When the Chinese revolutionary leader, Zhou Enlai, was asked about the impact of the French Revolution of 1789, he allegedly quipped “it is too soon to say.” As Yemen and the Middle East experience major shifts in early 2011 it is important to examine the underlying drivers of these changes. This paper looks behind the scenes at the Yemeni regime’s opaque internal politics and at the nature of the neopatrimonial system that it has entrenched over the past 32 years. Yemen is at a critical juncture, and the calculations and strategies of the country’s key actors may shift rapidly and on the basis of unpredictable factors, but it is important to keep in mind that deeply patrimonial systems are not transformed overnight.
This paper offers an analysis of that system and the dynamics that have brought Yemen to this critical juncture. It asks why the leaders and elites of some countries are so ineffective in addressing serious threats to the viability of their states and to the wellbeing of their citizens? Is failure primarily attributable to individual leaders – that is, to agency – or are leaders and elites constrained by structural factors beyond their control? How important are external actors?
Based on data gathered from political actors within Yemen in 2010, interviews with donors and local actors, government records, media reports, and observations made in previous field research, this analytical study examines the relations between the structures and agents that constitute the Yemeni polity. The paper examines the roles of the key players in Yemen’s formal and informal elites, with a particular focus on the dynamics of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s secretive inner circle.
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