“The Houthis were advancing and no one was paying attention,” explained Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst and opposition activist, by phone.
Yemen’s central government has never been strong or exercised full control over the country. Sheikhs, or tribal leaders, fill that void, as they’ve done for centuries, by arbitrating disputes, providing essential services like water, and enforcing customary law. Saleh had kept some semblance of control over the nation by pitting the sheikhs who could threaten his authority against one another, while making alliances with local leaders through an intricate patronage system. For decades, Saleh exhibited a genius for staying in power, but his style of rule never addressed Yemen’s fundamental problems, including poverty, conflicts over water resources, and a lack of basic services and education. He ignited resentment that flared into violence. Even before the Arab Spring, Western writers wondered whether Yemen was “the next Afghanistan” and pronounced it “on the brink of chaos.”