Peace is often defined as the absence of violence. But the mere absence of violence may not lead to sustainable peace, especially when the underlying roots of violence are not addressed. This is no more relevant than in Yemen, whose civil war began in 2014, when Houthi insurgent took control of Sana’a, demanding lower fuel prices and a new government. Sooner or later the parties to the conflict will resort to negotiation. But will the peace deal be sustainable? To assure a sustainable peace, Yemen must move beyond a pattern of simple conflict resolution, which has so far failed to address the historical roots of  the country’s recurrent crises, along with its intergroup grievances, and elites’ manipulation of ethnic identities. Positive and sustainable peace requires serious reconciliation with the past — an indispensable step for an enduring and meaningful transitional justice. This approach has implications not only for Yemen but for other conflicts in the MENA region, such as Libya and Syria,

Conventional Peace Making and Sustainable Peace

Lack of reconciliation and the persistence of intergroup antagonism are hardly confined to known peace processes such as that of Northern Ireland and Lebanon. In fact some scholars of peace making and conflict resolution will argue that they are a feature of conventional efforts at peace making.

Nasia Hadjigeorgiou, for example, argues that in conventional peace making the two most common elements used to indicate a ‘sustainable’ and ‘successful’ peace are a drop in the level of violence, and the organization of ‘free and fair elections.’[1] In other words, as UN peace missions define a ‘sustainable peace’ they point to “the capacity of conflict parties to move political or economic struggles from the battlefield and into an institutional framework where disputes can be resolved.”[2]

This definition is sound but insufficient, for two reasons. First, the institutional setting that is designed to achieve ‘sustainable peace’ in ethnic civil wars often cements group identities rather than dissolving them and thus lays the ground for future conflicts. Absence of violence is merely a prelude to more ‘mini-crises.’

Second, to have institutions establish ‘free and fair elections’ is no guarantee of peace. In fact, introducing elections prematurely may contribute to further escalation of violence.

As examples such as the Colombian peace process show,[3] conventional peace-making measures have yet to produce sustainable peace.

Stuart J. Kaufman goes so far as to say that the existing approaches to ethnic civil wars usually fail because they are based on “an inadequate understanding of how ethnic identities work, why group members mobilize for war, and how they can be mobilized for peace.”[4] So they tend to focus on interests and institutions, and thus fail to address the ‘emotion-laden symbolic politics’ involved in defining, pursuing and discussing those interests and institutions.[5]

But a middle ground is possible, as we see in the third volume of International Review of Peace Initiatives, which recognizes the complex dimensions and phases of peace making and suggests an approach that creates bridges between peacebuilding and state building. Too often, Graeme Simpson argues, reconciliation — defined as the process of building or rebuilding relationships damaged by violent conflict — is seen as supplementary or peripheral, as an exotic distraction or utopian aspiration.[6]

However, reconciliation has great pragmatic value as it stands at that crucial intersection between efforts at peacebuilding and at state building. Seen from this perspective, Simpson argues, peace-making should go beyond technocratic efforts to build the capacity of ‘strong’ rather than ‘fragile’ states; instead what is needed is larger political endeavors to transform tainted relationships between state and society — which he calls the cultivation of ‘civic trust.’[7]

Yemen’s Instability and Sustainable Peace

To understand the current conflicts in the MENA region, and hence design a suitable peace process, we must consider each context.

The conflicts in Yemen, Syria, and Libya have one thing in common: they are ethnic in nature. That is, the historical exclusion of certain groups is based on religious, sectarian, regional or/and tribal lines. But what differs between these cases is the setting of these exclusions and the regional actors involved. Each case is individual and should be understood within its specific context.

Describing the Yemeni conflict is a difficult task, especially as its landscape and actors are changing constantly. Shifting sands: that is how the conflict looks from afar.

However, three key elements stand at the heart of the conflict. They are a power struggle within core elites, regional exclusions coupled with group grievances, and the collapse of a fragile state. If we add the regional dimension to the picture, we have a civil war between competing factions of Yemeni social and political forces, each of which is allying itself with competing regional/sectarian/tribal/Islamist groups.

There is a tendency to portray the conflict as binary: a Houthi militia versus an internationally recognized government operating from Riyadh; and a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The reality is anything but binary. A multiplicity of actors are involved. The regional actors are Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one hand, and Iran, Qatar and Turkey on the other. The local actors include the exiled Yemeni government, the Houthi militia, the Southern Transitional Council,[8] the Sunni Islamist Islah Party and its militia, troops loyal to the assassinated former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and strong military and tribal men.

Complicating the picture is the fact that each of these actors, local and regional, are also divided among themselves. For example, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (the Sunni Islamist Islah party), which is part of the Yemeni government, is divided into factions with conflicting regional loyalties: Saudi, Qatari and Turkish, although sometimes these loyalties overlap (Turkish and Qatari for example). And one can see at least three divisions or wings within the Ansar Allah (Houthi) militia: a military revolutionary wing, akin to the Iranian revolutionary guard; a radical religious wing; and a ‘moderate wing’ of young educated Zaydis.[9]

Saudi Arabia and its ally the UAE do not always see eye to eye on their strategy towards Yemen. One example is the UAE’s partial troop withdrawal from the South in 2019 and its support for the Southern Transitional Council, which aspires to a separate Southern state.[10]

It is a messy picture. Peter Salisbury describes it as a ‘chaos state,’ “a place where the central government has either collapsed or lost control of large segments of the territory over which it is nominally sovereign…”[11]

Roots of Yemen’s Current Civil War

If we are to pin down the reasons behind Yemen’s recent disintegration into civil war, we must consider several factors repeated by different interviewees. They all alluded to the transitional period that followed the signing of the Gulf Initiative on November 23, 2011.

The Gulf Initiative, designed by the Gulf Cooperation Council, was meant to provide Yemen a safe exit from an explosive situation. What started as a youth uprising in February 2011, calling for reform and an end to corruption, was hijacked by a core of strong military and tribal men, who saw in it a chance to get back at Saleh. Fearing that Yemen would collapse, the initiative sought to give Yemen and Saleh a safe exit that would not rock the boat. Instead, it reproduced a government with the same core elites and dynamics that were responsible for and benefiting from the conflict.

It called for Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh to delegate his authority to his vice president Abed Rabbo Mansur Hadiand to set a 90-day period within which Hadi would call for presidential elections. And it ensured only one candidate would run for this presidential election: Hadi. It also ensured that after the vice president would be elected a president, he would be responsible for overseeing a transitional period.[12]

The opposition, mainly made up of members of the old guard and parties that were part of the previous political system, would name its candidate for the position of prime minister. This would create a "national consensus government,” divided on a 50/50 basis between the government and the opposition. The government would have the authority to disengage the armed forces and their rival military forces and send them back to their camps. The Government and the President would call for a national dialogue conference, which would discuss a road map for Yemen’s future institutional setting, and address the country’s major conflicts (including the Sadaa and Southern question), while preserving Yemeni unity.[13]

Hadi became president, a government was created, and an inclusive national dialogue took place and issued its recommendations. And yet, what happened during the period between 2012 and 2015 derailed the whole process.

In a series of 36 online interviews between 11 June and 14 September of 2020, Yemeni stakeholders and parties to the conflict[14] identified several developments that together scuttled the settlement:

  • President Hadi, interested in holding power, played different actors against each other.
  • President Hadi issued a federal map of Yemen without consulting with other Yemeni political and social actors.
  • Former president Saleh sabotaged the transitional period in order to bring his son to power.
  • Major social and political groups were excluded from the power-sharing government, specifically the Southern movement and the Houthi militia.
  • Some political actors acted in bad faith, including the Houthi leadership, which engaged in the national dialogue conference and meanwhile worked to derail it on the ground.
  • The security sector was not reformed, and thus remained hostage to identity politics. Former president Saleh’s strategy of filling the security sector’s ranks with members of his clan and tribal affiliates were only reproduced by President Hadi, who sought to fill these ranks with members of his own home region, Abien.
  • Regional and international actors insisted on reproducing the same power structures and elites that brought Yemen to the brink of collapse in the first place. 
  • And international actors carried an attitude of ‘see no evil, hear no evil’, turning a blind eye to the transgressions of strongmen, such as former president Saleh.

The process came to a halt and then collapsed when the Houthi militia, together with troops loyal to former president Saleh, marched out of their Sadaa stronghold and took over the capital Sana’a, forcing Hadi to flee and settle in Riyadh. Houthi expansion was stopped and contained in northern Yemen when Saudi Arabia entered the conflict on behalf of Hadi. And Saleh was assassinated by his allies, the Houthis.

These are the factors leading to the current crisis in its present form.

International actors seeking to resolve the conflict are focusing on ending the violence between the parties involved. In peace negotiations they insist on referring to the Gulf Initiative, the outcome of the National Dialogue, UN Security Council decisions regarding the conflict, and the institutional frame of a united federal Yemen. In other words, they seek to find a solution to the current crisis in its present form, and not beyond. Going beyond the present requires understanding the past, which may lead some to question the suggested institutional framework.

A federal state may well be a suitable institutional frame for Yemen. But those developing such a state must first recognize the history of Yemen and the grievances of its various groups. These grievances are complex and layered, involving sectarian, regional and ethnic dimensions within north Yemen and South Yemen and between the North and the South and they are rooted deep in time.

Unless they do so, and avoid cementing group identities, a Yemeni federal state is bound to implode. It will not last and another civil war will break out within another couple years. I suggest we pause before we embark on another failed peace process.

State Formation and Understanding the Past

The fact that this civil war is but one of many in the country’s history begs the question: why has Yemen’s political history been marred by constant instability and war?

This question brings state formation into the picture and requires that we acknowledge the past in a way that goes beyond the dimension of rational socio-economic grievances. If we look more closely at Yemen’s history, five facts will become clear:

  1. Yemen as a geographical state — with defined territory that spans north and south and includes Asir and Najran, within today’s Saudi Arabia — is an imagined construct. This territory exists in the historical narratives of many Yemenis, especially northerners, but no historical evidence supports that narrative.
  2. Only twice in its entire history has Yemen been united in its current geographical form.
  3. The narrative of a ‘united south’ in modern history stands at odds with the historical and political reality of the area before and during British colonization. It also contradicts the reality of recurring group conflicts across the state of Southern Yemen between 1967 and 1990.
  4. During Yemen’s modern history, the state, in both north and south, was often perceived as representing only one segment of society, alienating other social and political segments. As a result, key groups were often excluded.
  5. The state was so fragile it was often unable to provide services, justice and security to its population. The ruling elites often used the state’s institutions to extract resources for their own benefit.

Some scholars looking at this conflictual history may jump to the conclusion that if Yemen was never united, then perhaps the ‘state’ is a ‘foreign form’ that should not be ‘imposed on Yemenis.’ But this argument misses the core of Yemen’s problem. Looking at the history of the country, we see that instability resulted from two factors:

  1. The tension between regimes that were unable to win the loyalty of their overall populations because they exploited ethnic identities for political gain and survival. This political pattern led to the exclusion of large segments of the Yemeni population — and, not surprisingly, they developed grievances.  
  2. The state lacked the essential quality of ‘stateness,’ which, according to Carment et al., consists of authority, legitimacy, and capacity.[15]

The combination of these two dimensions does not create a call to abolish the ‘state’ as a form of governance for Yemen. We must remember that the state was rarely trusted and mostly feared because it was never congruent with local social realities and hence considered a tool used against the population for the benefits of a few. The tribes and social groups that rebelled in modern history were often calling for more state capacity and public goods, which rarely materialized.

Instead, we should consider the combination of these two dimensions, and call for a peace framework that can bridge the gap between peacebuilding (reconciliation) and state building. In other words, we must go beyond building the capacity of Yemen’s ‘fragile’ state and endeavor to transform the tainted relationships between state and society — fostering what one may call ‘civic trust.’[16]

Thinking Outside of the Box

Is a federal state an adequate institutional framework for Yemen? Not if it reproduces the Lebanese consociational institutional setting. A federal state that does that will harden group identities and will set the stage for future conflicts. That will not be sustainable. A clearer vision of how such a polity could come about in the current circumstances is out of the bound of this paper (it is the subject of another research project). However, regardless of whether the end of the civil war results in a federal state, or in separate states, transforming the tainted relationships between state and society and fostering what one may call civic trust should be at the core of that endeavour.

Working on a local level and addressing the tribal factor, scholars may benefit from successful regional experiences in tackling tribal insurgencies and integrating them into a state structure. The Dhofari Rebellion in Sultanate of Oman is a case in point. It showcases how the state can work around the tribal structure, build trust and end up with a direct relationship between the state and its citizens.

Dhofari Rebellion

Dhofar is the westernmost province of the Sultanate bordering South Yemen. It had a history of tribal rebellions and separatist aspirations. The Dhofar rebellion started in 1963 as a local protest against deteriorating living conditions during the reign of Sultan Said. The latter disregard of the protests pushed the situation past the breaking point. After a Marxist government gained power in neighbouring South Yemen, the insurgency, led by the Dhofar Liberation Front, adopted a Marxist ideology and the conflict evolved into a regional war involving multiple external actors.[17]  

When Sultan Qaboos (1940-2020) came to power in 1970 and complementing his military campaign, he developed a strategy to end Dhofar’s isolation, address its tribal nature, connecting it to the state, and also instill a sense of national identity among its population. 

Three major initiatives helped in this process:[18]

First, pardoning all of the Front’s fighters who were willing to switch sides. Those who accepted the amnesty were to be retrained and incorporated into Omani armed forces — joining the Firqats. These squads ranged in size from 30 to 100 men, the majority of them were defected rebels and local tribesmen. They were trained by British officers to operate as a paramilitary force in tribal areas of Dhofar. This move helped Qaboos to secure the support of the tribes from which the members of the Firqats were drawn. In addition, because people saw the squads as the regional government, this have helped rebuild trust in the government.

Second, setting up an administrative structure. The tribal factor was especially important in Qaboos's efforts to create an administrative network in the region with a view of ensuring the allegiance of both tribal leaders and local people. Like the rest of Oman under Sultan Said, Dhofar lacked a basic civil service. Thus, starting in 1974, Qaboos set up several ministries to run Dhofar’s public affairs. Although the heads of these ministries lived in Muscat, he set up local branches for each ministry in Dhofar; their representatives were usually local leaders elected by the residents of their districts and later endorsed by the governor of Dhofar.

The third and perhaps most effective of Qaboos’s integrative measures was the “development tool.” By addressing the economic and social marginalization of the Dhofari population, he aimed to undermine the very basis of the rebels’ cause. Thus, between 1971 and 1975 the government allocated 25 percent of the nation's development budget to Dhofar alone. The generous funding that made this possible came from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The development program for Dhofar provided for the construction of roads, airports, schools, clinics, and power stations as well as water supplies, and promised to make the province economically self-sufficient.  The program instilled pride in the community and a spirit of nation-building” and further strengthened the connection between the center and the periphery.

Thinking outside of the box entails as well developing mediation tools that tackle the deep-rooted group grievances in a manner that takes into account the context, roots, power dimensions and history of these grievances. There are new and rich scholarly publications suggesting conflict resolutions tools that can be of help in this regard, which tie in the narratives of these grievances with healing steps.[19] Other tools suggest innovative approach of conflict resolution in fragile context, seeking to “unite the insider perspective from within the conflict context with the outsider perspective on mediation methodology.”[20]

Mediation, consequently, should be contextualized and linked to governance building efforts in a framework developed by Abdi and Mason (2019) — Short-term, Medium-term, and Long-term Linkages (SMALL). Short-term peace practice deploys mediation in dealing with acute conflict in a context-sensitive manner. Medium-term peace practice, on the other hand, incorporates mediation and governance-building. Local peace committees will be set up. These will engage state and non-state actors and address both acute conflict as well as structural factors fuelling conflict. The long-term peace practice builds on the previous steps and deal with strategic policy questions, minimizing the “predatory sphere” (defined as a “space that develops in the fuzzy interface between customary and modern forms of governance — allowing conflict and criminality to go unaddressed”) by ‘developing states that provide effective and legitimate delivery of security and services for all citizens.’[21]

Finally, thinking outside of the box entails as well asking the question who should accompany this process? Competing leaders in Yemen have been playing the role of spoilers during any effort towards sustainable peace. They benefit from this war and continue to deliberately use ethnic discourses and narratives about the war. The rhetoric serves to mobilize their groups but further divides society and polarizes it along ethnic lines. And regional powers are often parties to the conflict and have vested interests in supporting certain local parties to the detriment of others.

These are hard questions, but they should be posed to avoid past mistakes in efforts at conflict resolution in Yemen, which have too often been satisfied with treating the symptoms of the crisis, leaving the country vulnerable to recurrent conflicts.

The civil war will eventually come to an end. But if by then the total collapse of Yemen was averted, we should refrain from repeating the same pattern expecting a different outcome. To create a sustainable peace and with it an enduring transitional justice process (irrespective of the institutional framework chosen) it would be wise to understand Yemen’s past and avoid rebuilding the same institutions and dynamics responsible for and benefiting from those conflicts.[22] Again, the approach has implications for other conflicts in the MENA region.


Note: A longer version of this paper appears in two parts [in German] in pm perspektive mediation: Beiträge zur Konfliktkultur: February 2021,; and May 2021,

[1] N. Hadjigeorgiou, Protecting Human rights and Building Peace in Post-Violence Societies (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2020) 18.

[2] P. McAuliffe, Transforming Transitional Justice and the Malleability of Post-Conflict States (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2017), quoted in Hadjigeorgiou, ibid.

[3] Abbey Steele and Livia Schubiger, “Democracy and civil war: The case of Colombia,” Conflict Management and Peace Science 35, 6 (2018): 587-589.

[4] S.J. Kaufmann,  “Escaping the Symbolic Politics Trap: Reconciliation Initiatives and Conflict Resolutions in Ethnic Wars,” Journal of Peace Research 43,  2 (2006): 202–203.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Salter and Zahbia Yousuf (eds.), Transforming broken relationships Making peace with the past, Accord: An International Review of Peace Initiatives (August 2016): 5,

[7] Ibid.

[8] A southern separatist body, created in 2017 and backed by the United Arab Emirates. For more information on the STC see Susanne Dahlgren, “The Southern Transitional Council and the War in Yemen: Consolidating Power in the Unified Southern Territories,” Middle East Research and Information Project, April, 26, 2018,

[9] Zaydism is a current of the Shiite denomination, although it was considered historically closer to the Sunni denomination. It is named after its founder Zayd Ibn Ali (died 740 A.D).

[10] For more information on this withdrawal and its implications, see Ibrahim Jalal, “The UAE may have withdrawn from Yemen, but its influence remains strong,” Middle East Institute, February 25, 2020,

[11] For more detailed information on how the war developed see P. Salisbury, Yemen: National Chaos, Local Order, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House (December 2017) 9-11.

[12] For an English translation of the text see Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary General for Yemen (OSEGY), “Text of Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative,”

[13] Ibid.

[14] The interviews were conducted as a prelude to field work and archival research for a book on the Yemeni civil war. The interviewees include representatives of the Ansar Allah militia (known colloquially as the Houthis); the Southern Transitional Council; former Yemeni ministers; and representatives of Yemeni civil society and women’s activists, in addition to scholars and journalists (from both Yemen and the Gulf) with expertise on the conflict and its regional setting. Two former ambassadors to Yemen, one American and one British, were interviewed for their knowledge of the transitional period that followed the Arab Spring. A variety of online tools were used, including Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp, and Imo. Some of the dimensions mentioned in this portrayal of the current conflict are shaped by these interviews.

[15] David Carment, Joe Landry, Yiagadeesen Samy and Scott Shaw, “Towards a theory of fragile state transitions: evidence from Yemen, Bangladesh and Laos,” Third World Quarterly 36, 7 (2015): 1317,

[16] Ibid.

[17]  Elham Manea, Regional Politics in the Developing World: The Case of the Arabian Peninsula, PhD Thesis, Zurich (2001): 110. For more information on the insurgency see: “Oman (Dhofar Rebellion), 1965–1975: Case Outcome: COIN Win,” in Christopher Paul et al., Paths to Victory: Detailed Insurgency Case Studies (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2013): 274-286,

[18] Manea, Regional Politics in the Developing World, 111-113.

[19] See also Sara Cobb, Sarah Federman, and Alison Castel (eds), Introduction to Conflict Resolution: Discourses and Dynamics (London, UK: Rowman and Littlefield, 2019).

[20] Dekha Ibrahim Abdi Ibrahim and Simon J. A. Mason, Mediation and Governance in Fragile Contexts: Small Steps to Peace (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2019) 2.

[21] Ibid, 2-4.

[22] Ibid.

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