The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. approach to Yemen is challenged as country splinters and government vanishes

Khalil Bamatraf describes the day in 2015 that her city of Mukalla, Yemen, was taken by al-Qaeda and the day of “breathing” in 2016 when it was liberated. (Video: Kareem Fahim, Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

MUKALLA, Yemen — When Yemeni soldiers freed this whitewashed port city from the grip of al-Qaeda in 2016, it was hailed as a signal moment in the government’s effort to reunite a nation splintered by civil war.

But more than two years after al-Qaeda’s retreat, Yemen’s government is still absent. The local governor, Faraj al-Bahsani, relies on local revenue rather than state contributions for his budget. He courts international investors to fix the region’s crumbling infrastructure. His main security partner is a foreign government, the United Arab Emirates, that pays salaries to a portion of the most powerful local military force.

If Mukalla has become a model of resilience during Yemen’s four-year civil war, the city is also a warning about how the country is being pulled apart. Some regions are battlefields, lost to violence. The rule of law has been eclipsed in other places by the authority of militias, gangs and assassins. Most of the country — from cities such as Mukalla to rural hamlets — is ill-equipped to fend for itself. 

The fragmentation of Yemen has highlighted the challenges facing the policy of the United States, which has strongly supported the internationally recognized central government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi as he tries to reunify the country.

But Hadi, who has spent most of the conflict exiled in Saudi Arabia after his government was ousted by a rebel group known as the Houthis, is widely seen — including by American officials — as too weak and unpopular to accomplish that task. His forces have been unable to dislodge the rebels or even decisively assert his authority in the areas his government nominally controls.

The United States has been concerned that Yemen’s disarray will empower al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula, one of the extremist group’s most dangerous ­franchises.

“Yemen, as a state, has all but ceased to exist,” a United Nations expert panel wrote earlier this year. “Instead of a single State there are warring statelets, and no one side has either the political support or the military strength to reunite the country or achieve victory on the battlefield.”

U.S. officials say they are pushing the combatants toward a negotiated end to the war, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently called “a national security priority.” But the United States is far from a neutral party; it is also providing military assistance to an Arab military coalition fighting the rebels on Hadi’s ­behalf.  

The coalition’s two leading members, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have also hedged their bets, forming alliances with local political figures and sponsoring proxy forces.  

Efforts at peace talks have repeatedly failed over the past three years. And as the fighting continues, a sense of national cohesion is evaporating. 

The old Yemen “will never come back,” said Badr Baslmah, a former Yemeni transport minister who lives in Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt, Yemen’s largest province. The central state was being replaced by regional autonomy, and the most pressing question now is: “How do you settle [upon] the new Yemen,” he said. 

When Bahsani, the governor, talks about the solution to the civil war, his focus is not on Yemen’s unity but rather a settlement that “assures the rights of regions,” as he put it in an interview with reporters earlier this month.     

Yemenis have long debated whether some kind of division would be a boon to a country long seen as too highly centralized — a federal system, perhaps, or a split between the north and south, which had long been separate countries until they merged in 1990. But the divisions unfolding are not negotiated or planned, like the peaceful split of the former Czechoslovakia, for example. 

Rather, Yemen recalls Libya in the years after its dictator was toppled in 2011: fractured, increasingly violent and a source of alarm beyond its borders.

The push by Bahsani and his allies to stabilize Mukalla came after al-Qaeda’s occupation of the city for more than a year, beginning in the spring of 2015. The militants had easily routed Yemeni troops in the city and wrung Mukalla for profit, looting the central bank and siphoning money from the port. They retreated after Yemeni forces, trained and led by the UAE, stormed the city in April 2016. 

But the region never really returned to the national fold, emerging instead as a cross between an independent republic and a protectorate of the UAE, which has built several military bases in the province. 

Bahsani, who holds the rank of major general, helped lead the military unit, known as the Hadrami Elite forces, that retook Mukalla. He still commands that force, which is responsible for counterterrorism in the region.

Residents have praised the elite forces for maintaining a level of security unusual for Yemen, even in the best of times. Among their accomplishments, they have made Mukalla a weapons-free zone, requiring visitors to the city to leave their firearms at checkpoints before entering.  

Human rights groups, however, have accused the force of torturing suspects during anti-terrorism operations. Local officials deny the allegations. 

One segment of the force receives salaries from the UAE and another from the Yemeni government, raising questions about the soldiers’ loyalties. The payments have also led to concerns about friction within the ranks, because the soldiers paid by the government receive far less than their colleagues. 

A local official said the part of the force loyal to the UAE has frequently carried out military activities without coordinating with the national government, causing confusion and raising issues of accountability. “There is no clear policy,” said the official, who requested anonymity to candidly discuss security matters. Across southern Yemen, similar security units supported by the Saudi-led coalition have sprung up, including some who have openly fought against Hadi’s forces.

The question of who controls the regions has become more urgent as the hardships caused by the war have rippled across the country, leaving Yemenis, including frustrated business owners and working-class factory workers, unsure where to turn for help.

Mukalla has fared better than other places. It is far from Yemen’s bloodiest battlefields, has access to the port and sits in a region rich with oil. 

But the governor’s push to go it alone has not succeeded in making Mukalla self-reliant. The revenue he had been able to collect, from taxes and customs at the port, “cannot cover the basic needs,” he said. “We have very difficult circumstances.”

Nor has he been able to insulate the city from the wider economic crisis buffeting Yemen. For several days this month, the city was shut down by demonstrators angered at the plunging value of the national currency, which has fueled inflation. 

In the hospital after one protest, Anwar Ali, 40, sat with a bandage wrapped around his head, after a soldier hit him with a rifle butt, he said. Desperation had brought him and hundreds of other people to the streets. “Prices are very high, and our salaries are very low,” he said. The value of his salary working in a local tuna canning factory had been halved in a matter of matter of weeks. Local officials said they were powerless to do anything about it, he added. 

For business owners, the central government’s absence has set off a frustrating scramble to navigate the confusion of Yemen’s overlapping authorities.  

One businessman in Mukalla, an importer of foodstuffs, said he was required to seek permission from the Saudi-led coalition in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, to receive shipments at the Mukalla port. The system was well-established and seemed to work smoothly, he said. So, he was surprised when he was recently told that additional clearance was required from “Riyan airport” — a reference to the military base operated by the UAE. Officials in Mukalla denied that additional permissions were required. 

The businessman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the UAE’s role in Mukalla, said he went to the governor’s office and received a promise that officials would negotiate with the people at the airport. 

“Nothing happened,” the businessman said.  

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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