Yemen At A Political Crossroad


After more than 30 years in power, Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh lost his traditional support base and is now facing a dead-end on his attempt to hold power. Tribal leaders, army commanders, and General People’s Congress (GPC) party members — the most influential groups of the Yemeni society — have stopped offering their support to the president. Instead, they backed the demonstrations initiated by Yemen citizens.

When oil revenues started to fall, Saleh couldn't maintain Yemen’s broad patronage system and started to only rely on his closest relatives in charge of state security forces. As a result, traditional elites lost influence in the system. This was exacerbated when American military aid was mostly allocated to the same security forces, strengthening their position. When the protests began, the traditional elites decided to support them, showing their dissatisfaction with Saleh.

It's impossible to understand Yemen's current situation without considering the changes in the patronage system that occurred in the last decade. It's also impossible to foresee any upcoming situation without analyzing the elites' goals and their reasons behind supporting the protests.

In the patronage system, Yemen’s social elites compromised tribal leaders, military commanders, businessmen, and technocrats to profit from state resources, in exchange for political support. This system was highly inclusive so Saleh could control societal influences. As soon as these elites started benefiting from the corrupted system, they were neutralized and any further claim for change prevented. However, the fall of oil revenues in 2002 forced Saleh to adopt a new strategy.

Yemen’s economy heavily relies on the oil sector, which brings nearly 75% of state revenues. In 2001, Yemen was producing 440,000 bbl/d. By 2010, the production had declined to 260,000 bbl/d. An increase in domestic consumption further caused revenues to fall, a trend that will continue in upcoming years. As a result, Saleh was unable to sustain his network and the patronage system moved from inclusiveness to exclusiveness. Saleh narrowed the network to only his closest relatives with positions in the top of the state security forces. Social elites immediately resented Saleh, seeing their access to state resources diminish.

American military aid, beginning after Saleh's support of the U.S. war on terrorism, exacerbated this feeling. While the elites' power and revenues curtailed, the state security forces ruled by Saleh’s relatives strengthened. Since Yemen’s counter-terrorism units belong to the state security, they received the most assistance, in terms of training and equipment. In 2010, the U.S. allocated $167.7 million to Yemen through the Defense Department’s 1206 Train and Equip and the Foreign Military Financing funds.

When the demonstrations started this past February, the social elites saw the perfect chance to warn Saleh by supporting the protestors. However, they hoped to regain access to state resources and appoint a candidate that would restore the previous network, rather than move towards democracy.

Overthrowing Saleh with this intention could drive Yemen into two possible scenarios. The first would be if the social elites, the military establishment, and the Hashid and Baki tribal confederations agree on a presidential candidate. This appointment would be accompanied by a return to the inclusive patronage system, highly entrenched in the Yemeni society. However, this scenario is very improbable considering the rivalry for power would prevent the elites from reaching a consensus.

The second scenario would arise from a disagreement among these groups. In this case, the country would probably plunge into a period of instability and armed tribal confrontation, similar to the pre-Saleh period which was marked with two former presidents' assassinations. Moreover, none of the opposition figures wanting real reform have enough support from either the social elites or the population.

Since Saleh is highly aware of the elites’ power competition, he could try to renegotiate the support of his previous powerful allies. In addition to the state security force's loyalty, Saleh would have sufficient leverage to extend power, a third future scenario. In this situation, the tribal leaders' power to appease their groups would contend with the power of the emerging civil society, which is gaining ground as the protests showed. Unfortunately, the group would not be strong enough to modify the socio-political system.

The revolution started, but will it set structural change in motion, or just cause a short term detriment of economic and security conditions? Lamentably, none of the three above-mentioned scenarios seem to lead Yemen to real change.

Photo Credityemenmujaz