Few people from the West know Yemen better than Helen Lackner, who brings decades of on-the-ground experience to her writings on that country. Her latest book comes at a time when Yemen faces what can be termed, without any exaggeration, existential threats: to the country and, more consequentially, to the estimated 29 million people who live there. Her experience and insights make this book essential for understanding the multiple dimensions of Yemen’s crisis.
Lackner starts by detailing how Yemen’s popular uprising in early 2011 set off a chain of conflicts that led to the devastating military intervention led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, starting in March 2015. Her book went to press in mid-2017, so Lackner could not take account of critical developments since then, most significantly the rupture of the opportunistic alliance of the Houthi movement and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Salih, resulting in Salih’s killing. The resulting political realignment, however, has done nothing to bring the war closer to a conclusion.
Lackner’s book is not a comprehensive account of the war. Instead she gives us lucid analyses of the political, economic and social dynamics of the country. She references the 1960s and 1970s but concentrates on the decade leading up to and those following the 1990 unification of the former Yemen Arab Republic (YAR, the North) and People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY, the South). Interestingly, in her chapter pairing pre-unification discussion of the YAR and PDRY, she devotes more pages to the former socialist regime—reflecting the years she spent as development consultant there—whereas the more usual focus in Western writing about Yemen is on the North.
A chapter on Yemen’s Islamists draws appropriate distinctions between the different salafi and other Islamist groups, including the role of the Saudi Arabian-supported Dar al-Hadith Institute in sparking the Houthi wars between 2004 and 2010; the Muslim Brotherhood dimension of Islah, the main Sunni Islamist party; and the persistent presence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). A separate chapter examines the emergence of the Houthis, named after the leading family in Ansar Allah, a revivalist movement that emerged in the early 1990s in the Zaydi northern highlands. Those wars pitted the Houthis against units of Salih’s armed forces and affiliated militias. By the time of the popular uprising of early 2011, the Houthis had already extended their control beyond their home governorate of Saada; their cohesion and battlefield experience put them in a good position to exploit the political vacuum of the transition period following Salih’s resignation in 2012, culminating in their takeover of the capital, Sanaa, in late 2014.
Lackner briskly reviews the dynamics that prompted the hastily-arranged unification of the two states in 1989–1990. True, citizens of both the North and the South long regarded themselves as Yemeni to the core. Why this sentiment led to unity at that moment was clear for the PDRY, which had been wracked by intra-regime fighting for years, most acutely in 1986. A few years later, the regime further suffered the loss of its Communist-bloc patrons, the Soviet Union and the (east) German Democratic Republic.
As for the North, Lackner attributes the YAR’s motivation for unification to “political discontent due to its failure to respond to popular demands for democracy” (117). But she does not explain why this situation had grown particularly acute, leaving one to conclude that unity was, for Salih, a moment of opportunity rather than need. Unified Yemen swiftly encountered a crisis of enormous economic and social consequence when Salih declined to join the US-led international coalition assembled to force Iraq to end its August 1990 occupation of Kuwait; in November 1990, Yemen cast the sole vote of opposition in the UN Security Council to the resolution authorizing military action against Iraq. That vote resulted in the suspension of aid from the United States and other funders, aid that only resumed, in the US case, after Salih more adroitly aligned Yemen with the US War on Terror following September 11, 2001. Perhaps of more consequence in the early 1990s, Yemen’s apparent support for Iraq led the Gulf states to expel more than 800,000 Yemeni workers, ending remittances that had boosted the Yemeni economy at the local level over the previous decade.
The quite different characteristics of the current war in the former PDRY warrant a separate chapter on the southern separatist phenomenon. While Lackner appreciates the PDRY’s egalitarian social and economic programs, she holds the socialist regime responsible for the South’s political instability and economic straits. Unity with the North led to the imposition of northern laws across the country, including the repossession of land and other property that had been nationalized. This imposition of northern laws—combined with the depredations by northern militias following the brief southern separatist war of 1994 and the forced retirement of southern military and other officials—led to street protests in Aden and other southern cities and towns that the government frequently responded to with deadly force. Today, straightforward southern demands for democratic reforms and economic justice dismayingly have not been accompanied by new leadership from younger generations. As a result, the political field in the South remains in the hands of older, even colonial-era, leaders. Lackner laments the “vast and variable” separatist organizations, which she asserts number almost one hundred, that make for a “movement [that] finds it hard to agree on anything beyond a desire for secession” (181).
Lackner provides a succinct analysis of the changes in Yemeni society over the last half-century. In the North, the oil price increases of the 1970s prompted mass labor migration that “undermined” (100) the overwhelmingly agricultural economy of the central and northern highlands. Labor remittances also helped commercialize the economy and transform social structures of rural and town societies alike. In the South, as a result of the PDRY’s “ambiguous” attitude, “migration was almost as important in the life of most rural households” (103), notwithstanding socialist-type cooperatives and state farms. Throughout, tribal and other traditional solidarities gave way to relationships of job and welfare patronage based on wealth and proximity to the central government.
Lackner’s chapters on resource scarcity and the economy highlight Yemen’s water crisis, which in part is a consequence of afore-mentioned socio-economic changes. Household incomes from remittances and subsidized fuel and equipment have led to the unregulated pumping of ground water and expanded cultivation of qat and other high-value crops. The medium-term consequence will likely be a thorough depletion of the country’s ground-water resources. But immediate consequences include the lack of clean drinking water and its prohibitive costs financially as well as in terms of labor, chiefly that of women and children. Lackner sees a “fairly straightforward” remedy: prioritize human needs for hygiene and drinking water and address the fact that 90 percent of the country’s water resources go to agriculture. The obstacle, in her view, is that rural large landowners formerly tied to the Salih regime control water management.
Lackner asserts that the “international neo-liberal agenda” of foreign donors (225) has wrongly emphasized the development of high-value export crops. Some specific examples of this agenda, however, would have made that point more convincing. Lackner extends her indictment of the “neo-liberal agenda” in a chapter devoted to the economic crisis that worsened in the period since 2011, mainly based on analyses of various “strategy documents.” But it remains unclear the extent to which factors like endemic corruption were more germane to the crisis—a crisis that the current war has turned into a catastrophe.