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Same-Day Analysis

Disagreement over Yemeni draft constitution carries high risk of renewed fighting in capital, threatening state failure

Published: 16 January 2015

President Abdrabu Mansour Hadi on 11 January reiterated his rejection of an alternative two-region federal state demanded by southern separatists and the Zaidi-Shia 'Ansar Allah' Houthi Movement. Hadi has claimed that the proposal would lead to Yemen's fragmentation.

IHS perspective



The six-region division agreed as a basis for drafting the constitution in February 2014 has been widely rejected by rival armed political factions in Yemen.


Mass violent protests are likely in Sanaa if the six-region draft constitution is published.


There is a high risk of escalation, entailing fighting using heavy weapons in Sanaa, causing substantial damage to the airport and government buildings.

Following the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) that ended on 25 January 2014, a constitutional referendum was scheduled for September 2014, parliamentary elections were slated for April 2015, and a one-year extension for President Abdrabu Mansour Hadi was agreed by NDC participants upon its conclusion. The president received a copy of the draft constitution on 7 January 2015. Although it has not yet been published, leaks reported in Yemeni media indicate it retains the six-region solution. The Houthi representative on the constitution-drafting panel, Abdul Raham al-Mukhtar, refused to endorse the draft on 5 January; his movement had formally rejected the six-region solution on 26 December 2014.


A Houthi rebel carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher guards a checkpoint in Sanaa on 3 January.

The six-region federal division, endorsed by Hadi on 10 February 2014 as the basis for the draft constitution, has since been widely criticised in Yemen (see Yemen: 11 February 2014: Plans to realise Yemeni federation move forward despite rejection by Houthi and southern separatists). Southern separatists are instead seeking a two-region division between what used to be North Yemen (Yemen Arab Republic) and South Yemen (Republic of Yemen), probably as a precursor to secession. The Houthis have found common ground with the separatists and support a two-region state, calculating that this would allow them to dominate the north and consolidate territorial gains secured during 2014. Meanwhile, rural tribes are seeking a decentralised system of governorates (wilayats), potentially where energy revenue allocations are managed through a federal authority. Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh's political party, the General People's Congress (GPC), has rejected both the two and six-region divisions, instead siding with the tribes.

A new order

Hadi's capacity to mediate and build support for a Gulf-backed, six-region federal state was considerably weakened in 2014. The Houthis succeeded in seizing large swaths of territory with the support of local tribes in traditionally Zaidi-Shia areas (Saada, Amran, Dhamar, and parts of Sanaa province) and the backing of military forces still loyal to Saleh and his son Ahmed, Yemen's ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, who commanded the former elite Republican Guard. This alliance enabled the Houthis to expand their armed presence from their stronghold in Saada, on the border with Saudi Arabia, along the Red Sea coastline to Hodeidah province, and through Sanaa province towards Al-Bayda, where Sunni tribes and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are resisting their advance.

Despite the Houthi-Saleh alliance, both parties are mistrustful of each other, not least given Saleh's six military campaigns against the Houthis in 2004–2010. IHS assesses this to be a temporary alliance of convenience, given their common objective of defeating their powerful rival in the north, the Islamist Sunni Islah political party, its ally General Ali Mohsen, and army units loyal to Mohsen. The Mohsen faction's defeat in 2014 culminated in the Houthi takeover of the capital in September 2014 with the support of Saleh loyalist forces. This has fractured the Yemeni military, undermining Hadi's authority over the heavily armed Sunni tribes controlling territory across central and southern provinces, including Ma'rib, Shebwa, and Hadhramawt, where energy assets are concentrated.

Outlook and implications

In the probable event of the publication of a six-region draft constitution, albeit after some months' delay, there would be a severe risk of violent protests in the capital, Sanaa. The Houthis are also likely to resort to force, besieging government buildings and exchanging small-arms fire with security forces to put pressure on Hadi to revisit the draft and adopt a two-region solution. De-escalation in the wake of violent protests would probably require the main NDC participants' agreement to a new mechanism to revisit the proposed federal structure, with Hadi remaining in office as interim president.

In the event of sustained fighting involving rocket-propelled grenades, and rocket and heavy machine gun fire between the Houthis and military units loyal to Hadi, including the Presidential Protection Force, there would be a high risk of the Houthi-Saleh alliance breaking down and Saleh seizing the opportunity to neutralise the Houthis, his main rival power in the north. Saleh would probably draw on his tribal networks and residual support within the military to confront the Houthis in Sanaa and elsewhere. In addition to military and government buildings, Sanaa International Airport, access to which is still controlled by Houthi checkpoints, would be at severe risk of both targeted and collateral damage. However, should the Saleh/Houthi alliance hold, Hadi's forces would probably be defeated, with Hadi forced out or retained only as an interim figurehead.

A less probable scenario is that Hadi backs down and delays publication, pending formulation of a revised draft adopting the governorates solution favoured by the tribes and the GPC. In this event, although there would still be mass protests in Sanaa by Houthi supporters, the Houthis would have less capacity for sustained fighting in the capital with Hadi's forces and would risk eventually being driven out.

The least probable scenario would involve a delay pending adoption of a revised draft based on a two-region solution. This would be opposed by the Gulf states, carry a high risk of future southern secession, and constrain the predominantly northern Yemeni forces' capacity to respond to the growing AQAP threat in southern provinces. It would also potentially require the renegotiation of energy contracts with the new northern and southern regional governments.

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