x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Antipathy for Saleh is not the same as a national identity

Whether Saleh stays or goes, Yemen will remain a country struggling to forge a national identity on top of tribal loyalties and economic hardship.

More than 50 years ago, most countries in the region were either in a process of state formation or struggling to stay intact following the Second World War. Today, history repeats itself as Middle East countries reshape themselves. This time, however, the reform process is led by the people and not the leaders.

Although a civil war has broken out in Libya, many would say that Yemen is likely to be the third state to witness regime change. Regardless of whether President Ali Abdullah Saleh departs today or in the coming months, Yemen will remain a fragile state, although not a failed one as many scholars have argued.

For more than two decades, Mr Saleh has tried to impose a national unity from the top down, relying on force and a system of patronage. Under the pressure of protests, Mr Saleh has announced sweeping reforms including his own resignation and direct elections for governors. With or without Mr Saleh, some form of decentralised power seems certain in the short term.

Yemen is considered the first democracy in the Arabian Peninsula. For many years, it has survived the misfortune of being the poorest nation in the Arab world and persistent internal conflict since unification in 1990. The population suffers from 40 per cent unemployment, more than 40 per cent child malnutrition, seven million people live in poverty and around 45 per cent of the population is under 16. These socio-economic realities are major problems in a fragile national unity.

Since unification, the two main threats to the country have appeared to be the Houthi rebel movement in the north and the persistent secessionist forces in the south. In the former case, which broke out into armed confrontation with Sana'a in August 2009, both Saudi Arabia and Iran became involved, but the state and society worked together to prevent the country from becoming a pawn in a game between regional powers.

The second dilemma, the southern secessionist movement, has gained momentum over the past five years because of Mr Saleh's repressive countermeasures. Economic privation has also fed this force as the south has been starved of development funds, although most of the country's dwindling oil reserves are in the south.

These two conflicts, along with the US-sponsored hunt for al Qa'eda, have dominated the international headlines. But to understand Yemen's current domestic unrest, the underlying factors have to be considered - weak democratic governance, deep tribal loyalties and transnational Islamist movements. The future of the state will be shaped by these realities more than events of the next few days.

The Yemeni democracy is a unique experiment in the Arabian Peninsula. Since unification, the constitution has formally guaranteed party and political pluralism. Despite Mr Saleh's decades-old grip on power, there have been a plethora of new and reformulated political parties since the early 1990s, from the ruling General People's Congress to parties representing liberals, socialists, Islamists and Arab nationalists.

Even if all of those parties can be brought into the political tent, the future of Yemen as a country will depend more on the legacy of the tribal structure. Yemen has a very strong tribal society that overrides the state's rule of law. Tribal laws, relations between the tribes and a conservative social and political outlook dominate much of society.

While the state tries to implement a legal system that is compatible with a democratic system, tribes depend on their customary laws which are based on shared perceptions of honour, collective responsibility and the ability of each tribe to govern its own members. As in many other Arab tribal societies, any conflict between tribes is resolved by tribal leaders and sheikhs, not the state institutions.

For the foreseeable future, any political union will have to take this lack of national cohesion into account. Each tribe has its own identity and set of alliances as well as, in many cases, separate ethnic and religious identities. The question of an individual's identity is bound up in all of these loyalties, not just nationality. The long-term challenge for any new government will be bringing this mosaic society together under a sense of national citizenship.

A number of complex and interdependent challenges will face Yemen in the coming years: the steep decline of oil reserves, the transition of power, domestic instability and internal threats, economic crises and, most importantly, the lack of a cohesive state. The path of many Middle East states following revolutions, popular or otherwise, has leant towards strong, centralised states. This is an unlikely outcome in Yemen and, as a poor nation, the formation of a centre of power could take much longer than in other Arab states.

After more than 20 years since the formation of the Republic of Yemen, the country remains trapped between the processes of revolution and reformation.

Khalid Almezaini is a research fellow at the University of Cambridge