Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Sat, Oct 6th, 2018

What makes Yemen a “legitimate” state?

The media, reinforced by a mischievous U.N. resolution, consistently refer to the exiled Yemeni interim president Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi as the “legitimate” leader of Yemen.  The Huthis, who with the aid of most local tribes in the north, have de facto control of most of Yemen’s population, are dismissed as rebels. Lost in the diplomatic banter is a crucial fact: who is considered legitimate in the view of Yemeni citizens rather than by the wealthy neighbors currently at war against the majority of Yemenis? What makes a legitimate government “legitimate” and when does it cease to be so?

Interim President Hadi (top), Abd al-Malik al-Huthi (bottom)

In 2011, after Ali Abdullah Salih stepped down from power, the GCC brokered a deal that Yemenis citizens had little choice to reject. The call for a National Dialogue Conference and eventual election of a new president was all well and good. Unfortunately, the deal called for only one consensus candidate to be initially elected, the sitting vice-president Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was already unpopular in most of the country. This was meant to be an interim position, to be followed by a real democratic election. The GCC deal, backed by the major Western powers and the UN Security Council, was forced on Yemen. An election of only one candidate is not a serious election, certainly not for as important a role as president.

In September, 2014, a coalition of the so-called Huthis, major northern tribes and government army troops loyal to former President Salih entered Sanaa, after routing rivals in the Muslim Brotherhood clone Islah party, and gained control with almost no bloodshed.  An agreement was signed with the sitting interim President Hadi, who was unpopular with just about everyone. On January 22, 2015 Hadi and his Prime Minister both resigned, and southern secessionists declared their independence. As an internal affair, the Huthi/Salih alliance was now in firm control of the capital and most of the north. If they were not now “legitimate”, then none of the previous coups in Yemen, including the one that toppled the Zaydi Imamate in 1962, were legitimate either. Whether or not they would continue to be legitimate was shortchanged by a war from the south side.

Legitimacy, in the political science sense, is in the eye of the beholder, especially those who hold a lot of wealth and influence with global powers.  When Hadi managed to escape, he resigned from his resignation and the Saudis, with a coalition of the willing-to-be-bought, immediately began a war to reinstate him. That was over three years ago, a conflict which has made Yemen the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, according to the same UN that authorized the violence in the first place. 

No government can be considered legitimate if it is unable to provide services to the people it is supposed to govern and if it cannot fulfill the social contract with the full range of its citizens. In this sense, there is no legitimate government in Yemen, a failed state that also suffers from being a playground in the proxy war between the Sunni Salafi Saudis and Shi’a Iran. A recent report by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies outlines the problem well:

“Now, after several years of conflict, the Hadi government has lost most of the political support it once had. Some political leaders still nominally ally with Hadi to benefit from the sheen of legitimacy that still attaches to the internationally recognized government. However, in areas that the internationally recognized government claims to control, local leaders often ignore or openly defy its policies. Neither the Hadi government nor the de facto authority of the Houthis in Sana’a are able to provide basic services to the Yemeni people. In southern Yemen, the movement for independence is gaining strength, backed in part by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). As the conflict continues, the crisis of state legitimacy in Yemen deepens.”

This report makes four important recommendations. First, the government must not wait until conflict ends. Those state institutions in place must remain active and the employees receive their salaries. They must also work closely with local authorities to address institutional weaknesses and mitigate violence. Second, once the conflict ends there must be major reforms, coming from the “bottom up” and not dictated by outside forces. Third, the Saudi  coalition and its Western backers must stop using Yemen as a playing field for their grievances “and regard Yemen as a nation in its own right.” Yemeni citizens must have the right to choose and rebuild their state and local institutions. Finally, the international community must work with all segments of the diverse Yemeni society and not just the entrenched political parties which created the mess in the first place.

Yemen’s northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, has never recognized the legitimacy of Yemen as an independent state. In the 1930s Ibn Sa‘ud wrested control of Najran and the Asir region, both more closely linked to the history of Yemen than to the area where the Saudis came from. This was part of a plan to spread an intolerance Wahhabi Islam that was resisted by Oman and most of the people in the Gulf. In the 1960s the Saudis backed the ousted Zaydi Imam Badr, but eventually lost out to the new republic which had the support of Egypt’s President Nasser.  But the Saudis never stopped interfering in the affairs of its southern neighbor. They are implicated in the assassination of President Hamdi and also played favorites in the former Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). They funded imported ultra-conservative teachers through Yemen’s Ministry of Education.

Whatever legitimacy Yemen’s past governments have had in the eyes of the world, this has been continuously undermined by external actors. The Saudis, and more recently the Emiratis, clearly do not favor a democracy on their borders. These two oil rich states maintain royal families that skim off their countries wealth, buying loyalty for their extravagances with welfare. Both deny serious political opposition and have serious human rights violations, even before their actions in the current war. Western powers have supplied the military hardware and technical expertise that allows the current coalition to devastate Yemen’s infrastructure, people’s lives and national heritage. It is hard to be legitimate, when a country is not allowed to determine its own legitimacy.

The solution to the current crisis, which has polarized Yemen more than any time in the past, would be furthered by immediately dropping the impossible demand of restoring Hadi to power. Not only would his return be anathema to just about everyone in the north, whether they support the Huthis or not, but he would also be rejected by southern secessionists and the people of the Hadramawt. I am sure the Saudis could find a nice villa for his retirement near that of former Tunisian dictator Ben Ali. Perhaps the one used by Uganda’s Idi Amin is available. Nor should the former military strongman and cofounder of Islah, General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, be allowed to play any role in a future government. Yemen needs a new generation of leaders, those who have not sold out to a particular side in the past. 

There is currently nothing legitimate about any of the major players in the current conflict in Yemen. Only the diverse citizenry of Yemen can determine future legitimacy. But the chances of that happening, given the global power dynamics in the region, are very small. But political miracles can happen, so let us hope for one to save Yemen from the disaster it has not yet been able to escape.

About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Senior Fellow at the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg of Bonn University, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.