The Rules of the Game: Unpacking Patronage Politics in Yemen

Article excerpt

This article examines the dynamics of autocracy in Yemen through the lens of elite bargaining and decision-making inside networks of patronage. It identifies the informal rules of inclusion, exclusion, rewards, and punishments that guide elite behavior and traces changing patterns of patronage distribution since 1994. In doing so, it provides insights into the survival of the Yemeni autocracy, the obstacles to reform, and potential opportunities to avert an impending crisis.

Much has been written recently in the press, government documents, and academic literature on the immediate security, socio-economic, and political crises in Yemen.1 As such, the purpose of this article is neither to examine in detail the specific challenges threatening the Yemeni regime, nor to predict what constellation of factors could overwhelm the central government and/or result in a widespread humanitarian crisis. Instead, it aims to take a step back from immediate destabilizing factors to explore the underlying organization of power in the country. More specifically, it will unpack the informal "rules of the game" that guide elite decision-making and bargaining within the domestic political context. In doing so, this article will provide insights into the survival of the Yemeni autocracy, the obstacles to meaningful reform, and potential opportunities to avert an impending crisis. It aims to contribute to the literature on the dynamics of autocracy and the study of informal institutions, while at the same time opening the black box of patronage politics for policymakers who engage the Yemeni regime on issues of political, economic, and security reform.

The Organization of Power and Informal Institutions

On paper, Yemen has an elected parliament and president, a multi-party system, an independent judiciary, and the framework for a democratically elected local government. In reality, however, these institutions do not produce or transfer political power. Instead, power and wealth are produced and transmitted through a highly informal, yet deeply patterned web of tribally- and regionally-based patronage relationships.

To understand the dynamics of the Yemeni autocracy, one must look beyond written laws and formal democratic institutions to the informal rules of the game that govern political behavior. In an attempt to operationalize the study of informal institutions, Gretchen Helmke and Steven Levitsky suggest that "at a minimum" scholars must answer three basic questions: "First, what are the actors' shared expectations about the actual constraints they face ... Second, what is the community to which the informal rules apply ... and third, how are informal rules enforced?"2 This article will loosely follow Helmke and Levitsky's framework. Drawing on extensive fieldwork,3 it will first identify the relevant community to which the informal rules of patronage politics apply. It will then identify actors' shared expectations of the rules that guide political behavior. Outlining these "rules of the game" will clarify what political actions are acceptable and which are considered crossing "red lines" in the Yemeni context. The discussion of red lines will highlight the extent to which demanding political or economic reforms, especially those that encourage institutional formalization and democratic accountability, are a radical departure from the status quo. Next, it will address the consequences or punishments associated with breaking the rules of the game. These punishments, or enforcement mechanisms, are often "subtle, hidden, or even illegal."4 Finally, the article will conclude with a brief analysis of the changing patterns of patronage inclusion and exclusion since President 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih consolidated power throughout Yemen after the 1994 civil war.

To some extent, this article is an exercise in simplification. The informal institution of patronage politics is a product of a complex game of elite bargaining between Salih and his clients. …


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