Helen Lackner, ed., Why Yemen Matters (London: Saqi, 2014).

The essays in Why Yemen Matters, though written prior to the stunning takeover of much of the country by Ansar Allah, otherwise known as the Houthis, provide an excellent primer on the political and economic crises that underlie those still unfolding events. The authors were among others who participated in a British Yemeni Society conference in early 2013.

For anyone who wants to read just one article on Yemen, I would suggest starting with editor Helen Lackner’s 26-page introductory overview to this volume. Lackner, who has worked on Yemen for some 30 years, and lived there off and on for about half that time, provides cogent and comprehensive account of political developments over that period along with a good overview of social structures and the economy.

Lackner also contributes one of two chapters on Yemen’s water crisis, the other being an extended and revised version of Gerhard Lichtenthaler’s 2010 article in Middle East Report 254, “Water Conflict and Cooperation.” Lackner traces the evolution of the crisis and inadequate responses since 1990, and Lichtenthaler spotlights initiatives within Amran-area tribal communities to establish community self-regulation of drilling and pumping.

Two articles are especially germane to 2015 developments. Marieke Brandt’s essay on the government’s use of tribal militias and other irregular forces rather than the army in the Houthi wars details how the feuds this strategy generated eventually backfired as initially neutral northern tribes increasingly supported the Houthis. As the conflict became more brutal, she writes, the codes limiting tribal conflicts “came to be ignored (as did the norms of the Geneva Conventions),” which she attributes in part to “sectarian elements” and the internationalization of the conflict. Laurent Bonnefoy tackles the role of Islamists—the “catch-all” Islah party with its links to “both traditional and modern civil society organizations” as well as aspects of the “understanding” between the former government of ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih and what became al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Another pair of articles looks at the dynamics of southern separatism. Particularly useful is Noel Brehony’s essay on the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), which joined with the northern Yemen Arab Republic in 1990 to form today’s Republic of Yemen. In developing his theme of formation of a southern Yemeni identity he reviews the internecine struggles in the PDRY leadership but also notes the establishment of a unified legal and administrative system, access to education, and social equality (especially of women) as well as, on the negative side, “mini-Stasi” security services courtesy of the former German Democratic Republic. Regarding the preponderance of the young among southern protesters, Brehony observes that “few have direct memories of the real PDRY.” Susanne Dahlgren takes on the aspirations of southern Yemeni youth in her article. Their parents, she writes, “have told them about life in the relatively secure times that prevailed in the South before unity, when everybody had a job and there was no corruption.” As a result of this “imagined fairness” the youth she met in Aden understand their human rights to include work, “not just any job—they believe they are entitled to a job in the civil service.” Dahlgren goes on to detail the discrepancies between these aspirations and the state’s existing as well as likely capacities.

Migration has long been a feature of Yemeni society, but in recent decades the dynamics of migration have changed radically, as several articles in this volume demonstrate. Hélène Thiollet’s title, “From Migration Hub to Asylum Crisis,” nicely captures the shift. In centuries past Yemenis settled in Southeast Asia and East Africa, and in industrial times in steel towns in Great Britain and the United States. Escalating oil revenues starting in the 1970s led to massive emigration to Saudi Arabia and other Arab states in the Gulf. Around 10 percent of united Yemen’s total population lived abroad in 1991—more than 54 percent of the active population. ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih’s apparent support for Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 led to an even more rapid “migratory shock” as hundreds of thousands of Yemenis were forced home from oil-exporting states almost overnight. Crises in the Horn of Africa led to huge numbers of migrants and asylum seekers coming to Yemen—nearly half a million just since 2006. Some, relying on human traffickers, come to Yemen intending to cross into Saudi Arabia, but many more end up staying in Yemen despite deteriorating conditions. Marina de Regt examines the particular situation of Ethiopian women married to Yemeni men and their mixed-descent daughters.

In addition to Sheila Carapico’s contribution, “Yemen Between Revolution and Counter-Terrorism,” Middle East Report has a strong presence in the form of numerous citations to authors and articles going as far back as 1971 (Brehony cites a 1971 MERIP interview with PDRY leader ‘Abd al-Fattah Isma‘il).

How to cite this article:

Joe Stork "Lackner, Why Yemen Matters," Middle East Report 274 (Spring 2015).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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