Viewed from outside, the war in Yemen is mainly a two-sided conflict between the "legitimate" government of President Hadi and the Houthi rebels backed by ex-President Saleh. But this fails to recognise the extent of Yemen's fragmentation since the outbreak of war, a former government minister warned yesterday: the initial collapse of central government has been followed by the emergence of new – localised – power bases which cannot be ignored in any future peace efforts.
"This initial breakdown and then the gradual build-up of power in these different pockets is a trend that is not being captured yet, especially by the international community or the interventions of the special UN envoy," Rafat al-Akhali told a meeting in London.
"Right now, the whole peace process is still designed for a two-sided conflict ... There is no acknowledgment of the whole change in power structure at the local level. Until that is addressed we don't see any end in sight."
Akhali, who served briefly as minister for youth before the Houthis over-ran the capital, Sanaa, said the new centres of power had sprung up around governorates, and sometimes tribes, in areas where local sources of revenue allow them to function and impose relative calm.
Speaking during a discussion organised by the Oxford Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Studies Forum (OxGAPS), Akhali began by outlining the plan for a federal Yemen developed shortly before the war which was intended as a way of addressing the country's governance problems and – hopefully – preserving national unity.
The plan (controversial at the time) lumped together Yemen's governorates into six federal regions. These regions were largely an artificial construct and, in Akhali's view, did not match people's sense of identity.
One example of the resentment this caused was the proposed merging of two southern governorates, Hadramaut and al-Mahra:
"We saw the people of Hadramaut getting together in what became known as the Inclusive Hadramaut Conference, and they said 'Hadramaut comes first'. And of course Mahra refused to join with Hadramaut. It was always known, even during the [pre-war] National Dialogue. Mahra said 'No, we are Mahris, we do things our way.' The same thing happened in Aden and the southern areas."
"It was very clear that when this war happened and the breakdown of the state took place, identities followed this governorate level. In many cases it's only at the tribal level, especially in the north. For example, the Kawlan tribe, which is one of the big tribes, got together and said nobody fights in Kawlan" – the Kawlan is a safe area."
One result of this is insularity. "You see a complete disconnect between the people in Sana'a for example, the people in Ta'izz, the people in Aden, in terms of how they much identify with the suffering of people in different governorates, how much they contribute to relief efforts," he said.
Meanwhile, at a national level, there is what Akhali describes as "theatrical government" – people acting as if they were in power when in reality they are not.
"That's what we are increasingly seeing now ... they continue issuing directives and things. We saw the prime minister going around in Hadramaut, in Mahra, in Aden establishing his projects and announcing these things. Hadi [the Saudi-backed "legitimate" president] is sitting in Riyadh making all these decrees and appointing ambassadors and deputy ministers and all that."
In the midst of this vacuum, new power structures have emerged in small pockets where revenue resources are available. "That's what everyone ought to focus on – this local level," Akhali said. "Mahra is a good example, Hadramaut is another."
In Marib, oil and gas resources have allowed Islah (the Yemeni equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood) to develop a stronghold, and many of the party's supporters have been moving there from other parts of Yemen.
"You see the same thing in Hadramaut with the port, which the governor quickly declared would no longer abide by Yemeni customs law. Right now, it's a lump sum [payment] for any container that comes in, regardless of what's in the container. And that money does not go anywhere in the [national]government, it goes directly to the governorate."
Shipments of oil out of Hadramaut are a slightly different matter. In order to sell oil on the international market the Hadramis had to reach a deal with the government but it allows them to share in the revenues. But they are the fortunate ones. Akhali continued:
"In areas where there aren't revenue streams – Taizz is a prime example – the conflict does not seem to have an end in sight, mostly because there is no single group that can control enough revenues to start exerting power. You have all these small groups here and there, all with kind of equal power, all relying mostly on petty tax that they collect from qat markets and very small levels of revenue, and then also support from the UAE and Saudi and others."
Clearly, these little-noticed developments on the ground have major implications for any peace process.