Sovereignty Plus Development Model in Yemen

1.0 Research Question

In the article, you must agree or disagree, in whole or in part, with position(s) taken in by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and offer another perspective addressed in this course useful for resolving the conflict situation in Yemen? The editors ask you to conform to the publication guidelines, which requires that articles are between 1,200–2,500 words in length. Essay is approximately 3,500 words in length and will refer to the report as ECFR.

In Samir Saran’s The Collision of These Three Geographies is Creating a New World Order, Samir writes about how the contemporary world is guided by US and EU definitions of peace, stability, and economic prosperity are tied to liberal conditions (Saran,1). The European Council on Foreign Relations report on Yemen guides the audience with an approach of Pollyannaish liberalism as it raises the alarm on the internal politics of the Houthi system, identifies Houthi human rights violations, and suggests a Westphalian approach to a unified state of Yemen. ECFR’s policy suggestions include: creating international recognition of the Houthi people if they are willing to work towards a united Yemen and encouraging the international community to reward Yemen with aid money if both parties are willing to compromise (Doyle, 207). From a constructivist framework, the ECFR fails to recognize Houthi’s distrust towards Europe, South Yemen, The United States, and Saudi Arabia. While the ECFR recognizes the states’ fragility and the impact the war has had economically, it does not take steps to address these insecurities. Nor does the ECFR provide an appropriate strategy to dissuade the various stakeholders from defection. This paper seeks to explain Yemen’s division from a constructivist international relations theory, identify a partner for peace, and provide an alternative strategy to address stakeholders’ insecurity.

1.2 Proposed Solution

The international community should recognize that Yemen is two separate states and acknowledge the Houthi government’s sovereignty. After recognizing the two states, the international community should create a space for China to work bilaterally with both nations on developing a long-term economic stimulus package geared towards self-sufficiency. China has developed a new strategy for post-war reconstruction through the “Sovereignty Plus Development” model used in Africa. China has a more significant relationship with all the stakeholders involved in the conflict identified as Iran, the Houthi government, the Republic of Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. China is incentivized to find a solution for the conflict because it owns infrastructure in both states and has foreign policy goals associated with the Maritime Silk Road. Peace can be achieved if warring factions receive access to financing and skilled workers to develop their autonomous communities, which ECFR explains is the conflict’s genesis.

1.3 Background: The Saudi Arabian led Coalition is Losing

Saudi Vision 2030 was a plan led by the Saudi Government to diversify its economy from oil and develop its public sectors such as health, education, tourism, and infrastructure. However, due to the Yemen conflict and the Pandemic, Saudi Arabia has encountered a series of different roadblocks preventing them from developing the Saudi Vision 2030. ECFR indicates that Saudi Arabia is incentivized to end the conflict because of a drop in oil prices, COVID19 impact on their domestic economy, and their allies’ military retreat. The Saudi-led coalition is deteriorating, and both Jordan and Morocco have suspended their Yemen operations (NA, Morocco suspends participation in Saudi-led war in Yemen).
The Saudi led campaign against the Houthis in Yemen is believed to be costing Riyadh $5 — $6 billion a month in military expenditure. This money was supposed to be appropriated for Saudi Vision 2030. (Elass Saudi Arabia ups defence spending in face of Iranian threats: Jareer Elass) (Alothman and Abu Omar, Saudi Arabia’s economy shrinks for a fifth straight quarter). Saudi Arabia sought to diversify and improve the Saudi’s non-oil economy with the income from the sale of Aramco IPO, valued by Saudi Arabia at $100 billion. However, the sale of the IPO ended up only being $26 billion. The Houthi attack on the Saudi Arabian oil fields is believed to have undermined Aramco’s value (Rasmi, The oil field attacks could cost Saudi Arabia hundreds of millions of dollars per day). Saudi Arabia is in a position where the conflict is deteriorating Saudi relational and resource power. The ECFR is correct to believe that these challenges create space for Saudi compromise, but the ECFR’s policy solution for The Republic of Yemen to be sewn back together in Saudi Arabia’s favour is nonsensical to the reality on the ground. The Houthis are winning and defeating their rival that has superior resource and relational power. Colonel Boyd once said, “Machines don’t fight wars; terrain doesn’t fight wars. Humans fight wars. You must get into the minds of humans. That is where the battles are won.” (Horton, Hot Issue — The Houthi Art of War: Why They Keep Winning in Yemen).

1.4 Findings: Division of Yemen: Geography and Identity

Constructivist international relations theory aligns with the thesis in identifying why Yemen continues to civil war over the same geography. Sociologists describe social groups as in-groups and out-groups. Constructivists recognize how social groups and identities can create conflict. The Republic of Yemen is not an integrated society, and the state’s geography gerrymanders its social groups.

The Houthi state is comprised of a densely Shia population that has extraordinarily little presence in the other province of Yemen. The current Houthi state mirrors where Yemen was geographically in 1918–1937 and 1962–1967. Therefore, the Houthi movement is another revolution of Yemen with a similar formula: preserving their particular culture, recruiting more into their homogenous circle, and taking revenge on perceived slights and territorial infringement made by the out-group (Peterson IQ, Politics, and the Left: A Conversation with Douglas Murray Transcript).


Type of State Conflict

Year (from 1900 — Present)

Table of civil wars pulled from:

1.5 Finding: Past Divisions of Yemen: Zaydi vs Colonial Imperialism

The Houthis of Yemen have a history of being impacted by in-group and out-group thinking. Over the past century, the Zaydi tribes that make up the Houthi movement have tried and failed at separating themselves from perceived colonialist powers (Ardemagni, Framing Yemen’s Zaydi Shi’a). The North Yemen Civil War of 1962 started when the Royal Family of the Zaydi sect of Islam named Muḥammad al-Badr sought to unite Zaydi tribes against British presence and created the first Northern Yemen state (Carapico and Rone, Human rights in Yemen During and After the 1994 War).

In 1967, Southern Yemen sought independence from the U.K and overthrew their protectorate to establish a Marxist state (NA, People’s Democratic Republic Of Yemen). When Southern Yemen became a Marxist state, North Yemen received covert support from Western nations (Rego, Effects of US Cold War Policy on the Modern State of Yemen: 1978 Through Unification and Civil War). As a by-product of the Cold War’s greater colonial and ideological struggle, Yemen suffered through multiple civil wars and internal revolutions.

The Republic of Yemen was formed when both sides came together to solve economic disparity, control the Red Sea entrance, and agreed to share power between two states proportionately (Carapico and Rone, Human rights in Yemen During and After the 1994 War). The unified state lasted until the Saudi-led coalition supported the “War on Terror,” where disagreement over imperial foreign policy inspired tribal identities to re-emerge in the forefront of Yemeni politics.

1.6 Finding: Division of Yemen: al-Houthi vs Colonial Imperialism

Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, who started the Houthi Movement, galvanized the Zaydi tribes of Yemen towards insurrection. North Yemen supported his insurrection after the Republic of Yemen signed a border deal ending a longstanding conflict over ill-defined tribal borders with Saudi Arabia (Montgomery, A Timeline of the Yemen Crisis, from the 1990s to the Present) (NA MIDDLE EAST | Yemen, Saudi Arabia sign border deal). Al-Houthi advocated North Yemen to oppose the “The War on Terror” and the Iraq War. Both of which were supported by the Republic of Yemen (Batati, Who are the Houthis in Yemen?).

Saleh, the President of the Republic of Yemen, saw the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq as an opportunity to gain American support in ending his rivalry with the Zaydi tribesmen of the North. Saleh claimed to the U.S that Al-Qaeda supported the Zaydi. AP Investigative journalists discovered that Saleh lied and cut secret deals with Al-Qaeda, paying them and allowing them to be recruited by the Saleh lead alliance(Maggie Michael, AP Investigation: US allies, al-Qaida battle rebels in Yemen).

Constructivists recognize that the violation of norms creates conflicts, and social group division exacerbates existing schisms (Romaniuk and Grice, Norms, Norm Violations, and IR Theory). The Zaydi of Yemen lost their tribal borders and became a target of a colonial heavyweight, all done by the Republic of Yemen’s decisions. Due to the Government of Yemen’s actions, the Houthis of Yemen were placed into a position where they perceive that al-Qaida, The Republic of Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and by extension, the United States are all part of the out-group set against them. (Maggie Michael, AP Investigation: US allies, al-Qaida battle rebels in Yemen)

1.7 Solution: Identifying the Problem

Now that we have identified the distinct identities of North Yemen, backed by historical and demographic polarization of identities, we can ascertain that the current strategy of peace talks is a prisoner’s dilemma. Both the Houthi government and the Republic of Yemen have more incentive to defect from the peace talks than to collaborate (Axelrod, 229). The Republic of Yemen is supported by their regional ally Saudi Arabia, who have verbalized their preferred outcome: to return Hadi to Yemen as president, crush the Houthi movement, and curb Iranian influence (Lauria, What are the real Saudi motives in Yemen?).

Houthi’s favourable outcome is to have full autonomy of Yemen’s Shia areas (Rakhmat, Why Is China Interested in a Volatile Yemen?). These states have unique identities that are uncompromisable and a one state-solution cannot solve a perpetual conflict between these two regimes. The Nash-Equilibrium of the conflict is for Saudi to maintain its hegemony of Southern Yemen and the Houthis to have autonomy over their Shia region.

The Houthis and the Republic of Yemen are both facing economic crises brought on by the conflict. The conflict has taken a severe blow on Yemen’s hydrocarbon sectors resulting in a decline of Yemen’s oil and natural gas. Natural resource production fell from 125,000 in 2014 to 18,000 barrels per day in 2016. Since 2018, China has been the primary buyer of Yemeni natural resources. The Chinese now face conflict-oriented barriers to safely extract natural resources from Yemeni ports(NA, U.S. Energy Information Administration — EIA — Independent Statistics and Analysis). The hydrocarbon sector drives both the Houthi and the Republic of Yemen’s economic growth and their associated private services. Recognizing that resource infrastructure is both parties’ common ground is essential to shift the conflict towards a domestic rebuilding effort that benefits both states.

1.8 Solution: Scope

The Sovereignty Plus Development model tied to a two-state solution benefits all stakeholders, identified as Houthis, Chinese, and The Republic of Yemen, in resolving their internal domestic challenges. The Sovereignty Plus Development model enhances all parties’ security and certainty with speedy infrastructure projects and provides access to the Maritime Silk Road to export goods and resources.

1.9 Method and Process: Advantages of Bilateralism

The Sovereignty Plus Development model is successful because it is a bilateral negotiation with an outsized non-rival power. Because it is bilateral, China becomes the strongest party at the table. Bilateral peace talks increase the likelihood that partners will accept terms without the complexity of multilateralism (Hillman, A ‘China Model?’ Beijing’s Promotion of Alternative Global Norms and Standards). By working bilaterally with each stakeholder, stakeholders have an incentive to fulfill their commitment from the gains of institutionalized security cooperation and the reduction of defence budget burdens (Leeds, 806). The stakeholder groups are not subject to comply with each other based on their mutual trust, but by a power broker who has leverage on all stakeholders’ economies and their future access to investments.

2.0 Solution: Method and Process: The Speed of Bilateralism

The Sovereignty plus Development Model is focused on bilateral investments instead of multilateral pool investment. The model works top-down and seeks to improve the legitimacy of a government and its civil service. The model targets education, healthcare, resource markets, export infrastructure, and agricultural investments. China’s model does not focus on individual projects but holistic systems. While the World Bank addresses risks at the front of a project, China mitigates risks later in the cycle. Risk mitigation being an afterthought allows a country that accepts the deal to start on multi-dimensional projects faster. This speed of delivery is what is needed to incentivize a peace deal. Officials do not want to lose their political office before the project is complete. China has delivered projects before elections to fulfill this incentive (Hillman, A ‘China Model?’ Beijing’s Promotion of Alternative Global Norms and Standards).

A Sovereignty Plus development model can provide a position for all sides to choose cooperation over defection. The outcomes are a win-win for the loan giver (China), the Houthis, and the Saudi led coalition. Sovereignty Plus Development model acknowledges the Houthi government’s sovereignty while providing an incentive for the Saudi led coalition to end the conflict.

2.1 Findings: USSR’s model in Yemen

While many of the civil wars featured in the table on page six have ended purely through military victory, the North Yemen Civil War of 1960–1970 stands out. This war parallels the current conflict, which is Zaidi (Shia) tribesmen building a coalition against a perceived colonist foe. This conflict ended due to two factors: when regional allies of both parties withdrew due to war with Israel in 1967 and when the Soviet Union developed a similar Sovereignty plus Development Plan with the newly formed Republic of Yemen. Economic support came from the Soviet Union who viewed Yemen as an area for new opportunity due to its location near the Red Sea. The Soviet Union provided loans to Yemen to develop a new Harbor now in; currently, Houthi occupied Yemen, constructed schools, sent highly skilled technicians to knowledge transfer, and increased the state’s security with arms sales. USSR was motivated to provide this aid as a pathway to peace. The investments developed access to East Africa and disrupted the European hegemony of the Middle East (Badeeb The Saudi-Egyptian Conflict Over North Yemen, 1962–1970).

2.2 Findings: China’s Model in Liberia

China’s model recognizes that countries who have experienced colonialism or were oppressed by imperialism are sensitive about their sovereignty and push back on Western countries driven by power politics. China has worked with African countries like Liberia on Reconstruction and Development, focusing on infrastructure and essential services, economic revitalization, peace and security, and governance. Chinese aid is driven by a need to access resources and its lack of conditions to end corruption (Hwang and Black, Victimized State and Visionary Leader? Questioning China’s Approach to Human Security in Africa).

China has helped build Liberia an airport expressway that allowed Liberia to attract more foreign investment, constructed multiple government centres, and built new universities. The Liberian government now has access to the Bank of China’s $100 billion dollars earmarked for investment (Huaxia, Chinese-built projects become landmarks in Liberia cities) (Embassy of the People’s Republic of China The US Plot to Undermine China-Liberia and China-Africa Friendly Cooperation Dooms to Fail).

2.3 Findings: Chinese Investments are Split between both States

In 2012, China signed a deal to build three natural gas-fired power plants in the country, and two are under Houthi occupation. In 2013, China and Yemen expanded two container ports in the Republic of Yemen at a $508 million cost. Huawei has been operating in Yemen since 1999. China and the Republic of Yemen, have established several cooperative projects, such as the Chinese-Yemeni steel company Star, which is now in the occupied Houthi Territory (Staff, China to build power plants in Yemen, expand ports). China is in a position where their investments cut across both territories and are incentivized to find a pathway to quell the violence and instability for its future commercial goals.

2.4 Solution: Action Plan

Classical realist’s international framework would acknowledge that the Houthis state’s survival depends on its alliances with other states and its material capabilities (Lebow, 55). The ECFR, does not identify how building Houthi’s state security is paramount for removing uncertainty and developing autonomy. The ECFR excludes non-western countries and their approach to peace and does not identify that peace can be built from economic incentives not tied to democratization initiatives. China has unique leverage over all parties involved in the conflict. China sees the Middle East as a way to challenge America’s supremacy in global commerce. China is the most reliant state in the world for Saudi Arabian oil (Dana, China’s growing interest in Saudi Aramco is part of a long game). China is also Yemen’s biggest trading partner and has an outsized economic presence in the country. China seeks to revise the world’s trading order with the Belt and Road Initiative and Yemen’s post-war construction can play a significant role in establishing trade routes towards Europe (Chang, China and Yemen’s Forgotten War). China also has the relationship and economic leverage over Iran and, if harnessed, can reduce Iranian support of the Houthis. China is in a unique position to work with Iran, Saudi Arabia, The Republic of Yemen and the Houthis. Beijing is a partner, bank, mediator, and customer.

2.5 Conclusion

In the “Art of War,” Sun Tze wrote that a state should not destroy their enemies only to escape route. By putting a state in a situation where they are cornered, they will fight to the death because there is nothing else they can achieve (Tze, A quote from The Art Of War). The Houthis have no substantial partner to provide them with the leverage they need to achieve Shia autonomy through ECFR’s current strategy. The European Council of Relations drive for a one-state solution puts the Houthis in a position where their only option is to continue their military solution. The European Council on Foreign Relations paper does not provide a strategy for ending the conflict because it fails to identify a partner that the Houthis trust. ECFR does not recognize that the historical civil wars over geography is a constant conflict in Yemen and incorrectly calls for a one-state solution favouring the Republic of Yemen. A better path forward is for the international community to provide the space for a mutual ally of both nations to begin with their revisionist approach to post-war reconstruction. The ECFR should encourage the EU not to sabotage stability for a short-term Thucydides Trap and allow China to begin bilateral negotiations led by the Sovereignty Plus Development plan.

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MA. candidate for Arizona State University Centre for Future Warfare.