February 2011

Yemen: Developmental Dysfunction and Division in a Crisis State

Sarah Phillips

As Yemen and the Middle East experienced major shifts in early 2011, this paper examined the underlying drivers of these changes. It looks behind the scenes at the Yemeni regime’s opaque internal politics and at the nature of the entrenched neopatrimonial system that has governed it for more than three decades.

Yemen was at a critical juncture, and the calculations and strategies of the country’s key actors were likely to shift rapidly on the basis of unpredictable factors. The authors stressed, however, that deeply patrimonial systems are not transformed overnight.

Key points:

This paper offers an analysis of the system and dynamics that had brought Yemen to this critical juncture, with a particular focus on the dynamics of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s secretive inner circle. It interrogates the events of the time and asks:

  • Why Yemeni elites have been unwilling and/or unable to take effective action against the threats facing the state and thus their survival as elites?
  • Whether this failure is primarily a matter of choices that elites have made, or a function of structural and institutional circumstances beyond their control?
  • Whether these actors perceive that the threat is not serious enough to warrant systemic change and, if so, the basis for this perception.

The paper concludes with messages for policy makers that include drawing on narratives from Tunisia and Egypt about how to reprioritise the search for economic opportunities, and the need for direct engagement - both with President Saleh’s inner circle and also Yemen’s most powerful neighbour, Saudi Arabia.

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Yemen: Developmental Dysfunction and Division in a Crisis State

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