A Timely Reminder from Southern Arabia

[inset_left]Why Yemen Matters : A Society in Transition

Edited by Helen Lackner

Saqi Books, 360 pages

London, 2014[/inset_left]Conferences on Yemen come around every 15 years or so in the United Kingdom. Those fortunate enough to attend them enjoy the fruits of a wide variety of topics and subjects, and the opportunity to discuss and debate the issues raised. Those less fortunate who are unable to attend must make do with the conference proceedings. Sometimes these are tardy and stale; often they are bland. Occasionally, they are select, sweet and concentrated, like this season’s Saada raisins. Why Yemen Matters is just such a volume.

The book’s cover is striking in an understated way, echoing the tenor of the contents. Within, it is well structured, with the expected tables of contents and abbreviations. This is followed by an outline chronology dating back to the British occupation of Aden in 1839, and two maps: one of the current administrative divisions (overlaid by the Violet Line that separated colonial Aden from Yemen), and the other of the terrain and national infrastructure. The maps are reasonable in both size and detail, although the second map would have benefited from an inset showing the West–east cross-section, as per Paul Dresch’s Tribes, Government, and History in Yemen. There is a scattering of black and white pictures illustrating articles throughout, although regrettably neither these—nor the equally scattered tables and figures—are catalogued. The book winds up with a select bibliography by topic, brief notes on the contributors and a reasonably detailed index.

Both the conference and book are comprehensively situated in their social milieu with a detailed introduction to Yemen’s current situation. In addition to the normal footnotes, each chapter is followed by a short list of further reading for those who might be interested.

The first part, "Politics and Security," begins with a tour de force from Shelia Carapico: “Yemen between Revolution and Counter-Terrorism,” which is a detailed look at the transformative period of the slow-motion revolution and the regime’s efforts to foil it. Carapico draws on her three decades of study to explain the months of intense political maneuvers that surrounded the toppling of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in February 2012. A more dispassionate piece by Adam Seitz follows, on civil-military relationships in Yemen since unification and their culmination in the security schisms during the revolution, diagnosing clear lines between sectors of society rather than transitional zones. Part One closes with the unlikely contrast of a study of Yemeni performing arts by Katherine Hennessy. Like the Seitz piece, this spans a decade, but focuses in particular on the revolutionary months. In discussing an under-reported issue in such detail, Hennessy exposes its importance, and recounts how the regime’s corruption extended even to this unlikely arena. Although implicit in the study, the absence of such performances from the online catalogue of the revolution is intriguing, and might have merited more discussion.

YemenMattersBookPart Two, "Regional Issues," opens with a nuanced study by Laurent Bonnefoy on the nature of Yemen’s youth revolution and how it was “hijacked” in the Western media’s narrative of the events of 2012, which represented one small (liberal, Anglophone) section of this revolution as its totality. While observing the revolution’s greater political breadth, social make-up and even age dynamic, Bonnefoy notes how some of the more organized opposition groups reorganized the youth revolution, and thus were able to shape the story. Following Bonnefoy’s paper is an excellent treatment of the dynamics of a second complex situation often oversimplified by the Yemeni government and the Western media: the Houthi conflict. Marieke Brandt examines the issue and, unusually, charts the changes that have occurred over time. Above all, she demonstrates the tragic societal consequences of the Yemeni government’s self-interested policies.

The third piece in Part Two is Noel Brehony’s observations on the shaping of South Yemeni identity by the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). While this is rooted in the past, it remains a potent symbol that is relevant for the future, with the more vocal Southern Yemeni secessionists wishing to return to a Panglossian version of the PDRY, a state which was in reality deeply flawed and plagued with tribal factionalism, just as the larger Republic of Yemen is today. Finishing Part Two, and complementing Brehony’s piece, is one by Susanne Dahlgren on Southern Yemeni youth, their experience of unemployment, and their quest for secure jobs in the public sector. Here, too, a golden past is clearly referenced by those able to skewer the current regime’s problems perceptively but who seem unable to apply the same rigor to the PDRY, or to note the poverty that existed in it despite the abundance elsewhere.

Part Three, "Economic Development," begins with Helen Lackner’s tackling of the insidious and perhaps more fatal threat to Yemen: water scarcity. Lackner provides a concise overview of the four phases of water extraction and policy, leading to the current dire situation. She finishes with a depressing but logical conclusion of a genuinely existential threat. The next chapter is Gerhard Lichtenthäler’s fascinating paper on a recent water dispute settled by customary means (caused in part by the cultivation of qat, the main crop that makes deep water extraction economically viable). Jens Kambeck’s informative paper on land disputes follows, covering land law, human and legislative causes of dispute, and customary, litigious and arbitrary forms of resolution. The role of small and medium enterprises (SMEs)—so vital in the creation of jobs—is considered next by Kais Aliriani, who covers the subject in general before relating it specifically to Yemen, identifying with a wealth of detail the myriad barriers to SMEs, some obvious, others peculiar to Yemen.

Part Four, "Society and Migration," contains two sets of complimentary papers, two on health (“The Challenges of Yemen’s Healthcare System” and “Women’s Reproductive Health in Yemen”), followed by three on migration (“The Changing Dynamics of Contemporary Migration in Yemen,” “Gender, Labor and Migration between Yemen and the Horn of Africa” and “The Emerging Yemeni Community in China”).

In the first paper, the medical issues Adel Al-Aulaqi raises in the papers on health have huge consequences, and while properly the concern of a responsible government, they are unfortunately not likely to receive the investment his analysis deserves. Alas, the issues surrounding women's reproductive health to which Christina Hellmich draws attention in the second paper are even less likely to receive the attention they merit, given the cultural and religious challenges associated with the issue, let alone the managerial challenges Aulaqi lays out.

In the third paper, Helene Thiollet examines emigration and the vital role it has played historically, in particular detailing the remittances sent home, before looking at African migrants—both transitees and refugees—and then at the newly fraught issue of internal displacement caused by the various conflicts in Yemen. Marina de Regt partly reverses the subject in the fourth paper, looking at Yemenis who returned from Abyssinia with an African wife and children and how these families integrated into Yemeni society. And in the book’s final chapter, Ho Wai-Yip offers a fascinating look at the burgeoning Yemeni community in China, and South–South relations, a subject even less studied than other Yemeni topics, despite some early western encounters with Hadharim in Southeast Asia.

Physically, the book reads well: it is not weighty, the text is crisp and clear and well laid out. There are, as ever, a couple of niggling issues—a few typographic errors, a couple of phrases that jar—but given the amazingly rapid production by an editor actively working in the field on development issues, the standard is extraordinary. The cost is on the high side for a paperback, but it’s worth every penny.

To read John Mearsheimer’s recent contrarian article “America Unhinged” in The National Interest magazine, one would have thought that Yemen doesn’t matter. The conference organizers, Ms Lackner, and the contributors have done an excellent job of categorically proving just Why Yemen Matters.