Friday, 7 September 2018

Review: Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo‐Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State, by Helen Lackner

Thanos Petouris


In spite of its important geopolitical position, Yemen has remained one of the least studied countries of the Middle East, so Lackner's contribution to its scholarship is a welcome one. Her publication does not pretend to be an exhaustive dissection of contemporary Yemeni history and politics, but rather it focuses on specific historical episodes as well as some of the more important political and social challenges the country has faced since the unification of North and South in 1990.

The Yemeni civil war has already entered its fourth year. The latest report of the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) on conditions in the country makes dismal reading. In no uncertain terms, Yemen has been characterised as ‘the world's largest humanitarian crisis’ with two‐thirds of Yemenis facing starvation.

However, the term ‘humanitarian crisis’ hides a multitude of afflictions that the Yemeni population has been subject to even before the war started. Outbreaks of disease, child malnutrition, lack of basic medication for common health problems, destruction of terraced farmland, and worsening of environmental conditions are just a few of the visible effects of the current crisis that have damaged Yemen's future for generations to come.

In response to Yemeni internal political developments, in March 2015 Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates gathered an assemblage of military forces with some contributions from a number of Arab countries, and even including mercenaries from as far afield as Colombia.

The ostensible mandate of the Saudi‐led coalition, as it has become known, is to restore the legitimate government of president Hadi, who had to flee to Aden and thence to Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the different direct and indirect participants in the conflict – whether local or international – have been pursuing their own political agendas. This further complicates attempts at a negotiated cessation of hostilities.

Helen Lackner's assertion that “none of the players involved demonstrated the slightest concern for the welfare of the 27 million Yemenis, most of whom suffered worsening conditions on a daily basis”, is perhaps the most poignant summary of the conflict and a harsh indictment of the so‐called international community's response to the plight of the Yemeni people.

In Yemen in Crisis Lackner sets out to explain the reasons for the country's chronic political, economic and social problems, which the current war and its attendant humanitarian crisis have thrown into sharp relief. A long‐term researcher of Yemen, Lackner has lived and worked in both the former Yemen Arab Republic (North) and People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South) for fifteen years. This allows her not only to speak with authority about the country, but also to enhance her narrative with the nuance of her first‐hand experiences.

Although the book’s brief historical summary tends to reproduce conventional understandings of the modern political history of Yemen, without challenging prevailing narratives, in the subsequent four chapters Lackner delves deeper into the specific social and political phenomena that have defined Yemeni politics over the past two decades. 

The two regional movements that developed in the Zaydi north and former socialist south during Salih's presidency (1990–2012), the Huthis and al‐Hiraak, are very different in their ideological and social makeup. Nevertheless, they have both emerged during the current war as major political players in Yemeni politics and will be indispensable in the search for a final settlement. Equally, there is a sensible, balanced assessment of tribalism and Islamism, both routinely picked out as defining characteristics of Yemen's political and social life.

It is in the latter three chapters, which focus on questions of natural resources, the economy, and local development, that the author's expertise shines through. Lackner pulls no punches in criticising the neoliberal agenda pursued in Yemen not just by the Bretton Woods financial institutions but also by international NGOs.

Her discussion of the Local Development Associations, community‐based organisations specific to North Yemen, offers a characteristic example of how external involvement—even in the form of developmental aid—can reinforce the role of the state and deprive communities of control over decisions on local matters. Water and oil/gas are resources that are key for the future development and stability of the country. One is left without any doubt that any viable solutions to the ongoing conflict will only be sustainable to the extent that political expediency is paired up with a serious, overarching reconsideration of the country's developmental model.

To sum up, Yemen in Crisis is an excellent introduction to the country and its major socio‐political characteristics and problems. It will serve as a good entry point for anyone wanting to understand how the optimism of Yemeni unification a quarter of a century ago has become the suffering of today.

Thanos Petouris is doctoral student at the Department of Politics and International Relations, School of Oriental and African Studies, London and Researcher on contemporary Yemeni politics at the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex. 

This article is adapted from a longer piece in the Political Quarterly journal.

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