Nearly seven years after Yemen's brief encounter with the Arab Spring, we take a look at what happened, and how Yemeni youth lost their future, but not their hope, to civil war and anarchy.
Five years on from the revolution of 2011, young Yemenis look back with dismay. It is the youth, who took to the streets to stage protests, who have the heaviest hearts. After all, it is those same young people who will face the full brunt of this enduring war.
Yemen was already the poorest country in the Middle East. Years after a never-ending civil war, its situation is nowhere near to improving.
Abdulrahman Al-Habshi, a young Yemeni computer scientist and social media consultant who lives in Hadramout, spoke to TRT World about the prospects facing his country. Al-Habshi returned to Yemen in 2010 after his studies to help the country modernise and to get married. But his dreams have been put on hold due to the war.
“As much as it pains me to say it, the situation is dismal. That doesn’t mean we the youth of Yemen don’t hope anymore. We do. But we can only pray that this war ends soon before we lose more of our family and friends to the senseless killing,” he said.
For the young people who flooded Sanaa’s streets with unbridled optimism, it felt like anything was possible. For the first time in their lives, and perhaps recent history, the Yemen of their dreams was within grasp.
But it was not to last.
The ‘Arab Spring’ and the widespread protests that wracked the struggling country empowered the disenfranchised youth, who had previously felt so removed from political power, to demand justice and equity.
Up until then, Yemen’s power had been spread through a delicate web of tribal alliances, gatekeepers to patronage and access to weaponry.
Given a popular platform to voice their concerns, the disenfranchised of all parties took every chance to add to the protests of 2011, gathering in the centre of Sanaa, now dubbed ‘Change Square’.
At some point though, it all fell short, leading the country down the slippery slope to chaos and war. In Yemen, the ‘Arab Spring’ failed to meet the demands of the many groups that protested the status quo.
Although months of popular protests succeeded in forcing the long-ruling President Ali Abdullah Saleh to give up power to his deputy Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi, Saudi Arabia would intervene decisively.
On November 23 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) negotiated a free pass for Saleh, offering him immunity, and safety in Yemen in what came to be known as the GCC agreement. Saleh’s presence in Yemen did more than destabilise the country, which was only just taking its first steps on the road to democracy.
Under the doomed deal, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi would become an interim head of state for one year until elections, but this would never come to pass as the nation quickly fell into civil war.
The deal led to the establishment of the National Dialogue Conference, and reform of the army; but suffered from exclusivity, as only Yemen’s elite won access to the new interim government.
Discontentment with the new political process was only worsened by US drone strikes against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who retaliated with bombings of the Yemeni military throughout Yemen.
Making the most of the disarray, Houthi rebels, already marginalised by the GCC accords, stormed into Sanaa in September 2014, followed by an advance into Aden in March 2015.
In July 2014, any arrangement borne of the ‘Arab Spring’ broke down when President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi tried cutting fuel subsidies, almost doubling fuel costs in the beleaguered country. Houthi rebels accused of him and his government of corruption.
With the breakdown of the Southern Movement and the assassination of Houthi representatives, the GCC initiative, never expected to last, would undergo a death stroke from which it would never recover.
With the country slipping into instability, and the rise of the Houthis to power, Saudi Arabia and its coalition, alarmed that a Shia militia with strong ties to Iran and Hezbollah was gaining control over its southern neighbour, would launch a heavy bombing campaign, Operation Decisive Storm. This would mark the first major military campaign for King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and then-Defense Minister Prince Muhammad bin Salman, as he sought to prove himself worthy for the title of crown prince.
Yemen would go on to become a proxy battlefield to foreign involvement, serving as the pitched battleground between the Saudi-led coalition and Iranian influence in the region. Within the Saudi-led coalition itself, contradictions and cracks quickly took root.
The UAE turned on Al Islah, an elected party of the ruling coalition, for being an associate of the Muslim Brotherhood—often targeting them at the expense of the Yemeni government’s integrity—while at times ignoring the growing threat Houthi rebels presented to the stability of the GCC-installed government.
This undermined any prospect of a peaceful settlement brokered by the coalition while empowering militant groups such as the Houthis.
Where Saudi Arabia sought to restore Yemen’s status quo before the Houthis, the UAE continued its overall counterrevolutionary strategy to eliminate any form of political Islam.
To achieve this, the UAE supported the southern Yemeni secessionist movement to counter and detain Al Islah members throughout the region, holding them in a network of at least 18 secret prisons.
Saudi Arabia would take a less nuanced approach, alternating between treating Al Islah as a threat or an ally, while carrying out an intensive aerial bombing campaign that would take the lives of over 17,000, with at least 12,000,000 suffering severe hunger.
Now, almost all Yemenis need some form of aid.
In addition to the human casualties, 23 UNESCO heritage sites have been bombed.
Many years later, the hopes of the ‘Arab Spring’ have been dashed in the war-torn country. And the war is no longer a proxy war, instead devolving into multiple conflicts, at times overlapping, shaped by an ever-shifting network of rivalries and tribes.
Al-Habshi adds: “Many youth wonder if it was worth it. Now, with the war and destruction, everything is on hold. You can’t get a job. I’m a computer scientist and was good enough at what I did to study abroad. Here? There’s no infrastructure left, why would anyone hire a software developer? Without a job, you can’t build a house. You can’t get married. You end up working as a cashier or with family, which is more a favour than a job.”
UAE-backed Salafis and southern secessionists battles the Houthis, and their supposed allies, the Saudi-backed loyalists of the recognised Hadi government. Al Qaeda fights everyone, playing both sides off one another in a bid to maintain relevance. The Saudi coalition continues its incessant bombing campaign, often indiscriminately bombing its allies.
“Where is it going?” questions Al-Habshi.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. But I know this. The youth of Yemen haven’t given up. The ‘Arab Spring’ will rise again, and we will stand again in Change Square, and this time we won’t let it be taken over by anyone else. Yemen has potential to be a heaven on earth. I still believe that. We all have to.”
With that, Yemen’s lost youth, who once dreamed of self-determination, justice and bright possibility, slowly grow older surrounded by a war with no end in sight; trading in their hopes of a promising future for hopes for survival.