The Future of Yemen

By Helen Lackner - 01 May 2017
The Future of Yemen

This is a chapter from the e-book 'The Future of the Middle East' co-produced by Global Policy and Arab Digest, and edited by Hugh Miles and Alastair Newton. Freely available chapters will be serialised here and collected into a final downloadable publication in the spring.

Even before the outbreak of the internationalised war now more than two years ago in March 2015, the medium to long-term future of Yemen was bleak.  The country’s prospects were marred by a number of fundamental challenges which would jeopardise the prospects of the best governed nations, let alone one poor in natural resources which is also ruled by a small kleptocratic elite. The challenges all remain, even if currently overshadowed by the immediate issues of the fighting, aerial bombing and famine. 


One third (1.4 billion cubic metres) of the water currently used is ‘mined’ from non-renewable fossil aquifers.  Water scarcity is the most fundamental threat to Yemen’s very existence as a populated area. While this is in part due to climate change aspects (discussed below), many of its causes and consequences are related to other factors.  Yemen has suffered from water scarcity for centuries: In the past 300 years, thousands of its people emigrated to east Africa, south and south-east Asia and elsewhere to escape from drought-related famines.  The introduction of diesel pumps for irrigation in the twentieth century exacerbated the problem although it had initially been perceived as a magical solution enabling the cultivation of high value crops like fruits, vegetables and qat instead of the subsistence rain fed cereals of the terraces.  Expanding vastly in the late 1970s and early 1980s the negative consequences of deep pumping became all too apparent in the early years of this century:  with shallow wells drying up as a result of over-extraction, only those able to drill to greater depths were able to continue irrigating. As a result only the larger, wealthier landowners can sustain irrigated agriculture, while smallholders no longer have access to water and either have to sell their land, or revert to rain-fed cereal cultivation.  Moreover the depletion of the aquifers has not only concentrated land ownership in fewer hands, and worsened poverty for those who were forced to become sharecroppers or daily labourers, but also initiated the forced abandonment of villages once they ran out of domestic water.

In the cities, the dreams of constant running water which encouraged people to build houses with numerous bathrooms in the 1980s, are now full of containers filled with water on the few days a week when water does come through the taps.  Many urban areas, even wealthy ones, are simply not connected to the network.  Sana’a, predicted to be the first capital to run out of water in coming years, is far behind Taiz in this respect where water [when connected to the network] arrived every 40 days in 1996 and about every 60 days in 2015 just before the war started.

The high population density highlands and mountains are where water is likely to run out first, driving more people to the coastal areas.  These will, in future, only be able to cope if desalination is introduced as the source for all domestic water and the limited aquifers are protected from over-extraction.  Otherwise these areas which are agriculturally important, will suffer even more from saline intrusion, killing off agriculture altogether.  The situation differs from one area to another:  Hadramaut has a major aquifer which should save it from these problems.

Many parts of Yemen are likely to become uninhabitable within a few decades unless prudent measures are urgently taken and enforced to manage water, prioritizing human and animal drinking needs, followed by other domestic needs. Although agriculture remains a major source of income for over 60% of the population today, this may drop to 50% or so within a generation but this will still mean a large number of people in view of population growth.  If agriculture is to remain a viable source of income for rural people, a totally new approach is essential and requires the development of high value rain-fed crops and  irrigation systems which maximise the value obtained from any water, while only using the surplus annually renewable supplies.  In plain English the amount of water used in irrigation must be dramatically reduced to allow basic human needs to be addressed.  Desalination for coastal areas is inescapable.  In the absence of such measures, the likely 50 million Yemenis in the middle of this century will have no alternative but to become refugees.  Regardless of barriers and minefields, they are likely to force their way into the territories of their wealthy neighbours overland, given that climate related problems in East Africa are unlikely to make that area attractive.

Other climate related challenges

Overexploitation of Yemen’s water resources is worsened by other climate-related issues, some of which also affect the availability of water.  With more unpredictable and violent rain fall episodes, crop yields are all the more unreliable, aquifers cannot absorb the flow and replenish. Violent flows wash away top-soil, destroy river banks and generally cause major damage.  Desertification is also increasing and causing the loss of about 3% of cultivable land each year, as well as reducing pasture land.

Rising sea levels will affect much of the fisheries and coastal infrastructure, as well the living conditions for three of the country’s major cities:  Hodeida, Aden and Mukalla.  Mitigating this will require considerable financial investment, just at a time when many highlanders will be moving to these coastal areas and thus putting more pressure on resources there.

Limited Natural Resources

While there is talk of a ‘resource curse’ for some states  which have plentiful mineral resources, such as Congo, Nigeria and the big oil exporters of the Arabian peninsula,  this concept is highly debatable as the real issue is not the availability of the resources but their management.  Seen from the point of view of a state which has insufficient natural resources, the problem would be welcome. Short of unlikely discoveries of additional oil or gas, Yemen will run out of oil within the coming decade unless military activity completely prevents its extraction; production has fallen from its peak in 2001 of over 400 000 barrels/day to only about 130 000 b/d in 2014 just before the crisis expanded into full-scale war, and the overall trend is firmly downward.

While natural gas was expected by the previous regime to compensate for the decline in oil revenues, regardless of the political situation it is unlikely to provide significant revenue to three reasons: first the considerable competition from other larger producers which keeps prices low, second the limited supplies and third the massive investment costs in infrastructure will take years to be covered.


Yemen’s population continues to increase at a rapid rate, still estimated at close to 3% per annum, which implies a doubling of the population in twenty years.  While this could be an asset, in the current context of limited resources and very low educational standards, it is no advantage.  By 2050, Yemen is likely to have more than 50 million people.  Unless they are able to operate in the 21st century economic environment, most of them will, at best, survive in dire poverty.  To prevent this, it is essential to undertake major fundamental reforms to the education system to focus it on the economic needs of a modern economy, including high quality training policies; this needs at least 15 years of implementation, in addition to the design time.

Potential sectors of growth

Yemen has potential:  as discussed, agriculture could continue to maintain a significant proportion (possibly up to a quarter) of the population, while its mineral resources could be used to finance infrastructure and the social sectors essential to the emergence of a modern economy.  The large population could also be a major asset provided adequate investments are made in education and enterprises.  Aden port could also be an important port, though it is most likely to serve Yemen itself, as in future it will have to compete with other regional ports managed and owned by Dubai Ports World (Berbera, Djibouti, and possibly others in Eritrea)  while Hodeida is nearer to the Yemeni densely populated highlands and Mukalla covers Hadramaut.

A major potential growth sector could be tourism. With reasonable security and effective governance, Yemen could be a paradise for a number of different types of tourism: cultural for its historical, archaeological and architectural heritage, natural for its wonderful landscapes and sceneries, mountains which  make it perfect hiking territory as well as its coast and beaches which are far superior on the Arabian sea than many other world-renowned locations.  At this point in history it is impossible to predict whether such wise policies might prevail over a vision of standardised resorts of modern multi-star hotels which reduce every location to a mere copy of another on another continent as implemented elsewhere in the Peninsula and advertised throughout the world.  Alternative equally depressing prospects include the re-emergence of sex-tourism which started in the first decade of the century as well as of mass beach tourism based on isolated tourist complexes removed from local culture and people, preventing visitors from interacting with Yemenis and their culture.  However, as things stand in 2017, none of these prospects are likely to materialise in the near future. This brings us to the political situation.

Internal political situation

As readers are certainly aware, there are two major elements to the current war.  The first is the internal situation characterised by a visible conflict between two parties, each in an alliance:  based in Sana’a, the Huthi-Saleh team brings together the elite military forces and the political organisation (General People’s Congress) of former president Saleh with the Zaydi revivalist Huthi movement against which Saleh fought 6 wars between 2004 and 2010.  This alone demonstrates that they are not held together by shared worldviews, but by the single common objective of their own survival and the defeat of their enemies.  Indeed, there are already frequent political skirmishes between supporters of one or the other side, propaganda spats and occasional military clashes. There is no doubt that, should their external enemy disappear, they would engage in a struggle to the death against each other.

On the other side is Hadi’s internationally recognised government composed of rival factions including dissidents from Saleh’s party,  the Islah which is a conglomerate of Muslim Brother ideologues and northern tribesmen and plenty more.  The misleading description ‘liberated territories’ for the areas which are not under Saleh-Huthi control is often linked to the equally misleading suggestion that these areas are governed by Hadi’s government.  In reality, this government is mostly based in Riyadh [capital of Saudi Arabia]; while some of them, mostly the Islahis, spend a lot of time in Mareb  and others are in Aden.  Actual control on the ground is an entirely different issue, as this government has not even been able to pay more than a few of its staff in recent months.

The internal Yemeni conflict is often described as one between two rival elite factions,  which implies the absence of the people.  With respect to the country’s future political development, it is important to realise that in the past two decades Yemen had democratic elections which were not the farce found in other autocratic regimes. All the factions involved do have some genuine popular support, Saleh’s General People’s Congress, functioning since the early 1980s,  has built up a strong following, largely through its patronage system, but also building on achievements such as Yemeni unity and modern features such as telecoms etc.  The Islah is not only supported by Hashed tribesmen, but also throughout the country by thousands who believe in the Muslim Brotherhood programme, while the Huthis’ support is more based on status ascribed by birth, ie it is widely supported anywhere in Yemen by sada or descendants of the prophet.  None of these allegiances prevent the vast majority of Yemenis from fury at the widespread corruption of political leaders, something on which no faction has a prerogative and all share in the disgrace.

A simple list of the different entities which currently vie for control of different parts of the liberated areas is essential to provide the bases for understanding the issues likely to emerge in the future.  The first point to be made is that what little ‘national’ police and military control exists in the southern areas takes the form of ‘Security Belts’ and ‘Elite Forces’  both types organised, managed, trained, deployed and paid by the United Arab Emirates.  So if they have any loyalty beyond factional and regional, it is to their paymasters.  There are frequent clashes between these and others, ranging from official government forces to dissident jihadis

Second, Aden the official temporary capital is an example of the situation just described, where actual clashes have occurred between Hadi’s personal guard and the UAE-supported forces for control over the airport.  Generally Aden and most southern governorates are under the influence of a range of rival separatist groups which are so fragmented that even counting them is difficult.  Only Hadramaut retains a certain unity, and that is through an emerging process of preparation for al ‘all Hadramaut’ conference, including expatriates, which may well call for Hadramaut independence in the foreseeable future.

Third, popular hostility against ‘northerners’ has emerged throughout the southern governorates and has already resulted in serious aggressions against people from the country’s central areas around Taiz, Ibb and Dhamar, including mass expulsions from Aden in 2016.  This is a particularly insidious development which started more than a decade ago and seriously undermines the possibility of future unity of the country.  While there is much talk of increasing sectarianism in Yemen with tensions between the Sunni Shafi’ majority and the ‘Shi’a’ Zaydi minority, such assertions forget that followers of both sects prayed and lived together in harmony for centuries, and the sectarian split is largely created and imposed from above by political leaders who are totally discredited in the eyes of the majority of the population.  By contrast the hostility to northerners found throughout the south is far deeper and ingrained.  It is unlikely to disappear quickly and is likely to have serious consequences for the future.

Fourth, the all too often publicised expansion of the jihadi movements in different parts of the country, needs to be treated with far more scepticism than it gets. There are jihadi fighters as well as numerous and various Salafi movements of both quietist and aggressive hue, but their independence from existing political elites is far more questionable. While there is no doubt that some of the individuals involved believe the ideology under which they operate, in both the cases of foot soldiers and leaders, two other motivations are more important, allegiance to one or another of the political/military factions leading the fighting, and the need for cash.  The majority of young men join primarily to earn a living and keep their families. These groups include salafis working with the coalition forces, while many have questioned why the coalition has taken so little action against al Qaeda.

In brief, the fragmentation which the country is undergoing this decade, much of which started prior to the war, will affect Yemen’s future.  While its political shape and internal organisation are difficult to predict at this stage, there is very little likelihood that the country will remain a single political entity recognisable to those who knew it in the 1990s, or even two states of the 1980s.  The UN’s attempt to bring about negotiations between the ‘official’ opponents fail in the short-term due to the total unwillingness of either party to compromise in any way, one demanding complete surrender ignoring the strength of the other on the ground. However in the medium-long term, no such negotiations can achieve peace given that they ignore the vast majority of political and military forces and tendencies which have emerged throughout the country, particularly in the ‘liberated’ areas but also elsewhere.

The international dimension

Foreign involvement in Yemeni politics is by no means an innovation of 2015, though that year marked a remarkable change in its nature.  It is widely believed that those in Saudi Arabia who decided to launch the ‘Decisive Storm’ operation in March 2015 believed that they would achieve an easy and rapid victory.  After all they had a very powerful air force equipped with modern aircraft, personnel trained by the US, and had spent billions on defence for decades.  They faced an ill-equipped, badly paid force, with outdated equipment from the poorest country in the Arab World. Hubris included the ingrained belief of their own superiority over a nation they regarded as inferior and populated by people who, when working in Saudi Arabia, were considered lesser beings.  It was in that spirit that it declared ‘Decisive Storm’ over barely a month later and replaced it by ‘Restoring Hope’.

Reality on the ground 25 months later has shown that, despite support from 9 or more states joining the coalition, let alone the logistical and in-flight refuelling from US forces the war is far from won.  Only Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have significant political objectives and the differences between them indicate their own rivalries.  While Saudi Arabia claims to be fighting a proxy war with Iran in Yemen, regardless of the minimal involvement of Iran in the war to date, there is a far more obvious proxy competition going on in Yemen between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, each promoting their favoured political groups on the side of Hadi’s internationally recognised government, thus enabling it to remain intransigent and uncompromising.  It would be unwise to minimise Iran’s future role:  while it has been limited during the first two years, with the advent of a more aggressive anti-Iran policy in the US under Trump, the war will probably continue and expand, and thus bring about a far deeper and stronger involvement of Iran in future.

Through their actions, the UAE demonstrate that they are planning a long-term involvement and connection with some parts of Yemen, where they are increasing their implantation, and that covers most of the area of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.  Not only do they control the newly-established military/security militias, but they are also beginning to invest in military and other infrastructure beyond Yemen. Saudi Arabia is more closely involved with the forces operating in the north of Hadramaut and in Mareb, which are aligned with Islahis including both the tribal and the Muslim Brotherhood branches, though the latter are also supported by Qatar in a competition which is not entirely clear. Incompatible positions concerning the role of Islah are the focus of disagreements as it is seen as a partner by Saudi Arabia and Qatar while the UAE equate it with the Muslim Brotherhood which it regards as a clear enemy.

The USA in the past has demonstrated little concern for Yemenis and their development, and its strategy in Yemen has operated in the context of its ‘war against terror’ with al Qaeda as the prime enemy.  Tactics used have successfully increased al Qaeda recruitment locally through indiscriminate drone and air strikes, most recently expanded under Trump.  The immediate future here is not clear, but is highly likely to involve increased support for the Saudi-led coalition, despite some voices of wisdom in Washington itself.  In the medium term, wisdom should not be expected during the current administration, or indeed beyond, if past records in Afghanistan and Iraq are any indication of US policies.  While the UK’s role is less at the military level, it also has participated in major arms sales to the coalition:  the judicial review of their legality may well declare them illegal but is unlikely to stop them.  Focused on Brexit and strengthening its relationship with the GCC, Britain is unlikely to take positions on Yemen which clash with the will of GCC states.

Despite the remoteness of any agreement, the UN and other international parties busy themselves preparing a post-war democracy with reconstruction and development investment plans.  The GCC states are expected by the ‘international community’ and by the Hadi government to finance the reconstruction and development of the country in future. Actual financing is highly unlikely to involve anything like the sums requested or even those pledged at the various reconstruction conferences which have taken place in the last year, let alone the many more which will take place in the foreseeable future before the war ends, regardless of the hopes of the likes of the World Bank and the UN which look forward to being designers and supervisors, let alone those of contractors, whether companies or NGOs.  However much or little financing finally materialises, once the war is over, will be determined by the priorities of the funders on the well-known principle that ‘who pays the piper sets the tune’.  More likely than not another well-known principle will prevail:  to whom that has, shall be given….  Reconstruction is likely to seriously challenge Yemeni architectural and other culture and do its best to destroy as many of Yemen’s national and cultural characteristics as possible, a national asset which the GCC states regard with ambiguity.


In conclusion, it is difficult to be optimistic about Yemen’s future.  The GCC states which lead the military intervention, in particular Saudi Arabia and the UAE will certainly do their best to control the country politically and economically. They are unlikely to allow Yemen to have an independent foreign policy or a strong military structure, though Yemenis have proven that they are far more effective fighters than the coalition forces. The GCC states are also unlikely to be able to exercise the level of control which they expect:  Yemenis are very independently minded, and this, among other features, is likely to lead to the breakup of the country into a multiplicity of entities, unlikely to be the six regions of the draft constitution emerging from the transition. Despite being highly dependent on financial support from its wealthy neighbours,  Yemeni leaders have often resisted political pressures,  taking initiatives in internal and foreign policy which were not to the taste of the GCC, or indeed the US.  This fragmentation is not desired by the GCC: although their actions suggest that the UAE might be happy to restore a state within the borders of the former PDRY, Saudi Arabia would see this as a major setback, leaving the northern highlands with their Zaydi [Shi’a] population majority on their borders and presumably some kind of Zaydi government opposed to Saudi supremacy.  This level of analysis is relevant in the medium term, assuming that the war ends, somehow or other, within the next decade, through negotiations imposed on the parties, including the coalition.

Although completely ignored by the politicians involved in the struggle, or indeed their international sponsors,  the issue of water and other environmental aspects are, in the longer term,  likely to drive millions out of Yemen unless effective governance and firm policies are initiated within the coming decade with respect to water management, climate change mitigation, education and investment.  A wise alternative would be the inclusion of Yemen, fragmented or otherwise, within the GCC, enabling a few million Yemenis to be employed in the GCC states and thus support their families back home, thus obviating the need to join jihadi groups and giving the Yemeni state the time and possibility to develop social and economic policies which would enable the majority of the population to live in Yemen with reasonable living standards, above the poverty line.  




Helen Lackner worked as a consultant in social aspects of rural development for four decades in over thirty countries, mostly in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.  She has been involved in Yemen since the early 1970s where she lived in all three Yemeni states for over 15 years.   She now focuses on analysis and writing, trying to promote commitment to equitable development and peace in Yemen.  Her most recent publications include Yemen’s Peaceful transition from autocracy: could it have succeeded? (International IDEA 2016) and Understanding the Yemeni Crisis: the transformation of tribal roles in recent decades (Durham, Luce Fellowship Paper 17, 2016). In  2014, she edited Why Yemen Matters (Saqi). She is currently working on Yemen in Crisis:  autocracy, neo-liberalism and the disintegration of a state to be published by Saqi in October 2017.

Photo credit: United Nations Photo via / CC BY-NC-ND

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