Michael Young: You recently returned from Yemen. What were your main impressions during that visit?
Ahmed Nagi: I visited several governorates and saw the deep and devastating impact of the ongoing conflict on people’s lives. Though some places close to the front lines have suffered more than other areas, the consequences of the war have reached every corner in Yemen, even peripheral zones far from the conflict. However, the heavy cost is not only impacting civilians but also reshaping Yemen, creating a country that did not exist previously.
One of the main outcomes is that a war economy has emerged in the past four years, creating dynamics that only help to perpetuate the conflict. This includes the expansion of the black market for fuel, smuggling activities, the arms trade, and money laundering, among others. Such an economy has expanded because of the involvement of military and militia leaders in conflict areas, who are not only leading the fighting but also reaping the economic profits resulting from the war economy. Such a situation means that the warlords have an interest in continuing the conflict. The worse scenario for them would be if the fighting were to stop.
Another impression was that there has been a massive movement of people from area to area, creating new or vastly expanded urban areas. In the case of Maarib Governorate, for instance, a hub for the Houthis’ opponents, the population now stands at more than 1.5 million, compared to 400,000 before the conflict. Similarly, the city of Ibb, elsewhere in Yemen, has grown because many people in zones of fighting nearby fled to Ibb because of its relative safety.
The catastrophic humanitarian conditions across Yemen is the most difficult challenge that people are facing. Famine, malnutrition, disease, and difficult economic conditions have become the daily lot of civilians. A less visible disaster is the rising rate of illiteracy among children. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, there are around 2 million Yemeni children out of school. A generation of illiterate adults will only help to fuel future conflicts and create a class of Yemenis ripe for recruitment by warlords.
MY: Are there any signs that the campaign of Gulf Arab states against the Houthis is succeeding, or can succeed?
AN: It depends on what are the real goals of the Saudi-led coalition. If the declared purpose was restoring the legitimacy of President ‘Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and defeating the Houthi coup, the answer would be no. On the contrary, Hadi, who authorized the coalition to intervene in Yemen, is unable to return to the country and his legitimacy has disintegrated in the south, where a separatist movement is being backed by the United Arab Emirates, a leading member of the Arab coalition. Meanwhile, despite losing some areas, the Houthis are still in control of most of the northern areas of Yemen
It is worth noting that public sentiment at the beginning of the campaign was mostly in favor of Hadi’s government and supported the Saudi-led coalition. However, people are now fed up with the coalition’s practices and the devastation it has wrought. The coalition’s strategy during the last four years has been characterized more by failure than success.
MY: On the subject of the Houthis, you recently wrote an article for Carnegie in which you described their ability to assume a range of identities in pursuit of their political agenda. What did you mean?
AN: There has been a common argument that the rise of the Houthis was the result of Iranian support. That is partly true, but it was not the main cause. What I tried to highlight in the article was the ability of the Houthis to periodically adapt, or shift, their identity in such a way as to exploit longstanding grievances in Yemen, as well as rifts among political parties or regional disputes. This enabled the Houthis to recruit fighters, defeat opponents, and build alliances. Such dynamics played a significant role in transforming the Houthi movement from a small group in some villages of Sa‘da Governorate into the de facto authority controlling most of Yemen’s northern areas.
MY: What steps did the Houthi movement take to cement its control over state institutions and areas under its control?
AN: Since taking over the capital San‘a in September 2014, the Houthis have imposed an iron grip over state institutions by appointing Houthi supervisors (mushrifoun), most of whom are personally loyal to the leader of the movement ‘Abdul-Malak al-Houthi. These supervisors not only oversee the performance of state institutions, but also ensure that these institutions work in favor of the movement’s interests. The network of supervisors is hierarchical and is connected with the office of the Houthi leader. Moreover, the Houthis replaced high-level personnel in state institutions with their own members to ensure that they would have full control over state bodies in areas that they govern.
This has allowed the Houthis to create their own economic system. They have been able to impose complete economic control over state institutions, drawing on their resources, as well as gaining revenues from the black market and other businesses benefiting from the war. Despite such revenues, the Houthis have refused to pay salaries to public-sector employees, because they are spending the money on their fighters at the front. Consequently, state institutions have been completely paralyzed.
MY: The Houthis recently gained a degree of international recognition through their participation in United Nations-brokered peace talks. What are likely to be the movement’s main demands in any political settlement to end the war in Yemen?
AN: The Houthis’ ultimate aim is to revive the Zaidi Imamate, which was overthrown by the republican revolution of 1962. However, the movement has adopted interim demands at every stage in which it has been involved, always escalating its claims subsequently. Unlike its demands in 2014 when the Houthis took over San‘a, they consider themselves today to be a legitimate authority, at least in areas they control, and seek regional and international recognition for this through any deal. Nevertheless, even this seems to be an interim demand, because resurrection of the Zaidi Imamate is their objective.