Yemen And The Agony Of The Modern Arab Era

While Yemen is a telling lesson in how not to practice stable statehood, it also requires more urgent attention because it poses real and major danger to others in the region and the world.

The stunning situation in Yemen, as that country’s foundations shake and slowly collapse, is a complete example of the structural weaknesses that plague so many of the countries of the modern Arab world. If you want to teach someone about why the Arab world continues to lurch from conflict to conflict in a region-wide maelstrom of political violence and state incoherence, Yemen could be the best example that captures the fundamental, always lethal, structural weakness that now also rears its head in a dozen other Arab states: the lack of a citizenry’s validation of their own country inevitably leads to the collapse of the integrated state and its fragmentation into smaller units led by armed groups, amidst chronic violence.

While Yemen is a telling lesson in how not to practice stable statehood, it also requires more urgent attention because it poses real and major danger to others in the region and the world. This is because of its proximity to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) oil-producers and major global sea lanes, the established presence there of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and the consequences of state collapse and new refugee flows in a country of 25 million low-income people with few economic prospects.

This highlights the second important lesson in Yemen: after the end of the Cold War in 1990, the Arab region and its thin states cannot rely on external forces to maintain a regional order or at least prop up vulnerable states and prevent them from collapsing and spilling over their sicknesses and weaknesses into neighboring countries. Yemen is frightening also because this likelihood occurs at a moment, and in a context, when nobody is in charge of maintaining a semblance of order and national integrity. Local chaos mirrors regional chaos.

The startling thing also is that Yemen has been undergoing such national stresses and ruptures for the past half a century — since the Saudi Arabian-Egyptian, American-Soviet proxy war in that land in the 1960s. The alternating episodes of modern state-building and state-collapse that Yemen has experienced since the 1950s include virtually every political element that has shaped and wrecked the modern Arab world in that period. The long and astounding list includes, most importantly, tribal and religious forces, Arab nationalist and regional separatist movements, armed sectarian groups, terrorist groups such as AQAP, foreign colonial manipulation (in South Yemen pre-1967), external Arab power plays and proxy wars, big power Cold War influences, family-and-security-run governments, attempts at democratization and political pluralism, repeated national dialogs, popular revolutions, direct interventions by neighboring powers such as Saudi Arabia and the GCC or by the United Nations, indirect interventions by Iran and others, significant external economic assistance, unification and separation of north and south, serious attempts at consensus-based constitution-writing and decentralization of power, and, to make matters worse, a serious environmental crisis of fresh water depletion that will be catastrophic if it is not addressed quickly and seriously.

These elements of erratic politics, identity, nationalism and statehood are now joined by the latest development—the Houthi takeover last week of the capital Sanaa and declaration of a new constitutional transitional system that has sparked new concerns and threats from many directions. The incredible—but positive—element is that the major political groups in Yemen continue to meet this week under the chairmanship of the UN special envoy to seek a political solution to the constitutional and governance stresses that tear  apart their country.

Yemen has many options, all of which it has tried or broached before without lasting success—including secession of the south, tribal fiefdoms in the north, decentralized constitutionalism, civil war, democratic pluralism and power-sharing, or a strong centralized security state. The two new elements that frighten everyone in Yemen and abroad are the established but limited presence of AQAP, and the possibility that ISIS would exploit the chaos there to set up its own operation in Yemen.

The GCC is again likely to be the major external player that tries to maintain some kind of order in Yemen, as it did several years ago when its efforts removed the former ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh and ushered in a transition period to a more pluralistic but short-lived system of power-sharing via the national dialog. The Saudi-led GCC states will see the Houthi takeover of Sanaa as another Iranian-backed threat to Sunni power in the region, which they will try to neutralize. This short-term approach to political developments cannot camouflage the deeper, older vulnerabilities of the entire modern Arab order that Yemen once again highlights—a chronic lack of stability and sustainable national development in Arab states that have sought legitimacy in their militaries or foreign patrons, rather than in the state-forming consent and state-building participation of their own citizens.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global