Yemen’s Peace Process: A Path to Conflict?

The possibilities and risks of Yemen embracing peace and stability after a long period of internal civil war remain bleak.

A boy pulls containers of water after he filled them at a faucet, amid an acute shortage of clean drinking water in Sanaa, April 20, 2015. Mohamed al-Sayaghi/Reuters.

The war in Yemen will come to an end.

Yet, its conclusion will not resolve the initial reasons that plunged the country into conflict, and led communities to raise arms against one another. It is likely that many of the underlying issues will continue to exist in the near future, compounded by new complications born of the war, paving the way to continued conflict. 

While peace may benefit some, it can fuel feelings of anger and resentment in others. One challenge for peace-makers is to ensure that those costs and feelings are below a certain threshold and will not be a cause of conflict. 

A peace process, due to its inherent exclusionary nature and limitations of its scope of priorities, is the first step in the fundamental reshaping of the balance of power and re-distribution of resources in a conflict-riven society. This reshaping can lead to a sustainable peace or can lay the groundwork for another conflict.

There are three risks in Yemen’s peace-making process that can create additional reasons for prolonged conflict. These three risks of possible conflict may not be as pronounced as the current crisis, yet they may result in further suffering for millions. 

The Historic Persistence of Conflict

Over the last sixty years, Yemen has witnessed many civil wars and social strife with varying degrees of violence, human cost, and destruction. 

Among these are: the North Yemen Civil War (1962-1970); two wars and multiple skirmishes in the 1970s and 1980s between the North (Yemen Arab Republic) and South Yemen (People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen); the South Yemen Civil War in 1986 that claimed up to ten thousand lives despite lasing less than two weeks; the Yemeni Civil War in 1994 between Separatists in the South Yemen and Unionists from both the North and South; the six-year Sa’ada wars between 2004 to 2010; the wars between the Yemeni government and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), or in most cases between local communities and AQAP; and the civil unrest following the Arab uprisings (2011 – 2013).

All of the aforementioned conflicts have taken place in the context of corrupt oligarchic regimes, weak central state authority, ongoing small, impactful wars between the government and Yemen’s rural communities (tribes), and international interventions. 

In each of those conflicts, no healing process ever took place, and there was no institutional reform. The oligarchy’s structure remained intact and the pattern of the relationship between the ruling class and the ruled persisted with the “winners” paying little attention to the plight of the “losers” or to the collateral societal damage. 

All of this happened in tandem with the active marginalization, ostracization and targeting of some of the losers through arrests, stereotyping, land confiscations, lack of access to opportunities, and in some cases, assassinations. In that light, society was already broken before 2014 and the onset of the present Yemeni Civil War.

Causes of Conflict: Past, Present, and Future

The current conflict which began in 2014 is far more challenging than the previous ones. 

In addition to its horrific human and economic costs, this civil war tore up what was left of Yemen’s social fabric, solidified existing negative narratives and generated new ones. 

The war fundamentally reshuffled power, creating a new set of power brokers and a new set of losers. Everyone in power before 2015 has been either exiled, killed, marginalized or weakened. The old oligarchy—made up mainly of the late president Ali Saleh (d. 2017), the Ahmar family, and their allies—disintegrated, and with it, a wide network of patronage collapsed, and many benefits to the old regime’s social base vanished. 

As in any conflict, this one has multiple causes such as the imbalance of power sharing, unfairness in distribution of resources, exclusion, marginalization, and grievances; all in the context of a weak state and mistrust in its institutions. It is difficult to determine what the most impactful, or root causes were of the civil war. Nor is it possible to accurately determine the factors that could sustain a peace, or at least a future of non-violent conflict. 

Looking into the history of Yemen may give insight on the causes of conflict and factors of peace, but we should avoid overusing history to understand the present conflict. Yemen’s past and more recent history showcases important elements when discussing the current situation, but it has its limits in providing a causal analysis of the current conflict, or potential future causes. Considering that the ongoing conflict exacerbated the causes that lead to them, and created new ones, it may be more useful to take a synchronic approach by analyzing the situation, using case studies from contemporary conflicts in other countries, instead of reading into Yemen’s history. 

In thinking about those possible causes both for the present conflict and possible future conflicts, it is important for policymakers to consider the risks embedded in the process of peacemaking in Yemen. These risks could lead to peace generated causes which could transform the situation from an outright war to a protracted conflict. 

Peace brokers need to think carefully on the following challenges/risks to a real peace in Yemen: inclusion; transitional justice; and overlooking dehumanization. The first two are directly generated by peace mechanisms, and the third is due to the limitations of any peace process. 

The Risk of Inclusion

Much of the rhetoric on securing a lasting peace in Yemen is faction focused and inclusion based. The premise is that without the buy-in of all the existing military, social, and political factions—including tribal groups, local authorities, political parties, women’s and youth groups and other civil society actors— in a negotiated settlement and in subsequent power-sharing arrangements, it will not be possible to reach or sustain a political settlement, let alone create a lasting peace. 

Inclusivity is definitely a key facilitator for peace. However, if done wrong, it could also be a cause for stalling the peace process, delegitimizing the peace when established, and being a harbinger for future conflict by legitimating—and institutionalising—existing fault lines and conflict constructed identities. 

The experience, challenges and learnings from the Yemen National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a UN sponsored transitional dialogue between 2013-2014, should be a lesson. It took the NDC almost a year before it settled on the issue of representation, and even then, many Yemenis believed that it was not inclusive. The forum’s size was too large for effective discussions on complex issues and the key decisions being taken ended up in the hands of a few. Civil society activists and women who had international visibility but lacked broad grassroots support were placed in positions of power at the expense of other activists or women with wider social representation.

The result was that many of those who mattered were excluded, and many of those who did not matter were included and the old guard overtook the process. The NDC still succeeded in many ways, but mainly due to the influence of its international sponsors and that it was taking place under the umbrella of Yemen’s, albeit weak, government.

In post-war scenarios, the situation will be more complex than prior to the war when meetings like the NDC were held. Similar mistakes can happen again and have serious implications on the possibilities of a sustainable peace. 

A key matter to consider in the inclusion process is the risk of legitimating and institutionalizing the existing fault lines and identities. Post conflict, the current fault lines and identities are not necessarily representative of Yemen’s social fabric and cultural mosaic, nor are they expressive of its sophisticated multilayered social dynamics. 

War necessitates inflexible social and political categorization and specific forms of networks, which Yemen resists as we have witnessed in the relative fluidity of identities and loyalties during the war. Yet, a peace process that is formed under pressure to bring results, may actually cement conflict-generated categories by treating the current factions of the war as if they were a reflection of Yemen’s society and culture. A peace process could end up creating a new, unnatural conflict-prone social dynamic. 

The Risk of Transitional Justice

Transitional justice, a multifaceted process to address past grievances and abuses, has come to be a key prerequisite for sustainable peace in post conflict societies. The widespread peace narrative considers that not addressing the human rights abuses perpetrated during the course of the war, and even before, will undermine the peace. 

However, this overlooks the many global failures of transitional justice, including its failure in Yemen in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings. The same reasons leading to those failures—international intervention, elite obstructionism, and a long history of violence and grievances—persist and new reasons for failure are now in existence. 

Giving primacy to transitional justice during peacetime also overlooks the fact that the abuses and grievances have multiplied and changed during the war. As such it will be more-or-less impossible to prosecute transitional justice in Yemen after the war. 

There are now more elites who are targeted for Human Rights abuses and these elites are more powerful than they were before the war. Moreover, if inclusion is a condition for peace, then transitional justice is impossible. This is because, by design, inclusion brings in the actors who perpetuated human rights abuses in a power sharing arrangement. 

Transitional justice in Yemen may potentially add to the existing frustrations and disappointments. While some consider it an opportunity to create a political field of contestation for victims, it could create a field for contentious politics amongst the powerful and become an incubator for new forms of militant expressions of grievances. 

The issue here is not that of the “peace versus justice” dilemma, rather a “peace versus peace” dilemma. Transitional justice and inclusion are conditions for peace, and if both are to be sought together, then both have to be designed in a way that is in sync, depending on the conditions of the country, and thus far calling for transitional justice does not seem to consider this necessity to link transitional justice and inclusion 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Michelle Bachelet stated that “to rebuild lives without fear of recurrence— and for society to move forward—suffering needs to be acknowledged, confidence in State institutions restored and justice done”. Acknowledging the suffering and doing justice are indeed noble aims to aspire to, but they are not necessarily a precondition for living without the fear that violence can occur again.

At this point, we should consider if Yemen is structurally ready for a transitional justice process. Peacemakers may want to consider avoiding international frameworks and delegating the task of achieving justice to Yemenis through their own traditional means, without international sponsorship as it hinders those traditions and creates unnecessary competition between Yemeni actors vying for recognition. 

While I am not an expert in peace-making, I think that as there are merchants of war benefiting from suffering and destruction, there are also merchants of peace for whom peace is an opportunity to secure a place in the future politics of Yemen. 

Peace is inherently political. 

It creates winners and losers, and there is no way to avoid that. The question of “who and what makes peace?” will always benefit some at the expense of others. Inclusion for inclusion’s sake could be counterproductive in a peace process whose purpose is to guarantee that state institutions are functioning effectively and are legitimized by the population, while minimizing the impact on the losers and maximizing the restraints on the winners. 

The Risk of Overlooking Dehumanization

The destabilizing impact of systemic hate and dehumanization, mediated and amplified through social media, is a risk factor that is not given enough attention. 

“Reactionaries”, “racists”, “boors”, “infidels”, “puppets”, “mercenaries”, “traitors”, “terrorists”, are but a few of the key labels—used by officials and influencers on all sides—that exemplify the narratives between the warring sides. This is something that will play a major role in derailing peace efforts and accentuate the potential for conflict. This dehumanization, amplified during the current conflict, may be cemented during peace, mainly due to the way Yemenis decide how to remember the war. 

Yemenis will disagree on how to characterize and remember the war. There are the rare and few who consider this war as an unnecessary evil that could have been avoided had there been less misinformation, more communication, and mutual compromise. 

Instead, the prevailing narrative is that this war was a necessary evil forced upon respective actors due to the behaviors of others. For whoever wins in the war, small or large, this war itself will actually be viewed as “good”, its praises in re-ordering political and economic structures and liberating people from unjust oppression will be sung.

Take for example the Houthi and Southern separatists’ perspectives on the positive aspects of war, and then take the perspectives of smaller players who came out better off after this tragedy. Then take the losers and of those who feel they came off badly at the end of hostilities.

The war will be remembered in a way which will most likely sustain the dehumanization narratives. For the winners, the losers and all those in between, narratives and memories of the war will transform from being a utility to serve propaganda needs, to a vital source of national and group meaning, and a means to legitimize the tragic losses. Those who died in the battlefronts will either be remembered as martyrs, traitors or casualties of an evil enemy. 

Each side needs to hold their fallen as martyrs, and that will demand celebrating the reasons for which they died. The Houthis will celebrate September 21, the date of their takeover of Sanaa, as their day of liberation from the oppression of the corrupt elite. They will commemorate March 26, when the Arab Coalition intervened, as the start of a war of liberation from foreign rule. 

Meanwhile, other Yemenis will mourn September 21 as a day of infamy and the republic’s downfall, and the end of the war will likely be remembered as a day of defeat as they fell victims to the Houthis. Southern separatists’ will see this as either the war that brought independence to the South or, if secession is not achieved, as a missed opportunity and a new form of Northern colonization.

Dehumanization, especially when coupled with religious righteousness and essentialization, encourages aggression and decreases moral inhibitions to perpetrate violence on dehumanized victims. Alone it may not be a direct cause for violent conflict, but with exclusion and marginalization, dehumanization leads to deep communal mistrust which creates a sort of security dilemma between the power brokers of Yemen threatening the volatile transition from war to peace. 

The relationship between Yemeni actors will continue to be riven with fear of the “other” alongside persistent mutual perceptions of threat, creating an ongoing downwards spiral. At best, a political settlement will lead to institutional and formal power sharing at the level of the government, but the historical experience witnessed by Yemenis has made them realize that formal power-sharing does not necessarily reflect the actual power balance between actors. As such, no amount of negotiations between parties will lead to relinquishing power, disarmament, demobilization, or breaking off from foreign allies. 

This creates a vicious circle of uncertainty about the future intentions of the “other” and fuels the quest to acquire more power for protection. Institutions born out of the political settlement will be paralyzed by mistrust, uncertainty and fear. Everyone will be expecting the other side to take over and exclude or eliminate. 

This collective perception of threat will generate collective pessimism, nurture negative memories and narratives, drive an unbridgeable wedge among the actors of any future government and poison the social environment with fear and hate. Dehumanization could be Yemen’s path to failure, and so, combatting it must be at the center of a Yemeni peace process moving forward. 

The Silencing of Guns

There is consensus that the termination of the war is not equated to peace, and that the conflict will likely continue, albeit by other means, until the basic needs of individuals and groups are achieved, or at least the acquisition of those needs is not perceived to be under threat from opposing groups. 

Peacemakers would help Yemenis by being critical of previous frameworks, models and best practices, and by eliciting creative solutions and being transparent about the limitations of a peace process. 

Peacemaking is complicated and rarely, if ever, uncontroversial.  Writing about these challenges in the comfort of a place far away from those that are suffering, is easy, and no criticism is meant towards those on-ground doing their best despite the fog of peace and the pressure of the high stakes involved. 

Yemenis deserve peace and stability, and a way out of the conflict. They need a peace process that does not undermine the durability of peace, and is creative in its solutions while ensuring transparency about what can and cannot be achieved.

Abdullah Hamidaddin is a senior research fellow and director of the Yemen Program at King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. He is the author of Tweeted Heresies: Saudi Islam in Transformation. He has written articles and papers on Yemen and the geopolitics of the Arab Gulf Region.

Read More