As the conflict in Yemen drags on, an interesting dynamic has marked the last year of war: the rise of popular protests in many Southern regions, the areas which are not directly hit by airstrikes and fighting. Demonstrations are mainly driven by worsened economic conditions: Yemenis peacefully take to the streets, organise sit-ins or go on strike to express their dissent against unstoppable inflation, lack of public salaries and services, electricity shortages and limited access to clean water.
This occurs not only in the areas controlled by the internationally-recognised government, but also in the cities and provinces held by the de facto authorities of the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC). Protests have intensified since mid-2021: for instance, only in September 2021, 54 demonstrations took place in Aden, Shabwa, Abyan, Socotra, Lahij and Hadhramawt (UN Panel of Experts on Yemen 2022). The STC’s self-proclaimed authorities declared a state of emergency to quell demonstrations, including in the big urban centres of Aden and Mukalla.
One lesson can be drawn. In a context of prolonged and multi-layered conflict like the Yemeni one, forms of governance autonomous from the recognised government are also failing to provide answers in the eyes of locals. In other words, war isn’t a zero-sum game: it exhausts resources and damages all players on the ground, including those who contest central authorities and try to replace them.
Not only war: Why and Where Yemenis Protest
Yemen’s protests in Southern regions are primarily related to the harsh deterioration of economic conditions and purchasing power: people often depend on daily wage labour. What’s striking – in a country still ravaged by war – is that unrest occurs in areas which are not – or no longer – affected by airstrikes and fighting: mostly in Aden, Shabwa and Hadhramawt. Protesters have blocked roads and attacked government buildings (in Aden on March 2021). In some cases, clashes with security forces have followed, especially in the provisional capital Aden; in partly government-controlled Taiz, security forces and auxiliary groups fired shots in the air to halt protesters, while some people were injured and killed in Hadhramawt’s protests.
Food prices have grown exponentially: the Yemeni currency, the riyal, has been strongly depreciating against the US dollar: Yemen depends imports 90% of its food and fuel. The economic system, and its institutions, have become fragmented: Yemen now has separate central banks, customs and revenue authorities. The economy of war has eroded – and erased in many cases – the already dysfunctional, “grey” structure of Yemen’s economy during the former presidency of Ali Abdullah Saleh, in which military-economic networks of power monopolised institutional channels.
According to the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen 2022, the United Arab Emirates’ support to the STC – controlled areas appears to have decreased since 2019 (when the Emirates’ military withdrew from the country), while Saudi Arabia continues to channel its financial backing through the recognised government. This could partly explain why STC – governed areas are experiencing growing unrest.
Many Resources but Few Revenues and Services: The Case of Hadhramawt
In this context, protests in Hadhramawt, focused in the port city of Mukalla, reveal a specific reality. Since 2021, demonstrations in the governorate have been frequent and stratified. As the researcher Shaima Bin Othman outlines, protests have involved, for instance, mothers worried about corruption and the cost of living, or university students denouncing excessive transportation fees. More than half of Yemen’s oil is produced in the South-eastern region of Hadhramawt. However, Hadhramis continue to denounce unemployment, poor services and political marginalisation, as they did during Saleh’s presidency. This emphasises autonomist feelings given the persistence of a strong Hadhrami identity.
These protests raise an alert not only for alternative shapes of governance, but also for power decentralisation attempts and the way they are handled locally. In fact, after the 2015 war broke out, the Hadhramawt governorate negotiated with the central government to keep 20% of energy revenues at home for investments in local development programmes (Shabwa and Marib governorates did the same). But so far, this doesn’t seem to have generated improvements on the ground. The proof is that Hadhrami protesters’ slogans are directed against all parties since “protest chants were addressed to the local authority, the Arab coalition under Saudi leadership, and the Southern Transitional Council”. The main target of discontent is General Faraj Salmeen Al-Bahsani, the Hadhramawt governor who is also commander of the Second Military Zone (which formally integrated the UAE-backed Hadhrami Elite Forces).
The Houthi-held areas and the two Central Banks
In the North-western areas controlled by Ansar Allah (the Houthis), there have not yet been reports of significant protests: prices have not risen as steeply as elsewhere and a tight security apparatus is in place, combining economic profiteering, coercion and repression. However, shortages of fuel and cooking gas represent an issue in Houthi-controlled areas as well. As a war economy became dominant, economic and financial institutions have turned into a political battlefield. The Yemen central bank split in 2016: this led to opposing monetary and economic policies. The Aden central bank, the only one with access to international financial markets, began to print new currency notes to cover the government's deficit and pay public sector wages, while trying to damage the Houthi-held northern markets.
In 2017, the Aden-based central bank controlled by the recognised government decided to float the currency: this means it determined the rate against other foreign currencies by supply and demand, rather than with a fixed rate set by the government. But the choice backfired, worsening the economic impact on daily life. As a result, Yemen's current exchange rate is different: the new notes printed in Aden hit 1,000 riyals to the dollar in mid-2021. In Houthi-held Sanaa, the exchange rate was about 600 in the same time-frame. This short-sighted monetary policy contributed to boosting the riyal’s depreciation and uncontrolled inflation.
The United Nations has just defined Yemen’s humanitarian situation a “chronic emergency”. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is also likely to have implications for the country: one third of the wheat imported by Yemen comes from Moscow and Kiev. The big diplomatic picture is stalled: Ansar Allah has rejected the Gulf Cooperation Council’s offer to hold peace talks in Riyadh, saying they would be open to dialogue in a “neutral country”, while Houthis' drone and missile attacks against Saudi economic infrastructures continue. In the meantime, seven years after the outbreak of the Yemen war, experiences of governance which are alternative to state institutions reveal similar ineffectiveness and limits, as evidenced by the rise of popular protests in Southern regions.