The Yemeni Civil War - and ensuing Saudi led intervention - highlight an enduring question in contemporary International Relations (IR) theory: What causes transitions to democracy to fail? And, thus, what factors led to the Saudi intervention in Yemen? Structuralists have sought to explain these conflicts in terms of the control of capital and economic surplus by the early developers. Arguing that this forms a dichotomy between the core states, who have exponentially growing demand, and the periphery states who are being incorporated into this system by military force or coercion of local elites. Similarly, world systems theorists have placed the roots of this instability in the behavior of the hegemon and the global capitalist elite, whose strength is a function of the weakness of the periphery. Finally, environmental determinists have attempted to account for this behavior by explaining that the socially constructed hinterlands - an area of a state that has very low population density - lead to a dichotomy of development and animosity between the urban state and rural populations. As I shall argue later in the article, the prevailing IR literature fails to convincingly explain why organic transitions to democracy have failed in the Middle East. This leaves us with an intriguing opportunity: How can we account for this critical element to contemporary IR theory by examining the oft-underreported conflict in Arabia Felix? In short, understanding the deficits of the prevailing literature : How can we theorize the contemporary instability in Yemen as a geopolitical, rather than an ideologically driven phenomenon, and what are the implications for modern IR theory?
The purpose of this writing is to develop a theoretically grounded, yet empirically sensitive account that solves this puzzle. It does this by drawing on a body of work that emphasizes the roots of instability in the Middle East as an effect of imperialism. This has created a “fragmented, economically peripheralized system of weak states suffering from identity deficits.” (Hinnebusch 2011). In this article, I construct an account of the proxy war in Yemen by utilizing the doctrine of the modified structuralist, constructivist school as well as select tenants from within realism and world systems theory whilst rejecting their explanations as a whole. I do this while also rejecting the prevailing environmental determinist narrative on the motivations of the parties in the Yemeni conflict, through empirical research on reliable sources on the country - Khan (2015), Quince (2014), Ahmed (2015), Winter (2012), Torosyan (2009) and Salisbury (2011). In its place, I have developed a geopolitical explanation; demonstrating that the motives of both Saudi Arabia and Iran stem from the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Additionally, domestically I argue that the corruption and low state capacity found in Yemen prior to the revolution in 2014 stem from the need for the global capitalist elite to open up economies. In deciding to ground my study in this empirical literature, I am ensuring that my article avoids “ivory tower syndrome” by singularly relying on normative analysis.
To begin, the enduring instability in Yemen stems from the 2011 regional Arab Spring protests against dictatorial regimes. Young Yemenis were influenced by the success of protests in Tunisia and took to the streets in the capital. They were met with a bloody crackdown by the 20-year dictator of Yemen, Ali Saleh. One year of increasingly violent and divisive protests engulfing the state followed. Culminating in the resignation of Saleh, and his Vice President, Abd Hadi, being elected after running unopposed. Saleh was granted immunity and Hadi was tasked with reforming the Yemeni political system in a short two years. However, he was unsuccessful due to political gridlock among other factors to be discussed, and in 2014 the Houthi rebel group, allied with Saleh, tossed Hadi out of the capital, San’aa. This began a long, bloody civil war, where the Saudi-led GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) has intervened through a controversial bombing and land campaign.
Domestically, there are several arguments for why this unrest has perpetuated despite a seemingly democratic transition. First, Yemen is plagued by rural poverty, as ? of the population live in rural areas where 13.7 million live on less than $2/day and another 11.4 million are malnourished. These people lack access to markets, social safety nets and basic infrastructure, meaning that the state lacks significant capacity to govern outside of the cities. Thus, these people are loyal to any group that helps them, often a tribe or sheik. Often these groups receive funding from Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) or the Houthis, in exchange for nominal loyalty. Essentially, this phenomena has created a situation where large swaths of the Yemeni population are loyal to groups outside of the state, and identify themselves on tribal, rather than national grounds.
This dichotomy is made worse by the low capacity of the Yemeni state. Exemplified by their lack of ability to provide education for the population, resulting in a 62% literacy rate and a ranking of 142/149 on Legatum’s index measuring the reliable access to education. This deficit directly gave rise to the Houthi movement as the prerogative of the group was initially to create schools in their destitute province of Sa’da. Essentially allowing the Houthis to spread their ideology, this is directly antagonistic to the Yemeni state; due to the belief that Saleh, and later Hadi, who were puppets of the West. In short, due to the low state capacity of the Yemeni government, the Houthis were able to create a broad social base directly opposed to the Yemeni state, which had no ability to contain the group.
The final domestic argument of why the instability has perpetuated in Yemen involves the endemic corruption in upper echelons of the state. Yemen is ranked 154/168 in the Legatum corruption index, with bribery being a pillar of the judiciary, police and military. However, the most pervasive corruption is found in the business environment, where top politicians own nearly all of the oil companies. This manifested in the form of massive oil subsidies, which made up 20% of state spending, about $3 billion each year. The benefited the politicians immensely as they were able to pay themselves extraordinary amounts for producing oil, which they often simply smuggled across the border in order to sell for their own benefit, rather than giving the money to the state. This system created a massive budget deficit very quickly, leading to IMF (International Monetary Fund) intervention in the state. As a result of the measures pushed by the IMF, the subsidies were dropped leading to a massive increase in the domestic price of oil, which had a ripple effect on all other prices. Thus, people could not afford the bare essentials they needed to live, and protests broke up. Essentially, this became the spark the strengthened Houthi movement needed to overthrow the state with broad support in 2014.
Thus, the inability of the Yemeni state to exercise its authority outside of the large cities, most notably in terms of education, allowed for the Houthis, a fringe group, to gain a broad social base. Furthermore, the corrupt nature of Yemeni politics forced the intervention of the IMF and gave the Houthis a legitimate reason to overthrow the state, leading to the now present civil war. In scholarship, Jeffrey Herbst would explain this behavior in terms of the hinterlands, a periphery outside of the capital that is ignored by the state due to low population density. According to Herbst, this facilitates distrust from within the state, as arbitrary borders have grouped ethnicities in that share little in common and perhaps have been traditional enemies. He argues that this is a cause for much of the instability in developing, postcolonial states. However, in his analysis Herbst ignores the effects of international institutions, arguing that colonialism was not a major factor in instability. In the case of Yemen, this is patently false, as both the spark of instability was created due to the IMF intervention. This can be argued according to Raymond Hinnebusch, a structuralist, who asserts that the prerogative of the global capitalist elite is to open up the economies of the periphery through austerity. This often leads to the oversteps of the hegemon and the creation of counter-hegemonic groups, like the Houthis. Thus, structuralism has greater explanatory power than Herbst on the domestic front.
Internationally, there is one notable factor that has influenced instability in Yemen: the New Middle East Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The roots of this conflict originated with the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Following the revolution the Sunni Iraqi government and the Gulf Monarchies felt threatened, as they had institutions similar to the Shah and, most notably, had large, long-repressed Shia populations. The success of the revolution led Iran to become the beacon of a Shia Islamic Revolution where oppressed Shia groups looked toward for support. This led to the Iran-Iraq war, spurred by a fear that Iran was trying to incite Shia revolutions in these states. Since then, US military aid has allowed the Saudi state to remain strong, as they are outnumbered by both Iran and Israel, their two main enemies in the region. Furthermore, the current Iran deal punctuates a warming of relations between the Islamic Republic and the US, which has allowed Iran to rejoin world markets and begin flexing its regional power in Syria and Iraq. As well as allowing Iran to explore its undeveloped oil sectors. Thus, Iran has the potential to replace Saudi Arabia as the main US ally in the region, and thus shift the balance of power in their favor. As the security of the Saudi state depends on the US aid, without state of the art military hardware, the outnumbered Saudi military would stand no chance in a war with Iran or Israel and would be extremely vulnerable to an Iranian-backed Shia revolution in the East. As a result, Iran has chosen to not intervene in the proxy conflict in Yemen, as doing so is directly antagonistic to the US interests could threaten the deal, potentially ensuring that the US-Saudi status quo remains. This would squander the opportunity that Iran has to shift the balance of power in the region. As such, the opportunity cost for intervening is very high and the state of Iran has so far remained out of the conflict. Thus, according to Hinnebusch, Saudi Arabia has intervened to protect the interests of the US, freedom of trade and the perpetuation of the world system, in order to gain influence with the US in order to ensure that their place as the primary ally in the region remains secure. This intervention in support of the ousted Yemeni state, a client of the US, has perpetuated the conflict and forced a prolonged war of attrition to continue, rather than seeking a peaceful solution. As the Saudis will not accept an anti-hegemonic group to take control of the state, thereby threatening the Saudi influence with the US, and the Houthis will not accept a client back in power.
This argument leads us to further examine the tenets of Hinnebusch in his article The Middle East in World Hierarchy: Imperialism and Resistance. He explains that the origin of hierarchy - the control of capital and economic surplus by the early developers - formed a dichotomy between the core states, who have exponentially growing demand, and the periphery states who are being incorporated into this system by military force or coercion of local elites. Thus, client states are created in the periphery, whose interests “diverge from those of their own populations, costing them legitimacy and generating rebellion” (Hinnebusch 2011). In short, the cooptation of elites and the ensuing dichotomy that is formed between regimes and the people has led to regular challenges to this system. This, combined with the trans-national identities of Arabism and Islamism, has driven the mobilization of these revisionist movements. However, Hinnebusch cannot reconcile the antagonistic behavior of the client states through proxy wars, which seemingly create perpetual resistance to the system. For example, the creation of AQAP by the Saudis in the 1980’s or the Taliban by Pakistan during the same time frame. Both of these groups seemingly operate antagonistic to the desires of the hegemon.
Thus, the theory with the most explanatory power is a realist modified version of Hinnebusch’s argument, which includes the goal of all actors in this stratified world system to ensure their own security, with the security of the entire system being a secondary goal. As well as the hierarchical order of core and peripheral states and the deficit of a national identity, which, coupled with the security dilemma, motivates the formation of transnational revolutionary groups. As a result, there are constant challenges to the system being created and destroyed endlessly. As the goal of the hegemon - to ensure the security of trade, open up economies and spread the system - remains the same, it is constantly acting against resistance movements. This explains the behavior of the US in the Middle East, where it has traditionally gone after any trans-national Islamist movements, often movements that have been funded by a client state, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. This also explains the behavior of the actors in the Yemeni Civil War, with the interests of the hegemon being paramount and motivating the other actors to intervene on the behalf of the US. As the hegemon can wield enormous geopolitical power to modify the Middle Eastern security dilemma between two semiperipheral states - Saudi Arabia and Iran - potentially allowing for Iran to gain a significant edge over the Saudis and threaten the crown.
In conclusion, the instability that has plagued Yemen since 2011 is the cause of several domestic factors; namely, corruption and low state capacity, which have allowed the Houthis to build a broad base of support. As well as international factors stemming from the New Middle East Cold War and the Iran Deal, which have forced the Saudis to intervene in Yemen to protect the interests of the US in order to preserve the balance of power.
I predict that, in the future, a prolonged military campaign against the Houthis will fail as the group constitutes about 30% of the Yemeni population, nearly eight million people. If the campaign is prolonged, the Houthis are able to retreat to the mountains thus negating the effects of the Saudi air superiority. If an insurgency is formed the cracks in the GCC Coalition will lead to a gradual end to the campaign.
Also, a peaceful solution is unlikely to happen as the Saudis will not accept a power sharing deal unless an ally of theirs is at the top of the government. On the other hand, the Houthis are in favor of a power sharing deal as long as their is no outside interference in Yemeni politics thenceforth. However, the US will not accept these terms due to the need for a proxy regime in order to fight AQAP. Thus, the future of the Yemeni state is bleak, with conflict enduring long into the future due to the entrenched nature of both sides and the entire balance of power in the region at stake.
Austin Rock is an International Affairs Student at Northern Arizona University with minors in Arabic and Economics with a focus on how insurgencies grow and operate. He has been studying Yemen since 2013.
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