific place/time/question. The establishment of the Yemen Polling Center (YPC) in 2004 began to make systematic national-level surveys possible. And the YPC understood the necessity of training local researchers to do data collection under diverse conditions, among men and women, etc. Organizationally, I think it was a kind of bridge to the current situation, where Yemeni researchers have become vital to knowledge-production at all scales. These Yemeni researchers are not simply deploying the questions that others have designed but are playing a central role in the conceptualization and design of research. But most of this research is funded from abroad—with international organizations and government agencies funding research that Yemeni researchers design and execute. Yasmeen is one of the first people to publicly point out the distorting effect this has on the kinds of questions that are being asked, and it’s such an important observation. Laurent Bonnefoy recently wrote a good overview of this, as well, from his vantage point as a longstanding researcher writing about Yemen for academic audiences. The war—mapping conflict dynamics, assessing needs, identifying peacebuilding resources at the local level—has thoroughly permeated research on Yemen for the past several years and has crowded out a lot of questions.
I tend to view this shift, though, as substantial in another way. So many foreign researchers, myself included, have not been able to travel to Yemen during the war. This has shifted the balance of who is writing about Yemen and why. The war has created a previously unprecedented opportunity for Yemenis to be the primary narrators of the conflict in Yemen. There have also been some opportunities for collaborative research between foreign scholars and Yemeni partners. I have had the chance to work on several of these; they are not uncomplicated, but they are deeply enriching. A lot of the collaborative work that I am aware of has been initiated through organizations like the one where Yasmeen works: new “hybrid” research and advocacy organizations established primarily by Yemeni researchers. In my forthcoming book, I talk about the relationship between research, description, and narration: the way the story gets told, who tells it, and the advocacy purposes to which research is put. These are all important sources of political agency. In our conversations about this, Yasmeen has raised some good questions about risks raised by the current research environment, and I don’t want to minimize this at all. But I am excited, frankly, to encounter such a new terrain of knowledge-production.
Yasmeen al-Eryani: Stacey raises a very important point when it comes to understanding the research landscape in Yemen: What kind of questions get to be asked and by whom? As someone directing research in a Yemeni organization and working closely with Yemeni researchers on the ground, the question about the ownership of narratives on Yemen is at the forefront of what I do. As I see it, the war affected social science research on Yemen in at least three ways. The first is access and research feasibility. The war made it very difficult to access large and populated areas to openly conduct research; survey and focus groups became even more difficult and too risky in highly policed or militarized areas. In these conditions, research participants would also likely self-censor, and this undermines research results. Existing challenges to research prior to the war had to do mostly with geography and reaching inhabitants of remote mountainous villages. But, today, access is hindered across large swathes of the country, making large-scale research difficult and risky. Under such conditions, the research center in which I lead the research department must now rely on personal networks to conduct key informant interviews and, albeit to a lesser extent, focus groups. Furthermore, and Stacey alludes to this in her research, this work is becoming highly securitized, putting anyone who handles data and information at risk.
Second, the war changed who is carrying out research and who is funding it. International academics have lost almost all access to the field; even those with decades of experience conducting field research in Yemen are unable to do research as they did before. As for Yemeni academics, Yemeni universities had low publication rates even before the war. I have not seen specific figures, but I can imagine that the situation has worsened, given the dire conditions in which universities and faculty are operating. Many Yemeni academics have either left the country or lost their source of income, access to their research sites, and ability to travel abroad and participate in academic conferences. Many Yemeni academics also feel pressure to self-censor to avoid arbitrary detentions or worse.
Nevertheless, I think the war led to the creation of a very important movement of Yemeni-led policy research centers, such as the Sana’a Center, the Yemen Policy Center, and a few others. These centers are led by young Yemenis, both inside and outside of the country, who want to reclaim the narrative when it comes to knowledge production on Yemen. The centers emerged at a time when there was a lot of interest to better understand Yemen and to talk to Yemenis who know the context well, and they managed to fill a gap in innovative and courageous ways, publishing extensively on various policy topics and training local experts in research methods.
In contrast, we have UN agencies and their partner international and local NGOs that conduct research for humanitarian plans and for purposes of aid distribution and a few international policy research centers and think tanks, most of which have no direct access to the field. You also see hybrid publications that mix research and investigative journalism, which is also an interesting shift in that a good amount of research is now happening outside of academic institutions. Nevertheless, prior to the war, I had the sense that much of the research on Yemen lacked conceptual development with a tendency to under-theorize. Now, with fewer opportunities for immersive academic research and more international aid-driven policy research, we’re looking at knowledge production that can quickly become outdated.
That being said, I am not completely pessimistic about how Yemen is being studied and understood now. I think that once the situation stabilizes and the space for research becomes more permissible, we will see very interesting work come along. Many of those researchers who have been on standby, following Yemen from afar, or those in Yemen keeping notes and waiting for the right and safe time to publish will have their moment. We could see research in Yemen take off in completely new directions than what we have been used to in the past.
This takes me to the third, albeit related, way that the war has affected research in Yemen: What is being researched, and this is perhaps directly linked to what Stacey said, and “what questions get to be asked?” Prior to 2011, a lot of social science research on Yemen focused on certain geographical areas, particularly around the capital region and its surrounding villages. Research focused on the powerful tribes in these areas and the former regime’s modes of governance and patronage networks. Security was also a common theme when it came to Yemen, with a lot of attention on extremist groups post-9/11. From 2011 to 2014, there was a lot of interest in social movements and the uprising of 2011. But, during the war years, we have seen a shift in focus from northern tribes to tribes in the east, such as in Marib, Shabwa, and Mahrah. There has also been significant research on Yemeni minorities, the economy of war, and gaining a deeper understanding of local conflict drivers. We also see an abundance of the type of research that focuses on the geopolitical dimension of the war, one in which Yemen features superficially.
Again, we see this rupture in the research space caused by the war reshaping research on Yemen. Overall, the interest in knowledge production and in research is growing among international donors and regional and international actors to better understand the context and define their interventions. However, these are transient research interests. It is important to build projects around supporting and reviving research in Yemen, supporting communities of knowledge and practice, and supporting Yemeni researchers to continue working and networking with adequate safety nets. And, most importantly, projects should ensure that the research taking place is held to ethical standards. Yemenis are already vulnerable to violations, and research can exacerbate these vulnerabilities. This is a serious matter that I think is not getting adequate attention at the moment.
For more Crown Center publications on Yemen, see: "Fragmentation and Localization in Yemen's War: Challenges and Opportunities for Peace" and "A Passing Generation of Yemeni Politics."
The opinions and findings expressed in this Conversation belong to the authors exclusively and do not reflect those of the Crown Center or Brandeis University.