Yemen’s tribal army does not exist anymore, replaced by a plethora of militias, sometimes institutionalised: only a federal-based reform of the security sector could limit the rising territorial power of warlords. A survey conducted by the Yemen Polling Centre in 2017 sheds further light on this point: at the question “Who brings security in this area?”, only 16% of Yemenis all over the country answer “the police/security authorities”.
Yemen has never been a Westphalian state, with defined territorial boundaries and a clear monopoly of force. On the contrary, contemporary Yemen is often described as a “failed state” or, according to critical visions of security, it embodies a “hybrid security order”, given the coexistence, competition and collaboration of state and non-state armed actors. But the 2015 conflict has definitely reversed these consolidated frameworks of analysis.
For decades, the Yemeni army was a patchwork of tribal fighters, with no professionalization and unified chain of command on the ground, nor civilian oversight on defence matters. In the security realm, shuyyukh mattered more than military commanders. Since regime security was the army’s primary task, military balances mirrored the regime ones: personnel proceeded from the Hashid tribal confederation and the Sanhan clan filled the officer corp. After 1994, Southerners were massively sidelined from the security sector.
In Yemen’s history, institutional fragmentation represented an effective coup-proofing strategy, as demonstrated by the presidency of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Special units and tribal militias were assembled by the regime, first of all to counterbalance the regular army. The armed forces, deeply affected by corruption (ghost soldiers), represented a source of welfare (employment) and patronage (benefits) for Yemenis: the “tribal-military-commercial complex” was the pillar of Saleh’s authoritarian and resilient system of power.
From 2012 on, the Security Sector Reform (SSR) designed by interim President Abd-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi paved the way for the collapse of the transition government. At the beginning, it was marked by commanders’ replacement, rotation and the disbandment of powerful bodies as the Republican Guard and the 1st Regional Military Command led by General Ali Mohsin Al-Ahmar. But Hadi replicated also the dysfunctional behaviours of the past: he enrolled 20.000 loyal recruits belonging to the Islah party (which encompasses Muslim Brothers and Salafis), promoted officers coming from his native Abyan region and appointed Nasser Hadi, his son, as chief of the new Presidential Protection Unit.
When the conflict broke out in 2015, the army crumbled, thus reproducing élite infighting and shifting political alliances. As a result, a segment of the army remained loyal to the internationally-recognized institutions, while another one -at that time tied to former president Saleh- sided with the insurgents. The Houthis gained the upper hand in the military, till to control the 60-70% of the pre-war military arsenal: Ansarullah was able to infiltrate and then dominate Saleh’s military network of patronage, but it also created new informal and coercive bodies, the “popular committees”.
Several irregular forces fight in the varied anti-Houthi front too: this is the case of the popular committees supporting Hadi. Predominantly positioned in Abyan, these groups receive salaries and assistance from the government. In Taiz, the Salafi Al-Abbas Brigade managed to monopolize the local anti-Houthi resistance. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) organized, trained and equipped a number of regional-based militias in Southern Yemen (including former PDRY soldiers, Salafis, secessionists), with the aim to stabilize re-conquered areas and tackle jihadi activities and presence. Among these forces, better paid and equipped than Yemen’s army, the Security Belt Forces (or Al-Hizam Brigades, more than 15.000 troops) were deployed in Aden, Abyan and Lahij; local Elite Forces were built in Hadhramaut, Shabwa (up to 4000 fighters) and maybe in Mahra. Local tribes not aligned with the warring factions add to the map of Yemen’s armed groups.
What’s interesting - and worrying at the same time - is that militias have become the “new normal” not only in Yemen’s current war scenario, where they act as agents of instability, but also in SSR, playing the agents of stability role. This is evident if we look at formally post-conflict areas, as Aden and Hadhramaut: security providers are, at the same time, insecurity actors , thus contributing to downplay reliable military reform. In Aden, the Security Belt Forces fall under the Ministry of Interior’s authority since 2016, while the regional-based élite forces are technically part of the Yemeni army.
Nevertheless, UAE-financed and trained militias do not operate within the legal umbrella, as confirmed by the UN Panel of Experts: “while affiliated with the legitimate government”, these groups “operate largely outside its control ”, answering directly to the Emiratis. On January 2018, the pro-secessionist and UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), de facto the third Yemeni government, established its military wing, the Southern Resistance Forces, gathering existent groups as the Security Belt and local tribes belonging to the powerful Yafi’i confederation.
Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration (DDR) and SSR should be parallel, interdependent paths relying on local ownership. But in areas controlled by recognized institutions, especially in post-conflict Southern Yemen (Aden, Shabwa, Hadhramaut), SSR has taken shape without DDR, and it appears as an externally-driven process, with the UAE at the forefront. As a result, these militias, in many cases driven by separatist intents, are turned into institutional forces, notwithstanding they continue to behave as irregular bodies. Such a risky hybridization magnifies what Albrecht called the “militia-ization of security regimes ” and can’t build the foundations for a settled country.
Nowadays, military reform in Yemen can’t be properly tackled without addressing two intertwined dynamics: the rising Salafi issue and the prominent role of foreign patronage.
As a matter of fact, this kind of SSR has empowered militarized Salafis, thus providing legitimacy to the militarization of Salafism trend: it will become a big challenge for post-conflict Yemen. The 2015 war reshuffled Yemen’s political Islam, blurring boundaries among Muslim Brothers (now marginalized), Salafis and jihadists. “Quietist/apolitical Salafis” were largely replaced by “activist Salafis”: in some cases, politicization bolstered militarization, given also the spread of a new anti-Shia sectarian narrative, coupled with the fluidity in the jihadi galaxy.
Moreover, the Salafi issue is increasingly tied with transnational patronage. The UAE and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia, invested financial, political and military resources in Yemen’s Salafi armed groups: these forces have no incentives to promote a viable peace process, especially if Southern secessionists’ claims will not be met. As a self-fulfilling prophecy, Ansarullah receives now increasing military support from Iran , multiplying contacts with the transnational Shia network.
Given this scenario, which kind of security governance for Yemen? If we look at the headquarters of the seven military regions established by the 2012 SSR, all have distinct political loyalties now: Sayyun (Wadi Hadhramaut, pro-Saleh soldiers and Saudi influence), Mukalla (Coastal Hadhramaut, Emirati-backed forces), Mareb (Gen. Ali Mohsin, Islah, Saudi influence), Aden (pro-secessionists and pro-Emiratis), Hodeida (Houthis), Amran (Houthis), Dhamar (Houthis). This complex political-military map could develop into further anarchy (long-lasting warlordism) or into consensual federalism, seeking for difficult, but necessary regional-based security agreements.
With regard to the federal structure, the establishment of a Yemeni National Guard could be a path to explore, in order to minimize the centrifugal impact of regional identities, rebuilding a lighter but more effective military than before. The National Guard would involve local stakeholders, including political actors that once belonged to the periphery (Houthis, Al-Hiraak) and autonomous tribesmen, on a regional basis. All security actors should be paid and trained by the central government: this is the only way to rebuild a sort of state’s legitimacy. Obviously, the reform of the security sector must be anchored to a comprehensive political agreement among warring parties. Otherwise, warlordism will definitely shape not only civil-military relations, but also Yemen’s geographies of territorial power.