The war in Yemen has enhanced transnational insecurity between the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, with the Gulf of Aden as the epicentre of this insecurity: nevertheless, Yemen and Somalia still maintain distinct features.
Since the collapse of the Somali state under Siad Barre in 1991, the Horn of Africa has become mythologised by the international community as a chaotic and ungovernable region, where Somalia is seen as a quintessential failed state or “the most failed state in the world”. Against this backdrop, comparisons have consistently been drawn between the insecurity in Somalia and the growing fragility of the Yemeni state (Somalia’s neighbour across the Gulf of Aden).
In a recent article, Nasir M Ali posited that Yemen had become “another Somalia in the Arabian Peninsula”. The comparison is not new: before the Arab Spring hit the country, I heard the concern expressed repeatedly among development and aid practitioners working in Yemen that support was urgently needed in order to ensure that Yemen did not "become another Somalia", with the implication that Yemen was on the verge of failure in 2010. However, the construction is not always helpful. Using “Somalia” as shorthand for heavy insecurity, state collapse and internal turmoil masks the distinctiveness of the Somali and Yemeni cases, while also obscuring from view any signs of positive progress and pockets of stability in both Somalia and Yemen. Perhaps more importantly, the shorthand positions insecurity as an internal challenge to Somalia and Yemen, overlooking the regional and transnational geopolitical push and pull factors that have contributed to the erosion of state capacity in both territories. Yet despite these limitations, there is value to be gained in talking about Yemen and Somalia in comparative analysis: not only does the security of one have an impact on the security of the other, as will be argued here, but the erosion of state infrastructure in the two cases has also followed similar patterns, resulting in both in the rise of rival quasi-state structures that are predicated on the existence of clan and tribal hierarchies.
Yemen is a politically and socially fragmented country, having existed as a single state only since its unification in 1990. In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring, Yemen began a steady decline into civil war after Yemeni President Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi was voted into office in 2012, thereby ousting the long-standing Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh had been in power (at least in the North) for 33 years, and though he stood down as a result of popular protests, he subsequently sought to regain his seat of power militarily by allying with the Houthi insurgency in the North of the country and then switching his allegiances to exert maximum strategic advantage as the war continued.
The Houthis are a Zaydi Shiite insurgency initially operating out of Sa’adah in the far north of Yemen and then widening their territory. They have opposed the Yemeni Government since 2004, when Saleh sent military personnel to arrest their leader, Houssein Badreddin Al-Houthi, for instigating wide-scale demonstrations against Saleh’s seemingly pro-American policies. Their rejection of the state’s legitimacy is founded upon their perceived marginalization from development programs, which they believe to be a deliberate policy against their religious group. The Houthis have thus far fought seven wars against government forces, including their current campaign. In 2011 and 2012, the Houthis used the chaos generated by the Arab Spring to establish their own federal state. In a surprising move, they then allied with Saleh to fight against Hadi and have since taken a significant portion of Yemeni territory. This move was made possible by the post-2012 fragmentation of the Yemeni military, which divided control of the armed forces between Hadi and Saleh loyalists. Secessionist sentiment has been rising in South Yemen since the 1994 civil war, and this accelerated nation-wide division. To the North, the rising insecurity in Yemen also provoked the involvement of Saudi Arabia and its partners in a sectarian conflict that instrumentally uses religious identities. Saudi Arabia’s war has been targeted towards containing the spread of the Houthis in Yemen. This further escalated the fighting in Yemen that continues to the present day.
The political fragmentation of Yemen is made possible by the division of society along tribal lines, whereby the tribes provide a system of cooperation and alliances that predate the formation of the nation state. In Yemen, especially in the North of the country, tribes continue to form a core component of social relationships and political hierarchies. Sarah Phillips cites Saleh himself as having once said in 1986 that: “The state is a part of the tribes, and our Yemeni people is a collection of tribes. … All the official and popular apparatuses of the state are formed from the tribes (or the tribesmen)”. Once conflict hit Yemen, tribal divisions offered a logical support network for combatants and insurgencies. This mirrors the evolution of the civil war in Somalia, where a return of clannism followed the breakdown of the Somali Government.
As central components of Somali and Yemeni society, clans and tribes have a strong impact on local politics. It may even be argued in some parts of these “two” countries that they dictate local politics. This affects the state in a variety of ways. The co-option of these non-state hierarchies can provide ruling regimes with a basis of authority, and also represent a logical set of associations that can be appealed to for greater state legitimacy and increased community cooperation in any governance processes.
However, clanism and tribalism can also be extremely divisive phenomena, accentuating the differences between groups, subverting state leadership, or escalating disputes between individuals to the group level, creating conflict. Yet in both Somalia and Yemen, these structures have enabled the creation of pockets of peace, stability and self-administration, as well as the establishment of new Governments with varying levels of legitimacy and recognition at the international level. For example, the state of Somaliland in the North of Somalia has existed in relative stability in part due to the authority of traditional elders, who play a vital role on conflict resolution. While comparisons between Yemen and Somalia are valid, these should include analysis of both peace and conflict drivers, rather than blanket description of the two territories as violent and chaotic.
Despite recent peaceful progress in Somalia and Somaliland, however, the protracted levels of instability experienced in Yemen and Somalia have nevertheless manifested security threats that are transnational and that affect the geopolitics of the Middle East and North Africa Region as a whole. Some of these threats can be linked to the infiltration of transnational and local opportunistic groups into Yemen and Somalia, who have used national lawlessness and diminished state capacity to launch illicit operations that threaten collective security. Such groups include organised criminal and terrorist networks. On the criminal side of these operations, human traffickers and smugglers have used demands for assistance from displaced Yemeni and Somali communities and unemployed young people to generate significant profits by helping people to transit borders between the Middle East and North Africa.
At the same time, a combination of weak-but-functioning governance and the rise of conflict hot-spots have led to the entrenchment of Al Qaeda’s regional offshoot – Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – in Yemen, and the cooperation of AQAP with Al Shabaab in Somalia. AQAP use Yemen as a platform from which to launch national, regional and global attacks. Other transnational threats have emerged from the local and national level to affect the broader Gulf of Aden region. These have included local and national insurgent groups, whose fighting has not been contained within Yemen and Somalia’s borders, and pirating organisations operating mainly out of Puntland in Somalia.