By Farea Al-Muslimi May 19, 2017
Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia and ten other countries have been conducting a bloody airstrike campaign against the Houthi rebel forces in Yemen. The campaign, meant to counter what Saudis call the “Iranian Threat” in the Arabian Peninsula, had received limited support from the Obama Administration, but Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners are now operating with a freer hand from the Trump White House.
One of the main U.S. justifications for arming and supporting the Saudi war in Yemen is the claim that the Houthis—a Yemeni Zaydi Shia-led rebel group—are Iranian proxies, seeking to overthrow the government of Yemen and bring it under Iranian influence. The Houthis and Iran, on the other hand, deny a close relationship and downplay the levels of support the rebels receive from Tehran.
As a matter of fact, however, both sides are incorrect—and the truth is somewhere in the middle. The Houthis didn’t emerge due to Iranian support, even if they got it later on their rise to power. Rather, they originated as a theological movement in the early 1990s. They became violent in 2004 when Houthi supporters protested in mosques with their famous slogan “Death to America,” angering then-Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who sent government troops to try and curb supporters. Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the founder of the Houthis, was killed as a result, sparking a six-year war.
And while there is no doubt that the Houthis are the biggest threat to the idea of the republic in Yemen, that is not due to Iran’s role. Iran’s support to the Houthis in Yemen is very small compared to that of Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon. It’s not that Iran’s support isn’t a destructive force—it is—but it is not the main or only one. The weapons and business Houthis get via the black market from the Yemeni government, for example, are worth more than the funding they get from Iran. Even countries like Oman and Russia currently have more direct leverage over the Houthis than Iran does.
But it’s important to note that the Saudi war didn’t make the relationship between the Houthis and Iran weaker. Rather, the war made the relationship more essential.
Old and New Claims
In mid-July of 2016, Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi departed from his residence in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and visited the Yemeni governorate of Marib for a few hours before returning to Riyadh. During this rare visit by the Yemeni president from exile to one of his governorates, and in a brief speech to a crowd of his statesmen—including his deputy Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Iran’s arch-foe and the sectarian antithesis to Iran’s allies in Yemen—Hadi said that he shall not allow Iran to establish a “Persian” state in Yemen.1He also reiterated his promise to raise the flag of the Republic of Yemen in Maran, the Houthi leader’s stronghold in Saada governorate. This implied a direct suggestion that Saada had fallen out of the authority of the Republic of Yemen, or that it has a leaning that is not republican—which echoes another charge that Ansar Allah (or the Houthis) are but an extension of the former Yemeni monarchy, or in other words, that the group is ideologically linked to Iran. Before and after this, President Hadi and almost all his officials, in addition to many Gulf officials, have repeatedly stated that the war in Yemen is effectively a war against Iran.
On several other occasions, President Hadi repeatedly expressed his concern of Iranian expansionism in Yemen to his visiting delegations, especially those from the Gulf and the West, even at a time when he still resided in Sanaa. Hadi went as far as to tell visiting U.S. Senator John McCain in 2013 that he feared Iran more than al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—America’s enemy and its foremost priority in Yemen.2 This may have been President Hadi’s own speculation of his visitor’s position on Iran. Even then, however, President Hadi himself had a vital, albeit concealed, connection with Tehran.
Many analyses have been written and official statements made concerning Iran’s ambitions in Yemen, which it especially pursued through its relationship with its now-vigorous ally, the Houthis (Ansar Allah).3 Following their coup d’etat and takeover of power in Sanaa in January 2015, as well as their activation of a revolutionary committee in its wake, a surprising deal was struck between the group and Iran which further perpetuated these assumptions.4The deal initiated nearly fourteen weekly airline flights between Sanaa and Tehran.5 Abdulmalik Al-Houthi, the Houthis’ current leader (and brother of the late Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi), announced that Saada airport, adjacent to the Saudi border, would be rehabilitated so that it can receive direct flights from Tehran. Consequently, Iran Air immediately began a series of flights to and from Sanaa. What was peculiar about this agreement is that Yemen, which has more than two million workers in Saudi Arabia,6 does not maintain this frequency of flights with Saudi Arabia, let alone the handful of a few hundred—or few thousand at most7—Yemenis residing in Tehran.
This marked a shift in Iran’s role from being a hidden marginal ally into a power at the forefront. That influence not only manifested in Iran’s alliance with a non-state group (the Houthis), but also in an alliance with the Yemeni state itself, which by that point, the Houthis had controlled by armed force. The number of unjustified routine flights raised many eyebrows regarding the nature of such flights and the content of their cargo, on either of their back-and-forth journeys between Sanaa and Tehran. The content and cargo of these planes were never announced to public—not even the type of passengers they were carrying.
By early March 2015, following the inauguration of these regular flights—and less than a week before the launching of Saudi intervention in Yemen—one airplane was boarded by a high-ranking delegation of Houthi and Yemeni officials en route to Tehran for a long visit, in search of financial support for the newly imposed regime in Sanaa.8 The delegation returned with many Iranian pledges of support, most of which have come to no fruition, as echoed by several delegation members later on. It became clear, more so than at any time past, that Iran prefers to instrumentalize the Houthis and their recent advancement, rather than deal with them on an equal footing as a peer or a strategic ally—as is the case for the Iranian government’s relations with Hezbollah, for instance.
In any case, this controversy has recently and extensively resurfaced, especially after Saudi Arabia entered the war in Yemen over two years ago, to defeat what the Saudi government described as the growing Iranian influence in Yemen at the expense of its own historical influence.9 A few days prior to this campaign, the Houthis’ and Saleh’s forces performed an ill-advised series of military exercises within proximity of the Saudi border. This marked a clear and outright challenge by a new, unruly force that is capable of anything in order to legitimize its novel presence. This military action also coincided with a sudden and dramatic succession and ensuing shift within the House of Saud, which did not previously engage in military intervention. The declared Saudi goal with which it justified its intervention was a request by Hadi to reinstate his authority.
In either the old and the renewed discussions of this issue, the reality is muddled between two perspectives—both of which lack accuracy. One renders the Houthis as fateful allies and structural successors of Iran, while the other categorically opts out of recognizing any relationship between the two actors. Indeed, the truth lies at an ambiguous juncture in the middle of these two extremes. To understand these intertwined relations, one cannot but pay attention to each in a set of interrelated elements or factors.
Not Ally or Proxy but Cheap Tool
There is indeed a direct relationship between the Houthis and Tehran: financial, media, and political support for the Houthis from Tehran. To a certain point, Tehran provides the Houthis with military training support, as well. This assistance has been facilitated by advisors of the first degree, close the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, who has coordinated support, training and funding between the two sides. However, the factors which have led to the emergence and perseverance of the Houthis are local rather than external, in the sense that the vitality of maintaining this rapport with Iran is not as fateful as President Hadi’s relationship with Riyadh, for instance. While the Houthis could withstand an extended hold over power without Iranian intervention, President Hadi’s endeavor to reclaim power would not likely survive even a few days if he were to be abandoned by Saudi Arabia. This is partly due to the fact that the real challenge facing the Houthis in Yemen is the Yemeni public, rather than Saudi Arabia or the forces associated with Saudi Arabia, whose relevance is secondary, not paramount.
The limitations of any Iranian military support can also be attributed to the simpler fact that Yemen, which is saturated with arms and fighters (in addition to Saleh’s army and weapons arsenal, which has recently openly aligned itself with the Houthis), undermines the urgency for more foreign weapons or fighters. Even the limited number of advisers who were based in Yemen at the beginning of the war (less than one hundred at a given time) were then gradually deported by the Houthis as part of their launching negotiations (which later came to a halt, both the negotiations and the rest of the deportations) with Saudi Arabia earlier last year. According to multiple diplomatic sources,10 these agreements were briefly followed by an intermittent ceasefire along the borders. However, Reuters later reported that sophisticated weaponry had reached the Houthis through Oman—which was categorically denied by the Omanis.11 The Houthis and their allies may also benefit from Iran’s military expertise more than material aid and weaponry, which are subject to a tight embargo enforced upon Yemeni ports by American and Egyptian naval vessels. In fact, the arms smuggled to the Houthis and Saleh by hidden allies in the Legitimacy Front, and the resources of the “legitimate government,” according to different and well-informed leadership sources in the Houthi-Saleh alliance and the exile government, are far greater than those arriving from Iran. The Legitimacy Front is comprised of all groups fighting against the Houthis.
While the Iranian support to Houthis is clearly limited, it is still essential for the Houthis because at this point, they do not have any other public ally. Furthermore, the Iranian support provides the Houthis with skills they are not good at, such as strategic planning, politics, and some specific military specialities in dealing with complicated and strategic weapons.
Iran Was Surprised, Too
In any case, many Iranian officials used to dealing under the table were surprised, as the rest of the world was, by the sudden Houthi takeover of Sanaa in September 2014.12 Many argue that the relationship between Saleh and Iran is in many ways more consequential than the Houthis’ alliance with Iran, and this has agitated the Saudis far more than the Houthi-Tehran connection.
As previously alluded to, in reality, states such as Russia and especially Oman have a more direct leverage over the Houthis. Much of the Houthis’ rapport with Iran stems from their ignorance of politics rather than their eagerness to strike an actual deal with the Iranians. This does not negate the fact that Iran is the group’s model to be emulated in public discourse—particularly its hostility toward America and Israel echoed in the motto of Houthi followers (which is borrowed from the Khomeini revolutionary discourse of the late 1970s).13 Nor does it deny the fact that prominent leaders of the group have resided in Iran for intermittent and sporadic periods of time, especially before the publicized emergence of their movement; as many of the Houthi leaders still own property and manage investments in Iran.
The above facts notwithstanding, those who managed to deter the Houthis from forming a government after the resignation of Khaled Bahah’s government in January 2015 were the Russians, not the Iranians. Russia is also the state that has managed to dissuade the Houthis from attempting to form a unilateral government after their political council appointed Abdel-Aziz bin Habtour as prime minister for a government to be formed later. They came to agreement for several months, before retracting their decision and moving towards forming the government.14
To Iran, the Houthis have not, in fact been much of strategic allies, but they could rather be perceived as the least costly, yet the closest, middle finger that could be raised against Saudi Arabia from its own backyard. It is true that the group is Iran’s strongest ally in Yemen, but the amount of Iranian money spent on the Houthis is less than is spent on one aligned Lebanese political leader, for example.
Moreover, and unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran has nothing to lose in Yemen; Iran views Yemen as a low-cost environment to enact attrition against Saudi Arabia. As a Western official formulated it: the Iranians throw a dollar at Yemen, knowing full well that Saudi Arabia would in turn spend 2 million, which means it is a winning battle for Iran according to this standard.15
Iran has a broad suite of interests in the Arabian peninsula, most of them focused on Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Yemen is a secondary interest for Tehran. For instance, Iran had a much stronger reaction when Saudi Arabia executed Shia Saudi cleric Nimr al-Nimr in January 2016 than it had to any aspect of the entire Saudi intervention in Yemen.16 In the international arena, Iran has worked toward saving al-Nimr more than anything it has concretely provided for the Houthis—and has instead settled for referencing the war in Yemen whenever it deemed necessary to score points against Saudi Arabia, and whenever it wished to showcase its sectarian presence in the region.
A Troubled Partnership
The relationship between the Houthis and the Iranians is not entirely harmonious. Iran does not seem to appreciate a moderate Arab Shiism such as Zaydism, which is beyond its control and religious authority. The disparity between Yemen’s Zaydis and Iran’s Twelver Shiites is indeed fundamental. Iran, in fact, views the Zaydi component of the Houthi doctrine as dangerous, and is working toward empowering and abetting individuals and blocs within the Houthi group that are more adherent to its own doctrine and more detached from to the true legacy of Yemeni Zaydis. This falls in line with multiple Iranian ventures of laying the foundation for a religious political culture closely related to the principles of imamate and legitimate rule, to which Yemeni Zaydis do not adhere as much—with the exception of two minor Zaydi sects, the Kisaa’is and the Jardoudis. This is an incubation spawning process sponsored by Tehran to its only ally in Yemen. Most Houthis are more concerned about the future of their relationship with Saudi Arabia—despite the ongoing conflict—than about their alliance with Iran. This is due to their awareness of the inevitability of geographic, historical, and even religious realities present between Yemen and Saudi Arabia—sectarian disparity with the regime in Saudi Arabia notwithstanding.
Perhaps the most remarkable irony which dispels all of these preconceived notions about Yemen’s relationship with Iran is that Iran supported the southern leader Ali Salem al Beidh before the two sides parted ways as Houthis assumed authority. However, the meager numbers of Southern Movement troops trained by Iran were in fact the same units that have defeated the Houthi forces, expelling them from Dhale (south of Yemen) in the middle of 2015.17
Additionally, despite his constant use of publicized sectarian discourse when addressing Iran, President Hadi has had important connections with Iran during the past few years, which have gone to the extent of exchanging congratulations (with the Supreme Leader of the Iranian Revolution Khamenei, through various envoys between) at a time when Sanaa was falling to the Houthis in September 2014. This connection was not truly laid to rest until the increasing upsurge of dependence by Saleh and the Houthis upon Iran, while Saudi Arabia maintained its alliance with Hadi as a pretext for its later intervention in Yemen. At the time, Iran had chosen the stronger bet, since Saleh and the Houthis both enjoyed more popular support and deeper connections within the army and state institutions. Iran has often strengthened its relationship with the Houthis through regional mediators, such as Hezbollah, which is another sign of the lack of clear dependence on them in a regional gamble. Similar to what the United States—under both the Obama and Trump administrations—did by outsourcing Yemen to Saudi, Iran has outsourced Yemen and the Houthis to Hezbollah.
Since its establishment, Hezbollah has been the main “contractor” for Iran’s work and influence in Yemen. It remains the contact point between the two countries, the one running trainings and “building capacity” for the Houthis, and the one directly running the Yemen file for Iran.
The current U.S. administration under President Trump, like Saudi Arabia and its other allies in the Yemen war, often inflates Iran’s relationship with the Houthis and overstate the supposedly exclusive nature of the Houthis allegiance to Iran. At the same time, the Houthi attempt to disclaim any notion of such a relationship is also wildly inaccurate.
More importantly, and despite the White House statement18 earlier this year that Houthis are Iran’s hands, it is important to realize that Iran’s role in Yemen is basically destructive, as everywhere in the region. However, the Houthis are also a destructive group, with and without Iran.
Farea Al-Muslimi is chairman and co-founder of the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies, and a non-resident fellow at both the Carnegie Middle East Center and the Middle East Institute.
This article was originally published by The Century Foundation.
- Compiled from agencies, “Yemen’s Hadi visits Marib, vows to defeat Houthis,” Anadolu Agency, July 10, 2016, http://aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/yemen-s-hadi-visits-marib-vows-to-defeat-houthis/605233 and “Hadi from Ma’rib: I will not allow the Houthis to establish a Persian state,” RT, July 10, 2016, https://arabic.rt.com/news/831644-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B1%D8%A6%D9%8A%D8%B3-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%85%D9%86%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D9%88%D8%AB%D9%8A%D9%88%D9%86-%D9%85%D8%A3%D8%B1%D8%A8/
- Author Interview with John McCain, November 2013.
- “Riyadh Yaseen: ‘Bombing necessary despite casualties,’” Al Jazeera, May 2, 2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/talktojazeera/2015/05/riyadh-yaseen-bombing-civilian-casualties-150502074745709.html
- Maged al-Madhaji, “How Yemen’s Post-2011 Transitional Phase Ended in War,” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, May 19, 2016, https://sanaacenter.org/files/how_yemens_post_2011_transitional_phase_ended_in_war_en.pdf
- Compiled from agencies, “First direct flight from Iran to Yemen arrives,” Al Jazeera, March 1, 2015, http://www.aljazeera.net/news/arabic/2015/3/1/%D9%88%D8%B5%D9%88%D9%84-%D8%A3%D9%88%D9%84-%D8%B1%D8%AD%D9%84%D8%A9-%D8%AC%D9%88%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%85%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B4%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%A5%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%A5%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%85%D9%86
- “Saudi Deports Thousands of Yemenis, Remittances to Suffer – Official,” Reuters, April 1, 2013, http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-yemen-saudi-expatriates-idUKBRE9300AH20130401
- This estimation is based on various interviews the author has conducted.
- “Yemeni delegate arrives in Tehran to discuss political developments,” Middle East Press, March 2, 2015, http://middleeastpress.com/arabic/%D9%88%D9%81%D8%AF-%D9%8A%D9%85%D9%86%D9%8A-%D9%8A%D8%B5%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%B7%D9%87%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%84%D9%84%D8%A8%D8%AD%D8%AB-%D8%B9%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D8%B7%D9%88%D8%B1%D8%A7/
- “Saudi King Replaces Crown Prince in Cabinet Reshuffle,” Al Jazeera, April 29, 2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/04/saudi-king-salman-replaces-crown-prince-cabinet-reshuffle-150429020021160.html
- Interviews with different UN Security Council diplomats, February 2016.
- Yara Bayoumy and Phil Stewart, “Exclusive – Officials: Iran increases arms supplies to Houthis through Oman,” Reuters Arabic, October 20, 2016, http://ara.reuters.com/article/topNews/idARAKCN12K149
- Yara Bayoumy and Mohammed Ghobari, “Iranian Support Seen Crucial for Yemen’s Houthis,” Reuters, December 15, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-houthis-iran-insight-idUSKBN0JT17A20141215
- Farea al-Muslimi, “Yemen’s Houthis Proxy, Not Ally for Iran,” Al-Monitor, November 19, 2014, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/11/yemen-houthis-differences-hezbollah-lebanon.html
- Zakaria al-Kamali, “Ould Cheikh Ahmed: UN Special Envoy to Yemen (profile),” Anadolu Agency, February 12, 2016, http://aa.com.tr/ar/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D9%88%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A8%D9%8A%D8%A9/%D9%88%D9%84%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B4%D9%8A%D8%AE-%D8%A3%D8%AD%D9%85%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%A8%D8%B9%D9%88%D8%AB-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D9%85%D9%85%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D8%A7%D8%A6%D9%87-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D9%88%D9%81%D8%A7%D9%8A%D9%84-/697639
- Author interview with a Security Council diplomat, October 2016.
- “Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr: Saudi Arabia Executes Top Shia Cleric,” BBC, January 2, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35213244.
- Farea Al-Muslimi, “The Southern Question: Yemen’s War Inside the War,” Carnegie Middle East Center, July 8, 2015,
- “Statement by the National Security Advisor,” The White House, February 1, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/02/01/statement-national-security-advisor.
In April, the Saudi-led military coalition’s proposed assault on the rebel-held Red Sea port of Hudaydah, and the likely humanitarian catastrophe it would precipitate, was again the focus of most international policy discussions regarding Yemen. By month’s end, however, widespread opposition to the operation within the US, at the UN, within the humanitarian community and elsewhere appeared to gain purchase with both the Saudi-led coalition and American policy makers contemplating United States military support for the action, with these latter two groups apparently re-evaluating Saudi-led coalition plans for an offensive and exploring political alternatives to the attack.
On the ground, tensions amongst armed groups and political factions supporting the internationally recognized government of Yemen repeatedly arose. The most notable instances were in the governorates of Aden and Hadramawt. In Aden, “Security Belt” forces back by the United Arab Emirates were involved in an armed standoff with forces loyal to President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, eventually leading Hadi to sack both the head of the Security Belt and the governor of Aden. In Hadramawt, local power brokers seeking greater autonomy from the central government held the “Hadramawt Inclusive Conference”, under the implicit patronage of the UAE.
The World Food Program (WFP) announced it was scaling up operations in Yemen to help address the country’s food crisis – 17 million people are in need of food assistance in Yemen, with 7 million of these facing a food security emergency. WFP officials stressed, however, that the success of such operations was dependent “immediate sufficient resources from donors.” To spur funding efforts, the governments of Sweden and Switzerland co-chaired with the UN the “High Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Response in Yemen” in Geneva on April 25, with pledges amounting to $1.1 billion – more than half the UN’s humanitarian appeal for Yemen for 2017. While the event was deemed a success, UN officials have emphasized that donors must quickly convert their pledges into cash deposits if a famine this summer is to be averted.
Despite increased US counter terrorism activity and drone strikes in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remained active last month, carrying out assassinations and attacks against both Houthi rebels and allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, as well as UAE-back pro-government forces. On the frontlines, however, despite an intensification of the conflict in various areas, no party made substantial territorial gains.
In economic and financial developments, the new Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) headquarters in Aden was connected - six months after the previous headquarters in Sana'a was disconnected - to the SWIFT network for international money transfers; the connection will remain inoperable, however, until the necessary CBY staff return from Dubai, where they are undergoing training to operate the SWIFT connection (which would allow the CBY to access international support funds). In Sana’a, the Houthi-Saleh authorities initiated a food voucher system for public servants, in an attempt to compensate for their inability to pay the almost one million government workers living in areas under Houthi-Saleh control who have not received a paycheck since September 2016. Meanwhile, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) announced that livestock protection, through vaccinations and other treatments, was a key emergency response priority for 2017, given plummeting livestock numbers amongst the 1.5 million Yemeni households dependant on agriculture.
Meanwhile, reports of human rights violations and war crimes by all belligerent parties to the Yemeni conflict continued unabated, among them being: the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights stated last month that the Saudi-led coalition’s blockade of the Yemen “involves grave breaches of the most basic norms of human rights law, as well as of the law of armed conflict”; meanwhile in Sana’a, a Houthi-Saleh security court sentenced 62-year-old journalist Yahya al-Jubaihi to death for allegedly spying for the Saudi-led coalition, in a closed-door court trial in which al-Jubaihi was denied regular access to a lawyer.
The Saudi-led coalition attack on Hudaydah Port
The prospect of a Saudi-led coalition attack on Hudaydah City and the likely humanitarian fallout have dominated internationally policy discussions on Yemen for a second month in a row, with dozens of NGOs, UN agencies and diplomats, politicians in various countries and bi-partisan groups in the US congress warning that such an attack would have catastrophic consequences for millions of Yemenis already on the brink of famine.
Yemen is massively import-dependant – before the current crisis the country imported up to 90% of the food Yemenis eat – and Hudaydah port is the entry-point for between 70-80% of current humanitarian deliveries and an even greater share of commercial imports; Hudaydah has been characterized as the life-line that is essentially feeding most of a country in which two-thirds of the population is already food insecure.
In the beginning of 2017, troops fighting on behalf of the internationally recognized government of Yemen, backed by the Saudi-led military coalition, launched Operation Golden Spear along the country’s west coast, in an attempt to dislodge the Houthi rebels and allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh from access to the Red Sea. After taking the coastal town of Mokha the coalition announced its intention to press on to Hudaydah, just less than 200 kilometers to the north. In the face of stiff military resistance and the Houthi-Saleh forces’ heavy use of landmines, however, government ground troops have made little headway north of Mokha.
In seeking to gain military leverage for the assault on Hudaydah, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – the second largest coalition partner – have been lobbying the Trump administration in Washington for direct US military assistance, such as US Special Forces, in attacking Hudaydah. US officials expressed reservations about deploying troops to directly participate in Hudaydah offensive, with discussions of potential support focused on intelligence and logistics support.
The Yemeni government and the coalition claim that the port has provided a major sources of revenues and arms smuggling for Houthi-Saleh forces, and that taking Hudaydah would force them back into peace talks. Humanitarian deliveries, the coalition has claimed, can be rerouted to the southern port of Aden, held by the internationally recognized government, the newly refurbished Mokha port, and elsewhere.
Members of the US defence establishment, the White House administration and various members of the US Congress have come out in favour of American support for the attack, and recent indications have pointed to deepening ties between the Trump administration and the Saudi royal family – such as Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s visit in March to the White House, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s mid-April trip to Riyadh, and the announcements at the beginning of May of tens of billions in new US-Saudi arms deals, and that President Trump’s first official foreign visit will be to Saudi Arabia this month.
Opposition to the attack on Hudaydah
On April 18, at a Yemen Sanctions Committee meeting, Security Council member states were briefed on the situation in Hudaydah by the Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen Jamie McGoldrick, Coordinator of the Panel of Experts Ahmed Himmiche, and Country Director of the World Food Programme Stephen Anderson. Discussions revolved around the increased inspection delays the coalition was enforcing on cargo entering the port, Hudaydah’s limited capacity to offload cargo due to coalition airstrikes that have destroy cranes, as well as poor management at the port. In spite of this, panel members emphasised that there is no effective substitute to Hudaydah port for imports into Yemen and distribution to the country’s largest population centers.
George Khoury, Head of OCHA Yemen, reiterated this point later in April, stating that even at a reduced capacity: “there is no viable substitute for Al Hudaydah Port – both in terms of location and infrastructure. Any alterations to the commercial and humanitarian imports coming through this port would have grave consequences on the country at a time when it faces a severe food, health, and nutrition crisis… Steering the humanitarian response away from Al Hudaydah Port, even temporarily, is inconceivable, particularly in a war torn country where infrastructure and security impede movement.”
Even the prospect of an attack on the port is negatively impacting the humanitarian situation, both in terms of discouraging commercial cargo traffic, as well as Houthi-Saleh forces implementing increasingly oppressive security measure in anticipation of an attack. Reports from Hudaydah last month described large-scale arbitrary arrests in the city. Aid agencies increasingly are being perceived as security threats and are facing restrictions on their freedom to move and distribute aid.
At an April 13 meeting at the US State Department’s headquarters, officials from the department and the Pentagon told aid agencies that the highest levels of the US government were debating the humanitarian considerations related to a possible Hudaydah operation. In trying to ease concerns related to the attack, a Pentagon official told the aid groups that the operation would be “clean”, and that the port could be secured within four to six weeks; it was unclear what the “four to six week” projection based upon, with another Pentagon official later saying that it was unrealistic and the operation could take months. Notably, before reaching Hudaydah, government ground troops would have to pass through several cities in which Houthi-Saleh forces are heavily entrenched, with the inability of government forces to progress north of Mokha as yet likely telling of the quagmire further attempts to progress up the coast would entail.
On April 10 a letter that had been circulating in the US Congress for several weeks garnering bipartisan support was sent to the White House with the signatures of 55 senators, demanding that President Trump seek congressional approval for any escalation in US military involvement in the Yemen war. The letter voiced concern regarding whether such involvement would be in America’s interest, citing such things as the prospect of famine in Yemen following an attack on Hudaydah, and that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has become a “de facto” ally of pro-government forces.
On April 27, another bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to Saudi Ambassador Khalid bin Salman calling on his government to refrain from attacking Hudaydah, to reform the inspection mechanism for ships to facilitate quicker delivery of humanitarian and commercial supplies, and allow new cranes to be supplied at Hudaydah to make up for lost offloading capacity.
Less than a week later, on May 2, senate members issued a letter to US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stating: “We are committed to using our Constitutional authority to assert greater oversight over US involvement in the conflict… which has never been authorized by Congress.” The letter then threatened legislation to prohibit American support for an assault on Hudaydah if Mattis failed to consult congress on the details of possible US involvement.
As of the beginning of May, opposition to the attack seemed to have garnered some traction, with observers noting that the Saudi-led coalition appeared to be exploring political alternatives to a military assault on Hudaydah; the US administration still had made no public comment on regarding its prospective role regarding an assault on Hudaydah.
Developments on the ground
Tension within pro-Hadi forces in Aden
Continuing a trend that has become apparent since the beginning of 2017, throughout April tensions between various groups and armed factions fighting on behalf of the internationally recognized government repeatedly arose; this friction has primarily occurred between forces backed by the UAE and those loyal to President Hadi.
In Aden, for instance, a flashpoint for tensions in April was the strategic Al-Alam checkpoint, the eastern gateway of Aden that connects the city with the Abyan governorate and Hadi’s tribal support base there. It is the only entrance to Aden not controlled by the UAE-back Hezam al-Amni, or “Security Belt” forces, which were, until the end of April, headed by the prominent UAE-allied Salafi leader Hani bin Braik (see more below). Hadi had sent the Presidential Guard to seize control of the Al-Alam checkpoint from the Security Belt in February, following allegations that AQAP had used it to smuggle weapons into Aden. The checkpoint has been a source of tension between the two groups since, and on April 15 Al-Alam checkpoint was closed following an armed standoff between the two groups – a standoff that persisted through to the end of April. On April 17, a “Joint Security Center” was established in an effort to facilitate communication and coordination between the various security forces operating in Aden, though the center had, as April ended, achieved little apparent impact.
In the last week of April UAE-allied forces, which control the Aden airport, then prevented the head of the Presidential Guard, the newly appointed Brigadier General Mehran al-Qubati, from re-entering the country after returning from a trip to Cairo; the standoff was finally resolved when Saudi Arabia agreed to fly al-Qubati out of Aden airport to Riyadh.
In apparent retaliation two days later, on April 28, President Hadi issued a decree dismissing both Hani Bin Braik (who was also a Minister of State in the government) and Aidarus al-Zubaidi, the UAE-allied governor of Aden. (Importantly to note, until this decision the UAE had exercised its proxy authority in South Yemen largely through Bin Breik and al-Zubaidi, as well as the Yafi’i tribe and Salafists organizations – with most member of the Security Belt being drawn from these two groups; al-Zubaidi is also a prominent Southern Movement leader from al-Dhal’e Governorate, where the UAE has garnered popular support.)
As of this writing, public anger over Hadi’s decree had manifested as street protests in Aden, led by thousands of Southern Movement members. The UAE also responded with unusually blunt criticism of Hadi regarding the decision. In a measure of the tensions in Aden as of the beginning of May, neither Hadi nor his prime minister had returned, both opting to remain in Riyadh. On May 3, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman then held an unscheduled meeting with President Hadi in an apparent bid to defuse tensions.
The Hadramawt Inclusive Conference
Tensions and divergent interests between President Hadi and the UAE were also on display in the eastern governorate of Hadramawt last month. On April 23 the “Hadramawt Inclusive Conference” was staged in Mukalla City, where participants – consisting of stakeholders and power brokers from Hadramawt exclusively – emphasized the centrality of the Hadrami identity over their Yemeni one, and made public statements regarding the need for the governorate to assert control over its security institutions, governance and natural resources, such as oil and gas. Various speakers referred to “50 years of oppression” – covering the period both after Hadramawt joined South Yemen (1967), and post-unification of North and South Yemen (1990). This is an implicit rejection not just of central government rule from Sana’a and President Hadi’s project for a unified Yemen, but also the Southern Movement’s goal for a unified, independent South Yemen.
The UAE quietly supported the conference last month, and has played patron to Hadrami ambitions for greater independence through creating, training and arming the Hadrami Elite Forces, which have acted with increasing autonomy from the Hadi government, asserting their lead in operations against AQAP and demanding that government troops hand over control of various checkpoints across Hadramawt.
It should be noted that UAE moves to solidify its influence with local groups in South Yemen can be seen as part of a larger Emirati strategy to assert military control and project power throughout the Horn of Africa region.
Other signs of tensions between ostensibly pro-government forces seemed apparent on April 17, when an improvised explosive device (IED) targeted a convoy carrying a senior pro-Hadi commander, Ali Muqbil Saleh, in government-held Al-Dhale governorate. When it was attacked the convoy had been traveling back to Aden, having gone north in the first place in an attempt to broker the release of trucks carrying cash payments for public sector workers in Taiz City; the trucks, however, had been commandeered by Southern Movement fighters at a checkpoint en route. Even with a direct order from President Hadi that the trucks be released, Ali Muqbil Saleh had failed to secure the release of the trucks – and then was attacked as he returned to Aden.
Intense fighting in various areas of Yemen saw mostly incremental movements in the frontlines between pro-government troops and Houthi-Saleh forces. In Sa’ada governorate, for instance, government troops, backed by coalition airstrikes, announced on April 16 that they had captured Al-Shaer mountain in the northern Baqim district. In Taiz governorate, east of Mokha, there was intense fighting and coalition airstrikes as pro-government troops sought to dislodge Houthi-Saleh forces from key positions from which they have been harassing government supply lines, in particular the Khalid Bin Walid military base in the Al-Nar mountain; by the end of April the base was reportedly under siege by government troops.
Other notable incidents in April included the Sudanese government, on April 10, announcing that five of its soldiers had been killed and 22 injured in fighting on behalf of government of Yemen; Sudan is thought to have some 5,000 troops deployed as part of the Saudi-led coalition. A week later, on April 18, a Saudi helicopter was shot down in Marib governorate in an apparent “friendly fire” incident involving coalition air defense systems; the incident left 12 Saudi officers dead.
AQAP related activity
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was active throughout April, carry out assassinations and attacks against both Houthi-Saleh forces and UAE-back pro-government forces.
Amongst the reported AQAP incidents was an ambushed against elite UAE-back local forces in Hadramawt Governorate in the first week of the month, followed the next day by an IED attack that killed almost a dozen Houthi fighters in the Madhwaqin area of Al-Bayda governorate. From April 14-16, AQAP assassinated a commander in the UAE-backed Security Belt forces in the Shaqra area of Abyan governorate, killed seven Houthi fighters using an IED in Ibb governorate, and assassinated a Houthi commander in Ibb city. AQAP also claimed an April 23 attack in Wadi Daoun, central Hadramawt, which killed two government soldiers.
In March this year various tribal groups in Shabwa governorate announced the formation of anti-AQAP coalition, with these tribal forces apparently responsible for an ambush against an AQAP commander in the governorate’s central Rawdah area in mid-April. On April 20, the UAE then announced its intent to expand the training and arming of Shabwani Elite Forces, in an effort to counter AQAP in the governorate.
Anti-AQAP efforts suffered a setback on April 22, however, when a US drone strike killed three members of government-allied Southern Resistance in Shabwa’s Al-Saeed district. Amongst other US counter-terrorism activity in Yemen last month, the US Navy claimed it killed eight AQAP operatives in Shabwa on April 23, including Abu Ahmed Awlaqi, who the US said to have led AQAP operations in Shabwa province.
As of May 2, OCHA was reporting that 17 million people were in need of food assistance, 7 million of whom are facing what OCHA categorizes as a food security emergency – a Phase 4 classification on the UN’s Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) index, and the last step before the official designation of famine and humanitarian catastrophe. Some 2.2 million children are acutely malnourished – effectively, one child under five-years-old dies every 10 minutes in Yemen of preventable causes – and more than a million pregnant women are malnourished. Almost every coastal governorate in Yemen was deemed to be suffering a food security emergency, with those governorates being Sa’ada, Hajjah, Al Hudaydah, Taiz, Lahj, Abyan and Shabwah – of these, Al Hudaydah and Taiz are at the most severe risk of famine.
WFP expands operations
The World Food Program announced it was scaling up its emergency food operations in Yemen in an attempt to reach 9 million people in Yemen through 2017. Prioritized amongst these were 2.5 million people in the most heavily affected areas where the WFP said it intends to distribute “full food rations” – meaning enough to cover 100% of the nutritional needs of each family for a month – in an attempt to prevent the onset of famine.
The WFP stated that these expanded emergency operations will cost up to $1.2 billion, and that “the success of this operation hinges on immediate sufficient resources from donors.” Indeed, the WFP reported that its general food distribution in Yemen had fallen between February and March, from reaching 5 million people in February to reaching 3.2 million the following month, in large part due to a shortfall in funds.
Successful fundraising event
Earlier this year the UN announced that its total humanitarian appeal for Yemen for 2017 was $2.1 billion, which had been less than 15% met as of the beginning of April (the UN’s 2016 humanitarian appeal for Yemen of some $1.8 billion was only 60% met by year’s end). In an effort to close the funding gap this year, the governments of Sweden and Switzerland co-hosted with the UN the “High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen” in Geneva on April 25. In his opening remarks UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated bluntly: “We are witnessing the starving and crippling of an entire generation.”
In the end, the event raised some $1.1 billion – covering more than half of the UN’s humanitarian appeal for Yemen for 2017. Of the more than 40 countries and NGO that committed funds, the largest donors were the UK, Saudi Arabia, the European Commission, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, who all pledged $100 million or more.
OCHA’s Khoury, however, pointed out in the week following the fundraising event, that the vast amount of the money committed is still only in pledge form, and that it will take time for those pledges to be converted into cash that the various humanitarian organizations can use.
“The problem from our side is that we need the money now,” he said. “Not in August or September. If the World Food Programme does not get the money now, there will be a break in the food pipeline by the beginning of July. Every month we are expected to feed 7 million people. Last month, the WFP reached 3 million, because of lack of resources.”
Human rights and war crimes
Blockade “breaches human rights law”
In a press statement on April 12, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and international sanctions, Idriss Jazairy, said “the aerial and naval blockade imposed on Yemen by the coalition forces since March 2015 [is] one of the main causes of the humanitarian catastrophe.”
Jazairy’s statement called on the blockade to be lifted to stop “the catastrophe of millions facing starvation”. He noted that the blockade “has restricted and disrupted the import and export of food, fuel and medical supplies as well as humanitarian aid… The blockade involves grave breaches of the most basic norms of human rights law, as well as of the law of armed conflict.”
Jazairy made specific reference to Al Hudaydah Port, deploring the fact that the coalition’s excessive clearance procedures have blocked the delivery of the new cranes that could restore the port’s offloading capacity; the new cranes destined for Hudaydah are currently being held in Dubai.
Journalist sentenced to death
On April 12, the state security court in Sana’a controlled by the Houthis sentenced 62-year-old journalist Yahya al-Jubaihi to death, for allegedly spying for the Saudi-led coalition. It is the first incidence of a journalist in Yemen being sentenced to capital punishment, with the trial taking place in a closed-door court and the defendant not having regular access to a lawyer during the trial. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and other rights groups condemned the death sentence. It should be noted that as of the end of April the Houthi-Saleh authorities were holding more than 12 journalists in a prolonged unlawful imprisonment, and some of whom are in severely poor health conditions and denied family visits.
Houthi-Saleh use of banned landmines
On April 20, Human Rights Watch issued a report highlighting the Houthi-Saleh forces’ use of banned antipersonnel landmines, which the HRW said have caused hundreds of civilian deaths and injuries, hindered the return of people who were displaced by fighting, and will continue to pose a threat to civilians long after the conflict ends. In terms of scale, since February 2016 operations by the Yemen Executive Mine Action Centre have removed 360,000 landmines and other explosive ordnance from areas across Yemen, with the UNDP stating that “it is imperative that clearance activities are scaled up rapidly, particularly in areas of return to provide a safe environment for IDPs to settle.”
“The Houthi-Saleh forces use of antipersonnel landmines violate the laws of war and individuals involved are committing war crimes,” Human Rights Watch said. “Houthi-Saleh forces have also used antivehicle mines indiscriminately in violation of the laws of war and failed to take adequate precautions to avoid civilian casualties.”
Economic & financial updates
Reconnection to SWIFT
In mid-April the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) was reconnected to the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) network, technically reinstating the central bank’s capacity to send and receive international money transfers. The Sana’a-based CBY had been disconnected from SWIFT on November 9, 2016, following the Yemeni government’s decision to relocate the CBY headquarters from Sana’a to Aden two months earlier.
Connecting the Aden CBY to the SWIFT network has involved significant complications, according to sources close to the process that spoke with the Sana’a Center, with communication and oversight from the parent SWIFT company, based in Belgium, and the Aden CBY having to meet various compliance standards, hire engineers to work with its IT department, as well as installing and testing specialized SWIFT servers – all amidst a deteriorating security situation in Aden. These sources added that while reconnection to the SWIFT network was successfully completed in mid-April, there had been no financial transactions made through it as of the end of April due to the inability of central bank staff to operate the SWIFT connection.
In the later half of April a team of nine CBY employees were sent to Dubai for training in the operational and technical aspects of SWIFT. This training is likely to last until at least the end of May if not longer, with the CBY’s connection to SWIFT rendered unusable until the staff necessary to operate it return to Aden.
President Hadi announced at the end of February this year that Saudi Arabia had committed to depositing $2 billion at the CBY to help it stave off the imminent threat of the rapid depreciation of the Yemeni rial; while the Riyadh still has yet to publicly confirm such support, even if it were forthcoming, the ongoing inability of the Aden CBY to operate its SWIFT connection entails that the central bank would currently not be able to access these funds.
Food vouchers issued
On April 15, the so-called “Government of National Salvation” (GNS) in Sana’a – made up of Houthi and Saleh-affiliated officials – announced the implementation of a food voucher system for public and mixed sector employees. The new system, announced by the GNS’ Ministry of Industry and Trade, is intended to compensate for the GNS’ inability to pay the roughly one million government workers who live in Houthi-Saleh controlled areas, most of whom have been without a paycheck since September 2016 due to a severe public sector cash liquidity crisis. The vouchers – which will cover such basic foodstuffs as wheat, rice, cooking oils, milk powder and flour – will be redeemable at selected market suppliers who, according to the draft legislation, will be required to sell the goods at prevailing wholesale market rates.
A prominent Yemeni economist aware of the details of the voucher system told the Sana’a Center that the vouchers are slated to be worth roughly a third of each employee’s salary, with most of the rest of their monthly pay to be deposited in an account at Yemen Post, the national postal service. It should be noted, however, that due to the ongoing liquidity crisis employees will be barred from withdrawing these deposited funds. Additionally, given the GNS’ likely inability to provide merchants with cash when they attempt to redeem the voucher coupons they collect from customers, the Yemeni economist predicted that the voucher system would be effective for only a month or two, after which the effective value of the coupons would depreciate and merchants would offer goods at two prices – one for cash payments, and another for coupons.
Threats to public education
Among the impacts of the non-payment of civil servant wages is that three-quarters of the country’s teachers have not been paid in half a year, meaning some 4.5 million children may not finish the school year, according to UNICEF.
"At the moment we have more than 166,000 teachers in the country that have not received a salary since October last year. This is more or less 73% of the total number of teachers in the country," UNICEF Representative in Yemen Mertixell Relano told a press conference in the capital Sana’a last month. "Those children that are not in school, they are at risk of being recruited (for military service), or the girls might be at risk of being married earlier."
According to UNICEF, there are 7.3 million school-age children in Yemen, 2 million of whom are completely out of school, and another 2.3 million that need support to access education, while some 1,700 schools in the country have been rendered unfit for use through damage due to the war, or occupation by internally displaced people or armed groups.
Agricultural households struggling
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) also reported last month that of the some 1.5 million agriculturally dependant households in Yemen (roughly 60% of all households in the county), more than 800,000 are unable to control crop and livestock diseases. According to a Yemen Emergency Food Security and Nutrition Assessment released earlier this year, some 40% of agricultural households faced decreased cereal production in 2016, and almost half saw a drastic decline in livestock numbers, due to both disease and the distressed selling of household assets to cover food, medical and other family expenses. In response, FAO stated that livestock protection, through vaccinations and other treatments, was a key emergency response priority for 2017.
Importantly, agriculture is also the source of employment for roughly half of Yemen’s workforce, and while FAO is reporting better than normal rainfall through the past several months, the agency stated last month that agricultural livelihoods are still being put at risk: “As a result of the persistent conflict, almost all governorates are reporting shortages of agricultural inputs as well as high prices of inputs… Agricultural activities, particularly those related to irrigated crops, suffer from high fuel prices, increasing the share of rainfed crops. Many rural households rely on casual labour opportunities as a source of income. However, in most conflict situations, hired agricultural labour tends to be replaced by family labour in order to cope with the increased costs of production.”
- The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of May 5, received 18% of the USD $2.1 billion it has appealed for to implement its humanitarian response plan for Yemen in 2017. On April 25, the UN held a High-Level Pledging Event co-hosted by the governments of Sweden and Switzerland in Geneva, where donors pledged USD $1.1 billion to help people in emergency need in Yemen. Importantly, however, UN officials are now urging donor countries to quickly convert their pledges into cash deposits to evade famine in Yemen.
- In the month of April, 35 vessels applied for clearance from the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM); 30 requests for clearance were issued certification and the average time to issue clearance was 30 hours, an average of two hours less than the month before. A total of 611,052 metric tons (mt) of cargo was approved through the UNVIM in April, consisting of 272,666 mt of food, 244,575 mt of fuel and 93,811 mt of general cargo. This is a decrease by a total of 25,758 mt of cargo from the month before.
Yemen at the UN is a monthly report produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies to identify and assess UN-led efforts to resolve the crisis in Yemen. Through this analysis, Yemen at the UN aims to provide readers with an understanding of the international political context that accompanies developments on the ground. This month's Yemen at the UN report is in partnership with Friedrich-Ebert Yemen office.
By Maysaa Shuja Al-Deen May 6, 2017
Taiz is the site of the longest-running battle ground in the Yemen war, which began when Houthi forces took over the city on March 25, 2015. Initially, the Houthis were confronted by peaceful demonstrations which they repressed heavily, killing six demonstrators in the process. The situation rapidly developed into armed conflict when the war erupted after the Houthis invaded the south, prompting the Saudi-led coalition to launch a counteroffensive on March 26, 2015. Taiz is centrally located in Yemen, and is the country’s third most populous city. Although large parts of Taiz were reportedly liberated from Houthi dominance, the “Taiz liberation operation” was never launched with serious intent.
Taiz has been described as the heart of Yemen’s 2011 uprising against the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Before 2011, Taiz witnessed countless demonstrations against the Sanaa government, the largest occurring in December 1992. However, the continuous unrest and ongoing battle in Taiz received little international attention despite the disproportionately high human cost in comparison to other Yemeni governorates. Taiz has been besieged by Houthi-Saleh forces for 18 consecutive months, adding to the high civilian casualties incurred by shelling, infighting, and air strikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition backing President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi.
Historically, Taiz’s active opposition against the central government has been the product of resentment towards the city’s marginalization. Even though Taizis has taken part in different state institutions—sometimes even in crucial positions such as interior minister—they held no real power to influence political decisions. The military and tribal circles dominated by the northern tribal elite remain in control. Tribal connections and nepotism, rather than state institutions, constitute the backbone of power in Yemen.
Taiz’s exclusion is not the result of current policy, but rather is rooted in Yemen’s history. Under North Yemen’s monarchy, from 1918 to 1962, the ruling Imam’s army, officers, and governors all belonged to a branch of Shia Islam unique to Yemen known as the Zaydi. About half of the population, including Taizis, belonged to the Shafi’i Sunni school of thought, but were largely excluded from the power structure. A coup d’état unseated the monarchy in 1962 followed by an eight-year civil war that left the country split among the Royalists—aiming to restore the Zaydi monarchy—and the Republicans, a force made up of a mix of Zaydi and Shafi’i fighters.
Taizis fought on the side of the Republicans, which in turn split into two factions in August 1968. One faction was leftist—mostly from Taiz—and the other was nationalist and conservative, from Sanaa and the north. This split was both ideological and regional. The Taizis found themselves pitted against the northerners and Royalists. The conflict resulted in the dominance of the more conservative north wing, backed by the tribal belt around Sanaa, and the exclusion of the leftist Taizi wing.
While Taiz is not the only victim of political marginalization by the northern tribal elite, it has been the most politically active, for several reasons. First, during Yemen’s colonial period from 1839 to 1967, most of the labour force in Aden came from Taiz. Contact with Aden opened the city to the modern world, in contrast to the isolated status of the northern part of Yemen. This increased Taizis’ desire to earn a modern education and raised their aspirations to improve living conditions and change the political system. The exposure that Taizis enjoyed and the political awareness they gained as a result of their proximity and migration to Aden is a key factor in their increased consciousness of their subsequent marginalization.
Secondly, Taiz is known for its commercial activity, with many prominent Yemeni business families hailing from Taiz, such as Hail Saeed family. As a result, Taizis pay the most in taxes according to an official in the Yemen finance ministry who asked to remain anonymous. Although most businesses are based in Sanaa, many businessmen from Sanaa never pay taxes because of their tribal or political connections. Because Taizis do pay their taxes, they demand that the state provide services in return.
Given this context, it’s understandable that Taiz became a center of opposition and rebellion against both the central government and the Houthi-Saleh alliance. Its opposition became even more politicized against the Sanaa government during the Saleh period, from 1978 to 2012. As the Houthis, allied with Saleh and the northern militias, have tried to take control of Taiz by besieging and bombing it, Taiz residents have turned against them.
There may be two reasons why the Hadi government, backed by the Saudi-led coalition, is reluctant to liberate Taiz from the Houthis. First, the UAE is reluctant to support the liberation of Taiz because the Islah Party, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood represented by local anti-Houthi-Saleh leader Hamoud al-Mikhlafi, was the first to take up arms against the Houthis in the city. Despite the presence of other political and religious factions in Taiz’s resistance forces, the UAE fears that liberating the city might give the Muslim Brotherhood—a group it has listed as a terrorist organisation—a chance to seize power. Army brigade leader Adnan al-Hamadi declared his loyalty to the President Hadi, but did not receive any support from the Saudi-led coalition. Instead, the coalition is backing the Salafi militia of Abu al-Abbas to counter the Houthis and the Brotherhood at the same time. This reveals that the coalition prefers to support religious groups over official institutions, because these groups are more easily controlled.
Second, the Saudi-led coalition is not in a rush to end the battle in Taiz, because they have built a media campaign around the city highlighting Houthi-Saleh attacks and violations. This has become useful leverage for the Saudis and their allies, allowing them to encourage international pressure against the Houthis and Saleh, and diverting attention from the coalition’s own negative actions. The situation in Taiz also helps the Saudi-backed coalition discredit the Houthis locally, by claiming that the Houthis are not fighting for patriotic or nationalist reasons, but are instead fighting for their own interests at the expense of other Yemenis.
The coalition was eager to start the war in Taiz to exhaust the Houthi-Saleh forces, but it does not have any vision of how to end this battle. In the long-term, Taiz and the political dissatisfaction it represents will continue to upset any chance of stabilizing Yemen. The only way forward is for the warring parties to address the underlying reasons for the war: political marginalization, favoritism, and inattention to the people’s needs. Taiz is the longest-running and most heated battle in Yemen and there is no end in sight, since those in power are determined to thwart all attempts to end the war by military or political means.
Maysaa Shuja Al-Deen is a non resident fellow at Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies and is a Yemeni researcher and political analyst based in Cairo. She has previously published in Al-Monitor, As-Safir, and The New Arab.
This article was originally published by the Atlantic Council.
In March, the prospect of a Saudi-led military coalition offensive on the rebel-held city of Hudaydah dominated Yemen-related policy discussions at the United Nations and in the United States.
Discussions among UN Security Council member states generally centered around how such an offensive would radically exacerbate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis – given that Hudaydah is the main entry point for humanitarian and commercial goods, and that the country is already facing the world’s largest food security emergency.
In the US the debate centered around whether the offensive would serve American interests in countering Iranian influence in the region, and to what degree the US military should support a coalition assault on Hudaydah. There were strong indications in March that the nascent Trump Administration favored US military support of the Saudi-led coalition’s efforts.
Meanwhile, the World Food Program reported that 17 million people in Yemen were food insecure – three million more than in January – while the Yemeni rial faced the imminent threat of rapid depreciation, which would destroy per-capita purchasing power in the country and significantly accelerate the spread of famine.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also described to the Security Council the many attacks on civilians by all sides of the conflict during March, the worst of which was a Saudi-led coalition attack on a boat carrying Somali refugees off of the coast of Hudaydah that killed 43 civilians.
Yemen-related UN happenings in March
Following a request from the Russian mission, on March 10 the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Stephen O’Brien, briefed the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) regarding several of the world’s humanitarian crises, chief among them Yemen.
O’Brien, who had visited Yemen from February 26 to March 2, said the country is in the midst of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and that the Yemeni people face the “spectre of famine.” Given Yemen’s heavy reliance on imports – with the country importing up to 90 percent of its nutritional needs – the OCHA head said that famine cannot be prevented without the active participation of the private sector, that commercial imports must be allowed to resume normally through all entry points and, in particular, Hudaydah port “must be kept open and expanded.” He added that “all parties to the conflict are arbitrarily denying sustained humanitarian access and are politicizing aid.”
Notable among the responses of the ambassadors in attendance was that of US representative Michele Sison, who said council members must use their influence over the warring parties involved in humanitarian crises to ensure “unfettered access” for aid, and with regard to Yemen in particular referred to Hudaydah Port and Sana’a Airport in stating that “obstructions to aid in Yemen must be lifted.” In an apparent deviation from the trajectory of the new US administration, Sison reaffirmed the necessity for a political peace process and said “there is no military solution to the conflict in Yemen.”
On March 13, the Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova released a statement expressing Moscow’s concern regarding the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and calling for an “immediate cessation of all use of force.” Particularly worrying, said Zakharova, were plans by the Saudi-led coalition and forces fighting on behalf of the internationally-recognized government to launch an offensive against rebel-held Hudaydah, adding that such an assault would cause the mass displacement of civilians and cut Sana’a off from food and humanitarian aid, leading to “disastrous consequences.” The Russian spokesperson also said its embassy in Sana’a – one of only two foreign diplomatic missions operating in Yemen, along with Iran’s – had established a secretariat to facilitate cooperation between the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick, and “the de-facto authorities in the capital.”
On March 14, the “Quint” multilateral group – until recently dubbed the “Quad”, which consisted of the US, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but now also including Oman – met with the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, in London. International observers noted that the lack of a press statement following the meeting likely implied that the talks were unproductive. The London meeting was part of a four-day European tour by Ould Cheikh Ahmed, during which he also visited Paris and Berlin, met with senior officials and Middle East experts, and publicly reiterated the need for a political settlement to the conflict and increased international humanitarian assistance.
Following another Russian request, on March 17 UNSC member states discussed the expected attack on Hudaydah, with Political Affairs Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman providing a briefing. At the talks many member states expressed concern that the attack would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis, though none went as far as saying the assault should not take place. In an “elements to the press” – the weakest form of Security Council public statement – following the briefing, UNSC member states called for there to be access for humanitarian and commercial goods in Yemen, including through Hudaydah, and for the warring parties to abide by international humanitarian law.
On March 23 the Swedish mission organized a meeting of the UNSC’s Informal Experts Group on Women, Peace and Security, which included the Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, as well as the UN Special Envoy and the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen. The discussions revolved around various issues arising from the past two years of conflict – including the rising rates of violence against women, child marriage, female-headed households, women enduring famine – as well as ways to address these issues and promote more equitable political engagement for women.
On March 29, both Special Envoy Ould Chiekh Ahmed and Ambassador Koro Bessho of Japan, Chair of the Yemen 2140 Sanctions Committee, briefed UNSC members. The Special Envoy reiterated his dismay at the deteriorating humanitarian and economic situation and the likelihood of intensified military operations. He urged UNSC members to pressure all sides in the conflict to engage constructively with his proposed framework for achieving peace, and emphasized that the impacts of the current situation threaten to undermine Yemen’s stability far into the future.
“It is my firm belief that further military escalation and humanitarian suffering will not bring the parties closer together,” said Ould Chiekh Ahmed, urging the UNSC to “use all of its diplomatic weight to push for the relevant parties to make the concessions required to reach a final agreement before more lives are lost. We must give peace another chance.”
The prospect of a Hudaydah offensive
Hudaydah city, situated along Yemen’s north-western Red Sea coast, contains an urban area of some one million people, with the wider governorate having a population of some 2.6 million. Being within close proximity of the country’s largest urban centers, the city is home to Yemen’s most active port facilities and is currently the entry point for 70-80 percent of the country’s current humanitarian deliveries, and an even greater share of commercial fuel and food imports.
At the beginning of the year, forces fighting on behalf of the internationally-recognized government of Yemen, backed by the Saudi-led regional military coalition, launched a renewed effort to retake the country’s west coast and cut off the Houthi rebels and allied forces of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh from their access to the Red Sea. In early February pro-government forces succeeded in capturing the town of Mokha, less than 200 kilometers south of Hudaydah, and made public their intentions to push their offensive north to retake Hudaydah itself.
Through the rest of February and March, however, despite sustained support from coalition airstrikes and shelling from warships offshore, pro-government ground forces made little headway, held back by the Houthis’ heavy use of landmines and stiff armed resistance. This contributed to renewed calls by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their supporters in Washington, for increased US military support to pursue the Hudaydah offensive.
The debate in Washington
March witnessed intense debate among members of congress, current and former government officials and US agency representatives as to the implications of a Hudaydah offensive and whether, or to what degree, the American military should engage.
Those advocating for robust US military involvement – including mainly Republican senators, some White House officials and Pentagon staff, among others – argued that capturing Hudaydah was essential to protect American interests, given that it would help secure Red Sea commercial shipping and assist American allies in containing Iranian attempts to destabilize the region through proxy forces. Proponents also argued that denying the Houthi rebels their last major seaport and means of resupply would likely force them to re-engage in peace negotiations, that capturing Hudaydah would facilitate speedier access for humanitarian aid delivery in Yemen, and that support for the Saudi-led coalition is necessary to help counter Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Late last year the Obama administration rejected a request to aid Emirati forces in attacking Hudaydah, after it concluded that even with US support the assault was likely to be unsuccessful against rebels who were well entrenched and well armed, also noting that the assault would dramatically exacerbate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, which the UN shortly thereafter called the largest food security emergency in the world.
Vocal opponents of last month’s push in Washington for greater US involvement in an offensive against Hudaydah repeated the same concerns, while also warning that the US risked being drawn into a military quagmire with no clear exit, that the Houthis posed no direct threat to American interests, and indeed that “Al Qaeda in Yemen has emerged as a de facto ally of the Saudi-led militaries with whom your administration aims to partner more closely,” as noted in a letter addressed to the US president penned by a bipartisan group of senators. (For more on how Al Qaeda has benefited from US policy in Yemen, see this recent Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies report: The Limits of US Military Power in Yemen: Why Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continues to thrive.)
While the Trump administration itself is currently undertaking a review of its Yemen policy, with the results not expected until the end of April, many observers suggest their position will ultimately align with that of Saudi Arabia; indeed, following a White House meeting on March 13 between Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and President Trump, the two reaffirmed their commitment to “a strong, broad, and enduring strategic partnership based on a shared interest and commitment to the stability and prosperity of the Middle East region… [and] the importance of confronting Iran's destabilizing regional activities.”
In the first week of March, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson approved measures to restart the sale of precision-guided weapons to Saudi Arabia, which the Obama White House had banned following a Saudi air strike on a funeral hall in Sana’a last October that killed well more than 100 people and wounded hundreds more. At the end of last month, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis then issued a request for the White House to rescind another Obama-era restriction preventing the US military from supporting Saudi-led coalition operations in Yemen. Both requests require presidential approval to go into effect, which President Trump had yet to give as of this writing.
In speaking with representatives from UNSC member state representatives and other UN sources through March 2017, the Sana’a Center found there was a general sense that the new US administration will erase all diplomatic efforts over the past two years aimed at ending the Yemeni conflict. Despite UN reports detailing only small-scale Iranian support for the Houthis to date, UNSC member states foresee the Trump White House embracing the Saudi-led coalition narrative that casts the Houthis in Yemen akin to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and thus as an existential threat to American interests. The internationally-recognized government of Yemen has also been seen as welcoming the prospective increase in US military support, with President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi concurrently showing decreased interest in engaging with the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, in the peace process.
Faced with the shifting policies in Washington, through March it became apparent that neither the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, nor UNSC member states, had any practical suggestions regarding how to move forward the peace process, beyond the general idea that the framework for domestic negotiations and the international political process should be broadened.
Humanitarian and economic updates
On March 13, Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) Ertharin Cousin, following a three-day trip to Sana’a and Aden, urged the international community to help prevent famine in Yemen, given that 17 million Yemenis are food insecure – an increase of three million people since January this year – and seven million of these were “severely food insecure.”
A Famine Early Warning Systems Networks report at the end of March noted that: “Recent food import data suggest that food imports into Al Hudaydah port have recently declined sharply. As this port supplies many key markets in western Yemen, these declining imports raise concerns about future supply levels and food prices at markets that rely on this port as a source.” At the beginning of April the WFP then reported that increased tensions around the port had spurred commercial shipping lines to cease deliveries. The WFP noted that “as an immediate implication, a rise in transportation costs and an increase in delivery times are expected.” The agency then said it was working on a contingency plan, with one option to redirect humanitarian operations to Aden.
While the WFP was able to reach 4.9 million people with food aid in February, “because of inadequate funding WFP reduced the food ration to stretch assistance to more people.” As of March 10, the $2.1 billion international humanitarian appeal for Yemen for 2017 had only been 6 percent met. In an effort to raise funds the governments of Switzerland and Sweden are co-hosting a “High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen,” slated to take place at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on April 25. As of the end of March, however, no governments had made any public pledges for the event.
In a move that is certain to impact future Yemeni relief efforts – and indeed was described by one observer as possibly entailing “the breakdown of the international humanitarian system as we know it” – the American administration instructed government staff last month to identify cuts of up to 50% in general US spending to the United Nations for 2018, with Foreign Policy reporting that this likely includes a 36% cut in US funding for humanitarian programs. The US is currently the largest financial contributor to the UN, with roughly $10 billion in annual spending. In an attempt to stave off the devastating funding cuts, the UN responded by appointing South Carolina governor David Beasley, a Trump loyalist, to head the WFP.
Widespread economic collapse is magnifying Yemen's humanitarian crisis: per capita GDP is estimated to have dropped 35 percent in two years; most civil servants – roughly a quarter of the country’s employed – have not been paid since August 2016; fishing and agricultural activity are down 65 and 50 percent, respectively, and “over 70 percent of small and medium enterprises have been forced to lay off half of their workforce,” according to March 18 OCHA bulletin. OCHA further highlighted the collapse of public services: roughly half of all healthcare facilities closed – and most of those remaining open suffering shortages of medicine, equipment and staff – leaving an estimated 14.8 million people without access to basic healthcare, while two million children are out of school.
Furthermore, immediately threatening to exacerbate the humanitarian situation is the likelihood of a rapid depreciation of the Yemeni rial, should there be no robust international financial intervention to provide the Yemeni market with access to foreign currency exchange. (For more on Yemeni rial depreciation, see this recent Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies report: Rapid currency depreciation and the decimation of Yemeni purchasing power). Given the country’s massive reliance on imports, such would devastate remaining per-capita purchasing power, undermine Yemenis’ ability to buy food and other necessities and significantly accelerate the spread of famine.
Among the only positive trends emerging in the humanitarian situation in Yemen last month was in regards to the cholera/Acute Watery Diarrhea (AWD) outbreak: in January this year there were 15,000 suspected cases in 156 Yemeni districts; thanks in large part to the efforts of the UN and partner organizations, OCHA reported last month that “the cholera/AWD epidemic curve shows a declining trend of incidences occurring in the most affected districts.”
Continuing evidence of war crimes
On March 24 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein released a statement detailing attacks over the previous month that had killed 106 civilians. These included helicopter gunships and warships from the Saudi-led military coalition firing on fishing boats off Yemen’s Red Sea coast, and air strikes on food trucks and markets. Al Hussein also noted the Houthi forces had shelled a market in Taiz and were laying siege to densely populated areas of the governorate, causing severe shortages of food, water and milk for infants for civilians trapped inside.
The human rights commissioner said the worst incident last month occurred on March 16 off of the coast of Hudaydah, when a boat carrying Somali refugees attempting to get to Europe was fired upon by coalition forces. A Reuters report, based on numerous eyewitness accounts, said that for half an hour an Apache helicopter had fanned back and forth over the vessel spraying it with bullets, killing a total of 43 people.
The human rights commissioner then reiterated his call for an independent international investigation into war crimes by all sides – a proposal that has been repeatedly put before the Human Rights Council during the Yemeni conflict and each time rejected by Saudi Arabia and its allies on the council, including the United States and the United Kingdom.
Following the incident the UAE issued a statement saying its forces had not targeted the Somali vessel, having “clearly recognised the non-military nature of the boat which was carrying a large number of civilians”; the UAE then called for an independent international investigation into the incident – an unprecedented move which observers say was an attempt to ensure that Riyadh bore responsibility.
Days later the Saudi-led coalition called on the UN to assume jurisdiction over the port and supervise its operations; the UN refused, with spokesperson Farhan Haq adding that "Parties to the conflict have a clear responsibility to protect civilian infrastructure and fundamentally to protect civilians. These are not obligations they can shift to others.”
Speaking later in the month about the incident and other attacks against civilians, Human Rights Watch warned that continued US arms sale to Saudi Arabia risked exposing American individuals involved in these transactions to criminal liability for aiding and abetting war crimes.
In related news, US Secretary of State Tillerson said the US would withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council if it did not undertake “considerable reform.” As reported by Foreign Policy, Tillerson said in a letter to various NGOs that “the United States ‘continues to evaluate the effectiveness’ of the Council, [and] remains skeptical about the virtues of membership in a human rights organization that includes states with troubled human rights records, such as China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.”
- The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of April 5, received 10% of the USD $2.1 billion it has appealed for to implement its humanitarian response plan for Yemen in 2017.
- In the month of March, 41 vessels applied for clearance from the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM); 34 requests for clearance were issued certification and the average time to issue clearance was 31 hours, an average of three hours less than the month before. A total of 636,810 metric tons (mt) of cargo was approved through the UNVIM in March, consisting of 636,810 mt of food, 236,854 mt of fuel and 145,266 mt of general cargo. This is a increase by a total of 223,467 mt of cargo from the month before.
Yemen at the UN is a monthly report produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies to identify and assess UN-led efforts to resolve the crisis in Yemen. Through this analysis, Yemen at the UN aims to provide readers with an understanding of the international political context that accompanies developments on the ground. This month's Yemen at the UN report is in partnership with Friedrich-Ebert Yemen office.
A Track Two Initiative
The European Union and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Yemen are proud to announce the launch of a new initiative to identify the economic and development priorities in Yemen. The initiative is implemented through a partnership between DeepRoot Consulting, Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies (SCSS) and the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO). It aims to engage Yemeni development leaders from the private sector, academia, and economic experts in identifying Yemen’s economic and development priorities in Yemen during and after the conflict.
This 2-year initiative, which was launched in Bonn, Germany, on Friday, will provide a platform to reimagine the Yemeni economy through a series of research studies, economic forums, and public outreach activities to build a wide consensus on the economic and development priorities in Yemen.
27 March 2017
In February, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations stated that “Yemen is facing the largest food security emergency in the world”, and estimated that the country’s domestic reserves of wheat would be completely exhausted by the end of March 2017.
The UN human rights commission raised credible reports that war crimes were committed by both the main warring sides during battles for the Red Sea port town of Mukha. These battles saw the forces backing Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi capture the town from the Houthi movement and its main ally, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The infighting that broke out in January between groups backing President Hadi continued through February in the cities of Taiz and Aden, while resource and revenue scarcities helped fuel tensions within the Houthi-Saleh alliance and between the Houthi-Saleh alliance and populations in areas they control.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continued to exploit the chaos brought on by the conflict, the humanitarian crisis and the country’s economic collapse to improve its domestic position, and throughout February stepped up attacks against both main warring sides.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, in his second month on the job, visited the Gulf region and after meeting with regional governments publicly reiterated his support for the UN Special Envoy for Yemen and his efforts to mediate a peaceful resolution to the war.
At the UN
Continuing war crimes reports
On February 10, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement citing “extremely worrying reports” that over the preceding two weeks there had been numerous violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in the battle for the port city of Mukha. This follows on the heels of the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen’s report on January 27, which stated that over the past two years there has been clear evidence of widespread and systematic violations of international law by all sides in the conflict.
The human rights commission’s February statement noted that the warring sides had issued civilians in various areas of Mukha city contradictory commands – with forces loyal to President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi ordering them to evacuate as those allied with the Houthi movement demanding they remain – with credible reports then emerging from Mukha of fleeing civilians being shot by Houthi snipers and others who remained being killed in their homes by airstrikes from the Saudi-led military coalition backing Hadi.
In a statement, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said: “Civilians were trapped and targeted during the Al Mukha fighting. There are real fears that the situation will repeat itself in the port of Al Hudaidah, to the north of Al Mukha, where air strikes are already intensifying. The already catastrophic humanitarian situation in the country could spiral further downwards if Al Hudaidah port – a key entry point for imports into Yemen – is seriously damaged.”
Zeid noted the “alarming frequency” with which incidents of possible war crimes had been reported over the last two years of conflict, and to “break the climate of impunity in Yemen” he reiterated his call for an independent international investigation – a proposal that has been put before the Human Rights Council several times over the past two years and each time was rejected by Saudi Arabia and its allies on the council, including the United States and the United Kingdom.
At a press briefing on February 28, Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN human rights commission, said the UN had verified almost 1,500 cases of children being recruited as soldiers since March 2015. She urged all sides in the conflict to refrain from such practices, which are strictly forbidden by international humanitarian and human rights law and may amount to war crimes in cases where the child is under 15 years old. Shamdasani added that “the numbers are likely to be much higher as most families are not willing to talk about the recruitment of their children, for fear of reprisals.” She said most of the cases they had uncovered related to recruitment by Houthi-affiliated “Popular Committees”.
On February 10, a high ranking Houthi official submitted a letter to the newly-minted UN Secretary-General António Guterres requesting that he not renew the term of the current UN Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who was appointed by former Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in April 2015. The letter claimed Ould Cheikh Ahmed has shown a “lack of neutrality”, was biased toward the Saudi-led coalition and urged the UN to investigate a Saudi-led coalition airstrike on a funeral gathering in Sana’a in October 2016 that resulted in hundreds of casualties.
In a direct rebuff to the Houthi request, two days later the Secretary-General, speaking at a press conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said: “Our envoy has my full support and I believe that he is doing an impartial work [sic], that he is doing it in a very professional way and independently of what other people may think.”
Guterres also noted during the press conference that Saudi Arabia was “an important pillar of stability in the region.” The Secretary-General was in Riyadh as part of his first major international tour in his new position, a trip which also took him to Oman, Qatar and Egypt. While also discussing the situations in Libya and Syria with regional leaders, Guterres noted that a specific priority on his trip was to support Ould Cheikh Ahmed in his attempts to restart peace negotiations in Yemen. In the nearly two years he has been Special Envoy, Ould Cheikh Ahmed and his small team of staff – relative to other comparable UN missions – have failed to secure a meaningful de-escalation of hostilities or even establish a framework the warring parties could agree upon by which further peace negotiations would proceed. Indeed, President Hadi rejected outright the last “roadmap” to peace the Special Envoy proposed in December 2016.
On February 17, the internationally recognized government of Yemen’s representative to the UN then submitted a request to the Security Council asking that the Houthis and allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh be officially designated as “terrorists”, citing a Houthi attack in January on a Saudi vessel off Yemen’s Red Sea coast.
Also last month, foreign ministers from Oman and the “Quad” – the multilateral diplomatic initiative that includes the US, UK, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – met with the UN Special Envoy for Yemen in Bonn, Germany, though no significant public statement was forthcoming following the mid-February meeting. It should be noted that during the latter half of 2016, US Secretary of State John Kerry and the US were forcefully leading the Quad’s efforts to support the Special Envoy in bringing the warring parties to commit to a peace process. The new US administration inaugurated in January has yet to articulate a Yemen policy – something other western diplomats have said has effectively placed the peace process on hold – though indications are that going forward the White House will be more sympathetic towards Saudi Arabia and more aggressive toward Iran and the Houthis.
Meanwhile, representatives from several security council member states noted to the Sana’a Center last month that the lack of a diplomatic presence in Yemen – with only Iran and Russia maintaining functioning embassies in the country – is creating significant challenges for them to independently source information and analysis regarding evolving dynamics on the ground. This has created a situation in which many member state’s primary information sources are largely the UN’s own agencies. President Hadi’s calls for the UN and foreign governments to reopen their offices and embassies in Aden have gone unheeded, likely largely due to the general security vacuum that exists and the Yemeni government’s own tenuous presence in the city.
On the ground
Pro-Hadi forces capture Mukha, AQAP expands attacks
Fighting between the main warring parties occurred along frontlines across Yemen throughout February, as did Saudi-led coalition airstrikes within Houthi-Saleh held territory. Despite the warring parties’ frequent claims of grand victories in sympathetic media outlets, in most areas a relative stalemate and war of attrition prevailed. The major exception to this was along Yemen’s Red Sea coast, where Hadi-aligned forces, heavily supported by coalition airpower and naval bombardments, have succeeded since the beginning of 2017 in making progress in the western areas of Taiz province.
Intense battles in the later half of January and through February have resulted pro-Hadi fighters in the area seizing control of most of the port town of Mukha from the Houthi-Saleh alliance, with the apparent aim to continue northwards to Hudaidah, the most significant port the Houthis and Saleh still control. Following the loss of Mukha, Houthi allied fighters withdrew towards the town of Khokha, north of Mukha, and to areas around Khalid Bin Al-Walid military base to the east.
On February 22, Hadi Government appealed for international assistance to help in demining operations, notably around Mukha, where Houthi/Saleh forces heavily deployed landmines and the fighting has left untold numbers of unexploded ordnance. The same day, Houthi-Saleh rocket fire toward Mukha killed Deputy Chief of Staff General Ahmed Said al-Yafei, one of President Hadi’s most senior commanders and an architect of the Red Sea offensive. (His replacement had yet to be named by end-February.)
Later the same week the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that some 25,000 people – the vast majority of Mukha’s population – had fled the town due to the fighting, and that “the main hospital is functioning at minimum capacity and there are reports of scores of dead bodies in the street.”
Among the many military actions elsewhere in the country in February were the intermittent Saudi-led coalition airstrikes around Sana’a. Early in the month several of these struck ostensibly military targets, however on February 15, OCHA reported that airstrikes on a funeral gathering in the Arhab district killed six women, one child, and wounded at least 15 other civilians.
Zone of control in Yemen as of February 28, 2017
Meanwhile, AQAP stepped up its attacks against both pro-Hadi forces and the Houthi-Saleh alliance throughout February. In the first 10 days of the month AQAP fighters captured three towns in northern Abyan and briefly occupied several neighbourhoods in the city of Lowder, assassinated two Houthi-Saleh commanders in Ibb governorate and then clashed with Houthi-Saleh forces in the governorate’s al-Sayyani and Udayn districts.
Through mid-February AQAP was suspected of being behind a rocket attack against UAE-affiliated forces in the capital of Hadramaut governorate, Mukalla, and responsible for the assassination of a local official and three others in the city of Araq, Shabwa governorate.
In the last seven days of the month AQAP ambushed a government convoy in the Lawder district of Abyan governorate and captured military hardware, attacked a Houthi-Saleh convoy in Qayfa, al-Bayda’ governorate, with an improvised explosive device, ambushed other Houthi-Saleh units in the town of al-Zuqab, destroyed a police complex in Shabwa governorate and initiated an attack on the government-held Najda military base in Abyan governorate with a massive a suicide car bomb. On the last day of February Southern Movement leader Hassan Hanshal al-Awlaqi was then assassinated in Ataq, in what is also suspected to be an AQAP operation.
Infighting amongst pro-Hadi forces
In the last week of January, Salafist groups in Taiz seized control of the city’s main administrative institutions in areas outside of Houthi-Saleh control. This sparked intermittent street battles since between the Salafists and other groups, primarily Islah (the Muslim Brotherhood Party in Yemen). In the almost complete absence of government institutions capable of policing the city, areas of Taiz under government “control” have experienced severe insecurity and the rise of criminal gangs. Notable events last month included the February 13 assassination attempt against an Islah leader and the February 23 attack on the market in the al-Koba area – gunmen opened fire on civilians, killing four and wounding nine, in what was reportedly a dispute between competing extortion rackets operating in the market.
On February 25 dozens of residents took to the streets to protest the lack of security, with the relative decrease in security-related events in government-held areas towards the end of the month being attributed to AQAP, whose affiliates were able to mediate between the various anti-Houthi groups.
Meanwhile in the government-held southern city of Aden, soldiers protecting the airport, under the command of Saleh al-Omeri, shut down the facility for part of February 10 in protest of not having received their wages. The following day President Hadi sent presidential guard units to the airport to replace al-Omeri’s soldiers, resulting in a gun battle between the two when the latter refused to step down. The situation escalated when Salafist units in the area attempted to reinforce al-Omeri – both of whom receive substantial backing from the United Arab Emirates – after which an Emirati helicopter gunship opened fire on a Presidential Guard vehicle, killing multiple soldiers.
Negotiations followed, the fighting subsided and the airport officially reopened the next day with al-Omeri’s men still in control, though Yemenia Airlines continued to cancel or reroute flights to and from Aden. This incident is emblematic of the deep rifts that have developed within the military forces fighting against the Houthi-Saleh alliance, and specifically between President Hadi and the UAE. Shortly after the incident Hadi was in Riyadh, reportedly to discuss the airport battle with Saudi and Emirati government representatives.
Throughout February disputes within the Houthi-Saleh alliance continued to prevent the appointment of a successor to Ali al-Jaifi, the head of the Republican Guard who was killed in the Saudi-led coalition airstrike on a funeral gathering in Sana’a in October 2016.
Later in the month tension also arose between the two allies in the Ibb governorate when Houthi affiliates began issuing local building permits, directly contradicting and overstepping the authority of ministry officials in Sana’a loyal to Saleh. It is important to note that, as the severity of the economic crisis has continued to intensify, licensing and official permits have become an important source of cash, though Saleh’s long-standing patronage networks within the state bureaucracy are now competing with new, parallel Houthi networks for these revenues.
In Houthi-controlled Dhamar governorate, south of Sana’a, escalating local frustration and resentment against the Houthis led to armed clashes in the Utma district, with Houthis fighters being captured and killed in skirmishes in the latter half of the month. The Houthis responded to this resistance by kidnapping prominent locals who had been vocal in their opposition, and destroying the homes of others. Numerous reports suggested the Houthis were employing similar methods of repression against the local population in various areas of the Taiz governorate.
Continuing humanitarian crisis
UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization declared in February that “Yemen is facing the largest food security emergency in the world”, and that “[c]urrent estimates indicate that existing supplies of wheat in the country will last until the end of March 2017.” This followed the February 8 UN launch of an international appeal for aid amounting to $2.1 billion to “provide life-saving assistance to 12 million people in Yemen in 2017”. It is the largest ever consolidated humanitarian appeal for Yemen.
In announcing the appeal OCHA noted that the conflict has left 18.8 million people – more than two thirds of the population – in need of humanitarian assistance; some 10.3 million Yemenis are acutely affected and require “some form of immediate humanitarian assistance to save and sustain their lives.” This includes food, healthcare, clean water and protection. Some 3.3 million people, including 2.1 million children, are acutely malnourished.
A February 21 UN report stated that since 2015 the conflict has displaced some 3 million Yemenis, but that some one million have since returned. “It’s testament to how catastrophic the situation in Yemen has become, that those displaced by the conflict are now returning home because life in the areas to which they had fled for safety is just as abysmal as in the areas from which they fled,” said the UNHCR’s Country Representative for Yemen, Ayman Gharaibeh. “Those attempting to return face tremendous challenges… They often return to homes that have been damaged, in areas lacking essential services. They still need humanitarian aid and are often forced to flee their homes again. These returns cannot be viewed as sustainable.” (Among those most recently displaced are some 44,000 people who have fled their homes because of the surge of fight in Taiz province, including those from Mukha.)
On February 26, The Ministry of Public Health and Population in Yemen released figures showing that since the end of January 2017 there had been 1,610 new suspected cases of cholera reported, including 4 deaths. The report said there appeared to be a decline in the rate of new cases per week, with 80% of the new cases in this latest report located in 13 districts in the Al Hudaidah, Dhale, Hajjah and Taiz governorates. In a subsequent briefing spokesperson Christophe Boulierac from the UN Children’s Fund said every 10 minutes a Yemeni child under the age of five is dying from a preventable disease – such diarrhoea, pneumonia or measles – due to almost half the country’s medical facilities being out of service.
The dangers and difficulties aid agencies face while trying to operate in Yemen were also made apparent in two high profile incident in February. On February 14, six aid workers and a driver for the Norwegian Refugee Council were arrested by Houthi-Saleh forces while attempting to distribute aid in Hudaidah city; they were released again a week later “in good condition”, according to the NRC, which called the incident a “misunderstanding.” On February 28, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien – after having secured guarantees of safe passage from all parties – had his convoy turned back from entering besieged areas of Taiz at a Houthi-Saleh checkpoint. In a statement OCHA reported that: “O'Brien was extremely disappointed that humanitarian efforts to reach people in need were once again thwarted by parties to a conflict, especially at a time when millions of Yemenis are severely food insecure and face the risk of famine.”
Currency volatility and the loss of food reserves
Currency volatility was apparent last month, with the Yemeni rial falling as much as 20% in value against the US dollar in black market trading through the first half of February, before market interventions in both Sana’a and Aden helped the domestic currency to regain lost ground and stabilize. The interventions included the Houthi-Saleh authorities forbidding fuel and food importers from purchasing foreign exchange on the market for 30 days, and implement new measures against currency speculation. In parallel, the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) governor in Aden, Monasser Al Quaiti, met with exchange companies and banks to discuss currency stabilization, assuring them that the Aden-based Central Bank was soon to receive significant foreign exchange support.
Currency stability is a critical issue for Yemen, given that previous to the conflict the country imported 90% of its basic food stuffs. Worryingly, however, was that through February Yemen’s largest bulk wheat and rice importers reported their continued inability to access import guarantees from the CBY, a primary driver of the country’s food insecurity. In an effort to help make up for the loss of these commercial food imports and stave off famine, a World Food Program chartered cargo vessel was able to dock at Hudaidah port on March 1, where it planned to offload 14,000 metric tons (mt) of wheat, before heading to Aden to offload another 6,000 mt.
Imports are being further hampered, however, by the challenges facing Yemen’s ports. Hodeidah, along the Red Sea coast, was previously one of Yemen’s busiest ports but had its offloading capacity severely curtailed by damage from Saudi-led coalition airstrikes early in the conflict – despite this it and the smaller Saleef port to the north continue to import the majority of Yemen’s bulk food items such as wheat and rice. Hudaidah’s port facilities were also briefly forced to cease operations last month by the coalition, which demanded cargo ships offload in Aden instead; insecurity in the southern port city, and security and logistics challenges transporting goods around Yemen from Aden, however, continue to make it unattractive for importers.
In the later half of February, the Houthi-Saleh authorities imposed a customs duty on all commercial trucks entering Houthi-Saleh controlled governorates, effectively doubling the customs duty already paid by traders at the ports. Almost immediately there were reports from Sana’a that numerous pharmaceutical drugs had risen in price, some by as much as 35%. On February 22, the Yemeni Chamber of Commerce issued a letter protesting the new duty fee and threatening to redirect their business to markets in Hadi controlled areas.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of Yemen’s public sector workers – who made up one-third of Yemen’s employed workers pre-conflict – continued to go without their wages in February, as they have since August 2016, perpetuating the collapse of public services and the slide into extreme poverty for millions of people.
In a sign that some economic relief may be on the horizon, President Hadi announced on February 20 that the Saudi government has agreed to deposit $2 billion as currency support at the CBY in Aden, and offered billions more in reconstruction aid to government-held areas.
As of March 2, 2017, this financial support had yet to materialize.
- The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of March 2, received 2.3% of the USD $2.1 billion it has appealed for to implement its humanitarian response plan for Yemen in 2017.
- In the month of February, 38 vessels applied for clearance from the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM); 27 requests for clearance were issued certification and the average time to issue clearance was 34 hours, an average of six hours less than the month before. A total of 413,343 metric tons (mt) of cargo was approved through the UNVIM in February, consisting of 207,906 mt of food, 73,782 mt of fuel and 131,655 mt of general cargo. This is a decrease by a total of 153,003 mt of cargo from the month before.
Yemen at the UN is a monthly report produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies to identify and assess UN-led efforts to resolve the crisis in Yemen. Through this analysis, Yemen at the UN aims to provide readers with an understanding of the international political context that accompanies developments on the ground.
In January, the UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ismael Ould Cheikh Ahmed entered a period of shuttle diplomacy in an attempt revive the same peace proposal he’d put forward in December 2016 – a proposal Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi had at that time flatly rejected. The UN 2140 Sanctions Committee’s Panel of Experts reported last month that neither side in the conflict has “demonstrated sustained interest in or commitment to a political settlement or peace talks”, while pro-Hadi forces appear poised to further capitalize on recent battlefield advances.
UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien said the Yemeni conflict is driving the single largest food insecurity crisis in the world and warned of the likelihood of famine in 2017; simultaneously the UN and humanitarian partners launched the largest ever international humanitarian appeal for Yemen: US$2.1 billion to provide life-saving assistance to some 12 million people.
A continuing liquidity crisis has left most civil servants – approximately one-third of employed Yemenis – without salaries for a fifth month in a row, while disparate efforts by President Hadi’s government and the Houthi-Saleh alliance to address the liquidity crisis threaten to further undermine the rial’s value.
US President Donald Trump’s also took office in January and authorized his first foreign policy actions related to Yemen. These included a US Navy SEAL raid on a suspected Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula compound in the Al-Bayda governorate. The raid left 25 civilians dead, including 9 children under the age of 13. Also killed were 14 AQAP members and one SEAL commando, while four SEALs were injured and a $70 million US Navy aircraft destroy; the White House Press Secretary called the event a “successful operation by all standards.”
Continued shuttle diplomacy
In mid-January the UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed began a new round of shuttle diplomacy. This was an attempt to revive a peace proposal he had put forward in December to bring the fighting to a halt, but which had been rejected by the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. After visiting Riyadh, Doha and Muscat for talks with various government officials, Ould Cheikh Ahmed travelled to Aden to again meet with President Hadi, before also traveling to Sana’a to meet representatives from the Houthi movement and the allied General People’s Congress (GPC), loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Following his meetings with the warring parties, the Special Envoy informed the Security Council during a January 26 briefing in New York that his office had completed preparations for a five-day planning meeting, which will include a workshop for the De-escalation and Coordination Committee (DCC), whose members include representatives from the main warring parties. The aim of the DCC is to develop a joint implementation plan to ensure the success and sustainability of a cessation of hostilities, with Ould Cheikh Ahmed noting that Jordan had expressed willingness to host the planning meeting.
During the briefing the Special Envoy emphasized the immense suffering the conflict has brought the Yemeni people, that with “political courage and will” a resolution is still within reach but that a military solution to the war is not possible.
The UN 2140 Sanctions Committee’s Panel of Experts then met on January 27 to discuss the panel’s report which, among other things, stated that neither side in the conflict has “demonstrated sustained interest in or commitment to a political settlement or peace talks.” The panel also noted that while there had possibly been small-scale weapons shipments from Iran to the Houthis, it had not seen sufficient evidence to confirm any large-scale Iranian weapons shipments.
January witnessed an intensification of fighting on multiple fronts. Pro-Hadi forces, heavily supported by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, launched attacks in the vicinity of Nehem, east of Sana’a, which, if it fell, would threaten Houthi-Saleh forces’ control of the capital and represent a major strategic and tactical victory for Hadi.
Along the south-western coast of Yemen fighting intensified as pro-Hadi forces launched operation "Golden Spear" to take control of Mocha and by January 30 they had had been successful in capturing large parts of the town and surrounding areas. Heavy fighting continued in central Mocha, where Houthi-Saleh forces withdrew after losing the port. Fighting in and around Mokha has resulted in a large number of civilians being displaced, with the UN estimating up to 30,000 had relocated to safer areas within Taiz or surrounding governorates. A large number of civilians were also trapped within Mokha itself, facing an increasingly dire humanitarian situation.
Given pro-Hadi forces’ military advances in January, and the new administration of U.S. President Donald Trump taking office – which has expressed support for the Saudi-led military intervention backing Hadi – it seems highly likely that Hadi will seek to push the initiative for further military gains, seeking to placing his government in a more advantageous position in eventual negotiations.
Indeed, in an event that was perhaps telling of the UN Special Envoy’s chances of securing a cessation of hostilities in the near-term, on January 30 the building in Dhahran Al-Janoub, Saudi Arabia, from which UN officials and DCC members were meant to monitor ceasefire violations, was itself damaged by rocket fire. In a statement, Ould Cheikh Ahmed expressed regret over the incident while refraining from blaming any side; Saudi news agencies, however, reported that the building had been hit by Houthi Katyusha rockets.
New UN humanitarian appeal
Also in a January 26th briefing to the Security Council, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien said the Yemeni conflict is driving the single largest food insecurity crisis in the world, and warned of the likelihood of famine in 2017 if immediate action is not taken. Twelve days later, the UN and humanitarian partners launched an international appeal for US$2.1 billion to provide life-saving assistance to some 12 million people in Yemen in 2017. It is the largest consolidated humanitarian appeal for Yemen ever.
An estimated 18.8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection – including 10.3 million people in need of immediate humanitarian assistance, including life-saving access to food, drinking water and medical services. Nearly 3.3 million people – including 2.1 million children – are acutely malnourished while 2 million people remain internally displaced. The recorded death toll in Yemen has surpassed 10,000.
Continuing liquidity crisis, inflation fears
The UN response plan also warned that the country is in social, economic and institutional collapse. A major contributing factor is that most public sector workers – approximately a third of wage-earning Yemenis – have not received salaries since August 2016 due to a severe liquidity crisis; Yemen is overwhelming a cash economy, and there has been an acute shortage in physical banknotes to pay civil servants.
Early last month, it was reported that a significant shipment of Yemeni rial banknotes arrived from printers in Russia to the Central Bank of Yemen, whose headquarters was relocated to Aden in September 2016. However, it is not clear how quickly this currency would be distributed and to which areas of the country. On the January 24 the CBY in Aden made its first public sector wage payments to civil servants in Houthi-Saleh control areas, though these payments were limited to educational staff. It is important to note that the cash transfer was not completed through the CBY’s own facilities and staff in Sana’a, but rather through an agreement with the private microfinance bank Al-Kuraimi. Authorities in Sana’a have threatened to punish banks cooperating with the Aden based CBY. This, in combination with continued lack of communication between CBY facilities in Sana’a and Aden, presents significant challenges to any future efforts to pay government wages.
Meanwhile, in an effort the circumvent the liquidity crisis themselves, at the beginning of January the Houthi-Saleh authorities in Sana’a directed central bank staff at the former CBY headquarters in the capital to explore the possibility of implementing a cashless electronic payment system using mobile phones. Central bank staff have since been examining the successful rollout of a similar model that was implemented in Kenya.
Both efforts to address the liquidity crisis have raised concerns, however, regarding a further devaluation of the Yemeni rial, given that neither the Hadi government in Aden nor that Houthi-Saleh administration in Sana’a has secured significant foreign currency reserves to back an increased supply of domestic currency. The black market exchange rate for the rial at the end of January was roughly YR330 to the US dollar, compared to YR215 to the US dollar when the Saudi-led intervention began in March 2015.
Trump’s first moves in Yemen
On January 20, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States, and between then and the end of the month his office authorized at least six US drone strikes aimed at suspected Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operatives in Yemen.
A week after his inauguration, President Trump signed an executive order barring citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Yemen among them, from entering the United States; a US federal judge and appeals court later suspended the Trump’s immigration order. Two days later after the signing of the order, on January 29, US Navy SEALs conducted a raid on a village in the Al-Bayda governorate. Death tolls vary slightly, however villagers report 25 civilians killed, including 9 children under the age of 13; AQAP reported 14 members killed. A US Navy SEAL commando was also killed, four wounded and a $70 million US Navy Osprey aircraft was destroyed. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer dubbed the event a “successful operation by all standards.”
The navy destroyer USS Cole was then ordered to patrol Yemen’s Red Sea coast to help protect shipping lanes in the Bab Al Mandeb strait, following a Houthi attack on a Saudi frigate using a “drone boat” at the end of January. On February 3, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn issued a statement on Iran through the White House press secretary in which he described the Houthis as one of Iran’s “proxy terrorist groups.”
This is the first time a US administration has called the Houthis a “terrorist” group. Should this shift in language, and perhaps policy, outlast Flynn’s time in office, it has the potential to complicate Washington’s future engagement in the conflict; the newly minted National Security Advisor was forced to resign amid controversy after just 24 days, the shortest tenure in the 63-year history of the office.
- The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of February 9, received only 1.8% of the USD $2.1 billion it has called for to implement its humanitarian response plan in Yemen for 2017.
- In the month of January, 40 vessels applied for clearance from the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM). Twenty-nine certificates of clearance were issued and the average time to issue clearance was 40 hours. A total of 566,346 metric tons (mt) of cargo was approved through the UNVIM in January, consisting of 294,550 mt of food, 117,020 mt of fuel and 154,776 mt of general cargo. In January also, the UNVIM released the data for November and December, with a total cargo of 585,572 mt and 628,858 mt respectively.
Yemen at the UN is a monthly report produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies to identify and assess UN-led efforts to resolve the crisis in Yemen. Through this analysis, Yemen at the UN aims to provide readers with an understanding of the international political context that accompanies developments on the ground.
A Track II Initiative
This two-year project is an initiative to identify Yemen’s economic, humanitarian, social and development priorities in light of the ongoing conflict in Yemen, and to prepare for the post-conflict recovery period. It aims to build consensus in crucial policy areas through engaging and promoting informed Yemeni voices in the public discourse. The aim is to ensure successful economic, humanitarian, social and development interventions in the conflict and post-conflict periods in Yemen, which will address the needs and rights of the Yemeni people and put the country on a path toward sustainable peace and development. The project is implemented by the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies (SCSS) in partnership with the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO) and DeepRoot Consulting. It is funded by the European Union and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Yemen.
Project duration: March 2017 – February 2019
In December, the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi officially rejected the latest UN proposal to end the conflict in Yemen. The Hadi government then laid out new conditions for any future peace agreement that effectively preclude the possibility of a negotiated end to the war.
The Houthi movement and allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh sought out but failed to garner international recognition for their recently formed “Government of National Salvation” (GNS), following which the GNS was affirmed through a vote of confidence in the Houthi-Saleh controlled Parliament in Sana’a.
While there were no formal UN meetings regarding Yemen in December, the so-called “Quad” multilateral group – consisting of the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – met and later presented a united front calling for the implementation of the UN peace plan, while simultaneously the outgoing Obama administration canceled a $350 million arms deal for Saudi Arabia, citing Saudi bombings of Yemeni civilians.
Terrorist attacks in Aden underlined the Hadi government’s inability to enforce security in its zones of control, Yemeni government institutions continue to collapse, and a new Secretary General and five new non-permanent members usher in a new term for the UN Security Council.
Yemeni government rejects UN peace plan
On December 1, the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, met with Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Aden. Hadi, and a portion of the internationally recognized government of Yemen, had arrived in Aden only a week earlier. This was the second time Hadi had visited Aden since he moved with most of his government to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in March 2015.
Subsequently, on December 6, Hadi’s delegation to the UN submitted a letter to the UN Secretary General and the president of the Security Council stating the official position of the Yemeni government. The letter asserts that the Special Envoy’s current peace plan fundamentally contradicts various UN Security Council resolutions, statements and other international agreements, and that the Hadi government considers it a “free incentive to the Houthi-Saleh rebels, legitimizing their rebellion, their agenda, and the establishment of a new phase of the bloody conflict…[it also] creates a dangerous international precedent, encouraging coup trends against elected authorities and national consensus.”
The letter then states that for “any political solution” to be agreeable, former President Ali Saleh, Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, “all those included in the Security Council sanctions regime, and all those with proven involvement in the coup or have committed crimes against civilians, must leave political life and leave the country with their families into self-imposed exile for a period of at least ten years, as well as the implementation of international sanctions against them.” These conditions effectively represent Hadi’s rejection of all current international efforts towards ending the Yemeni conflict, with the letter widely viewed in international circles as an attempt to dictate the outcome of any future negotiations before the negotiations have taken place.
This created obvious challenges for the Special Envoy’s efforts moving forward. Through the later half of last year there had been growing general consensus among UN Security Council member states that Hadi was incapable of heading any post-conflict government in Sana’a, given his government’s track record of corrupt and inept leadership, and that Hadi personally is widely despised in Yemen. Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s latest proposal to restart the peace process thus laid out steps by which Hadi would relinquish power following the formation of a new transition government.
Hadi’s official rejection of the Special Envoy’s plan last month clearly illustrated his ambitions to maintain power. The Yemeni president likely also felt his stance was bolstered by the renewed efforts his forces, and those of his Gulf allies, have recently undertaken to make advances on the battlefield in Yemen, with Hadi seeking more favourable circumstances on the ground before engaging in any future potential peace talks. Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that December witnessed an intensification of the military conflict, including clashes along the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border areas, fighting in eastern areas of Taiz city, and a resumption of fighting in Asilan district in Shabwa province in the south.
Meanwhile, through December the Houthi movement, and allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, continued attempts to legitimize the “Government of National Salvation” they had established in Sana’a the month before – a move the UN Special Envoy had described as “an obstacle” to peace efforts. These legitimization efforts included the Houthis sending a delegation to both Russia and China, though both states denied the official character of the visit and China later expressed “strong concern over the formation of a government by the Houthi group and its allies.” On December 10 the Houthi-Saleh Parliament of Yemen then granted the “Government of National Salvation” a vote of confidence.
Multilateral efforts to bolster the UN process
While there were no formal meetings at the UN regarding Yemen last month, on December 18, foreign ministers from the so-called “Quad” multilateral group – consisting of the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – met with the UN Special Envoy for Yemen and the Omani Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs. Oman has remained neutral in the Yemeni conflict and was the only Gulf Cooperation Council state not join the Saudi-led military coalition supporting the Hadi government. (It should be noted that a number of media outlets have recently reported that Oman joined the military coalition, but this information is inaccurate; Oman in fact joined a different Saudi-led effort focused on counterterrorism issues.) Both the international community and the warring parties in Yemen have regarded Oman’s role positively, making it increasingly likely that any negotiated settlement to the conflict will be facilitated through Muscat.
At the December 18 meeting discussions revolved around the peace proposal the UN Special Envoy put forward on October 23, 2016 – which had been endorsed by Quad members and, initially at least, rejected by all three of the main warring parties in Yemen. Through a US State Department communiqué on Yemen released following the meeting, attendees to the Quad meeting welcomed the decision by the Houthis and elements of the General People’s Congress (GPC), loyal to Saleh, to reverse course and endorse the Special Envoy’s roadmap on November 16. The communique then called on the Houthi-Saleh alliance to urgently engage with the Special Envoy’s security plan, which requires the Houthis and Saleh’s forces to withdraw from territory they have seized during the conflict and hand over their medium and heavy weapons.
The communique stated that “[t]he UN proposals, that include the sequencing of political and security steps, represent an outline for a comprehensive agreement whose details will be settled in negotiations” – effectively a rejection of the conditions the Hadi government had laid out in its December 6 letter to the UN Security Council. In what was presumably an effort to reassure President Hadi on the sequencing of elements in the Special Envoy’s plan however, the Quad communique also stated that “[t]he transfer of presidential authorities will not take place until the parties begin implementation of all political and security steps.”
The US Secretary of State and the Saudi foreign minister held a press conference following the Quad meeting to share the purposes and outcomes of the discussion and affirm their support for the UN Special Envoy’s peace plan, reiterating their calls for a cessation of hostilities and an end to the conflict in Yemen.
On December 13, the Obama Administration, with less than six weeks left in office, announced it had blocked a $350 million arms deal between American weapons manufacturer Raytheon and the Saudi government for the sale of “smart” munitions. Administration officials cited concerns about civilian casualties in Yemen that have resulted from Saudi coalition airstrikes, noting in particular the Saudi bombing of a funeral hall in Sana’a in October 2016 which killed well over 100 people and wounded more than 500. (Whether the incoming Trump administration will uphold Obama’s intervention in this arms deal is yet to be seen.)
Shortly afterward, it became public knowledge that UK Minister of Defence Michael Fallon had received evidence that the Saudi-led coalition had been using British-made cluster munitions in Yemen. On December 19th, the Saudi government then announced its military coalition would no longer use of cluster bombs in Yemen.
Widespread insecurity and collapsing government services
The persistent ineffectiveness of Hadi’s security forces has been fueling doubts amongst international stakeholders regarding the Hadi government’s ability to maintain peace and stability in the country following any successful peace negotiations.
The domestic military forces fighting on behalf of Hadi are largely disorganized and often improperly trained, with the internationally recognized government becoming ever more reliant on the Saudi-led coalition’s air power to keep it actively involved in the conflict. At the same time, in many areas supposedly under the control of the Hadi government, the lack of an organized and coordinated security force has resulted in a security vacuum that has allowed terrorist organizations, including ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Yemen, to proliferate.
On December 10, a suicide bombing near a military base in Aden killed 57 people. On December 18 a similar attack occurred in the same area – a suicide bomber disguised as a disabled police officer entered a crowd of security personnel outside the house of a Yemeni commander and detonated his explosive. The second attack killed 48 and wounded 84, with ISIS claiming responsibility for both attacks. This last attack was the fifth incident of its kind since pro-Hadi forces gained control of Aden in July 2015, and the two incidents last month happened while Hadi and members of his government were in Aden.
Meanwhile, as the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate – Yemen is already listed as a level three humanitarian crisis, the highest designation the UN has – government institutions that would otherwise be responding are witnessing a continuing deterioration of their capacity to do so, in large part due to the continuing non-payment of public servant wages since August 2016. Of particular importance is the devastating effect this has had on the healthcare sector, with hospitals increasingly being left without the staff, supplies and fuel necessary to provide medical services. Sanaa Center research in December identified the crippling challenges facing public health institutions at all levels, from the ministry offices down to local clinics.
Sana’a Center surveys last month found that the UN and other international humanitarian organizations operating in Yemen have, in many instances, resorted to providing financial incentives to key public sector employees to keep them at their posts and performing essential duties. The severe shortage of physical banknotes in circulation is, however, hampering the efforts of all international and local organizations, as is the interference of local powerbrokers, especially in Houthi/Saleh controlled areas, and the current difficulty in gathering accurate data on the health situation in the various governorates.
Importers have also reported that the persistent difficulty in accessing foreign exchange, as well as transportation and logistic challenges arising from the conflict, are hobbling their ability to restock the country’s reserves of basic foodstuffs. Yemen is almost entirely dependant on imports to meet the population’s food requirements and many areas of the country are already facing imminent famine; unless there is a rapid improvement in the quantity and distribution of food imports in the near term, widespread starvation is a likely.
New UN Secretary General, Security Council members
Antonio Guterres began his first term as UN Secretary General in January 2017, though it is unclear how Guterres will differ from Ban Ki Moon in his approach to the Yemeni crisis. However, the decade Guterres spent as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has given him a significant background with humanitarian crises, and he is familiar with Yemen: in January 2011, Guterres made a three-day visit to the country, during which he visited Yemen’s northern governorate of Sa’ada where he met with elected government officials and Houthi representatives.
The 15-member UN Security Council also saw changes in its non-permanent membership on January 1, 2017, with Bolivia, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Italy, and Sweden joining the council for two-year terms, replacing Angola, Malaysia, New Zealand, Spain, and Venezuela. It is not yet clear how this turnover will impact Security Council activity relating to the Yemeni crisis, however Malaysia, New Zealand, Spain, and Venezuela were among the most vocal member states during their tenure in highlighting the humanitarian crisis, the war’s effects on children, and calling for a cessation of hostilities. They also repeatedly raised the Yemeni situation at closed-door council meetings, attempting to critically assess the work of the UN Special Envoy and push for greater efforts to resolve the conflict. In the upcoming Security Council session, it is likely that Sweden and Bolivia will be the strongest advocates for international action to stop the war in Yemen, due to both being relatively free from direct influence by Gulf countries and, especially in the case of Sweden, having strong human rights records.
- The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of December 31, received only 60% of the USD $1.63 billion it has called for to implement its 2016 humanitarian response plan in Yemen. The $655 million shortfall rolled over into 2017.
- As of this writing, the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM) had not reported the number of cargo vessels that had applied for or received permission to offload in Yemen in November and December, as it has for every other month since it started operating in May 2016.
Yemen at the UN is a monthly report produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies to identify and assess UN-led efforts to resolve the crisis in Yemen. Through this analysis, Yemen at the UN aims to provide readers with an understanding of the international political context that accompanies developments on the ground.
In November, United States Secretary of State John Kerry announced that he had reached an agreement between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Houthi movement to end the fighting in Yemen. He did so, however, without obtaining the agreement of the internationally recognized government of Yemen, one of the war’s main belligerent parties. The ceasefire was almost immediately violated and quickly failed.
The opposition Houthis and allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced the formation of a new government in Sana’a. The move was seen as an attempt to redress public outrage at the opposition’s brutal, corrupt and inept governance, as well as shore up the strained Houthi-Saleh alliance. The result is a government with a sprawling array of ministerial portfolios with vast overlaps of responsibility and authority. While the UN Special Envoy to Yemen called the move “a concerning obstacle to the peace process”, a position shared by various Security Council member states, the council as a whole was unable to agree to a statement in this regard.
Meanwhile, the country’s humanitarian crisis continues unabated. New and more precise UN data than previously available estimated 18.8 million Yemenis require humanitarian assistance and 10.3 million are in acute need. The dramatic drop in food imports is accelerating the onset of catastrophic famine, there is spreading cholera outbreak, and 2016 looks set to end with the international community having committed only slightly more than half the money necessary to fund the UN’s emergency humanitarian response plan for Yemen.
A failed ceasefire
On November 15 in Abu Dhabi, the U.S. Secretary of State Kerry announced that the Houthis, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had agreed to a cessation of hostilities in Yemen beginning on November 17. Kerry had met with Houthi representatives the day before in Oman, following which, Kerry said, the Houthis had agreed to a ceasefire and to proceed with peace negotiations based on the new roadmap presented by the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed.
Among the primary tenets of Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s roadmap were that Houthi fighters and the allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh would withdraw from the cities of Sana’a, Taiz and Hodeidah and turn over their heavy and medium weapons; a new national unity government would then be formed and a new vice president appointed to whom the current transitional president, Abd Mansour Hadi, would transfer power, and the new government would then oversee the country’s political transition. It was generally understood that this peace plan would lead to Hadi’s removal from power and the political process.
Before announcing the ceasefire Kerry had, however, failed to secure the consent of Hadi himself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Hadi-led government rejected the ceasefire and the new roadmap outright, claiming that it was never consulted on the cessation of hostilities and that the peace plan departs from UN Security Council resolution 2216 which, among other things, calls for the reinstatement of the Hadi government in Sana’a and the full implementation of the GCC Initiative.
Kerry’s announced ceasefire, and another subsequently announced by the UN Special Envoy to take effect November 19, were both heavily violated and quickly rendered obsolete.
The new Houthi-Saleh Government
On November 28, the Houthi movement and the General People’s Congress (GPC), loyal to former President Saleh, unilaterally formed a new “Government of National Salvation”, comprised exclusively of members from their own ranks. Houthi spokespeople stated that this decision in no way forestalls their commitment to the international peace process. Given previous directives from the UN and individual member states specifically against taking such action, however, the formation of the new government could not have occurred without the awareness that it would almost certainly not be recognized internationally, and indeed that forming this government would be widely perceived as a provocation and an obstacle to peace.
From the Houthi-Saleh point of view, however, the move can be seen as an attempt to strengthen both their authority over areas they control, and their mutual alliance. The Houthis’ rampant corruption, repressive tactics and ineffective governance, combined with the hardships imposed by the conflict, have inflamed popular frustration and local resistance against the current ruling body, the Supreme Political Council, which the Houthis and Saleh instated at the end of July this year. The newly announced government can be seen as an attempt to address these grievances.
Tensions during the recent peace negotiations and competition over limited financial and military resources have strained the Houthi-Saleh relationship, and thus the new government can also be seen as an attempt to reassert unity. The new Houthi-Saleh government includes 42 ministerial positions, with the distribution of positions laid out such that where a minister has been drawn from one side, that minister’s deputies were drawn from the other. In trying to obtain a balance, however, there has been significant duplication in responsibilities amongst the ministerial posts. For instance, in addition to there being an interior minister, there are also two deputy prime ministers – one for “security affairs” and the other for “internal affairs”. There is also a deputy prime minister for economic affairs in addition to ministers for finance and economy.
The makeup of the new government suggests that the GPC prioritized securing ministries associated with finance and revenue – such as oil and telecommunications – while the Houthis prioritized ministerial positions associated with defence, media and culture. The Houthis asserting control of the defense portfolio was likely an attempt to counterbalance the influence of the Republican Guard – a powerful, well trained and equipped military force, largely independent from the Ministry of Defence and loyal to Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh.
Following the formation of the new Houthi-Saleh government, the UN Envoy to Yemen stated that it represented “a concerning obstacle to the peace process…[and] contradict the recent commitments provided to the UN and to the United States Secretary of State John Kerry in Muscat.” Ould Cheikh Ahmed then asked the Houthis and the GPC to “re-think their approach and commitment to the peace process with concrete actions.”
On November 29, Egypt’s delegation to the UN circulated a draft statement to the Security Council condemning the so-called “Government of National Salvation.” The statement called the new government “null and void” and urged all UN member states to “withhold any support to, and official contact with, this entity.” As of this writing, however, council members were still debating whether or not to adopt or amend the statement.
Continuing humanitarian crisis
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released a Yemen 2017 Humanitarian Needs Overview. The report estimated 18.8 million Yemenis require some kind of humanitarian assistance or protection, including 10.3 million who are in acute need. The 2017 priority needs estimates are roughly 10 per cent lower than last year, though OCHA made it clear that “this decrease reflects better data collection only, and can in no way be interpreted as an ‘improvement’ in Yemen’s catastrophic humanitarian situation.”
OCHA also reported that over the last 10 months (January-October), national and international humanitarian partners have reached more than 5 million people with direct humanitarian assistance across Yemen's 22 governorates. This has been accomplished despite the access constraints imposed by the warring parties. To date, however, the 2016 Humanitarian Response Plan has received only 58 percent of its $1.6 billion funding appeal. The $684 million shortfall will be rolled over into 2017.
Last month Oxfam issued a press release stating that “Yemen's population is at risk of catastrophic hunger as food imports continue to plunge and on current trends the war torn country will effectively run out of things to eat in a few months.” A cholera outbreak also took on new urgency, with OCHA reporting 6,016 suspected cases in 86 districts, and 76 deaths.
- The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of November 30, received 58% of the US$1.63 billion it has called for to implement its 2016 humanitarian response plan in Yemen.
- As of this writing, the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM) had not reported the number of cargo vessel that had applied for or received permission to offload in Yemen in November.
- Food imports have declined drastically and from August to the start of December were on average, per month, less than half of Yemen’s needs.