Yemen's Response to COVID-19: Part I

In Yemen, local actors, governance mechanisms and communities are all shaped by strong cultural roots and regionally nuanced socio-political dynamics. These systems face increasingly extreme threats and pressures, nonetheless they form part of a social fabric which gives direction to a way of life alongside a cyclical, internalised system of conflict. If a nationwide ceasefire cannot be reached, these local actors (whom have led in upholding these systems and ways of living) are likely to be as deeply embedded in an effective response or solution to COVID-19 in Yemen as the many conflict actors themselves are.

This is the first in a three-part series commissioned by PSRP, co-authored by Raiman Al-Hamdani (Researcher at ARK Group and Yemen Polling Centre) and Robert Wilson (Research Analyst at PSRP).


This first post starts the series by beginning to set out the possible challenges involved in garnering a response to COVID-19 in Yemen. Overall, the series attempts to examine the local realities necessarily involved in a potential response, by considering the contemporary and historical functions and capacities of local governance systems and the differing groups and sectors within Yemeni society living under them. If any response is to have a positive impact, by harnessing the varying capabilities of groups and sectors within Yemeni society, then understanding the reality of local power structures and the underlying culture of community subsistence is crucial. There is a potential for these systems and groups to support responses across Yemen; albeit possibly in vastly different ways. 

After a number of years of state absence, complex networks of actors have formed differing governance systems across different local spaces and governorates. In adapting these local governance systems, actors have displayed a clear ability to navigate extremely complex conflict conditions, which necessarily involve shifting and non-linear political and security affiliations. Imbued within this are varying contested political claims around these differing modalities of governance.

The first part of this series examines these governance systems and sets out the realities of how different areas throughout Yemen function, due to differing systems of authority and subsistence across areas with varying geographies and political-military agendas. This post goes on to focus on how governance systems impact everyday conditions for communities living in these different areas, and the implications this has for a collective response to COVID-19. The authors conclude that engaging with these powerful local networks, recognising local governance systems and understanding their differing functions (particularly in the places where they appear to be most effective) is likely to be central in navigating the circulation of resources to counter COVID-19.   

Governance Systems 

It seems part of building towards a more developed collective response in Yemen will involve information or resource sharing across governorate boundaries. As of March 2020, Yemen was reported to be divided across three substantively competing political-military entities: the Houthis; the southern separatist group known as the Southern Transitional Council (STC); and the internationally recognised Government. Building on this, as of July 2020 the International Crisis Group report has found Yemen to be divided into five areas based on territories of political-military control. 

The ICG definition of Yemen’s division considers coastal governorates such as Hadramawt as distinctive areas of control, as well as the more conventionally recognised actors of the Government, the STC, and the Houthis. In areas like Hadramawt, it can be seen that local authorities rule more autonomously. As a result, a more nuanced consideration of division in Yemen is more appropriate in assessing a COVID-19 response. This type of geographical division is a reminder of the reality that, while local authorities or groups may be loosely affiliated with Government, both function autonomously and would not necessarily support a recentralisation of power. Also, this division of five territories takes into account the presence of powerful non-government aligned armed factions, such as the Joint Resistance forces – led by the nephew of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh – whom may only buy into collective action based on anti-Houthi sentiment. 

As conflict and division across regions has deepened, varying forms of political determination which pull in different directions, have strengthened. As these inter-group realities will shape any long-term settlement in Yemen, they will also shape the immediate COVID-19 response in the country. Across any of these areas, political affiliations and competing governance narratives have undoubtedly impacted decision making, institutional function, and circulation of provisions at the local level. 

Southern Transitional Council (STC) Controlled Areas

Shortly after their takeover of Aden at the end of April 2020, the STC announced that it was following its historical approach as a first responder to other humanitarian crises such as dengue fever and malaria. Their newfound position of governance involved claims of harnessing vital health resources and already limited testing capacities. Eventually the STC closed several main hospitals in Aden, with the Government maintaining control of a few hospitals in the city of Aden itself. 

The group presented the closures as a coping mechanism to halt the risk of transmissions from admitting new COVID-19 cases to already strained hospitals. What is clear, however, is because Government controlled hospitals remained in Aden after the STC takeover, control of these hospitals and private health facilities have been points of tension as cases have increased. Even with a growing discontent among the population over the STC’s ability to manage the COVID-19 crisis, on 13 June 2020,  armed groups affiliated with the STC seized a convoy leaving Aden port carrying 64 billion riyals, printed for the Government controlled central bank. It was claimed that this act revolved around the need to seize public resources and counter Government corruption. 

In both pro-government and STC held areas which neighbour one another, competing governance narratives are intertwined with complex and non-static inter-group dynamics among the local groups whom provide security. These dynamics have impacted the circulation of resources. In the build up to the arrival of COVID-19, this has been particularly true in urban spaces across the Aden governorate, and particularly in the STC-held city of Aden. It is becoming increasingly clear that part of a response to COVID-19 will be ensured access to urban centres throughout Yemen. It is likely that the STC’s management of state institutions and governance from Aden will be shaped by the surrounding network of local conflict and security actors. Part of this may inherently involve a locally led effort to bridge some of the indifferences across political and security cleavages in local areas. For the right incentive, the ability of local groups to do this throughout the conflict has been clear.

Government Aligned Areas 

In less stable areas in the south, Government services have been limited. In Aden, the STC stronghold, the Government have so far converted a cancer treatment centre into a COVID-19 hospital, which is now run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The other main southern Government administered hospital is al-Jamhouria, however both are struggling to facilitate the needs of the growing population in Aden governorate which was a challenge even prior to COVID-19. 

Up until July 2020, in more stable Government aligned governorates like Marib, authorities have upheld a system of curfew in the city of Marib and continued with community education programmes about COVID-19. As an increasing number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) arrive in the area, health services and officials have stated that they have largely borne the cost of health equipment by self-financing, using their annual governorate budget. Much of the functionality in Marib so far described, does however hinge on networks of trust and informal alliances between groups who shore up a level of function and control. Importantly, these can shift quickly. As the definition around what local authority looks like differs from region to region, the nature of function undoubtedly shifts with this. Even where stability appears to exist, the local realities of politics and power in each area must be engaged with; particularly by external donors or states. 

Even with the level of stability that existed in Marib prior to COVID-19, the arrival of the pandemic and advances by the Houthis into areas surrounding the governorate may yet impact the current balance of the inter-group dynamics which currently hold Marib’s function in place. As of May 2020, aid workers and journalists reported that both the Government and the Houthis had placed restraints on humanitarian operations around Marib. It seems that this is now impacting the flow of resources into Marib city and the wider governorate, and placing further strain on the infrastructures and coping mechanisms of the governorate itself. In line with the Houthi advances, the government and a number of international donors have continued this freeze in aid provision to the stronghold area, which has been in place since March 2020.  

That the rhetoric around Marib as a haven of peace and good governance has been gaining traction, is also due in part to the concentration of pro-government aligned forces there. Even beneath this, however, there is a level of cooperation between the complex sets of socio-political narratives stemming from tribal chiefs and other local security providers. Viewing the options for a virus response must involve a security lens in a protracted conflict setting, however there is a need to go further than simply identifying the areas of Yemen where pro-government forces are strong because functionality does not run in a linear, top-down way. It is critical to understand the complexity of community networks underpinning these systems, as well as the local power dynamics and politics involved in the provisioning of financial and medical resources.

Houthi Controlled Areas

The Houthis recent ground gains in part account for their handling of COVID-19 in their areas of governance. In creating reported conditions of fear and misinformation around the arrival of the virus, it has been claimed that the Houthis have attempted to censor and intimidate people, including medical workers carrying out their work and the reporting new cases. This is in line with the governance style the Houthis have practiced throughout the conflict, with ongoing accusations of human rights abuses committed by the group. The arrival of COVID-19 creates the opportunity to seize on the uncertainty created by the virus for military and political gain. It has been reported that local health officials and international aid officials have been told not to discuss cases, with rhetoric of the Houthis requiring uninterrupted momentum on the frontlines increasingly being tied to fighters defecting due to mounting public fear of COVID-19. Much of this has been driven by the Houthis public claims that being on the front lines is safer than living in close-knit community spaces.   

Furthermore, it seems clear that in some areas, with the freedom to operate more autonomously and with resources at their disposal, local authorities have been capable of providing function, structure, and sub-economies in community spaces. Since the onset of conflict in 2015, however, in Houthi controlled areas such as Dhammar and further north to Hodeida, local authorities have largely remained powerless in an administrative and authoritative sense, lacking resources and financial support. Following governorate takeovers by the Houthis, stipends to local councils in in these areas were eventually frozen by mid-2016, and local authorities largely became reserved to the minimal role of assisting and utilising humanitarian programmes to ease crises for their communities. 

It is clear that these differing governance systems in Yemen, which have evolved in sustained and unstable conflict settings, each present differing challenges to the people living under them. Throughout conflict, control over areas has shifted, and groups have been focused primarily on conflict dynamics in their shaping of local governance and in finding ways to function. It seems logical that this should be considered as part of assessing the capacity of response to COVID-19. Communities likely have to adapt their normative ways of living in relation to these shifting local governance modalities, adapting to both conflict conditions and to the actions of the authorities in their areas. Even in pro-government areas considered more stable, there are growing civic narratives calling for state institutions to be more fundamentally accountable to the people. Discussions with women from the Association of Mothers of Abductees suggest that as well as ending conflict, reform of the police and the courts is a desire of many activists, even in Marib. 

Local Authorities

In the southern governorate of Hadramawt, even where there is a stronger pro-government security presence, the lack of a central authority providing services and only collecting revenues has led to push back from local governorate leaders. Since 2015, after ‘maintaining some semblance of social peace’, local authorities have worked with civil-society organisations to cement stability, and even removed Al-Qaeda from neighbouring Mukalla. These autonomous acts have led gradually to a self-administered extension of power by local authorities, going far beyond the original allowances set out by the central government under local authority laws. Local leaders have seized and managed financial resources, shaping agendas and development projects, which has continued to create tension with central government. 

These governorates also tend to be viewed as relatively stable, and so far local authorities have been reported to be faring better through their autonomously governed responses to COVID-19. In Hadramawt and al-Mahra, local authorities have imposed curfews, restricted inter-governorate travel, and coordinated health responses in line with conflict and COVID-19 developments. This is part of an ongoing level of self-determination among local governance actors in eastern Yemen, where tribes in al-Mahra have continued to evolve systems of conflict management, checking the Saudi Arabian presence in what is a highly contested region bordering Oman. 

This form of tribal governance, which is meshed with local authority rule, is founded on historical and unwritten codes of conduct, and mutual recognition between the tribes of Mahra. The acknowledgement is that their power and ability to maintain a strong presence for Mahri people – even in the presence of resourceful state actors – is substantial in bringing function to the governorate. Since January 2019, al-Mahrah has sustained fewer casualties and, as conflict continues to displace people, it is one of the places where an increasing number of Yemenis seek refuge.  

Part two of this series will be published on 29 July 2020, and will examine the history of community and health development in Yemen, considering the previous responses to health crises and the potential role of tribes as influential local actors in supporting a response to COVID-19. 

Read all PSRP Covid-19 research and reports.

Photo: © Raiman Al-Hamdani