Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb

Posted in Broader Middle East | 01-Jun-09 | Source: International Crisis Group

Suspected Shiite rebels sit behind bars during the first hearing into their case at a state security court in Sanaa May 16, 2009. The defendants are among two new groups of suspected Shiite rebels totalling 25 defendants who appeared before the court on Saturday charged with supporting the Shiite rebellion in the restive north-western province of Saada.

Sanaa/Brussels, 27 May 2009: Local, national and international actors should move quickly to prevent a new round of violence in Yemen's Saada governorate that could destabilise a state already under severe duress.

Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb ,* the latest report from the International Crisis Group, describes the destructive war in that northern governorate, which pits a rebel group, known generically as the Huthis, against government forces. Although a truce theoretically is in place, it is fragile and could prove short-lived. There is no clear agreement between parties, accumulated grievances remain largely unaddressed, tensions run high, skirmishes persist, and belligerents appear unwilling to compromise.

"The country should use its traditional instruments - social and religious tolerance, cooptation of adversaries - to forge a more inclusive compact that reduces sectarian stigmatisation and absorbs the Huthis", says Joost Hiltermann, Deputy Director of Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa Program. "International actors should use their leverage and the promise of reconstruction assistance to press both government and rebels to compromise".

After two decades of relative stability that confounded diplomats and analysts alike, the current convergence of economic, political and secessionist challenges is testing the regime's coping capacity. The Saada conflict may not be the most covered of those challenges internationally, but it carries grave risks for Yemen's political, sectarian and social equilibrium

So far, the international community has not recognised the Saada conflict's destabilising potential or pressured the government to shift course. That is partly related to the West's single-minded focus on Yemen's struggle with al-Qaeda and the regime's adroit portrayal of the Huthis as a subset of the so-called war on terror. It also is related to the regime's denial of access to Saada to many if not most governments and humanitarian agencies.

Primary responsibility falls on local actors, whether the government, the rebels, or either's associates. They are the ones who must take the steps to decrease sectarian tensions, help reintegrate the alienated Huthis, release war-related prisoners and stop playing the dangerous card of tribal allegiances. But the international community also has a significant role to play. This it can do by using its political leverage and the promise of increased aid for reconstruction and development in order to promote an environment more conducive to sustained peace.

"Renewed war is not preordained, but it will take concerted action by local, national and international actors to prevent it", says Robert Malley, Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa Program Director. "In duration and intensity, destruction, casualties, sectarian stigmatisation and regional dimension, the Saada conflict stands apart from other violent episodes in Yemen. It will need more than run-of-the-mill domestic and international efforts to end it".

Contacts: Andrew Stroehlein (Brussels) +32 (0) 2 541 1635
Kimberly Abbott (Washington) +1 202 785 1601
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*Read the full Crisis Group report on our website: