Tough times ahead for Yemen’s federation

On Feb. 10, 2014, Yemen agreed to create a federation with six regions as President Abdrabuh Mansour Hadi struggles to stop the country from falling apart. Ever since the Arab Spring of 2011, ethnic strife, religious disputes, tribalism and al-Qaeda- linked groups are threatening to tear the country apart. After months of meetings between the March 2013 National Dialogue, a body supported by the GCC and the international community at large, a potential solution may have been found. What Yemen is trying to do is to appease a number of different grievances in the country by forming a federal system. A federal system may provide the necessary structure to end the multiple political, tribal and ethnic differences that are causing instability in the country. But the road ahead is long and in Yemen’s already fractured society, the road towards a Yemen federation may be bloody before the situation stabilizes—if it does at all.

President Hadi announced that the country would be become a federation, made up of two federal districts in the south and four districts in the north. The six regions laid out in the plan include four in the north comprising Azal, Saba, Janad and Tahama, and two in the formerly independent south, Aden and Hadramawt. Under the plan the northern province of Saada, a bastion of Ansarullah rebels, also known as Huthis, is part of the Azal region — a zone that also includes Sanaa, Amran and Dhamar. The region has no significant natural resources or access to the sea. Sanaa has stronger cultural, social and geographical links with (coastal) Haja, and Jawf on the border with Saudi Arabia. Notably missing from the announcement by Hadi were how exactly the federal entities would be built, staffed, and what the nature of relations between the core and periphery of the country would be.

What is a federation?

Within political science discourse, it is important to note that a federation or a federal state is a political entity categorized by a combination of partially self-governing regions under a central (federal) government. There are many federations around the world today; Germany, the Russian Federation, Malaysia, and India to name a few. Even Somalia, Yemen’s neighbor, is toying with the possibility of federalism. They feature multi-ethnic attributes. In all cases, violence seemed to breakout over subsidies, long-standing, historical disputes and political grandstanding. But at the very least there were regional and federal authorities who could intervene by acting as interlocutors or mediators. In Yemen’s case, the basis of power is tribal and federalism may have a tough time taking root in a volatile tribal society which supersedes all forms of governance as defined by federalism.
In a federation, the self-governing status of the states, as well as the division of power between them and the central government, are typically constitutionally embedded and may not be altered by a unilateral decision by either party, the states or the federal political body in Sanaa itself. Sovereignty is a key concept but not always the norm. In Yemen, sovereignty may be defined in different ways by the federal districts and their constituents.

Is Yemeni federalism really an answer or a tourniquet to the country’s myriad problems?

Dr. Theodore Karasik

The major problem in Yemen is that the new federal units will see themselves as “free” from Sanaa and thus pursue their own agendas. Although some units and their provinces received exactly the “freedom” they have been protesting and fighting for, Yemeni social norms will, at first, take control. Thus, a federal system probably won’t increase security as the government’s authority over the south and the north will be reduced. In fact, the announcement seems to be a simple declaration, with no real plan to be implemented immediately but instead introduced over time—perhaps up to a year or even more depending on internal political factors. Also, in theory, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) will have more freedom then ever.

The ensuing chaos

In the wake of the announcement, chaos seemed to ensue. Separatist factions in the south and the Houthis in the north capitalized on the diminished capability of security forces in provinces, coordinating their efforts with other insurgent factions to acquire weapons and expertise and increasingly resorted to prison breaks of over two dozen AQAP members. This included the freeing of notorious convicts such as Hisham Mohammad Assem and Saleh al-Shawish from Sanaa’s Central Prison. In other words, the announcement of a federation is creating a security vacuum in the country when Sanaa needs to show that such an announcement means greater stability. This prison break is a horrific signal that the entire concept may be dead on arrival, with AQAP preparing for new more insidious attacks.

The announcement of a federation took many by surprise, including many Yemenis themselves. Is Yemeni federalism really an answer or a tourniquet to the country’s myriad problems? Only time will tell, but at this juncture the idea announced by Hadi seems to be poorly thought out as it gives autonomy without the appropriate federal-level regional institutions in place physically and operationally with vetted staff. There is no focus on the municipal or city-level government where the most danger lies in Yemen. Significantly, power in Yemen comes from the bottom up from its patronage system, and not the top down where the same type of patronage system is weakened by power-hungry actors and greed. Confusion will likely reign and violence will occur between many interest groups. More problems lie ahead in the short term until Sanaa and the National Dialogue establish concrete organizational structures—which may or may not be acceptable to Yemen’s diffuse social milieu.


Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:42 - GMT 06:42
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.