The received wisdom concerning the war in Yemen is that it is the evil handiwork of a foreign agent motivated by sectarianism trying to frustrate popular demands for political reform and stability.
Insofar as this representation refers to Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab states attempting to engineer an outcome favourable to their neo-colonial, politically regressive worldview, it is not too wide of the mark.
The crisis in Yemen cannot be viewed in isolation from the Arab Spring and the counter-revolution that followed. In 2011 millions of Yemenis rose up to throw off the shackles of the repression they had suffered since decolonisation. Fed up with the 33-year reign of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and inspired by the popular uprisings around them, they plucked up the courage to bring down the wily dictator and inaugurate a transition process that many believed would lead to a new, fairer and more representative, political landscape.
Those dreams, however, failed to materialise. Saleh was replaced by a transitional president in the shape of Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a 66-year-old former general and long-serving vice-president in a move orchestrated by Yemen’s neighbours led by Saudi Arabia. In the time honoured way of Middle Eastern democracy, the western endorsed presidential election that followed featured Hadi as the sole candidate.
A National Dialogue Council (NDC) was created to smooth the way to an inclusive government but signally failed to solve some of Yemen’s intractable problems. The Houthis, a political cum religious revivalist movement with its roots in the Zaydi stream of Islam, opposed the NDC’s main recommendation that Yemen should be divided into six federal regions, fearing that it would diminish their territorial powerbase. They were also deeply suspicious of Saudi Arabia, which fears and reviles their presence on its southern border and casts the Houthis as an Iranian proxy.
Standing alongside them were the separatists in the south of Yemen who have long felt marginalised and neglected by central government and believed that the NDC had also failed to address their concerns.
And allied with both of them in a bizarre twist was the former president. Saleh fought no fewer than six wars against the Houthis during his tenure, aided and abetted by Riyadh, but ever the opportunist, he saw in the rise of the Houthis a powerful force through which to advance his personal agenda of manoeuvring his son Ahmed Ali into the presidency. Retaining the support of large sections of the military and the loyalty of some powerful tribes, Saleh is backing what he believes will be the winning horse.
That is not to detract from the fact that the disenchanted majority in Yemen harbour genuine grievances. Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East. Half the population is illiterate, infant mortality is high and poverty and unemployment rife in the nation of 26 million. Public services from schools to hospitals and utilities including the water supply are dysfunctional. Corruption is endemic. Under the ancien regime the patronage that underpinned the political longevity of strongman Saleh did not extend further than a few favoured tribes. Any group that was marginal to Saleh’s authority was neglected.
So contrary to popular perception the demands of Yemen’s malcontents are not unreasonable. In fact they are pretty much aligned with the aspirations of the rest of the Arab Spring: political and economic empowerment, good governance and an end to corruption and foreign interference.