Yemen, with its experience of kinetic military engagements, shifting political alliances, and burgeoning humanitarian catastrophes, is a landscape that demands analytic acumen, ingenuity, and patience. The country has remained ever-present on my newsfeed and close to my heart following an internship with the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project this past summer. I frequently relied on a maxim when writing my strategic forecasts on the Yemeni civil war: “It is okay to be wrong, but it is not okay to be late.” Fortunately, Ginny Hill, author of Yemen Endures: Civil War, Saudi Adventurism and the Future of Arabia, is not wrong, nor late, in her thorough and timely analysis of Yemen’s convoluted socio-political climate. Hill’s comprehensive work reflects a diverse skillset, straddling the disciplines of history, journalism, and political science, that lends to a linguistically captivating and highly informative explanation of Yemen’s experience of regional intervention, tribal patronage, and strongman politics.
Nestled in the southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula, and overshadowed by more pressing regional hotspots such as Iraq and Syria, Yemen remains an enigmatic country for many western observers. As exiled Yemeni journalist Afrah Nasser laments: “the western media coverage of the war in Yemen has been so little; and whenever there is, it is unfortunately often in the form of parachute journalism.”[i] Luckily, there are numerous scholarly works that elucidate the dynamics of the country using primary-source research materials and in-country experiences. Asher Orkaby’s historiography of the 1962-68 Yemeni civil war in Beyond the Arab Cold War (2017), Victoria Clark’s exploration of Yemeni jihadism in Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes (2010), and Sarah Phillips’ analysis of the country’s governing structure in Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis (2011) all shed light on the historical foundations for conflict in Yemen. Pieces like Paul Dresch and Bernard Haykel’s “Stereotypes and political styles: Islamists and tribesfolk in Yemen”(International Journal of Middle East Studies, April 2009), Elisabeth Kendal’s “Yemen’s Al-Qaeda and Poetry as a Weapon of Jihad”(in Twenty-first Century Jihad: Law, Society, and Military Action, 2015), and Charles Schmitz’s “Yemen: Failing State or Failing Politics?” (in Fragile Politics: Weak States in the Greater Middle East, 2015) are additional works that explicate the cultural dynamics and tribal affiliations that drive Yemeni militancy and politics.
Hill’s work demonstrates a decade-long commitment to explaining the political intricacies and social nuances of a country besieged by what she diagnoses as “weak institutions, endemic corruption, political stasis, chronic regional interference, and intensifying competition between elite factions” (275). Hill witnessed all of these factors as a freelance journalist (2006-2009), an analyst at the think tank Chatham House (2010-2013), and an independent consultant for the United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen (2014-2016). Her narrative revolves around former president Ali Abdullah Saleh–killed by his tenuous allies, the Shi’i al Houthi movement, in early December 2017—and the aftermath of his opportunistic “politics of balance” that have left Yemen in shambles. Hill argues that the international community “squandered” a “historic opportunity to bolster Yemen’s weak institutions and move towards the formation of a transparent, accountable civil state” (8) by backing Saleh’s old guard, instead of fresh, youth-oriented leadership, following Saleh’s ouster in 2012. Her primary assertion is that external actors have “conclusively failed” to reduce the terror threat, promote strong governance, and improve Yemen’s development (8). She presents superb anecdotal and empirical support for her argument that external meddling has exacerbated domestic corruption and violence in Yemen.
Hill’s work demonstrates a decade-long commitment to explaining the political intricacies and social nuances of a country besieged by what she diagnoses as “weak institutions, endemic corruption, political stasis, chronic regional interference, and intensifying competition between elite factions.”
Yemen Endures is a contextually rich aggregation of secondary-source historiographies, hundreds of interviews, and years of personal experience. Hill’s 15-chapter book “sets the problem of weak, unstable government in the historical context of long-term state formation” (3) by presenting a chronological account of Yemeni politics. It begins with a history of the 1960s war in North Yemen as Saudi Arabia and Egypt backed the ousted Zaydi Shi’i Imamate and the nascent Arab Republic respectively. The aftermath of this war led to the fissure of Yemen into an Arab nationalist North, under president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and a Marxist South, led by a revolving door of socialist leaders. Following almost three decades of political autonomy and divergent socio-economic paths, the two countries merged under Saleh’s presidency as the Republic of Yemen in May 1990. Hill accentuates the importance of patronage to Saleh’s regime, a form of corruption “simultaneously acting as the glue that kept everything in place while robbing the country of longer-term choices” (54). She then transitions to topical chapters: arms smuggling, al Qaeda in Yemen, southern secessionist ambitions, al Houthi grievances, and the aftermath of the Arab Spring that culminated in the Gulf Cooperation Council’s support of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi and a full-blown civil war. The book’s presentation of empirical data and personal observations is dense, but not prohibitively so. Its well-balanced demarcation of circumstances and themes reveals three Ms. Hills–a proficient historian, a captivating journalist, and an insightful analyst–who author a book with compelling information for both the novice and “initiated” reader.
Hill offers a political history of Yemen that effectively synthesizes primary-source accounts and secondary-source historiographies. In the first chapter, “The Last Imam,” she reveals three circumstances during the 1960s conflict that are uncannily reminiscent of what is happening today. First, the State Department’s concern over the Saudi’s “‘demise’” due to their embroilment in Yemen (25) mirrors the volatile palace intrigue in Riyadh; next, two Red Cross doctors’ bewilderment over how “‘primitive warriors’” loyal to the ousted imamate undermined the air superiority of the Republican forces (27) reflects the al Houthi’s weathering of daily Saudi-led coalition airstrikes that are amounting to what the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick, terms an “absurd war … part of a futile military campaign by both sides;”[ii] and finally, the inability of the United Nations and Red Cross to help civilians (31) persists as Yemen’s cholera epidemic swells beyond one million cases. In “Layla and the Madman,” Hill presents an easily-digestible account of al Qaeda’s operations in Yemen through a historiography that, while leaning heavily on Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower (2006) incorporates government reports and a personal interview with a formerly high-ranking al Qaeda member, Abu Jandal, into a succinct account of al Qaeda’s quest for a Yemeni safe haven.
Hill seamlessly navigates Ramadan banquets, armed checkpoints, and impromptu qat narcotic chewing sessions to engage in personal interactions that help explain the human element behind political events.
Yemen Endures is at its core a journalistic exploration of Yemeni military and political actors in which Hill pairs a sound geopolitical narrative with her personal experiences of on-the-ground social networking. The first facet of her interpersonal expertise is eliciting thoughtful insight from a diverse cast of characters during hundreds of clandestine and on-the-record interviews. Former parliamentarian Dr. Saadaldeen Talib’s 2008 assertion that “‘[t]he moment the government can’t pay civil service salaries, that’s when things are going to hit the wall’” (118) and Greek academic Thanos Petouris’ belief that the “‘fragile fabric of Yemen’s political order … could set off an unpredictable chain reaction’” (151) are two premonitions that add credence to Hill’s warning that Yemen was on rocky political footing well before the events of the 2011 Arab Spring. She also recounts top line interviews with President Saleh, an exiled al Houthi in Germany, and former Saleh-era military commander turned revolutionary vanguard Ali Mohsin al Ahmar, who likened Saleh to “a republican imam” (231). Hill seamlessly navigates Ramadan banquets, armed checkpoints, and impromptu qat narcotic chewing sessions to engage in personal interactions that help explain the human element behind political events.
The most engrossing aspect of Hill’s writing is her portrayal of physical locations. Her description of Yemen’s “[c]lusters of stone tower houses, built of creamy rough-hewn bricks, [that] teeter on the pinnacles like vertical extensions of the cliffs” (10) personifies the northern highlands. Her account of Marib’s oil towers that “rise from the endless cadmium orange sands like a gleaming steel-pipe Shangri-La” (53) correlates perfectly with pictures I have seen of the central desert region. She even recounts the “ragged red curtains [that] blocked the light at the windows and a single lethargic fan [that] was trying to stir the soupy, fetid air inside the room” during a meeting with a government official in Bosaso, Somalia while investigating piracy and human trafficking (96). Hill’s channeling of English’s descriptive power helps augment long tracks of narrative and serves to keep reading simultaneously informative and enjoyable.
Hill also presents herself as a keen analyst of Yemeni political affairs. She demonstrates how the southern movement’s divergent socio-political philosophies over southern autonomy and secession have resulted in “multiple parallel movements without any clear goals” (170), which reflects the contemporary reality of a fragmented southern political bloc. She also thoroughly explains the “protracted stalemate of 2011” as Saleh and Ali Mohsin al Ahmar, who proclaimed his support for the Arab Spring protesters in May that year, vied for control of Sana’a through “daily skirmishes” between their respective Republican Guard and First Armored Division forces (237). She levels her harshest criticism against Saleh’s successor, President Hadi, who conceptualized a six-region federation that sought to cloister the al Houthis to a landlocked region in northern Yemen and split southern Yemen in two. She argues that the failure to meaningfully reconcile political ambitions and reality served as the impetus for the Saleh’s support of the al Houthi movement in its bid to seize Sana’a in 2014, who he believed would serve as a force to weaken Hadi and al Ahmar in his ultimate quest of securing national leadership for his son Ahmed Ali.
While Hill’s analysis is superb, there were moments throughout that I wished for more insight drawn from her role as the “armed groups expert” on the 2015 UN Panel. I expected more analysis of al Qaeda’s operations in southern Yemen beyond a cursory historiography of their recent land seizures. Secondly, I wished she would have mentioned the United Arab Emirates’ efforts in training and supporting the Security Belt (al Hizam) security forces in southern Yemen–a group that I believe is key to stability in the region. Finally, while she does mention the supposed link between the Iranian regime and al Houthi military capabilities (285), analysis of the latter’s increased ballistic missile launches, which have reached deep into Saudi Arabia, would have reinforced the severity of their threat. Finally, I struggled to understand Hill’s near outright dismissal of U.S. kinetic action in Yemen, on which she comments that the American ambition for “‘killing the bad guys’” seems “crude” and “problematic” (140). While it is true that American drone strikes and commando raids have resulted in civilian casualties, Hill seems dismissive of what I argue were successful neutralizations of ideologues such as the Yemeni-American Anwar al Awlaki and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leadership in the mid-2000s. However, I must emphasize that these points are but minor contentions in a work abounding with analytic clarity and precision.
While Hill’s analysis is superb, there were moments throughout that I wished for more insight drawn from her role as the “armed groups expert” on the 2015 UN Panel. I expected more analysis of al Qaeda’s operations in southern Yemen beyond a cursory historiography of their recent land seizures.
The factors that led to Yemen’s present socio-political degradation are as bewildering as they are complex. My daily intelligence forecasting this summer on the Yemen portfolio at the Critical Threats Project was an exercise in patience as I sought to comprehend the strategic ambitions of Yemen’s belligerents amid shifting alliances and serendipitous negotiations. In the introduction to Yemen Endures, Ginny Hill warns us: “Truth is elusive in Yemen” (xi). Even as someone who spent two months immersed in Yemeni news and social media, I found this statement to be exceedingly accurate. Luckily, Hill presents us with a book that effectively elucidates the truth of Yemeni politics with lucid prose, well-organized chapters, and myriad empirical sources. Her work is simultaneously a historiography of Yemeni politics, a journalistic sojourn into the geographic and human landscape of the resilient country, and an analytic critique of the international community’s (read: Saudi Arabia and the United States) inability and/or unwillingness to redefine the corrupt and tired politics of the Saleh era. While I sometimes craved more insight from Hill’s expertise from her time consulting the UN, her book nevertheless succeeds immensely in clarifying the intricacies of this enigmatic society. Yemen Endures is a crucial addition to the bookshelf of any budding scholar or seasoned academic invested in the future of Yemen and the broader Middle East.