Marshalling Order in Yemen: How Reconstruction Will Make or Break the Post-War Order

Peter Salisbury, Chatham House

This memo was drafted for POMEPS Studies 30,The Politics of Post-Conflict Resolution.” 

With Yemen’s civil war rapidly approaching the five-year mark, talk among international policymakers has turned to questions of the post-conflict order, despite the absence of any clear prospects for the war’s resolution. There is broad consensus that building buy-in to whatever political arrangement ends the war will require a reconstruction (or, given the pre-war limitations of Yemen’s infrastructure, construction) project akin to a Marshall Plan for Yemen.

Since the late 1990s, there has been broad acceptance in peacebuilding and development circles that there is a correlation between per-capita income and civil strife.[i]  Around 44 per cent of countries that have recently experienced civil strife return to war, the World Bank estimates, in part because of failures to address economic grievances.

The idea of focusing on building state legitimacy has gained currency in thinktank and policymaking circles. In May 2015 Sultan Barakat, who is now the director of the University of York’s Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit, argued that restoring legitimacy and rebuilding Yemen were “two sides of the same coin.”[ii]   Farea al-Muslimi, the chairman of the cofounder of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, first coined the idea of a “Marshall Plan for Yemen” to address the legitimacy deficit.  The term was later used by both then-prime minister of Yemen Khaled Bahah[iii] and members of the Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen in the hope of restoring Hadi to power in March of 2015. In April 2015 Riyadh announced the “Salman Developmental Project for Yemen”.[iv]

And indeed, Yemen’s 2011 uprising against the regime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, unrest during the transitional period of 2012-2014, and the September 2014 coup against Saleh’s successor Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi were all driven – in part at least – by a crisis in state legitimacy, as was the civil war. A key determinant in weakening legitimacy was the failure of the state to provide basic services and infrastructure.

Given the consequences of the current war there are clear incentives for regional and international stakeholders to invest in rebuilding Yemen. The World Bank has led efforts to create a framework plan for reconstruction, predicated on the thesis that, while recovery and reconstruction efforts are vital for Yemen’s population, it is equally important for regional security.

Yet a reconstruction project for Yemen cannot simply seek to restore the status quo ante.  There is no viable state to reconstruct. Running through much of the international discussion of Yemen’s reconstruction is an ongoing disconnect from the realities on the ground, a deeply ingrained assumption that needs assessments can be conducted remotely, without consultation with the local communities among whom donors hope to foster perceptions of legitimacy for the post-conflict political order and with whom they hope future governments will build a new social contract


Planning for reconstruction

The potential cost of such a reconstruction program is likely to be phenomenally high. In internal literature seen by the author, the World Bank estimates that Yemen’s reconstruction needs are around $30bn, of which almost $17bn would be needed for the first year of implementation.

In December 2017 Arab News reported that Saudi Arabia was taking the lead in the planning process for a $10bn reconstruction fund for Yemen.[v]  Officials in Riyadh have purportedly been working on plans for reconstruction since the announcement of the Salman project. Senior UAE officials have also publicly discussed their own development plan for post-conflict Yemen. The World Bank, meanwhile, has been working on a “blueprint” for reconstruction and recovery that ties together the humanitarian response to the crisis with plans for governance capacity building and infrastructure funds. The Bank has been conducting its work in cooperation with other multilateral organizations including the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and major donor nations including the US and UK.

Most planning to date would appear to be based on a number of unrealistic assumptions about the political economy context in which such a program would take place.  For instance:

  • that past external funding bottlenecks will be resolved
  • that Yemen’s Gulf neighbors will be able and willing to provide the bulk of the funds required for reconstruction, and will not be tempted to politicize the distribution of these funds
  • that post-conflict governance will be implemented by a competent central government, most likely based in Sana’a, and that planning and development institutions will be centralized as before the war
  • that past institutional issues including weak capacity, corruption and a political culture of placing factional interests over the Yemeni population as a whole will not feature as markedly in the past

If the past is a guide to future endeavors, the prospects for a successful reconstruction program are dim. Pledges made by the Gulf states to Yemen between 2006 and 2014 were largely directed towards ‘signature’ projects like power plants, ports and airport infrastructure, that would rely heavily on non-Yemeni contractors and the country’s economic elite, and would not deliver tangible benefits to ordinary citizens in the short term. Capacity issues plagued the planning ministry, an issue compounded by infighting within the country’s political class.

The $10bn figure floated by Saudi Arabia is notable for its familiarity, both as a sum and as a strategic tactic for demonstrating “support” for Yemen which long predates the current war. In 2006, a group of donors pledged $4.7bn in development assistance to Yemen, of which, by the end of 2010, less than 10% had been dispersed despite Yemen’s status as a growing counterterrorism priority for donor nations. During talks in the UK between the newly-constituted “Friends of Yemen” in 2010, donors including the Gulf states, the US and UK all promised to work to ensure a package of around $6bn was delivered. Then, in September 2012, following the previous year’s Arab Spring uprising in Yemen, a new set of pledges were made totaling $7.9bn (a figure that would rise to $8.1bn by the following March, while estimates of total commitments would later be given of a figure as high as $12bn).  But by the time of the Houthi-Saleh coup of September 2014, less than 20% of funds had been dispersed and those that had were largely made up of a $1bn soft loan from Saudi Arabia to the Central Bank of Yemen, and pre-existing commitments from Western donors.

State Capacity

In the 2000s, donors blamed the lack of fund dispersal on weak Yemeni government capacity, a lack of Yemeni political will to implement projects, and fears over corruption leading to stringent conditions from Gulf states on the funds they had promised. To circumvent these issues, the donor countries along with the World Bank created a “Mutual Accountability Framework” and sponsored the creation of a new body, the Executive Bureau, to ensure the conditions of the framework, which promised speedy delivery of funds in exchange for tangible developments in Yemeni government budget management, planning, job creation, governance, rule of law and service delivery.  Yet internal politicking held up the creation of the new bureau and ultimately left the new body hamstrung from the start (the Yemeni planning ministry successfully lobbied to prevent the bureau from becoming a project implementer, arguing that this would lead to the creation of parallel institutions and weaken overall state capacity). Once the bureau had been formed, the pace of dispersal and delivery did not increase appreciably.

There was, at least, a functioning Yemeni government during the transitional period. Since early 2015, when president Hadi fled from Houthi house arrest before the Saudi-led coalition intervened on his behalf, the country’s institutions have simultaneously fractured and eroded. The Houthi-Saleh alliance became the de facto authority in Sana’a, with the Houthis developing a growing stranglehold over state institutions including the ministries of planning, health, water, electricity and education. This coalition fractured further following a schism in December 2017 that ended with the Houthis killing Saleh.  Hadi meanwhile began to reconstitute his government between Riyadh and Aden, with very little actual institutional capacity below the minister level.

Often, the pledges read more like a wish list than a serious plan for reconstruction. Government attempts at planning for reconstruction and development were heavily influenced by past reports, with documents provided to external counterparts “carrying the heavy whiff of copy-paste” from pre-war plans, in the words of a Western official involved in consultations with the Yemeni government. Houthi-run ministries meanwhile have largely been reduced to their bare bones by unpaid salaries, a lack of work to do (little development planning has taken place in Sana’a) and the oppressive role played by departmental Houthi “supervisors”. International organizations like the World Bank have largely based post-conflict reconstruction planning on satellite imagery, reporting from the few local institutions that continue to function (like the Social Development Fund) and pre-war development plans for major infrastructure programs of the kind the Gulf states backed before and during the transition.

De facto power meanwhile has fractured well beyond the frontlines between Houthi-controlled territory and that under the nominal aegis of the Hadi government. Mareb governorate is largely autonomous, with the governor Sultan al-Aradah using revenues generated from local oil and gas sales to pay for local administration, and treating the local branch of the Central Bank of Yemen as his treasury rather than one node in a national-level network. Southern governorates are run with varying degrees of autonomy, with southern secessionist groups backed by the UAE a dominant player in security provision. These groups have regularly clashed with the Hadi government, leading to an all-out battle for control of Aden, Yemen’s temporary capital, in January of 2018. Mukalla city, which is run by a senior UAE-backed military official, also acts as an effectively autonomous entity.

There is growing consensus that any post-conflict governance system will have to recognize and encompass the de facto authority of local groups. And indeed, if a post-conflict system of governance is to be considered legitimate by a plurality of Yemenis, it cannot ignore the role of Yemenis’ needs. Yet thus far most planning has – in no small part due to the constraints caused by the war – been based on a 10,000 -foot assessment of needs. Given the past behavior of Yemen’s political elites, who during the transitional period largely focused on zero-sum “beggar-thy-neighbor” tactics within the unity government that caused the collapse of services, security and governance, it is hard to believe that the new post-conflict elite will prioritize , in the event of a mediated resolution to the conflict, rapid restoration of services and improvements in governance.

Western policymakers would appear to assume that the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular, will underwrite much of the cost of reconstruction. Yet given past issues with dispersal, the deep involvement of both countries in Yemen’s politics, which is likely to remain a feature of the post-conflict landscape, and budgetary constraints at home, this is by no means a given. And if funds are dispersed, project implementation may become deeply politicized (a recent Saudi humanitarian plan was described by humanitarian officials as an “invade Hodeidah plan”, on the basis that the proposal was largely designed to prove the crucial port of Hodeidah could be attacked without disruption to the supply of humanitarian aid).

If the assumptions outlined above cannot be overturned, there is considerable risk that , rather than helping usher in peace, reconstruction planning for Yemen could in fact help precipitate future conflict, by being so inherently flawed that it produces no notable benefits for the Yemeni population at large.

But the plan can be salvaged by a commitment to deeply decentralized aid delivery based on hyper-local needs assessments conducted in concert with local bodies including councils, tribes and other parties. Such an approach would be human resource intensive, and would mark a break from practices favored by donor nations, but could mark the difference between making or breaking the post-war order.

[i] Collier, Paul; Hoeffler, Anke, On Economic Causes of Civil War, Oxford Economic Papers, Vol. 50, No. 4 (Oct., 1998), pp. 563-573

[ii] Barakat, Sultan, Restoring legitimacy and rebuilding Yemen: Two sides of the same coin, ‘Markaz’, Brookings, 4 May 2015,

[iii] Rasheed, Abdullah, Bahah seeks ‘Marshall Plan’ to Save Yemen Yemen, Gulf News, 19 January 2016

[iv] Abdul Multi, Mohammed Ahmed, The Salman Developmental Project for Yemen, A Gulf Marshall Plan

How to Restore Economic Hope for Yemen?, Future Center for Advanced Research Studies, 27 May 2015

[v] Ali Khan, Ghazanfar, $10bn fund proposed for Yemen’s reconstruction, Arab News, 20 December 2017,