x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Yemen, a prisoner of its own history

Victoria Clark's new examination of the country provides a much-needed popular account of the political and social complexity of this 'nation on the brink'.

The ancient towers and buildings of Old Sana'a give way to the lights of modern buildings in the Yemeni capital.
The ancient towers and buildings of Old Sana'a give way to the lights of modern buildings in the Yemeni capital.

Victoria Clark's new examination of Yemen provides a much-needed popular account of the political and social complexity of this 'nation on the brink', writes Brian O'Neill. The failure of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to successfully detonate the bomb concealed in his trousers in an aeroplane over Detroit last Christmas robbed commentators of a bad pun. Had Abdulmutallab, who was trained in Yemen by the country's increasingly powerful al Qa'eda franchise, been successful, it would have been very easy to say that this obscure and confusing nation on the south-west tip of the Arabian Peninsula had literally exploded into public consciousness.

Of course, this did stop writers from resorting to a host of misleading clichés and semi-relevant half-truths to characterise Yemen, the most pernicious of which may be the frequent reminder that it is the "ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden". (This is both true and meaningless.) The scarcity of material on the country written for a broad, non-academic audience created a vacuum that was filled by pundits pouring in their preconceived ideas, regardless of their relevance to reality. For much of the media, there were only two questions: Was Yemen the next Afghanistan? And how could the West militarily prevent it from becoming so?

Into this void, and not a moment too soon, comes Victoria Clark's Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes. While it was not written as a response to the post-Christmas torrent of misinformation, provides a good starting point for a rational discussion of Yemen. Clark may not provide an antidote for every false notion aired in the past few months, but as the world begins to realise that a failed Yemen and a resurgent al Qa'eda will have an impact well beyond the Arabian Peninsula, measured volumes like Clark's become critical.

One thing that has generally been generally lacking in analysis of Yemen has been an appreciation of the country's history - an understanding, in other words, of how the past has led to the present. The country faces not one but three internal conflicts, and while the threat of al Qa'eda has commanded the most attention in the west, the other two - the Houthi revolt in the north and the southern secessionist movement - have generally been portrayed either as reactions against a tyrannical government or merely a distraction from the all-important fight against Islamist terrorism. Both depictions have echoes of truth, but both are incomplete.

Without being grimly deterministic, it is possible to trace the roots of these revolts back through time, through generations of politics and revolutions. A reading of this history demonstrates that these uprisings, far from being mere reactions against the government's present leaders or their policies, embody a long tradition of fierce independence and deep mistrust of central rule. And this legacy, in turn, gets to the heart of the most important question facing Yemen today: can it exist as a modern nation-state, or is it too fractious and divided to achieve such equilibrium? Clark's book takes us through close to 500 years of this history in an attempt to answer these very questions.

When we come to the present, the man at the heart of the story is President Ali Abdullah Salih, who served as the ruler of the north for 10 years before overseeing the unification with the south that took place amid an atmosphere of optimism in 1990 but quickly became contentious. Salih remains in power to this day, and the longevity of 30-year rule makes it easy to forget just how strange a reality unity has been. Yemen has always had a sense of self, but its politics never allowed for unification. Because the nation is unified now, just at the moment when the world's attention is turning to it, does not imply that unification is natural or even possible. In fact, the idea is a very recent development.

Taking a united Yemen as the norm tends to obscure the separate trajectory of the south, itself a distinct and important region. Clark, who was born in British South Yemen, where her father worked as a journalist, is keenly aware of that history, and illuminates the influences that set the south on a profoundly different path from the north - the eras of British colonialism and later, of Marxist rule, which shaped the values and ideas of people in the south in ways that have proven to be antithetical to those of the more conservative north. Clark also avoids painting the south as a monolithic bloc - "the south", in fact, refers to a political entity rather than a strictly geographical division: the territory formerly known as the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen includes the vast and wild eastern regions, with histories and cultures related to but distinct from the political culture of Aden. Again, these illustrations are not - and can't be - comprehensive, but they do provide a good starting point from which to build an understanding of Yemen's bewildering complexities.

A number of people, including this reviewer, believe that the southern issue is the single most important security crisis facing Yemen, far more pressing and more dangerous to the continuation of a functioning nation-state than the Houthi rebellion or the relatively minor threat of al Qa'eda - though it is consistently given short shrift in the western media. It would be hard to argue that this treatment is due to anything but parochialism and the West's obsession with Islamist terrorism. Clark's book places the southern issue where it belongs: at the heart of the Yemeni question.

Clark is less strong when it comes to the role that tribalism plays in Yemen's politics. Particularly in the north, tribes wield incredible power and influence, a state of affairs inevitably portrayed as both archaic and dangerous. It is almost impossible for western journalists to talk about the region outside the capital without referring to it a "lawless tribal zone" - which is simply incorrect. The tribes have their own laws and customs, and their own rules of interaction. Tribal groups may present their own problems, but no solution to Yemen's current instability is possible without them.

The toxicity of the current regime almost negates the possibility of maintaining the status quo. Outside agencies need to work with the tribes directly and independently of central government to ensure that, if they aren't on the side of the West, they aren't in bed with its enemies. Clark discusses the tribes in depth, but she does so with a tone of accusation that suggests their militant ways are the root of all problems. Although the present situation would undoubtedly be vastly improved if the tribes hewed closer to the political centre, it is equally true that any strategy revolving around the establishment of such a moderate climate is little more than wishful thinking.

Avoiding the legacy of the past is dangerous, but there is also danger in becoming too deeply entrenched in it. Then the risk is of telescoping history and projecting a sense of inevitability. This is especially difficult to avoid in a book that adheres to a chronological format. The subtitle of the book, Dancing on the Heads of Snakes, refers to Salih's favourite way of describing the particular challenges of governing Yemen, with countless constituencies to appease and just as many potential pitfalls.

In a country as consistently on the brink as Yemen, long-term strategies are rarely an option. Ruling Yemen is a constant exercise in crisis management, firefighting and the achievement of short-term gains. The country reached its present state as a result of a series of decisions and indecisions, visions and revisions. The proverbial snakes are always biting. It is doubtful that Yemen, with different leaders, could have turned out to be another Switzerland. But this is not to be confused with historical determinism. Plans for aid and intervention must recognise that the status quo was not predetermined and that it is not sustainable, either. Clark's book provides a solid examples of the perils inherent in allowing oneself to become history's prisoner. What it does best, however, is to show the deadly difficulties outsiders - the Turks, the British, the Egyptians and even the Saudis -have faced when involving themselves in Yemeni affairs. As the wider world realises that part of its destiny is linked to the nation, this is a sobering and important reminder.

Brian O'Neill is a former writer and editor for the Yemen Observer.