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​Zoltan Barany is the Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Centennial Professor of Government at the University of Texas.  His most recent books are The Soldier and the Changing State: Building Democratic Armies in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas (Princeton University Press, 2012), Democratic Breakdown and the Decline of the Russian Military (Princeton University Press, 2007), and, as co-editor Is Democracy Exportable? (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies hosted Dr. Zoltan Barany on Wednesday, October 17, 2018 as part of its seminar series. He presented a seminar on the topic of the conflict in Yemen, titled: “The War in Yemen: Perspectives, Questions, and Prospects.”

Barany presented on three major themes. First, he outlined the historical development of Yemen’s army, and the implications of this historical development on present day reform. Second, he presented the various perspectives of the war in Yemen, addressing the domestic, regional, and international contexts. Finally, he spoke of prospects for resolution to the conflict.

Beginning with the historical development of Yemen’s army, Barany argued that Yemen has always featured a conflict between “centralizers” and “tribalists.” Centralizers wanted to increase state authority, whereas tribalists privileged traditional tribal influence in politics. This split is very clear within the armed forces itself, which has had a history of fragmentation since its establishment in the period of the Imamate in the 1930s. Under the Imam, institutional fragmentation began, with the Imamate maintaining no less than four separate armed organizations. This foreshadowed the multiple military entities that would be present in the future. These groups also relied on violence (coups d’etat) to resolve political conflicts and leadership succession, and were deeply mistrustful of each other.

As a result, domestic conflicts in Yemen are often multipolar. This means certain groups might cooperate with one another on some issues but not on others. Moreover, there has never been civilian control of the military in Yemen’s modern existence. Barany argues that this is the main reason the situation in Yemen is so intractable today.

Barany also argued that the conflict in Yemen should not be oversimplified. For example, there is a tendency to describe the conflict as the Houthis versus President Hadi, or the Saudis versus Iran in some sort of proxy war. The reality is much more complex. The Saudi and Emirati role is not as cohesive as one might assume, with both parties pursuing at times opposing objectives within Yemen. For instance, the Emiratis have indicated that they support the secessionist movement in the south, to some degree, whereas Saudi Arabia does not. Barany spoke further on the Emirati objective of remaining for the long term in south Yemen, and as a result facilitating the development of quasi-state institutions and Emirati-influenced militias.

Furthermore, Barany outlined the Houthi element and how they have maintained cohesion, sustaining themselves against much more powerful enemies. He argues that the Yemeni army has never been a match for the Houthis. Coupled with the fact that Saudi attempts to control the situation in Yemen have been unsuccessful, the Houthis do not seem under threat of disintegrating any time soon.

The Iranian role was also discussed; Barany argues that the Iranians were never very involved in the beginning and the cost (to the Iranians) of their involvement has been minimal. Nevertheless, they have reaped many benefits from their small investment in the Houthi element, destabilizing their Saudi Arabian rivals and prolonging the conflict.

Finally, Barany outlined some prospects for resolution, though they remain slim. He argued that all the actors must be included in a settlement, as excluding certain actors will deepen grievances. The current UN plan overplays the importance of the Hadi government, in his assessment, and certain regional actors (such as Iran and the UAE) have not even been brought to the negotiation table. As such, Barany recommends engaging with all actors in order to resolve the conflict and reach a medium-term settlement.