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Three volumes on Yemen at war by Isa Blumi, Ginny Hill and Helen Lackner

Laurent Bonnefoy
Référence(s) :

Destroying Yemen: What Chaos in Arabia Tells us about the World / Isa Blumi.- Oakland: University of California Press, 2018.- 294 p.

Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State / Helen Lackner.- London: Saqi, 2017.- 330 p.

Yemen Endures: Civil War, Saudi Adventurism and the Future of Arabia / Ginny Hill.- London: Hurst, 2017.- 391 p.

Texte intégral

1Much like in the case of Syria a few years back, the deteriorating political and security situation in Yemen has been accompanied by a recent surge in publications on the country. The three volumes reviewed here can in no way be accused of sheer opportunism – they are nevertheless timely as they provide much needed information and background on a range of contemporary dynamics which puzzle many; citizens, decision makers, students and researchers alike. The three authors have a long lasting interest for Yemeni society and history and their writing projects largely pre-existed the beginning of the 2015 war. Isa Blumi, whose main area of academic focus lies in the Ottoman Empire, had already published a book on security issues linked to Yemen in 2010. Ginny Hill, once a freelance journalist has grown into an internationally respected expert on contemporary Yemen. She has in particular developed deep relations with its elites and intellectuals. Helen Lackner ranks among the most experienced foreign analysts of Yemeni issues, having first been acquainted with its society back in the 1970s and writing a number of acclaimed volumes.

2Building on these different experiences, each of the three publications offers a different reflection on the roots of Yemen’s stalemate. The three books offer a broad insight on what their author sees as the sources of the current violence. They consequently look into both their internal ramifications and the part played by external actors. The three thus provide a detailed narrative of how the ‘Yemeni spring’ of 2011, which had generated much enthusiasm on the part of many Yemenis themselves as well as foreign observers, gradually paved way for a deadly conflict that remains unresolved and is likely to last for many years.

3Ginny Hill focuses in particular on the internal power struggles and on the slow decomposition of the state and society. She presents the historical depth of the war by looking into how dysfunctional power equilibriums and rivalries were constructed since the early 20th century through a succession of events and leaderships. Using an impressive set of sources (which are unfortunately presented as endnotes and thus not easily accessible to the reader), she documents in particular the central role played by Ali Abdallah Saleh and the corruption mechanisms he established during his three decade long rule, creating what she calls an “illusory state”. Lively firsthand accounts of political developments during the first decade of the new century are an asset. However the memoire-like passages at times clash with the more academically-fit writing of other segments, rendering a hybrid style. The book provides a welcome (albeit not strictly novel if one takes into account Sarah Phillips’ research as well as that of Marine Poirier and others) addition to the understanding of the Yemeni political system. The book’s added-value also rests elsewhere. By acknowledging the elusive nature of truth and events in the first pages of the volume, she indirectly takes a strong methodological stance against simple narratives and fact-based approaches. By suggesting that perceptions and viewpoints held by Yemenis might be more meaningful than “what really happened” Ginny Hill does great service to our collective understanding of Yemeni history and of its implications in the war.

4Isa Blumi for his part focuses on Western and regional responsibilities in the current stalemate, namely the role of Saudi Arabia whose rulers are engaged in the war as much as those of Western powers and international institutions which have deprived Yemenis from their capacity to directly determine their future. As he puts it in his introduction, the author seeks to highlight “the underlying ambition to keep the country servile to the needs of certain regional and global interests. » The line of argument is clear, often accusatory albeit it might be seen as excessive in some instances, not always doing much justice to the complexities of the interactions between Yemen and the world, which cannot easily be reduced to a one-sided domination. The role of the “global forces” (neo-liberalism, colonialism, domination, arms trade, financial capitalism, transnational conglomerates, etc.) Isa Blumi focuses on may be over stretched in the sense that they can obscure the significance of local dynamics. When it comes to the current war, the author’s narrative regarding Saudi “aggression” would likely be rejected by many Yemenis, in particular ones originating from the southerner provinces of the country. Indeed Blumi’s argument ends up largely idealizing Huthi leaders as it implicitly portrays them as embodiments of Yemeni authenticity and resistance to imperialism. Nevertheless, the reflection on the relevance of Yemen to the larger world and of its war is a profound one. It demonstrates the centrality of interdependence mechanisms and relevantly documents how much domination is central to understanding the Arabian Peninsula. Data gathered and sources mobilized are impressive and are most often fascinating contributions to academic understanding. The book for example sheds light on long forgotten interactions, in particular attempts by envoys of western companies to take control of Yemen’s resources in the early 20th century or during the Cold War days. In doing that the book resonates with a set of wider academic debates and willingly pursues the track set by post-colonial studies and critical approaches. Of all three books reviewed here, Isa Blumi’s is the most theoretically robust and thought provoking… be it at times at the expense of a nuanced approach. His use of the term a “genocidal war” to coin the Saudi-led coalition’s military campaign since 2015 indeed illustrates a certain bias.

5As she looks into the roots of the conflict, Helen Lackner carefully deconstructs the mistakes of the transition period that followed the fall of Ali Abdallah Saleh in 2012. She readily puts the Yemeni fault lines and issues (sectarian, ideological, regional) in historical perspective, showing how the complex “synergy” between these led to the war. Helen Lackner shows how the transition period between 2012 and 2015 was ill-managed by international and Yemeni actors alike. Throughout the different chapters, her high-sensitivity to development issues, agriculture, demography and water-scarcity brings an evident added-value to the book. While both Ginny Hill and Isa Blumi have mostly set their focus on the elites and high-politics, with specific interest for the capital Sanaa and male actors, Helen Lackner brings ordinary Yemeni society to the fore. Updated analysis of the role of tribes, focus on the economy and on the urbanization process as well as on gender issues are much appreciated additions to the picture. These reflections build on an impressive knowledge of ordinary livelihoods and on the challenges Yemeni citizens of all statuses face. What can rightly be seen as a balanced assessment that takes into account local dynamics and global issues is presented in a straightforward way. Contrary to the two other volumes which adopt a chronological organization of their chapters, Helen Lackner chooses a thematic one for her book. Such a method, while maybe redundant at times, helps grasp the issues at stake (including Islamism, regionalism and diplomacy) in an accessible way, one that can appeal to a wide readership.

6The three approaches presented by their authors are to a large extent complementary. With its own predispositions, each book provides a profound insight on political and social dynamics and thus proposes valuable analysis. Difference in academia is to be considered a benefit as long as analysis is based on facts, something that all three authors achieve. While Yemeni elites have largely become polarized, engaging in a simplistic blame-game that tends to credit one party for the conflict, all in all, such is not the case for the three publications as much as the academic field in general. When compared to the Syrian conflict which has fragmented universities, and think-tanks along political lines and rendered debate almost impossible, analysis of the Yemen war is almost consensual among academics — no one seriously advocating a military solution. As the books of Isa Blumi, Ginny Hill and Helen Lackner show, sensible and constructive discussions can still occur. This is clearly positive but one wonders how long it will last since sectarian, identity and political gaps are widening as the war drags on and continues its vicious destruction.

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Laurent Bonnefoy, « Three volumes on Yemen at war by Isa Blumi, Ginny Hill and Helen Lackner », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 9 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2018, consulté le 19 mars 2019. URL :

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Ce document est mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Partage dans les Mêmes Conditions 4.0 International.

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