Saadaddin Ben Taleb, former minister of industry and trade in Yemen, Abdullah Hamidaddin, consultant at the Al-Mesbar Center for Studies and Research, and Lina Khatib, director at the Carnegie Middle East Center, discussed the impact of the war on the country’s unity, Gulf politics, and the narrative of sectarianism. Carnegie’s Farea Al-Muslimi moderated the discussion.
- The Rise of Saleh: Ben Taleb explained that Yemen lived in a state of democracy in the first three years after reunification in the 1990s. In 1994, greed and personal interests crept into the system. An alliance was formed between Islamists, followed by the establishment of a ferocious aristocracy led by Saleh. Saleh was able to position his family in key sectors, such as gas, oil, and roads, said Ben Taleb.
- Response from the South: The people from the south felt robbed and promises of true democracy were never realized. Ben Taleb explained that the south does not have any representation, and the state’s institutions are 90 percent comprised by northerners.
- What Next: The next Yemen must seek decentralization, political freedom, and democracy, argued Ben Taleb. “We need decentralization; it is the only way for the Yemeni regions not to deal with each political fraction, to face corruption, and to endure heavy bureaucracy. This is why the Houthis intervened; they didn’t want such decentralization. Decentralization would have enabled some actual political freedom for the regions,” he said. A quick political deal between the Saudis and the Houthis will only bring Yemen back to its 2011 status quo; no political improvements will materialize from it, warned Ben Taleb.
- Sectarianism: To imagine that there is a Sunni-Shiite war is misrepresentative. Also, to assume that all Shiites in the Middle East can be congregated in a single group with common and well-defined mutual interests is utter oversimplification. It is very difficult to imagine a political movement with only its sectarian allegiance as its base, argued Hamidaddin. There is no Sunni-Shiite war in Yemen; it is primarily a tribal confrontation.
- The Houthis: Although the Houthis adopted the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, they are not allied with the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood. They are also not allied with Iran; in the 1990s, the Houthis publicly rejected any alliance with Iran.
- Geopolitics in Yemen: Although the conflict in Yemen is, at its core, an intertribal one, it has grown to have significant geopolitical consequences, Hamidaddin said. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf Cooperation Council all have a potential stake in the conflict and its outcome.
- Regional Politics: The relationship between Iran and the Houthis is misleading, Khatib said. What is happening in Yemen is a Saudi-Yemeni confrontation, where King Salaman wants to bring Saudi Arabia back to a central position in the region. Saudi Arabia is concerned about a number of potential threats to its regional position, including the nuclear deal and al-Qaeda.