The FINANCIAL — As the warring parties in Yemen’s conflict begin United Nations-brokered peace talks in Geneva, Gallup surveys suggest that Houthi rebels took advantage of a security vacuum that opened before the outbreak of the current crisis. The percentage of Yemenis saying they feel safe walking alone at night in the city or area where they live fell to 57% in June 2014 — the lowest level Gallup has recorded in the past eight years.
Shortly after this decline in Yemenis’ feelings of safety, the Houthis seized control of much of the capital of Sanaa in September 2014. That offensive culminated in the formal overthrow in early 2015 of the government led by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Hadi became president in February 2012 following Yemen’s popular Arab Spring uprising that ended the 33-year rule of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The drop in Yemenis’ feelings of safety followed a decline in their confidence in their local police. Before the popular uprising that began in January 2011, roughly half of Yemenis consistently said they had confidence in their local police force. That rate declined sharply as the uprising wore on with less than one-third expressing confidence in the police during any of the three World Poll surveys following Saleh’s ouster.
Unlike the police, the military in Yemen managed to maintain the public’s confidence throughout the 2011 uprising. However, confidence in the military dropped sharply in 2013 to 53%. Confidence rebounded somewhat in 2014, but it remains below the historical average observed from 2007 to 2012. While newer data are not yet available, Yemenis’ confidence in the military has likely eroded further following the Saudi-led intervention aimed at restoring Hadi to the presidency.
Yemenis’ declining perceptions of safety and weakening confidence in security forces alone could not have predicted the Houthis’ rapid overthrow of the Hadi government earlier this year. However, these findings do suggest the risk for such a conflict had been growing for some time. The Saudi-led intervention and protracted fighting following the Houthi expansion likely has been detrimental to Yemenis’ perceptions of security, and whatever the results of the Geneva talks may be, it will likely take some time to restore public confidence in the country’s battered security forces. Restoring Yemenis’ confidence in personal safety and their country’s security forces presents a major obstacle to both resolving the current internal conflict and to addressing the challenge of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — the group that could prove to be the biggest beneficiary of the civil war in Yemen.