Chatham House encourages the incorporation of subnational and local groups in an expanded mediation process

In Yemen: National Chaos, Local Order, Chatham House's Peter Salisbury identifies Yemen as a “chaos state” characterized as “a nominal entity that exists largely as lines on a map and as a concept in newspaper reports and policymaker briefings" (p. 45). The traditional solution to restoring order in a “chaos state” is creating a centralized government that dictates legitimacy from the top down. According to Salisbury’s analysis, this approach is unlikely to work in Yemen. Yemen is not purely a contest for power between the Houthis and the government of President Hadi, or purely a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but rather “a region of mini-states at varying degrees of war with one another, and beset by their own complex internal politics and conflicts.”  

Salisbury argues that the main vehicle for moving towards a peaceful Yemen would be further investment in the United Nations (UN) led mediation process, but amended in order to adequately address the conflict’s complexity. This mediation process has not been successful thus far because “the groups that hold the balance of power in this chaos state do not correspond directly to those that have been engaged to date” (45). Power structures have fundamentally changed in Yemen since the beginning of the civil war in late 2014. In order to account for these changes in power structures and multiple stakeholders, the report recommends taking the following action:

Support the recalibration of the current UN-led mediation process and expand it, formally
or informally, to three equally weighted tracks that:

  1. Address the role of third-party states – not limited to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, the US, the UK and France – in directly or indirectly prolonging the war and sponsoring military actors.

  2. Support mediation between the parties formally considered by the UN Security Council as principal belligerents (the Houthis, Saleh loyalists and the Hadi government), and communicate to them the need to expand their participation in the current peace process.

  3. Acknowledge subnational and local political and conflict dynamics by engaging with key military and political leaders from each governorate, and with the senior leaderships from the current subnational divisions: the Houthi-controlled highlands and west coast; the tribal territories of Al Jawf, Mareb and Al Bayda; the separatist tribal south; Aden; Hadramawt (coastal and northern); and Al Mahra. Consider outreach to the Saba regional council, the Southern Transitional Council and other similar regional initiatives. Integrate these groups into the broader mediation process.

This third track is the clearest diversion from the current UN-led mediation process. As the report outlines, Yemen’s conflict is fostering the rise of multiple, regionally based power centers, some of which are nominally tied to the coalition but act with increasing autonomy and have interests that a peace process will need to address. The challenges of integrating these subnational actors into a political settlement are illustrated by comparing Taiz and Mareb. Salisbury identifies Taiz as the most fractured space in Yemen due to a constellation of salafist, Islahi, Nasserites, and other militias and resistance forces with varying degrees of UAE and Saudi support that vie among each other for political influence and territory while trying to fend off Houthi attacks. For any long term peace settlement to take hold in Yemen, subnational groups such as the Islah movement and other fractured local militias must be included in order to incentivize their adherence and prevent the rise of spoilers.

In contrast to the precarious situation Taiz finds itself in, “Mareb has emerged as an apparent success story since the beginning of the war”(p. 19). Mareb is almost entirely controlled by local authorities, and its governor is the popular tribal shaykh Sultan al-Aradah. Al-Aradah has not only maintained political stability and popularity, but has managed to unite the historically contentious tribal groups, such as the Abeedah and Balhareth, against the Houthi-Saleh alliance in order to prevent their expansion into Mareb. Salisbury reports that economic activity has also been generated in Mareb in the midst the conflict as a result of oil and gas sales, which has resulted in the creation of infrastructure and other public works projects. He writes that “improvements in governance and service delivery have been so marked that many Marebis say that the situation is better than before the war”(p. 19). The report’s ultimate takeaway is that, whether a region’s actors are divided, as in Taiz, or united and even thriving, as in Mareb, the UN and international actors must take these divisions and emergent interests into account when restarting the the peace process.