The peace process between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels appears to be on the verge of breaking down after the government’s delegation walked out of negotiations. The two parties have been negotiating for months in Kuwait, but they have been unable to reach an agreement. The government delegation left Kuwait after accepting a proposed UN peace deal. The deal, however, will not be finalized unless the Houthis accept it by the August 7 deadline. Thanks to Yemen’s complex history and the geopolitics of the region, however, its conflict will be far from solved even if the Houthis do accept the deal. To understand why Yemen’s problems are likely to persist, it is important to understand how the country got to where it is now–17 months into a violent civil war.
Yemen is a very old place. Located in the southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula, it has a temperate climate and has long been at the center of prosperous trade routes. As a result, its capital Sana’a is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. Yemen’s recent history, however, has not been as bright. While the Arabian peninsula is often associated with obscene oil riches, Yemen could not be further from that reality. With rugged mountains and very little oil, Yemen is the poorest country in the Arabian peninsula. Most of its roughly 24 million people are employed in the agricultural sector.
During the Ottoman Empire’s long decline, Yemen–located at the empire’s southern fringes–began to slip out of its control. The northern portion of Yemen came under the control of imams of the Zaidi sect. The Zaidis, a Shiite group, established an independent kingdom. At the same time, the southern portion of Yemen became a British protectorate.
In the 1960s, great change came to Yemen. The Zaidi imams who had for years dominated the the north were overthrown by Arab nationalists. A civil war ensued, and the nationalists, with the help of an Egyptian military intervention, succeeded in establishing a secular republic. At the same time, an insurgency in the south prompted the United Kingdom to grant independence to its protectorate. Thus South Yemen was formed as a communist state. Despite the Cold War-era tensions that generally existed between democratic and communist states, North and South Yemen agreed to to merge in 1972.
North and South Yemen finally merged to become the Republic of Yemen in 1990. It was not, however, the smoothest of transitions. With a larger population, the institutions of North Yemen came to dominate the new nation. Sana’a, the capital of North Yemen, became its capital, and Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of North Yemen, became its president. In 1994, officials from the south attempted to secede and a civil war ensued. The war resulted in a northern victory, which further marginalized those in the south south.
From 1994 to 2012, Yemen was ruled by Saleh. During that period, various insurgencies plagued the country. The Houthis, a group that claims to represent the Zaidis–whose imams had once ruled the North–began an insurgency near the northwest border with Saudi Arabia in 2004. In 2007, a new group emerged in the south–the Southern Movement–that once again called for independence from the north. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) emerged as one of the most dangerous branches of Al-Qaeda in 2009. While Saleh successfully consolidated his own leadership, his government struggled to consolidate its control over the country.
In 2011, the Arab Spring came to Yemen. In 2012, Saleh, who had ruled North Yemen since 1978 and unified Yemen since its creation in 1990, was overthrown. He was replaced by Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. Hadi led Yemen through what was once lauded by US President Obama as a model transition. Since then, however, the model transition has fallen apart.
In July of 2014, Yemen’s government announced that fuel subsidies would be reduced, provoking mass protests. Recognizing the opportunity to take advantage of popular discontent with the government, Houthi militants left their northern stronghold and entered Sana’a in 2014. In January of 2015, they took over the presidential palace and forced Hadi to flee. The country was paralyzed. Supporters of former president Saleh joined forces with the Houthis and continued their sweep across the country. They were opposed by forces loyal to Hadi and southern separatists, who control parts of the south. The Houthis–a Shiite group–were also opposed by AQAP–a Sunni group. AQAP took advantage of the chaos to expand its own influence. ISIS, too, has now entered the fray.
The conflict escalated in March of 2015 when Saudi Arabia began an airstrike campaign in support of Hadi’s deposed government. The primary reason it intervened was because it feared that a Houthi government would expand Iranian influence to their southwest border. This is partially because Iran, which funds the Houthis, is Shiite while Saudi Arabia, like much of Yemen’s former government, is Sunni. Thus Yemen’s civil war has expanded into a religious conflict, an Islamist conflict, a separatist conflict, and a regional proxy war.
This complexity is why previous peace deals have failed and why the proposed peace deal will do the same. Even if it is signed–which seems unlikely at this point–it is only Hadi’s government, the Houthis, and suppporters of Saleh that are at the negotiating table. Other groups that have taken advantage of the conflict, like AQAP, ISIS, the Southern Movement, and even Iran, will have no reason to support peace.
This war is the confluence of multiple historical forces that have resulted in the disenfranchisement of millions. The war began when the country’s widespread poverty resulted in frustration with the reduction of fuel subsidies. The violence of the Houthis is partially due to the fact that the Zaidis lost their place of power decades ago and became a Shiite minority in a Sunni majority country. The violence in the south is due to its loss of influence in 1990 and 1994. The violence of Saleh supporters is due to his loss of power in 2012. The violence of AQAP and ISIS is part of the global rise in Wahhabi terrorism that has taken advantage of society’s most disadvantaged individuals. These forces will remain even after a peace deal is signed. For this reason, peace in Yemen will not arise from a negotiating table. Instead, the underlying disenfranchisement that motivates those fighting must be addressed.