The Yemeni state, as has been clear for some time, is broken – irreparably and irrevocably broken, like Humpty Dumpty after his great fall. And like Humpty Dumpty, Yemen cannot be put back together again, not by the United Nations, the United States, or any of Yemen’s various armed groups. Country experts and administration officials largely accept this, but U.S. policy does not.
Instead, the United States is using its limited diplomatic resources to pursue the unrealistic goal of reuniting the country at the expense of what is actually possible in Yemen. This is foolish because, as a policy approach, it is guaranteed to fail. And it is dangerous because what is possible now may not be in two or three years.
Yemen’s future, broadly speaking, will take one of three different paths: the dream scenario, the division scenario, or the disaster scenario.
In the dream scenario, the war ends, and Yemen is reconstituted as a single state. The Houthis, who currently hold much of the northern Yemeni highlands, are one political actor in the reconstituted state but not the only political actor.
The United States, through Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking, has already expressed its willingness to accept the Houthis as a prominent political player in Yemen. In April 2021, shortly after being appointed special envoy, Lenderking testified to Congress that: “No longer is anyone suggesting Houthi representatives be locked out of any future settlement — a popular refrain when the conflict began. There is an acceptance that the Houthis will have a significant role in a post-conflict government, if they meaningfully participate in a peaceful political process like any other political group or movement.”
The problem, of course, is that the Houthis don’t want to have a “significant role.” They want to be the postconflict government in the North, if not all of Yemen.
In the division scenario, the current split between Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen and non-Houthi parts of the country is formalized, and Yemen separates into a North and South. In many ways, Yemen already functions as two separate countries. Thanks to a shortsighted and reactionary decision by then-President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in 2016 to move Yemen’s central bank from Sanaa to Aden, the bank split into a Houthi-controlled version and a government-controlled one, neither of which functioned effectively.
Not surprisingly, the presence of two central banks led to the formation of two separate economies. For instance, in April, the dollar was trading at around 1,200 to 1 in Aden compared to roughly 600 to 1 in Sanaa. A Saudi deposit into Aden’s central bank initially brought the two rates closer together. But as Ghada Eltahir Mudawi, the U.N.’s acting director for humanitarian affairs in Yemen, testified to the Security Council in June, “the April gains have now been almost entirely erased, and people’s money is again losing value.”
There are also governmental differences. Years of de facto control in Sanaa have allowed the Houthis to restructure and reorganize government ministries and agencies in areas under their control. Unwinding these changes will, in many cases, prove impossible, at least in the short term.
As distasteful as the division scenario is to many, both Yemenis and outsiders, who do not want to see the Houthis rewarded for the group’s aggression, it is the least bad of all the options.
The worst case for Yemen, the United States, and the world is the disaster scenario. In this possible future, Yemen fractures into violent statelets that are held by whatever warlord is strongest at any given moment. In such a world, Yemen’s various armed groups are constantly struggling to seize and hold as much territory as possible, which opens up space for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to rebound, sparks massive movements of internally displaced people and refugees, and endangers global shipping lanes through the Red Sea. This is a future to be avoided at all costs.
Given the risks associated with the disaster scenario as well as the inability of the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. over the past two years to create any leverage with the Houthis or bring about comprehensive peace, the United States cannot continue with business as usual and hope that Yemen somehow is put back together again.
While the current truce that had been set to expire August 2 is expected to be extended, it is unlikely to blossom into full peace. The Houthis aren’t about to negotiate themselves out of power in Sanaa. Saudi Arabia and its local allies aren’t able to militarily defeat them. And the United States isn’t going to get involved on the ground to tip the balance. That means the war is likely to drag on, destroying more lives and creating an even worse humanitarian situation, particularly as global food prices continue to rise.
The longer the war lasts the greater the risk that the anti-Houthi coalition will, once again, fragment and devolve into infighting. When the conflict started in 2014, it was a bifurcated war between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, but as the fighting has grown so has the number of armed groups, including the secessionist-minded Southern Transitional Council, the Giants Brigades, and a group of former Houthi allies led by Tariq Saleh, the nephew of Yemen’s late former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
At the moment, most of these various anti-Houthi groups are tentatively united as part of the Presidential Leadership Council. But this unity is unlikely to last indefinitely. The anti-Houthi coalition simply has too many parts – with too much history and too many opposing goals – to maintain a common front.
If the United States wants to avoid the disaster scenario in Yemen, it should shift its focus from the failed attempt to resurrect a single Yemeni state to laying the groundwork for a divided Yemen. This isn’t desirable, but, unlike the dream scenario, it is achievable.
This approach is not without risks. First, moving toward partition in Yemen may accelerate the collapse of the Presidential Leadership Council, undermining the coalition of forces that are currently opposing the Houthis. Such a collapse could also provide an opening to the Houthis to fully seize Marib, which the group has been attempting to take since early 2020.
Second, any shift in official U.S. policy away from supporting a unified Yemen will likely anger large numbers of Yemenis, including those in northern Yemen, who fear unchecked Houthi rule. However, it is also possible that Houthi governance is stronger now than it would be in any postwar scenario. The Houthis have made much of combatting outside forces, but the group has also alienated key groups in northern Yemen, particularly among the tribal elite.
Finally, key stakeholders in Congress as well as civil society will likely complain that the United States is abandoning northern Yemen to the Houthis. But after years of war, hundreds of thousands of destroyed lives, and an inability by any combination of anti-Houthi forces to push the Houthis out of Sanaa, it is unclear what more of the same will bring.
Diplomatically and rhetorically, it would be safer and easier for the United States to continue to do what it has been doing for the past several years: sell some weapons (offensive or defensive) to the Saudis, make some noise about unity, and watch from the sidelines as one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises continues unchecked. But at some point in the near future the gap between the reality on the ground and U.S. policy will become so great that the United States will have little choice but to abandon the dream scenario of a reunified Yemen. If the United States waits too long, it won’t even have the option of pursuing partition – instead it will be stuck with the disaster scenario.