This paper investigates the extent to which entrenched interests of stakeholder groups both maintain water use practice, and may be confronted. The focus is on the agricultural sectors of Yemen and Jordan, where water resource policymakers face resistance in their attempts to reduce water use to environmentally sustainable levels through implementation of water demand management (WDM) activities. Some farmers in both countries that have invested in irrigated production of high-value crops (such as qat and bananas) benefit from a political economy that encourages increased rather than reduced water consumption. The resultant over-exploitation of water resources affects groups in unequal measures. Stakeholder analysis demonstrates that the more ‘powerful’ groups (chiefly the large landowners and the political elites, as well as the ministries of irrigation over which they exert influence) are generally opposed to reform in water use, while the proponents of WDM (e.g. water resource managers, environmental ministries and NGOs, and the international donor community) are found to have minimal influence over water use policy and decisionmaking. Efforts and ideas attempted by this latter group to challenge the status quo are classified here as either (a) influencing or (b) challenging the power asymmetry, and the merits and limits of both approaches are discussed. The interpretation of evidence suggests current practice is likely to endure, but may be more effectively challenged if a long-term approach is taken with an awareness of opportunities generated by windows of opportunity and the participation of ‘overlap groups’.