The Historic and Systematic Marginalization of Yemen’s Muhamasheen Community

The Historic and Systematic Marginalization of Yemen’s Muhamasheen Community

A Muhamasheen settlement in Mafraq Hareeb in Marib Governorate on May 31, 2019 // Photo Credit: Ali Owidha

By Aisha Al-Warraq


No community in Yemen has suffered the consequences of the current war as harshly as the Muhamasheen (Marginalized), a Yemeni underclass that has experienced centuries of discrimination, exploitation and poverty. The Muhamasheen (sing. Muhamash) are commonly referred to in Yemen as the Akhdam (servants). While there are no official statistics on the size of the community, the UN has reported that there are up to 3.5 million Muhamasheen in Yemen.[1]

Prior to the current conflict, social discrimination against the Muhamasheen limited their access to education, healthcare, housing and meaningful work. As this policy brief explores, the war has compounded these vulnerabilities and the existing poverty of this group. Discrimination against the Muhamasheen has also hindered their access to humanitarian aid and made it harder for those who have been displaced by fighting to find safe shelter.

For several months this author has been conducting interviews with Muhamasheen from across Yemen about how the conflict has affected them. This policy brief presents the outcomes of these conversations, as well as recommendations to address the multi-faceted challenges this community faces.


Disputed Origins at the Core of Social Marginalization

The origins of Yemen’s Muhamasheen community are disputed. A popular belief is that the Muhamasheen are descendants of Abyssinian soldiers who occupied Yemen in the sixth century.[2] Another account traces their origins to Yemen’s Red Sea coastal plain.[3] Nuaman al-Hudhaifi, president of the National Union for the Marginalized, says the community’s marginalization stems from the overthrow and enslavement of the Najahid dynasty in the 12th century.

In a society where the social structure is partly based on lineage, the Muhamasheen’s unclear origins and existence outside tribal structures has led to centuries of descent-based discrimination. While the Hashemites, who are said to be descended from Prophet Mohammad, are at the top of Yemen’s social hierarchy in many areas of the country, the Muhamasheen — considered without origin — occupy the bottom regardless of where they live.[4] This also intersects with racial discrimination, as most Muhamasheen are dark-skinned.  


The Contours of Community Exploitation and Discrimination

Today, discrimination against Yemen’s Muhamasheen manifests in multiple ways, blending elements of both racism and a caste system. The minority group mostly resides in slums on the outskirts of cities, often without electricity, clean water or secure shelters. Low school enrollment levels have resulted in literacy levels of 20 percent among adults, according to a study by UNICEF.[5] Muhamasheen children often face harassment and bullying by teachers and other students at school, leading to high drop-out rates, while Muhamasheen parents sometimes withdraw their children from school so they can work.[6] According to UNICEF, just nine percent of Muhamasheen register their children at birth, and the lack of birth certificates can also be an obstacle to school enrollment.[7]

Al-Hudhaifi said that he faced less harassment at school than other Muhamasheen children in part due to his skills as a football player, which won him a place on the school football team. Al-Hudhaifi now works for the Ministry of Public Works and Roads in Taiz. In general, however, Muhamasheen are excluded from public sector jobs, except in waste management as street cleaners, where they work on daily wages and without employment contracts. In the private sector, they are typically confined to low-paid, socially-stigmatized work such as shoe-shining, car washing and collecting plastic and scrap material.

There are large Muhamasheen communities in the governorates of Hudaydah, Taiz, Ibb, Lahj, Mahweet and the coastal areas of Hajjah and Hadramawt, though the group is present in every governorate in Yemen. Discrimination is generally worse in rural areas, where Muhamasheen are often prohibited from buying land or property, according to al-Hudhaifi. Some Muhamasheen are forced to work for local tribal or village leaders, or they cultivate land for agricultural use and pay the landowners from their yield in a sharecropping-type arrangement.

No Yemeni law specifically discriminates against the Muhamasheen, yet systemic discrimination prevents Muhamasheen from accessing redress or mediation from exploitation; they face systemic prejudice in the justice system and within local governments and tribal authorities.[8]


Muhamasheen at the National Dialogue Conference

Many in the Muhamasheen community took part in the Yemeni uprising of 2011, but while the revolution eventually forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, it did little to break down discrimination against this minority. Protesters from the Muhamasheen said they faced racism and discrimination inside Change Square, the central gathering place for those participating in the uprising in Sana’a.[9] In 2012, the first ever Muhamasheen conference was held in Sana’a, but al-Hudaifi said the Muhamasheen’s vision to resolve the community’s problems was ignored by the Technical Committee for the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), which was intended to guide Yemen’s post-revolutionary political transition. The National Union of the Marginalized, which was founded in 2007 and brings together 80 civil society organizations focused on the Muhamasheen, organized rallies in January 2013 in Taiz, Ibb, al-Bayda, Aden and in front of President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s residence in Sana’a demanding a place at the NDC, after which the Muhamasheen were promised fair representation on the committee. Ultimately, this did not materialize; al-Hudaifi was the sole representative of the Muhamasheen on the 565-member NDC committee.

Despite this, al-Hudaifi said the cause of the Muhamasheen garnered attention and sympathy at the NDC. The NDC outcomes included several recommendations to improve the inclusion and status of Muhamasheen in Yemeni society.[10] The NDC recommended that legislation should be enacted to ensure the full integration of the Muhamasheen, and their enjoyment of all the rights guaranteed by the Yemeni constitution. The NDC called specifically for legislation to ensure that the Muhamasheen achieved social equality and equal opportunities, and for moral, financial and legislative support to enable the Muhamasheen to participate in the development process. Other NDC recommendations addressed improving the participation of Muhamasheen in public life, proposing a 10 percent quota for the group in public sector employment and equal access to leadership and decision-making positions.[11]

The NDC outcomes were intended to guide Yemen’s new constitution. However, while the draft constitution released in January 2015 included articles enshrining the minimum political participation of women and youth, at 30 percent and 20 percent respectively, no such quota was included for the Muhamasheen.[12] The draft constitution contained one article calling for legislative and executive actions “to raise the status of vulnerable and marginalized groups,” to promote their political, economic and social participation, and to integrate them into society. Al-Hudaifi said the failure to incorporate NDC recommendations on the Muhamasheen in the draft constitution, in particular the absence of a quota, represented “a disavowal by all national forces” of the legal rights agreed by the NDC.  


The Disproportionate Impact of the War on the Muhamasheen

The escalation of the ongoing conflict in March 2015 has greatly magnified the Muhamasheen community’s poverty, displacement and food insecurity. Although humanitarian agencies often feature the Muhamasheen in fundraising and publicity photographs documenting the Yemeni crisis, humanitarian aid to the community is far less consistent than for other groups, and in some areas the Muhamasheen have been systematically excluded from assistance.

The widespread economic collapse and loss of livelihoods driven by the conflict — between the armed Houthi movement and supporters of the internationally recognized Yemeni government — has created competition for the low-paid jobs which were once reserved for the Muhamasheen. Prior to the conflict the government’s Cleaning and Improvement Fund, which is responsible for waste management, was primarily staffed by Muhamasheen. However, garbage collectors were among the public sector workers who lost their income due to the conflict. UN agencies and other donors have stepped in to finance the Cleaning and Improvement Fund, creating livelihoods opportunities, but some Muhamasheen told the Sana’a Center that they have not benefited from these jobs, which have been taken instead by internally displaced people (IDPs) and others in need from outside the Muhamasheen community.

The Muhamasheen were among the first to be displaced in the current conflict, with the dislocation compounded by discrimination. Large communities of Muhamasheen were displaced by conflict in Aden, Taiz and Hudaydah, but have struggled to access IDP camps or shelter in public institutions, such as schools, due to prejudice from other IDPs.[13] Without tribal connections, the Muhamasheen also lack native villages to flee to. Instead, many displaced Muhamasheen who escaped frontlines have been forced to shelter in farmland, parks and public spaces, where it is difficult to access services or support. They have often been excluded from efforts by host communities and local authorities to support IDPs, and have been evicted from land where they have taken refuge.[14] For example, Muhamasheen families who fled from Saada to Amran were asked to leave agricultural land by landowners.[15] Their repeated displacement has pushed some Muhamasheen to the edges of cities and in some cases close to frontlines, increasing their vulnerability.[16]

Several other aspects of the conflict that have affected Yemenis across the country have been felt most acutely by Muhamasheen. Women and girls from the Muhamasheen have long faced a greater risk of gender-based violence than other women; during the conflict, Muhamasheen women have been more vulnerable than others to sexual violence and harassment by fighters, particularly at checkpoints.[17]

While access to healthcare in Yemen was precarious even before the current war began, the collapse of state institutions has made access far more difficult in many areas around the country. However, even where healthcare services are available, for Muhamasheen, treatment is at times denied due to discrimination; Muhamasheen, who have suffered injuries inflicted by both Houthi and anti-Houthi forces, have reported being denied treatment upon arrival at healthcare facilities.[18]


Different Areas, Similar Stories: Snapshots of the Muhamasheen Experience from Around Yemen

Bajel, Hudaydah Governorate

In Bajel district, northeast of Hudaydah City, an aid worker for an international humanitarian organization told the Sana’a Center that the Muhamasheen were rarely included on beneficiary lists. He supervises a cash-for-work project with the Cleaning and Improvement Fund which does not include any Muhamasheen beneficiaries, even though the community is disproportionately unemployed and lacking access to basic necessities in the district. The Muhamasheen’s lack of social or political power means they also lack representatives to lobby local community leaders for their inclusion, he said. Meanwhile, a supervisor for the Cleaning and Improvement Fund in Bajel said he was punished and nearly fired by his manager when he included Muhamasheen on a list of proposed beneficiaries to an international organization. His manager was under pressure from community leaders, district officials and local Houthi authorities, who insisted on vetting the list of names proposed as beneficiaries, he said.

A Muhamash who did secure work with the Cleaning and Improvement Fund in Bajel said he tried to advocate for more people from his neighborhood, al-Dhalam, to be given work through the program. Al-Dhalam is populated by Muhamasheen, most of whom live in tents without sanitation or water. He asked a local committee member, who identifies local beneficiaries for international humanitarian organizations, to include Muhamasheen from al-Dhalam as workers on the cleaning project and as beneficiaries of shelter and sanitation projects; the committee member refused and told him “these people are like cows.” While some Muhamasheen in the area do receive sporadic monthly food baskets, the aid is inconsistent and rations are often shared with families who have not been able to register, he added.

A teacher in al-Mahaniah in Bajel district told the Sana’a Center that many Muhamasheen had fled to the area to escape frontlines; they moved into existing Muhamasheen communities, which already lacked proper sanitation, contributing to increased cases of cholera.

Qataba District, al-Dhalea Governorate

In Qataba district in the northwest of al-Dhalea governorate, which is currently the site of heavy clashes between forces from the armed Houthi movement and the Saudi-led military coalition, locals told the Sana’a Center that more than 2,000 Muhamasheen families are living in precarious conditions under the constant threat of eviction by landowners. Some families live in one-room stone shelters, while others reside in tin shacks without protection from the sun in summer or insulation from the cold in winter. A Muhamash living in Qataba said the minority faced intense racism; he said that in May 2017, dozens of Muhamasheen were forcibly expelled from Qataba because a man from a local tribe intended to marry a woman from the Muhamasheen, contravening social norms. In retaliation, the man was killed by his brother and members of his tribe burned down the homes of 40 Muhamasheen families, the resident told the Sana’a Center.

Another Muhamash in Qataba told the Sana’a Center that the local community resents the distribution of aid to the Muhamasheen. Only 283 Muhamasheen families in Qataba were receiving humanitarian assistance from the World Food Programme in April, he said, emphasizing that the group needs not just food, but also health and education assistance, protection from violence, and most importantly, safe shelter. “We don’t even have a foothold in which to settle; we are threatened with eviction by force by the landowners at any time,” he said.

Taiz Governorate

The situation of Muhamasheen in Taiz, which has been an active frontline in the conflict, differs between districts, a local aid worker who manages food aid distribution in al-Qahirah district told the Sana’a Center. International organizations include Muhamasheen in beneficiary lists in Taiz, however this has created some resentment, he said. Local committee representatives and local organizations complain that the Muhamasheen are the primary recipients of international humanitarian assistance; “I don’t know if this is really the case or if this comes from a racist perspective,” the aid worker said. As in other parts of Yemen, aid distribution is irregular and unpredictable in Taiz, a resident of al-Azaez district said. Around 300 Muhamasheen households in the district were receiving monthly assistance from different organizations, but in May 2019, 200 of these households received nothing because the aid organization’s project had concluded.

Sawan district, Sana’a City

In Yemen’s capital Sana’a, Muhamasheen in Sawan district told the Sana’a Center that some people from the community have retained their jobs as street cleaners, but that conditions have become more difficult during the war. They generally do not have proper equipment for the job, collecting rubbish by hand and without gloves, exposing themselves to health risks. “Our health and personal hygiene is affected by doing this,” a street cleaner from the Muhamasheen said. His salary is 25,000 Yemeni rials per month (around US$45)[19]; the conflict-driven collapse of the Yemeni currency’s value and the inflation in food prices means that this is not enough to pay even one week’s expenses, he added.

Aden Governorate

Many Muhamasheen in Aden live in Dar Saad, an area with poor services, frequent power cuts and scarce water. Of those who are employed, most are street cleaners, although some women are domestic workers while men have earned money in work as varied as collecting scrap plastic to fighting for one of the various local militias. Some Muhamasheen in Aden also receive cash assistance or food baskets from the World Food Programme. A local activist told the Sana’a Center that Dar Saad has only a single road that was not fully paved; she noted that this was unusual for Aden, where most roads are paved even in poor areas like Basatin, which is mostly populated by Somali refugees.

Discrimination against Muhamasheen is generally less intense in Aden than in parts of northern Yemen, but it is still prevalent. The local activist has worked to create child-friendly spaces in Aden and has involved Muhamasheen children in these activities. However, she said this has caused problems with parents who refuse to let their children play with Muhamasheen children; it is a challenge to convince these parents to let their children treat their peers equally, she explained.

Marib City, Marib Governorate

The relatively high level of security in Marib has brought hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people to the city since the conflict began. In 2017, the governorate struck a deal with the internationally recognized government to keep up to 20 percent of revenues from locally-extracted resources. This has contributed to economic growth, which has also attracted IDPs.

Muhamasheen have been among the IDPs who have settled in Marib, and locals told the Sana’a Center they have observed an increasing number of Muhamasheen women begging in the city. Muhamasheen in Marib predominantly work in garbage collection and agriculture, and live in concentrated communities in several districts of the city. Internally displaced Muhamasheen reported receiving some humanitarian assistance, while civil society and humanitarian organizations provide aid targeted broadly toward those in need, which some Muhamasheen benefit from.

The rapid demographic and economic growth in Marib has led to the physical expansion of the city; for some Muhamasheen, this has meant that their dwellings which were previously on the outskirts of the city are now in the city center. This has improved their access to services, including electricity. Muhamasheen have resisted attempts by local authorities to move them from these areas. Local authorities have paved Al-Arbaeen Road in Marib City, but were forced to stop at the Muhamasheen settlement in the area, as the residents refused to leave.  


Looking Ahead: Recommendations to Address Systemic Marginalization

The following are recommendations to improve the integration and inclusion of Muhamasheen in Yemen:

  • Yemeni authorities should adopt the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference focused on the inclusion and integration of Muhamasheen communities.
    • Among the most important of these is the establishment of a quota for the participation of Muhamasheen in all government authorities and bodies. Representation at decision-making levels could be a transformative first step toward equality and the achievement of legal, economic, social, civil and political rights for the Muhamasheen.
    • The enactment of laws criminalizing discrimination on the grounds of descent or race should also be a priority.
  • Any post-conflict government should implement a comprehensive national strategy to improve access to education, health, housing and public services for Muhamasheen communities, and should provide opportunities for technical and vocational training to improve their employment prospects.
  • The government should include Muhamasheen as recipients of the Social Welfare Fund; this would contribute to alleviating the extreme poverty in the community.
  • Donor states and institutions and humanitarian organizations should insist on the inclusion of Muhamasheen in programs they support or implement in Yemen. They should also take steps to ensure that humanitarian assistance and development programs reach Muhamasheen communities, for example through cooperation with civil society organizations representing the Muhamasheen.


Aisha al-Warraq is a Researcher and Program Coordinator at the Sana’a Center.

The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover political, social, economic and security related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.


  1. “Report of the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues,” United Nations Human Rights Council Thirty-First Session, January 28, 2016. Available at Accessed June 4, 2019
  2. Robert F. Worth, “Languishing at the Bottom of Yemen’s Ladder,” New York Times, February 27, 2008, Accessed June 4, 2019.
  3.  Ibid.
  4. “From Night to Darker Night: Addressing Discrimination and Inequality in Yemen.” Equal Rights Trust, June 2018, Accessed June 4, 2019.
  5.  “UNICEF Situation Report – Muhammasheen mapping update,” UNICEF, January 2015, Accessed June 4, 2019.
  6.  “From Night to Darker Night: Addressing Discrimination and Inequality in Yemen.” Equal Rights Trust, June 2018, Accessed June 4, 2019.
  7. “UNICEF Situation Report – Muhammasheen mapping update,” UNICEF, January 2015, Accessed June 4, 2019.
  8.  Rania El Rajji, “’Even war discriminates’: Yemen’s minorities, exiled at home,” Minority Rights Group International, January 2016, Accessed June 4, 2019.
  9.  Tom Finn, “In revolt, Yemeni “untouchables” hope for path out of misery,” March 7, 2012, Reuters, Accessed June 4, 2019.
  10.  “Outcomes Document,” National Dialogue Conference, assembled by the Political Settlements Research Programme (University of Edinburgh) from non-official translations of Working Group Outcomes.
  11.  “Annual report of the UNHCHR and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General,” UN Human Rights Council 27th session, August 27, 2014, Accessed June 4, 2019.
  12.  “The 2015 Draft Yemeni Constitution,” January 15, 2015, Constitution Net, Accessed June 4, 2019.
  13.  “2019 Humanitarian Needs Overview – Yemen,” UN OCHA, December 2018, Accessed June 4, 2019.
  14.  Rania El Rajji, “’Even war discriminates’: Yemen’s minorities, exiled at home,” Minority Rights Group International, January 2016, Accessed June 4, 2019.
  15.  Ibid
  16.  Ibid
  17.  “From Night to Darker Night: Addressing Discrimination and Inequality in Yemen.” Equal Rights Trust, June 2018, Accessed June 4, 2019. 
  18.  Ibid 
  19.  Based on the exchange rate in Sana’a on May 20, 2019


An Unending Fast: What the Failure of the Amman Meetings Means for Yemen

An Unending Fast: What the Failure of the Amman Meetings Means for Yemen

By Spencer Osberg and Hannah Patchett

After three days of United Nations-mediated meetings in Amman with representatives from Yemen’s divided central bank, the delegations from Sana’a and Aden arrived at no agreement aside from a commitment to meet again.

Both before and during the talks, which began on May 14, the Sana’a Center met regularly with both delegations, as well as other Yemeni and international stakeholders. The indication from these discussions is that the meetings were another opportunity missed. A best-case scenario emerging from the talks would have been that hundreds of thousands of civil servants would receive regular salaries for the first time in three years, helping to bring an income to millions of their family members in the midst of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Meaningful progress in Amman would also have helped kickstart the Stockholm Agreement; instead, the lack of progress may now paralyze UN-mediated peace efforts.

Despite the stakes, the two delegations never met face-to-face during the talks – though they smoked shisha together one evening. UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths never showed up. Indeed, Griffiths had initially scheduled just one day for the talks, which were extended to three days only after requests for the extension from both delegations.

The primary issue dividing the parties was what to do with revenues from the three ports around Hudaydah City – Ras Issa, Saleef, and Hudaydah, the busiest ports in Yemen and the primary entry points for the country’s commercial and humanitarian shipments. The armed Houthi movement has held Hudaydah City for four years, while a ceasefire agreement in December 2018 halted an offensive – backed by the Saudi-led military coalition – to take the city at its peripheries. Revenues from the port, tens of millions of dollars annually, were estimated to have made up more than a quarter of the Houthi authorities’ income in 2018, and likely more now.

The Stockholm Agreement stipulated that revenues from the ports should be deposited in the Central Bank of Yemen’s (CBY) Hudaydah branch, and used to contribute to the payment of civil servant salaries in Hudaydah and “throughout Yemen.” Going into the talks in Amman, the government position was that the CBY in Hudaydah should be completely under the authority of the CBY in Aden. This entailed rescinding all Houthi appointments since 2014, and moving forward, the Hudaydah branch would have to follow all directives from, and report all activities to, the Aden CBY. The Yemeni government also wanted all state revenues from Hudaydah governorate – not just from the ports – submitted to the Hudaydah CBY. These would be used to pay the salaries of all public sector workers in Hudaydah, based on the 2014 payroll – meaning the removal of any Houthi-appointed personnel. Any remaining revenues were to be allocated to pay salaries of health and education staff elsewhere in Yemen that are not currently being paid. As a starting point the Houthi delegation wanted to discuss all state revenues in Yemen, with the submission of revenues from Hudaydah port to the authority of the Aden CBY being contingent on all civil servant salaries in the country being paid.

The revenues from Hudaydah’s ports were a central motivator for the Saudi-led military coalition – which backs the internationally recognized Yemeni government – launching its campaign to take the city last year, regardless of its claims of weapons smuggling through the ports. While the Stockholm Agreement would mean the Houthis giving up the ports, there were several counterbalancing factors from their perspective: full civil servant salary payments would allow them to gain revenue through taxes and increased economic activity in their areas, especially considering that most civil servants live in Houthi-controlled territory. Houthi forces also avoided a battle for Hudaydah, which would have been costly in manpower and money.

Signing a deal on Hudaydah revenues without an agreement to pay civil servant salaries country-wide would have meant only revenue losses for the Houthis, and thus was something they weren’t willing to do. For exactly that reason, the government of Yemen wanted the ports’ revenues to be used to pay civil servant salaries in Hudaydah only, rather than the whole of Yemen – as this would deprive the Houthis of an avenue to recover lost revenues. Rather, the Yemeni government delegation advocated a gradual approach of paying the salaries in Hudaydah first and then financing Hudaydah public services, with the disbursement of any remaining revenue to be agreed on at a later stage.

So after three days of UN staff running back and forth between the delegations, there were no concessions. Ultimately, the Special Envoy’s staff handed both sides a draft agreement with 14 bullet points that tried to play to a middle ground between the rival parties. However, the text left vague the question of whether or not to pay all civil servant salaries, while also essentially bypassing the contentious issue that both sides claim to be the legitimate head of the CBY. The Special Envoy’s office asked both delegations to take the draft with them and come back with comments before the next meeting, scheduled for a month from now.

The danger is thus that even if both parties accept the draft agreement, they will likely do so under differing interpretations. This lack of clarity in commitments is what has delayed the implementation of the Stockholm Agreement since December 2018. The Stockholm Agreement also stipulated that the parties’ negotiating teams would meet again on January 25 – a meeting that five months following the Sweden talks still has not happened. The strength of the commitment for the banking delegations to meet again within a month should be seen in the same light – a timeline backed by wishful thinking.

The UN Special Envoy stated in October 2018: “There’s no doubt in my mind whatsoever that this economic issue is now the overwhelmingly most important priority.” Since, however, the demonstration of Griffiths’ commitment to addressing this priority has been lacking. Of the 90-plus members of his office staff, only one is fully dedicated to the economic file, revealing a lack of willingness to build the capacity needed to mediate the economic aspects of the conflict.

That the Special Envoy initially scheduled only a single day for negotiations on this “most important priority” and then did not even attend was interpreted by both sides as a lack of seriousness on his part. As a member of one delegation told the Sana’a Center, rather than viewing the trip as an opportunity for substantive negotiations, it was “just another trip with per diems.” In the eyes of both warring parties, the talks diminished the status of the UN as a mediator. What is clear is that the UN is unwilling to be the architect of an economic deal, even while the underlying issues blocking the implementation of the Hudaydah Agreement are primarily financial and economic in nature.  

Tellingly, the warring sides have previously come to various tacit agreements to protect business interests that cross frontlines – such as excusing powerful businessmen, who are also members of Parliament, from having to attend parliamentary sessions by either of the competing legislative bodies, where their attendance might have compromised the financial dealings of both sides. Smuggling and other lucrative industries that have sprung out of the war also function seamlessly between ostensible enemies. However, as demonstrated in Amman, the desperate situation of the vast majority of the population did not beget the same concern.  

Instead of attending the meetings in Amman, Griffiths gave a briefing to the UN Security Council in which he certified that Houthi forces have withdrawn from the ports, even while Houthi-appointed port administration and security personnel remain. The absence of progress in Amman means that the Houthis continue to control the ports, essentially under UN protection, while the coalition’s justification for a battle in Hudaydah has been undermined. The government, in turn, will persist in its attempts to tighten the economic noose around the Houthis – through regulations on imports, commercial banks and money exchangers. Meanwhile, millions of ordinary Yemenis are spending another Ramadan in an unbroken fast.

Spencer Osberg and Hannah Patchett are editors at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies.

The UN and Yemen: The Need for Precisely Guided Diplomacy

The UN and Yemen: The Need for Precisely Guided Diplomacy

Martin Griffiths, UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen, briefs the Security Council on the situation in Yemen on May 15, 2019 // Photo Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elias

Dr. Gregory D. Johnsen



The conflict in Yemen is now in its fifth year with no end in sight.[1] Like most of the world’s seemingly unsolvable conflicts Yemen has ended up at the United Nations Security Council, the international community’s forum of last resort.

The UN, which has limited tools at its disposal, has responded to Yemen the same way it responds to most confusing wars: a special envoy and sanctions. This is the carrot-and-stick approach to conflict resolution. The special envoy shuttles back-and-forth between the various sides, working to convince each to sit down at the negotiating table. Lurking in the background is the other side of the equation, the threat of targeted sanctions, which the UN has imposed on five individuals in Yemen.[2]

The only problem with the UN’s approach is that it is not working. Yemen is now on its third special envoy in five years and Martin Griffiths appears no closer to success than either of his two predecessors. A divided Security Council – mostly between the US and Russia, but at times also pitting traditional allies like the US and UK against one another[3] – has meant that no new sanctions have been imposed since 2015.[4] And the sanctions the UN has imposed have unleashed a series of unintended consequences that has made the war more difficult to resolve.   

Yemen is a humanitarian disaster[5] and a political mess. It is also increasingly unlikely, regardless of what the UN does, that the country can ever be put back together again. The Security Council should be honest about what it can and cannot accomplish in Yemen. That requires not only looking back at the mistakes of the past five years, but also looking forward at what options remain to affect change in Yemen. This paper does both.

The Special Envoy: A Bad Hand Poorly Played

On February 16, 2018, UN Secretary General António Guterres appointed Martin Griffiths, a British diplomat, as his new special envoy to Yemen.[6] Initially observers were optimistic that a change in envoys might help bring the parties back to the negotiating table. After all, Griffiths’ immediate predecessor, the Mauritanian diplomat Ismail Ould Cheik Ahmed, had ended his tenure as the negotiator with whom no one wanted to meet. In May 2017, Ahmed’s convoy had been shot at during a visit to Sana’a,[7] and the Houthis later banned him from returning to the capital for perceived bias.[8] The fact that Griffiths was a British national and that the UK was also the penholder for the Yemen file at the UN, it was hinted in New York, might help streamline the process.  

That, unfortunately, has not happened. Griffiths’ first attempt to bring the warring sides together, in September 2018, failed when the Houthis refused to leave Sana’a.[9] Predictably, each side blamed the other for the false start, but ultimate responsibility rested with Griffiths who had somehow failed to predict exactly such a scenario. A few months later, in December 2018, Griffiths did manage to get the Houthis on a plane to Sweden where they met the Yemeni government for talks, but in his desperation for progress and some sort of a deal Griffiths rushed through a series of vague agreements that did more harm than good. In particular the Hudaydah Agreement was so ambiguous that both sides were able to read into the text whatever they wanted.[10] Not surprisingly, more than four months after the signing, the agreements have yet to be implemented. The Houthis unilateral withdrawal in May 2019 appears little more than a delaying tactic in which some Houthis hand over the port to other Houthis in different uniforms.[11]       

Part of the problem for Griffiths and his two predecessors is that they have been largely working from the same flawed negotiating script: UN Security Council Resolution 2216. Originally agreed to in April 2015, barely three weeks after the Saudi-led military coalition entered the war, the resolution expresses alarm at the Houthis’ “advance towards Aden” and calls on them to withdraw from Sana’a and relinquish all weapons that they have seized.

In the four years since 2216 was passed, however, the situation on the ground has changed significantly. The Houthis, despite the UN’s warning, marched into Aden and then months later were pushed back out. The Kuwait peace talks came and went without a breakthrough.[12] And the Houthis have transformed themselves from a tribal militia into a de facto state in northern Yemen. But for all these changes, Resolution 2216 has remained exactly the same.

This is important because Resolution 2216, which requires unilateral concessions from the Houthis, is part of what convinces the Saudi-led military coalition that, no matter its faults and errant bombings,[13] it still has the upper hand when it comes to international law and the UN. The Houthis took power through a coup and 2216 is essentially a roadmap to surrender.

The Houthis, of course, see things differently. In their view, they have the upper hand in this war. They hold the territory and the Saudis and Emiratis, despite years of airstrikes, have been unable to uproot them. As the Houthi foreign minister said in late 2018: “We expect this war to be very long. It is a war of bone-breaking – they break us or we break them.”[14]

Indeed, the Saudi-led military coalition is no closer to military victory now than it was when it launched Operation Decisive Storm in March 2015. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two main partners in the coalition, face largely the same military choices they did then. They can withdraw completely, essentially ceding victory to the Houthis. They can double-down and launch a ground offensive aimed at bringing the Houthis to their knees, but that would be both extremely bloody and unlikely to succeed. Or, they can simply continue to carry out airstrikes and hope for a different result. And as unappetizing and unlikely to result in success as the last option is, it is still more attractive to the Saudi-led military coalition than the first two.

That, at its most basic, is the Yemen conundrum: two sides that both see themselves as being in the stronger position. None of Yemen’s three special envoys has been able to square this circle and negotiate an end to the war. Nor is it likely that any future envoys will be able to accomplish what past ones have not for the simple reason that both the Saudi-led military coalition and the Houthis currently see war as more beneficial than peace.   

Sanctions: A Broadsword not a Scalpel     

The UN has imposed two sets of sanctions in Yemen. The first came in November 2014 and the second in April 2015. Each carried the same penalties: an asset freeze and a travel ban.[15] But instead of a carefully calibrated and deliberate campaign of economic and diplomatic pressure, the Security Council went for a knockout blow, and it missed.

Sanctions work in two ways, by applying actual pressure to an individual and by the threat of pressure to an individual. In Yemen, in 2014 and 2015, the two individuals whose behavior the Security Council wanted to change were former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and Houthi leader Abdelmalik al-Houthi. But the designation criteria for adding someone to the sanctions list was written so broadly that anyone deemed to “threaten the peace, security, and stability of Yemen” could be sanctioned. This gave the Security Council options.

Often in such a scenario sanctions would be levied against someone in either Saleh’s or Abdelmalik al-Houthi’s network, who also met the designation criteria. This would do two things. First, it would act as a warning, increasing the pressure on Saleh and Abdelmalik by placing one of their subordinates under sanctions. Second, it would give Saleh and Abdelmalik time to alter their own behavior to avoid having sanctions placed on them. Ideally, the pressure would be increased over time, as more and more subordinates are sanctioned each time getting one step closer to both Saleh and Abdelmalik al-Houthi.     

The UN, however, did none of these things. Instead, on November 7, 2014, in its first round of sanctions, it went right to the top of the pyramid, sanctioning Ali Abdullah Saleh and two top Houthi leaders.[16] Five months later, in April 2015, it sanctioned Abdelmalik al-Houthi and Saleh’s eldest son, Ahmed.[17] In the span of a few months, at the very beginning of the war, the UN sanctioned the two key decision makers whose behavior it was attempting to alter. Once it played the sanction card on Saleh and Abdelmalik al-Houthi it couldn’t play it a second time. By April 2015, the UN was effectively out of options when it came to sanctions. Instead of using sanctions as a point of leverage to influence future behavior it had used them as punishment for past actions.

Making matters worse, the sanctions the UN imposed in 2014 and 2015 had an unintended consequence, which significantly altered the course of the war. Although the sanctions the UN imposed on both groups were the same – a travel ban and an asset freeze – Ali Abdullah Saleh’s network and the Houthis were not. Saleh was the former president of Yemen, who headed an extensive network of allies and had money in foreign bank accounts. The Houthis were a tribal militia. Their leaders largely did not travel abroad and they had few international assets that could be seized. In other words, UN sanctions weren’t going to have much of an impact on the three Houthis listed by the Security Council. But Saleh was a different story. The travel ban was annoying, but it was the asset freeze that altered the balance of power in Yemen.

Saleh never had the $32 – $60 billion in assets that the 2014-2015 Yemen Panel of Experts alleged he had.[18] But he did have millions in foreign real estate and in various companies that he controlled, often through trusted relatives. He used these assets and money to sustain his network of supporters even after he resigned the presidency. Shortly before the sanctions took effect in November 2014, Saleh was able to transfer some assets and money to one of his sons, Khaled,[19] but significant portions of his finances were frozen and what wasn’t frozen was hard to access. Initially this didn’t affect him; he still had money on-hand in Sana’a and a number of loyal followers. But over time the asset freeze started to take a toll. Saleh’s network was built on a system of rewards, which was impossible to sustain without money. By July 2016, even as he was signing a deal with the Houthis to form the Supreme Political Council,[20] his network was shrinking. More than a year later, in December 2017 when Saleh broke with the Houthis, it had all but disappeared. Saleh called up old allies and one-time friends begging for help during the bloody street fighting in Sana’a, but few of them responded.[21] In the end, surrounded and outnumbered, Saleh was caught and executed by the Houthis.[22]   

UN sanctions, of course, weren’t the only reason Saleh lost his battle with the Houthis. After more than three decades in power, and nearly six years out of power, he had grown complacent and seemingly unaware of some of the operational risks he was taking each time he spoke on an unsecured cell phone. He had also failed to plan adequately for an uprising against the Houthis. But these mistakes may have been survivable with money; without it Saleh didn’t have a chance. UN sanctions had a disproportionate effect in Yemen: what barely fazed the Houthis crippled Saleh. Absent Saleh there is now no effective counterweight to the Houthis in Sana’a.

A Way Forward

So, if a new special envoy and more sanctions on the Houthis won’t make a difference in Yemen, what will? First, the Security Council – divided as it is – needs to determine what it wants in Yemen.[23] It is unlikely that the 15 members will be able to agree on a post-war roadmap for what the future of Yemen should look like, but all members can and do agree that the war should stop. Second, the Security Council needs to determine how to accomplish its goal of ending the war. Strongly worded resolutions that express alarm, call for ceasefires, and bemoan the number of civilian casualties have fallen on deaf ears for the past five years and will continue to do so for the next five unless something changes in the Security Council’s approach to Yemen.       

The Security Council needs to recognize the reality on the ground. That, like it or not, the Houthis are a part of Yemen and cannot simply be bombed out of existence. At the same time, the Houthis came to power through a coup and cannot be recognized absent truly free and fair elections. In other words, both the Saudi-led military coalition and the Houthis are going to have to compromise, something neither has been willing to do throughout the course of this war.

This is where the UN Security Council, in the absence of international leadership on Yemen, is positioned to make a difference. Instead of one-sided resolutions like 2216 or, more recently 2451, which attempted to set in stone the rather illusory gains of the Stockholm Agreement,[24] the Security Council should draft a new resolution which codifies three things: transitional arms control, sanctions removal with a snap-back option, and a port-for-port swap.

Transitional Arms Control

In a war like Yemen’s, in which neither side trusts the other, unilateral disarmament is a non-starter. The Houthis will not lay down their missiles and heavy weapons for the fear that they won’t be able to pick them up again. But what could work is transitional arms control. Under this framework, the Special Envoy would secure a pledge from each side. The Saudi-led military coalition would agree to halt all airstrikes for a period of one month, and the Houthis would agree to halt all cross-border missile strikes and the siege on Taiz for the same period. As part of this agreement, the Houthis would also be required to place their missiles and heavy weapons under lock-and-key. UN observers, which were originally part of the UN Mission to Support the Hudaydah Agreement,[25] could be stationed near these weapons depots to ensure no Saudi-led coalition airstrikes. However, the Houthis would maintain the key to the weapons depot so that in the event they once again felt threatened by coalition airstrikes they could easily retrieve their weapons.

The idea is that each side not only gives up something but also gets something in return. The Saudis give up their airstrikes, which after four years have limited utility, and receive border security from ballistic missiles. The Houthis give up their ability to strike Saudi Arabia, which rarely results in casualties, and receive an end to Saudi airstrikes.

Removal of Sanctions

Once the Houthis have begun placing their ballistic missiles and heavy weapons under lock-and-key, the 2140 Sanctions Committee should move to remove all sanctions from the five Yemenis currently listed. To begin with, Ali Abdullah Saleh is dead and no longer needs to be on the list, and his son, Ahmed, is under house arrest in the UAE and no longer a threat to the peace, security, and stability of Yemen. As for the Houthis, as mentioned above, the sanctions as currently configured aren’t having an impact on Abdelmalik al-Houthi or his key deputies. These should be removed as a reward for participating in the process of transitional arms control.

Should the Houthis stop complying, the Security Council would be in a position to re-impose sanctions. This time, however, the Security Council should take a more deliberate approach, initially focusing sanctions on Houthi figures who travel frequently to places like Lebanon, Oman, Iran and the European Union as a way of putting pressure on the movement. The Security Council would need to exercise some strategic patience as, after years of minimal impact, it will take time before Abdelmalik al-Houthi recognizes that UN sanctions can be effectively used against him.

Port-for-Port Swap

Finally, in conjunction with the transitional arms control process, the Special Envoy should negotiate a swap between the Houthis and the Saudi-led  coalition. The Houthis would agree to withdraw completely from Hudaydah and in exchange the Saudi-led coalition would agree to the re-opening of the Sana’a International Airport. As with the transitional arms control deal, each side would be giving something up but also getting something in return.

The Houthis would be finally forced to fully withdraw from Hudaydah, which they have been reluctant to do, even in the aftermath of the Stockholm Agreement. That agreement basically required the Houthis to withdraw in order to avoid an attack. This port-for-port swap would change the incentive structure, providing the Houthis with a domestic victory. Re-opening the Sana’a airport would go a long way toward relieving Yemen’s horrendous humanitarian situation. Aid could be flown directly in, and patients who can’t handle the long drive to open airports in Aden or Hadramawt could be flown out for medical treatment.

For its part, the Saudi-led military coalition could be convinced to allow the Sana’a International Airport to re-open as a way of restoring their international reputation in the wake of numerous botched bombings and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,[26] which helped spark a Congressional resolution against the participation of US troops in the Yemen war.[27] The Houthi withdrawal from Hudaydah would also alleviate Saudi security concerns over Houthi ballistic missiles being smuggled into Yemen through that port.

None of these three steps, of course, are enough to put Yemen back together again. But taken together, they would go a long way toward ending the war. They are small but doable steps, and diplomacy is often the art of making the possible real.


Dr. Gregory D. Johnsen is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. Prior to joining the Sana’a Center, Dr. Johnsen served on the Panel of Experts for the UN Security Council on Yemen from 2016 to 2018.


  1. Ruwanthika Gunaratne and Gregory D. Johnsen, “When Did the War in Yemen Begin?,” Lawfare, June 28, 2018.
  2.  Narrative Summaries, 2140 Sanctions Committee Yemen, UN Security Council.
  3.  Julian Borger, “UN agrees Yemen ceasefire resolution after fraught talks and US veto threat,” The Guardian, December 21, 2018.
  4. This is on individuals sanctioned by the 2140 committee. There have been sanctions imposed on al-Qaeda and ISIS members in Yemen.
  5. “Humanitarian crisis in Yemen remains the worst in the world, warns the UN,” UN News, February 14, 2019.
  6.  “Secretary-General Appoints Martin Griffiths of United Kingdom as his Special Envoy to Yemen,” UN Press Release, February 16, 2018.
  7.  “U.N. wants investigation into attack on Yemen envoy’s convoy,” Reuters, May 25, 2017.
  8.  “Houthis ban U.N. special envoy from Yemen for alleged bias, Reuters, June 5, 2017.
  9. Stephanie Nebehay, “Yemen peace talks collapse in Geneva after Houthi no-show,” Reuters, September 8, 2018.
  10.  “Full Text of the Hudaydah Agreement,” Office of the Special Envoy, December 13, 2018.
  11. Bethan McKernan and Patrick Wintour, “Hope for ‘Turning Point’ in Yemen after Houthis Hodeidah Withdrawal,” The Guardian, May 15, 2019.
  12. Rod Norland, “Talks to End War in Yemen are Suspended,” New York Times, August 6, 2016.
  13. Rick Gladstone, “Saudi Airstrike Said to Hit Yemeni Hospital as War Enters Year 5,” New York Times, March 26, 2019.
  14.  Robert Worth, “How the War in Yemen Became a Bloody Stalemate,” New York Times Magazine, October 31. 2018.
  15.  2140 Committee Guidelines, March 8, 2017
  16.  “Narrative Summaries,” 2140 (Yemen) Sanctions Committee, UN Security Council.
  17.  “Narrative Summaries,” 2140 (Yemen) Sanctions Committee, UN Security Council.
  18. “Final Report,” Yemen Panel of Experts, UN Security Council, February 25, 2015, pg. 44. Subsequent UN reports were unable to verify Saleh had anything close to the $32 billion that the 2015 panel alleged.
  19.  “Final Report,” Yemen Panel of Experts, UN Security Council, January 26, 2018, pgs. 43 – 46.
  20. Yemen: Houthi, Saleh council formation criticised by UN,” al-Jazeera, July 29, 2016.
  21. Author’s interview with confidential source, February 2019.
  22. Shuaib Almosawa and Ben Hubbard, “Yemen’s Ex-President Killed as Mayhem Convulses Capital,” New York Times, December 4, 2017.
  23. “You’ll be sorry’, Russia tells Britain at U.N. nerve agent attack meeting,” Reuters, April 5, 2018.
  24.  UN Security Council Resolution 2451, December 21, 2018.
  25.  UN Security Council Resolution 2452, January 16, 2019.
  26.  Julian E. Barnes, “CIA concludes that Saudi Crown Prince Ordered Khashoggi Killed,” New York Times, November 16, 2018.
  27.  S.J. 7, passed by the Senate on March 13, 2019.
Al-Qaeda’s Strategic Retreat in Yemen

Al-Qaeda’s Strategic Retreat in Yemen

By Hussam Radman

Executive Summary

In 2015, Tanzim al-Qaeda fi Jazirat al-Arab, or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), had established de facto rule in Yemen’s fifth largest city Mukalla, held swathes of territory in the east of the country and controlled strategic smuggling points across the country’s eastern coastline. The local franchise of the global militant organization had exploited the chaos instigated by the 2011 uprising in Yemen, the subsequent Houthi (Ansar Allah) insurgency and the entry of the Saudi-led military coalition int0 the conflict in 2015. In terms of territorial control, financial resources and manpower, AQAP had never appeared stronger.

There has since been a dramatic reversal of these gains. A United Arab Emirates-led counterterrorism offensive beginning in 2016, buttressed by an escalation of United States drone strikes and direct military engagement, has forced AQAP into a large-scale retreat, caused significant leadership loses, broken its lines of communication, and seen local powerbrokers turn against the group. Rather than confronting the superior military firepower of the counterterrorism forces, however, AQAP has generally withdrawn from held territory and retreated to more remote safe-havens, focusing on damage control and trying to limit its top commanders’ exposure to targeted airstrikes.

Importantly, this weakened status and concurrent drop in activity should not be regarded as an indication of the group’s absolute decline as an actor in Yemen. AQAP’s modus operandi has historically been based on cyclical calculated retreat, regrouping and re-emergence; unlike other players in the war, control of terrain is not necessarily reflective of the group’s resilience. While the uptick in US and UAE counterterrorism operations diminished AQAP in many ways, the prevailing conditions that allowed the group to flourish have only been amplifying. The ongoing conflict in the country, and the violence, insecurity, social schisms, state collapse, economic crisis and humanitarian catastrophe it has wrought, continues to feed into AQAP’s interests and create operational space for the group to re-emerge. AQAP has also shown its ability to survive and recover from the repeated losses of leadership figures, while the ongoing war in Yemen creates a natural pool of talent and experience from which AQAP can garner future recruits.

Ultimately, the means by which to end the threat of AQAP in Yemen, and beyond its borders, is through ending the conflict by way of a representative political settlement and rebuilding the state, public institutions and effective security forces. Until this is achieved the group’s strategic retreats – like those currently underway – will continue to allow for its inevitable resurgence. Current measures against AQAP will only contain, rather than eliminate, the group as a threat.

AQAP’s Roots and Expansion in Yemen

Afghanistan to the Houthi Insurgency

The roots of al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen can be found in the late 1980s with the repatriation of thousands of Yemeni nationals who had fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Army. These seasoned fighters proved useful to Ali Abdullah Saleh, then-president of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen), who used them as part of a campaign to undermine the Marxist government of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen). Following the country’s 1990 unification, Saleh continued to covertly leverage these jihadist fighters against southern socialist parties opposed to the merger of Yemen’s north and south.[1]

AQAP’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Yemen (AQY) first drew widespread attention in Western counterterrorism circles on October 12, 2000, when an attack on the United States Navy destroyer the USS Cole in the port of Aden left 17 American service personnel dead and 39 wounded. The subsequent joint US-Yemen counterterrorism offensive against AQY appeared to decimate much of the group’s manpower and operational capabilities in Yemen.[2] In 2006, however, AQY staged a public resurgence with a jailbreak that saw 23 militants escape. These included a former secretary to Osama bin Laden, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who would later become the founding leader of AQAP when the group officially announced its formation in January 2009.[3]

Attacks on Western targets resumed following the jailbreak, including a suicide bombing in Marib in 2007 that killed eight Spanish tourists, and a 2008 attack on the American embassy in Sana’a. But it was AQAP’s failed bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009 that cemented AQAP’s status among Western intelligence and security communities as the most dangerous al-Qaeda franchise. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian national sentenced to life in prison for the attempted bombing, told investigators AQAP had trained him in Yemen and ordered him to attack US targets as retaliation for the killings of militants in the country.[4]

The upheaval and state collapse that followed the 2011 Yemeni uprising, the onset of the Houthi insurgency against President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and the entry of the Saudi-led military coalition into the fray offered AQAP various new opportunities to assert itself; notably, though the fragmentation of the Yemen army in 2011, and later by claiming the populist mantle of fighting to protect Sunni Muslims against the Houthis, whose Zaidi sect is a branch of Shia Islam. Under the banner of Ansar al-Sharia – “Supporters of Islamic Law” – AQAP militants seized swathes of territory and key towns in Abyan and al-Bayda governorates.[5]

AQAP’s most significant advance came in seizing Yemen’s fifth-largest city, the strategic port of Mukalla in Hadramawt governorate, in 2015. Here, AQAP was able to stock its financial reserves through a $100 million heist of the city’s central bank branch, while the levying of fees on goods and fuel entering the port earned the group an estimated $2 million daily.[6] Meanwhile in January 2015 AQAP again demonstrated its capacity to strike targets beyond Yemen’s borders with an attack on the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, for which it claimed responsibility.[7]

AQAP’s Urban and Rural Strategies, and Local Responses

In urban areas that AQAP overtook – such as Mukalla, Zinjibar (Abyan governorate), and parts of Shabwah governorate – the group quickly asserted itself as the local governing authority. This included activating a Sharia judiciary as a substitute for the official judiciary, and administering basic public services and small-scale infrastructure projects.

In rural areas, especially in al-Bayda, Marib and Shabwah governorates, where the communities are tribal in character and operate autonomously from the state, AQAP did not seek to develop governance mechanisms. Rather, it has sought to form relations with and integrate into the local power structures without becoming the center of influence or authority. One means of pursuing tribal integration has been AQAP members marrying into the tribes, as happened with the al-Dhahab tribe in al-Bayda governorate. Another has been through financial relations – such as arms trafficking and other forms of smuggling – which makes the relationship with AQAP profitable for tribal leaders. Buttressing a tribe’s military strength against rivals has also gained AQAP fighters a favorable reception in tribal areas. Given their isolation from the state and the outside world as a whole, tribal groups in rural areas are generally indifferent to wider political concerns and operate based on local, pragmatic self-interest and longstanding tribal codes.

Pragmatism, rather than ideology, has also generally been the dominant consideration of the local urban population where AQAP has been present. In this regard the Houthi military expansion has greatly aided AQAP’s acceptance in various areas. In Aden, for instance, where AQAP had an active presence in Mansoura Directorate, Sheikh Othman and Shab city, the group’s fighters were able to establish good local relations by taking a leading role in expelling Houthi forces from the city in 2015. In doing this AQAP played heavily on sectarian rhetoric, claiming to be the protector of the Sunnis and taking up the banner of “The Resistance of the Sons of Aden” against the Houthis.[8] In response to Houthi forces seizing Aden, coalition member states had rushed arms and funds to “popular resistance” groups that had sprung up to resist the invasion, oftentimes with little vetting of the recipients. AQAP also, almost certainly, benefited from this support. However, once Houthi forces were routed, popular unease with the jihadi group returned, with most of Aden’s urban population both wary of AQAP’s extremist ideology and aware, through the group’s history of suicide bombings, that it could turn violently against them. Within months, both UAE-backed local militias and Yemeni government security forces launched a campaign to drive AQAP out of Aden which, following violent clashes, was successful.    

In Mukalla, which has not been a frontline in the ongoing war, the 2016 UAE-backed offensive to drive AQAP from the city succeeded in only three days, as AQAP lacked the local support to hold this urban area. The fact that AQAP was able to seize Mukalla in April 2015 and hold it for a year was not due to the population’s affinity for the group’s doctrine, but rather because of the lack of effective state and security structures. After establishing authority AQAP then avoided overly antagonizing the city’s inhabitants by taking a relatively accommodating and flexible approach toward the social imposition of its ideology. The generally passive, Sufi-influenced character of the city helped temper violent resistance to AQAP, as did the fact that public service delivery – including access to water, electricity and healthcare services – tangibly improved during AQAP’s reign.[9] However, when the UAE began mobilizing and training recruits for the Hadrami Elite Forces in 2016, thousands of young men seeking salaries enlisted and formed the vanguard force that entered and liberated the city from AQAP in April of that year. This would indicate that popular opposition to AQAP had existed, but was awaiting the shift in the balance of power to act, which came with the UAE intervention.

Local relations with and attitudes toward AQAP in Yemen should thus be understood as complex dynamics largely based on pragmatic considerations. These include developments in local security, political and social circumstances, and shifts in the prevailing balance of power, with unwavering ideological support for AQAP held by few.


Foreign Counterterrorism Efforts in Yemen

Almost Two Decades Of US Military Operations

Yemen has been a primary theater for US counterterrorism operations since 2000, spurred by the USS Cole attack and the reorientation of foreign policy toward the “War on Terror” following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC. In this regard November 3, 2002, was a watershed moment, marking the first US drone strike in Yemen and the first extrajudicial killing of an American citizen in the country. On that day a Predator drone operated by the US Central Intelligence Agency fired a hellfire missile at a vehicle in Marib governorate, killing six men; among them Qa’id Salim al-Harithi, a Yemeni suspected of helping to orchestrate the USS Cole attack, and Kamal Derwish, an American whom US authorities suspected of being al-Harithi’s assistant.[10]

Yemen’s then-President Saleh presented himself as a partner in the US War on Terror, welcoming American training and funding for Yemeni counterterrorism units. However, growing US distrust of the Yemeni security establishment led American forces to increasingly focus on unilateral operations.[11] From 2004, the growing Houthi insurgency in Yemen’s north also shifted the Yemeni government’s attention away from al-Qaeda and exposed Saleh’s increasingly divergent priorities with the US.[12] Nevertheless, US-backed Yemeni counterterrorism efforts in this period recorded measurable successes, with the majority of al-Qaeda’s senior leaders imprisoned by the mid-2000s.[13]

US President Barrack Obama took office in January 2009 and supported the policy of funding, arming and training Yemeni government security forces while largely limiting direct US operations to drone strikes. Through Obama’s second term, however, mounting civilian casualties from targeted US drone strikes, the local outrage these drew and the lack of US accountability beckoned increasing criticism of Obama’s policies from human rights groups, analysts, the media and in the US Congress.[14] Notably, the drone campaign earned the veneer of legitimacy with the ascension of Hadi to the presidency in 2012, who voiced support for drone strikes during a visit to Washington, despite mounting popular resentment back home.[15] During his tenure, former President Saleh had also welcomed US counterterrorism operations in Yemen.[16]

Steadfast US counterterrorism support for the Yemeni government endured until 2015, when the onset of the Saudi-led military coalition’s Operation Decisive Storm led the US Department of State to announce that remaining US special operations forces would withdraw from the country. The exit of these US personnel was accompanied by increased use of drone strikes against AQAP targets. The US also backed the UAE’s newly created local security formations that succeeded in pushing AQAP out of strongholds in Yemen’s south.

The January 2017 inauguration of President Donald Trump brought a marked intensification of US counterterrorism operations in Yemen. Among the new president’s first actions was to reduce presidential oversight of US military actions in Yemen, declaring parts of the country – notably in Abyan, al-Bayda and Shabwa governorates – zones of “active hostility”. This lowered the US military’s legal requirement for operations there from “near certainty” that no civilians would be killed to allowing civilian casualties “as long as they are deemed necessary and proportionate to a legitimate military objective”, as reported in the New York Times.[17]   

US military operations against AQAP subsequently spiked, with the known number of airstrikes more than quadrupling from 32 in 2016 to 131 in 2017, while US special forces also carried out various ground raids. The most well-known of the latter came shortly after Trump took office, involving a US Navy SEAL attack against a suspected AQAP safehouse in the village of Yakla, al-Bayda governorate. The death toll from this raid was at least 17 civilians — including 10 children — 14 AQAP members and one Navy SEAL, while a US military helicopter also crashed, according to the US military and media reports.[18] Through 2017, US Special Forces also supported and provided intelligence to UAE-backed local operations to dislodge AQAP from various areas, including a campaign in May that year to drive AQAP out of parts of the Hadramawt Valley, and later the Azzan district in neighboring Shabwa governorate.

In 2018, US counterterrorism operations in Yemen dropped significantly, with the US military acknowledging only 36 airstrikes and none during the last quarter of the year. Whether this signalled a change in policy or that the US military lacked targets to strike is unclear (for details, see the Sana’a Center’s recent publication ‘Trump and Counterterrorism in Yemen: The First Two Years’).[19]

UAE Counterterrorism Efforts in Yemen Since 2016

As noted above, the US has supported UAE efforts to recruit, train and maintain local forces in Yemen, such as the Hizam al-Amni (or ‘Security Belt’ forces) in Aden, Abyan and Lahj, and the ‘Elite Forces’ in Hadramawt, Shabwa and al-Mahra. These security bodies – along with the Aden Security Department’s Counterterrorism Unit – have carried out direct military engagements against AQAP, sought to prevent the group’s re-emergence in areas from which it has been cleared, and offered intelligence-gathering support for the coalition’s international and regional allies. They have also provided jobs and an outlet for otherwise unemployed young men who are the main demographic from which AQAP draws recruits.

The UAE has sought out and procured tribal buy-in for this new security arrangement and assistance from local fighters in routing AQAP from various areas by promising local leaders infrastructure reconstruction.[20] The liberation of a number of southern cities and areas in 2017 was a joint Yemeni-Emirati feat. In February 2017, UAE-backed Yemeni forces launched two operations targeting AQAP in areas west of Mukalla, the southern areas of Shabwa governorate and parts of Abyan.[21] This was followed by campaigns in Dawan district in inland Hadramawt in May, Azzan district in Shabwa governorate in August and al-Mahfad district, AQAP’s last stronghold in Abyan governorate, in November. The retaking of main cities in Shabwa by August 2017 marked the first time in years that government-affiliated forces controlled all districts in the province. UAE-backed local forces continued to carry out counterterrorism campaigns during 2018, targeting AQAP enclaves in Abyan, Shabwa and Hadramawt. In particular, in Abyan’s Mudiya district, UAE-backed Security Belt forces launched ‘Operation Crushing Revenge’ in December 2018, while UAE-backed elite were carrying out operations against AQAP forces in Shabwa’s as-Said district and western Hadramawt.


Implications for AQAP of the Counterterrorism Surge

Significant Leadership Losses

The US – and to a lesser extent UAE – campaign of targeted assassinations using airstrikes has killed swaths of AQAP’s leadership figures in recent years. For instance, in 2015 US drones strikes eliminated a large portion of AQAP’s organizational administration, killing AQAP leader Nasser al-Wuhayshi, religious leader Ibrahim Rubaysh, senior strategist Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi, and senior religious official Harith bin Ghazi al-Nadhari. Al-Wuhayshi’s death ushered in Qassim al-Raymi as AQAP’s new, and incumbent, chief.

The surge in US airstrikes and operations in 2017 unleashed a wave of low-to-mid-level leadership loses for AQAP. These began in January, with the US Navy SEAL raid in Yakla village which killed – along with 13 other fighters – local AQAP leader Abdel Raouf al-Dhabab. In June, US drones killed Abu Khattab al-Awlaki, the local emir in Shabwa, which coincided with an airstrike targeting other AQAP leaders in the governorate. In October, an airstrike killed Abu Ubaida al-Ludari, an AQAP emir in Abyan. A month later Mujahid al-Adeni, the newly appointed emir in Shabwa, and Abu al-Layth al-Sanani, a prominent AQAP leader in al-Bayda, were killed. US Central Command reported in January 2018 a number of successful strikes against AQAP figures carried out in December 2017: Meqdad al-Sistani, an external operations facilitator, in an airstrike in al-Bayda governorate; deputy arms facilitator Habib al-Sana’ani and Abu Umar al-Sana’ani, a member of AQAP’s dawah (preaching) committee, both in a strike in Marib; Mujahid al-Adani, a local leader in Shabwa; and media chief Hajar al-Maliki, a Saudi national, in Marib.[22]

US officials announced in August 2018 that AQAP’s top bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri was killed in a US drone strike the previous year. Senior field commander Sameh al-Marmi was killed in a September 2018 airstrike. In January 2019, one of the alleged top operatives behind the USS Cole attack, Jamal Badawi, was killed, though indications are that Badawi had long since ceased being an active AQAP member.[23]

In response, the AQAP leadership appears to have prioritized security to prevent intelligence leaks and avoid assassinations. These steps include local cells ending most coordination with each other and senior leadership in planning and conducting operations, while senior leadership figures – in particular al-Raymi and Khalid bin Umar Batarfi, an AQAP commander and spokesperson – appear to be in hiding, with a notable drop in AQAP media releases between 2017 and 2018 and no reports of leadership meetings. Thus far in 2019, however, AQAP and its Malahem Foundation media outlet have increased the frequency of their media releases. These have included: claiming attacks against Security Belt Forces in Abyan, Shabwa Elite Forces, against the so-called ‘Islamic State’, or Daesh, in al-Bayda, calling for regime change in the UAE on the occasion of the papal visit to Abu Dhabi in February, releasing the second episode of the group’s “Demolishing of the Espionage” series, and calling for supporters to submit questions for an open interview with AQAP’s security chief.[24]   

Losing Local Moorings But Still Gaining Recruits

Since the UAE-backed counterterrorism offensive began in 2016, AQAP has seen growing opposition in both popular and tribal attitudes toward it, both from those that were aligned with the group – a small minority – and those that were previously indifferent or neutral towards it. As noted above, the UAE has regularly sought out tribal and community buy-in for its campaigns, which has caused AQAP to lose its local purchase and paved the way for military campaigns against it. The most recent evidence for AQAP’s loss of local clout came at the beginning of February 2019, following a consultative meeting between dignitaries from the tribes in Abyan governorate. Among the articles in the meeting’s closing statement was one which declared that the tribes would maintain an “open door” policy for any parties and individuals that renounced their support for AQAP and proved that they were willing to “return to the ranks of society and the state.”[25]   

In Shabwah, various tribes in the south of the governorate  have begun to align with the UAE-back Shabwah Elite Forces, while other tribes in the governorate’s north remain loyal to AQAP. Clashes in 2019 between the Shabwah Elite Forces and tribal militias in northern Shabwah reinforce the observation that where the UAE – and to a lesser extent forces loyal to the Yemeni government – has managed to build a popular base through tribal alliances, AQAP’s operational space has shrunk.[26] The inverse also appears true: where AQAP has maintained its alliances, direct military intervention has proved less effective.

Despite the popular shift against the group in different areas, in July 2018 the UN estimated that AQAP had 6,000-7,000 fighters in Yemen and was continuing to gain recruits, train new young leaders, and was searching for new financial resources.[27]  

Continual Retreat to Safe Havens

Since 2015, AQAP has not orchestrated any attacks against western targets outside Yemen’s borders. In Yemen, the group’s exit from Aden in 2015 and Mukalla in 2016 precipitated accelerating territorial losses within the country over the next three years. AQAP fighters responded to these offensives with a retreat to safe-havens in southern governorates, while also maintaining a presence on the frontlines against the Houthis in areas such as Taiz – where its fighters have fought alongside various local anti-Houthi militias.[28]  

By 2017, however, AQAP was seeing many of its previous safe areas overrun by continued UAE-backed counterterrorism offensives, notably Dawan district in Hadramawt, Azzan in Shabwa and Mahfad in Abyan, albeit the group continued some operations from nearby areas and sleeper cells. In response, AQAP fighters retreated further into al-Bayda governorate, Abyan governorate and remote parts of Marib. While direct confrontation of advancing Yemeni government or coalition-led forces was generally avoided, local AQAP branches regularly carried out targeted attacks on Yemeni security and military infrastructure and personnel. For instance, AQAP claimed responsibility for the attempted assassination of deputy minister for domestic affairs, Ali Nasser Lakhsha, in an ambush in Abyan governorate in March 2017 which left Lakhsha’s son dead. AQAP also continued to fight the Houthis, alongside other local armed groups, in al-Bayda, Taiz and al-Dhalea, while carrying out limited operations against the UAE and its local allies in Hadramawt, Shabwa and Abyan.

Even with these strategic retreats, however, a United Nations Panel of Experts report in January 2018 found that AQAP averaged one attack every two days through 2017, with most taking place in al-Bayda, Abyan and Hadramawt.[29] The group’s operational focus shifted during the year, however: roughly three quarters of suspected AQAP operations in the first six months of 2017 were against Houthi forces; in the second half of the year, roughly half of these attacks targeted forces affiliated with Yemen’s internationally recognized government and the Saudi-led military coalition.[30]

In first half of 2018, the toll of US airstrikes and the UAE-backed ground campaign against AQAP appeared to be reflected in a decrease in the group’s operations, with attacks claimed by the group dropping in frequency by more than half.[31] While the operations against AQAP were declared victories in that they “cleared” militants from areas within the governorates, some part of this would have constituted tactical withdrawal. Moreover, AQAP has continued to demonstrate its capacity to launch attacks on these UAE-backed local forces, including a complex suicide attack on a Security Belt office in Abyan governorate in June and the killing of three members of the Shabwa Elite Forces with an improvised explosive device later that month. The same month, however, AQAP released an interview with senior leader Khalid bin Umar Batarfi which led to speculation that the group was under acute strain, with Batarfi referring to declining financial resources and increasing pressure on the battlefield.[32]

Among the most significant developments for AQAP in 2018 was the outbreak of clashes with the so-called ‘Islamic State’ group, or Daesh, ending a tacit understanding between the groups to avoid fighting and focus on their sectarian battle against the Houthis. Daesh claimed a number of attacks against AQAP during the second half of 2018, and in July released a video showing what they claimed to be 12 captured AQAP fighters. This new front grew out of Daesh machinations to assert itself in al-Bayda, where AQAP had previously recognized the group’s right to position itself, so long as it did not seek to govern.

The tempo of these attacks increased somewhat toward the close of 2018 and into early 2019, centering largely on Abyan governorate, where UAE-backed forces have engaged in an operation to force AQAP out of areas of the northern Mudia district. The group claimed control over the district’s al-Mahfad city in January, raising flags over government buildings and resisting UAE-backed security forces’ attempts to dislodge them.

Elusive Financial Resources

There is no reliable data about where AQAP has kept the financial resources it generated from its time in Mukalla and other illicit pursuits. However, the division of the Central Bank of Yemen in September 2016 between Aden and Sana’a undermined the bank’s ability to regulate the domestic financial sector. Simultaneously, international recognition was withdrawn from Yemen’s counterterrorism financing and anti-money laundering mechanisms – in particular the Financial Information Unit and the national anti-money laundering committee – leading most international commercial banks to cease interactions with Yemen’s commercial and Islamic banks. Saudi-led coalition prohibitions also blocked Yemeni banks from transferring foreign currency abroad. All of these factors contributed to the collapse of formal economic cycles and the proliferation of unlicensed and unregulated money exchange and transfer outlets across Yemen.[33] Many financial observers in the country believe that these outlets, while garnering a share of the market for private and business transactions internationally, have also facilitated large-scale money laundering for AQAP.


Looking ahead

It is likely that counterterrorism operations in Yemen by the US and UAE will continue in the near future. These will continue to pressure the group militarily, prevent it from holding significant geographic areas for any prolonged length of time, and force it to remain decentralized with its senior leadership figures in relative hiding to try and avoid assassination via targeted airstrikes. On their own, however, these will amount to containment operations. Without a broader strategy to counter AQAP, it is highly likely the group will remain a threat in Yemen, and will maintain the potential to use the country as a platform from which to organize and launch operations around the region and the wider world.   

The myopic US focus on the military option in combating AQAP leaves unaddressed the factors that have made, and continue to make, Yemen fertile ground for the group. In the immediate context, the ongoing conflict in the country between the Yemeni government, its Saudi-led coalition backers and the armed Houthi movement – and the violence, insecurity, social schisms, state collapse, economic crisis and humanitarian catastrophe the conflict has wrought – continues to feed into AQAP’s interests and create operational space for the group. AQAP has also shown its ability to survive and recover from the repeated losses of leadership figures, while the ongoing war in Yemen, now entering its fifth year, creates a natural pool of talent and experience from which AQAP can recruit. Thus, the counterterrorism campaign in Yemen must include as a top priority the ending of the overarching conflict if it is to be counted as a serious attempt to defeat AQAP.           

Effective US counterterrorism policy should focus on improving methods, rather than increasing operations. These should include non-military approaches, specifically, bolstering effective local governance and institutions, and improving access to basic services. However, as long as the war continues and the semblance of a functioning Yemeni “government” simultaneously remains a distant prospect, opportunities for such approaches will remain out of reach.

The end of the war in Yemen must also put the country on the trajectory of democratic transition, state building and reconstruction, to fill the spaces that jihadist groups would seek to fill. Until then, support and rehabilitation of local allies should prove more effective than direct intervention. In some cases, communication between the US and local authorities is virtually absent. American-Yemeni relations and cooperation should be developed, with US strategic investment directed to rehabilitating Yemen’s security and military bodies. This would facilitate much-needed understanding of the local environment and social dynamics – an area where AQAP has a clear advantage over the US. This space for cooperation can be found both with established actors – tribes in the north and the Southern Movement – as well as fledgling security bodies such as the Yemeni National Army.

Member states of the Saudi-led military coalition should also seek to end conflicts between the various Yemeni parties they support – most urgently the conflict in Aden and other southern governorates between the Southern Transitional Council and the internationally recognized Yemeni government, which has on various occasions led to violent clashes. These inter-Yemeni rivalries both undermine current attempts to establish security and government authority in the south, and if allowed to persist will most likely derail the establishment of effective state functions in many areas of the country in any post-conflict scenario.  

As with the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE must support a political solution to end the war to allow state building and the removal of extremist groups’ operational space. To achieve a general political consensus, this political approach should ensure fair representation of key players, rehabilitate the Yemeni government and purge individuals known for incompetence and corruption. An end to the Yemen conflict through political settlement, the restructuring and unification of security and military bodies and integration of social and political forces in the country is the only feasible path to ending to the cycle of violence and chaos that produces the space and conditions for extremist groups to inhabit.


Author’s Note: This paper would not have come to fruition without the extensive edits and reviews of Holly Topham, Waleed Alhariri and Spencer Osberg.


  1. “Backgrounder: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP),” Council of Foreign Relations, June 19, 2015, Accessed March 21, 2019.
  2.  “Profile: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” BBC News, June 16, 2018, Accessed March 21, 2019
  3.  “Al-Qaeda in Yemen,” Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford University, July 8, 2015, Accessed March 21, 2019.
  4.  Ibid, 2
  5.  “Mapping the Yemen Conflict,” European Council of Foreign Relations, September 30, 2015, Accessed March 30, 2018.
  6.  Officials from the Mukalla Port Authority, interviewed by the Sana’a Center September 5, 2018, described how AQAP had removed all government tariffs on goods offloaded at the port and instead instituted a straight per-ton fee, regardless of the cargo or its market value. This made the cost of importing many goods through Mukalla cheaper for Yemeni traders than other ports in the country, even taking into consideration increased ground transportation costs of delivering the goods to their final market in Yemen. This resulted in increased cargo traffic through Mukalla port. Also see: Noah Browning, Jonathan Saul, Mohammed Ghobari, “Al Qaeda still reaping oil profits in Yemen despite battlefield reverses,” Reuters, May 27, 2016, Accessed March 21, 2019.
  7.  “فيديو لتنظيم “القاعدة في جزيرة العرب” يتبنى فيه الاعتداء على مجلة “شارلي إيبدو”(“Video of the organization “AQAP” endorsing the attack on the magazine “Charlie Hebdo”), France 24 Arabic, January 14, 2015,شارلي-إيبدو-القاعدة-جزيرة-العرب-تبني. Accessed April 15, 2019.
  8.  “اليمن: القيادي في تنظيم القاعدة جلال بالعيدي يحصي “منجزات المقاومة” (“Yemen: Al-Qaeda leader Jalal Baidi counts “the achievements of resistance”), Khabar News Agency, August 17, 2015,اليمن:_القيادي_في_تنظيم_القاعدة_جلال_بالعيدي_يواكب_التطورات_الميدانية_في_الجنوب_وتعز_بإعلان_. Accessed April 15, 2019.
  9. Mukalla residents, interviewed by the Sana’a Center between September 1-7, 2018, described how AQAP officials had approached managers at public institutions responsible for water and electricity provision with performance benchmarks, threatening imprisonment and violent reprisals if these benchmarks were not met. This effectively ended the corruption and employee absenteeism that had been a primary factor undermining delivery of these public services. Similarly, residents reported that prior to the AQAP takeover doctor and staff absenteeism had been a main cause of excessive wait times at public healthcare facilities; after being threatened by AQAP officials, healthcare staff absenteeism dropped to minimal levels. Also interviewed in September 2018 were the city’s current administrators, who stated that many residents fled during AQAP’s rule, with the concurrent drop in demand for electricity and water services allowing for easier provision of these services for the residents who remained.
  10. Brian Whitaker and Oliver Burkeman, “Killing probes the frontiers of robotics and legality,” The Guardian, November 6, 2002, Accessed March 21, 2019.
  11. 11.  Adam Baron, Maged al-Madhaji and Waleed Alhariri, “The destabilizing legacy of US military aid and counterterrorism efforts in Yemen,” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, August 4, 2017, Accessed March 21, 2018.
  1. Ibid.
  2.  Ibid.
  3.  Ibid.
  4.  Scott Shane, “Yemen’s leader Hadi praises US Drone Strikes,” New York Times, September 29, 2012, Accessed March 21, 2019.
  5.  Adam Baron, Maged Al-Madhaji and Waleed Alhariri, “The destabilizing legacy of US military aid and counterterrorism efforts in Yemen”, Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, August 5, 2017, Accessed April 15, 2019.
  6.  Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt, “Trump Administration Is Said to Be Working to Loosen Counterterrorism Rules,“ New York Times, March 12, 2017, Accessed March 21, 2019.
  7. “CentCom: Civilians likely killed in Yemen Firefight,” US Department of Defense News Release, February 2, 2017, Accessed March 21, 2019; Safa Al Ahmad, “Targeting Yemen,” PBS Frontline, January 22, 2019, Accessed March 21, 2019.
  8. Gregory Johnsen, “Trump and Counterterrorism in Yemen: The First Two Years,” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, February 27, 2019, Accessed April 15, 2019.
  9.  Saeed Al-Batati and Eric Schmitt, “Yemenis See Turning Point After Ousting Qaeda Militants in South,” New York Times, October 7, 2017, Accessed, March 21, 2019.
  10.  Michael Horton, “Which Way Forward for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula?” Jamestown Foundation, March 23, 2018, Accessed March 21, 2019.
  11.  Bill Roggio and Alexandra N. Gutowski, “US killed three ‘key’ AQAP leaders in Yemen,” Long War Journal, January 11, 2018, Accessed March 21, 2019.
  12. Gregory Johnsen, “US Military’s Ambiguous Definition of a ‘Legitimate’ Target,” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, February 20, 2019, Accessed March 21, 2019.
  1. “AQAP Announces Open Interview with Security Official,” SITE Intelligence Group, March 19, 2019, Accessed March 20, 2019; “AQAP Claims Wounding 2 SBF in Bombing in Abyan, Attacking IS in al-Bayda’,” SITE Intelligence Group, January 25, 2019, Accessed March 20, 2019; “2nd Episode of AQAP’s “Demolishing of the Espionage” Series Explores Recruitment of Spies, Features Alleged Audio of U.S. Intel Agent,” SITE Intelligence Group, January 25, 2019, Accessed March 20, 2019; “AQAP Official Uses Occasion of Papal Mass in UAE to Incite Regime Change in Region,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 28, 2019, Accessed March 20, 2019.   
  2.  “نص البيان الختامي للقاء التشاوري لوجهاء ومشائخ أبين” (“The text of the final communiqué of the consultative meeting of the dignitaries and elders of Abyan”), al-Omanaa Net, February 6, 2019, Accessed April 15, 2019.
  3.  “AQAP Video Documents on Attacks on SBF, Shabwani Elite, and Houthis in 3 Yemeni Governorates,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 22, 2019, Accessed March 20, 2019.
  4. “Annual Report of the ISIL and al-Qaeda Committee to the UN Security Council,” S/2018/705, July 16, 2018, pg. 9. Accessed March 21, 2019.
  1.  Michael Horton, “Fighting the Long War: The Evolution of al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula,” Combating Terrorism Center, January 2017, Vol. 10:1, Accessed March 21, 2019.
  2.  Letter dated 26 January 2018 from the Panel of Experts on Yemen mandated by Security Council resolution 2342 (2017) addressed to the President of the Security Council (S/2018/68), accessed April 23, 2018, Accessed March 21, 2019
  3.  Study by Elisabeth Kendall, cited in “UAE-backed campaign puts Al Qaeda under pressure in Yemen,” The National, March 25, 2018, Accessed March 21, 2019.
  4. UN Panel of Experts on Yemen, “2017 Final Report to the UN Security Council, S/2018/594, pg. 21 n. 70. See also the work of Elisabeth Kendall, who tracks these numbers.
  5. “AQAP Publishes Interview with Official Regarding Military Situation of Fighters, Yemeni Public Perception of U.S. Forces,” SITE Intelligence Group, June 20, 2018, Accessed March 20, 2019.
  6. “The Yemen Review – August 2018,” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, September 6, 2018, Accessed March 20, 2019.
A Grim Anniversary: Yemen After Four Years of the Saudi-led Military Intervention

A Grim Anniversary: Yemen After Four Years of the Saudi-led Military Intervention

The Thaba’t area of Taiz City on February 9, 2019, which has recently seen heavy clashes between Houthi and anti-Houthi forces // Photo Credit: Hussam al-Qalia’ah

On March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates led a coalition of Arab states in launching a military intervention in Yemen. Dubbed ‘Operation Decisive Storm’, the campaign was meant to quickly push back the military advances of the armed Houthi movement and restore the internationally recognized Yemeni government to power. Four years later, the war rages on.

To understand more about why the conflict continues unabated, how the country has changed in that time and what it means for the people who live there, the Sana’a Center asked five experts on Yemen for their insights.

A Fragmented Strategy

By Laurent Bonnefoy

Contrary to a dominant assessment that presupposes the existence of a clear agenda of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen, I have come to believe that it is the absence of fixed objectives and policies that explains much of the failure of Operation Decisive Storm since it was launched four years ago. From the onset, the coalition itself, in which the roles of each country were never clarified, embodied such limits.

Rather than presuming that decision-making is centralized (in particular around the two specific princes – Muhammad bin Salman in Riyadh and Muhammad bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi), I think that in fact the war is waged in a fragmented manner, generating much confusion on the field. To a large extent, military affairs as much as political issues have remained improvised. This is because of the lack of trustworthy information coming from Yemen but also due to the illusion of control granted by apparently unlimited military budgets. Most of the Yemeni reality continues to be elusive and to evolve outside of the Emirati and Saudi radars (not to mention Western ones!). Ministries of foreign affairs of the UAE and KSA, humanitarian agencies, the military, local clients and patrons, and tribal leaders all claim to be acting in coordination but are in fact operating separately, if not in competition with one another.

Such fragmentation is only emphasized by the diversity of interests of the anti-Houthi camp, which involves actors as diverse as Salafi militias, Southern secessionists, leaders of the Islah party, liberals and heirs of the Saleh clan. Considering the depth of enmity between each of these, it is hard to believe that any coordination can be achieved on a daily basis or in terms of long term objectives. More centralization and authoritarian rule however would be useless. Such a situation evidently impedes military affairs but is also unfortunately jeopardizing peace efforts.    

The issue is that many Yemenis, critical of the coalition’s strategy, as well as many Western decision makers assume there exists a consistent coalition strategy in Yemen. Conspiracy theories claiming to reveal the higher motives of UAE involvement in the South are popular but should not be taken for granted, much like claims that Saudi Arabia is voluntarily destroying Yemeni heritage or aiming to kill as many civilians as possible. These happen mostly out of limited competence and understanding.

Yet, it is also because the consistency of the coalition’s aims is presupposed in the acceptance, by the United States, along with the European Union, to outsource their management of the Yemeni issue in 2015. They thereby left Saudi Arabia on the frontline, implicitly suggesting it was knowledgeable and experienced enough to solve problems that they themselves were unable to understand: the Houthis’ rise to power, Iranian encroachment, Saleh’s resilience, and inter-Sunni competition. While trust in Saudi Arabia and the UAE has evidently eroded in European capitals and in Washington over the last four years, Western diplomats appear yet to fully accept the idea that the war lacks strategy and coordination. Increased popular and political pressure, in response to the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Yemen and the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, may finally favor a reality check. Yet, as time goes by, Yemenis are paying an increasingly high price – one that neighboring countries on the Arabian Peninsula are also likely to pay, as the collapse of Yemeni society will not happen in isolation.   

Laurent Bonnefoy is a CNRS researcher based at the CEFAS (French centre for archaeology and social sciences). He is the author of numerous publications including ‘Salafism in Yemen. Transnationalism and Religious Identity’ (2011, Hurst/Columbia University Press) and ‘Yemen and the World. Beyond Insecurity’ (2018, Hurst/Oxford University Press)

Leaving Attan

By Bilqees al-Lahbi

Our destiny was once linked to a revolution. It was to build me a homeland that could give me the love of home, a place I could call my own. In that home over the horizon I was finally able to converse with my future and allowed myself to plant my first flower, my daughter Shams.

On March 23, 2015, I lit the first birthday candle for my Shams. Then, three days later, at dawn, I was crouching under a desk with Shams in my arms in the corner of our beautiful hallway. I did not know where to hide her as we witnessed the first strikes on Mount Attan, a mountain that was separated from us by only a road and a cache of death. We were counting the days by the number of falling missiles and we lost track of how long we remained there.

One day, we decided to defy the sounds of war from atop Mount Attan, arriving loud and clear through all the windows of our home.

“We will live our today,” we said, and I prepared a lunch worthy of a pleasant khat chewing session. I admired the jasmine necklace, ran it through my braids and lay it around my neck. “We will stay up until our eyes are weary and rebel against Attan, al-Asiri and Houthis.”

By April, Attan was more than thunderous explosions. It was a daily barrage of missiles, one after another, with which we counted our breaths and thought each would be our last. Our breaths cascaded with the rise and fall of the curtains, in harmony with the missiles. One missile threw us into each other’s arms in fear. Another had us steal a kiss in search of the truth that were still alive. A third knocked us apart.

Six missiles in a row.

The situation defeated our laughs, delayed our tears and could no longer bear the possibility of us making mistakes. Even the khat leaves had become bitter, their effects no longer stilled the hand that grasped the branch. The scent of jasmine was rendered under the burning stench of the missiles’ dusty aftermath.

We made an unspoken agreement to gather what we needed for a day or two. I carried Shams in my arms, looked back at my house and promised it that we would one day return. As soon as we crossed the new bridge that connects Hadda to Attan the sky was lit up behind us as if by fireworks.

I looked to the neighborhood in which I’d lived from the backseat of our small car. I looked back again toward my home from a bus seat as we left Sana’a, and Yemen altogether, to nowhere, pledging to one day return.

For four years I have taken refuge in a love that has not left me. Basking in the garden of its finest fruit, it has become my home. Since the first shot, the first missile, and the first blood spilt, there has been no homeland for me. Such is this war, that it has flayed the skin from my reflection and distorted all the features I once recognized as my own.

Bilqees Al-Lahbi is a researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies where she focuses on Yemen’s political and social developments. Al-Lahabi has more than 15 years’ experience in research, civil society, development and project management.

A Republican Hut Among Monarchical Villas

By Khaled Fatteh

The catastrophic Saudi-led war has shown how Yemen’s complicated geostrategic problems defy any orthodox or simplistic solutions. The war has also amplified the glaring inadequacies of the UN system, and the increasing willingness of the international system to turn a blind eye to war crimes and gross violations of human rights.

Four years since the first wave of Saudi airstrikes hit Sana’a, here are three lessons to remember. First, Yemen paid and will continue to pay a heavy toll as long as it remains a fragile and divided republican hut in a neighborhood of monarchical villas.

Second, the UN system is in dire need of new ways of thinking and doing that can be responsive to the crises of this century, not those of 1945. Unless it undergoes genuine structural transformation, and abandons its McDonaldization approach to conflict resolution, the UN will continue to let down millions of the world’s marginalized and most vulnerable people.

Third, the prolongation of misery and suffering in this war is made possible by a political landscape dominated by the worldviews, morals and ethics of the Trumpists.

Khaled Fatteh holds a PhD in international relations from the University of St. Andrews, UK. He is an independent consultant and expert on Yemen and state-tribe relations in the Arab world.

Why Has the Coalition Not Yet Won the War in Yemen?

By Helen Lackner

As the war in Yemen enters its fifth year, it is reasonable to ask why the Saudi-led military coalition has not yet won the war, despite having billions of dollars worth of the latest military equipment, forces from multiple countries, and technical support from the United States and the United Kingdom. The answer requires examination of both military and political aspects.

First, the Houthis: after 15 years of war – first against the regime of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and, since 2015, against the coalition –  what was a small guerrilla movement has gained considerable military experience and strength. This enabled it to gain the upper hand against Saleh’s well trained forces during the Sa’ada wars, later kill Saleh when their alliance ruptured in December 2017, as well as carry out frequent incursions into Saudi territory during the current conflict. Lacking any air force [destroyed in the first hours of the Saudi-led military intervention in March 2015], they have developed drone capacity, as well as improved the range of their stock of East European SCUD missiles inherited from the Saleh regime. Indeed, there is evidence that the technical improvements to their missile force and their strategies have benefited from some advice and assistance from both Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Iranian regime. However, this in no way brings them to the level available to the Saudi-led coalition either in troop numbers or materiel. Despite all this, they are still far from defeated: if looked at over the long-term, they have risen from a small guerrilla force to a significant army between 2004 and 2019.  

Second, the Saudi-led military coalition: here we can start with the non-Yemeni elements. Saudi Arabia has largely restricted its intervention to air strikes, which now number close to 20,000 and have killed and injured tens of thousands of civilians. These strikes include many that have contributed to its public relations disaster, such as high profile strikes on funerals, weddings, markets and medical and educational facilities. Are there Saudi ground troops in Yemen? Yes, but not on the main military fronts. Instead, they have intervened to mediate between United Arab Emirates-supported local militias and loyalists of Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Aden in 2017-18, and in Socotra in 2018. Most recently they have been found in Mahra, currently the site of international rivalries – between Oman, Saudi, UAE and local power brokers – which have little, if anything, to do with the anti-Houthi war.

After the killing of more than 50 UAE ground troops in Marib in September 2015, the UAE has significantly reduced the presence of its citizens on the ground, using mainly Sudanese and Colombian troops as ‘cannon fodder’  under Emirati command, both along frontlines in southern governorates and in the fight in the Tihama region along the Red Sea coast.

As for Yemeni troops, their alignments and loyalties range widely across the Yemeni political spectrum. While very few can be described as loyal to President Hadi, almost every other political faction is represented. The most important ones include Islah Party affiliates loyal to Vice President Ali Mohsen – former close ally of late President Saleh – operating in Marib governorate, on northern fronts along the Saudi border, as well as in Taiz, al-Bayda, and Shabwa governorates. The second most important group is now the well trained and equipped forces of Tareq Saleh – the nephew of the former president – who operate alongside the coalition forces in the Tihama and are responsible for the main advances towards Hudaydah City since mid-2018. The third are multiple groups of southern Salafis who, loyal to their UAE aligned leaders, are now active beyond the south, despite their reluctance to be involved in the ‘North.’ They also fight in the far north where they are officially under the command of Ali Mohsen but their loyalty to him is questionable. In the Tihama they have often made rapid, uncoordinated and ill-planned advances northwards, leaving themselves open to Houthi counter-attacks.

Pressure from the United Nations, the US and others, led to the coalition halting its offensive on Hudaydah in late 2018, and the warring parties subsequently came to an accord which became known as the Stockholm Agreement. The Hudaydah offensive was strongly opposed by world public opinion and humanitarian actors, as it was widely predicted that it would turn a humanitarian disaster into a catastrophe for millions of starving Yemenis. However, the coalition leadership is still convinced that taking Hudaydah would force the Houthis to surrender and they remain committed to this offensive, which helps explain why this agreement is currently unravelling.

While world concern is focused on Hudaydah, the recent battles between Houthi forces and the Hajur tribes in Hajjah have not received the attention they deserve. With media attention focused on the civilian suffering caused by the Houthi offensive against a tribe which had previously remained neutral, the political and military significance of this battle has been missed. Had adequate support been given to the Hajur tribes, the coalition would have been able to make significant progress towards cutting all major routes from Sa’ada to Sana’a, thus splitting the Houthi forces into two separate and unconnected areas, a major political and military achievement.  Saudi air drops of arms and equipment to the anti-Houthi forces appeared to have had little impact, while the Hadi government ignored offers of help from Tareq Saleh and other Salafi forces in the Tihama after its own orders to transfer forces from Hadramaut and al-Mahra were not implemented. The result is that the Houthis have now taken control of this area and are using their usual ruthless tactics against the population and its leadership, and the opportunity for a major military breakthrough has been lost.

This most recent example of the divisions and rivalries within the Yemeni elements of the coalition follows many others, which have been daily reality for years now in Taiz and al-Bayda. Differences between the UAE and Saudi elements [see Aden, Socotra, al-Mahra in the last two years] add to the rivalries between Southern Separatists supported by the UAE and the Hadi government, occasionally leading to Saudi mediation. All these go a long way to explain the lack of progress in the war.  Observers and Yemenis alike are entitled to ask whether these are merely signs of political rivalries or whether perpetuation of the war serves other interests, including the enriching of the warlords on all sides. But, on the fourth anniversary of the war, the basic fact remains that millions are suffering and dying as a result of, at very least, the callousness of their leaderships.

Helen Lackner has lived and worked for more than 15 years in the three states which existed in Yemen in the past 45 years. She now mainly writes: her latest book is ‘Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State’ (Saqi, London 2017). A US paperback edition will be published in April by Verso under the title ‘Yemen in Crisis: The Road to War’.

Riyadh’s Vietnam

By Farea al-Muslimi

To ask where Saudi Arabia succeeded or failed in Yemen is the wrong question. Saudi Arabia lost in Yemen the moment it decided to intervene militarily, and has only continued losing since.

Firstly, the intervention was a tacit admission that Yemen’s transitional process following the 2011 uprising – of which Riyadh was a primary architect and steward – had been irreparably botched. While they say war is politics by other means, that the richest country in the Arab World decided that bombing the poorest was the only means to address this political and diplomatic failure shows weakness and lack of vision, not strength.

Four years of ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ – on which estimates peg Saudi expenditures at billions of dollars per month – have been a litany of failures on all fronts: the humanitarian catastrophe has burned Saudi Arabia’s public image abroad; lawmakers in Washington, London and other European capitals are increasingly questioning their relations with Riyadh; Iranian leaders are marveling at Saudi Arabia’s military ineptness in front of a ragtag militia force while simultaneously gleeful that the war has forced the armed Houthi movement to shoulder up to Tehran more than ever. Meanwhile in Yemen millions of people are on the verge of starvation, their economy in ruins, their social fabric in tatters, and their government still in exile thousands of kilometers away in Riyadh hotels. All the while, various factions on the ground, supposedly fighting on the Yemeni government’s behalf, are actively and openly seeking to usurp its authority.

In short, Yemen has become Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam. Like that catastrophic American adventure, the losses will only end when those in charge realize that the war is no more winnable today than it was when they entered it. That it is time to stop the armed conflict and try a different approach.

Farea Al-Muslimi is chairman and co-founder of Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies. He is also an Associate Fellow at Chatham House. He previously worked for the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut and Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. as a visiting scholar where he covered Yemen and Gulf.


The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover political, social, economic and security related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.

Addressing Social Fragmentation in Yemen

Addressing Social Fragmentation in Yemen

After nearly five years of conflict, Yemen is more fragmented than at any time in recent history. The war has exacerbated long-standing grievances and created new fractures in Yemen’s social fabric. While the origins of the conflict lie in a political struggle for power, fighting has awakened a sectarian narrative, revived calls for secession in the south, and generally eroded Yemen’s social cohesion. These fissures are a legacy of the war and they threaten to destabilize the country long after a political peace settlement is achieved.

Trump and Counterterrorism in Yemen: The First Two Years

Trump and Counterterrorism in Yemen: The First Two Years

A US military MV-22B Osprey aircraft, similar to the one that crashed near the Yemeni village of al-Ghayil during a US Special Forces raid shortly after President Donald Trump took office in January 2017 // Photo Credit: DVIDSHUB

By Gregory Johnsen


The United States (US) has traditionally viewed Yemen as both a counterterrorism problem to be managed and as an extension of its policy toward Saudi Arabia. For President Donald Trump’s administration this has meant the continuation and expansion of two separate yet overlapping wars in Yemen, both of which began under previous administrations.  

In the war against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the so-called ‘Islamic State’ group, or Daesh, the Trump administration came into office determined to reverse what it saw as the tendency of President Barack Obama’s administration to micro-manage and second-guess the military professionals. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump claimed that the Obama administration had “reduced to rubble” the nation’s military leadership.[1] A Trump administration, the candidate suggested, would rely much more on “the generals” and give the military more freedom to conduct strikes.[2] Initially, at least, that is exactly what happened. President Trump approved a SEAL raid on his fifth day in office, declared parts of Yemen to be “areas of active hostilities” – effectively making them war zones – and signed off on an air and drone surge that saw the number of US strikes in Yemen more than quadruple from 32 in the final year of the Obama administration to 131 in Trump’s first year.

By mid-2018, however, the Trump administration had reverted to Obama era numbers, carrying out 36 acknowledged strikes during the year and none in the final three months of the year. It is unclear whether this represents a shift in presidential policy (similar to drawdown in Afghanistan and the announced withdrawal in Syria) or whether the US simply lacked the targets in 2018 that it had in 2017.[3]

In Yemen, the US is also involved in the Saudi-led coalition’s war against the Houthis. The Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, has argued that when it comes to this war the US is not “a party to the conflict” but instead is merely aiding two key allies. (Although some lawyers are now pushing back against the argument that the US is not complicit in the Saudi-led war.[4]) The US is supporting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in their war against the Houthis in much the same way that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have aided the US in its war against AQAP. And while it may be true – as then Secretary of Defense James Mattis and others have argued – that the US is “not operationally involved in hostilities,” that does not mean that the US is powerless to stop the conflict.[5] In fact, the US may be the only international player capable of ending the war. The US services coalition aircraft, provides spare parts and, until recently, carried out mid-air refueling.[6] All of this, the US claims, makes the Saudi-led war in Yemen safer and more humane than it would be without US support.   

Although US diplomats and various government departments have repeatedly said that there is no military solution to the conflict in Yemen, the US has done little to curtail its military support to the Saudi-led coalition.[7] The few tweaks in policy – an end to mid-air refueling at the end of 2018 – had more to do with Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi than anything that has happened in Yemen. Indeed, Washington does not even have a Yemen policy. What it has is a counter-terrorism strategy of “mowing the grass,” and a Saudi policy that all too often treats Yemen as an appendage to the kingdom.[8]


The US-Led War Against AQAP and Daesh in Yemen

Since Donald Trump took office in January 2017, the US has essentially fought two discrete wars against AQAP and Daesh in Yemen. The first, which lasted into early 2018, was an aggressive, gloves-off approach that included multiple ground raids and a dramatic uptick in the number of drone and air strikes. The second war, which began in mid-2018 and is currently ongoing, has been a return to the norms established under the Obama administration.

2017: The Drone Surge

On January 25, five days after he was sworn-in as president, Donald Trump authorized his first counterterrorism raid over a working dinner with, among others, then Secretary of Defense James Mattis and then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford.[9] The raid, which had been discussed during the final weeks of the Obama administration, targeted the village of al-Ghayil in the Yakla region of al-Bayda, a central Yemeni governorate.[10] US officials, who have since put out two separate explanations for the raid, believed either that Qasim al-Raymi, the head of AQAP, was in the village or, as it subsequently explained, that there had been enough intelligence on cellphones and computers at the site to justify sending in US troops.

Shortly after midnight on January 29, the first moonless night since Trump had given his authorization, US Special Forces operatives from SEAL Team Six, along with a team of UAE soldiers, landed in a clearing five miles from the village.[11] The plan was to hike to the target under the cover of darkness and take the village by surprise. However, unbeknown to the soldiers, the village had also been attacked by Houthi forces just a few hours earlier and was still on edge, villagers later told a journalist.[12] As the soldiers approached the village, an 11-year-old boy, Ahmed al-Dhahhab, spotted them from the roof of a house and called out a warning.[13] According to his father, Abdililah al-Dhahhab, the boy was then shot and killed.[14]

In the ensuing gunbattle, which included at least one helicopter, one US soldier and several Yemenis were killed. The Pentagon later said that it had killed 14 al-Qaeda operatives,[15] and initially denied claims that there were any civilian casualties. Within days, however, the US revised that claim, saying that “civilian noncombatants likely were killed” during the raid.[16] For their part, the villagers claim that at least seven women and 10 children were killed in the raid. One of those children was eight-year-old Nawar al-Awlaki.[17] Her father, the AQAP cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in a US drone strike in September 2011. Her brother, 16-year-old Abd al-Rahman, was killed in a separate US drone strike in October 2011.

President Trump initially classified the raid on Yakla as a success. In an address to a joint session of Congress one month after the raid, he called the action in Yemen “highly successful,” saying it had generated “large amounts of vital intelligence.”[18] However, one piece of evidence the Pentagon put forward to justify the raid was an al-Qaeda video that was more than a decade old and widely available on the internet.[19] The US later took down the link, and in February 2017 NBC News reported that the raid yielded “no significant intelligence.”[20]

During the same January dinner at which President Trump authorized the Yakla raid, he had also declared parts of three Yemeni governorates – Abyan, Shabwa and al-Bayda – “areas of active hostilities,” effectively making them war zones and loosening the rules governing strikes.[21] This decision meant that the Department of Defense no longer had to submit target lists in these areas to an interagency review. Unlike under the Obama administration after 2013, commanders no longer needed pre-approval from the White House to carry out strikes.

On March 2, 2017, the Department of Defense used its newly acquired flexibility to carry out 20 strikes across Abyan, Shabwa and al-Bayda over the course of that night.[22] The US followed up with several more strikes the next day. Several weeks later, on April 29, the US killed an individual named Muhammad al-‘Idhal in a drone strike.[23] That strike set the table for another US ground raid in Yemen.

Muhammad al-‘Idhal, who lived in Marib governorate, was a member of the Murad tribe. Following his death in April at least seven men from outside his clan took possession of his house. On May 23, the US launched a ground raid targeting that house in Marib.[24] Like the Yakla raid in January, the US Special Forces landed some distance from the village and hiked the last few kilometers. And like in Yakla, US troops quickly came under fire from al-‘Idhal clan members, who could not have known that only one house was being targeted. A journalist who later visited the village found an abandoned American medical backpack with a laminated sheet of the names of 20 US Special Forces operatives, two dogs, and their blood types.[25]

Five tribesmen were killed in the fighting, ranging in age from 15 to 80, and another five were wounded.[26] Both AQAP and local Yemenis highlighted this fact in subsequent statements and accounts of the raid.[27] The US troops also killed the seven individuals that they had targeted, who were staying in the house of the late Muhammad Said al-‘Idhal.[28]

The US did not release the names of those seven individuals, and neither local Yemeni reporting nor the AQAP statement acknowledged their deaths.[29] AQAP members who survived the raid prevented villagers from entering Muhammad Said al-‘Idhal’s house after the raid, and over the next few days the seven bodies were removed from the village for burial in an unknown location.

The raid on the AQAP safehouse in Marib, like the Yakla raid, illustrates the complexities of fighting AQAP in Yemen. In Marib, the US military achieved its target, killing seven AQAP members, but it also killed five tribesmen, who were defending their village, not protecting AQAP. Such actions can cut both ways. On one hand, drone strikes and armed raids can induce some clans and tribes to deny aid and refuge to AQAP. On the other hand, the deaths of relatives and tribesmen can act as a powerful recruiting tool for AQAP.

If the tribes in Yemen were to turn against AQAP the organization would not be able to survive in the country.[30] AQAP is aware of this and has developed a two-track approach to dealing with tribes. First, AQAP frequently stresses in statements and its propaganda that it wants positive relations with various tribes. These overtures are largely ignored by the tribes, who see AQAP as a minor issue not a major problem. Second, AQAP is actively working to recruit young tribesmen, not simply because it wants more fighters, but rather because these particular tribal fighters represent the entry into tribal society that AQAP desires.[31]  

In October 2017, the US directly targeted Daesh in Yemen for the first time, bombing a training camp in al-Bayda.[32] In all, throughout that year the US conducted “multiple ground operations” as well as more than 120 strikes in Yemen, targeting both AQAP and Daesh.[33] Groups such as The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Long War Journal put the number of US strikes slightly higher at 127 and 131 respectively.[34] This was more than quadruple the number of US air and drone strikes carried out in 2016, the Obama administration’s final year in office.

The US also sanctioned various individuals for alleged links to AQAP and Daesh in 2017, including 11 men that were sanctioned in coordination with the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC).[35] Along with Saudi Arabia, the US is the co-chair of the TFTC, which was established during President Trump’s first trip abroad to Saudi Arabia in May 2017. Other member states include the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar. Most notably, in October 2017, the TFTC sanctioned Nayif al-Qaysi, the former governor of al-Bayda for President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government, and Adil al-Dhubhani, who is better known as Abu al-Abbas. The Washington Post reported that despite being sanctioned by the US and the UAE, Abu al-Abbas has continued to receive weapons and aid from the UAE.[36] The US also sanctioned Khaled al-Iradah, who is the brother of the current governor of Marib in Hadi’s government, Sultan al-Iradah.[37]

2018: A Return to Obama-Era Norms

In 2018, US air and drone strikes dropped off significantly in Yemen, falling back to pre-2017 levels. The US carried out 36 strikes in Yemen in 2018, with the majority of those coming in the first half of the year.[38] There were 10 strikes in January, six in February and seven in March. There were no strikes in October, November, or December.[39] There are at least three possible, and not necessarily mutually exclusive, explanations for the reduction in strikes.

The first is that President Trump may have rescinded the order declaring parts of Abyan, Shabwa and al-Bayda “areas of active conflict.” President Obama did something similar at the end of his second term, removing the area around Surt, Libya from the list of warzones where looser rules apply.[40] The second possibility is that, after the dramatic surge in strikes in 2017, the US simply had fewer targets to go after in Yemen. In both 2016 and 2017, AQAP claimed more than 200 attacks each year in Yemen; by 2018 that number had dropped by more than half.[41]

A third possibility is that the number of strikes did not drop off as much as the numbers suggest. Rather, the US may either have started using the CIA again to carry out strikes in Yemen, or outsourced some strikes on AQAP and Daesh targets to allies like the UAE. For instance, as David Sterman of the New America Foundation points out in his assessment of CENTCOM’s 2018 overview of strikes in Yemen: the US has used the CIA to carry out drone strikes in Yemen previously, and the Trump administration has sought to utilize the CIA to carry out drone strikes in Syria.[42] A Yahoo News report found that the US has been training UAE pilots for combat operations in Yemen.[43] The article suggests that the US is training UAE pilots to take part in the Saudi-led coalition war against the Houthis, the conflict in which the US has repeatedly stated it is not operationally involved. The US is, however, involved in the war against AQAP and Daesh, as is the UAE, and it would be in keeping with the “by, with, and through” mission of the US military to train UAE pilots to carry out bombing raids against AQAP targets in Yemen.

Although the US Central Command (CENTCOM) claims it carried out no strikes in Yemen during the months of October, November, and December, there were at least five strikes targeting suspected AQAP members during this period.[44] Were these covert CIA strikes that the US does not publicly acknowledge, partnered strikes by the UAE, or something else entirely?

Two other developments stand out when it comes to counterterrorism in Yemen. First, although AQAP is gaining recruits (the UN estimated it has 6,000 – 7,000 members)[45] most of these are local fighters, who are joining up to participate in the group’s domestic insurgency and fight the Houthis, Hadi’s government, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and nearly everyone else. But, importantly, they are not focused on international attacks against the west. AQAP has two wings: an international terrorist wing and a domestic insurgency wing.[46] The former – due to drone strikes and the lure of Daesh in recent years – has been greatly diminished, while the latter is growing. So, while AQAP is bigger menace in Yemen, it is not necessarily more of a threat to the west.

There is, however, an important caveat. As long as AQAP maintains a vibrant domestic base it will be in position to quickly resurrect its international terrorist wing and once again pose a serious security threat to the west.   

The other notable development on the counterterrorism front is that, unlike in years past, AQAP and Daesh in Yemen are now actively fighting one another. What started as a small incident at a checkpoint – AQAP and Daesh have their camps next to one another in al-Bayda – has now spiraled into a running war.[47] As Elisabeth Kendall, senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic studies at Pembroke College, has pointed out, the majority of Daesh attacks in December 2018 were focused on AQAP and not the Houthis, Hadi’s government, or any outside forces.[48]


US Support for the Saudi-Led Coalition

On March 25, 2015, Saudi Arabia’s then ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubeir, called a press conference in Washington, DC, to announce that the Kingdom had initiated “military operations in Yemen.”[49] It was an odd, but telling choice. Instead of announcing the beginning of the war in Yemen from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia chose to do so from a foreign capital thousands of miles from the fighting. The US was not joining the Saudi-led coalition, but it was, the Obama administration announced that same evening, setting up a “Joint Planning Cell” to support Saudi Arabia.[50]

It was a half step that pleased no one. This was the US’ original sin when it came to the war in Yemen. It got the worst of all worlds: its name was associated with the war but it had no control over how that war would be conducted. The US never imposed any time limits to its support, according to an assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration Dafna Rand.[51] The Saudi-led coalition “had said that the offensive to retake Sana’a would take six weeks,” Rand has said. But the US never held the coalition to that timetable and, nearly four years on, the Houthis are still in Sana’a and the war is still ongoing.

In December 2016, the Obama administration’s last full month in office, it issued a rare public rebuke of Saudi Arabia, halting a planned arms sale of precision-guided weapons.[52] But it was largely an empty gesture. The Obama administration knew it and, more importantly, Saudi Arabia knew it. In March 2017, the Trump administration reversed the decision and the weapons sale went through.[53]


The Trump Administration and the Saudi-Led War

President Trump took his first official foreign trip to Saudi Arabia in March 2017, where he inaugurated the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center in Riyadh. Later that year, following a handful of Houthi ballistic missile attacks on Riyadh, a small team of Green Berets arrived in the Kingdom to search for and destroy missile caches and launch sites in Houthi-controlled territory.[54] But other than that it was business as usual.

When it came to the war in Yemen, the Trump administration largely continued the policies put in place by the Obama administration. The US continued to refuel Saudi-led coalition aircraft, which the US neglected to track, so it didn’t know which flights it had refueled and which flights it had not.[55] Part of this was likely an effort to avoid liability for civilian casualties. If the US refueled war planes that otherwise would not have been able to carry out their missions in Yemen and if that mission resulted in civilian casualties, the US could be found liable.

Under the Trump administration, the US also continues to provide what it calls “logistical and intelligence support” to the coalition. On the logistical side this means that, as the New York Times reported in December, “American mechanics service the (Saudi jets taking part in combat) and carry out repairs on the grounds. American technicians upgrade the targeting software and other classified technology, which Saudis are not allowed to touch.”[56] On the intelligence side the US supplies information for “no-strike lists,” offers up “military advice,” and ensures that all the information is accurately communicated to the pilots in the air.[57] But the US claims it does not make “actual target selection for attack by the Arab coalition,” as Secretary of Defense Mattis emphasized in November 2018.[58]

US officials under both the Obama and Trump administrations have frequently stressed that the Saudi-led coalition performs better and is responsible for fewer civilian casualties because of US support. This, of course, is impossible to prove, as the Saudi-led coalition has never operated without US support. While he was secretary of defense, Mattis pointed to things like mid-air refueling which he said eased the pressure on Saudi pilots so they were not forced into making “rash or hasty decisions.”[59]  

But despite the repeated assurances and years of advice and aid, the Saudi-led coalition’s targeting capabilities did not improve. In August 2018, a Saudi-led coalition strike hit a school bus in Yemen, killing more than 40 children.[60] However, despite that strike and others like it, one month later in September 2018, Secretary of State Pompeo certified that the Saudi-led coalition was taking sufficient steps to protect civilians in Yemen.[61] Subsequent reporting by the Wall Street Journal detailed that Pompeo had overruled his own military and regional specialists inside the State Department and instead sided with legislative affairs, which had argued that a failure to certify the Saudi-led coalition could impact future weapons sales.[62]


The Khashoggi Effect

On October 2, 2018, Saudi agents tortured and killed Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident and Washington Post columnist, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. That murder galvanized public opinion against Saudi Arabia in a way that civilian deaths in Yemen – whether from air strikes, lack of medicine, or starvation – never had. In March 2018 Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont brought a bill (SJ 54), which would have required the US to withdraw all troops from combat operations in support of the Saudi-led coalition, to the floor for a vote.[63] That vote failed. But in November, following the Khashoggi murder, that same bill passed the Senate.

The bill was politically significant but legally meaningless.[64] Politically, this was the first time Congress had pushed back on US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Legally, however, the bill carried no weight. It called for the US to remove all troops involved in combat operations in Yemen with the exception of those fighting AQAP and Daesh, which had been authorized under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. But the position of both the Obama and the Trump administrations was that the US was not militarily involved in the conflict in Yemen.[65] As then Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress on the eve of the vote: “the US is not operationally involved in hostilities in Yemen’s civil war or in situations where the threat of hostilities is imminent.”[66] In other words, the US supported its Saudi and UAE allies, but US troops did not fight.

Although that is true in the narrow sense – US soldiers do not take up arms or fly missions against the Houthis – it is just as true that the Saudi-led coalition could not carry out its war in Yemen without US support. The US simply provides too much logistical support to Saudi Arabia. As Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer, put it: if the US wanted to ground the Saudi Air Force tomorrow, it could.[67] But neither the Trump administration nor Congress has come close to threatening to use that leverage against Saudi Arabia.

Instead, on November 9, 2018, then Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the US would no longer provide mid-air refueling to Saudi-led coalition warplanes.[68] Both Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had also called for a ceasefire in Yemen by the end of that month.[69] That did not happen, but the political pressure from the US, as well as Mattis’ behind-the-scenes efforts, helped pave the way for the December Stockholm Agreement.[70]

The Stockholm Agreement, which was negotiated by the UN Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths, and signed by representatives from the internationally recognized Yemeni Government and the armed Houthi movement, is actually three separate agreements: an agreement on a mechanism for the exchange of prisoners, an agreement on the city of Taiz, and an agreement on the city of Hudaydah.[71] The overarching statement did little other than express the thanks of the different parties and list some vague future goals. The Taiz agreement was similarly vague, largely because there are more actors involved in the fight in Taiz than just the Yemeni government and the Houthis. The Hudaydah agreement was the most detailed of the three, and the one that gained the most attention. But it also had some key ambiguities, such as the identity of the “local security forces,” which has made implementation a challenge.

At the UN, the Security Council, looking to codify the perceived gains of the Stockholm agreement, decided to draft a new resolution. As the pen-holder on Yemen, the UK took the lead but very quickly ran into difficulties with the US. The US, taking the position of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, objected to language on both humanitarian aid and accountability for possible war crimes.[72] The US even went as far as threatening to veto the UK resolution unless the language was stripped from the text. It eventually was and the resolution – 2451 – passed.


Overlapping Wars and Allegations of Abuse

According to the Department of Defense, US troops have been on the ground in Yemen since May 2016.[73] Indeed, in much the same way that the US supports Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the war against the Houthis, so too do Saudi Arabia and the UAE support the US in its war against AQAP and Daesh. The UAE has gone on partnered raids with the US, both countries share intelligence with the US, and UAE-backed forces routinely come into conflict with AQAP fighters. (There is also some circumstantial evidence to suggest that the UAE undertakes unilateral airstrikes against AQAP and Daesh targets.[74])

In late November 2018, Secretary of State Pompeo tied the two wars together, implicitly suggesting to Congress that a drawdown in US support to the Saudi-led coalition might result in a similar drawdown of Saudi and UAE support for the war against AQAP and Daesh.[75] “Try defending that outcome back home” he told senators.[76]

But Yemen’s overlapping wars and the fluidity with which the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE move between them has also raised allegations of abuse and US complicity. In June 2017, the Associated Press reported that the UAE was torturing prisoners at a network of secret prisons it ran in Yemen.[77] The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen (of which this author was a member) later confirmed and built upon the Associated Press’ reporting, as did Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.[78] (During his confirmation hearing in December 2018, Christopher Henzel, President Trump’s nominee to be the US ambassador in Yemen, said he had read none of the reports on allegations of torture.)[79] At the time US officials said that, while they were aware of the allegations of torture, they were confident that no torture had taken place while US personnel were present in the prisons. “We would not turn a blind eye, because we are obligated to report any violations of human rights,” DoD spokeswoman Dana White told the Associated Press.[80]

But, a year-and-a-half later in December 2018, the US’ position had changed subtly but significantly. Instead of holding that no abuse has taken place while US forces were present, the Pentagon said only that “DoD has determined that DoD personnel have neither observed nor been complicit in any cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of detainees in Yemen.”[81] Cynically, the semantic shift could be read to imply that US forces did not see any torture, but leaving open the possibility that they had been out of eyesight in an adjacent room.

Similarly, the DoD report in December 2018 amended slightly its position that the US is “obligated to report any violation of human rights” by noting that the “foreign partners conducting detention operations in Yemen do not receive US assistance that would be subject to Leahy law,” which prohibits the US from providing aid to security forces that violate human rights.[82] The entire two-page document is “a deliberately misleading and deceptively evasive account of US and Emirati actions in Yemen that amounts to the ultimate non-denial denial,” a former counterterrorism director at the National Security Council said.[83]

The DoD report also noted that while “US forces do not conduct detention operations in Yemen,” they do “conduct intelligence interrogations of detainees held in partner custody.”[84] But subsequent reporting by The Daily Beast suggests that not only is the US aware of the torture taking place in UAE prisons in Yemen, but that Americans may be in the room while suspects are tortured.[85]

In addition to torture, credible evidence has also emerged that the UAE has hired US mercenaries as part of “murder squads” to assassinate political opponents in Yemen.[86]


Humanitarian Aid

The US has contributed more than $1.46 billion in aid to Yemen since 2015, including $321 million in 2018. According to the Congressional Research Service, this makes the US the largest single donor of humanitarian aid to Yemen over the past four years.[87] (These numbers, however, do not take into account Saudi interjections into Yemen’s economy such as the $2 billion it deposited in Yemen’s Central Bank in Aden in January 2018.)[88]   

Perhaps the US’ signature humanitarian aid project in Yemen under the Trump administration was four cranes that it delivered to Hudaydah in January 2018 to replace the four destroyed by the Saudi-led coalition in 2015.[89] The US had worked for years to convince the Saudi-led coalition to allow the cranes to be delivered, and their arrival in Hudaydah was treated as a major diplomatic victory. However, because the cranes were mobile they were unable to handle enough tonnage to fully replace the ones that been destroyed years earlier.



The Trump administration has pursued two separate policies in Yemen: countering AQAP and Daesh and rolling back Iranian influence. These two policy goals have involved the US in two separate wars in Yemen. Although both of these wars began under previous administrations, the Trump administration has greatly expanded the number of US counterterrorism strikes in Yemen while steadfastly maintaining its support for the Saudi-led coalition despite significant civilian casualties.

Pursuing these two policies has also had the awkward effect of putting the US in a position where it is fighting all sides in Yemen. The US is combating AQAP and Daesh, who in addition to fighting each other are also targeting the Houthis, who are themselves the target of the US’ two key allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Yemen is in the midst of a messy and multi-layered conflict, which will not be easy to untangle or solve. The US has a counterterrorism policy and a counter-Iran policy, but it does not have a Yemen policy.


Dr. Gregory D. Johnsen is a non-resident fellow at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies where he focuses on al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and armed groups in Yemen. Prior to joining the Sana’a Center, Dr. Johnsen served on the Panel of Experts on Yemen for the United Nation Security Council. He is the author of ‘The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia’.


  1. Matt Lauer, “Commander-in-Chief Forum,” NBC News, September 8, 2016.
  2.  Michael O’Hanlon, “Trump and the Generals,” Brookings Institution Series: Foreign Policy in the U.S. Presidential Debates, September 14, 2016.
  3. The US has carried out 1 strike in Yemen (on January 1) through the first 40 days of 2019.
  4.  Oona Hathaway, Aaron Haviland, Srinath Reddy Kethireddy, and Alyssa Yamamoto, “Yemen: Is the US Breaking the Law?” Harvard National Security Journal, 2018.
  5.  James Mattis, “Full Senate Briefing on Yemen,” November 28, 2018.
  6. Declan Walsh and Eric Schmitt, “Arm Sales to Saudis Leave American Fingerprints on Yemen’s Carnage,” The New York Times, December 25, 2018.
  7.  Christopher Henzel, “Statement: Nominee to be US Ambassador to Yemen,” December 4, 2018.
  8.  Greg Miller, “Plan for Hunting Terrorists Signals US Plans to Keep Adding Names to the Kill List,” Washington Post, October 23, 2012.
  9.  Eric Schmitt and David E. Sanger, “Raid in Yemen: Risky from the Start and Costly in the End,” New York Times, February 1, 2017.
  10.  Colin Kahl, a former national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, pushed back slightly against this characterization, saying in a twitter thread a “broad package (of raids) was discussed in the interagency in the closing weeks of the Obama term. This particular raid was NOT discussed.”
  11.  Safa Al Ahmad, “Targeting Yemen,” PBS Frontline, January 22, 2019.
  12.  This is according to one villager interviewed in Safa Al Ahmad, “Targeting Yemen,” PBS Frontline, January 22, 2019. However, it is unclear why the US would not have been aware of this if there was drone coverage of the area on the evening of the raid.
  13.  Safa Al Ahmad, “Targeting Yemen,” PBS Frontline, January 22, 2019.
  14.  Safa Al Ahmad, “Targeting Yemen,” PBS Frontline, January 22, 2019. Other reporting from Iona Craig in the Intercept suggests that a 13-year-old boy, Nasser al-Dhahab, was the first to die in the raid.
  15.  Terri Moon Cronk, “US Raid in Yemen Garners Intelligence,” US Central Command, January 30, 2017.  
  16.  “CentCom: Civilians likely killed in Yemen Firefight,” Department of Defense News Release, Feburary 2, 2017.
  17.  The al-Dhahab family and the al-Awlaki family are related by marriage. Anwar al-Awlaki was married to one of Abdililah al-Dhahab’s sisters, making the latter Nawar’s uncle.
  18.  President Donald J. Trump, “Address to a Joint Session of Congress,” February 28, 2017.
  19.  Nancy Youssef, “The Military Pulled a Video it said Proves a Raid was Worth it Because It’s a Decade Old,” BuzzFeed News, February 3, 2017.
  20.  Cynthia McFadden, William Arkin, Ken Dilanian, and Robert Windrem, “Yemen SEAL Raid Has Yielded No Significant Intelligence: Officials,” NBC News, February 27, 2017.
  21.  Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt, “Trump Administration is Said to Be Working to Loosen Counterterrorism Rules,” New York Times, March 12, 2017.
  22. “Statement by Pentagon Spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis on U.S. strikes against AQAP in Yemen,” Department of Defense, March 2, 2017.
  23.  “Four Members of al-Qaeda killed in an air strike on a Dirt Road between Marib and al-Baydha,” al-Masadr Online Arabic, April 30, 2017.
  24.  “US Forces Conduct Counterterrorism Raid,” CentCom News Release, May 23, 2017.
  25.  Safa Al Ahmed, “Targeting Yemen,” PBS Frontline, January 22, 2019.
  26.  The names of the dead are: Nasser Ali Mahdi al-‘Idhal, Saleh Lutfaf al-‘Idhal, Yasser Lutfaf al-‘Idhal, Abdullah Said al-Idhal, and Abd al-Qadir Saleh al-‘Idhal.
  27.  See AQAP’s statement of 26 May 2017. For local Yemeni reporting see, for example, “Source: Five People Killed and Six Others Wounded in an American Raid on the area of al-Khithla in Marib,” al-Masdar Online Arabic, May 23, 2017.
  28. “US Forces Conduct Counterterrorism Raid,” CentCom News Release, May 23, 2017.
  29.  Similarly, the United States statement failed to acknowledge the five tribesmen killed in the raid.
  30.  Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, “al-Qaeda in Yemen,” PBS Frontline, May 29, 2012.
  31. Part of this analysis is derived from the Panel of Experts on Yemen Final Report for 2017, S/2018/594, Annex 31, pgs. 96-97.
  32.  Barbara Starr and Zachary Cohen, “First US airstrike targeting ISIS in Yemen kills dozens,” CNN, October 16, 2017.
  33.  “Update on recent Counterterrorism Strikes in Yemen,” CentCom Press Release, December 20, 2017.
  34.  “Yemen: Reported US Covert Actions 2017,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism; and “US Airstrikes in the Long War,” The Long War Journal.
  35.  Treasury and Terrorist Financing Target Center Partners Issue First Joint Sanctions Against Key Terrorist and Supporters,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, October 25, 2017.
  36. Sudarsan Raghavan, “The US put a Yemeni Warlord on a terrorist list. One of its closest allies is still arming him.” Washington Post, December 29, 2018.
  37.  “Treasury Targets al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, May 19, 2017.
  38.  “CENTCOM Counterterrorism Strikes in Yemen 2018 Rollup,” CENTCOM Press Release, January 7, 2019. Note: The US did, however, carry out a drone strike on January 1, 2019 targeting and killing Jamal al-Badawi, who was involved in the USS Cole attack in 2000. See:
  39.  “CENTCOM Counterterrorism Strikes in Yemen 2018 Rollup,” CENTCOM Press Release, January 7, 2019. Note: CENTCOM says these strikes took place in “Abyan, al-Baydha, Hadramwt, Shabwa, and Zamakh governorates.” Zamakh is a region in Hadramawt.
  40.  Charlie Savage, “US Removes Libya from List of Zones With Looser Rules for Drone Strikes,” New York Times, January 20, 2017.
  41. UN Panel of Experts on Yemen, “2017 Final Report to the UN Security Council, S/2018/594, pg. 21 n. 70. See also the work of Elisabeth Kendall, who tracks these numbers.
  42.  David Sterman, “CENTCOM Improves Transparency of Yemen War Civilian Casualties, But Gaps Remain,” Just Security, January 28, 2019; Ken Dilanian and Courtney Kube, “Trump Administration Wants to Increase CIA Drone Strikes,” NBC News, September 18, 2017.
  43.  Nick Turse, “Despite denials, documents reveal U.S. training UAE forces for combat in Yemen,” Yahoo, January 16, 2019.
  44.  David Sterman, “CENTCOM Improves Transparency of Yemen War Civilian Casualties, But Gaps Remain,” Just Security, January 28, 2019.
  45. “Annual Report of the ISIL and al-Qaeda Committee to the UN Security Council,” S/2018/705, July 16, 2018, pg. 9.
  46.  Gregory D. Johnsen, “The Two Faces of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” War on the Rocks, October 11, 2018.
  47.  Gregory D. Johnsen, “Al-Qaeda and ISIS are on their Heels in Yemen, But Will Return Unless We Help Build a Lasting Piece,” Just Security, August 7, 2018.
  48. Elisabeth Kendall, Twitter, January 21, 2019.
  49.  Adel al-Jubeir, Press Conference, March 25, 2015. Video available at al-Arabiyya.
  50.  Statement by NSC Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan on the Situation in Yemen, March 25, 2015.
  51.  Dafna Rand, Comments at “US Policy and the War in Yemen,” a Brookings Institution Event, October 25, 2018.
  52.  Phil Stewart and Warren Strobel, “U.S. to halt some arms sales to Saudi, citing civilian deaths in Yemen campaign,” Reuters, December 13, 2016.
  53. Missy Ryan and Anne Gearan, “Trump Administration looks to resume Saudi arm sales criticized as endangering civilians in Yemen,” Washington Post, March 8, 2017.
  54.  Helene Cooper, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, and Eric Schmitt, “Army Special Forces Secretly Help Saudis Combat Threat from Yemen Rebels,” New York Times, May 3, 2018.
  55. Samuel Oakford, “The US Military can’t keep track of which missions its Fueling in the Yemen War,” The Intercept, September 18, 2017.
  56.  Declan Walsh and Eric Schmitt, “Arm Sales to Saudis Leave American Fingerprints on Yemen’s Carnage,” The New York Times, December 25, 2018.
  57.  Eric Schmitt, “US Commander Urges More Transparency in Yemen Strike on Bus,” The New York Times, August 27, 2018; “Media Availability with Secretary Mattis at the Pentagon,” Department of Defense Transcript, March 27, 2018; Declan Walsh and Eric Schmitt, “Arm Sales to Saudis Leave American Fingerprints on Yemen’s Carnage,” The New York Times, December 25, 2018.
  58.  James Mattis, “Secretary Mattis’ Full Senate Briefing on Yemen,” November 28, 2018.
  59.  “Media Availability with Secretary Mattis at the Pentagon,” Department of Defense Transcript, March 27, 2018
  60.  Eric Schmitt, “US Commander Urges More Transparency in Yemen Strike on Bus,” The New York Times, August 27, 2018
  61. H.R.5515 – John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, and Pompeo Certification Memo, September 10, 2018.
  62.  Dion Nussbaum, “Top U.S. Diplomat Backs Continuing Support for Saudi War in Yemen Over Objections of Staff,” The Wall Street Journal, September 20, 2018.
  63.  S.J. Res. 54 – A joint resolution to direct the removal of United States Armed Force from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen that have not been authorized by Congress, 115th Congress.
  64.  Scott R. Anderson, “Taking Stock of the Yemen Resolution,” Lawfare, November 30, 2018.
  65.  William Castle, acting General Counsel Department of Defense, letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, February 27, 2018.
  66. James Mattis, “Full Senate Briefing on Yemen,” November 28, 2018.
  67.  Bruce Riedel, Comments at “US Policy and the War in Yemen,” a Brookings Institution Event, October 25, 2018.
  68.  Phil Stewart, “U.S. halting refueling of Saudi-led coalition aircraft in Yemen’s War,” Reuters, November 9, 2018.
  69.  Jeremy Sharp, “Congress and the War in Yemen: Oversight and Legislation 2015 – 2019,” Congressional Research Service, updated February 2019, pg. 12.
  70.  Dion Nussbaum, “Mattis, U.S. Commander Sought to Tempt Saudi-Led War in Yemen,” The Wall Street Journal, December 31, 2018.
  71. All three agreements can be read here:
  72.  Julian Borger, “UN agress Yemen Ceasefire resolution after Fraught Talks and US Veto Threat,” The Guardian, December 21, 2018.
  73.  “DOD response to section 1274 of the NDAA,” The Intercept, December 2018.
  74.  Nick Turse, “Despite denials, documents reveal U.S. training UAE forces for combat in Yemen,” Yahoo, January 16, 2019.
  75.  “Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Remarks to Congress November 28, 2018.”
  76. Deirdre Shesgreen, “Lawmakers Livid after CIA director a no-show for closed-door briefing on Khashoggi Murder” USA Today, November 28, 2018.
  77.  Maggie Michael, “In Yemen’s Secret Prisons, UAE tortures and US interrogates,” Associated Press, June 22, 2017.
  78.  UN Panel of Experts, “Final Report to the UN Security Council,” S/2018/594; “Yemen: UAE backs Abusive Local Forces,” Human Rights Watch, June 22, 2017; “Disappearance and Torture in Southern Yemen Must be investigated as War Crimes,” Amnesty International, July 12, 2018.
  79.  Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Nomination Hearings, C-Span, December 4, 2018.
  80. Maggie Michael, “In Yemen’s Secret Prisons, UAE tortures and US interrogates,” Associated Press, June 22, 2017.
  81.  “DOD response to section 1274 of the NDAA,” The Intercept, December 2018.
  82. “DOD response to section 1274 of the NDAA,” The Intercept, December 2018.
  83.  Luke Hartig, “Annotation of the Pentagon Report to Congress on Detainee Abuse by U.S. Partners in Yemen,” Just Security, January 8, 2019.
  84.  “DOD response to section 1274 of the NDAA,” The Intercept, December 2018.
  85.  Spencer Ackerman, “Detainees Describe an American Presence in their Torture Chambers,” The Daily Beast, January 31, 2019.
  86.  Aram Roston, “A Middle East Monarchy Hired American Ex-Soldiers to Kill Its Political Enemies. This Could be the Future of War,” BuzzFeed, October 16, 2018.
  87. Jeremy Sharp, “Yemen: Civil War and Regional Intervention,” Congressional Research Service, updated August 24, 2018.
  88.  “Saudi Arabia deposits $2 billion in Yemen Central Bank to Back Currency,” Reuters, January 17, 2018.
  89.  “Statement from USAID Administrator Mark Green on the arrival of the Mobile Cranes to Yemen,” US Embassy, Yemen, January 16, 2018. “Cranes arrive in Hudaydah to Boost Yemen Food aid Flow: UN,” Reuters, January 15, 2018.
US Military’s Ambiguous Definition of a ‘Legitimate’ Target

US Military’s Ambiguous Definition of a ‘Legitimate’ Target

US Air Force personnel practice tactical operations for a MQ-1 Predator drone at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, US // Photo Credit: US Air Force

Commentary by Gregory Johnsen

After three months of no official drone strikes in Yemen, the United States carried out its first strike of 2019 on New Year’s Day. Five days later, on January 6, President Donald Trump tweeted that the US had killed the target of that strike: Jamal al-Badawi, the “leader” of the attack on the USS Cole in 2000.

The US military quickly confirmed the strike, writing that: “Jamal al-Badawi was a legacy al-Qaeda operative in Yemen involved in the USS Cole bombing.” Indeed, in 2003 a US grand jury had indicted both al-Badawi and Fahd al-Quso for their role in the attack, which killed 17 US sailors. At the time, both men had recently escaped from a Yemeni prison, something al-Badawi would manage to pull off a second time in 2006. But while it was clear that Fahd al-Quso eventually rejoined what would become known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – he appeared in the group’s branded videos and spoke on behalf of AQAP – the public evidence for al-Badawi is less clear. (Fahd al-Quso was killed in a US drone strike in 2012.)

In 2007, al-Badawi turned himself in to Yemeni authorities in exchange for a loose house arrest. Then Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh told a visiting US counterterrorism official not to worry. Al-Badawai, he said, is “under my microscope.” Saleh explained that al-Badawi had “promised to give up his terrorism and I told him that his actions damaged Yemen and its image; he began to understand.”

Washington was not impressed, and quickly cut off aid to Yemen, which forced Saleh to relent and, at least officially, re-arrest al-Badawi. In practice all this meant was that al-Badawi was summoned to the prison anytime a US delegation was scheduled to visit. As soon as the delegation was gone, al-Badawi was free to walk out the back door.

Still, it is this history as well as the fact that al-Badawi, unlike al-Quso, never publicly rejoined al-Qaeda that has raised questions about the January 1 strike. Was al-Badawi an active member of AQAP? Did he present an imminent threat to the US, or was this simply a retaliatory strike based solely on his involvement in the USS Cole attack?  

On Twitter, Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor and former head of the Office of Legal Counsel for George W. Bush’s administration, pointed to the military’s use of the phrase “legacy al-Qaeda operative.” If ‘legacy’ means ‘former’, he wrote, “then the strike would raise tricky issues under domestic and (international) law.”

Robert Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas, suggested that the military may be using “legacy” to refer to “core” al-Qaeda as opposed to one of its franchises. But the truth, as is often the case with the US drone program, remains unclear.

The al-Badawi drone strike also raises another and perhaps even more important question. At a time when AQAP is gaining a significant number of local recruits, helped in part by Yemen’s multiple ongoing wars: Is it ever possible to leave the group? Or, to put it another way, in the eyes of the US, is it ‘once an al-Qaeda member always an al-Qaeda member?’

This has been an issue for the US in Yemen before, and it will be an issue again. In January 2017, shortly after taking office, President Trump authorized a Navy SEAL raid on a village in the Yakla region of Yemen. As a PBS documentary revealed last month, a single family, the al-Dhahab family, was at the center of that raid. Some members of the family belonged to al-Qaeda, some did not, and some claimed to have once belonged to the organization and since left. But which were which? Which bearded guy with a gun was a member of al-Qaeda and which was merely a tribesman defending his home? And in such a chaotic environment how is the US to determine who is, and who is not, a legitimate target?

The UN estimates that AQAP now numbers between 6,000 and 7,000 members, many of whom are local fighters who have joined up less out of a desire to be part of the global jihad than to combat one of the group’s many local enemies: Houthis, Hadi’s government, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Determining which of these recruits is a threat to US interests and which is not is a challenging task. But it is an essential one for the US in Yemen. Draw a narrow enough circle and the US can both pressure AQAP and limit civilian casualties, but create too broad a target list and the US will be carrying out drone strikes in Yemen for years to come.

Dr. Gregory D. Johnsen is a non-resident fellow at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies where he focuses on al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and armed groups in Yemen. Prior to joining the Sana’a Center, Dr. Johnsen served on the Panel of Experts on Yemen for the United Nation Security Council. He is the author of ‘The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia’.

Revitalizing Yemen’s Banking Sector: Necessary Steps for Restarting Formal Financial Cycles and Basic Economic Stabilization

Revitalizing Yemen’s Banking Sector: Necessary Steps for Restarting Formal Financial Cycles and Basic Economic Stabilization

By Farea al-Muslimi

Executive Summary

Yemen’s banking sector faces a litany of challenges stemming from the country’s ongoing economic collapse and the warring parties’ competition for financial control. The most critical challenge is the division of the central bank between Sana’a and Aden and the fierce competition between these two branches over the administration and regulation of the country’s commercial and Islamic banks. In February, this has seen Houthi authorities arrest senior officials from several banks in the capital for supposedly complying with policies set by the central bank in Aden and the Yemeni government’s Economic Committee.

Other obstacles facing the banking sector are a prolonged liquidity crisis, the deteriorating local currency exchange rate, the loss of revenue from freezes on assets and public debt repayments, obstacles to moving money within Yemen and internationally, and the general deterioration in private sector confidence in the banking sector that has spurred the migration of the financial cycle from the formal economy to informal markets and networks.

The weakening of Yemen’s commercial and Islamic banks has had wide-ranging consequences. Among the implications are a dramatic rise in black market activity, exchange rate destabilization, and increased difficulty for traders to finance imports. These in turn have undermined attempts to establish social and political stability, exacerbated the humanitarian crisis, and ultimately prolonged the conflict.

Since mid-2018 the Sana’a Center has been meeting with the heads of Yemen’s banking sector, current and former senior central bank officials on either side of the frontlines, financial authorities across the country, as well as prominent economists, business leaders and currency traders from Yemen and around the region.1 The following policy brief is an outcome of these discussions. In synthesizing the opinions of these experts, this paper lays out recommendations for revitalizing the Yemeni banking sector and offers a background on the challenges it has faced.

These recommendations are:

  • Reunify the administration for the Central Bank of Yemen; this must be a top priority of all stakeholders and the international community must pressure all parties to the conflict to facilitate this development.
  • Reactivate Yemen’s anti-money laundering and counterterrorism financing mechanisms.
  • Release Yemeni bank balances frozen in central bank accounts through re-activating the central bank’s payment clearing house functions.
  • Facilitate the secure transfers of cash holdings of foreign and domestic currency both within the country and internationally.
  • Ease import financing requirements to allow banks to utilize their frozen non-cash balances to underwrite letters of credit for the importation of basic commodities.
  • Establish a cash clearing system to swap cash payments between banks, money exchange networks and businesses.
  • Replace damaged banknotes currently stockpiled by the banking sector.
  • Restart partial servicing on the accrued interest of outstanding public debt.

Background: Challenges Facing Yemeni Banks

Prolonged Liquidity Crisis Spurs Loss of Public Confidence

The Yemeni banking sector has faced a liquidity crisis since 2016. Following the escalation of the conflict in early 2015 the country entered a precipitous decline in economic activity. Of primary concern for state spending was the cessation of oil exports, which had until 2015 been the largest source of government revenues and the country’s primary source of foreign currency. Consequently, the central bank was forced to begin drawing down on its reserves of domestic currency to fund public expenditures and deploy its reserves of foreign currency to finance imports.

Throughout 2015, the central bank took action to shore up foreign currency supplies in the country through limiting local market access, while commercial banks began limiting customer withdrawals.2 These actions, together with a financial blockade of the country that severely curtailed commercial banks’ ability to carry out international financial transactions, led traders and wealthy Yemenis to be hesitant to let banks hold their money. Cash withdrawals from the banking sector thus increased; in the first six months of 2016 alone, customers withdrew some 300 billion Yemeni rials (YR) from their accounts, amounting to a mass migration of financial flows from the formal to the informal economy.  

With little cash liquidity themselves, commercial banks could not make deposits at the central bank. Concurrently, the Yemeni government denied the central bank, based in Houthi-controlled Sana’a, access to the foreign printers necessary to print new banknotes, and thus the CBY’s cash reserves of Yemeni rials began to decline. In attempting to address this, the central bank leadership began to reissue damaged banknotes that had been removed from circulation. Many businesses refused to accept them, however, leaving many commercial banks with vast stockpiles of unusable currency notes for which they have since born the costs of storing.

By September 2016, the central bank was forced to cease salary payments to most of the 1.2 million Yemenis on the public payroll, due to a lack of physical cash with which to pay them. Simultaneously, the central bank’s foreign reserves were almost entirely depleted.

A Divided Central Bank    

In September 2016, Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi issued a decree to relocate the Central Bank of Yemen headquarters from Sana’a to Aden. This brought new, interrelated challenges and risks to commercial banks. Hadi had announced the move without first securing the institutional expertise and staff, information archives or financial reserves necessary for the new location to carry out central bank functions. While the central bank in Aden has gradually developed greater capacities and has the privileges associated with being internationally recognized, it still lacks the institutional and technical capacity to supervise domestic banking operations or evaluate banks’ liquidity needs, among other deficiencies. Meanwhile, the central bank in Sana’a has maintained most of its staff and information archives, and much of its leverage with the country’s largest financial institutions, given that their headquarters are mostly located in the capital. However, it has minimal reserves and is unable to carry out international transactions.

Thus, since September 2016 there have been two central banks in Yemen – in Sana’a and Aden – claiming national jurisdiction yet neither has the capacity to fulfill the role. With the two central banks operating independently of and often in opposition to each other, the country has suffered from divergent fiscal and monetary policies. Efforts to implement mechanisms to relieve the liquidity crisis have also been hampered by disputes between the rival central bank branches, with the country’s banking sector caught in the middle (see below ‘Aden and Sana’a Compete for Financial and Monetary Control’).

Banking Sector’s Asset and Revenue Squeeze

Frozen Assets

The commercial bank deposits held at the central bank prior to September 2016 have since then become divided between Sana’a and Aden. In general, the Sana’a-based authorities have allowed commercial banks to transfer balances held at the Sana’a-based CBY to the central bank in Aden, but not cash. Since the division of the CBY, its branches in Sana’a and Aden have applied similar mechanisms to handle the balances of commercial banks in their accounting systems and to restrict cash withdrawals. The central bank in Aden allows cash withdrawals only on the net balance of cash deposits made since September 2016. Deposits made before September 2016 that were moved from Sana’a to Aden can only be transferred or mobilized to swap payments within accounts at the central bank and the banking system, and not for any other purpose (such as customer cash withdrawals).3

The central bank in Sana’a has operated a similar mechanism since early 2017; it does not allow commercial banks to use cash balances accumulated prior to 2017, which represent the bulk of most banks’ financial assets. Meanwhile, the separation of cash transactions from non-cash transactions has undermined the use of non-cash payment instruments, like checks, and has discouraged the public from conducting financial transactions within the banking sector.

The central bank in Aden has mandated that for banks to make partial cash withdrawals on non-cash deposits they must transfer assets – including treasury bills – from the central bank in Sana’a to Aden, something the Sana’a central bank has yet to allow.

Frozen Public Debt Repayments

Commercial banks have come under further strain due to the central bank’s suspension of payments on domestic debt. Prior to the conflict, commercial and Islamic banks were large investors in domestic debt instruments issued by the CBY on behalf of the Ministry of Finance. Commercial banks hold 72 percent of all treasury bills. Meanwhile, Islamic banks have invested heavily in Islamic sukuk bonds.4 The Public Debt Department, under the leadership of  the central bank in Sana’a, has continued to reissue treasury bills on maturation, and has transferred their generated interest into uncashable accounts. With regard to the sukuks, upon maturation the debt department has transferred the original amounts invested in the sukuks and their generated returns to uncashable accounts, while disallowing the re-issuance of this debt instrument. Thus, Islamic banks have lost alternative channels to relocate their investments.

In September 2018, the central bank in Aden raised interest rates on domestic debt instruments and introduced new ones in an attempt to attract the assets of commercial and Islamic banks. As of November, it had sold YR100 billion in debt to a group of commercial and Islamic banks. However, the central bank in Aden required that these debt instruments be purchased in cash, preventing Yemeni banks from shifting existing investments in public debt into the new instruments to take advantage of the increased interest rates.  

Deterioration of the Yemeni rial

The instability of the Yemeni rial has aggravated the liquidity crisis in the banking sector. As of this writing the Yemeni rial had lost, relative to the US$, almost two thirds of its purchasing power since March 2015, when it was trading at YR215 per US$1. The rial reached a record low of more than YR800 per US$1 in October 2018, before rebounding to YR525 per US$1 by the end of the year. The decline and rapid fluctuations in value of the local currency have led Yemenis to withdraw their rial savings from banks and convert them in the informal markets to foreign currencies, particularly US dollars and Saudi rials, to preserve their value and to benefit from the growing purchasing power of foreign currencies.

The depreciation of the rial caused some commercial banks losses of currency assets, particularly banks whose foreign currency obligations were greater than their assets. Meanwhile, those banks with available funds have speculated on the exchange rates.

Aden and Sana’a Compete for Financial and Monetary Control

The CBY leadership in Aden and the Yemeni government-appointed Economic Committee have recently stepped up efforts to resume a functioning importation system, restore confidence in the banking sector and return financial flows to the formal economy. However, these efforts remain difficult to implement in the absence of a unified central bank and due to disputes between the central banks in Sana’a and Aden, which have competed for control over banking and import regulations.

The CBY in Aden drafted a procedural framework in June 2018 to support the import of five essential commodities – rice, wheat, milk, sugar and cooking oil – from a US$2 billion deposit provided by Riyadh. In September, the Yemeni government issued Decree 75 to regulate fuel and basic commodity imports, although a month later the regulation of food imports was suspended indefinitely due to concerns that tighter controls would reduce food imports and worsen Yemen’s already dire food security crisis. Due to the divisions and rivalry between the central banks in Sana’a and Aden, Yemeni banks were unable to fully benefit from this new framework.

The Aden-based CBY instructed traders in June 2018 that letters of credit (LCs) to guarantee imports must be opened with commercial banks operating in Aden and that equivalent funds in Yemeni rials should be deposited at accounts held by the CBY in Aden, among other conditions. In November 2018, Houthi authorities issued orders for commercial banks to use checks to cover LCs, seeking to prevent the transfer of rial banknotes outside their territory. Houthi authorities threatened reprisals – including the imprisonment of senior staff – against banks that complied with directives issued in Aden,5 while the CBY in Aden has threatened commercial banks with fines for not providing cash to cover imports.

The Yemen Banks Association (YBA) sent a letter to the CBY governor in Aden, Mohammed Zammam, in November 2018, outlining the difficulties commercial banks faced in underwriting LCs for food and fuel importers using cash. Due to the liquidity crisis, banks did not have sufficient cash to underwrite LCs for importers. In the letter, the YBA said that to satisfy the Aden-based CBY and the Economic Committee’s demand, the commercial banks would need to use checks to purchase Yemeni rial banknotes from informal economic institutions – such as money exchangers. Due to the liquidity crisis, commercial banks have turned to informal networks to obtain cash drawn on non-cash frozen assets. In this scenario, rial banknotes are overpriced relative to checks, and commercial banks absorb the cost of exchanging checks into cash.

Fears have been raised that the absorption of these financial burdens would reduce the impact of the Aden-based CBY’s privileged exchange rate given to fund imports on basic foodstuffs. Commercial banks would also be left with little option but to deal with the same informal networks the Aden-based CBY and the Economic Committee are looking to disempower.

Houthi Authorities Obstruct New Liquidity Circulation

In response to the Aden-based imports financing mechanism requiring importers to deposit cash at the central bank in Aden to underwrite LCs, in December 2018 Houthi authorities imposed new restrictions to prevent the transfer of cash out of their territory. Houthi authorities banned banks from transferring amounts exceeding YR450,000 (equivalent to roughly US$900 in December 2018) from Sana’a to Aden without prior approval from the Sana’a-based central bank. Although sources in the banking sector report that rial banknotes are being transferred via informal networks, this process is associated with high costs and risks due to the conflict-driven instability in Yemen. Bankers have complained that banknotes transported by truck are vulnerable to confiscation and robbery over road networks, and that the cost of transferring rial banknotes to Aden has become untenable.

Houthi authorities have also tried to prevent new banknotes printed in Aden from circulating in their territories, thereby obstructing efforts to address the liquidity shortage faced by commercial banks. Houthi authorities have been motivated by the assumption that the new banknotes would increase the local currency supply and thus create inflationary pressures. They also seek to prevent these rial banknotes from being used to purchase foreign currency out of the market in Houthi-controlled areas. While these restrictions have eased somewhat, and new currency printed in Aden is being used in restaurants and shops in Sana’a, Houthi authorities have focused on preventing commercial banks from handling or using these banknotes.

When the central bank was relocated to Aden in 2016 the amount of physical money in circulation was estimated at YR 1.3 trillion; of these banknotes, which are still largely in circulation, at least 90 percent are currently considered damaged, according to banking sector sources that spoke with the Sana’a Center. The Aden-based central bank has since printed more than YR1 trillion to replace damaged rial banknotes in circulation, but Houthi restrictions against the use of this new currency has limited its impact on the liquidity crisis faced by commercial bank.

This further diminished public confidence in formal banking operations and reduced cash deposits in commercial banks, as Yemenis have been reluctant to deposit their savings in banks that were unable to accept new banknotes. Houthi authorities have regularly carried out inspections of bank treasuries and cash boxes to check if they were accepting the rials printed in Aden and have at times taken measures to confiscate new banknotes they found.

An October 2018 World Bank report estimated that currency circulation outside the formal banking sector more than doubled between 2014 and 2017, from YR810.9 billion to YR1.67 trillion. This number has likely risen since the report, as more than YR1 trillion in banknotes printed in Aden have not been allowed to enter the commercial banks operating in densely populated Houthi areas, where some 70 percent of the population live, with corresponding high consumption and economic activity.

Houthi Security Detaining Senior Bank Staff

Since the beginning of this year, the Houthi authorities, through their affiliated national security agency and central bank in Sana’a, have intensified measures to punish commercial banks intending to relocate their headquarters to Aden, or those caught implementing financial transactions to open letters of credits under the Aden-based central bank’s import financing mechanism. These actions have increased fears and shaken confidence of the banking sector, forcing both banks and their customers  to search for safer ways to transfer funds and relocate investments.

While Houthi authorities lack the international financial legitimacy and monetary tools essential to influence the banking sector activities directly, they have applied physically coercive tactics to try and force the banking sector to abide by their decrees and, more often, to prohibit them from following directives issued from Aden.

On February 10, Houthi security personnel raided the headquarters of Tadhamon International Islamic Bank (TIIB) and arrested the treasury director and another two employees. TIIB is Yemen’s largest bank in terms of total assets. Houthi security also arrested several executives from al-Kuraimi Microfinance Bank, and Saba Islamic Bank.

Banking sources told the Sana’a Center that such actions were a punishment for TIIB management’s interaction with the central bank in Aden – in particular opening letters of credit – and the bank’s refusal to sell 20 million Saudi rials to the central bank in Sana’a to fund the imports of a basic commodities importer loyal to the armed Houthi movement. On February 11, the bank management organized a demonstration of its staff in front of the bank headquarters to call for the release of its detained employees.

The Sana’a Center also learned that there had been a dispute between the authorities in Sana’a and Aden related to the Cooperative and Agricultural Credit (CAC) Bank. In February this led to central bank officials in Aden successfully petitioning the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) headquarters in Belgium to have the CAC Bank’s SWIFT access removed from Sana’a and placed in Aden.  

Restrictions on Cross-Border Banking and Compliance Challenges

In 2018, the Aden-based central bank attempted to have certain restrictions on Yemeni banks’ international financial transactions lifted. As of this writing, most American and European banks continue to refuse to interact with Yemeni banks. However, the central bank in Aden has resumed the full functions of the SWIFT network.6

The SWIFT network had been deactivated in September 2016, when the central bank headquarters was moved to Aden. President Hadi’s decision to nullify the authority of the staff handling SWIFT payments at the Sana’a-based CBY before arrangements had been made to relocate the network to Aden led to a freeze in the balances of commercial banks held by the central bank. This meant that Yemeni banks were unable to open food import credits, worsening the humanitarian situation in the country.

The SWIFT system was reinstalled at the central bank in Aden in April 2017, but limited transactions were made on the network because the central bank’s foreign currency reserves had not been replenished and restrictions on Yemeni banks by the international financial system remained. By the time the central bank in Aden resumed full operations on the SWIFT network, it had been disconnected from the global transaction system for more than a year.

Due to the withdrawal of international recognition of the Sana’a-based Financial Information Unit (FIU), moreover, foreign agencies have stopped sharing information with Yemen about money laundering. The FIU and the national anti-money laundering committee in Yemen have since been largely disconnected from global anti-money laundering agencies, such as the Financial Action Task Force and the Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force. This leaves Yemen vulnerable to money-laundering and terrorism-financing risks. The current lack of cohesion over definitions, rules and regulations also makes it difficult for commercial and Islamic banks to abide by anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing standards.

The central bank in Aden is unable to fully ease the restrictions imposed on Yemeni banks by regional and international entities due to the failure of Yemen to comply with the requirements and procedures of these international parties. The existence of multiple authorities also precludes effective work to prevent money laundering, as well as making banks vulnerable to arbitrary decisions by the judicial, security, tax and zakat authorities of various parties to the conflict.

Furthermore, the Saudi-led military coalition imposed restrictions preventing Yemeni banks from transferring their surplus foreign currency to feed their accounts held abroad; previously, Yemeni banks had moved their cash holdings of foreign currencies to accounts in correspondent banks in other countries. Due to the coalition’s restrictions on transfers, Yemeni banks were unable to use their foreign currency holdings to finance imports of goods to meet the population’s needs. In November 2018, the Aden-based CBY informed commercial banks that it had reached an agreement with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency to facilitate the transfer of foreign cash holdings. As of this writing, however, this has not been implemented.7  

CEOs from Yemen’s commercial and Islamic banks join the Sana’a Center for a focus group at the Yemeni Banking Association in Sana’a, May 28, 2018. Banks represented at the meeting were: al-Amal Microfinance Bank, Arab Bank Limited, Cooperative and Agricultural Credit Bank (CAC Bank), International Bank of Yemen, Islamic Bank of Yemen for Finance and Investment, al-Kuraimi Islamic Microfinance Bank, Qatar National Bank, Rafidain Bank, Saba Islamic Bank, Shamil Bank Of Yemen And Bahrain, Tadhamon International Islamic Bank, Yemen Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and Yemen Commercial Bank.

Recommendations for Revitalizing the Yemeni Banking Sector

  • Reunify the Central Bank of Yemen

The absence of a single unified authority to implement coherent monetary policy and regulate the financial sector nation-wide is the most serious challenge facing Yemen’s commercial and Islamic banks.8 The international community must pressure all parties to the conflict to facilitate a reunified administration for the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY), which is currently divided between Houthi-controlled Sana’a and the internationally recognized Yemeni government’s temporary capital of Aden. The central bank’s reunification should be on the top of the agenda at the United Nations-led consultations between the warring parties in the next round of negotiations. The UN Security Council should adopt a resolution mandating that the UN Special Envoy for Yemen prioritize the reunification of the central bank, and include the threat of international sanctions against any party that attempts to impede the central bank’s reunification.

In the meantime, the following recommendations should also be pursued:

  • Reactivate Anti-Money Laundering and Counterterrorism Financing Mechanisms

The central bank’s Financial Information Unit (FIU) and the national anti-money laundering committee should be reactivated to resume anti-money laundering activities, while ensuring their neutrality and the exchange of information globally in accordance with international law and agreements.

Yemen’s classification as a high-risk country has led to Yemeni banks being unable to carry out normal financial transactions with foreign banks. This has curtailed their ability to finance international trade, most importantly the importation of basic commodities. Customers needing international financial transfer services have thus been forced to withdraw their funds from the formal economy and utilize informal networks to do so. The increased financial flows through these largely unregulated and unmonitored networks has in turn empowered the very same nefarious financial activities international anti-money laundering and counterterrorism financing policies are meant to prevent.

The reactivation of the FIU and the national anti-money laundering committee would begin the process of lowering Yemen’s risk category, which would allow banks to reconnect internationally and draw funds back into the formal economy. This is crucial for both Yemeni and international efforts to curb money laundering and terrorism financing.   

  • Release Banks’ Retained Balances

Efforts should be made to fully re-activate the central bank’s payment clearing house functions, through which Yemeni banks should be allowed to utilize their currently-frozen balances to meet the urgent demands of customers and pay government dues. Restoring clearing house functions would entail the central bank reapplying a former system in which banks could swap payments over the banking system through utilizing their accumulated balances held by the central bank. This allows banks to avoid cash payments or transfering rial banknotes between Yemeni cities to swap such payments.

In light of the banking sector’s need for foreign currency, the central bank in Aden should also work to release banks’ foreign currency balances and facilitate banks’ requests to transfer these balances abroad to enable international financial transactions and trade.

  • Facilitate Secure Transfers of Cash Holdings

The central bank in Aden should establish secure means for commercial banks to transfer their holdings of foreign and domestic currency both within the country and internationally.

Regarding domestic currency holdings: the central bank in Aden should arrange means for commercial banks to transfer Yemeni rial banknotes from Aden to Sana’a to help ease the liquidity crisis banks face in Houthi-controlled areas. Among the options the central bank should consider, at least initially, is arranging deliveries using UN aircraft.

Regarding foreign currency holdings: the agreement, announced in November 2018, with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency to facilitate the transfer of Yemeni banks’ foreign currency holdings through Saudi Arabia should be implemented as soon as possible. This would enable banks to increase their balances in correspondent banks and strengthen their ability to finance imports of basic commodities and medicines.

  • Ease Import Financing Requirements, Establish Cash Clearing System

The central bank in Aden and the Yemeni government’s Economic Committee should immediately alter their import financing regulations to allow banks to utilize a defined percentage of their frozen balances, besides cash, to underwrite letters of credit for the importation of basic commodities.

As well, the central bank in Aden should establish a cash clearing system to swap cash payments between banks, money exchange networks and businesses.9 This should also be set up to handle remittances and international aid funding, and to facilitate the delivery of salary payments made by the Yemeni government to public servants working in Houthi-controlled areas.

The above two actions would accelerate the entire importation process, reduce the risks associated with transferring physical banknotes between Houthi-controlled areas and Aden, and assist the banking sector in mitigating its liquidity crisis.   

  • Replace Damaged Banknotes

The central bank in Aden should prioritize the replacement of damaged banknotes currently stockpiled by the banking sector. A mechanism should be developed to mediate between the Aden and Sana’a central bank branches to facilitate the safe delivery of replacement banknotes to all Yemeni governorates. This could be included among the UN Special Envoy for Yemen’s economic deescalation measures. All efforts must be made to pressure the Houthi authorities to reverse their current policy of refusing to recognize as official currency newly printed banknotes issued from Aden.

  • Restart Partial Public Debt Servicing

As commercial and Islamic banks have been large investors in domestic debt instruments, the central bank in Aden should take steps to repay these investments. Initially, this should involve cash payments on accrued interest, while the central bank should endeavor to pay down the principal on matured debt once the government budget deficit improves. Importantly, the central bank should make cash payments, rather than use checks, in order to increase liquidity in the banking sector. This would allow banks to meet customers’ cash needs and attract financial flows back into the formal economy.

Farea al-Muslimi is chairman and co-founder of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies and an associate fellow at Chatham He tweets @almuslimi.  

Author’s Note: This paper would not have come to fruition without the invaluable reviews, edits and contributions of Anthony Biswell, Spencer Osberg, Hannah Patchett, Marie-Christine Heinze, and Rafat Al-Akhali.


  1. In researching this paper, the author conducted a focus group with CEOs from Yemen’s commercial and Islamic banks at the Yemeni Banking Association in Sana’a in mid-2018. Banks represented at the meeting were: al-Amal Microfinance Bank, Arab Bank Limited, Cooperative and Agricultural Credit Bank (CAC Bank), International Bank of Yemen, Islamic Bank of Yemen for Finance and Investment, al-Kuraimi Islamic Microfinance Bank, Qatar National Bank, Rafidain Bank, Saba Islamic Bank, Shamil Bank Of Yemen And Bahrain, Tadhamon International Islamic Bank, Yemen Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and Yemen Commercial Bank.
  2.  In 2015, the central bank took actions to reduce transactions in foreign currency. For example, the central bank asked commercial banks to allocate part of their received remittances from Yemeni expats working abroad to cover imports and facilitate country’s external needs of foreign currency payments. Also, in July 2015 the CBY limited its lines of credit for fuel imports to avoid depleting foreign currency reserves.
  3. The central bank in Aden opened two accounts for each commercial bank: The first account holds cash and non-cash deposits made since the division of the central banks in September 2016; cash withdrawals from this account are restricted to the net balance of cash deposits. The second account holds deposits made before September 2016 that were transferred from Sana’a to Aden; commercial banks can only transfer or mobilize balances from this account to swap payments across their accounts in the central bank. The balances in this account cannot be used beyond this scope, for example to conduct cash transactions including customer cash withdrawals.
  4. Sukuks are a form of Islamic debt instrument issued by the central bank in behalf of the Ministry of Finance to attract the investment of Islamic banks. These public debt assets are used to fund government projects under agreed Islamic Sharia models.
  5. The Houthi-run National Security Bureau detained the Deputy Director of Shamil Bank of Yemen and Bahrain Abbas Nasser in January 2019 for several days in response to the bank’s dealings with the central bank in Aden.
  6.  The SWIFT network is the linchpin of international finance, used to transmit payments and letters of credit; without a functioning connection to the SWIFT system, no money could enter or leave Yemen through formal channels, hindering foreign trade and access to international support funds, and increasing money laundering and terrorism financing risks in Yemen.
  7. The impact of restrictions on the transfer of foreign currency has been mitigated by the use of smugglers to move cash across borders, although this workaround entails high risks and costs.
  8. In almost every interview or meeting the author conducted for this research, of all economic matters facing the country the reunification of the central bank was the most salient issue. As a CEO of one of the major private banks in Sana’a said in an interview with the author in May 2018: “If we have a unified central bank, 80 percent of our issues will be solved. Even when the war was ongoing in the first year, we still were able to work because we only had one central bank.”
  9. The cash clearing system is a mechanism to reduce the financial burdens and risks commercial banks incur in transferring Yemeni rial banknotes from Houthi-controlled areas to Aden to open letters of credits (LCs). These LCs were made available under the import financing mechanism established by the central bank in Aden and the associated Economic Committee in June 2018 to regulate the importation of five basic food commodities.


The Iran Nuclear Deal and Yemen’s War: An Opportunity for EU Statecraft

The Iran Nuclear Deal and Yemen’s War: An Opportunity for EU Statecraft

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By Farea al-Muslimi


As the foreign military intervention in Yemen approaches its fourth year, world events have come together to create a rare window of opportunity to bring the conflict to an end. This, however, will require a powerful global actor to sheppard the process, and the European Union is currently the most well-positioned to take up the role.    

The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October has brought global attention to focus on the conduct of Riyadh’s rulers, and in particular the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. The internationally recognized Yemeni government, supported by a coalition of Arab states with Saudi Arabia at the helm, are mired in a veritable stalemate with the armed Houthi movement, which took control of the capital Sana’a in 2014. The toll of the conflict has been shouldered chiefly by civilians, unleashing the world’s gravest humanitarian emergency and pushing the country toward what the United Nations predicts could be the “worst famine in living memory.” Successive attempts at peace talks have failed and over two years have passed since the warring parties last sat down together at the negotiating table.

Despite this apparent reticence to engage in efforts to find a political solution, the parties to this seemingly intractable conflict are in fact all seeking a route out. They cannot do so however, without a means to save face. The United States’ exit from the Iran nuclear deal this year has offered the opportunity for exactly this. With Washington’s withdrawal and reimposition of economic sanctions, Saudi Arabia – desperate to walk away from a war that is proving increasingly costly in both reputation and treasure – can claim a victory over its archrival Iran, at a time when its forces also have an upper hand militarily in Yemen. On the other side, Tehran is seeking to forge closer ties with Europe to counterbalance to its souring relationship with Washington. While their ties are often mischaracterized, Iran is the only state actor with the ear of Houthis and can be expected to calculate – given the peripheral importance of Yemen’s war for its national interests – that collaboration with Europe to end the war could be an astute move.

The European Union appears to be the only actor that can capitalise on this brief alignment of interests. The US has lost any remaining semblance of an impartial actor in the region and the United Nations’ Security Council is hamstrung by fault lines over the war. EU action would need to be complementary to the ongoing mediation efforts by the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, lending its clout, legitimacy and resources in a guarantor-type role. Crucially, the union is held in regard by the conflict’s most powerful player, Saudi Arabia, and its leading member states are already in talks with Tehran over the future of the nuclear deal. An activation of these channels within the small window that has presented itself would act as a force-multiplier to UN-led efforts to find a political solution to Yemen’s war.  

The Iran Deal for the Yemen War

While the signing of the Iran nuclear framework in 2015 was a watershed moment for global diplomacy and a foreign policy legacy marker for United States President Barack Obama, little mentioned at the time was the price of the deal: the war in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia was incensed with the Obama administration for signing up to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – which granted Iran sanctions relief in return for capping and accepting international monitoring of its uranium enrichment program — as Riyadh saw the deal bolstering its arch-enemy across the Persian Gulf. The Houthi military expansion in Yemen through 2014 and early 2015 then only fuelled Riyadh’s paranoia that an emboldened Tehran was establishing a forward operating base on Saudi Arabia’s southern doorstep.

To placate these fears and to stop Riyadh from scuttling the JCPOA, Obama essentially wrote Saudi Arabia and its allies a blank cheque for a military intervention in Yemen. The Obama administration, supported by the United Kingdom, provided the Saudi-led military coalition with warships to help enforce a sea blockade of Yemeni ports, air refuelling support for coalition warplanes, and military and intelligence personnel for the coalition’s military command complex in Riyadh. It also expedited sales of advanced weapons to the Saudi and Emirati militaries, and regularly blocked moves at the United Nations to censure or condemn the coalition as civilian casualties in Yemen mounted, the country’s economy collapsed and millions of people were driven toward famine. While it has become fashionable today for US Democrats to berate Obama’s successor for the free hand he gives the Saudis, what they fail to mention is that the Obama administration was essential to starting and supporting this disastrous Saudi-led military adventure in Yemen.

A War of Attrition and Strained Alliances

The Saudi-led military coalition officially launched its campaign to push back Houthi forces and reinstall the internationally recognized Yemeni government in the capital, Sana’a, on March 26, 2015. The effort, dubbed ‘Operation Decisive Storm’, has been anything but. While seeing some early successes through the summer of 2015 in pushing Houthi fighters out of the port city of Aden and southern governorates, in the three years since the conflict has largely been a grizzly stalemate. The country as a whole has descended into the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, while some estimates peg the cost of the war to Saudi Arabia alone at up to $6 billion per month.    

If one can ever say there is a honeymoon period in a war, it is now definitively over in Yemen. From a conflict resolution standpoint, this means a window of opportunity. Indeed, the belligerent parties today seem, in many ways, more tired of their allies than they are of their enemies. Throughout 2017, spates of violence regularly broke out between troops loyal to Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi and United Arab Emirate-backed paramilitary forces in Yemen. In early 2018, clashes engulfed Aden, the Yemeni government’s functional capital in the country, when forces affiliated with the UAE-backed separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) routed government troops from the city. While Hadi has since intermittently returned to Aden, tensions have continued to simmer amid growing protests over the country’s economic crisis, culminating in a call from the STC for a popular uprising against the government in October.

It is also little secret that both UAE and Saudi officials view President Hadi with contempt, seeing him as a corrupt statesman and an impotent leader with little natural constituency in Yemen. Meanwhile, the Gulf monarchies have faced increasing international criticism and damage to their reputations over mounting evidence of war crimes. This bad press – such as the August 9 coalition airstrike on a school bus in Sa’ada governorate that killed 40 children – has seen opposition to the coalition intervention gain momentum in Europe, the US and at the UN. Khashoggi’s murder has only bolstered the conception of Saudi Arabia as a reckless actor in the region.        

The coalition’s current campaign along Yemen’s Red Sea coast to take Houthi-held Hudaydah city, launched in June this year, has displaced nearly half a million people. Even the coalition’s staunchest allies – including congressional leaders in Washington – have warned that the campaign will likely fail to achieve its goals while simultaneously unleashing a cascading humanitarian fallout. Hudaydah port is Yemen’s busiest and the entry point for most of the country’s commercial and humanitarian supplies. Interruptions in cargo ship deliveries would threaten to catapult millions of people into famine.

While the coalition announced a “pause” in the offensive on July – officially to allow time for the UN Special Envoy for Yemen to pursue conflict de-escalation efforts – the first days of November saw the coalition renew the offensive. A coalition victory would landlock the Houthis, though in the process likely instigate mass starvation on a scale unseen in modern times, and without necessarily precipitating an end to the conflict given Houthi forces’ demonstrated capacity for protracted guerilla warfare.

That said, however poor the outlook for the coalition, the Houthis are faring worse. In late 2017, their alliance with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh ruptured, leading to clashes in Sana’a in which Saleh was killed. While Houthi forces now exert more authority in territories they previously co-governed with Saleh, intelligence leaks from Saleh’s former networks have led to the assassination of high-ranking Houthi military and political figures.

Saleh and his General People’s Congress party had also maintained extensive diplomatic networks, which provided a valuable link between the Houthis and the West. The loss of these left the Houthi leadership feeling deeply isolated, with Tehran to only remaining option to carry their voice internationally. On the ground, the Houthis have been slowly losing territory for more than a year, and while their ballistic missile launches into Saudi territory or attacks on Red Sea shipping may be headline-grabbing, militarily they are insignificant. Increasingly oppressive governance in territory under Houthi control betrays the extent to which the leadership in Sana’a are feeling the heat. The war for the Houthis has become a test of how much continual punishment they can endure – not just along the frontlines but from relentless coalition bombing across northern Yemen.

All parties to the conflict are exhausted and looking for a way out. And yet, lugged along by the conflict’s momentum, the belligerents stand at the crossroads of an even more terrible phase of the war. It is in such moments, however, that the opportunity for a peace broker to intercede appears.  

Opportunities in Trump’s Belligerence Towards Iran

Successful conflict resolution requires that, in silencing the guns, the belligerent parties are able to save face. Whether or not a party to the conflict actually won is less important than whether that party is able to maintain the appearance of victory.

In President Trump’s withdrawing from the JCPOA and targeting Iran with new sanctions, the Saudis have in a sense already won, at least in terms of the zero-sum cold war the kingdom sees itself as waging with Iran. From this perspective, the victory Tehran achieved in securing the nuclear deal has become a defeat. Riyadh can now proffer the narrative that it has regained the initiative against its arch foe and the impetus for launching the military intervention in Yemen has receded. Whatever the  impact on future Saudi policy choices, the UAE — which entered the Yemen conflict out of solidarity with Riyadh — will follow.

Coalition-backed forces have quickly swept up Yemen’s western coast and made advances from the Saudi border into the Houthi heartland of Sa’ada governorate. Such gains, while still far from a decisive military victory, have given the coalition the initiative and would allow Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to enter peace negotiations from a position of strength – the only position that would be palatable to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, widely seen as the architect of the coalition intervention in Yemen. International pressure following the killing of Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in October may also make the conditions more amenable to a political solution. While Riyadh fervently denies allegations of a state-sanctioned operation, concrete signals of its commitment to a peaceful resolution to the Yemen war would help rehabilitate the kingdom’s beleaguered public image.

Across the Gulf, the JCPOA and the reelection of pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani in 2017 enabled a gradual, modest economic opening and took Iran out of its international isolation, boosting diplomatic relations with Western countries. Among the headline-grabbing deals following the JCPOA’s signing were the nearly $40 billion in aircraft sales with US-based Boeing and France-based Airbus, and a 20-year, five billion-dollar contract with French oil and gas major Total and China’s state-owned CNPC to develop phase 11 of Iran’s South Pars gas field.

With the US withdrawal from the JCPOA in May this year – and many multinational companies’ subsequently cancelling newly inked deals with Tehran – Iran’s hopes for an economic lift fell to earth. While hardliners in Tehran have since trumpetted that the US cannot be trusted and issued bellicose dictates directed at Washington, the government has signalled that it seeks to keep as much of the JCPOA alive as possible. With inflation soaring, the currency tanking and socioeconomic protests rattling the country, Iran can hardly afford going back to complete isolation and sanctions. Leaders from the UK, France, Germany and the European Union — all signatories to the JCPOA — have in public and behind the scenes shown their intent to try and uphold the deal as well, in spite of US threats to sanction European businesses doing trade with Iran.

Since the US re-imposed sanctions on Iran on November 5, Europe has stepped up efforts to establish a clearing house designed to circumvent the US-dominated banking system and enable firms to continue conducting business with Iran. While its details remain vague and feasibility dubious, such moves illustrate Europe’s calculation that the JCPOA must be somehow preserved and Tehran kept on side.

At the same time, while Iran has regularly offered public support for the Houthis in Yemen, it has actually invested little of its political, military or economic capital in the conflict. This is unlike Iraq, Syria and southern Lebanon, which Tehran views as crucial to its geopolitical positioning and security, and thus in which it has invested heavily to maintain its interests. The Houthis have been incredibly convenient for bleeding Saudi Arabia of treasure and reputation and the Iranians have in return been happy to offer piecemeal support as the opportunities have presented themselves. However, in the unlikely circumstance that Houthi forces folded tomorrow and the coalition “won,” Tehran would lose little. Indeed, Houthi officials make no secret of their viewpoint that, given the right assurances, they would be open to being long-term strategic partners with Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

This is where the opportunity arises to set the conditions for conflict resolution in Yemen: Riyadh’s ability to save face and Tehran’s desire to forge deeper ties with Europe open the door to effectively neutralizing the regional drivers of the Yemen conflict.

Why the US is Unable, and UN Insufficient, to Facilitate Peace in Yemen

It is widely agreed that there is no military solution to the Yemen conflict, only a political one. Among the world powers however, the US is not in a position to play the role of peace broker in Yemen. With a series of inflammatory moves in the region, including the withdrawal from the Iran deal and recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Washington has lost under the Trump presidency what had arguably been its greatest capital in the Middle East: the assumption — valid or not — that it could be part of the solution.  

While the US has rarely been viewed as an impartial regional meditator, there has existed an implicit regard for the potential for American dynamism. This facilitated previous historic Washington-led diplomatic efforts in the region — among them the Camp David and Oslo Accords — whether or not these agreements met their stated goals, or were practical to begin with. Today, there is no longer the illusion of depth or altruism in US foreign policy. Neither is there much regard for Washington’s resolve to the hold to the commitments it makes.   

The United Nations also faces a crisis of credibility in Yemen. Jamal Benomar, the UN Secretary-General’s first Special Envoy for Yemen following the 2011 uprising, oversaw the country’s transitional phase, and its dissolution. While officially a mediator and facilitator between political parties, Benomar was widely seen as going beyond this role to become a central figure in decision making himself – a position from which he increasingly provided political cover for President Hadi as the latter’s failures as transitional head-of-state mounted. Benomar resigned shortly after the Saudi-led military coalition launched its initial foray to dislodge Houthi forces from Aden in March 2015. He was replaced by Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who over his tenure oversaw three rounds of failed peace talks and was banned from Houthi-held areas for the last year at his post due to accusations of bias. Meanwhile, as the war and economic crisis drove millions of Yemenis toward starvation and their country into ruin, the UN Security Council remained virtually silent – at one point going more than 14 months without issuing a council decision related to the conflict.

This is not to discount the efforts of Martin Griffiths, who took over as the new UN Special Envoy for Yemen in March 2018 and since has engaged with and been well received by all relevant stakeholders to the conflict. The cancellation of peace consultations between the warring parties in September, which were scuppered at the eleventh hour, owed to a logistical dispute over the Houthi delegation’s transportation to and from Geneva and did not represent a terminal blow to Griffith’s mediation efforts. However, as Griffiths himself said to UN Security Council member states during his first council briefing on April 17: “Mediation without the backing of diplomacy will fail. We will do whatever we can to find agreements that work between Yemenis. But it is for the members of this Council, and other Member States, from time to time, to put the force of international opinion behind these agreements. Your unity and your resolve will be decisive.”

Plainly speaking, the UNSC is far from united regarding Yemen. Indeed, as in Syria, Ukraine, Palestine and Israel, the war in Yemen has made it painfully apparent that permanent UNSC member states prioritize their vested geopolitical interests over international harmony and conflict resolution, regardless of the humanitarian cost. Specifically, the US and UK have an established track record of defending the position of the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen-related UNSC discussions and decisions. As Griffiths said during his April briefing, successful peace negotiations will require compromises from all sides; however, it is likely that the US and UK will derail any process which Riyadh finds objectionable. Regardless of Griffiths’ mediation skills, any UN-led process will ultimately be held hostage to the conflict’s most powerful player: Saudi Arabia. Diplomatic backing for mediation thus requires a powerful international player that is also able to act independently of the belligerent parties’ vested interests.   

The Opportunity and Imperative for Europe to Step Up  

Talks between Iran, the UK, France and Germany regarding the Yemen conflict have been underway since February, with all sides noting progress and an Iranian willingness to facilitate talks with or regarding the Houthis. The European and Iranian delegations said following the most recent meeting in September that talks would continue. The Europeans have multiple motivations for pursuing this track. There are Europe-Iran business interests, while limited, that relate to the JCPOA and which the Europeans have an interest in maintaining. More importantly, it is a security interest for Europe to preserve the dialogue with Iran that was institutionalized by the JCPOA. Through this dialogue Europe has an avenue to push for wider de-escalation, and specifically de-escalating Saudi-Iranian rivalry that has been rapidly destabilizing much of the Middle East since the Arab Spring uprisings upended the regional status quo in 2011. Since then, waves of refugees and sporadic terrorist attacks across Europe have helped inflame latent nationalist populist movements that are now threatening the EU’s very unity. A stable Middle East would help remove much tinder from this fire, with a Saudi-Iranian de-escalation being key to regional stabilization. And of all the region’s conflict’s, the Yemen war is perhaps where the EU is best positioned to helped end the violence.  

Until recently, Antonia Calvo-Puerta, head of the EU delegation to Yemen, was the only Western diplomat to have been granted an audience with the Houthi leadership. Indeed, the only other Western diplomat granted access to Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi in recent years has been Griffiths. Calvo-Puerta has also led the EU’s Track II efforts involving tribal leaders from across Yemen. This saw more than 30 tribal leaders flown to Belgium for talks in September 2017, with another meeting with tribal leaders held during the EU delegation’s visit to Sana’a earlier this year.

Brussels’ ability to step up its engagement in the Yemen conflict has in many ways been freed up by London’s imminent departure from the union. As a diplomatic and military ally of Saudi Arabia, the UK would have been able to curtail deeper EU engagement in the Yemen conflict had it maintained its voting power. The importance of the EU’s relative independence from the conflict’s belligerent parties thus becomes apparent. Despite the Saudi leadership’s disagreements with the EU their continued regard for Brussels is apparent. Criticism of coalition actions in Yemen has been audible in many European capitals, and in the EU parliament itself, while the Saudi response to such has been relatively muted. Compare this to Riyadh’s scorched-earth response toward Ottawa in August after the Canadian embassy in Saudi Arabia issued a tweet calling for the release of imprisoned Saudi civil rights activists.    

However, the EU’s real geopolitical and diplomatic potential to contribute to conflict resolution in Yemen will only come to bear when it becomes official EU policy. This requires EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, to be willing to leverage the current circumstances to help champion the process, in collaboration with the UN Special Envoy. Should Iran’s support for a peace process in Yemen be packaged into the Europeans’ discussions for maintaining the JCPOA, the choice for Tehran would be obvious. Yemen is the most peripheral arena for Iran, important only as a card in the game; if Tehran saw benefit coming from playing that card, it would do so. Riyadh, meanwhile, could use the EU as cover to finally end its disastrous military intervention in Yemen with a veneer of victory.  

In addition to coordinating with tribal factions in Yemen, the EU could also bring its weight to bear in support of the UN Special Envoy’s mediation efforts relating to Hudaydah port and Sana’a International Airport. Both are essential to the humanitarian relief effort and restarting normal economic activity, and in both cases it is Houthi control of these transport hubs that has the coalition either seeking their capture (in the case of Hudaydah port) or forcing their closure (in the case of Sana’a airport). The EU, with its experience in South Sudan, the Balkans, Serbia, and elsewhere, has demonstrated that it has the human and financial resources necessary to effectively oversee this type of major infrastructure in unstable environments. Relative to the UN, it has fewer bureaucratic obstacles to deploying the necessary manpower and finances, and most importantly the EU has enough credibility with both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition to take up this role. Another area for EU intervention would be in helping, via its connections with tribal networks, to arrange for prisoner exchanges and the release of journalists, activists and other civilians held by the various parties. This should be part of larger UN de-escalation and demobilization efforts.

All of the above should be seen as confidence-building measures between the warring parties en route to a final peace agreement, with the EU’s efforts dovetailing with, and supporting of, the UN Special Envoy’s mediation. Where Griffiths can lay out the roadmap and bring international legitimacy to the peace process, the EU can bring the clout and leverage necessary to act as a  guarantor, keeping the belligerent parties to their commitments on the ground and facilitating the de-escalation of hostilities.

Why the Moment is of the Essence

With all parties to the conflict searching for an exit route, now is the moment for the EU to champion peace in Yemen. The Khashoggi affair has also refocused world attention Saudi conduct, with even the US and UK now demanding that Riyadh’s end the war – the recent US move to end in-flight refueling for Saudi warplanes was a welcome step in this regard.

Through its access to the warring parties and legitimacy in the eyes of major stakeholders, Brussels is almost uniquely placed to play this role in the absence of alternative peace brokers. Leveraging Iran as the only remaining state actor with clout among the Houthis will be imperative to this effort. Already, regional security matters have been packaged in with talks to save the JCPOA, and Yemen’s war is the most likely front on which Tehran would show flexibility.

Yet here too, time is of the essence: for the moment, Iran says it remains willing to engage with Europe as counterweight to Washington’s punitive moves, but reformist voices advocating such a position will face further domestic pressure as sanctions start to bite. In August, Iran’s parliament impeached Masoud Karbasian, the country’s finance minister, citing the economic crisis that earlier this year spurred the country’s biggest protests since 2012. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — in whose hands political power in the Islamic Republic ultimately lies — has laid the blame for these economic woes firmly at Rouhani’s door and cast doubt on Europe’s ability to save the nuclear deal. France’s Total has already pulled out of the South Pars project and even if Europe establishes a mechanism to bypass the US banking system, businesses will still be wary of falling foul of new sanctions.

Most indicative of this urgency however, is the situation on the ground in Yemen. After more than three years of blood, disease and hunger, the renewed offensive on Hudaydah city and looming famine risks tipping the conflict in a new, even more devastating phase.

Farea al-Muslimi is chairman and co-founder of Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies.

About the Sana’a Center

The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover political, social, economic and security related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.

Author’s note: This paper would not have come to reality without the extensive editing and reviews of Spencer Osberg and Holly Topham. I would like to express my utmost gratitude for their invaluable contributions.