Helen Lackner’s Yemen in Crisis: The Road to War was first published in 2017 and was reissued earlier this year. The book is wide-ranging and informative about Yemen’s recent history. The shortcomings occur in the assessments of the contemporary situation, where Lackner’s political leanings somewhat overshadow her analysis.
The book is divided into ten chapters, covering: the crisis since 2011; foreign involvement in Yemen; the various political arrangements in Yemen since the 1960s; the (Sunni) Islamist party, Al-Islah, the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood; the Iran-aligned Zaydi Shi’i movement formally known as Ansarallah, usually called the Huthis; the southern secession movement; tribalism; the effect of minimal resources, particularly water; the internationally-imposed neoliberal economic changes; and the rural-to-urban migration.
Lackner has studied Yemen for four decades, allowing her to detect changes in the country that others might miss. The trends that Lackner identifies are particularly pronounced in the social realm. The tribe, for example, though it remains a “fundamental” building unit of Yemeni society, says Lackner, has weakened as a source of authority and identity as the military and a political kleptocracy expanded there writ. And status once conferred by birth is now often determined by wealth, which, as the author explains at some length, is both a result of, and a reinforcer of, the small, predatory elite that hordes the majority of the wealth to itself.
Lackner does a good job of taking the reader through Yemen’s modern history. The crucial moment is the collapse of the Zaydi Shi’i Imamate in 1962 and the outbreak of a civil war as the Imam’s dynasty tried to recover power—supported by Saudi Arabia, incidentally, showing that Riyadh’s policy towards Yemen is not one of mindless sectarianism as its critics allege. Ultimately, the Saudis and the Shah’s Iran, who also supported the Imams against the republicans backed by Jamal Abd al-Nasser’s radical pan-Arab regime, were defeated.
During that war, which lasted eight years, the south of the country broke away and formed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), often known as South Yemen, the only Communist state there has ever been in the Arab world. Heavily subsidised and in crucial respects controlled by the Soviet Union, PDRY would pose a challenge for the Western-aligned Gulf states, notably by supporting the Communist insurgency in Oman, which was put down with foreign assistance, mostly from the Shah and some from Britain.
Yemen was reunified in 1990, but there was an immediate problem: the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, backed Saddam Hussein after he occupied Kuwait, leading to fury among the other Gulf states, and the repatriation of a million Yemenis, whose remittances were now lost and never replaced as workers from the Subcontinent replaced them. Yemen also struggled to secure international finance for many years after this. In Lackner’s telling, this was punishment orchestrated by the Americans for opposition during the 1990-91 Gulf War. But this is one of the recurring problems throughout the book: Lackner ostensibly wishes to correct the habit of viewing Yemen through the lens of foreign actors and to restore Yemen’s agency, yet in this instance deflects the blame from a completely self-inflicted wound by the Yemeni government onto outsiders.
Lackner is on much firmer ground when she notes that Saleh’s ostentatious backing for the U.S. War on Terror after the 9/11 attacks was a wilful attempt not to repeat the mistake of eleven years earlier—and that the U.S. mis-stepped in its approach to Yemen, seeing the country primarily through a counter-terrorism lens and not realising until much too late that Saleh was always an unreliable ally in that cause.
Lackner’s pithy summary that “the US doesn’t have a Yemen policy, it only has a counter-terrorism policy,” was essentially true until late 2018. There is also little to argue with in her assessment that there is a “need to focus … attention on the real problems faced by Yemenis, rather than on simplistic issues such as counterterrorism, whose importance is infinitely less significant”.
A great service by Lackner is to bring attention to the extremely complicated, contradictory, and cynical nature of the Saleh regime when it came to dealing with militant groups, both the Huthis and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). A key reason the Huthis were able to rise from the margins—even within their own area of the north—to take centre stage in Yemeni politics is because of covert assistance from Saleh dating back a decade (more on this below).
With AQAP, the situation is more murky and has rarely been explored, but the blurry line between state and terrorists has analogues in what happened in Algeria during the 1990s and in Syria more recently, where the governments manipulated jihadist insurgents to defeat their domestic opposition and gain international support. As Lackner puts it, “While the presence of al-Qaeda in Yemen is unarguable, many of its leaders have relationships of one sort or another with senior Yemeni politicians, creating a complex situation.” What is not complex is what Saleh gained: advanced training for his elite forces and piles of cash in international aid.
Unfortunately, Lackner does not stick with this important point about threat-inflation; she extends it and strays into conspiracy theory. “The reality is that this demon (AQAP) is more a creature of Western political propaganda than a real international threat,” Lackner writes. The actual reality is that AQAP was for quite some time Al-Qaeda’s most dangerous branch, launching terrorist plots from Paris to Detroit, where a plane was nearly brought down, and producing perhaps the most dangerous ideologue the jihadi movement has known, Anwar al-Awlaki, whose influence continues to this day, eight years after he was killed.
The same tendency to conspiracy and shifting the blame for Yemen’s woes to outsiders attends Lackner’s discussion of “neoliberalism,” an all-pervading explanation for Yemen’s miseries that began with the structural reforms apparently “imposed” on Yemen as the price of gaining access to grants from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and other institutions of globalization. Lackner’s first contact with Yemen was on a rural works program in what she calls “socialist” South Yemen, and that youthful inclination has evidently never left her. Such a bias need not be a problem; everyone has biases. But too often she allows it to colour her perceptions and it makes for some lazy and simplistic analysis of economic affairs in Yemen, which is a shame in a book that is elsewhere so rich in data and careful in its presentation.
The “Arab spring” protests in Yemen in 2011 were larger and longer lasting than in other Arab states, as Lackner notes. She narrates the efforts to get Saleh out of office, his resistance and ultimate submission, the launching of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) to try to find a way forward, and the failure of this effort, paving the way for a descent into civil war.
Lackner says that the interim government after Saleh, headed by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and charged with overseeing the NDC, was one of the most incompetent and corrupt Yemen has ever had, sapping the momentum and morale from the reform movement—and anyone who has spent any time with Yemenis has heard this view expressed, irrespective of their political views.
The reasons for the failure of the NDC are numerous. Lackner points to the inability—and really the lack of effort—by either Yemenis or the international community to bring the most powerful military units under state control; instead, Saleh continued to loom large. The heavy involvement in the NDC of elements that had been part of the Saleh system, including the Islamists from Islah, and the exclusion of women, youth, and civil society, also played a role in the failure, as did the United Nations, which as usual managed a worst-of-all-worlds policy, interfering in the NDC where it should not have and failing to exert itself in areas where it could have been helpful, such as setting the agenda so scarce time could be used wisely to resolve pressing issues.
Important as all these factors were, what completely destroyed the NDC and the transition process was the Huthis’ coup, which occurred in three stages: the stockpiling of weaponry and the overrunning of outlying areas of the north; the takeover of the capital, Sana’a, in September 2014, made possible only by Saleh’s collaboration with the Huthis; and the formal toppling of the government in January 2015, after which Hadi and many of his colleagues fled to Aden.
Lackner acknowledges this series of events, and the fact that the Huthis moved aggressively on Aden in March 2015, triggering the Saudi-led coalition to intervene to try to restore the Hadi’s internationally recognised government. “Without the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition, there is little doubt that the Huthi-Saleh troops would have taken control of the whole country in short order,” Lackner says, provoking “a long-term insurgency” and turmoil across Yemen.
Yet Lackner writes as if allowing the Huthi-Saleh forces to overrun Yemen is the lesser-evil to having the war “internationalized,” a word she repeatedly uses, betraying her underlying, mistaken assumption that the war was not already driven by foreign states, namely Iran, which had backed the Huthi coup. Instead, Lackner refers to Saudi Arabia and its partners like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), states that reacted to this Iranian power play, as the “principal external aggressors in the civil war” [italics added]. She also blames the Saudi coalition for the threat of famine, even as she concedes that the Huthis’ “power is based on intimidation,” namely “the fear of arrest and threats to withhold the basic necessities of life”. The Huthis’ practice of stealing humanitarian aid is by now notorious.
Lackner recurs to this tendency throughout the book: a pro-forma recognition of what the Huthis are—she writes at one point, correctly, that “there is little difference in terms of the social norms [the Huthis and AQAP] try impose”—before going on to downplay the extremism and authoritarianism of the Huthis.
The “Huthi ideological objectives are limited and difficult to decipher,” Lackner says, and seem based mostly a belief in the supremacy and right to rule of those from Sa’da, the Zaydi-majority region of northern Yemen. But this is not true, and the Huthis are quite clear about this. Their ambitions is to restore the Imamate; their belief is that God, not geography, has given them the right to rule.
Likewise, Lackner plays down “the involvement of Iran on the side of the Huthis,” which is, she says, “vastly exaggerated”. Again, the Huthis themselves make plain their extensive connections to Iran’s ruling ideology, wilayat al-faqih (which is not mentioned once in the book), and this has only become more obvious over time, as have the Huthis’ material ties to the Iranian regime.
It is not as if Lackner does not have a point when she says that the internationalisation of Yemen’s conflict has made it more difficult to solve. There is not only a split between the Saudi-UAE bloc and Qatar within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but the Saudis and Emiratis do not see eye-to-eye on all matters. The Saudis are prepared to work with Al-Islah; the Emiratis are not. The Saudis are determined on territorial unity for Yemen; the Emiratis are more open to the claims of the southern secessionists. To recognise these issues, yet dismiss Iran’s imperial designs on Yemen as a “deceptive claim,” is to make grave error at best, and at worst it is to allow politics to cloud analysis.
Lackner begins her introduction to the updated version of the book by noting that Yemen has come to the front pages of the world’s newspapers and into the discussions of the U.S. Congress and other Western legislatures mostly as a side-effect of the campaign against Saudi Arabia in the wake of the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. Lackner celebrates this fact, but should not. Whatever view is taken of the Khashoggi case, Yemen deserves to be considered on its own terms, not as a sub-component of Western policy towards Saudi Arabia. This is especially true since no serious person believes that simply halting the Saudi-led coalition’s mission in Yemen at this moment would bring lasting peace to the country. But Lackner, able to criticize what has been done wrong by the contending parties, disappointingly ends without a serious proposal, even in principle, for how they might put it right.