The Invisible Hand Behind the Coup in Yemen

War and Peace Democracy


Ruins of Ma'rib, Yemen via Wikimedia Commons



Over the last three years, media pundits accurately described Yemen as perched on the brink of chaos. No more. Now it has fallen off the cliff. The key question is how this happened.


The short answer is corruption—deep-seated, pervasive corruption at the very heart of Yemen’s government, made possible by Yemen’s power structure, something naïve Westerners too often overlook or fail to understand.



Yemen’s Dual Power Structure

Traditionally, power was exercised and distributed in Yemen via an informal patronage system run by tribal chiefs and regional leaders.1 This informal system did not disappear with the dissolution of Yemen’s Mutawakkilite Kingdom in 1962, or unification of the northern Yemen Arab Republic and southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1990. Instead, today’s Yemen features a dual structure: one formal, superficial, and essentially powerless, and one informal, internal, and powerful. If a citizen needs a traffic sign on his street, he does not reach out to his parliamentary representative in Sana’a. He contacts his local tribal chief. That man exchanges favors with someone in government to get funds for the sign, ensuring the contract goes to a relative.


Yemen’s billionaire dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, exploited this informal system to keep himself in power for thirty-three years, first as president of North Yemen in 1978, and after 1991, as president of a unified Yemen. He was the very definition of public corruption: the abuse of entrusted power for personal gain. He secured loyalty from regional leaders and tribal chiefs by doling out the spoils of public office and government lucre.


Other beneficiaries of his largesse included imams, generals, merchants, and business elites. They pledged their support in exchange for position, paychecks, and kickbacks. Wikileaks published a 2005 diplomatic cable by then-U.S. Ambassador Thomas C. Krajeski who complained that Saleh gave tribal and military leaders free rein to “run their affairs with informal armies, courts, and economic empires” and made “direct payments from the treasury” to these “tribal and military constituencies.”


Saleh packed Yemen’s puppet parliament, military leadership, and security services with bought-and-paid-for loyalists when he first assumed office. Over the years, he put family members in charge everywhere, turning Yemen into a de facto family enterprise, complete with a $120 million Al-Saleh mosque in Sana’a. (Presumably, the verse from Qur’an 2:11, “Do not cause corruption on the earth,” is not read aloud there.)



Hadi’s Rise and Fall

In 2012, Yemenis chaffing under decades of kleptocracy and inspired by the Arab Spring, forced Saleh to step down. But not by popular uprising, as happened in Egypt and Tunisia. The Saudis saw to that, as they feared pro-democracy unrest might spread across the Arabian Peninsula. To keep Yemen from becoming the wind that starts a democracy sandstorm, they sponsored an initiative under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Saudi-led alliance of six of the seven Arabian Peninsula states, save Yemen. By the terms of this deal, Saleh received immunity from prosecution and stepped down as President; Yemen’s vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, stepped into Saleh’s shoes; and Yemen’s military was to be restructured.


Then, a surprising thing happened: instead of emulating Saleh, President Hadi, a fluent English-speaker educated in Britain on a military scholarship, openly backed Yemen’s transition to a republican government, and tried to inject Yemen’s formal democratic institutions with real authority, earning much praise in Washington.


It did not last. On January 20, the Houthis, a Zaidi Shi’a militant group backed by Iran and hailing from northernmost Sa’adah province, entered the presidential complex after a brief armed standoff with Yemeni security forces. Two days later, Hadi was forced out and Yemen’s parliament dissolved. As of today, Yemen has been without a functioning government for almost one month. The Houthis announced their intention to form a new, expanded legislature of 551 representatives led by an executive council of five, but tribal leaders from the southern provinces and Sunnis immediately rejected it.


The fall of Yemen’s precarious government followed a recent chain of events that began in July 2014 when Hadi lifted petroleum subsidies, causing fuel prices to skyrocket. The Houthis exploited popular grievance against rising prices and erected protest tents in Sana’a as Houthi agitators, masquerading as the vanguard against official corruption, engaged in armed skirmishes with Yemeni forces led by long-time strongman, General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. Eventually, street battles erupted into open warfare. At least 340 people died as rebel Shi’a forces clashed with Yemen’s Sunni fighters. Soon after, and with surprising ease, the Houthis took control of all of Sana’a, including military installations.


Jamal Benomar, U.N. special advisor to Yemen, presented a Peace and National Partnership Agreement (PNPA) in hopes of ending the violence between Yemen’s political factions. The PNPA stipulated withdrawal of Houthi forces once a new cabinet was selected and new constitution put in place. The Houthis signed the agreement and then promptly reneged on the deal. They kept their forces in Sana’a, rejected the draft constitution, and stormed the presidential palace. On January 22, President Hadi and his Prime Minister, Khaled Bahah, resigned. With Houthi guns at their backs, the Yemeni cabinet then dissolved. In short order, the Houthis achieved a complete coup d'etat.


This baffled Yemen observers in the West. Since 2004, the Houthis had intermittently battled local Salafi groups and Yemen’s armed forces, but never achieved their stated goal of controlling Sa’adah, Yemen’s northernmost province. Iran provided military assistance, but the northern Shi’a group was unable to strong arm its way to autonomy in Sa’adah. Then suddenly, they emerged from the rugged boarders of Sa’adah and marched all the way south to Sana’a and its surrounding cities. What was unthinkable but months ago, the Houthis achieved almost overnight, and with little effort.



An Alliance of Convenience

How was a regional, sectarian-motivated, minority insurgent group suddenly able to extend its reach to the capital, acquiring sufficient power to upend a settlement reached under United Nations auspices and stage a complete coup?


American journalist Adam Baron hit the nail on the head:


As the months dragged on, the Houthis gradually extended their area of influence toward Sanaa through a mix of fighting prowess and skillful tribal outreach, simultaneously solidifying their position as a mainstream political actor while building an alliance of convenience with their former adversaries in Saleh’s party.


The key phrase here is “alliance of convenience.” Western journalists tend to see the Arab world through an Iraqi lens and reduce regional turmoil to the dominant Sunni-Shi’a conflict. In fact, Yemen is less defined by the sectarian divide than other parts of the Middle East. Thus, while both the deposed dictator and the Houthis adhere to Zaidism, an offshoot of Shi’a Islam, their new embrace is decidedly not based on sectarian brotherly love. To the contrary, not long ago, Saleh was the Houthis’ sworn enemy. He warned his American patrons at the State Department the Houthis were a dangerous, crypto-Hezbollah separatist group. From 2004 to 2010, he waged six wars against them, killing thousands. His new partnership with them is, as Don Corleone might say, “only business”—a gangster-like alliance of mutual convenience between former enemies.


It was clear all along to those who understood the inner workings of Yemen’s real political power, i.e., its tribal-based patronage system, that the U.S.-blessed, GCC-sponsored blueprint to bring about a peaceful transfer of power following the Arab Spring was doomed to fail. While the GCC initiative spurred Saleh to leave the Presidential Palace, it contained a fatal flaw: it left all of Saleh’s loyalists and family members in place. Thus, Saleh’s fall did nothing to eclipse his informal power.


Once Hadi took over as President, Saleh’s loyalists became his proxies in the new post-dictatorship regime. The anti-democratic Houthis, propelled by the Arab Spring and GCC initiative, cynically added an anti-corruption theme to what previously had been their purely sectarian-motivated conflict with Yemen’s central government. Neither the deposed Saleh nor the Houthis acting alone had sufficient power to topple the new government, especially under the gaze of the international community. Acting together, however, was another story. When it became clear the Houthis were willing to fight their way into Sana’a, then Saleh embraced his former enemies and made the devil’s bargain, hoping to sabotage the regime that succeeded him and return to power.


As Human Rights Watch researcher Belkis Wille wrote: “[Saleh] played a vital role in securing the tribal alliances that allowed [Houthi] fighters to leave Sa’adah, their northern stronghold, and occupy Sana’a, the capital, last September.” In so doing, Houthi insurgents marched into Sana’a with Saleh and all his cronies on their shoulders. This explains the near total submission to invading Houthis in Yemen’s capital. Reports leaked out that Saleh-allied security forces were ordered not to raise their arms, but instead, obey direct orders from Houthi commanders. As a result, Sana’a fell in only two days.


The Plague of Corruption

The brutal reality is that Yemen simply has no real democratic tradition, even though it has long had the trappings of democracy, i.e., a constitution, multi-party system, bicameral parliament, and court system. These were in place during Saleh’s dictatorship. Yet, Yemen’s informal power system prevailed over its formal system; democracy was but a showpiece undermined by rampant corruption. Average Yemenis always understood that democratic institutions mattered little in comparison to the tribal system with its patronage and exchange of benefits that, in Western societies, are regarded as graft.


Is it any wonder then that Transparency International, the worldwide anti-corruption organization, lists Yemen near the bottom of its famous Corruption Perceptions Index. Last summer, its affiliate in the Levant, the Lebanese Transparency Association, issued a report in which it declared, “Political corruption is a chronic disease spread throughout the Arab World,” citing samples and data from Yemen, among other Middle East states.


Further attempts by the international community, including the UN, to trick Yemen’s political factions into forming a real democracy through dialogue are doomed to fail, just as the GCC initiative and UN-sponsored PNPA failed. Yemen’s long-standing informal system will continue to dominate and direct the transfer of power. This makes a transition to true democracy unlikely, if not impossible, in the foreseeable future.


Historian Robert Payne, author of The Corrupt Society, put it bluntly: “Corruption needs to be fought on all fronts with the same vigor and urgency as fighting a plague. It must be rooted out.” Yemen has no hope of inaugurating a real democracy unless—and until—Saleh’s loyalists are purged entirely from Yemen’s government, military, and security services, and the Houthis ousted from power. Otherwise, any so-called democratic government going forward will be like the one in place over the last two decades: merely a facade.



  • 1. April Longley Alley, “The Rules of the Game: Unpacking Patronage Politics in Yemen,” Middle East Journal (2010): 386
Yemen, Middle East, Hezbollah, Human Rights, Islam, Iran