Chaos in Yemen: Societal Collapse and the New Authoritarianism
by Isa Blumi, Routledge (Middle East and Islamic Studies), 2010. Pp.xv 208. Maps. Preface. Abbreviations. Notes. Bibliog. Index. Hb. $125. ISBN 978-0-415-7807
Isa Blumi is a scholar who has written on aspects of late Ottoman history but acquired a strong interest in, and knowledge of, Yemen through periods of residence there and study in the 1990s. It is from this background that he argues that it is essential for analysts and policy makers who want to avert the threatened chaos of the title to have a fuller understanding of the past and use methods of analysis that refrain 'from the reductionisms all too often found in the media today'. He wants greater attention to be given to the motivations of local actors. Terms such as tribalism are too often used to reduce problems to nebulous and often misunderstood concepts. He rejects policies inherited from the Colonial era which can be too concerned with fighting terrorism and fail to look at the factors driving the emergence of extremism and terrorism. He argues that Western governments may be propping up regimes which themselves foment the very instability which they are alleged to be combating. He fears state collapse and a repetition of the mistakes that have contributed to the chaos in the Horn of Africa.
Many of those who know Yemen may agree with many of his arguments but may be put off by his somewhat didactic and repetitive language. (He seems to have a particular dislike for Think Tanks). It would be a pity if this were to happen because his book provides important lessons for the present and future through his analysis of the past. He wants to change the way that people think about Yemen. Despite the campaigning style it is a scholarly work written by someone who has a full command of the sources, including the Ottoman archives. Many of his footnotes give fascinating additions to what is in the text, and the bibliography will be greatly appreciated by his fellow scholars.
Professor Blumi discusses events in the Sa'ada region, notably the Huthi rebellion in the light of what took place after the second Ottoman occupation of Yemen at a time when the Imam's authority extended to the Asir region of what has been part of Saudi Arabia since 1934. He looks at how Muhammad al-Idrisi seized authority in this region in the early part of the twentieth century and how he, the Ottomans and the Imam interacted with each other and with external powers in their struggle for the control of Yemen. There is an interesting chapter giving the background to the reluctant recognition of the current Yemen-Saudi border and of the 1904 border agreement (negotiated by the Porte and the British ) which divided the important Hujuriya region, creating local problems that still resound.
The Ottomans, Imams and al-Idrisi mobilised groups of local actors with motives that do not fit into stereotypes of tribal or even sectarian loyalty. One example is the way that tribes within the Hashid and Bakil confederations supported the different contenders and did not act "as many current analysts might expect "as coherent units. As Blumi puts it, within such entities, 'authority is unendingly negotiated and remains a reflection of the constant recalibration of local power through temporary political commercial alliance'. He suggests that a closer examination of the motives of those supporting the Huthis would help explain why their rebellion has been so persistent and difficult to repress.
He then jumps to an examination of Yemen since unification. There is an excellent discussion of the problems in the 1990-1994 period and he shows how the gap in perception and aims of the leaders of the two Yemens led to the civil war of 1994 and contributed to the problems of southern Yemen today. This section of the book is slightly marred by the author making the very mistake he accuses many others of making. He is not sufficiently aware of what was happening in the PDRY in the 1980s and the full range of motives that drove its leaders towards unity. He underestimates the weakness of the Yemeni Socialist Party after the internecine bloodbath of January 1986 and the way that President Saleh was able to use the divisions within the southern leadership to persuade them to accept a deal they would later come to see as flawed.
This book gives a somewhat lop-sided view of Yemen focussing on events before 1934 and those mostly after the late 1980s, leaving a rather large gap in the middle which saw for example, the overthrow of the Imamate, the civil war of the late 1960s and the turbulent events of the 1970s, when three presidents (two in the north and one in the south) were killed. The regime after 1978 set out to build up its power to avoid dependence on local actors or meddling neighbours. The inflow of oil and gas revenues after 1990 was a further factor in building up the power of the regime and its ability to provide patronage. This replaced a state where a weak centre was continually forced to temporise.
His argument gathers greater force when looking at likely future trajectories for Yemen. He sees a 'slide towards greater state violence at the expense of pursuing traditional strategies of conflict resolution will only result in a dramatic increase in regional instability'. He fears state collapse and a repetition of the mistakes that have contributed to the chaos in the Horn of Africa. The local and the marginalised have been neglected for too long and demand more of a state than the provision of 'stability' and 'security'. Blumi rightly points to the many well-known problems in Yemen " poverty, unemployment, population growth, lack of water to name only four. The tumultuous events in the Arab world in 2011 have inspired the marginalised to use the power of street protest to make their voice heard. If this book had been written a few months later, Blumi would have had even more grounds for his main argument.