I recently read through Yemen Endures: Civil War, Saudi Adventurism, and the Future of Arabia (2017), an excellent journalistic and historical account of Yemeni politics in the last two decades, written by Ginny Hill, who appears to be one of the few Western/English-speaking journalists who have spent a significant amount of time in the country. The book does much to unveil complex elite networks, and the rivalries and conflicts that have been bubbling under the surface in Yemen, which exploded into full view after the rupture of the Arab Spring and have now drawn in regional and international powers in what may end up being the most catastrophic war in decades, with tens of millions of people at risk.
Perhaps the most interest part of the book is the unpacking of the three factions that were holding together the Yemeni state prior to the 2011 Arab Spring protests. You had Ali Abdullah Saleh, the regime leader with a vast patronage network, built over decades of rule. Then you had Ali Mohsin, a major military figure under Saleh who had his own relatively independent support base, and much closer ties with Islah, a Islamist political party associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. And finally, you had Sheikh Abdullah — speaker of the parliament — and his son Hamid — a powerful businessman with his fingers in every part of the economy — both of whom lead the Hashid tribal confederacy and also had ties with Islah.
The patronage network that held the regime coalition together was largely fueled by oil profits. This worked, for a time — but Yemen’s crude oil production peaked in early 2001, meaning that as the decade dragged on, the regime elites were facing a zero-sum game over a shrinking pie. This also seems to have been underpinned by different factions cultivating ties with various international actors. Saleh managed to get closer to the US military apparatus after the start of the War on Terror by playing up the presence of al-Qaeda in the country, even as he played a double game and diverted funds and training to boost up his own loyalist wing of the military, the Republican Guard. Meanwhile, Hamid’s powerful holding company, the al-Ahmar group, cultivated increasing ties with regional and international capital and steadily increased control over various parts of the Yemeni economy.
Meanwhile, Ali Mohsin was at the head of the 1st Armored Division. The growing rivalry between Mohsin and Saleh lead to a rather chaotic situation during the Houthi insurgency in the later 2000s. The 1st Armored Division was tasked with leading the fight against the Houthis, but kept being cut off by peace deals negotiated unilaterally by Saleh. At some points there were even violent clashes around the northern city of Saada between the Republican Guard and the 1st Armored Division, as these intra-regime tensions began to increasingly boil over. The Houthis, for their part, generally held their own militarily, and even successfully fought back some tepid Saudi attempts at military intervention at the northern borders. This is some of the more recent historical context of the current war, that saw Saleh and his loyalists join forces with the Houthis to fight a full-on civil war against the post-Arab Spring regime, supported by Mohsin and Hamid and Islah.
And of course, always lurking above Yemen, is the US empire, who has in recent years stepped up their increasingly confused military actions, which appear to be carried out with little to no understanding of Yemeni politics, and yet can reverberate and shake up the entire country. This was seen in a most dramatic fashion in May 2010, when a drone strike killed a deputy governor and powerful tribal leader, during a meeting where he was trying to negotiate a settlement between the regime and al-Qaeda. The al-Shabwan tribe attacked oil pipelines in revenge, which lead to a shortage of fuel in the capital city of Sana’a. To deal with the shortage, Saleh diverted fuel from the south, which lead to blackouts and fuel shortages in the southern city of Aden, provoking riots and further contributions to southern separatist sentiments.
Today, it seems that the old regime factions are becoming increasingly irrelevant, and getting picked apart by the Houthis, the Southern Movement, and al-Qaeda — movements that have an actual mass base, rather than consisting of self-interested opportunists bought off via bribes and subsidies. Saleh is dead, killed by the Houthis after he attempted to switch sides again and make his own deal with the House of Saud. Mohsin’s forces were humiliated by the Southern Movement as they finally began flexing their armed wing. Much of Hamid’s business empire has been expropriated by the Houthis, and the Hashid confederacy has disintegrated. The fate of the country is up in the air, but the one sure thing is that the old elites of Yemen are withering away into history.