Yemen is beginning the new year in a state of shock. After the unity government—newly formed at the end of last year as part of a power-sharing agreement brokered between the internationally-recognized government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC)—arrived in Aden, the airport was rocked by several explosions on December 30. The fact that this nascent government was sworn in, not in Yemen, but in the Saudi capital of Riyadh attests to the country’s insecurity. In order to build a stable political order in the wake of the current conflict, the country’s political and civic leaders must adopt a new approach to recognizing Yemen’s various group identities.
The formation of a new government that brought together northern and southern politicians in the final days of 2020 marked an important milestone in fulfillment of negotiations made under the so-called Riyadh Agreement. Despite this progress, it remains unlikely that the deep fault lines between the internationally-recognized government (IRG) under the control of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), vying for independence in the South, will be overcome through this power sharing arrangement. Further complicating the situation, the five-year-long international mediation effort between the IRG and the Houthis, who control most of northern Yemen, has mostly resulted in a stalemate. Meanwhile, the IRG’s authority has significantly waned and is limited to a few specific territorial areas. Underlying these dynamics are diverse group identities—of both a sectarian and regional nature. For example, in the case of the Houthis, followers claim that the country’s political leadership positions should be restricted to Zaidis (a Shia branch of Islam) with Hashemite lineage. In the case of the Southern Movement, identity politics are aligned with beliefs that those living in the formerly independent state of South Yemen have fundamentally different needs and desires than their northern counterparts.
Indeed, Yemen’s various group identities are complex, often intertwined with several different layers. Political practices frequently inflame tension between groups, reinforcing these various identities. This is at the core of the Yemeni conflict today. Groups using these identities as a rallying cry are so much at odds with each other that only a superficial, if any, reconciliation agreement appears possible. The key to peace is a state that enshrines the recognition and acknowledgement of this multiplicity of identities into a constitution by guaranteeing equal rights to all its citizen regardless of social, geographical or religious background. A new system of governance would also need to decentralize political power in a way that distributes it more evenly and inclusively to all of Yemen’s major regions.
At first glance, it appeared that the establishment of a republic in North Yemen in 1962, and the subsequent unification with South Yemen in 1990 led to the birth of a single national identity. The idea was to mend the country’s past divisions by creating a single banner for citizens to rally around—a new flag for the unified Republic of Yemen. But, it quickly became clear that this identity was aspirational at best.
In the 1990s, following the establishment of the single, modern Yemeni state, long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime enhanced the fortunes of the northern region’s tribal and military elite at the expense of others, which sowed further divisions. By neglecting, and at times actively suppressing society’s diverse tribal, regional and religious associations, Saleh, who came to power in 1978, failed to build meaningful national unity or an inclusive economy and political system. Many attempted to coalesce citizens around the idea that both North and South Yemen had overthrown previous governing powers. Northerners rebelled against the Imamate in 1962 and Southerners chased British colonizers from their shores in 1967. But this narrative didn’t really honor the nuances of both experiences. Instead of promoting equality, Saleh, a northern tribesmen, empowered those closest to him, further entrenching a gulf between separate northern and southern identities. This tension simmered for decades, threatening a fragile nation state. Finally, in 2011, Arab Spring protestors saw an opportunity to level the playing field for various groups that had been oppressed during Saleh’s rule.
Following the 2011 uprising, the country embarked on reconciliation talks called the National Dialogue Conference, which took place from 2013-2014. The conference was meant to partially rectify some of the institutional injustices that Saleh’s government supported. Over the course of the conference, representatives from Yemen’s diverse social and political groups came to an agreement on many issues, including a proposal to form a federal state and to enact policies that would prevent the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a single political party or body. A federal model of governance held the promise of creating a pluralistic system that would more equitably divide power among Yemen’s various groups. Because this push for decentralized power threatened Saleh’s still outsized influence in Yemen, behind the scenes, he encouraged the Houthis to subvert the political process. Indeed, when the group took control of the capital Sana’a in 2014, the fragile process of building a democratic state fell apart and has not since recovered.
The protests of 2011 weakened the central government. Some transitional-period reforms, such as restructuring the military, also chipped away at it. As a result, a power vacuum emerged that the Houthis eventually capitalized on in the country’s north. Although the Houthis, who started as a religious movement, were persecuted by Saleh prior to the Arab Spring, they eventually aligned with him, paving the way for their takeover of Sana’a in 2014. In this turn of events though, they have gone from being marginalized to now excluding, silencing and victimizing others. Their singular domination in northern Yemen has re-enforced identity divisions with southern Yemenis. Many fear that the current situation represents an institutional entrenchment of identities that have a prejudicial or discriminatory tendency. To overcome this, Yemen needs to radically rethink what a national identity might look like. They need to be pragmatic about a governing system that unites them while at the same time allows for separate regional identities to co-exist and have equal standing.
Before the modern era, there were historically multiple Zaidi imamates and Sunni dynasties in the North and multiple sultanates in the South. There were also the Ottomans and the British. Each of these periods represent a building block that molded Yemen’s current group identities. From 1901 to 1904, the joint Anglo-Turkish Boundary Commission demarcated a boundary between the British and the Ottomans’ spheres of influence in what was then known as South Arabia. The commission created what is now known as the Anglo-Ottoman Line—the basis for dividing North and South Yemen. In the 1960s, after South Yemen gained independence from British control and the Zaidi Imamate fell in the North, two separate national states emerged, both with divergent forms of government until unification in 1990.
In the lead-up to the creation of the sole Yemeni state, some political and cultural circles in both North Yemen and South Yemen spoke about one single Yemeni identity in the hopes of eventually achieving national unity. The movements behind both the September 26, 1962 Revolution against the Imamate in the North and the October 1963 Revolution against British colonization in the South shared the ultimate goal of national unity, but under their own visions. Politicians in both the South and the North used government propaganda and print media to promote a shared Yemeni identity based on the countries’ common histories, culture and mutual interests. The vision of a collective identity reached its culmination with the announcement of North and South Yemen’s political unification in May 1990, resulting in the singular Republic of Yemen. However, in practice, the promotion of a new national identity did not account for the two countries diverse social structures and customs and instead was dominated by northern tribal culture.
To strengthen a collective national identity moving forward, Yemen needs to honor subnational diversity. Accepting the unique histories and needs of Yemen’s various group identities and not placing them in a hierarchy will encourage equitable participation in the political process. These pluralistic interests do not need to be the source of the conflict. For that reason, Yemeni academics, civil society organizations and media outlets, along with international organizations involved in state building, should encourage discourse that recognizes these differences while working towards merging common interests. All of Yemen’s diverse groups must have a say in a new governing system in order to achieve a sustainable peace and that must be guaranteed in the country’s future constitution. Doing so would help eliminate the current identity polarization and open the door for plurality to become a point of strength, as well as a catalyst for development and economic and cultural prosperity.
Author bio: Mohamed al-Himyari is a researcher from Yemen and holds an MA in sociology and anthropology from the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. His research focuses on democratic transitions, sociopolitical issues and social anthropology in Yemen.
Translator: David Kanbergs
Editor: Mareike Transfeld,
Copy Editor: Katie Riordan
YPC nationwide representative survey, April–July 2019. Data cited in this paper is drawn from this survey unless otherwise indicated.
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