The Apology of Aid

The Apology of Aid

Of the 40 nations and international organizations that offered up funds at last month’s High Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were by far the largest donors. Between them they committed more than half of the US$2.62 billion raised. These two nations, given how they have pursued their military intervention in Yemen since 2015, also bear primary responsibility for creating and perpetuating the country’s humanitarian crisis. The next largest donor was the United Kingdom which, along with the United States, has provided crucial political and military support to the Saudi-led military coalition and leveraged its permanent seat at the UN Security Council to undermine attempts to hold the parties of the conflict accountable for war crimes.

Diplomacy Sinking at Hudaydah Port  – The Yemen Review, February 2019

Diplomacy Sinking at Hudaydah Port – The Yemen Review, February 2019

Al-Muhdhar mosque in Tareem, Hadramawt governorate, which appears on the 500 rial Yemeni banknote, is thought to have been built in the 5th century by the ruler at the time, Omar al-Muhdhar bin Abdul Rahman al-Saqqaf. The surrounding town is a historic center for Islamic scholarship. Pictured here on February 3, 2019 // Photo Credit: Naif M. Alnajm  

The Sana’a Center Editorial

The Apology of Aid

Of the 40 nations and international organizations that offered up funds at last month’s High Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were by far the largest donors. Between them they committed more than half of the US$2.62 billion raised. These two nations, given how they have pursued their military intervention in Yemen since 2015, also bear primary responsibility for creating and perpetuating the country’s humanitarian crisis. The next largest donor was the United Kingdom which, along with the United States, has provided crucial political and military support to the Saudi-led military coalition and leveraged its permanent seat at the UN Security Council to undermine attempts to hold the parties of the conflict accountable for war crimes.

With a handful of exceptions, most donor countries at the pledging event – whether through their diplomatic support, their arms sales, or through their silence – have been accomplices to the war in Yemen and the horrors it has wrought. In 2016, Saudi Arabia also threatened to withdraw hundreds of millions of dollars in UN aid funding in a successful blackmail of then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, forcing the latter to remove the kingdom from a UN report that said it was guilty of killing and maiming children in Yemen.               

In this light, most of the governments pledging to finance the UN humanitarian effort in Yemen last month cannot be seen as altruistic actors grounded in moral conviction. Rather, humanitarian aid – alongside weapons, sanctions and diplomatic maneuvering – has become an integral part of the tool kit nations involved in this conflict deploy when expedient. For whatever else it is, giving to the aid effort in Yemen is an attempt to save face for those parties who have helped facilitate, and often profited from, the single largest manifestation of human suffering in the modern era. Their aid offering is an apology for failing to take real action to stop this outrageous, ongoing atrocity.

US and UK officials have often argued that their support of the Saudi-led military coalition has actually helped reduce the war’s toll on civilians. The argument is that through their diplomatic support the US and UK have maintained access and influence with Saudi and Emirati decisionmakers, and that through providing such things as precision-guided weapons, coalition aircraft have been able to clearly discern and strike targets on the ground. The reality, however, is that unwavering diplomatic support for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi has simply normalized the coalition’s reckless behaviour, and rather than preventing civilian casualties, the continued provision of advanced weaponry has enabled the coalition to carry out precisely-guided war crimes.

UN agencies and international non-governmental organizations operating in Yemen have for years been calling on the international community – in particular the US, UK and the UNSC – to call out the coalition for its wrongdoings. This begs the question, however: are these humanitarian actors in Yemen adhering to any greater principles than the governments they criticize? The aid funding raised last month is, of course, only half the equation. The other half is where this money ends up going in Yemen – something that has become increasingly problematic the longer the conflict has persisted.

Individual aid workers, both foreign and local, have regularly made immense personal sacrifices while working to alleviate the suffering of Yemenis. At times this has come at the cost of their own lives. However, in private conversations with staff from UN agencies, INGOs and local NGOs operating in Yemen, aid workers have told the Sana’a Center that they and their organizations have long been aware that the armed Houthi movement has been manipulating and abusing the humanitarian effort on a massive scale. This has involved both orchestrated and systemic directives from the central Houthi leadership, as well as opportunistic profiteering by local forces. The abuses include direct and widespread theft and extortion of aid; diverting aid deliveries to the Houthis’ prefered recipients; manipulating the movement and operations of aid organizations; forcing aid organizations to employ Houthi partisans; denying visas and travel permits to aid workers in retaliation for perceived transgressions; harassing, threatening and imprisoning aid workers, among many others abuses.

Faced with escalating interference with their personnel and operations, aid organizations had, until recently, remained silent. Their argument was that criticizing and calling out Houthi forces for offenses would invite retaliation and risk their losing access to vulnerable populations. This silence, however, has normalized and implicitly facilitated Houthi forces’ behavior. Recent media investigations – notably by the Associated Press – have exposed the issue and forced the World Food Program (WFP) to publicly condemn the Houthi forces’ abuse of the aid effort. This has both put the WFP’s essential operations in many parts of Yemen at risk, but it has also broken the silence.

Without international humanitarian aid it is clear that the humanitarian crisis would be far more dire. What is also clear is that aid organizations’ failure to hold Houthi forces accountable has allowed this belligerent party to, in many ways, craft the humanitarian effort in the areas it controls to serve its vested interests. Internationally, the emphasis on aid has also warped popular perceptions of the conflict and allowed members of the international community to shirk their responsibility to take concrete steps to stop the war.

Should enough political will arise in Western capitals, and enough international diplomatic pressure be brought to bear on the warring parties, this conflict would end and the immediate threat of mass starvation in Yemen could be quickly addressed. Short of this, no amount of aid will be sufficient to halt the growing humanitarian disaster.


Contents

Diplomacy Sinking at Hudaydah Port

International Diplomatic Developments

Developments in Yemen


Diplomacy Sinking at Hudaydah Port

Stockholm Implementation Stalls as Ceasefire Violations Mount  

Efforts to implement the Stockholm Agreement – reached between the internationally recognized Yemeni government and the armed Houthi movement at United Nations-sponsored peace talks Sweden in December 2018 – continued to face implementation challenges in February. While during negotiations in Hudaydah last month the warring parties agreed to a phased approach in mutually redeploying forces away from the port and city, implementation stalled over disagreements regarding the composition of the local forces that would take over security. Both parties took intractable positions in seeking to ensure control over these forces, with little apparent room for compromise between them.  

Regarding the other aspects of the Stockholm Agreement, negotiations on a prisoner exchange continued without significant progress, while no developments came regarding the city of Taiz. Meanwhile, there were regular ceasefire violations in and around Hudaydah City and the wider governorate in February. One positive development was that both parties agreed to allow the UN access to the Red Sea Mills grain storage facility in Hudaydah for the first time in six months.

RCC Agrees on Phased Approach to the Hudaydah Agreement

The Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) met for the third time on February 4-5. The RCC was formed to support and facilitate implementation of the Hudaydah agreement, one of three agreements reached in Sweden. The UN chartered a boat, which it anchored in the Red Sea, to provide a neutral venue for the meeting; the previous meeting, scheduled for January 8, had been derailed after Houthi negotiators refused to enter Yemeni government-held territory to attend.

The UN said that the February meeting brought the parties “closer to agreeing modalities for Phase 1 redeployment than they were six weeks ago,” though noted the complexities involved with “disengaging forces in close proximity of each other.” The meeting was the last convened by General Patrick Cammaert, whose departure as RCC chair was announced in January. In an interview with Dutch media in February, Cammaert said the Stockholm Agreement, while still a breakthrough diplomatically, was “to say the least, vague,” and that it “underestimated the deep, deep mutual distrust and hatred” between the warring parties. Cammaert was replaced by Lieutenant General Michael Lollesgaard, who assumed his duties on February 5.

Lollesgaard facilitated discussions at the fourth RCC meeting, held on February 16 -17 in Hudaydah City. The meeting resulted in “an agreement on Phase 1 of the mutual redeployment,” the UN said. The parties also agreed, in principle, on Phase 2 of the mutual redeployment, “pending additional consultations within their respective leadership,” according to a UN statement. UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths told Al-Arabiya that Phase 1 of the Hudaydah agreement entailed the redeployment of Houthi forces from the ports of Ras Issa, Saleef and Hudaydah, and both parties redeploying away from the road to the Red Sea Mills to allow access to the grain storage facility. Phase 2, Griffiths said, will lead to the demilitarization of Hudaydah and the city’s return to civilian life.

Differing Interpretations of ‘Local Security’ Create Impasse for Implementation

Despite reports that Houthi forces would withdraw from Saleef and Ras Issa ports on February 25, by the end of the month no withdrawal had taken place. Ambiguities in the text of the Hudaydah agreement continued to be used to delay progress on its implementation. The agreement calls for the redeployment of forces away from the city and ports of Hudaydah, Saleef and Ras Issa, after which security of the city and ports would be “the responsibility of local security forces in accordance with Yemeni law.”

Several international diplomatic sources, and sources in Yemen privy to the RCC meetings, outlined for the Sana’a Center the dynamics that unfolded related to the Hudaydah agreement in February. Among these were that parameters of withdrawal and the makeup of local security forces have been key points of contention in discussions to implement the deal. The forces discussed by the RCC were the port authorities, the coast guard and the security guards of state institutions.

As Khaled al-Yamani, foreign minister for the internationally recognized Yemeni government, said that the government’s position was that security should be handed over to the local forces who were in place before the armed Houthi movement took control of state institutions in 2014. The government’s view was that if it were to redeploy its troops away from Hudaydah without securing authority over local security forces, it will have lost the opportunity to take control of the city.

Meanwhile, Houthi negotiators sought to hand over control to the current local authorities, which include personnel appointed by Houthi authorities. After taking control of the capital Sana’a in 2014, the armed Houthi movement formed a Supreme Revolutionary Committee and later the Supreme Political Council (SPC) to serve as Yemen’s interim authority, with responsibility for making security appointments, among other tasks. The SPC, however, disregarded governorate-level security and public service rules and regulations in personnel appointments. For Houthi negotiators, personnel the SPC hired into Hudaydah’s local authorities are entitled under Yemeni law to retain their posts under the Hudaydah agreement.

Yemeni government negotiators, however, maintained that Yemeni law does not apply to the armed Houthi movement, which it considers a rebel group. The Yemeni government had previously pointed out that the current commander of the coast guard is also a Houthi commander who had never served in the coast guard before.

A UN official said that until the composition of security forces in Hudaydah is resolved, no progress will be possible on any part of the Stockholm Agreement.

Meanwhile, regular armed skirmishes continued in Hudaydah city throughout the month, with each side reinforcing positions and buttressing their defenses. Hostilities also continued in districts in the south of the governorate, which also fall into the ceasefire zone agreed to at the end of 2018.

Access Secured to Grain Stores at Red Sea Mills

Throughout February, UN Security Council member states and UN officials repeatedly called on the warring parties to allow access to the Red Sea Mills in Hudaydah. The facility stores enough grain to feed 3.7 million people for a month, which the UN previously warned was at risk of rotting. The UN gained access to the mills on February 26 for the first time in six months in a move UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres described as a sign of progress. While the UN aid workers reported that there were some signs of infestation, there was no water damage to the stores.

Another UN official, however, said privately that allowing the UN to access the mills had not required the warring parties to pull back or concede anything of significance. Meanwhile, getting grain out of the mills would require some 1,500 trucks. For each delivery, Houthi forces would have to open a mined road; Houthi forces were unlikely to keep the road open as this would allow an opportunity for opposing forces to enter, the official explained.  

No Agreement on Prisoner Exchange

The Stockholm Agreement also included a prisoner exchange deal. While it was initially envisioned that the exchange could take place as early as January, the deal has also been beset by challenges which continued in February. The Supervisory Committee to implement the exchange, co-chaired by the Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary General for Yemen (OSESGY) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), held its second meeting on February 5 – 8 in Amman, Jordan. Representatives of the internationally recognized Yemeni government and the armed Houthi movement failed to finalize lists of prisoners to be released. The head of the Houthi delegation to the talks, Abdul Qader Murtada, told Reuters that the Yemeni government had accounted for just one tenth of the 7,500 Houthi prisoners held in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Houthi representatives recognized only 3,600 of 9,500 names of detainees submitted by the Yemeni government, the Houthi official said.

Meanwhile, alongside the prisoner exchange talks, a Sub-Committee on Dead Bodies and Human Remains held its first meeting and agreed on a joint plan of action and a timeline to exchange bodies. Representatives of the Yemeni government and the Houthi movement agreed to release 1,000 bodies from each side in three stages, beginning with the release of bodies from morgues, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

No Progress on Taiz

No progress was reported in February on the Statement of Understanding on Taiz, which was the third aspect of the Stockholm Agreement, along with the prisoner exchange and the Hudaydah agreement. Taiz City has been among the most active frontlines in the conflict, with Houthi forces applying a siege to large portions of the city for almost four years (see below ‘Taiz in Focus’). In a briefing to the UN Security Council, the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths said that warring parties had reaffirmed their commitment to the statement, and he pledged to “focus all our efforts on meaningful steps to make a difference in Taiz.”


Farmers were harvesting potatoes at the end of the season in al-Wadi district, Marib governorate, on February 17, 2019 // Photo Credit Ali Owidha

International Diplomatic Developments

High Level Pledging Event for Yemen Raises US$2.62 Billion

International donors pledged US$2.62 billion at the High Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen on February 26 in Geneva. This was the third year running that Switzerland, Sweden and the UN have co-organized the event. The pledged funds were higher than in 2018, when donors promised $2.01 billion to fund the humanitarian response in Yemen. However, UNOCHA said that the UN Humanitarian Response Plan for 2019 will required US$4.2 billion to reach the 21.4 million people in need assistance and protection.

Of the 40 donor countries and organizations, the highest contributions came from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who pledged $750 million each, followed by the United Kingdom, which pledged to donate $261.44 million. Discussions at the event also included ways economic improvements in Yemen would help address the humanitarian crisis.

UN Special Envoy Briefs Security Council

In a briefing to the UN Security Council (UNSC) on February 19, the UN Special Envoy updated the council on progress on the Stockholm Agreement. He urged the warring parties to immediately begin implementing the agreed redeployment from Saleef and Ras Issa, and to agree on the details of the redeployment from Hudaydah port and city. All 15 members states of the Security Council delivered statements during the session and expressed concern over the continued deterioration of the humanitarian situation. They reaffirmed the council’s support to the Special Envoy and Lollesgaard, the new RCC chair.

Following the council’s public briefing, member states moved into closed consultations with the Special Envoy and were briefed by the RCC chair. Sources who attended the consultations told the Sana’a Center that while Griffiths expressed optimism about the ongoing efforts, Lollesgaard was more frank in discussing the challenges of implementation and highlighted the deep distrust between the warring parties in Hudaydah. When asked, neither the Special Envoy nor the RCC chair were able to confirm dates for the agreed redeployment, a reflection of the precarious situation in Hudaydah.

Also on February 19, during discussions between civil society groups and UNSC member states in New York, council members noted that while there were “carrots and sticks” that could be used in the future, there was no contingency plan in place if the Stockholm Agreement should fall apart and full conflict resume. Council members also warned that if violations of the ceasefire and international humanitarian law continued, and without real evidence of implementation of the Stockholm Agreement, the unity of the Security Council could erode.

The Security Council issued a press statement on February 22, stressing the importance of implementing the commitments of the Stockholm Agreement “without delay.” The UNSC expressed concern at continued reports of violations of the ceasefire. Member states reiterated their intention “to consider further measures, as necessary, to support implementation of all relevant resolutions.”

Other United Nations Developments in Brief:

  • February 4: The UN Security Council issued a Press Statement on Yemen, expressing concern regarding alleged ceasefire violations and the deterioration of the humanitarian situation, among other issues.
  • February 22: The UN Security Council issued a Press Statement welcoming the progress made in planning for the redeployment of forces in Hudaydah and urging immediate implementation of the agreement to redeploy forces from the ports of Hudaydah, Saleef and Ras Issa.
  • February 26: The UN Security Council unanimously adopted a routine/ technical resolution (2456 of 2019) renewing the mandate of the Sanctions Committee, established in 2014, for one year. In the resolution, the council also asked the Panel of Experts, which reports to the 2140 Sanctions Committee, to provide a mid-term update to the Committee by July 28, 2019.

 

In the United States

New Fronts Open in Congress Targeting US policy in Yemen

In February, lawmakers continued their legislative drive to either stop or limit US involvement in the Yemen conflict, building on the momentum established in Congress toward the end of last year. On February 13, in a 248-177 vote, the House of Representatives passed a resolution that would end support for the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen. The Senate was expected to consider a related bill shortly after the House vote, but Senate Republicans moved to block a vote on the legislation in its current form on February 25.

Following the House vote, the White House said that it would veto H.J.Res.37 should it make it to the Oval Office, echoing statements made after a similar resolution cleared the Senate in December. The resolution is not expected to become law; there is no two-thirds majority in Congress to override a presidential veto and the constitutionality of the War Powers Act (upon which the resolution is based) is fiercely debated. Even if it did enter into law, the wording of the legislation leaves enough wiggle room for the US to feasibly continue its support of the Saudi-led military coalition at its current level and scope.

While H.J.Res.37 lacks legal teeth, advocates of the bill say its symbolic and political weight could be brought to bear on the Trump administration, which may then push for concessions from the Saudi-led coalition. The administration has thus far, however, appeared somewhat impervious to this type of political pressure – especially when it comes to foreign policy.

Reintroduced legislation tying the conflict in Yemen to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is also currently under consideration. The Senate Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act of 2019 would ban the sale of certain weapons to Saudi Arabia and prohibit aerial refueling of coalition aircraft – support which the US military announced the end of in November 2018. It also calls for sanctions on individuals impeding humanitarian access in Yemen. A broader bill in the House seeks to halt all “security assistance” and arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Also under consideration at committee stage is a bill that seeks to preclude any attempts to resume US aerial refueling of coalition aircraft.

It is unlikely any of these bills, as they currently stand, will become law. However, legislators could ultimately attempt to package the basic contents of these bills into amendments to larger, omnibus bills that are considered “must pass” and therefore more difficult for the White House to veto. This tactic was employed successfully last year with an annual defense spending bill that included an amendment requiring the US State Department to certify that coalition operations in Yemen had violated federal or international law in Yemen.

Other Developments in the United States in Brief:

 

In Europe

Senior MP Supports, Lords Criticize UK Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia, UAE

In February, debates about arms sales to Saudi Arabia continued in Europe, triggering tensions ins the UK, and between London and Berlin. A report published on February 16 by the Select Committee on International Relations, an all-party committee within the UK’s House of Lords, said the government’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia brought the UK “narrowly on the wrong side” of international humanitarian law. The committee called on the government to individually assess the implications of arms export licenses and to “be prepared to suspend some key export licences to members of the coalition.” The report also called for stronger diplomatic engagement by the UK government to support the UN-led peace process and the work of the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, including through a more assertive role as penholder of the Yemen file at the UN Security Council. Notably, the report affirmed that Saudi Arabia’s “misuse” of its weaponry was causing civilian deaths.

Earlier in February, the head of the Commons’ Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC), Labour MP Graham Jones, had questioned the reliability of British NGOs’ casualty figures on Yemen, which he said were exaggerated. The arms export supervisor said Iran and the armed Houthi movement were primarily to blame for the Yemen war. The Houthi forces’ use of human shields could offset the effect of even “the wisest of consideration” of military actors, Jones said.

A legal debate over the lawfulness of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia is set resume in April and will likely fuel civil society pressure on British decisionmakers. In July 2017, the British High Court ruled in favor of the government in a lawsuit filed by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) on this matter. An appeal by CAAT is to be heard at the Court of Appeal in April 2019.

Arms Debate Triggers Dispute Between UK and Germany

The issue of arms sales to Saudi Arabia also sparked quarrels between the UK and Germany, when Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt criticized the halt of German arms exports to Saudi Arabia in a letter to his German counterpart on February 7.

On February 19, Der Spiegel leaked excerpts of the document, a day before Hunt’s visit to Berlin for Brexit talks.

In the letter, Hunt stated that the German halt in deliveries was harming the British and European arms industries; UK defense companies would be unable to fulfil Saudi orders for the Typhoon and the Tornado fighter jets, which rely on German parts, he wrote. Hunt called on Germany to exclude joint European projects from its arms embargo against Saudi Arabia, insisting that Berlin had “politically committed” itself to these projects and risked a “loss of trust in Germany’s credibility as a partner.” The current delay in German arms deliveries to the UK, France and other European countries was further endangering NATO’s defense capabilities, the UK foreign secretary added.

At a joint press conference in Berlin after their meeting in Berlin on February 20, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told his British counterpart that Berlin would not resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Future decisions on the issue would depend on developments in the Yemen war and the implementation of the Stockholm agreements, Maas said. Hunt, however, said that it was crucial to uphold strategic relations with Saudi Arabia, which had enabled the UK to push for the Stockholm talks.

Meanwhile, the French partially state-owned Naval Group signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia’s state arms producer Saudi Arabian Military Industries, paving the way for a joint venture to boost the Saudi navy.

Other Developments in Europe in Brief:

  • February 11-14: An EU mission led by the Head of the EU Delegation to Yemen Antonia Calvo Puerta visited Aden, following a similar visit to the southern city in January. The mission met with Yemeni government officials, including the deputy prime minister, various ministers and the governor of Aden to discuss current and future EU-funded development projects.
  • February 18: The Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union met and adopted conclusions on Yemen for the first time since June 2018. The Council welcomed the Stockholm Agreement and reiterated its support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Yemen, for a UN-led negotiation of a political solution to Yemen’s conflict, and for the UN Special Envoy and the UN Mission to support the Hudaydah Agreement (UNMHA).
  • February 19-21: Following an official invitation by the European Parliament, a Houthi delegation met with Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in Brussels, according to a statement by Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdulsalam. The delegation included Abdulsalam and Abdulmalek al-Ejri, who were both part of the delegation representing the armed Houthi movement at the UN-led peace talks in Stockholm in December 2018. According to Sana’a Center sources who attended the meeting, the Houthi officials presented the MEPs with a list of 300 prisoners who were among those that the Yemeni government had asked the Houthi movement to release as part of the Stockholm Agreement prisoner exchange. The Houthi officials alleged that these prisoners were member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Abdulsalam added that among them are “terrorists” that President Hadi’s government itself had imprisoned, when Hadi ruled from Sana’a.
  • March 1: UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt posted online a photo of himself and head Houthi negotiator Mohammed Abdel Salam, saying the two had met in Oman for talks on the Stockholm Agreement. Two days later Hunt was in Aden, where he met with Yemeni government Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani.  

 

Other International and Regional Diplomatic Developments

‘Quad’ Group meets in Warsaw

On February 13, the US held an international conference in Warsaw, Poland, widely viewed as an American effort to build international solidarity against Iran. While conference organizers said 60 states attended, few major European countries sent high level diplomatic staff.

UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he would only attend the conference if a ministers from the so-called ‘Quad’ multilateral group – the US, UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – convened a meeting on the sidelines to discuss the situation in Yemen. Speaking to British media before the conference, Hunt said that the Yemeni peace process had entered an “absolutely critical phase” and that “we now have a shortening window of opportunity to turn the ceasefire into a durable path to peace.”  According to Sana’a Center sources, Yemen has become a priority for the UK foreign secretary, in part due to parliamentary pressure on the issue.

Following the quad meeting in Warsaw, the group issued a joint statement calling on all warring parties to “rapidly and fully implement” the Stockholm Agreement, and to redeploy their forces from Hudaydah city and ports, in line with their obligations under the agreement, with “no further delaying tactics.” The ministers discussed Iran’s “de-stabilizing effect on Yemen,” the humanitarian crisis and the need to stabilize Yemen’s economy, and agreed to “redouble their efforts to reach a political solution.”

Yemeni FM Interaction with Israeli PM Goes Viral

At the opening session of the Warsaw conference, as representatives of the various countries took their seats around the table, Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani was placed between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Later in the session, Netanyahu’s microphone failed to work as he attempted to address the delegates; al-Yamani lent him his own microphone, leading Netanyahu to joke that this signaled a new cooperation between the two countries.

Foreign ministers from Oman, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Tunisia also attended the session. Afterwards, Netanyahu proclaimed it a “historic turning point” and called on Arab states to continue normalizing ties with Israel.

Numerous internet memes depicting al-Yamani as being cosy with Netanyahu quickly went viral, however, and the Yemeni minister was widely panned across Yemen for what was said to be normalizing ties with Israel and abandoning the Palestinian cause. The Houthi press office issued a statement saying: “Al-Yamani’s act of sitting next to Netanyahu reflects the national treachery and moral bankruptcy of the Saudi-led government in Yemen.”

Al-Yamani himself blamed conference organizers for the “protocol error” in seating him next to the Israeli PM, and said that the Yemeni government “position on the Palestinian cause, people and leaders is unchangeable and non-negotiable.”

Morocco Withdraws from Saudi-led Coalition

The AP quoted Moroccan officials last month as saying that their government had stopped taking part in military action with the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen. Morocco has not shared details of its military role in Yemen, but Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said in January that the “form and the content” of Morocco’s military participation in Yemen had changed. Rabat recently recalled its ambassador to Saudi Arabia, amid rising tension with Riyadh over the conflict in Yemen, among other issues, the AP reported on February 8.

Morocco’s political and military support for the coalition had been waning throughout 2018. While Rabat’s withdrawal is likely to have little military impact on the coalition, as other coalition members face growing domestic pressure over their participation in the war on Yemen, Morocco’s stand could have a reputational price on Saudi Arabia.

Other International Diplomatic Developments in Brief:

  • February 4: During a visit to the UAE, Pope Francis criticized the war in Yemen, decrying “the logic of armed power” and singling out Syria and Yemen as evidence of the misery and death caused by conflict. The Pope had faced criticism over the visit to the UAE, as part of the Emirates’ self declared ‘Year of Tolerance’, due to its role in the Yemen war.
  • February 20: Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said that an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia was under review during a heated parliamentary session in which the government faced criticism over arms export licenses to Riyadh – and particularly over whether these arms would be deployed in the Yemen conflict.

Developments in Yemen

Military and Security Developments

Clashes Between Houthi Forces and Tribesmen in Hajjah

February saw the biggest clashes between Houthi forces and tribesmen in Hajjah since the beginning of the war, centered on the Kashar district of the northwestern governorate. Houthi forces have encroached on territory dominated by the powerful Hajur tribe since December, imposing what local tribal leaders have called a siege, and reportedly seeking new recruits in the area. Clashes escalated in mid-February when tribesmen cut off Houthi supply lines, prompting military retaliation and arrests, which were met with coalition airstrikes on Houthi positions. On February 23, Yemeni government forces ordered the deployment of seven battalions to Hajjah to “lift the siege” on the Hajur tribe.

There had been an understanding between the Houthis and the Hajur tribe since 2015, based on mutual non-interference. However, recent changes on battlefields in Hajjah appear to have altered this dynamic. Kashar district is strategically positioned on the edge of Yemen’s highlands, making it a potential stepping stone to the Houthi stronghold of Sa’ada for coalition-backed forces, which have been gradually advancing inland from Hajjah’s coast toward Haradh city. The epicenter of the fighting between Houthi forces and the Hajur tribe is the al-Obaisa area of Kashar, through which runs the main road leading from Haradh to the Yemeni highlands.


Source & Graphic: Ghaidaa Alrashidy

There were also smaller-scale clashes between Houthi forces and tribesmen in other governorates during the past month. Houthi forces destroyed the homes of tribal leaders in al-Dhalea, and backed Ryam tribesmen in clashes with members of the Bani Abbas tribe in al-Bayda governorate. In Ibb governorate’s Alkfar district, local recruitment attempts by the Houthis descended into fighting with Meftah tribesmen. Some media outlets have suggested these developments constitute a coordinated “tribal uprising” against the Houthis, a characterization that Dr. Khaled Fattah, an expert and author on Yemen’s tribes, told the Sana’a Center is inaccurate. Fattah said that these hostilities fall outside of the Houthi-Yemeni government dynamic, though adding that Houthi forces have responded to these localized armed confrontations with an iron fist to deter further destabilizing tribal-led challenges to their authority.

AQAP vs Daesh Rivalry Continues

Two key trends regarding al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the so-called ‘Islamic State’ group, or Daesh, continued throughout February. First, the number of attacks carried out by terrorist groups in Yemen continue to be well below 2017 and 2018 levels. For instance, AQAP claimed more than 200 attacks each of the last two years. This year AQAP has claimed only a handful of attacks.

Second, AQAP and Daesh continued to clash throughout February. The conflict, which began in July 2018 over a dispute at a checkpoint, has grown into a consuming struggle for the groups. Indeed, the vast majority of the attacks AQAP does carry out are now directed at Daesh, its jihadi rival. For instance, Elisabeth Kendall, who tracks the number of attacks closely, noted in mid-February that of AQAP’s 19 claimed attacks so far this year, 11 had targeted Daesh. Kendall also noted in a separate article that the jihadi infighting may be the result of seeds planted by “regional intelligence agencies.”

Whatever the reason, the jihadi civil war now appears to be the key struggle for both groups. The two sides snipe back-and-forth at one another on the battlefield and on media platforms. This month AQAP released the fifth in a series of videos entitled, ‘God Testifies that they are Liars’, designed to show Daesh’s misdeeds in Yemen. All of the fighting has taken place in al-Bayda, where Daesh is located and where AQAP has a strong presence. The few Daesh attacks targeting the Houthis have also taken place in al-Bayda. Daesh did not target any Yemeni or coalition affiliated forces in February.

On February 13, AQAP killed three members of the Security Belt Forces with a roadside bomb in Abyan. AQAP also carried out a handful of attacks against Houthi forces in al-Bayda, usually via roadside bombs.

Both AQAP and Daesh appear weaker than at any point in recent years. Each organization has fragmented and frayed, and each appears to be struggling to coordinate both its message and its men. Daesh is now, to judge from the publicly available evidence, no more than several dozen fighters. AQAP certainly has more men, but the disjointed nature of the organization under Qasim al-Raymi’s leadership, the difficulty in communicating across battlefronts in Yemen, and the number of spies that have infiltrated AQAP in recent years means that it has been severely hampered. Local cells in different parts of Yemen are still able to carry out attacks, but the group no longer acts as a single organization in Yemen.    

Heavy Airstrikes in Houthi-Held Areas

Airstrikes continued in and around Sana’a, where the coalition said it was conducting a campaign against Houthi drone facilities following an attack on a Yemeni government military parade in Lahj governorate in January. Heavy airstrikes against Houthi forces were also reported in Sa’ada, Hajjah, Marib and al-Bayda. Pro-Houthi media said that the group continued to fire ballistic missiles at targets in southern Saudi Arabia’s Jizan, Najran and Asir governorates throughout the month.

Other Military and Security Developments in Brief:

 

Political Developments

Warring Parties Tussle Over Parliamentary Legitimacy

Calls for elections by the Houthi leadership in early February prompted the Yemeni government to announce the relocation of the country’s election commission, as the warring parties sought to assert their legitimacy in Yemen. On February 2, the Supreme Political Council instructed the Supreme Commission for Elections and Referendums (SCER), which has been under Houthi control since their takeover of the capital in 2014, to make preparations for elections to replace deceased Members of Parliament (MPs).

Two days later, President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi issued a decree to relocate the election commission to Aden and made fresh calls for a parliamentary session in the temporary capital. Yemen’s last parliamentary elections took place in 2003 and MPs have not sat in session since the outbreak of the current conflict. While minimum attendance requirements have precluded the reconvening of parliament in Aden, in January Hadi said that quorum had been achieved and that a session would soon be called. Efforts by Hadi and Saudi Arabia to convene Yemen’s parliament either in Aden or Riyadh have been ongoing since mid-2017, as yet without success.  

If Hadi were to convene parliament in Aden, such a move would likely prompt an escalation on another front in Yemen’s war: that between the Yemeni government and southern separatist groups. The self-styled representative of the southern independence cause, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), has consistently opposed Hadi’s calls for a meeting of parliament based on its current makeup. Given that some STC members are also still technically MPs, their refusal to attend a session would likely sink Hadi’s plans. It is also not clear whether the STC, who mostly control security in Aden, would even allow the parliament to convene in the city.

The STC’s Southern National Assembly held its second session in Mukalla, Hadramawt on February 16-17, during which STC Vice President Maj. Gen. Ahmed Said Ben Brik called on MPs to join the rival legislature. However, the Southern National Assembly also advocated rehabilitating the STC’s relationship with President Hadi, as one of the standout outcomes of the meeting. Sana’a Center sources say that that Hadramawt’s governor did not meet the STC leadership during their visit, nor did local leaders participate in the session.

New Houthi Security Chief

On February 18, Fawaz Hussein Nashwan replaced Abdullrab Garafan as head of the Houthi-controlled intelligence agency, the National Security Bureau (NSB). Garafan had held the position since Houthi authorities took hold of Yemen’s state security and intelligence apparatus in 2014. The NSB, which was established in 2002, is one of Yemen’s intelligence services, along with the Political Security Organization (PSO), created shortly after the unification of Yemen in 1990. Most civil and political prisoners detained by the Houthis are held by the NSB. In the past, the NSB imprisoned armed extremists and held Houthi leaders during the six wars the armed movement fought against the Yemeni government in Sa’ada governorate between 2004 and 2010.

Hadramawt and Marib Strategic Forum meets in Amman

On February 24-27, the Hadramawt and Marib Strategic Forum met in Amman, Jordan. The event brought together dozens of prominent participants from both governorates – including academics, activists, local authority representatives and journalists – to discuss mechanisms to establish peace and socioeconomic stability. The meeting was the third in a series of similar meetings of this Track II initiative,   organized by the Sana’a Center and the Oxford Research Group.

 

Economic Developments

Yemeni Banks Face Repercussions for Dealing with Central Bank in Aden

On February 10, members of the Houthi-run National Security Bureau (NSB) arrested three Tadhamon International Islamic Bank (TIIB) staff, including the treasury director, from the bank’s main branch in Sana’a. According to several Sana’a Center sources, the National Security Bureau forcibly intervened after Tadhamon refused to sell foreign currency to Houthi-linked businessman, Yahya Ali al-Habari, at a below-market exchange rate. Al-Habari, who is a prominent food importer, turned to Tadhamon after the Yemeni government-controlled central bank in Aden declined his request for import financing.

The central bank in Aden introduced a new import financing regime in mid-2018 through which traders who meet specified criteria could qualify for import financing at a preferential exchange rate (for details, see the Sana’a Center’s April, May, June, and October 2018 monthly reviews). For instance, on February 25, the Yemeni rial was trading on the local market in Aden at YR580 per US$1 while the central bank in Aden’s import financing mechanism was offering traders YR440 per US$1 to finance basic commodity imports.    

Foreign ministers from the so-called ‘Quad’ – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the US and UK – who met in Warsaw, Poland last month, issued a joint statement on February 13 condemning what they said was Houthi authorities’ “illegal interference” in Yemeni banking operations.

The NSB released all three Tadhamon employees in the last week of February.

The Houthi authorities had previously warned Yemeni banks against engaging with the central bank in Aden and the Yemeni government-appointed Economic Committee, particularly in regard to the new fuel and food import regulations (for more information see The Yemen Review – October 2018). However, in recent months several Yemeni commercial banks have opened their own connections to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) network via their Aden-based branches, according to Sana’a Center sources, with other banks looking to follow suit.

 

Aden to Increase Monitoring and Regulation of Money Exchange Companies

On February 10, the central bank in Aden issued a circular regarding the ongoing license-renewal application process for Yemeni money exchange companies. The bank’s new licensing requirements compel money exchange outfits to submit more detailed information regarding their recent transactions, as well as their local and regional financial networks. Yemeni money exchange companies have until the end of March to fulfill the new licensing obligations or risk being decertified.

The central bank in Aden’s efforts to increase monitoring and regulation of Yemeni money exchange companies form part of the Yemeni government’s broader strategy to try and redirect import financing back into the formal economy (i.e. the commercial banking sector). A multitude of challenges arising from the conflict have weakened Yemen’s banking sector (for details see the Sana’a Center’s recent paper: Revitalizing Yemen’s Banking Sector: Necessary Steps for Restarting Formal Financial Cycles and Basic Economic Stabilization). As a result, money exchangers and informal, unmonitored financial networks have handled exponentially larger volumes of currency transfers. This has facilitated both Houthi smuggling networks – in particular fuel smuggling via Iran, which has become a significant source of revenue for the group – and increased Yemen’s money laundering and terrorism financing risks.   

On March 4, the Yemeni Exchangers Association (YEA) issued a statement expressing its concerns over the contradictory regulations the central banks in Aden and Sana’a were imposing on exchange companies. The YEA stressed the negative impact that the economic tug-of-war between the warring parties is having on the banking sector and the overall economy, and appealed for the banking sector to be able to operate free from political interference.

A prominent representative of a money exchange company who spoke with the Sana’a Center said the YEA was planning to wait until the end of March, and the end of the new licensing application process, to see if its concerns are addressed. If not, the representative said YEA members would close all of their branches across Yemen in protest. Such a move would likely put pressure on the authorities in both Aden and Sana’a to act, and be destabilizing for the Yemeni rial exchange rate, given that money exchangers are the primary conduit for remittances, which are currently Yemen’s largest source of foreign currency.

It is important to note that the YEA and the majority of its members are based in the north. YEA members include the largest money exchange companies in Yemen: Al-Noman Exchange Company; Swaid & Sons Exchange Company; Al-Saifi Exchange Company; Al-Jazeera Ikhwan Company for Exchange; Al-Morisi Exchange Company; Al-Najm Express; Al-Yabani Company for Exchange; Al-Akowa Exchange Company; Al-Nasser Exchange Company; and Al-Hazmi Company for Exchange. A number of exchangers located in the south are not part of the YEA.

Government Announces Plans to Increase Oil Production in 2019

On February 10, the Minister of Oil and Minerals for the internationally recognized Yemeni government, Aws Abdullah al-Awd, announced plans to scale up oil production and exports in 2019. Al-Awd said the government aims to produce an average of 110,000 barrels of crude oil per day (bpd) and export an average of 75,000 bpd. Such projections represent a notable increase from 2018, when Yemen produced an average of 45,000 bpd.

Before the escalation of the conflict in March 2015, which was soon followed by the cessation of oil production and exports, Yemen’s total production was estimated at 193,000 bpd, according to the Yemen Petroleum Company (YPC). Given that Houthi forces currently control Yemen’s primary oil export terminal at Ras Issa port on the Red Sea coast, al-Awd said the government would build a new oil pipeline to the Arabian Sea to facilitate the increased exports.

Yemen’s most productive oil fields are Block 18 (most of which is in Marib governorate), Block 14 and Block 10 (both in Hadramawt governorate), which in 2018 produced an average of 4,000 bpd, 14,000 bpd, and 20,000 bpd, respectively. Prior to March 2015, Block 18, Block 14, and Block 10 averaged 40,000 bpd, 37,000 bpd and 50,000 bpd, respectively, according to the YPC.

The minister of oil and minerals also asserted that the government aimed to produce 6.7 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in 2019, around half of which is to be exported. For this to happen, the LNG export terminal located in Balhaf, Shabwa, would need to come back online. Despite repeated government assertions in 2018 that LNG exports were due to resume at Balhaf, this never materialized. And although the terminal is nominally under the control of the government, the UAE-backed Shabwani Elite Forces are stationed in Balhaf and in the vicinity of the export terminal.

 

Humanitarian Developments

Taiz In Focus: Poorly Coordinated and Irregular Humanitarian Assistance

The city of Taiz, in Yemen’s southwest, has been an active frontline in the conflict for almost four years and is among the areas worst affected by the ongoing humanitarian crisis. The city has also recently been the focus of both UN-sponsored peace talks between the warring parties and controversy regarding the diversion of humanitarian aid by armed groups in Yemen. In February the Sana’a Center carried out a series of interviews with residents and aid workers on either side of the front lines to assess their lived experience regarding the humanitarian situation and the international response. In sum, residents and humanitarian workers in Taiz said that not enough aid is reaching the conflict-ravaged city, and that humanitarian assistance is poorly coordinated and irregular.

Around 2.58 million of Taiz’s 3.07 million residents are in need of humanitarian assistance, with 81 percent of these requiring immediate assistance to save and sustain their lives, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). Due to multiple constraints, urgently-needed assistance is not arriving, humanitarian workers involved in aid distribution in Taiz told the Sana’a Center. Major roads leading to Taiz are either closed or difficult to access because of the conflict. Food delivery trucks are forced to take alternative routes on difficult roads, which has led to numerous vehicle accidents, while food aid is also regularly at risk of being commandeered en route by armed groups.

Delivering food assistance within Taiz City is also a difficult task, sometimes beset by protests from those who are not included on beneficiary lists. On February 11, at a food distribution point in Jabal Habashi, humanitarian staff denied assistance to a man seeking to use a food voucher in another beneficiary’s name. The man returned with armed men and took food by force, a field monitor for an international organization told the Sana’a Center. In response, the organization ceased operations for two days until the man’s father, a local sheikh, publicly apologized to staff and a local committee for the incident and returned the stolen food.

An aid worker in a Houthi-controlled district in Taiz said that while humanitarian organizations could access residents, the assistance available was chronically insufficient to meet local needs. Aid workers also a reported lack of coordination between aid organizations funded by different donors – including the UN, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Sometimes, several months passed between projects run by different organizations, during which residents were left without any assistance. While emergency livelihood assistance is needed, it does not provide a sustainable source of income for when funds dry up, aid workers warned.

Residents of Taiz City confirmed that they were not receiving enough food assistance and that deliveries were intermittent. A mother of five in the al-Masbah neighborhood said she received food baskets for three months in 2018. In January 2019, she was registered by a different organization and received one food basket, but she did not know if she would receive any further assistance. Meanwhile, she was struggling to feed her children and depending on occasional remittances from a brother-in-law working in Saudi Arabia.

Locals in Taiz also told the Sana’a Center that several local factors were inflating food prices. Due to road closures, food is delivered to the city in smaller trucks that are able to navigate narrow roads; multiple vehicles are used to carry the load of one large truck. Deliveries from the Hoban area – the location of most of the governorate’s factories – to Taiz City takes up to five hours, for a journey that previously took 20 minutes. These factors increased fuel costs – which have become increasingly expensive due to fuel shortages – which in turn drive up the price of food, residents said.

The arrival of internally displaced people (IDPs) to Taiz governorate from Hudaydah in recent months has put added pressure on the humanitarian response. According to UNOCHA, the number of IDPs in Taiz has risen from 85,900 to 403,300 during the last year. In addition, around 110,000 people have returned to Taiz, UNOCHA said, noting that they faced difficulties due to the destruction of property and assets, which they could not afford to repair.

UNOCHA: 24 Million Yemenis in Need of Humanitarian Assistance

UNOCHA reported on February 14 that the number of people in acute need in Yemen rose by 27 percent during the last year. In its Humanitarian Needs Overview for Yemen for 2019, UNOCHA said that some 24.1 million people were in need – more than 80 percent of the population – including 14.3 million people in acute need who required immediate assistance to save and sustain their lives. In 2019, 3.3 million people remain displaced, up from 2.2 million a year earlier; this increase was partly because 685,000 people fled the escalating conflict in Hudaydah in 2018. More than one million people have returned from displacement to their places of origin. The humanitarian response is increasingly becoming the only lifeline for millions of Yemenis, the report noted.  

Some 20 million Yemenis are food insecure, including 10 million people suffering extreme levels of hunger and risk of starvation, while soaring fuel costs, due to scarcity, increase the cost to transport water, electricity, health and sanitation services, UNOCHA said. Basic, life-saving and protection services are urgently needed, as well as as advocacy with the parties to the conflict to ensure rapid, unhindered humanitarian assistance, the report said.

Briefing the UN Security Council on February 19, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock said conflict, a failure to respect international law and the economic collapse in mid-2018 were the driving forces behind the deterioration outlined in the report. While funding is quickly becoming the biggest challenge facing the aid operation in Yemen, Lowcock said that humanitarian agencies were also dealing with constant operational obstacles, including visa delays and movement restrictions.

Other Humanitarian Developments in Brief:

  • February 4: The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a report in which it said cancer has become a “death sentence” in Yemen, given the collapse of the healthcare system, the lack of affordable treatment, and the cost and risk associated with travel to the few available treatment options. The WHO estimated that there are around 35,000 cancer patients in Yemen, including 1,000 children.
  • February 6: Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said it was “dismayed” by the findings of the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT) in its investigation into the bombing of an MSF cholera treatment center in Abs on June 11, 2018. The JIAT, an investigative body appointed by the Saudi-led military coalition, found that a coalition airstrike targeted a weapons store for the armed Houthi movement. The JIAT said that MSF had not requested to add the site to a no-strike list or put signs on the building’s roof to mark it as a medical facility. MSF responded that it had shared its location with the coalition 12 times in writing, and that the compound displayed three distinctive logos. MSF said that JIAT’s “unacceptable and contradictory claims” had portrayed MSF as responsible for, rather than a victim of, the bombing.
  • February 13: The Ministry of Health in Sana’a said that 132 people had died from Swine flu in Yemen since 2018, and that the highest number of deaths were in Sana’a, followed by Amran and Ibb.
  • February 28: The Ministry of Public Health and Population reported 413,770 suspected cholera cases from January 1, 2018 to February 3, 2019, with 543 associated deaths. Children under 5 account for 32 percent of all suspected cases, while 22 of Yemen’s 23 governorates have been affected by the outbreak, the WHO said in a statement.  

 

Human Rights and War Crimes Developments

Investigation Links Arms Sale to UAE with Militia Threat in Yemen

An open source investigation published by Amnesty International on February 6 examined the impact of the international arms trade with the UAE on security developments inside Yemen.

Examining open-source evidence on arms used in the course of the Hudaydah battle, the report found that some arms and military vehicles sold to the UAE by the US, the UK, France, Germany and Belgium, among other countries, have ended up in the hands of UAE-backed local militias. These militias are largely unaccountable and some have been accused of committing war crimes.

The report concluded that arms sales to the UAE were in violation of the international Arms Trade Treaty, EU law, and in some countries, domestic law.

Other Human Rights and War Crimes Developments in Brief:

  • February 13: Houthi media outlets reported that eight fishermen were killed when a coalition airstrike hit their boat, north of the island of Badhei off of the coast of Hudaydah governorate. Médecins Sans Frontières confirmed that it had treated five injured fisherman after a “military attack” on their boat.
  • February 16: Awfa al-Naami, Saferworld Country Director in Yemen, was released by the Houthi authorities. She and a colleague were detained on January 28 by the Houthi-run National Security Bureau after being called in for questioning, sparking international condemnation and calls for their release. Prior to her detention, al-Naami had been subjected to a coordinated campaign of threats and intimidation for several months.
  • February 19: Artillery shelling killed eight civilians and injured another 10 at a market in the Mateenah area, west of al-Tuhayat district, Hudaydah governorate. The UN confirmed the attack, without specifying who was responsible. According to UN partners, 96 civilians have died and 175 injured due to hostilities in Yemen between January 1 and February 14.
  • February 20: UNICEF Yemen reported that 2,700 child soldiers had been recruited in the Yemen conflict. UNICEF also stated that two-thirds of all Yemeni girls were were married before the age of 18.
  • February 26: Amnesty International released its review of the human rights situation in Yemen in 2018, which found that all parties to the conflict had “committed war crimes and other serious violations of international law.”

This report was prepared by (in alphabetical order): Ali Abdullah, Waleed Alhariri, Ghaidaa Alrashidy, Anthony Biswell, Hamza al-Hamadi, Gregory Johnsen, Farea al-Muslimi, Spencer Osberg, Hannah Patchett, Sala al-Sakkaf, Victoria K. Sauer, Holly Topham, and Aisha al-Warraq.  


The Yemen Review – formerly known as Yemen at the UN – is a monthly publication produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. Launched in June 2016, it aims to identify and assess current diplomatic, economic, political, military, security, humanitarian and human rights developments related to Yemen.  

In producing The Yemen Review, Sana’a Center staff throughout Yemen and around the world gather information, conduct research, and hold private meetings with local, regional, and international stakeholders in order to analyze domestic and international developments regarding Yemen.

This monthly series is designed to provide readers with contextualized insight into the country’s most important ongoing issues.


This report was developed with the support of the Kingdom of the Netherlands

 
Stockholm Agreement Meets Yemeni Reality – The Yemen Review,  January 2019

Stockholm Agreement Meets Yemeni Reality – The Yemen Review, January 2019

The sun sets behind a Dragon Blood Tree in the Deksem area of Socotra Island on January 14, 2019
// Photo Credit:
Naif Alnajm

Contents

Stockholm Agreement Meets Yemeni Reality

Developments in Yemen

International Developments


Stockholm Agreement Meets Yemeni Reality

Overview: Lofty Aims Face Challenging Reception

In January, the United Nations focused its Yemen-related efforts on implementing the Stockholm Agreement. The deal was reached in December at UN-sponsored peace talks in Rimbo, Sweden, between representatives of Yemen’s main warring parties – the armed Houthi movement and the internationally recognized Yemeni government. In it, both sides committed to a ceasefire in Hudaydah and a mutual redeployment of forces away from the port city, a prisoner exchange, and a statement of understanding regarding the city of Taiz. Clauses in the text of the agreement, however, contained a degree of ambiguity that left them somewhat open to interpretation, a factor that became increasingly problematic as the UN sought to implement the agreement and hold the parties accountable to their commitments.

As January progressed the challenges became apparent: deadlines for the implementation of the Hudaydah agreement were missed, the ceasefire was interrupted, the prisoner exchange was delayed, and fighting raged in and around Taiz City. As well, General Patrick Cammaert of the Netherlands, chair of the Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) that was formed to support and facilitate implementation of the Hudaydah agreement, said he would leave his post just five weeks after his appointment.

 

UN Efforts to Support the Agreement

On December 31, 2018, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres submitted a proposal to the UN Security Council (UNSC) on how the UN would support the implementation of the Stockholm Agreement. The UNSC requested the proposal on December 21 as part of Resolution 2541, which endorsed the agreement and authorized the deployment of an advance monitoring team, the RCC, to Hudaydah. Led by Cammaert, the team arrived in Yemen on December 22. The committee was tasked with overseeing the redeployment of forces, monitoring the ceasefire, ensuring security in the city, and opening up humanitarian access routes.

Guterres’ plan proposed sending 75 UN observers to Hudaydah for a period of six months. According to the proposal, the UN Mission to support the Hudaydah Agreement (UNMHA) would be a “nimble presence.” The mission would be tasked with monitoring the compliance of parties to the ceasefire, the redeployment of belligerent forces from Hudaydah City and the ports of Hudaydah, Saleef, and Ras Issa, and mine action operations. In addition, the UNMHA would seek to establish and assess facts and conditions on the ground in an objective manner and engage with all relevant parties. The mission would report to the Secretary-General through the Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths and Under-Secretary-General for Political Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo.

Guterres also proposed that following the redeployment of warring parties from Hudaydah, the Yemen Rea Sea Port Corporation would take over management of three ports in the governorate: Hudaydah, Saleef, and Ras Issa. The UN, supported by the World Food Programme (WFP), would provide oversight and technical assistance to manage the ports. The WFP said in a report published on December 31 that it was waiting for authorities in Sana’a to approve staff visas before deploying an initial assessment team to Hudaydah in January. The WFP staff had yet to receive visas as of this writing, according to a Sana’a Center source aware of the proceedings.

On January 9, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths briefed the UNSC on progress in implementing the Stockholm Agreement. Griffiths said that after meeting  with the leaders of both main belligerent parties – including Houthi leader Abdulmalek al-Houthi during a two-day visit to Sana’a on January 5-6, and Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on January 7 – they had each committed to implementing the UN agreement. The Special Envoy said the ceasefire in Hudaydah had largely held, with some exceptions, which had significantly decreased the level of violence. Regarding Taiz, Griffiths said humanitarian aid access needed to increase, but that to address this and other issues he hoped to convene first meeting of a committee on Taiz by the end of the month. Griffiths also said another supervisory committee meeting for the proposed prisoner exchange would be held in Jordan the following week.

On January 16, the UNSC unanimously approved Guterres’ proposal to support the Stockholm Agreement, adopting UNSC Resolution 2542 (2019). The text of the resolution was submitted by the United Kingdom, which has served as pen holder for the Yemen file at the UNSC since 2011. In voicing support for the technical resolution, permanent council members the United States, France and China also advocated the need to step up humanitarian assistance efforts. 

 

Stockholm Agreement’s Shaky Start in Yemen

Hurdles to Implementation in Hudaydah

Despite the ceasefire largely holding on the ground in Hudaydah, there was little progress toward the redeployment of warring parties away from front lines in the city. The original deadline for redeployment – January 8 – was not met. UN officials told the Associated Press (AP) that the work of the RCC and its head of mission General Cammaert was hindered by restrictions on their movement on the ground. While the RCC held two meeting sessions – in late December and early January – in Houthi-held territory, Houthi authorities refused to attend the subsequent RCC meeting in government-held territory on January 8, forcing Cammaert to shuttle between the warring parties. The UN then chartered a boat, which it anchored in the Red Sea, to have a neutral venue acceptable to both sides.  

Meanwhile, in an illustration of the uncertain security situation and the difficulties the UN mission is facing, Cammaert’s armored vehicle was struck by a bullet in Hudaydah on January 17. The head of mission and his team were leaving a meeting with representatives of the Yemeni government when the incident occurred. No one was harmed, and in response, Cammaert called for calm and the need for the warring parties to strengthen the ceasefire agreement, according to UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric. The spokesman also reiterated that “all the parties in Yemen are responsible for the safety of all UN personnel.” The UN said it had no information about the source of the fire, while Houthi forces and the Yemeni government accused each other of firing the shot.

Localized fighting also continued in the first month of 2019, albeit not leading to any frontline changes. Each side accused the other of violating the shaky truce in clashes largely centered on the eastern and southern outskirts of the city and the Red Sea governorate’s southern districts — particularly Durayhimi, At-Tuhayat, Al-Jah and Hays.

The Yemeni government claimed to have recorded 745 ceasefire violations between December 18 and January 25, and said that Houthi forces continued to bolster their positions by digging trenches, erecting barriers and planting landmines. Houthi media published daily reports of alleged breaches by coalition-backed forces and claims that government-aligned forces have reinforced their positions to the southeast of Hudyadah airport and in the vicinity of the May 22 Hospital in the city’s eastern suburbs. The RCC, which is tasked with monitoring the implementation of the Hudaydah Agreement, has not assessed claims of violations by either side. The UN Secretary General’s January 7 and January 21 reports, however, highlighted the contested town of Durayhimi — located 15 km south of Hudaydah City — as the site of the majority of ceasefire breaches.

Accusations were traded over a fire at Hudaydah’s Red Sea Mills in the east of the city, where the World Food Programme is currently storing 51,000 metric tons of wheat. Two silos were damaged in the fire, which was reported on January 25, with the Saudi-led military coalition claiming a Houthi mortar attack was the cause and a Houthi official blaming coalition artillery fire. The storage facility, which is located close to the frontline between Houthi and government-aligned forces, has been inaccessible since September due to fighting and Houthi landmines in the vicinity. The Houthis said that on January 29, their demining team came under fire while working in the area around the Red Sea Mills, while the coalition countered that Houthi forces attacked a UN-backed team. Neither the UN nor the WFP has commented on the reports (see below ‘Fire Damages WFP Food Aid in Hudaydah’).

Cammaert’s Early Exit From UN Mission

It emerged in late January that General Cammaert would leave his post as chair of the RCC, just five weeks after his appointment. Media reports had indicated the Dutch general’s intention to step down, and his departure was later confirmed by the Special Envoy during a media interview on January 28. During the interview, the Special Envoy denied claims that Cammaert’s departure was due to  disagreements between them or because of Houthi pressure to replace him. The Special Envoy said that Cammaert had only intended to stay in Yemen “for a rather short period of time, to activate the RCC and lay the ground for establishing the Hudaydah mission.”

However, Sana’a Center sources aware of the proceedings said Cammaert and the Special Envoy had clashed at times over the methods of implementing the Hudaydah agreement and the roles of various UN agencies in the implementation. The lack of clear clauses in the agreement has proven to be a challenge, as the ambiguity allowed different interpretations. The UN Secretary General’s proposal for the UN Mission called on UN bodies to coordinate to support the Stockholm Agreement, but there has been a lack of consensus among UN entities on the roles and the level of involvement each should have, according to the same sources.

On the ground in Hudaydah, persons close to the proceedings told the Sana’a Center that Houthi authorities also grew frustrated with Cammaert. In one situation, Houthi authorities tried to prevent Cammaert from visiting the fire at the Red Sea Mills on the eastern outskirts of Hudaydah City, however the Dutch general had insisted.

General Michael Anker Lollesgaard of Denmark was appointed at Cammaert’s replacement on January 31, and arrived in Hudaydah in early February. Lollesqaard was a Force Commander in the UN Multidimensional Stabilization Mission in Mali in 2015 and 2016.

Prisoner Exchange Unrealized

In his previous briefing to the UNSC on December 14, the Special Envoy suggested that a prisoner swap between the warring parties could involve some 4,000 captives and take place by mid-January. However, following logistical delays, including slow approval from Jordan to host the prisoner exchange committee, the party representatives met in Amman on January 16-17 to discuss steps to implement the exchange. On January 16, Reuters reported that the two sides had exchanged lists of some 15,000 names. Days later the head of the Yemeni government delegation said that a final deal was expected by the first week of February.

According to the Stockholm Agreement, prisoners will be transferred via the Houthi-controlled Sana’a International Airport and the government-controlled Saiyun airport. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and UN will oversee the exchange, with the head of the government delegation saying the agreement to do so would likely be finalized by early February.

To assist the operation, the ICRC said it would provide 15 additional delegates and two planes, each with a capacity of 200 passengers, to shuttle detainees between Sana’a and Saiyun, according to a January 23 statement by Fabrizio Carboni, the regional director for the Near and Middle East for the ICRC. However, Carboni noted that these preparations would be “meaningless” unless the parties finalized the lists of detainees.

On January 29, Houthi forces released captured Saudi soldier Mousa Awji, who was in need of medical attention. Following Awji’s transfer from Sana’a to Riyadh, facilitated by the ICRC, Saudi Arabia released seven Houthi prisoners. However, as of this writing, the larger prisoner exchange deal had not been finalized.

No Progress on Taiz as Violence Escalates

As part of the Stockholm Agreement, the belligerents agreed to a “Statement of Understanding on Taiz.” According to the statement the parties pledged to form a joint committee with UN participation, including representatives from Yemeni civil society, with the committee to then determine its working mechanism and missions. The agreement lacked a timeframe or any clear terms of reference, and since the Stockholm Agreement there have been no announced steps taken to form the committee for Taiz.

Instead, Taiz saw an escalation in hostilities toward the end of 2018, which continued into the new year. Fighting between Houthi and government-aligned forces was concentrated in the southeast Hayfan district, the northwestern Maqbanah district and western Mawza district, though resulting in little frontline movement. There were increased clashes within Taiz City itself; on January 22, an alleged Houthi shell hit Freedom Square in the southeast of the city, killing more than a dozen civilians.

Special Envoy: “We Need to Remain Hopeful”

On January 28, the UN Special Envoy gave an interview with Asharq Al Awsat in which he said his level of optimism regarding the implementation of the Stockholm Agreement remained “10 out of 10… We need to remain hopeful and have faith in the process that we started.” In explaining the delays in implementing the agreement, Griffiths said the timelines had been ambitious and pointed to the complexity of the situation on the ground.

In Sweden, the warring parties had agreed to hold another round of talks in January. At the end of the month, however, the Special Envoy said that there needed to be more progress on implementing the Stockholm Agreement before the next round of talks could be held. As of this writing, no arrangements have been set for further consultations.

On January 30, the Saudi-led military coalition said it was ready to use “calibrated force” to compel the armed Houthi movement to abide by the Stockholm Agreement and withdraw its fighters from Hudaydah. As of writing, there had been no redeployment of forces away from the city, while the proposed humanitarian corridor between Hudaydah and Sana’a remained closed.


Developments in Yemen

Economic Developments

Corruption Allegations Against Aden Central Bank, YR Loses Ground

Fresh challenges to the Yemeni government’s ability to implement coherent economic policy emerged last month, as a feud between the heads of the central bank in Aden and the government-appointed Economic Committee spilled out in public accusations of corruption. The government established the Economic Committee in August 2018 for the express purpose of advising and assisting the Aden central bank in stabilizing the Yemeni rial. However, on January 20, committee head Hafedh Mayad posted online a memo that he had sent to the Yemeni prime minister, asking the latter to direct the Anti-Corruption Commission to open an investigation into the Aden central bank.

At issue were central bank purchases of some 448.5 million Saudi rials (SR) from the local market in November 2018. The bank had mobilized some YR 75 billion to buy the foreign currency to finance letters of credit for importers, a senior banking source in Aden told the Sana’a Center. Mayad, however, accused the central bank of paying above market price for the SR, with the difference between the market price and the price paid being valued at roughly 9 billion Yemeni rials (equivalent to roughly US$14.4 million relative to the average November 2018 exchange rate).

An initial Sana’a Center review, however, suggested that there had been no impropriety. The Yemeni rial had appreciated significantly throughout November 2018. Meanwhile, as the central bank was purchasing SR that month there was up to a 48 hour delay between when the bank agreed a purchasing price with currency vendors and when the actual trade of currencies was made. Thus, by the time of the actual trade the relative value of the currencies had often changed somewhat from the agreed price. This is the difference Mayad had erroneously interpreted as overpayment.

Despite this, following Mayad’s public accusation fear spread in the market of economic mismanagement at the Aden central bank. Senior banking sources in Aden told the Sana’a Center that currency traders themselves stoked these fears to depreciate the rial further, allowing them to purchase Yemeni rials at artificially low prices. The central bank in Aden compounded this market sentiment by not addressing the corruption allegations publicly.  

Meanwhile, in northern Yemen, the Houthi-run Yemen Petroleum Company (YPC), through the Payments and Foreign Currency Committee, increased its purchases of foreign currency in January to place new fuel import orders. A senior banking official in Aden estimated that the Houthi authorities purchased between SR 110 million and SR 130 million between January 23 and February 3.


Source: Sana’a Center Economic Unit

All the above factors helped force the market value of the YR lower in January, with the Yemeni currency beginning 2019 valued at roughly YR527 per US$1 and ending the first month of the year trading at YR570 per US$1.

UN to Channel Humanitarian Aid Through the Central Bank in Aden

On January 22, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Lise Grande, informed the Governor of the central bank in Aden, Mohammed Zammam, that the UN would channel humanitarian aid through the bank. The announcement was an agreement in principle with the details, such as the management framework and transparency mechanisms, yet to be determined.

Since the escalation of the conflict in March 2015 and the cessation of most oil exports, the international community has become the second largest source of foreign currency in the local market – the first being remittances. Most of the money that the donors allocated for humanitarian assistance in Yemen was channelled via the UN through its various agencies, and deposited in Yemeni commercial banks. In 2018 along, UN aid funding for Yemen totalled almost US$3 billion. The International Bank of Yemen (IBY) in particular has handled the largest share of these foreign transfers into Yemen, given its pre-established relationship with the international donor community. According to estimates that a number of senior banking officials provided to the Sana’a Center, over the course of the conflict IBY has handled up to US$1 billion annually from donors over the course of the conflict.

Channeling such a large source of foreign currency through the central bank in Aden should help the bank to better regulate the currency market and stabilize the Yemeni rial exchange rate.  

TeleYemen Headquarters Relocated to Aden

On January 13, the internationally recognized Yemeni government ordered the relocation of the state-run telecommunications company, TeleYemen, from Sana’a to Aden. According to a Sana’a-based source working in the telecommunications sector, the Houthi authorities in Sana’a stand to lose an estimated YR27 billion of the firm’s annual revenues.

Other Economic Developments in Brief:

  • In January the Yemeni government secured a year-long extension for a $60 million monthly fuel grant from Saudi Arabia for the provision of electricity in government controlled areas, according to a senior Aden-based banker who spoke with the Sana’a Center.
  • Early January: By the second week of January the central bank in Aden had made US$190m available in new financing of fuel and food importers, according to a well-informed Sana’a Center source. Importers themselves, however, appear reluctant to access the funds. Importers have expressed frustration regarding prolonged delays in the central bank processing import applications and issuing letters of credit.
  • January 12: The Governor of the Central Bank in Aden, Mohammed Zammam, stated that a total of US$441 million has been withdrawn from the US$2bn Saudi deposit thus far. In 2018 alone, US$314 million was withdrawn from the Saudi deposit; 61 percent of this was allocated to fund wheat imports while 20 percent was directed to rice imports. Since early December of 2018, the Central Bank in Aden has been offering a preferential exchange rate of YR440 per US$1 to import six essential food commodities: wheat, rice, sugar, cooking oil, corn and milk.

 

Political & Military Developments

Tensions Around Oil Facilities in Shabwah Governorate

On January 19, clashes broke out between units belonging to the Ataq Military Axis and forces loyal to the Belabid tribe near an OMV oil production facility in Arma, northern Shabwa. Fighting began after Belabid tribal forces attempted to block the passage of crude oil tankers from the site in Yemen’s Block S2, where Austrian oil and gas company OMV resumed production last year.

The tribesmen have demanded a role in delivery contracts, and began a sit in on January 23. Crude transport and provision of security around oil facilities in Yemen have long been a source of lucrative contracts, and the recent clashes in Shabwa highlight both potentially destabilizing local competition and questions over distribution of the spoils of renewed crude production.

Renewed Violence Among Anti-Houthi Forces in Taiz

In government-held areas of Taiz City, violence continued as various anti-Houthi groups competed for influence and territory.  On January 9, gunmen on a motorcycle assassinated a government soldier in the September Street area,  marking the first assassination of the year after a wave of targeted killings in 2018 prompted a security crackdown in the governorate. The day before, Brigadier Jamal al-Shamiri, commander of Taiz’s police force, survived the latest attempt on his life in the west of the city. On January 28, gunmen attacked a military police prison in the city, shooting dead a detained government soldier who was suspected of belonging to the so-called ‘Islamic State’ group, or Daesh.

In mid January a campaign against “extremist elements” began in Taiz City, led by the 35th Armored Brigade — a Yemeni army unit that operates in coordination with the UAE-backed Abu Abbas Brigades. Abu Abbas’ forces killed Anas Adel Abdul Jabbar and Walid Atef on January 19 in Al Mudhaffar district to the west of Taiz City. The two men were wanted by local police in relation to the assassinations of government military and security personnel in Taiz. Days later, there were reports of a wider campaign against alleged AQAP operatives in Taiz. Abu Abbas, whose forces are leading the campaign, is himself sanctioned by the US Treasury Department for alleged links to AQAP and ISIS — allegations that Abbas denied in a rare interview at the end of 2018.

Houthi UAV attacks, Coalition Airstrikes in Retaliation

The first month of 2019 also saw escalations on other fronts. A Houthi unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attack on al-Anad air base in Lahj on January 10 killed six soldiers and injured more than ten others. Among those killed was the Yemeni government’s military intelligence chief, General Mohammed Tamah and the Yemeni army’s deputy chief of staff, Major General Saleh al-Zindani, who died later in hospital. A number of high-ranking Yemeni government military figures and local officials were present at the air base at the time of the attack, where a military parade was taking place. The Yemeni government said that a local Houthi cell had orchestrated the attack and announced arrests the following week. A day after the attack in Lahj, Houthi media claimed that a Houthi UAV hit Saudi military positions in Asir, southern Saudi Arabia.

Houthi forces spokesman Yahya Sarea threatened further UAV attacks in 2019, which he dubbed the “year of the drones.” Since mid-2018, the Houthis have demonstrated growing UAV capabilities, mainly through the use of kamikaze (ramming) drones. While Sarea claimed that these weapons were locally manufactured, the Qasef K-2 drone used in the Al-Anad air base attack is an update on the Qasef-1 — a UAV that the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen said includes parts supplied by Iran, and is “virtually identical” to the Ababil-T Iranian drone. Tehran denies supplying drone or missile technology to the Houthis. The UN Panel of Experts report circulated in January also noted that Houthi forces have been increasing their use of remote-control waterborne improvised explosive devices in the Red Sea against both military and civilian vessels.

The Saudi-led coalition launched a series of airstrikes on Sana’a on January 19-20, which local eyewitnesses said were the most destructive of their kind in more than a year. The Saudi-led military coalition said that the strikes targeted military sites, including Al-Daylami air base and a UAV storage facility — indicating a retaliation to Houthi airborne attacks in previous weeks. On January 31, coalition jets bombed an alleged drone storage facility east of Sana’a city. The spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition, Colonel Turki al-Malki, said that this was part of an ongoing operation to eradicate the Houthis’ drone capabilities following the attack in Lahj. During January, coalition fighter jets also targeted a Houthi training camp in Dhamar governorate and Houthi gatherings and positions in Al-Jawf, Hajjah and Sa’ada, supporting continuing ground fighting in these governorates, and Nihm front in Sana’a.

Other Political and Military Developments in Brief:

  • January 4: Two members of the UAE-backed Shabwa Elite forces were killed in clashes with tribesmen in Marqa district, northwest Shabwa, following attempts to arrest two men. Following the clashes, Emirati Apache helicopters bombed houses in the area, killing seven civilians. Minister of Interior Ahmed Al-Maysari said that a commission would investigate the incident.
  • January 20: The accidental detonation of a mine killed five demining experts in Marib. The two South Africans, one Croatian, one Bosnian and one Kosovar killed in the blast were working for the “Saudi Project to Demine Yemen,” a Saudi-funded KSrelief project.
  • January 28: An explosion at a market in the government-held Mocha city, Taiz governorate, killed at least six civilians. Local officials suspect AQAP may have carried out the attack, although no claims have been made, while the Yemeni government’s Saba news agency blamed Houthi forces. The UAE has a heavy security presence in Mocha, which lies some 75 km north of the Bab al-Mandab strait. The port city also serves as a base to support coalition operations in neighboring Hudaydah governorate.

 

Humanitarian Developments

Emergency Relief Coordinator Updates UNSC

On January 9, the UNSC was briefed by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock. Despite some positive indications following the Stockholm Agreement, Lowcock said the wider humanitarian situation in Yemen had not improved. Some 80 percent of Yemenis need humanitarian assistance, 10 million are on the brink of famine while more than 3.3 million remain displaced as result of the conflict. In response, the WFP plans to expand its operations in 2019 to reach 12 million people, Lowcock said. He called on the international community to consider additional funding for the 2019 Humanitarian Response Plan at an upcoming February pledging conference.

While commending the progress made on the political front, Lowcock lamented that more focus was required on the humanitarian elements of UNSC Resolution 2541. The Under-Secretary said all parties must work for increased humanitarian access and the unfettered movement of aid workers and supplies. Lowcock called for access to Yemen’s Red Sea mills and for the opening of Ras Issa port, which has been closed since 2017 (see below ‘Fire Damages WFP Food Aid in Hudaydah’). Meanwhile, commercial fuel imports through Hudaydah and Salif ports were higher than at any point in 2017, but commercial food imports plummeted to their lowest since the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM) began reporting in 2016.

Touching on the economic situation in the country, Lowcock called for further interventions to stabilize the Yemeni rial (YR), noting that without additional measures the International Monetary Fund has estimated a depreciation to more than YR700 to US$1 in 2019. As January ended the YR was trading at YR570 per US$1 (see above ‘Yemeni Rial Exchange Rate). Given that Yemen is overwhelmingly dependent on imports to feed the population, even small depreciations in YR value pose an outsized food security threat for millions of Yemenis already on the cusp of famine.  

Fire Damages WFP Food Aid in Hudaydah

On January 25, two grain silos were damaged in a fire at the Red Sea mills, on the eastern outskirts of Hudaydah City. The UN said the fire was likely a result of mortar shelling. Some 51,000 metric tons of wheat belonging to the World Food Programme (WFP) was stored at the mills, enough to feed around 3.7 million people for a month. The WFP said it had been unable to access the stock – which accounts for a quarter of its wheat supplies in Yemen – since September 2018, due to fighting in Hudaydah.

The WFP urgently needs to access the mills to assess the damage and transport any unaffected wheat stocks to areas of Yemen where it is desperately needed, WFP Country Director Stephen Anderson said. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen Lise Grande described the loss as “heartbreaking” and noted that 20 million Yemenis were hungry and 250,000 faced near starvation. “This is the first time we are seeing conditions like this. We need this wheat,” Grande added.

Local Reaction to Reports of Stolen Food Assistance

Houthi officials responded on January 1 to allegations by the WFP that food aid was being stolen in areas controlled by Houthi authorities. An AP investigation published on December 31, 2018 found that factions and militias on all sides of the conflict were blocking food aid, diverting it to front lines and selling it for profit. The WFP then said it had uncovered evidence that an organization affiliated to Houthi authorities had misused aid and committed fraud. The WFP threatened to suspend some food shipments to Yemen if Houthi authorities did not take action within 10 days to investigate and stop the theft.

The head of the Houthi’s Supreme Revolutionary Council Mohammad Ali al-Houthi responded that the WFP had not communicated officially with Houthi authorities and called on the UN agency to provide proof for its allegations. He accused the WFP of distributing “rotten food” in Yemen, which he said Houthi authorities had blocked because it was not suitable for human consumption. Al-Houthi also said the WFP was politicized and that the allegations of theft reflected the food agency’s “subordination” to the US and the UK.

On January 6, the Yemeni government’s minister of local administration, Abdul Raqeeb Fatah, claimed that Houthi forces had stolen 65 percent of the humanitarian assistance sent to Yemen through Hudaydah port. He also accused Houthi militants of looting some 700 trucks carrying assistance, and detaining more than 88 relief and commercial vessels at Hudaydah and Saleef ports.

Responding to the WFP’s threats to suspend some food aid to Yemen, on January 9 more than 35 local organizations and charities called on the UN agency to reveal the corruption it alleged surrounded its work. The groups said the WFP’s “silence” was considered “collusion with the authorities to loot food from the mouths of the hungry people in Yemen,” the AP reported.

In a briefing to the UNSC on January 9, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock said that the UN took misappropriation of aid seriously and had already contracted independent third-party monitors in autumn 2018. They found that 95 percent of intended food aid beneficiaries across Yemen were receiving food aid, although in some cases rations were incomplete. “These gaps could potentially be due to funding or access constraints, or other problems,” Lowcock said.

Other Humanitarian Developments in Brief:

  • January 2: UN DISPATCH reported that nearly 150,000 migrants arrived to Yemen in 2018, more than the number of irregular migrants who arrived in Europe that year.
  • January 3: Researchers said that the strain of cholera that caused the deadliest cholera epidemic in recorded history originated in East Africa and was brought to Yemen by migrants. The Yemeni health ministry reported almost 380,000 suspected cases of cholera between January 1, 2018 and January 6, 2019, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), including 517 deaths. More than 1.4 million Yemenis are suspected to have contracted cholera since October 2016, the WHO said.  
  • January 8: The Emirates Red Crescent opened a health center in al-Jubairah district in Hudaydah to provide services to 100,000 people.
  • January 9: The UN reported that “very limited numbers” of displaced people had returned to Hudaydah over the previous two weeks. Meanwhile, intermittent fire in Kilo 7 in Hudaydah City led to the displacement of 70 families.
  • January 18: Yemen country director of Save the Children Tamer Kirolos urged the parliaments of arms dealing countries “to take the historical responsibility and instruct their governments to stop all sales of military weapons or equipment to any party to the conflict in Yemen.” In a statement, he noted that 85,000 children may have died of extreme hunger since the war began.  
  • January 25: In an update to the UNSC, the WFP and the Food and Agriculture Organization said that the crisis in Yemen reached a critical point in late 2018. Around 65,000 people had reached the level of catastrophe (IPC Phase 5) and more than half the population were in urgent need of food and livelihood assistance. Without humanitarian assistance, a number of districts would likely be in famine, the UN agencies said.  
  • January 27: In Hajjah governorate, fighting displaced more than 300 families from Harad and Haryan to Abs during three weeks in January, according to a UN situation report. Abs district already hosts around 23,000 IDPs, many of whom have suffered multiple displacements and live in dire conditions, the UN said.

 

Human Rights and War Crimes Developments

Houthi Security Forces Detain Saferworld Country Director

On January 28, Houthi authorities detained  Saferworld Country Director Awfa al-Naami and her colleague in Sana’a. The Houthi-run National Security Bureau detained the NGO staff after they were called in for questioning at around 12:00 pm.

Al-Naami has faced interrogation before and in recent months has been subject to threats and intimidation by Houthi authorities. More than a dozen and local, regional and international organizations signed an appeal calling for al-Naami’s immediate and unconditional release.

Report: Houthi Forces Detain, Torture Women

Houthi authorities are holding dozens of women without charge, and torturing them and blackmailing their families, according to allegations by the Yemen Organization for Combating Human Trafficking, reported by the AP on January 17.

The organization’s founder Nabil Fadel said that Houthi authorities had been detaining women in recent months over allegations of prostitution and collaboration with the Saudi-led military coalition. A Yemeni lawyer told the AP that women had been rounded up in cafés and parks, and that families were searching for their missing daughters. Once granted release, the women were secretly detained in villas across Sana’a, the lawyer said.

The Houthil-run Interior Ministry responded to the allegations by saying they were rumors spread by the “mouthpieces of the mercenaries.” It said there were no secret prisons or arbitrary detentions, and that it would hold those behind the reports to account.

UPR Addresses Right to Mental Health in Yemen

On January 23, the UN Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) 32nd Session of Universal Periodic Review (UPR) addressed Yemen. This entailed UN member states examining the Yemen’s human rights record over the past five years. The internationally recognized Yemeni government submitted and presented its own report at the UNHRC, as did civil society groups. The latter include the report ‘Yemen’s obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil the right to mental health’, jointly submitted by the Sana’a Center, Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic, and the Brown School at Washington University.

Subsequently, for the first time the right to mental health and adverse mental health impacts of the Yemen conflict on the population was raised by various UN member states, including Cyprus, Iceland, Malta, France, Switzerland, Brazil, and Slovenia. The Yemeni government was questioned and asked to provide information on its activities to promote and ensure psychosocial well-being, particularly regarding children affected by the conflict. In total, UN member states made 252 recommendations to the Yemeni government during the UPR review, 182 of which it accepted with the other 70 under further examination

Other Human Rights and War Crimes Developments in Brief:

  • January 19: Airstrikes by the Saudi-led military coalition hit seven military facilities in Sana’a, according to a coalition spokesman. The AP reported that the strikes hit a food factory, killing two workers. No other fatalities were reported, although other civilians were said to be wounded. A plastics factory was hit, causing a large fire, the AP said. The airstrikes were the first by the coalition since the Stockholm Agreement was signed in December 2018 (see above ‘Coalition Airstrikes’).  
  • January 21: Houthi forces stormed two homes in Dhamar and commandeered them as their headquarters, Al Masdar reported. Houthi gunmen also looted the properties, according to the report.
  • January 25:  One child and five soldiers were killed when two land mines exploded in al-Bayda. A passenger vehicle set off the first land mine, killing a child and wounding five adults. The soldiers rushed to help the wounded, and were killed when a second landmine detonated, Yemeni government security officials told the AP. The officials said Houthi forces had planted thousands of land mines across Yemen. The same week, five staff of an international demining team were killed by a landmine in Marib.
  • January 27: Eight people were killed and 30 injured when unknown assailants shelled a camp for displaced people in Hajjah, according to the UN.  

International Developments

New UN Panel of Experts Report

In January, a report by the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen was circulated among UNSC members states and discussed at a closed meeting of the council’s Yemen Sanctions Committee on January 18. The report investigated and assessed economic, humanitarian, security and human rights developments during 2018. The panel had met with a number of officials from the the internationally recognized Yemeni government, including President Hadi and then Prime Minister Ahmed Bin Dagher. However, the armed Houthi movement refused to cooperate with the panel, so the experts were unable to meet Houthi authorities or visit Sana’a. The Houthi authorities accused the panel of reporting false information in its 2017 report.

Last month’s report painted a bleak picture of the situation in Yemen, with a strong focus on the war economy and impediments to the delivery of humanitarian aid to and within Yemen, according to a copy of the report seen by the Sana’a Center. The report also gave greater attention to violations and obstructions by Houthi forces than the panel’s previous report.

Among the new findings, the Panel of Experts indicated that Houthi forces had advanced their capabilities in developing extended-range unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that could strike targets deep inside Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates (see above ‘Houthi UAV attacks). The panel also found that in 2018, Houthi forces were increasingly reliant on the import of high-value weapons components, which were integrated into locally assembled systems such as extended-range UAVs. This marked a change from previous years, the experts said, noting that in 2015 and 2016, complete or partially-assembled weapons systems were supplied to Houthi forces from abroad.

The threat to commercial shipping increased in 2018 as Houthi forces developed and deployed sophisticated weapons like anti-ship cruise missiles and Water-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices, the panel found. The panel concluded that Houthi forces were responsible for attacks on the crude carrier Abqaiq on April 3, 2018, and against the bulk carrier Ince Inebolu on May 10, 2018. Houthi forces also targeted a vessel carrying wheat to Yemen, the experts said, noting that this endangered the delivery of humanitarian assistance and increased the transaction costs of imports to Yemen.

The warring parties were implicated in obstructing the delivery of aid with excessive delays to shipments. The report notes that the Saudi-led military coalition’s continued ban on commercial flights from Sana’a International Airport was preventing civilians from accessing medical treatment outside the country.

Highlighting a link between food insecurity and the conflict, the panel said that hunger was a common reason for young men and children to sign up as Houthi fighters, as “people know that recruits will have access to food.” Recruits tend to come from the poorest families in rural areas, and can be as young as 16, the report said, adding that the majority were illiterate.

The panel reported that fuel from Iran was being used to finance the Houthi forces. The experts identified companies inside and outside Yemen operating as front companies using false documentation to conceal a fuel donation to an unidentified sanctioned individual. The revenue from the sale of this fuel was used “to finance the Houthi war effort,” the panel said. The fuel was loaded at ports in Iran using fake documents to avoid inspection by the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism (UNVIM) for Yemen.

The panel also observed that the authority of the internationally recognized government continued to erode through 2018.  The panel pointed to four factors: the proliferation of militia groups and lack of de facto control over proxy military forces armed and funded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE; the challenges posed by the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) and its affiliates; the apparent lack of control over revenues from natural resources; and the continued control over Sana’a and other northern governorates by Houthi forces.

The panel’s report lists nine recommendations – six to the Sanctions Committee and three to the UNSC. The experts recommended that the UNSC should remind the Yemeni government and other parties to the conflict that corruption is a significant threat to peace and security in Yemen, and should urge the Houthis to ensure respect for humanitarian actors’ independence, neutrality and independence. It also suggested that the UNSC should remind the Yemeni government of its responsibilities to ensure adequate food for all Yemenis, and to ensure that import mechanisms facilitated the entry of food to all parts of Yemen.

The panel’s recommendations to the committee included measures to enhance the capacity of the UNVIM to identify networks using false documents. It also suggested that the committee should alert the International Maritime Organization of the risks posed by missiles and explosive devices in the Red Sea, and should notify the International Civil Aviation Organization of risks posed by IAVs and loitering munitions to busy international airports on the Arabian Peninsula.  

 

In the United States

Pressure Resumes in Congress to End US Role in Yemen

On January 30, lawmakers reintroduced legislation to end US involvement in the Yemen conflict. House Joint Resolution 37  and Senate Joint Resolution 7 invoke the War Powers Act, which asserts Congress’ sole authority to authorize the use of military force. In December, the US Senate voted to pass similar legislation – the first time a war powers resolution has passed a chamber of Congress. House Republicans blocked voting on a similar resolution in December, but with Democrats in key leadership positions following the 2018 midterm elections, H.J.Res 37 is almost certain to reach the floor. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), who introduced the legislation said he expected a vote to take place in February.

Should the legislation pass both the House and the Senate, the White House has already indicated that President Donald Trump will veto it. There has also been a long-running debate over the constitutionality of the War Powers Act, which may obstruct its passage. Nevertheless, the legislation will add to the political pressure on the Trump administration, which faced growing criticism in 2018 over its support for the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen.

Other US Developments in Brief:

  • January 2: The US Senate confirmed Christopher Henzel as the new US ambassador to Yemen, replacing Matthew Tueller. Henzel has been the US Chargé d’Affaires at the US embassy in Riyadh since 2016, and faced a heated Senate hearing in December over coalition actions in Yemen.
  • January 7: US Central Command reported that it conducted a total of 36 strikes against targets in Yemen during 2018 — a marked decline from the 127 operations recorded for 2017. It is possible that not all strikes have been declared, given the US military’s established record of underreporting its use of drone strikes.
  • January 8: The Intercept released a previously unpublished Department of Defense report which said that there was no evidence that Saudi-led coalition member states had abused detainees in prisons in Yemen. A June 2017 investigation by the AP claimed that the UAE ran a network of secret prisons in southern Yemen where abuse and torture were rampant. The UN Panel of Experts also accused the UAE of violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in their report for 2017, citing arbitrary detention and mistreatment of prisoners. A 2018 annual defense spending bill required the DoD to provide a report to Congress assessing the Saudi-led coalition’s compliance with international humanitarian law.

 

In Europe

Control Arms UK Criticizes British Arms Sales to Coalition

The UK division of the international Control Arms Coalition submitted a report on January 23 to the Committee on Arms Export Control, a British parliamentary committee investigating UK arms exports. The report focused on the disparity between the UK’s international law obligations and its arms exports to members of the Saudi-led military coalition. Among other issues, the report stressed that the UK remained one of the main arms suppliers to coalition members, despite ongoing serious violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen. The report noted that the UK was falling behind other European states that successively halted the issuing of arms export licenses to coalition members in 2018.

Other European Developments in Brief:

  • January 8: For the first time since the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the European Union imposed sanctions on Iran, following alleged Iranian assassination campaigns against exiled dissidents on European soil. Since early 2018 the UK, Germany, France and Italy have been in talks with Iran to save the nuclear agreement, which the US announced it was pulling out of in May 2018. These negotiations have also concerned Iran’s wider regional engagement, including its role in the Yemen conflict and related peace efforts.
  • January 14: A joint European delegation, including the Head of the EU Delegation to Yemen Antonia Calvo-Puerta and French Ambassador Christian Testot, visited Aden for the first time since the outbreak of the Yemen war. They met with Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalek Saeed and the governor of the central bank in Aden.
  • January 24: The human rights subcommittee of the European Parliament held an exchange of views on the current humanitarian and human rights situation in Yemen, hearing from Yemeni and international rights activists and experts.
  • January 25: Reuters reported that the European Commission had added Saudi Arabia to a draft list of states considered to pose a threat to the financial system of the EU due to lax controls over the financing of terrorism and money laundering. The updated list is yet to be formally adopted.
  • January 25: The Guardian reported that UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt was the first European foreign minister to agree to attend a controversial US-organized summit on Iran, to be held in Warsaw in mid-February. Hunt’s stipulation was that the UK, the US, the UAE and Saudi Arabia meet to discuss the current situation in Yemen on its margins.

The report was prepared by (in alphabetical order): Ali Abdullah, Waleed Alhariri, Ryan Bailey, Anthony Biswell, Hamza al-Hamadi, Gregory Johnsen, Sala Khaled, Spencer Osberg, Hannah Patchett, Hussam Radman, Victoria K. Sauer, Holly Topham, and Aisha al-Warraq.  


The Yemen Review – formerly known as Yemen at the UN – is a monthly publication produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. Launched in June 2016, it aims to identify and assess current diplomatic, economic, political, military, security, humanitarian and human rights developments related to Yemen.  

In producing The Yemen Review, Sana’a Center staff throughout Yemen and around the world gather information, conduct research, and hold private meetings with local, regional, and international stakeholders in order to analyze domestic and international developments regarding Yemen.

This monthly series is designed to provide readers with contextualized insight into the country’s most important ongoing issues.

 

This report was developed with the support of the Kingdom of the Netherlands

Yemen in 2018: Beyond the Brink

Yemen in 2018: Beyond the Brink

The Sana’a Center Editorial

Yemen is no longer “on the brink” of catastrophe. Rather, it has already been pushed into the abyss and therein continues to fall. After four years of war, Yemen has suffered the destruction of its infrastructure, economy, social fabric, and much more. Yemenis are a nation traumatized by human loss and starvation. In the past year, photos of malnourished children have become synonymous with Yemen worldwide. Yet, as much as it deserved the media attention, the story of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis at times concealed the fact that this is not a natural disaster that has befallen Yemen. It is an accumulation of political conflicts within the country, exacerbated by reckless regional interference backed by the world’s Western powers.

Aid organizations are now preparing for another year of humanitarian suffering. The United Nations has announced plans to raise funds amounting to $US4 billion – a third more than last year’s appeal for roughly US$3 billion – with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates funding about a third of the appeal. However, humanitarian organizations are reaching their capacity limits, while the immense looting and confiscation of humanitarian supplies in which belligerent parties are engaged – the Houthi forces far more than any – means aid itself is at times helping to finance the war instead of reaching those in need. Neither the coalition powers nor the Western countries backing them should therefore content themselves with pouring aid into Yemen. Yemen desperately needs political decisions to be made.

At a closer look, developments last year demonstrated clearly that the crisis in Yemen is political at its core, and that’s how it needs to be addressed. It was new geopolitical dynamics that encouraged decisions to contain Yemen’s downward spiral toward the end of 2018 – even if decisions came late, unexpectedly, and at times resulted from events that on face value had little relation to the Yemen conflict.

At the epicenter of the conflict and its shifting dynamics were the city of Hudaydah and the nearby ports – the last access Houthi forces have left to the Red Sea. These ports are also the entry point for most of the basic commodities feeding a nation descending into mass famine. For some two years the Saudi-led military coalition has been pushing for a military campaign to take Hudaydah. However, international concern – that cargo shipments would be interrupted and trigger a humanitarian catastrophe – has been intense, and the coalition was waiting for a green light from its main backers, the United States and the United Kingdom, to pursue the offensive. Near the midpoint of 2018, Washington gave what amounted to a “yellow light”, according to a US government official who spoke with the Sana’a Center at the time.

The strategic and military preparations for the campaign changed the calculations of various groups in the anti-Houthi coalition. For instance, the UAE had for the past several years built proxy militias in areas the Yemeni government is meant to control, with these militias often challenging the government’s authority and some seeking to partition the country. In 2018, however, unity among anti-Houthi ground forces was seen as paramount for the battle for Hudaydah. With UAE prompting, these disparate groups closed ranks and put differences aside for the military campaign. Symbolic of this were the visits to Abu Dhabi by Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi and Islah party leaders in 2018.

Through the latter half of 2018, the coalition’s efforts to drive the Houthis from Hudaydah progressed slowly and effectively stalled at the southern edge of the city, threatening to become a battle of attrition. Simultaneously, international pressure was building on Saudi Arabia – pressure that was then key to facilitating the UN-led peace consultations in Sweden and the Stockholm Agreement that halted the battle for Hudaydah. It was, however, not the possible starvation of millions of Yemenis that created the international momentum for peace consultations and a ceasefire. Rather, it was the media spectacle around the murder of one man, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, at his country’s consulate in Istanbul that provoked international outcry and prompted Washington and London to force Riyadh’s hand. Many Western leaders had been growing increasingly uncomfortable over reckless Saudi foreign policy and were embarrassed by reports of war crimes in Yemen committed by their ally, including bombing buses full of school children and siege tactics that have helped push the country toward mass starvation. However, while Western countries, above all the US and the UK, had enabled the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, they had no hand in Khashoggi’s murder, which allowed for an opportunity to criticize Riyadh while claiming the moral high ground.

The Stockholm Agreement, endorsed by the UN Security Council, came about thanks to international pressure, Saudi influence over the Yemeni government and the belligerent parties each wanting to avoid blame for the peace process’ failure. At the same time both sides were hoping to gain an advantage. The UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths secured the warring parties’ commitments not through compromise, but by watering down the language in the deal to the point that what the parties actually committed to is widely up to their own discretion. In the short time it has been since the talks, it is apparent the parties are interpreting their commitments quite differently. Neither regarded the talks as a stepping stone to a greater accord, but rather a localized accommodation.

President Hadi – technically still a ‘transitional president’ who was meant to leave office in 2014 – also knows his exit from power is almost assured if and when a peace deal is signed. Hadi’s choice to send a delegation to Sweden was, however, not his to make, given that he is beholden to his Saudi patrons. Indeed, Hadi has attempted to govern his country from Riyadh since 2015. The armed Houthi movement likewise attended the talks under duress. Their leadership is keenly aware that the greatest “victory” they could possibly achieve at this point is to survive. The pummeling Houthi forces have been sustaining on the battlefield has left them smarting and looking for a way to ease the pressure.

There is, however, little to no chance that the Houthis will cede a military defeat to their opponents. And while they have been militarily pressured, in the territories they control they have acted increasingly paranoid and continued to craft their own police state: persecuting minorities, staging show trials and executions, banning civil society groups and launching arrest campaigns to purge undesirables – such as free-thinking journalists, human rights advocates and others – institutionalizing the extortion of businesses, workers and aid organizations, conscripting children into combat roles, and propagating religious zealotry upon the masses. Before the Houthis took over, there was more than 20 daily and weekly independent newspapers publishing from Sana’a. Today, there are only Houthi publications. Meanwhile, the ongoing war also pushed them closer to Tehran, which is ironic given that Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched their military intervention in Yemen to prevent what they saw as Iranian encroachment in their backyard.     

Thus, the war has become increasingly complex as it has proceeded, entrenching the clout of warlords and armed groups as it goes and advancing the country’s fragmentation. This trend is likely to continue in the absence of a broader settlement to end the conflict. The details of what a political settlement would look like remain elusive, but some of the parameters are clear.

That the UN-led consultations began only after the US and UK – Saudi Arabia’s primary military and political backers – made it incumbent on Riyadh to facilitate them is telling: a final peace agreement will almost certainly require continued US, UK and wider international pressure to keep Riyadh and other foreigner actors on course.

Economic recovery and price stabilization – such that the population can afford to feed itself – would be foundational for political and social stability. The rapid reunification of the Central Bank of Yemen – currently divided between competing headquarters on either side of the frontlines – would be the first step to contain the economic deterioration and bring back basic public services across the country. Saudi Arabia must also stop the mass expulsion of Yemeni expat workers it is currently undertaking, given that their remittances help support millions of family members in Yemen.  

Political and social stability would be fleeting while myriad armed actors continued to challenge the government’s authority, and thus reining them in would be a prerequisite for peace. In this respect, local instruments of mediation and negotiation should be favoured over UN textbook procedures. In practical terms, the UAE will need to desist from empowering secessionist groups in southern governorates and begin to decommission their armed wings. In the north it would require that Houthi forces withdraw from cities and hand over their heavy weapons to a third party. Indeed, all non-state actors in the country would need cede their military leverage, as the Yemeni state – whatever shape it eventually may take – must have a monopoly on the use of force.

None of these groups will agree to disarm unless they are reasonably assured that their long-standing grievances, which predate the war, would be addressed in the country’s post-conflict political arrangement. The planning of how the state is reconstructed will thus have to be an inclusive affair, though one that learns from the failures of the country’s 2013-2014 National Dialogue Conference (NDC) that precipitated the current conflict.

Among these lessons: agreed-upon trust-building measures must be fully implemented prior to the talks. While international pressure must be brought to bear on all parties to reach an agreement and to limit spoilers, reaching this agreement must involve genuine compromises regarding points of contention. Diluting the commitments until the belligerents find them acceptably vague is the road back to war. Unconditional amnesty from prosecution for war crimes for any party is also a nonstarter. Rather, any transitional justice process must be conditional relative to the parties adhering to their commitments.

Most parties to the original NDC saw some form of federalization as necessary to address regional grievances – whatever final form this takes must be mutually agreed through negotiation. It will necessarily require revenue sharing arrangements between the various regions to allow basic public services to be delivered nationwide.   

The success of any political arrangement will depend on external factors as well. Yemen’s poverty is unfortunately likely to continue in the medium term, as will long-standing political rivalries between the various local stakeholders. These factors will leave Yemen susceptible to foreign influence and fertile ground for proxy confrontations between the region’s polarized power centers, particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran. Thus, similar to other countries around the Middle East and North Africa enduring civil strife, while relative peace and stability can be achieved in Yemen, it will remain under constant threat from outside factors in the absence of regional de-escalation. International stakeholders should recognize this, and see the opportunity that ending the Yemen conflict presents in this regard: an achievable localized outcome that has the potential to unlock far broader geopolitical shifts across the region.

 

This editorial appeared in Starvation, Diplomacy and Ruthless Friends: The Yemen Annual Review 2018.

 

Starvation, Diplomacy and Ruthless Friends: The Yemen Annual Review 2018

Starvation, Diplomacy and Ruthless Friends: The Yemen Annual Review 2018

Hani al-Moalem overlooks Taiz from the wreckage of his café. He used to own six such businesses in the city, all of which the war has left either fully or partially destroyed // Photo Credit: Anas al-Hajj

The Sana’a Center Editorial:

Beyond the Brink

Yemen is no longer “on the brink” of catastrophe. Rather, it has already been pushed into the abyss and therein continues to fall. After four years of war, Yemen has suffered the destruction of its infrastructure, economy, social fabric, and much more. Yemenis are a nation traumatized by human loss and starvation. In the past year, photos of malnourished children have become synonymous with Yemen worldwide. Yet, as much as it deserved the media attention, the story of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis at times concealed the fact that this is not a natural disaster that has befallen Yemen. It is an accumulation of political conflicts within the country, exacerbated by reckless regional interference backed by the world’s Western powers.

Aid organizations are now preparing for another year of humanitarian suffering. The United Nations has announced plans to raise funds amounting to $US4 billion – a third more than last year’s appeal for roughly US$3 billion – with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates funding about a third of the appeal. However, humanitarian organizations are reaching their capacity limits, while the immense looting and confiscation of humanitarian supplies in which belligerent parties are engaged – the Houthi forces far more than any – means aid itself is at times helping to finance the war instead of reaching those in need. Neither the coalition powers nor the Western countries backing them should therefore content themselves with pouring aid into Yemen. Yemen desperately needs political decisions to be made.

At a closer look, developments last year demonstrated clearly that the crisis in Yemen is political at its core, and that’s how it needs to be addressed. It was new geopolitical dynamics that encouraged decisions to contain Yemen’s downward spiral toward the end of 2018 – even if decisions came late, unexpectedly, and at times resulted from events that on face value had little relation to the Yemen conflict.

At the epicenter of the conflict and its shifting dynamics were the city of Hudaydah and the nearby ports – the last access Houthi forces have left to the Red Sea. These ports are also the entry point for most of the basic commodities feeding a nation descending into mass famine. For some two years the Saudi-led military coalition has been pushing for a military campaign to take Hudaydah. However, international concern – that cargo shipments would be interrupted and trigger a humanitarian catastrophe – has been intense, and the coalition was waiting for a green light from its main backers, the United States and the United Kingdom, to pursue the offensive. Near the midpoint of 2018, Washington gave what amounted to a “yellow light”, according to a US government official who spoke with the Sana’a Center at the time.

The strategic and military preparations for the campaign changed the calculations of various groups in the anti-Houthi coalition. For instance, the UAE had for the past several years built proxy militias in areas the Yemeni government is meant to control, with these militias often challenging the government’s authority and some seeking to partition the country. In 2018, however, unity among anti-Houthi ground forces was seen as paramount for the battle for Hudaydah. With UAE prompting, these disparate groups closed ranks and put differences aside for the military campaign. Symbolic of this were the visits to Abu Dhabi by Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi and Islah party leaders in 2018.

Through the latter half of 2018, the coalition’s efforts to drive the Houthis from Hudaydah progressed slowly and effectively stalled at the southern edge of the city, threatening to become a battle of attrition. Simultaneously, international pressure was building on Saudi Arabia – pressure that was then key to facilitating the UN-led peace consultations in Sweden and the Stockholm Agreement that halted the battle for Hudaydah. It was, however, not the possible starvation of millions of Yemenis that created the international momentum for peace consultations and a ceasefire. Rather, it was the media spectacle around the murder of one man, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, at his country’s consulate in Istanbul that provoked international outcry and prompted Washington and London to force Riyadh’s hand. Many Western leaders had been growing increasingly uncomfortable over reckless Saudi foreign policy and were embarrassed by reports of war crimes in Yemen committed by their ally, including bombing buses full of school children and siege tactics that have helped push the country toward mass starvation. However, while Western countries, above all the US and the UK, had enabled the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, they had no hand in Khashoggi’s murder, which allowed for an opportunity to criticize Riyadh while claiming the moral high ground.

The Stockholm Agreement, endorsed by the UN Security Council, came about thanks to international pressure, Saudi influence over the Yemeni government and the belligerent parties each wanting to avoid blame for the peace process’ failure. At the same time both sides were hoping to gain an advantage. The UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths secured the warring parties’ commitments not through compromise, but by watering down the language in the deal to the point that what the parties actually committed to is widely up to their own discretion. In the short time it has been since the talks, it is apparent the parties are interpreting their commitments quite differently. Neither regarded the talks as a stepping stone to a greater accord, but rather a localized accommodation.

President Hadi – technically still a ‘transitional president’ who was meant to leave office in 2014 – also knows his exit from power is almost assured if and when a peace deal is signed. Hadi’s choice to send a delegation to Sweden was, however, not his to make, given that he is beholden to his Saudi patrons. Indeed, Hadi has attempted to govern his country from Riyadh since 2015. The armed Houthi movement likewise attended the talks under duress. Their leadership is keenly aware that the greatest “victory” they could possibly achieve at this point is to survive. The pummeling Houthi forces have been sustaining on the battlefield has left them smarting and looking for a way to ease the pressure.

There is, however, little to no chance that the Houthis will cede a military defeat to their opponents. And while they have been militarily pressured, in the territories they control they have acted increasingly paranoid and continued to craft their own police state: persecuting minorities, staging show trials and executions, banning civil society groups and launching arrest campaigns to purge undesirables – such as free-thinking journalists, human rights advocates and others – institutionalizing the extortion of businesses, workers and aid organizations, conscripting children into combat roles, and propagating religious zealotry upon the masses. Before the Houthis took over, there was more than 20 daily and weekly independent newspapers publishing from Sana’a. Today, there are only Houthi publications. Meanwhile, the ongoing war also pushed them closer to Tehran, which is ironic given that Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched their military intervention in Yemen to prevent what they saw as Iranian encroachment in their backyard.     

Thus, the war has become increasingly complex as it has proceeded, entrenching the clout of warlords and armed groups as it goes and advancing the country’s fragmentation. This trend is likely to continue in the absence of a broader settlement to end the conflict. The details of what a political settlement would look like remain elusive, but some of the parameters are clear.

That the UN-led consultations began only after the US and UK – Saudi Arabia’s primary military and political backers – made it incumbent on Riyadh to facilitate them is telling: a final peace agreement will almost certainly require continued US, UK and wider international pressure to keep Riyadh and other foreigner actors on course.

Economic recovery and price stabilization – such that the population can afford to feed itself – would be foundational for political and social stability. The rapid reunification of the Central Bank of Yemen – currently divided between competing headquarters on either side of the frontlines – would be the first step to contain the economic deterioration and bring back basic public services across the country. Saudi Arabia must also stop the mass expulsion of Yemeni expat workers it is currently undertaking, given that their remittances help support millions of family members in Yemen.  

Political and social stability would be fleeting while myriad armed actors continued to challenge the government’s authority, and thus reining them in would be a prerequisite for peace. In this respect, local instruments of mediation and negotiation should be favoured over UN textbook procedures. In practical terms, the UAE will need to desist from empowering secessionist groups in southern governorates and begin to decommission their armed wings. In the north it would require that Houthi forces withdraw from cities and hand over their heavy weapons to a third party. Indeed, all non-state actors in the country would need cede their military leverage, as the Yemeni state – whatever shape it eventually may take – must have a monopoly on the use of force.

None of these groups will agree to disarm unless they are reasonably assured that their long-standing grievances, which predate the war, would be addressed in the country’s post-conflict political arrangement. The planning of how the state is reconstructed will thus have to be an inclusive affair, though one that learns from the failures of the country’s 2013-2014 National Dialogue Conference (NDC) that precipitated the current conflict.

Among these lessons: agreed-upon trust-building measures must be fully implemented prior to the talks. While international pressure must be brought to bear on all parties to reach an agreement and to limit spoilers, reaching this agreement must involve genuine compromises regarding points of contention. Diluting the commitments until the belligerents find them acceptably vague is the road back to war. Unconditional amnesty from prosecution for war crimes for any party is also a nonstarter. Rather, any transitional justice process must be conditional relative to the parties adhering to their commitments.

Most parties to the original NDC saw some form of federalization as necessary to address regional grievances – whatever final form this takes must be mutually agreed through negotiation. It will necessarily require revenue sharing arrangements between the various regions to allow basic public services to be delivered nationwide.   

The success of any political arrangement will depend on external factors as well. Yemen’s poverty is unfortunately likely to continue in the medium term, as will long-standing political rivalries between the various local stakeholders. These factors will leave Yemen susceptible to foreign influence and fertile ground for proxy confrontations between the region’s polarized power centers, particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran. Thus, similar to other countries around the Middle East and North Africa enduring civil strife, while relative peace and stability can be achieved in Yemen, it will remain under constant threat from outside factors in the absence of regional de-escalation. International stakeholders should recognize this, and see the opportunity that ending the Yemen conflict presents in this regard: an achievable localized outcome that has the potential to unlock far broader geopolitical shifts across the region.


Editor’s note: The Yemen Annual Review 2018 offers readers a comprehensive document regarding the most important Yemen-related events and developments between January 1 and December 31. Taken altogether the size of the text may be unwieldy for some readers, while others may have specific topic areas upon which they would like to focus. To address these issues and increase the accessibility of this document, we have provided:

  • a hyperlinked table of contents listing the various sections and subsections in the text, allowing the reader to easily navigate to their topics of interest. (To navigate back to the contents listing, simply press the ‘Back’ button on your browser.)       
  • an overview at the beginning of each section outlining the most important developments discussed therein.  

Contents

Diplomacy Gains Momentum

Hudaydah, the Heart of the Crisis

Economic Developments

Political Developments

Frontline Developments

Humanitarian Developments

Human Rights and War Crimes

Yemen and the World

List of Acronyms
Acknowledgements


Mukalla in September: Protesters block streets and burn tires in one of many demonstrations across the country as the collapsing currency sends food and fuel prices soaring // Photo Credit: Suliman al-Nowab

Diplomacy Gains Momentum

Overview: The Road to the Sweden Talks

In early December UN-led peace consultations regarding the Yemen conflict were held for the first time in more than two years. Representatives from Yemen’s main warring parties – the armed Houthi movement and the internationally recognized Yemeni government – met in the Swedish town of Rimbo, north of Stockholm. The consultations ended with the Stockholm Agreement, in which the belligerents committed to a prisoner exchange, a ceasefire agreement around the port city of Hudaydah with UN monitoring, and a statement of understanding to form a joint committee, with UN participation, regarding the situation in Taiz City (see below The Stockholm Agreement for details).

Momentum toward the talks in Sweden increased as 2018 progressed. Through the first half of the year and into the summer, the UN and other humanitarian agencies issued progressively more dire warnings that the conflict was driving millions of Yemenis into famine (see A Deepening Food Security Crisis), while evidence of war crimes by all belligerent parties continued to mount (see More Investigations, More Impunity). The conduct of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – the largest partners in the regional coalition intervening in the conflict in support of the Yemeni government – came under increasing scrutiny in Washington and London, among other western capitals. The United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) have provided crucial backing to the coalition campaign since it began in 2015. However, lawmakers in both countries voiced increasing concerns through 2018 that this support was directly contributing to the humanitarian crisis and civilian casualties (see US and UK Policy Toward Yemen).

In October, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul triggered international outcry. In the subsequent media frenzy the Saudi-led military coalition intervention in Yemen and its humanitarian implications also came under intense international media and diplomatic scrutiny. By the end of October top US and UK officials were calling for a ceasefire and a new round of peace talks, with these calls then echoed by other western countries (see The Khashoggi Effect).

In early November, the UN Security Council (UNSC) began negotiating a new draft resolution on Yemen for the first time since adopting Resolution 2216 in April 2015, shortly after the Saudi-led military coalition intervention began. The UK, penholder of the Yemen file at the council, led the drafting of the new resolution in consultation with the US. Meanwhile, UN Secretary General António Guterres personally pushed for diplomacy on Yemen. Guterres discussed logistical issues for UN-led consultations on the sidelines of a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Argentina at the end of November, according to UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths.

Griffiths’ appointment as the new UN Special Envoy for Yemen in early 2018 also helped to bring new dynamics into the stalled peace process (see The New UN Special Envoy’). An attempt to bring the warring parties together in September in Geneva had, however, failed due to logistical complications in transporting the Houthi delegation to the talks (see Failure in Geneva, Success in Rimbo’). Sweden, whose non-permanent Security Council membership was to end on December 31, 2018, then helped lead a diplomatic push to support the Special Envoy’s efforts to bring the warring parties together before the end of the year. Sweden offered to host the meeting and was actively engaged at the ministerial level throughout the consultations.

During the week-long consultations in Sweden, from December 6-13, three confidence-building measures were on the agenda: the reopening of Sana’a International Airport for commercial flights, the enhancement of the capacity and reunification of the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY), and an exchange of prisoners. Only on the latter was an agreement reached. Griffiths also introduced de-escalation plans for the cities of Hudaydah and Taiz at the talks. In a rush to meet the consultations deadline of December 13, mediators successfully pushed for an agreement, although various clauses in the resulting document contained a degree of ambiguity. Sources familiar with the proceedings told the Sana’a Center that as the negotiations were ending Guterres spoke with Crown Prince Salman, following which the latter called Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi and instructed him to sign on to the de-escalation agreement for Hudaydah. The warring parties also agreed on a new round of UN-led consultations in January 2019, with the location yet to be confirmed as of this writing.

The Special Envoy’s office announced that the ceasefire for the Hudaydah governorate should commence on December 18, 2018. On December 21, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2451 endorsing the Stockholm Agreement. It authorized the UN Secretary General to deploy an advance team to monitor compliance for a 30-day period, beginning immediately. A UN team, led by retired Dutch Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert, arrived in Hudaydah shortly thereafter to monitor the ceasefire. Importantly, this was the first time the Security Council had authorized the deployment of UN monitors to Yemen.

The Stockholm Agreement

A UN-Monitored Ceasefire in Hudaydah

Hudaydah is home to the country’s busiest port. The port of Hudaydah and nearby Saleef and Ras Issa ports are the primary entry points for most of Yemen’s basic goods and humanitarian supplies. With Houthi forces having controlled the city and ports since 2015, the area has been the primary focus of coalition military efforts throughout the conflict. By the fall of 2018 coalition-backed troops had advanced to the city’s southern outskirts. Meanwhile, UN agencies, humanitarian organizations and others have repeatedly warned that the ports are a lifeline for millions of Yemenis on the cusp of famine, and that an interruption in cargo deliveries would have catastrophic humanitarian consequences (see ‘Hudaydah, the Heart of the Crisis’).   

The de-escalation agreement on Hudaydah envisaged UN monitoring of the ceasefire and the redeployment of armed forces away from the city and the ports of Hudaydah, Saleef and Ras Issa. The UN was to take a leading role in the management of the ports, while the existing UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism (UNVIM) for monitoring the ports was to be enhanced.

The agreement was set to be implemented within 21 days, split into two phases. Houthi forces were to withdraw from the ports of Hudaydah, Saleef and Ras Issa within two weeks of the ceasefire. A “full mutual redeployment of all forces” from the city and its ports was to be completed by the end of the 21 days. Local forces – agreed upon by a Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) comprised of both warring parties – were to take control.

With the UNSC’s approval of Maj. Gen. Cammaert to lead the UN’s ceasefire monitoring team, he was also nominated to chair the RCC, which included three representatives each from the internationally recognized Yemeni government and the armed Houthi movement. On December 22, 2018, a day after the adoption of UNSC Resolution 2451, Cammaert arrived in Aden and met with the government’s representatives on the RCC. On December 24, he met with RCC members representing the armed Houthi movement in Sana’a, before heading to Hudaydah.

As of this writing, the implementation of the security arrangement for Hudaydah faced significant challenges, particularly in interpretation. The agreement stipulated that security in the city of Hudaydah and its ports should be “the responsibility of local security forces in accordance with Yemeni law”. Since mid to senior-level administrative and military posts in Hudaydah were, as of the end of 2018, held by Houthi appointees, one interpretation of the agreement would be that security responsibilities were to remain in the hands of these Houthi-affiliated officials – an interpretation the Houthi leadership would obviously favor. Another interpretation of the agreement would be that security personnel in charge prior to the Houthi takeover in 2014 would be reinstated, or that new forces would be recruited from Hudaydah’s local population; given that the armed Houthi movement has little local support, these latter interpretations would be preferred by the Yemeni government.  

The challenges related to interpretation became apparent on December 29 when the Houthi leadership announced the withdrawal of its forces from the main port of Hudaydah. Speaking to journalists, sources close to the government accused their Houthi opponents of simply moving their fighters and loyalists into positions in port management and the coastguard. Several independent Sana’a Center sources supported this claim. These sources also described how, on December 29, Houthi officials had invited Maj. Gen. Cammaert to the port for discussions, but upon his arrival he was confronted by a staged media event in which Houthi fighters paraded out of the port and the replacement staff paraded in, with television cameras rolling to show that Cammaert was in attendance. The next day the UN announced that compliance with the Hudaydah agreement needed to be independently verified and expressed regret that the opening of a humanitarian corridor from Hudaydah to Sana’a had not taken place as agreed.

Divisions between the Yemeni government and anti-Houthi forces present in Hudaydah are also risk factors for the implementation of the Stockholm Agreement. In particular, the National Resistance Forces, led by Tariq Saleh and supported by the UAE, operate outside of Yemeni government command and control. Tariq – through ties his uncle Ali Abdullah Saleh built in Hudaydah during his three decades as Yemen’s president – has a local support base in the area. Sana’a Center analysts expect Tariq Saleh will likely attempt a power grab in Hudaydah as 2019 progresses. This would put him at odds with the Yemeni government and complicate any commitments the government attempts to make regarding Hudaydah during peace negotiations.

The Stockholm Agreement also stipulated that the revenues of Hudaydah, Saleef and Ras Issa ports were to be deposited in the local branch of the central bank and used toward the payment of civil servant salaries in Hudaydah governorate and throughout Yemen. The Yemeni government has refused to pay most government salaries in Houthi-controlled areas of the country for two years, while many of the regional branches of the CBY have stopped reporting revenues to the government-controlled CBY headquarters in Aden (see ‘Competing Monetary Policy: A Tale of Two Central Banks’). As no agreement was reached in Sweden regarding the central bank, the implementation of this part of the Stockholm Agreement regarding Hudaydah remained uncertain.

A Joint Committee for Taiz

The statement of understanding on Taiz was limited to an agreement to form a joint committee with UN participation, including representatives from Yemeni civil society. The committee was to determine its working mechanism and missions. The statement presented an opportunity to de-escalate tensions in the city and open humanitarian corridors to ease the movement of aid and people. However, the statement’s vague formulation left it open to different interpretations by the warring parties and lacked a timeframe or any clear terms of reference.

Prisoner Exchange

The first thing the parties agreed to in Rimbo was a prisoner exchange agreement. As of this writing, the exchange of thousands of prisoners was to take place as soon as mid-January 2019, but this faced potential challenges too. On December 29, Yemeni government officials said that of the 8,500 names of prisoners they had submitted to Houthi representatives, the latter had claimed almost 3,000 of them were not in Houthi custody.

UN Security Council Ends Impasse on Yemen

UNSC Deadlocked Throughout Most of 2018

Before it adopted Resolution 2451 in December, the UN Security Council had been in deadlock regarding Yemen for most of 2018. Sweden, Peru, the Netherlands and at times Poland had through the year lobbied for a new resolution and for greater accountability from all parties to the war. However, these efforts were derailed by the US, the UK and Kuwait, who during council proceedings on Yemen generally steered discussions toward Houthi ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and Iranian non-compliance with the arms embargo established by UNSC Resolution 2216. The states opposing a new Yemen resolution also succeeded in repeatedly weakening the language in council statements and blocking references to suspected coalition violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. They were supported in these efforts by, at times, intense lobbying by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, neither of which is a UNSC member.

In February, Russia used its veto power for the first time with regards to the Yemen conflict to quash a draft resolution at the Security Council. The UK, as the penholder of the Yemen file at the council, had introduced an annual routine draft resolution to renew the mandate of the Panel of Experts and the Sanctions Committee for Yemen. The UK also inserted a non-routine passage in the resolution regarding Iran’s alleged non-compliance of the arms embargo on Yemen, which the Panel of Experts had reported. Russia vetoed the British draft resolution, while China abstained. The Security Council then voted in favor of a routine resolution, drafted by Moscow, to renew the mandate of the Sanctions Committee.

In March, the Security Council adopted a Presidential Statement expressing concern over the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and calling out attacks on densely populated areas. The Netherlands and Sweden had pushed for a resolution on Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, but the UK as penholder introduced a Presidential Statement instead. Presidential Statements are considered less weighty and lack the mandatory enforcement power of a Chapter 7 resolution. In the final text, the UNSC called on all parties to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law, though only Houthi forces were censured by name regarding attacks against civilians; Kuwait successfully lobbied to have references to Saudi-led military coalition airstrikes removed and to weaken the language regarding accountability for violations in Yemen.

In June, the Security Council held three closed consultations on Yemen in light of the Hudaydah military offensive. The outcomes were limited to short press elements, which made no reference to Hudaydah. Sana’a Center sources indicated that the statements had been watered down by the UK and Kuwait. After the launch of the battle for Hudaydah in June, Sweden recommended a call for an “immediate freeze” to the offensive to avoid an assault on the port. This failed to gain consensus support at the council. Kuwait lobbied heavily against the move, while the UK and France said a call for the immediate cessation of hostilities was not viable. Instead, the UK called for compliance with international humanitarian law and the protection of civilians by parties to the conflict. The UK’s approach to Yemen did not change until the end of 2018 when London started to push for a new resolution.

Breakthrough in December

On December 21, 2018, the Security Council finally adopted Resolution 2451 which endorsed the Stockholm Agreement. This was the first council resolution on Yemen since Resolution 2216 of April 14, 2015. The resolution was first drafted and circulated among member states in November, prior to the Sweden consultations, and focused on a cessation of hostilities and measures for humanitarian relief, including the injection of foreign currency into the economy.

According to Sana’a Center sources, Saudi Arabia exerted pressure on Security Council member states, particularly the US, and threatened that the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led military coalition would disengage with the UN Special Envoy for Yemen’s peace efforts if the new resolution was adopted. The concurrent recovery of the Yemeni rial, which had major humanitarian implications, and the slight abating of the battle for Hudaydah also relieved some of the sense of urgency regarding the resolution. The draft resolution was thus shelved.

After the Sweden consultations concluded in December, the UK reintroduced the draft resolution to the council with an updated text on the Stockholm Agreement, which it endorsed. The adopted text included points on ways to strengthen the economy and functioning of the CBY, and to carry out civil servant salary and pension payments. It called for the unhindered movement of goods and the reopening of Sana’a International Airport for commercial flights within an agreed mechanism. It also called on the parties to the conflict to comply with international law and to fulfil their obligations under international humanitarian law. The draft went through another round of tense negotiations following pressure from Saudi Arabia to exclude language related to humanitarian issues and obligations, accountability and independent investigations. The US also attempted to include a direct reference to Iran’s alleged violations of the arms embargo. After opposition from Russia and China, the US withdrew its demand for the reference to Iran in the text. The Security Council adopted Resolution 2451 on December 21, 2018.


  On August 2, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths briefs the UNSC about plans to bring the country’s belligerent parties together for peace consultations in Geneva the following month // Photo Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elias

The New UN Special Envoy

The appointment of a new UN Special Envoy for Yemen helped to restart UN-led peace efforts in 2018, culminating in December in the first round of consultations between Yemen’s main warring parties in more than two years. Martin Griffiths officially took over the post on March 19, replacing Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. During 2017, the latter had been unable to bring the parties to the negotiating table, while three previous rounds of negotiations under his lead had failed in 2015 and 2016. After his UN posting ended, Ould Cheikh Ahmed was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs in his home country of Mauritania.

Where his predecessor came from the humanitarian sector, Griffiths brought experience in mediation. He had previously worked as an adviser to the UN Special Envoy for Syria and as the executive director of the European Institute of Peace in Brussels, and had visited Yemen in that capacity in October 2017. While his declared goal was a negotiated settlement between the main warring parties, in the process Griffiths also consulted with a wide variety of other Yemeni actors as well as regional and international stakeholders. This entailed the new Special Envoy engaging in intense shuttle diplomacy throughout 2018.

Building Relations with Houthi Leaders and the STC

Restoring the relationship of his office with the armed Houthi movement was a priority early on for the new UN Special Envoy. During his tenure, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed had engendered increasing animosity from Houthi leaders, to the point that they had asked the UN secretary general not to renew his term in 2017, claiming he lacked neutrality. In June 2017, Houthi authorities barred the former Special Envoy from entering areas under their control. Griffiths, by contrast, visited Sana’a four times in 2018, where he met with Houthi officials.

The Special Envoy was also involved in conversations between Houthi and Saudi representatives in Oman. In March, senior Houthi negotiator and spokesman Mohammed Abdel Salam confirmed to the Sana’a Center that he was engaged in such an ongoing dialogue involving Griffiths and facilitated by the UK.

Besides representatives of the main warring parties, among other stakeholders Griffiths consulted with was the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC). Several times in 2018, STC leaders threatened to obstruct any peace agreement if they were not included in peace talks. Griffiths’ position was that the southern issue, while important, should be addressed after a negotiated settlement had been reached to end the war. According to Sana’a Center sources, Griffiths abandoned a planned trip to Aden and Mukalla in April after President Hadi and his government demanded that the Special Envoy not meet with the STC. Shortly after the UN Special Envoy instead met with STC leaders in Abu Dhabi and later in Jordan. In August, Griffiths’ office declared that the STC had affirmed its “readiness to participate positively in the political process”. In December, during the Sweden consultations, the STC said that its exclusion from the talks would perpetuate the cycle of conflict in Yemen.

Griffiths also met with officials from the General People’s Congress (GPC), the party founded by late former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in 2018, including those still in Sana’a. Houthi authorities had obstructed various other diplomats from meeting with GPC members in visits to Sana’a during the year. In November Griffiths then met with tribal leaders and civil society representatives from the governorates of Marib and Hadramawt, on the sidelines of a workshop co-organized by the Sana’a Center and the Oxford Research Group as part of an ongoing track II initiative.

Hudaydah Proposal

When an assault against the Houthi-held port city of Hudaydah seemed imminent in early June, Griffiths convinced the Houthi leadership to accept a plan he put forward on the status of Hudaydah port. The anti-Houthi coalition, however, rejected the proposal and continued preparations for the military assault (see ‘Preparing for the Offensive). Griffiths’ plan was similar to the agreement that would eventually be reached in Sweden; it proposed that Houthi authorities hand over control of the port to the UN, which would transfer revenues from import tariffs to the CBY to pay public sector salaries across the country. The Houthis had previously rejected a similar plan put forward by Griffiths’ predecessor in May 2017.

Griffiths continued his shuttle diplomacy throughout July, meeting with US, Saudi and other officials as well as the Houthi leadership in Sana’a, in an attempt to halt the military assault on Hudaydah.

Economic Consultations

Griffiths publicly attached greater importance to the Yemen economy in the second half of 2018, particularly after the rapid depreciation of the Yemeni rial in August and September, given its humanitarian repercussions (see ‘The Currency Crisis and the Threat of Famine’). In July, Griffiths met with the leadership and the board of the Sana’a-based CBY to discuss the reunification of the central bank, which has been split between competing headquarters on either side of the front line since September 2016. Griffiths and his team then sought but ultimately failed to organize UN-sponsored discussions to bring together central bank officials from Sana’a and Aden in Nairobi, Kenya. Although those discussions did not take place, the acknowledgement of the importance of the Yemeni economy to the humanitarian crisis demonstrated a far greater awareness of dynamics at play in the country than his predecessor’s, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed.

While prior to the Sweden talks Griffiths had again stated that the economic file was a priority of the consultations, there was no breakthrough in this regard in Rimbo. Importantly, while the Houthi side had sent the governor of the Sana’a-based CBY and his deputy to the talks, the Yemeni government sent neither the governor of the Aden-based CBY nor the head of the government’s Economic Committee (see ‘Aden’s New CBY Governor, the Economic Committee and Import Regulation’).

The UK reportedly facilitated a minor breakthrough late in 2018 to support Griffiths’ efforts on the economic front. The UK had backed the envoy’s attempts to devise a framework for closer coordination between key economic stakeholders, including the governors of the rival central banks in Aden and Sana’a. In December, as peace talks in Sweden drew to a close, Mohammed Zammam, governor of the central bank in Aden, spoke with his counterpart in Sana’a, Mohammed Sayani, via video conference at the behest of London, several well-informed sources told the Sana’a Center Economic Unit.

Negotiations Framework

On June 18, the Special Envoy shared his framework for peace negotiations in a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council. According to sources familiar with the proceedings who spoke with the Sana’a Center, a package of security and political arrangements included the establishment of a national military council in Yemen to oversee security arrangements and the handover of medium and heavy weapons by non-state actors. This was to be followed by the formation of a transitional government, led by an “agreed upon” prime minister. The transitional government would be in charge of restoring basic services, rebuilding state institutions, addressing issues specifically related to grievances in southern Yemen, implementing the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), and carrying out electoral reform and national reconciliation.

Despite going beyond previous UN-led peace plans, Griffiths’ framework for negotiations in many ways resembled the failed plans of his predecessor. These previous efforts included several contentious issues, among them the references to UNSC Resolution 2216, the GCC Initiative and the NDC outcomes as principles for peace talks. Generally, the framework seemed to turn possible outcomes of peace negotiations into preconditions for talks. Previous peace proposals failed over a similar approach, such as stipulating that Houthi forces surrender weapons and withdraw from captured areas before entering negotiations. Members of the Houthi leadership, in reaction to previous peace plans, had already demonstrated their resistance to surrendering their military leverage before negotiating their place in a future political arrangement.

Failure in Geneva, Success in Rimbo

On September 6, the first UN-led peace consultations since the collapse of UN-mediated peace talks in Kuwait in 2016 were scheduled in Geneva. The day before the consultations were to begin, Houthi representatives pulled out of the talks in a dispute over their travel arrangements to Switzerland. Houthi officials demanded to travel on an Omani plane and said they planned to transport injured fighters to Muscat for treatment. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia insisted that the Houthi delegation should travel on a UN plane via Djibouti. Saudi officials later claimed that Houthi officials had planned to transport injured Iranian and Hezbollah fighters on the flight.

Given that the Saudi-led military coalition had blocked the Houthi delegation from returning to Yemen for three months after the peace talks in 2016, Houthi officials saw a return flight to Sana’a via Muscat as the most likely way to avoid a repeat. In addition, Houthi delegates were unnerved when the UN asked them to sign a liability waiver, interpreting this as a sign the UN could not guarantee their safe return, according to a source close to the delegation who spoke with the Sana’a Center. Ultimately, Griffiths was unable to resolve the impasse and the Houthi delegation did not travel.

In the absence of the Houthi representatives, the Special Envoy held meetings in Geneva with the Yemeni government delegation. They discussed the release of prisoners, the reopening of Sana’a International Airport, humanitarian aid and economic development. The envoy also met with a technical advisory group of Yemeni women, a number of ambassadors assigned to Yemen from the so-called “Group of 19” states, and ambassadors from the five permanent member states of the UN Security Council.

In early December, the UN Special Envoy finally succeeded in bringing representatives of the warring parties together for the first time in more than two years in Sweden. This time, the Saudi-led military coalition had agreed to Griffiths’ suggested logistical arrangements and Muscat had offered to facilitate the medical evacuation of some 50 injured Houthi fighters out of Sana’a, who were eventually flown out on an Ethiopian plane to Oman. When the Houthi delegation actually did leave Sana’a on December 4 aboard a Kuwaiti airliner, Griffiths himself was also on board – as well as the Kuwaiti ambassador to Yemen and the Swedish envoy to Yemen and Libya – as a reassurance for the Houthi officials that the Saudi-led military coalition, which controls Yemeni airspace, would not intercept the flight.

 


Hudaydah, the Heart of the Crisis

Overview: The Significance of Hudaydah

The port city of Hudaydah was at the center of escalating clashes and the deteriorating humanitarian crisis in 2018. Yemen has historically imported as much as 90 percent of its basic foodstuffs, while Hudaydah and nearby Saleef and Ras Issa ports are the point of entry for more than 70 percent of the country’s basic commodities, including staple foods, medical supplies and fuel. They were also the only ports controlled by the armed Houthi movement in 2018. UN agencies, humanitarian groups and many Yemeni experts have long said that there is no replacement for these ports in feeding large swathes of the country. This is due to these ports’ offloading capacity, their proximity to Yemen’s largest population centers, and the absence of frontlines between these ports and roughly 70 percent of the country’s population that live in Houthi-held areas.

Hudaydah City and its surroundings hold a population of more than 600,000, making it one of the country’s most densely populated areas, while the governorate is also among the poorest areas in Yemen. UN agencies, international NGOs and others had long warned that a military campaign to capture Hudaydah would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, given that it would likely inhibit commercial and humanitarian imports, causing prices to spike and preventing aid from reaching beneficiaries. A high number of civilian casualties was also expected in the event that fighting reached the city’s densely populated areas.

Representatives of the Saudi-led military coalition have throughout the conflict claimed that Iran has been smuggling arms to Houthi forces through Hudaydah port. The coalition has also criticized the UNVIM, the UN inspection mechanism set up in 2016 to address such concerns, as ineffective. However, a UN Panel of Experts report in January stated that it was highly unlikely arms were being transferred through Hudaydah, given that both the UN and the coalition were inspecting ships entering the port. The report further concluded that the coalition-imposed impediments to the delivery of commercial goods and humanitarian aid to Houthi-held areas amounted to a weaponization of the threat of mass starvation, which would constitute a war crime.

The coalition and the Yemeni government argued that the capture of Hudaydah port would cut a major source of income for the armed Houthi movement, which was imposing import tariffs on goods entering through the port, and would force the Houthi leaders to the negotiating table. However, many dismissed this claim as unlikely, given that Houthi forces could extort taxes on goods entering their territory through checkpoints anywhere, even if the frontlines were pushed inland from the coast. Meanwhile, Houthi forces remained firmly in control of the capital Sana’a.

Preparing for the Offensive

Saudi and UAE-backed local forces began pushing through Taiz governorate from the south toward Hudaydah City at the beginning of January, cutting Houthi supply lines between Taiz and Hudaydah. Shortly after, the Houthi leadership threatened to block international navigation in the Red Sea if the coalition-backed offensive along Yemen’s western coast continued. Houthi forces had previously carried out several attacks against vessels transiting near the Bab al-Mandab Strait using explosive-laden remote-controlled boats and repurposed anti-tank missiles, according to the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen report. The report also noted that the group had deployed improvised sea mines off the Red Sea Coast.

Through the spring of 2018 the coalition attempted to garner international support for the offensive on Hudaydah, including lobbying and media campaigns that highlighted the threat posed by the armed Houthi movement to international oil shipments passing through the Bab al-Mandab Strait.

In June, with an offensive against Hudaydah seemingly imminent, UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths and UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock urged the UN Security Council to support efforts to avert the military assault. Griffiths also notified the council of the Houthi leadership’s willingness to hand over the administration of Hudaydah port to UN observers.

In response, the Yemeni government, backed by the Saudi-led military coalition, took a more belligerent stance. Foreign Minister Khalid al-Yamani said that the “door of diplomacy” was closed to the armed Houthi movement, that the international community’s advocacy for peace talks would only prolong the war, and that the government refused to accept anything but the full withdrawal of Houthi forces from the entire Red Sea Coast. Following a Security Council meeting on June 11, the UAE, which took the lead in coordinating the offensive, gave the UN a 48-hour deadline to convince the Houthi leadership to withdraw its forces from Hudaydah.

The Battle For Hudaydah

On June 13, the Saudi-led military coalition launched “Operation Golden Victory”, with the goal of pushing Houthi forces out of Hudaydah City and taking control of the strategic Red Sea port. Western officials, speaking to the Sana’a Center in May, said Washington and London had given conditional approval for the coalition-backed offensive to take Hudaydah city, provided that the ports were not attacked. Previously, plans for an offensive in late 2016 and early 2017 had been derailed due to a lack of US backing and warnings from international organizations regarding the likelihood of a massive humanitarian fallout from such a campaign.

On June 13, the assault on Hudaydah began, spearheaded by the Giants Brigade, or al-Amaliqa, a 20,000-strong force of six brigades of whom the majority were tribal fighters from southern areas, along with several thousand Salafists. Fighting alongside al-Amaliqa were roughly a thousand members of the local Tihama Resistance and 4,000-6,000 troops of the National Resistance Forces, led by Tariq Saleh, the nephew of late former President Ali Abdullah Saleh (see ‘Red Sea Coast: Tariq Saleh Switches Sides). The assault was supported by coalition aircraft and warships. Reports indicated the coalition-backed forces numbered 25,000-27,000 troops, facing between 5,000 and 8,000 Houthi fighters. Prior to the offensive, Houthi forces had brought in reinforcements from Sana’a, Dhamar and other areas of Hudaydah governorate. In an attempt to avoid being targeted by airstrikes, Houthi fighters began to use buses and taxis to travel to the city, rather than military convoys, according to Sana’a Center researchers.

On June 20, anti-Houthi troops, advancing from the city’s southern end against Houthi counterattacks, took over sections of Hudaydah airport. On July 1, the UAE declared a “pause” in the assault to give the UN Special Envoy time for negotiations. Houthi representatives decried this as a cover-up and accused the UAE of using the cessation to prepare for a new battle. Houthi forces continued to target coalition and pro-government forces using unmanned aerial vehicles and short-range missiles. Outside of Hudaydah port, the Saudi-led military coalition continued to launch airstrikes against Houthi positions.

Alongside warnings from international humanitarian organizations, an independent group of prominent Yemeni experts in various socio-economic fields issued a joint letter on July 17 warning of “catastrophic” consequences if the military conflict in Hudaydah continued to escalate. This group – known as Yemen’s Development Champions – included former ministers of transportation, oil and minerals, trade and industry, agriculture, civil service, and tourism, as well as leading economists, bankers, businessmen and academics.

By the end of July, the parties to the conflict continued to be at an impasse regarding Hudaydah. While Houthi officials had agreed in principle to turn over the port to UN administration, they insisted on maintaining control of Hudaydah City. The Saudi-led military coalition and the Yemeni government demanded that Houthi forces unconditionally hand over the port and withdraw from the city and governorate. On August 2, Griffiths said during a briefing at the UN Security Council that he was now convinced that the situation in Hudaydah governorate would have a better chance of being addressed within the context of a comprehensive political settlement.

Hostilities around the city decreased in the lead up to the planned peace consultations in Geneva at the beginning of September. After these talks failed to take place, the fighting escalated and anti-Houthi forces took control of the main roads east of the city that linked Hudaydah to Sana’a. This left the minor road north of Hudaydah to Hajjah governorate as the only open land route in and out of the city. A letter from the UAE to the UN Security Council president at the time claimed that a military victory in Hudaydah was critical to compel the Houthi leadership to re-engage in peace talks. The coalition also reported the deaths of several senior Houthi military figures in the fighting. At the end of October, after the offensive had stalled, Yemeni government military officials announced that 10,000 reinforcements were being deployed to Hudaydah.

On November 2, the coalition declared the launch of a new “large-scale offensive” in Hudaydah and fighting escalated again. Medical workers in hospitals around Hudaydah reported on November 12 that at least 150 people were killed during a 24-hour period after UAE-backed ground forces reached residential areas of the city. On November 14, the Saudi-led military coalition temporarily paused its assault. Days later, the armed Houthi movement declared that it would refrain from drone and missile attacks against coalition and Yemeni forces, though low-level fighting continued in parts of the city.

A ceasefire agreed at the Sweden talks came into effect on December 18 and remained in place as of the time of writing this report, with the demarcation line running roughly in the area of 50th Street. While each side has accused the other of ceasefire violations, these localized clashes had not derailed the Stockholm Agreement as of this writing. Sana’a Center observers witnessed minor breaches of the ceasefire in Hays, al-Tuhayta and al-Jarahi districts in Hudaydah governorate by Houthi forces using artillery fire, and shelling by coalition-backed forces on Houthi positions in al-Durayhimi district.


Source: Sana’a Center research // Graphic: Ghaidaa Alrashidy

Humanitarian and Economic Fallout

Soon after the assault on Hudaydah began, prices of basic goods and foodstuffs soared in the city, prompting panic buying. According to information gathered by Oxfam in early June, the price of a bag of rice increased by 350 percent, wheat by 50 percent and cooking oil by 40 percent. Oxfam also noted high transportation costs for those trying to flee the city.

As of June 24, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that food had become scarce in Hudaydah City, amid soaring food prices and the closure of shops, bakeries, and restaurants. People were reported to be staying in their houses, with most lacking adequate food supplies. Electricity became unavailable in most parts of the city. Trenches dug by Houthi forces damaged the water and sewage system, which led to water shortages. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) registered over 455,000 displaced people from Hudaydah Governorate between June 1 and November 6.

Humanitarian and commercial imports continued to enter Hudaydah port but at a decreased frequency. With the ongoing hostilities, it became more difficult for civilians to flee, while access for humanitarian workers deteriorated. Among the obstacles were landmines planted by Houthi forces and roads destroyed by airstrikes or blocked by Houthi trenches and barricades. Some areas where people had been displaced or injured became inaccessible. Aid workers also faced difficulties in accessing humanitarian supplies warehoused in the city before the offensive. In November, the World Food Programme (WFP) said that Houthi forces had planted seven landmines inside its facility.

As a result of the battle in Hudaydah, the already strained health sector faced increased capacity problems. Seven health facilities in the governorate temporarily closed or suspended operations due to security concerns at the end of June, while others were forced to reduce operations after health personnel were displaced. Meanwhile, clashes and airstrikes in the vicinity of hospitals put patients and medical staff in extreme danger. Given the difficulties in accessing the area, reports of casualties were often hard to verify. (For details, see ‘Access Impediments’.)


Economic Developments

Overview: The Struggle for Financial and Monetary Control

The rapid depreciation of the Yemeni rial (YR) from July through October was the primary driver of the dramatic increase in food insecurity in the country in 2018 (see ‘The Currency Crisis and the Threat of Famine’). While various factors contributed to the currency’s collapse, chief among these was unregulated fuel importers purchasing foreign currency out of the local market to place orders abroad. Unlicensed money exchangers facilitated much of the fuel importers’ financial transactions outside the formal economy, while also playing a role themselves in destabilizing the YR. Amidst a relative spike in global oil prices through August and September, fuel importers’ market speculation helped propel the rial lower, while in September they acted as a cartel to artificially instigate a country-wide fuel shortage. This created a spike in the black market price of fuel, to which the importers sold their fuel to maximize profits (see ‘Factors Destablizing the Yemeni Rial’).

Also weighing on the value of the rial was an increased domestic money supply due to the Yemeni government printing new banknotes – rather than raising revenues – to cover the public sector wage bill, which has grown significantly in nominal terms during the conflict. Decreased remittances, due to thousands of Yemeni expat workers being expelled from Saudi Arabia or facing increased fees to stay in the kingdom, also contributed to the YR’s depreciation.

Among the factors that helped the rial recover value in November and December was the Aden-based Central Bank of Yemen’s (CBY) increased issuance of letters of credit to finance imports of basic commodities and fuel. The CBY had the foreign currency reserves to do so thanks to more than US$2 billion in deposits and grants Riyadh provided in 2018. In October, Saudi Arabia also began delivering a monthly $60 million fuel grant for power generation in Aden and surrounding governorates, helping to ease fuel importers’ demand for foreign currency. In renewed attempts to raise revenue from non-inflationary sources, the Aden-based CBY had the first successful public debt issuance since the conflict began, raising YR100 billion from Yemeni commercial and Islamic banks in November. The same month the CBY inked a US$500 million trade grant with the International Finance Corporation. During the summer the Yemeni government established an Economic Committee to advise and assist the Aden-based CBY. Through the fall the committee and the bank began taking measures to try and regulate imports and the exchange market, and to bring the money cycle back into the formal economy. (see ‘Stabilizing Influences on the Yemeni Currency and Economy’)

However, throughout the year the Sana’a-based CBY, under Houthi control, took steps to undermine the Yemeni government’s economic and monetary policy, such as banning new banknotes issued from Aden, and pressuring commercial banks not to cooperate with the Aden-based CBY. The country’s banks and businesses thus increasingly found themselves in a tug-of-war between the two sides. Houthi authorities also tightened their grip on business and financial flows in northern areas during 2018 (see ‘Competing Monetary Policies A Tale of Two Central Banks’ for more details).

Meanwhile, a year-long investigation by the Sana’a Center found that apparent adversaries on the battlefield were cooperating seamlessly on many fronts to profit from illicit oil and weapons sales in a flourishing war economy (see ‘War Economy Sees Cooperation Between Battlefield Adversaries).  

The Currency Crisis and the Threat of Famine

A major factor behind the threat of famine in 2018 was the depreciation in the value of Yemen’s domestic currency, the Yemeni rial (YR). Prior to the outbreak of the regional conflict in March 2015, Yemen imported up to 90 percent of its food supplies and had the lowest per-capita purchasing power in the Middle East. Changes in the Yemeni rial exchange rate thus have had profound implications for food security in the country.

In March 2015, when the Saudi-led military coalition began its intervention, the rial was trading at an official exchange rate of YR215 per US$1. Since then the rial’s decline has been largely characterized by long periods of stability or gradual decline, interspersed with sudden, brief periods of wild instability and rapid decline.

In the fourth quarter of 2017, the Yemeni rial began its first prolonged rapid depreciation of the conflict, dropping from a monthly average in October 2017 of YR392 per US$1 to as low as YR525 per US$1 in mid-January 2018. The announcement of a US$2 billion Saudi deposit at the Yemeni government-controlled central bank headquarters in Aden in January 2018 saw the currency rebound. The rial ended the month averaging YR454 per US$1 in parallel market trading.

By July it was trading at a monthly average of YR497 per US$1, a relatively manageable 9.5 percent loss in value over seven months. Over the next three months, however, the Yemeni currency entered its longest period of rapid, accelerating decline of the conflict, hitting an all-time low of more than YR800 per US$1 in early October. Over this period, UN agencies and humanitarian organizations voiced increasingly urgent warnings that Yemen was descending into widespread famine as basic commodity prices soared and millions more Yemenis lost the ability to afford food (see ‘A Deepening Food Security Crisis’). A short, two-day survey of 10 retailers of basic food commodities across Sana’a governorate conducted by the Sana’a Center at the end of August found that prices had already increased significantly by that point, relative to two months previous, with rice increasing 37 percent, vegetable oil 26 percent, wheat grain 25 percent, wheat flour 17 percent, and sugar 11 percent.


Sources: CBY, WFP, and Sanaa Center Economic Unit

The collapse of the currency in 2018 was the result of multiple factors building over the course of the war. These included the general economic collapse in the country, the cessation of oil exports – previously the country’s largest source of foreign currency – and a resultant shortage of foreign currency in the local market, and increased domestic currency supply through the printing of new rial banknotes to cover government spending. In addition, monetary policy and financial regulation in Yemen has, since September 2016, been divided between the Yemeni government-controlled Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) in Aden and the Houthi-controlled CBY in Sana’a. This has allowed speculative market factors to bring increasing volatility to bear on the exchange rate; in particular, unregulated fuel importers’ demand for foreign currency is widely seen as the primary factor behind the YR’s accelerated slide in value between July and October 2018. Weak regulatory enforcement over money exchange outlets also contributed to the rial’s instability in the second half of 2018.

Yemen’s currency recovered somewhat toward the end of 2018. In December, the rial was trading between YR480 to YR530 per US$1, similar to the range it had traded in prior to the collapse that began in July. On December 31, the rial was trading at roughly YR525 per US$1 in Sana’a and YR530 per US$1 in Aden. Central to the currency’s recovery were Saudi foreign currency deposits at the Aden-based CBY, as well as fuel grants from Riyadh to areas nominally controlled by the Yemeni government. The Yemeni government-appointed Economic Committee, in collaboration with the Aden-based CBY, used the Saudi backing to finance imports and implement currency stabilization measures in November and December. As December ended, prices for basic commodities had decreased by an average of 21 percent (relative to October) and fuel prices had dropped between 18-35 percent (relative to November) depending on the governorate.

On current trajectories, the Sana’a Center Economic Unit forecasts that the rial will remain relatively stable within a fluctuation range of 20 percent throughout the first half of 2019. This projection is based on the fact that the Aden-based central bank had, as of January 1, 2019, foreign currency reserves of US$2.7 billion on hand, a sufficient amount to finance imports and protect the value of the rial over the next six months.

Of continuing concern as 2019 begins, however, are the disparate monetary policies between northern and southern areas of the country, and the warring parties’ demonstrated willingness to try and leverage fiscal and economic mechanisms to gain advantage over their rivals. This will continue to threaten the sustainability of any recovery in the currency or economy generally.

Food and Fuel Price Spikes Slow to Recede

Toward the end of 2018, and with the value of the rial improving, both the internationally recognized Yemeni government and the Houthi authorities issued lists stipulating maximum prices for various commodities, in an effort to contain the growing threat of famine, and threatened to crack down on violators. But in the absence of proper government oversight and effective regulatory bodies, many traders did not lower prices to levels proportional to the rial’s recovery. The Sana’a Center learned at the end of November that many retailers in Sana’a were still selling commodities as if they had been purchased at October’s record low exchange rate of YR800 per US$1.

In December, the Sana’a Center Economic Unit conducted a survey in the cities of Sana’a and Aden on average retail prices for basic commodities. The survey revealed that on average prices for sugar, wheat flour, wheat grain and vegetable oil in Sana’a and Aden decreased in December by 21 percent relative to October.


Sources: WFP and Sanaa Center Economic Unit surveys for 2018

December also witnessed a drop in the price of fuel derivatives in both Houthi- and government-controlled areas. Compared to prices in November, the prices for one liter of petrol and diesel in December were reduced on average almost 23 percent and 18 percent, respectively, in areas controlled by the armed Houthi movement. Reductions in fuel prices ranged between 20 percent and 35 percent in the government-affiliated governorates of Hadramawt and Aden (see graph below for details).

Factors Destabilizing the Yemeni Rial

Unregulated Fuel Importers and Unlicensed Money Exchangers

A Yemeni Banking Association survey, published on October 11, 2018, found a consensus opinion among Yemen’s top bankers that the primary instigator of the rial’s depreciation was fuel importers’ increased demand for foreign currency. Between mid-August and the end of September 2018, there was a relatively sustained spike in global oil prices, with the benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude rising roughly 13 percent from some US$65 per barrel to US$73.25. During this period, the Sana’a Center Economic Unit assessment is that fuel importers in Yemen, anticipating further oil price rises, began buying US$ out of the local market with which to place new rush orders.

Beginning in mid-September, Yemen then became gripped by fuel shortages, with licensed fueling stations closing en masse in many areas and black market traders stepping up to sell fuel at significant markups from the regulated prices. A Sana’a Center Economic Unit survey covering all Yemeni governorates found price increases of available petrol averaged 130 percent across the country for the last two weeks of September relative to average August prices. Available evidence indicated that fuel traders acted as a cartel in collectively halting fuel sales to official retail outlets in September. The subsequent shortage allowed traders to sell to the black market for significantly more profit, offsetting the anticipated increases in import costs due to rising global oil prices and anticipated profit losses due to the depreciating local currency.


Sources: WFP and Sanaa Center Economic Unit surveys for 2018

Unlicensed money exchangers, which have proliferated over the course of the conflict, have abetted the fuel importers’ currency trading and international financial transactions outside the formal economy, while also acting as currency destabilizers in their own right. The general collapse of state regulation during the conflict, and in particular that which followed the schism of the CBY in 2016, allowed an estimated 800 unlicensed money exchangers to enter the market between 2015-2017, according to a confidential banking sector market study made available to the Sana’a Center. The migration of financial flows to the informal economy has also been spurred by a prolonged liquidity crisis in the commercial banking sector, as well as Yemen’s designation as “high risk,” which prevented the country’s commercial banks from being able to carry out international transactions.

Often, networks of unlicensed Yemeni money exchangers have been affiliated with larger, licensed and more established firms. While overall, unlicensed firms have handled far less volume than the top 10 largest licensed firms, the former’s attempts to capture market share through aggressive pricing has had oversized influence on the rial exchange rate. Several campaigns to crack down on unlicensed exchangers both by the Yemeni government and the Houthi authorities had little impact in 2018, with many simply reopening shortly after being closed down.

Increased Money Supply

With the general economic collapse and secession of hydrocarbon exports that accompanied the conflict, public revenues also plummeted. This has forced the Yemeni government to radically reduce spending on all budget items except public sector salaries. Public spending, however, has still been greater than revenues since 2015. Indeed, the total public salary bill has increased substantially in areas under Yemeni government control, where the government has enlisted new security and military personnel and doubled salary disbursements to incentivize new recruits.

In response, the Government of Yemen has at various times ordered the central bank to print new rial banknotes to cover expenses. According to the World Bank, the total money supply in Yemen grew 53 percent in 2018. This enlarging of the domestic money supply, in an environment of declining economic activity and scarce foreign currency, has in turn placed downward pressure on the value of the rial on the exchange market. The injection of new banknotes into the economy in August almost certainly played a role in the subsequent rapid devaluation of the rial, and contributed to the dramatic increase in currency circulation outside commercial banks, as the World Bank has noted. It estimated that currency circulation outside the formal banking sector grew more than 100 percent between 2014 and 2017, from YR810.9 billion in 2014 to YR1.67 trillion by the end of 2017.

During the recent currency collapse the Yemeni government also promised to increase spending, adding more speculative pressure on the YR. In August, demonstrations began in Aden with protesters demanding the government address soaring prices. The protests continued into September, spreading to Hadramawt, Lahj, Abyan and al-Dhalea governorates. In Aden, protesters blocked roads with burning tires and barriers, while retail stores and service outlets closed as part of a civil disobedience campaign. In an attempt to quell the dissent, the Yemeni government announced in September that it would raise civil servant salaries by 30 percent. Protests also occurred in Houthi-controlled areas, including Sana’a, though Houthi security forces quickly quashed them.

Decreasing Remittances

According to the CBY’s 2014 annual report, money sent back home from Yemenis working abroad – primarily in Saudi Arabia – accounted for roughly 30 percent of foreign currency inflows prior to the war. According to World Bank estimates, remittance inflows from expat workers remained relatively constant through 2017, and with the sharp decline in energy exports, became the country’s largest source of foreign currency.

In recent years, however, Riyadh has intensified its efforts to restrict foreign access to its labor market as part of a so-called “Saudization” of the economy, part of a larger reform program referred to as Vision 2030. In early February 2018, the Saudi Ministry of Labor and Social Development issued another in an ongoing series of nationalization decrees. Effective September 2018, and to be implemented between then and January 2019, the decree aimed to ban foreign workers from 12 types of employment. The Saudi government also increased the costs of visas and work permits for expats.

In early 2018, reports emerged about Saudi authorities undertaking large-scale deportations of Yemeni workers without legal status. Riyadh announced that it had arrested hundreds of thousands of foreign workers lacking the necessary permits and was beginning deportation proceedings. The cumulative impact of Saudi nationalization policies on Yemeni expatriate laborers in the kingdom was unclear as of this writing. However, it is highly likely their number has decreased, with an accompanying reduction in remittances. Furthermore, preliminary Sana’a Center research regarding expats in the Saudi labor market suggests that as many as 70 percent of Yemeni workers could lose their current jobs by 2020 if the Saudization policies continue to be implemented. This would have dire impacts for families and communities in Yemen that depend on these remittances for income, as well as for the country at large in the loss of foreign currency flows into the local market.   

Stabilizing Influences on the Yemeni Currency and Economy

More Than US$2 Billion in Saudi Deposits and Fuel Grants

On January 17, 2018, Saudi Arabia announced it would deposit US$2 billion at the CBY in Aden to support Yemen’s domestic currency. The immediate stabilizing effect this had against market speculation began to weaken, however, after prolonged negotiations between Saudi and Yemeni officials regarding the deployment of the funds. A mechanism was finally agreed upon in July by which to finance basic commodity imports, however the process for traders to apply was generally regarded as too cumbersome and the wait time for approval excessive. The central bank’s first batch of letters of credit, issued on July 31, amounted to just US$20.4 million; it is common market understanding in Yemen that interventions below US$100 million do not noticeably impact the money supply. The market thus began to lose faith in the impact of the Saudi deposit, putting downward pressure on the rial and contributing to its slide through the summer and into the fall.

In October, after the Yemeni rial reached record lows in value, several measures were instituted to help spur a moderate recovery. First, the Saudi government announced a US$200 million grant to the Aden-based CBY at the beginning of the month. The central bank in Aden then approved US$170 million out of the US$2 billion Saudi deposit to finance the importation of basic foodstuffs later in the month. Finally, an appreciation in the rial followed the arrival of a Saudi oil tanker to Aden carrying US$60 million in fuel. This was the first delivery of a planned monthly fuel grant by Riyadh, the intent of which was to support power generation in areas controlled by the Yemeni government and decrease fuel importers’ demand for foreign currency. Also lessening fuel importers’ demands on the currency market was the downward trend in global oil prices since October.

On November 3, the central bank announced it was finalizing a third round of basic import financing worth US$170 million, while Riyadh delivered the second US$60 million in fuel grants the same month. These supports, in combination with other steps taken by the Aden-based central bank, contributed to a significant recovery of the Yemeni currency toward the end of 2018. On December 8, Aden-based CBY Governor Mohammad Zammam announced that a total of US$356 million had been withdrawn from the US$2 billion Saudi deposit to fund imports. The Aden-based central bank’s total foreign currency reserves thus stood at US$2.7 billion as the year ended.

Limited Gains in Oil Exports

Just prior to the current conflict, oil exports accounted for 65 percent of foreign currency entering Yemen, according to the CBY’s 2014 annual report. These exports halted completely in 2015, with the Saudi-led military coalition intervention, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) occupying export terminals along the southern coast, and Houthi forces seizing control of export terminals on the western coast. In 2016, after UAE-backed forces expelled AQAP from the city of Mukalla and its environs, limited but regular exports resumed out of Hadramawt governorate. Yemen’s PetroMasila has handled production in Hadramawt, with exports being made to the Anglo-Swiss company Glencore.

In October 2018, Aden-based CBY Governor Mohammed Zammam stated that revenues from PetroMasila’s facilities were estimated at US$150 million every two months. According to this statement, the net revenue to the Yemeni government was $50 million, which was being deposited at the Aden-based CBY, while $50 million was allocated to cover power generation in Aden and neighboring governorates, $30 million went to PetroMasila’s operational budget, and $20 million to the Hadramawt local authority.

Meanwhile, the Austrian oil company OMV resumed limited capacity operations in Shabwa in April 2018. In August 2018, for the first time since the outbreak of the war, the government announced the export of oil from the governorate. According to a revenue sharing agreement, similar to previous ones the government made with Marib and Hadramawt governorates, Shabwa would receive 20 percent of the revenues. However, oil exports remained limited compared to pre-conflict totals. In early December 2018, the Yemeni Company for Oil Investments announced that 600,000 barrels of oil were exported from Shabwa’s Alnshima port – only the fourth such shipment since OMV restarted production in the governorate.

Aden’s New CBY Governor, the Economic Committee and Import Regulation

Monasser al-Quaiti, the former governor of the Aden-based CBY, was replaced in February 2018. Under al-Quaiti, the Aden-based central bank printed more than YR1 trillion in banknotes over an 18-month period, adding substantial downward pressure on the rial’s value. Sana’a Center sources indicated that the decision was undertaken largely in response to al-Quaiti’s inability to establish a functioning CBY headquarters in Aden. Under the new leadership of Governor Mohammad Zammam, the Aden-based central bank canceled contracts with the Russian and German banknote printing companies Goznak and Giesecke+Devrient, respectively. This was part of a larger policy shift Zammam began to develop and implement at the Aden-based central bank to tackle the currency crisis.

In August, the Yemeni government then established a new Economic Committee to collaborate with the Aden-based CBY on economic stabilization measures. Primary among these were combating the rapid depreciation of the rial and regulating commercial imports in a way that would shift financial flows back into the formal economy. The Economic Committee, headed by the Chairman of CAC Bank International Hafedh Mayad, included representatives from the Aden-based central bank, the banking sector, the chambers of commerce and industry, and money exchange institutions.

In September, the Yemeni government announced a new range of policies to facilitate the import of basic foods and address the demand for foreign currency. Among the new measures was Decree 75, which aimed to regulate fuel and basic commodity imports while curbing the influence of informal economic networks and unlicensed money exchangers. Decree 75 required fuel importers to be approved by the Economic Committee to be eligible for import financing from the Aden-based central bank. The Aden CBY facilitated access to foreign currency for approved importers mostly through the US$2 billion Saudi deposit.

The Economic Committee announced it was postponing the regulation of food imports through Decree 75 in October, however, over fears that restricting food importers to only those who met its financing criteria would decrease overall food imports and exacerbate the country’s food security crisis. The central bank continued to support approved basic commodity imports for approved traders, while also attempting to institute new financing and controls for fuel importation.

Toward the end of 2018, importers increasingly opened letters of credit at the Aden-based CBY to access foreign currency, rather than relying on money exchangers. The central bank provided food importers incentives for opening letters of credit by offering a preferential exchange rate (YR440 per US$1 as of December 2018) to import six essential food commodities: wheat, rice, sugar, cooking oil, corn and milk. The price of US$1 in the parallel markets at the time was YR490-500.

Restarting Public Debt Issuance and International Grants

Other factors supporting the rial’s recovery toward the end of 2018 were successful efforts to raise Yemeni government revenue from non-inflationary sources. This included the first successful issuance of domestic debt since the conflict began. According to well-placed Sana’a Center sources within the banking sector, the Aden-based central bank sold YR100 billion in debt to a group of Yemeni commercial and Islamic banks in November. The same month the Aden-based central bank reached an agreement with the International Finance Corporation to coordinate a trade grant of US$500 million from several donors, according the same sources. To be eligible to access the funds, banks must undergo a comprehensive assessment of their governance and compliance practices. Furthermore, CBY Aden governor Mohammed Zammam announced that the Aden-based central bank was awaiting further grants totaling US$3 billion promised by international donors. Former central bank governor Mohamed bin Humam had told the Sana’a Center in September that an estimated US$4 billion was likely required to stabilize the currency.

Following an agreement with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency, in 2019 the Aden-based central bank is also set to facilitate the transfer of commercial banks’ foreign cash holdings through Saudi Arabia. Yemeni banks have previously been unable to move their cash holdings of foreign currencies to accounts abroad. Enabling these transfers should further assist the Aden-based CBY in fostering monetary stability and channeling import financing through the formal economy.


Sana’a in August: People buy food and gifts in a market in Sana’a in preparation for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha // Photo Credit: Thy-Yazen

Competing Monetary Policies: A Tale of Two Central Banks

Since September 2016, two competing central banks have been operating in Yemen, one in the Houthi-controlled capital and one in the government’s temporary capital of Aden. When President Hadi ordered the relocation of the CBY headquarters from Sana’a to Aden in 2016, he did so without first securing the human, financial, data and infrastructural resources necessary for the new central bank headquarters to operate. Thus, the Sana’a-based CBY retained its experienced staff, data indexes, physical infrastructure and financial connections to the country’s biggest banks and businesses – given that most are headquartered in the capital – but had little in the way of financial resources, was no longer recognized internationally, could not facilitate international transfers, and so could not carry out meaningful monetary policy. Meanwhile, the Aden-based CBY, though recognized as Yemen’s official monetary agency, could carry out almost none of the functions expected of a central bank.

Fragmentation within Yemeni government-held areas in Yemen added to the new CBY’s challenges. For example, the local branch of the central bank in Marib, an area that has been under the nominal control of the Yemeni government, refused to send local revenues from oil and gas sales to the Aden branch (see ‘Marib: Islah, Tribes and the Saudis United in Federalism’).

The process of building the Aden-based CBY’s capacities to perform the functions of a central bank has been slow and arduous. Only in 2018 had the bank begun to assert itself and attempt to implement consequential policies. Simultaneously, however, the Sana’a-based CBY and other Houthi authorities have regularly sought to undermine these new economic edicts coming out of Aden  

Houthi Authorities Challenge Government Policies

Through much of 2018, the Houthi authorities sought to undermine policies set by the Yemeni government and its central bank. For instance, when the Aden-based CBY began distributing new YR500 banknotes in 2017 and YR1,000 banknotes in February 2018, Houthi authorities banned them in territories under their control. In 2018, the Houthi authorities’ campaigns to enforce these bans intensified. Houthi National Security Bureau officers conducted major inspection campaigns on money exchange shops, commercial banks, restaurants, and businesses to check if they were dealing with the new banknotes from the Aden-based CBY.

In August, the Banking Supervision Sector of the Sana’a-based central bank warned licensed exchangers against either selling foreign currency to, or buying foreign currency from, areas in Yemen outside of Houthi control. Given the more acute shortage of rial banknotes in Houthi areas relative to government areas, the rial within Houthi-held territory was worth about YR5 more per US$1 as of December 2018. The circular also warned money exchange firms against receiving transfers from government-controlled areas in excess of YR5 million without advance approval from the Sana’a-based CBY.

When the government issued Decree 75, with new regulations regarding fuel imports that would have disqualified importers close to the Houthi authorities, the latter threatened commercial banks in Sana’a with reprisals, including the imprisonment of senior staff, if they abided by the decree. Since all but one of Yemen’s 17 commercial banks are headquartered in Sana’a, the Houthi authorities possessed significant leverage to pressure them.

In early November, the Sana’a-based central bank ordered commercial banks to use checks instead of cash to cover letters of credit for imports. This order contradicted the decision by the Aden-based central bank, which mandated cash deposits for letters of credit to be issued. The move by Houthi authorities was an attempt to prevent the transfer of physical cash liquidity to government-held areas. In December, the Houthi authorities issued new regulations banning 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. However, sources in the banking sector report that money was still being transferred via informal networks.

Houthi Authorities Strengthen Their Grip Over the Economy

In mid-October, the Houthi government officially appointed Mohammed al-Sayani as the governor of the Sana’a-based CBY. Sayani previously held the post of deputy governor but had been de facto head of operations at the Sana’a-based central bank since the split. The appointment was a symbolic attempt by the Houthi authorities to establish an independent monetary authority in areas under their control and deny legitimacy to the Aden-based central bank.  

In 2018, Houthi authorities strived to both raise revenues and exercise greater control over the local economy overall. At the beginning of the year, they ordered importers of essential goods to interact exclusively with commercial bank branches in their territories. The banks in turn were instructed to work with local money exchangers to send foreign currency abroad. Later, they also demanded that traders deposit their revenues from essential commodity sales in an account held at CAC Bank in Sana’a. The measures were meant to help Houthi authorities extract customs and taxes. In May, the Houthi authorities ordered the Sana’a-based CBY to seize the financial assets of late former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. They also imposed new fees on private sector electricity providers, which led to an increase in the price of electricity tariffs.

In June, the Houthi authorities implemented an aggressive campaign to collect taxes and customs from traders, businesses, companies and shopping malls. One of the biggest shopping malls in the country was closed down after its owner refused to pay more than YR500 million in taxes.

Between 2015 and early 2018, fuel imports regulations previously governed by the state-run Yemen Petroleum Company (YPC) were liberalized in Houthi-held territory. This allowed a number of new fuel importers on good terms with the Houthi authorities to enter the market and quickly gain market share. In July 2018, with exclusive control over state institutions in their areas, Houthi authorities ordered importers to sell fuel only to the Houthi-run YPC. This allowed the Houthi authorities to attain a near monopoly over fuel distribution in northern Yemen.

Telecom Companies Caught in Sana’a-Aden Rivalry

Two of Yemen’s premier telecommunication companies, MTN (Yemen) and Sabofone, fell victim to the tug-of-war between Houthi authorities and the Yemeni government in 2018.

In mid-2018, the Houthis filed a US$190 million tax claim against MTN, reneging on agreements the company had reached with late former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and threatening to take over the company if it refused to pay. They later ordered the partial seizure of the telecom company’s assets in June, claiming that the multinational owed YR11 billion in unpaid dues. MTN settled with the Sana’a-based tax authority in November, paying YR11.2 billion in back taxes. Meanwhile, Houthi authorities also demanded that Sabofone pay US$300 million in connection to a nine-year tax exemption the company had obtained in 2001.

The telecoms giants also encountered difficulties dealing with the Yemeni government, which reportedly demanded that MTN and Sabofone pay what essentially amounted to duplicate service agreements to those signed with the authorities in Sana’a. During negotiations, the government reportedly refused to release telecommunications equipment seized from both companies, seemingly using it as leverage.

War Economy Sees Cooperation Between Battlefield Adversaries

With the war in Yemen entering its fifth year as of this writing, a war economy is flourishing and has enabled a new cadre of profiteers. The fragmentation of the country into adversarial spaces has aided the rise of a new business elite. A year-long investigation by the Sana’a Center found that nominal adversaries in the conflict actively collaborated to maximize profits in this war economy. Yemen’s nouveaux riches have operated through complex and fluid networks across frontlines, with these networks sustained by arms and funding from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to groups in Yemen fighting the armed Houthi movement. The networks included military commanders, businessmen, security officials controlling checkpoints, money exchangers, bankers and local militias – both among Houthi forces and various government-affiliated groups.

For example, senior anti-Houthi military commanders in Yemen on the Saudi or Emirati payrolls have regularly inflated the number of soldiers under their authority in order to receive surplus salaries and weapons from their patron. The surplus weapons have then been sold on, often to the same Houthi forces that these commanders were meant to be fighting.

The web of Yemen’s economy spread throughout the region. Cheap, low quality Iranian fuel has regularly been imported via the UAE or Oman through Hudaydah port, and then sold by Houthi-affiliated businesses in the north at significant markups. Importantly, those profiting from the war economy – including many high-level decision makers on all sides – have little personal interest in seeing the conflict end, and thus pose a risk of trying to spoil any potential peace process. (For details, see the full Sana’a Center report: Corruption in Yemen’s War Economy)  

Macroeconomic Overview*

*Even prior to the ongoing conflict, macroeconomic assessments in Yemen were fraught with challenges due to available data often being incomplete or inadequate. This regularly limited the accuracy and reliability of the figures produced from this data. Since the onset of the current conflict, the collapse of state institutions and the division of the country across frontlines, the collection of the data necessary for macroeconomic assessment has become even more difficult. Thus, all macroeconomic figures produced during the conflict should properly be understood as rough indicators rather than precise measurements.

A World Bank report from the fall of 2018 forecasted that the Yemeni economy would contract 2.6 percent in 2018. This comes subsequent to roughly a 40 percent decline in Yemen’s gross domestic product from 2015 to 2017, according to Yemen’s Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation.

The same World Bank report noted that while inflation was somewhat contained in 2017, due in part to the suspension of public sector salary payments, in 2018 it rose markedly by more than 40 percent. This was largely driven by the devaluation of the Yemeni currency. Given that the World Bank report was published in the fall of 2018 and could not have taken into account the rial’s continued rapid depreciation during the fourth quarter of 2018, it likely underestimated the extent of inflation for the year.

The rising inflation was also driven by the expansive monetary policy of the Aden-based CBY, with the Yemeni government seeking to fund the public budget deficit through the printing and injection of new banknotes into the economy. According to well established and credible sources working in the relevant public institutions under the control of the Yemeni government, the public budget deficit is estimated at YR660 billion in 2018, with this almost fully funded through over-drafting the government’s general account at the Aden-based CBY.

The World Bank also estimated that the public debt ratio rose to 75 percent of GDP in 2017, with roughly 49.4 percent being domestic public debt and 25.1 percent external public debt. At the time the report was published, foreign debt obligations had not been serviced since May 2016 (excluding obligations to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Group’s International Development Association), and accumulated arrears (unpaid goods and services, salaries and debt) since 2015 were estimated at around US$3 billion. On trade, Yemen held a current account deficit of approximately 9 percent of GDP in 2018.

Between 2014 and 2017 total imports contracted roughly 46 percent from US$12.3 billion to US$6.6 billion, though the World Bank projected imports for 2018 would increase to US$9.2 billion, to almost 75 percent of what they were before the conflict began. The report noted that if the violence in Yemen was contained moving forward, the country’s GDP could be expected to see positive growth with the gradual resumption of hydrocarbon exports.

The Yemeni Government’s “Austerity Budget”

On January 21, then Prime Minister Ahmed bin Dagher unveiled Yemen’s 2018 budget – the first since 2014. The budget projected YR1.46 trillion in spending with a YR482 billion deficit; given the exchange rate at the time, this equated to roughly US$3.32 billion in spending with a US$1.09 billion budget deficit. Speaking to reporters in Aden, bin Dagher described it as an “austerity budget” that “includes salaries for the military and civilians in 12 provinces… Salaries in Houthi-dominated areas will be limited to the education and health sectors”.

However, most public sector employees in Houthi-controlled areas did not receive any salaries from Aden in 2018, with the exception of those in the governorates of Taiz, al-Jawf, al-Bayda, and al-Dhalea. Public sector workers in government areas also continued to experience difficulties in obtaining consistent salary payments from the Aden-based CBY. The exception was anti-Houthi military and security personnel, who were generally bankrolled directly by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The total actual government spending reached some YR900 billion at the end of September 2018, of which 60 percent was allocated to pay the wage costs. Of the rest, 17 percent was spent on operational expenses of central government, 14 percent on social benefits and the remaining percentage was spent on the acquisition of assets and payment of liabilities.

In November and December 2018, for the first time since 2016, retirees across the entire country received state pensions.


Aden in November: Flags are raised at the celebration of Independence Day, commemorating South Yemen’s independence from British rule. Flags displayed (from left): Security Belt Forces, Saudi Arabia, South Yemen, UAE, Southern Transitional Council. The flag of the Yemeni Republic is notably absent // Photo Credit: Ahmed Shihab al-Qadi

Political Developments

Overview: Fragmentation in South, Hardliners Ascend in North  

Through 2018, the political fragmentation of Yemen continued. Tensions between the various groups that make up the anti-Houthi alliance came to the fore as power struggles erupted between nominal allies in areas ostensibly under the control of the internationally recognized Yemeni government. Southern secessionists flexed their military muscles in Aden, the temporary capital of President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government. The Islah party acted with increasing autonomy in Taiz after forcibly ousting rivals. Local power centers were also evident in Marib, Hadramawt and Mahra, exposing the sparse authority the Yemeni government has in areas it supposedly controls. Hadi’s government operated mostly from Riyadh throughout 2018, as it has since 2015.

Foreign interference exacerbated conflicts within the anti-Houthi alliance in 2018, with coalition powers Saudi Arabia and the UAE at times backing competing local groups. In Aden for example, Riyadh supported forces loyal to President Hadi, while Abu Dhabi armed and funded southern secessionists and Salafi groups that challenged the Yemeni president. In general, the UAE continued to expand its influence along Yemen’s coastal areas, whereas Saudi Arabia focused on securing areas nearer its border with Yemen.

The strained relationship between Hadi and the UAE saw marked periods of intense deterioration in 2018. The scope of Emirati control over security forces in Aden and the UAE’s growing zone of influence along Yemen’s coast and ports were already sources of tension with the Yemeni president. The UAE also continued to support forces opposed to the Islah party, an ally of Hadi’s government, due to the party’s ties to the regional Muslim Brotherhood, which the UAE vehemently opposes.

In 2018, for the first time, tensions escalated into an open spat between the Hadi government and the UAE over the island of Socotra. In May, the Yemeni government filed a complaint at the UN Security Council over the Emirati military presence on the UNESCO-protected island, accusing Abu Dhabi of violating Yemen’s sovereignty. Meanwhile, a regional geopolitical power struggle reached the previously placid eastern governorate of Mahra, where a local protest movement against the presence of Saudi troops emerged, backed by neighboring Oman.

Tensions within the anti-Houthi alliance de-escalated over the summer of 2018 with the launch of the battle for Hudaydah, as rivals closed ranks and attempted to put divisions aside. Increased international attention on Yemen toward the end of the year brought pressure on the coalition to defend the legitimacy of its military intervention and to act more cautiously. Despite their different approaches in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE eventually addressed the rising conflicts between their respective local allies. The UAE and the Islah party took steps toward reconciliation, capped by Islah leaders traveling to Abu Dhabi in November to meet with the de facto leader of the Emirates, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. Political differences and distrust between the UAE and Islah remained, but tensions had eased by the end of 2018.

Meanwhile, President Hadi sacked Prime Minister Ahmed Obaid bin Dagher in October. While officially citing corruption allegations as the reason, it is far more likely that Hadi fired bin Dagher to eliminate him as competition to lead the General People’s Congress (GPC) party. The GPC has been fractured and leaderless since Houthi forces killed former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in late 2017. Hadi selected Maeen Abdul Malik, a technocrat with a relatively clean reputation, as bin Dagher’s replacement. Also in the second half of 2018, Hadi’s health status became a growing concern after he collapsed in the Egyptian parliament in August. The Yemeni president, who has a heart condition, visited the Cleveland Clinic in the US several times in the months following.

In northern Yemen, hardliners in the armed Houthi movement assumed increasing authority in 2018. This followed the dissolution of the group’s alliance with the GPC in 2017 and the UAE’s assassination of the president of the Houthi-controlled Supreme Political Council, Saleh Ali al-Samad, in April 2018. The rise of the hardliners brought with it intensified oppression and a heightened climate of fear for people living in Houthi-held areas. This included increased persecution of minorities, bans of civil society groups, arrest campaigns, expanded extortion, forced conscription, and heavy-handed attempts at religious indoctrination.  

Cracks Within the Anti-Houthi Alliance

Aden: Hadi, Islah vs. UAE-backed Secessionists, Salafis

President Hadi angered many in Aden in 2017 when he sacked two popular politicians, former governor Aidarous al-Zubaidi and former minister Hani Bin Breik. Shortly thereafter these two established and took leading positions in the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC), with support and funding from Abu Dhabi. By early January 2018, STC leader al-Zubaidi was openly accusing the Hadi government of corruption and demanding the resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet.

Later in the month Yemeni government forces prevented STC supporters from holding a mass demonstration in Aden. This led to STC-affiliated forces clashing with the Presidential Protection Forces and storming key government buildings and military sites on January 28. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported that at least 36 people were killed and 185 injured in the fighting. Both sides fired artillery within the city. Pro-Hadi forces were effectively routed city-wide, save for those holding out in the besieged presidential palace.

In many ways the STC is useful for Abu Dhabi, in particular as a means to pressure Hadi, to counter the clout of Islah, to protect its expanding zones of influence along the Yemeni coast, and to back counter-terrorism operations against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the so-called ‘Islamic State’ group, or Daesh. UAE leaders have publicly remained relatively ambiguous regarding the STC’s secessionist ambitions for South Yemen. Following the January clashes in Aden, however, Riyadh made clear indications that it would not tolerate a coup by the STC.

At the initiative of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent a security delegation to Aden to intervene and imposed a ceasefire on February 1. The Security Belt Forces, also UAE-backed and closely tied to the STC, had taken over several military posts from the Presidential Protection Forces. After the ceasefire, the Giants Brigades (al-Amaliqa), a southern force considered a “neutral” third party, moved in and took control of some of these posts. While Hadi’s forces were later permitted to return to these posts, through the rest of 2018 they were unable to exert meaningful control in Aden, with the balance of power in the city clearly favoring the UAE-backed Security Belt Forces. Meanwhile, the Giants Brigade, made up of Salafis and tribal fighters from the south, largely redeployed to the Red Sea Coast for the battle for Hudaydah (see ‘The Battle for Hudaydah).

In the months following the January clashes, Saudi Arabia tried to mediate between Hadi, the UAE and local forces competing with the government. Riyadh arranged for Hadi to visit Abu Dhabi in June, after which the president traveled to Aden for the first time in more than eighteen months. However, tensions with the UAE-backed STC soon resumed. Between July and September, the STC staged demonstrations against the Yemeni government and repeatedly called for an independent southern state. The STC capitalized on the currency crisis and the soaring food prices during these months (see The Currency Crisis and the Threat of Famine), which had exacerbated popular anger against the government.

In October, Buzzfeed News reported that the UAE had hired former US special forces personnel to assassinate political figures and clerics associated with the Islah party in southern Yemen. Hungarian-Israeli security contractor Abraham Golan, founder of Delaware-based Spear Operations Group, told Buzzfeed News that the UAE had flown his team to Aden to assassinate figures designated as targets by Emirati officials. Golan said the UAE provided his team with high-end American weaponry. Since 2015, Aden has seen several waves of assassinations against local clerics and political figures affiliated with competing political camps, suggesting that several parties were responsible for the killings.

Hadramawt: Ali Mohsen, Islah vs. UAE-backed Local Forces

In 2018, tensions between local powerbrokers and the internationally recognized Yemeni government also came to the fore in Hadramawt governorate. Yemen’s largest governorate, Hadramawt sprawls from the eastern desert to the port city of Mukalla. Security control through 2018 was generally split between Islah-dominated forces loyal to President Hadi and Vice-President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar in Hadramawt Valley in the center of the governorate, UAE-backed Hadrami Elite Forces in the southern coastal region, and Saudi-affiliated troops stationed in the governorate’s north.

Hadramawt has also historically accounted for more than half the country’s oil production. In March 2018, the Yemeni government and Hadramawt governor Faraj al-Bahsani struck a deal to end a long-standing dispute over the governorate’s share of oil export revenues. Under the agreement, Hadramawt was granted 20 percent of the revenues from its oil exports, allowing the governor greater ability to act autonomously, even with inconsistent oil production.

Over the summer, a rift reopened between the Hadi government and local constituencies in Hadramawt. In July, amidst protests against the lack of services and poor security conditions, southern secessionists from the STC accused Hadi’s government of failure and called on the Hadrami Elite Forces to take control of security in Saiyun, the main town in Hadramawt Valley, where the government’s First Military Region headquarters are located.

The economic crisis sparked by the plunge in the value of the rial emboldened Hadi’s rivals further. In September, in the midst of protests against economic hardship, Governor al-Bahsani threatened to halt any oil exports from the governorate if the central government did not address the economic crisis. In October, tensions among security forces escalated in Hadramawt Valley, where protests against security and economic conditions divided the security forces. The security committee, responsible for coordinating local security forces in the governorate, voiced support for the protesters, in defiance of Ali Mohsen, whose forces had clashed with demonstrators. Hadramawt’s governor accused Islah-affiliated brigades of harboring “terrorist groups” in Hadramawt valley, and called for the deployment of the Hadrami Elite Forces in the region.

At the end of 2018, however, the status quo in the governorate remained. Sources close to the Saudi-led military coalition confirmed to the Sana’a Center that Riyadh had intervened to stop a further conflict from escalating. Despite Abu Dhabi’s active support for groups opposing President Hadi’s government, it aligned itself with the Saudi position, as it did in Aden when secessionists attempted a coup there in January.

Marib: Islah, Tribes and the Saudis United in Federalism

The governorate of Marib was one of the most stable areas of Yemen in 2018. Governor Sultan al-Aradah, a powerful local tribal leader, has through the current conflict carved out a de facto federal statelet under his rule, in alliance with local tribes and the Islah party. Marib has evolved into a center for northern Yemenis opposed to the armed Houthi movement and a major headquarters for military operations against Houthi forces in the north. The governorate’s oil, gas and water resources have helped Marib attain relative self-reliance and autonomy from the Hadi government. Producing some 15,000 barrels of liquid petroleum gas (LPG) per day, Marib remained Yemen’s number one LPG provider in 2018. Thanks to its local refinery, Marib sold most of its oil on the local market, while keeping oil and gas revenues at the local branch of the central bank rather than transferring them to the Yemeni government-controlled branch in Aden.

As a core area of Saudi influence situated in the north of Yemen, Marib was less exposed to Emirati efforts to shore up local groups against Islah. Its strong local tribal networks also helped to prevent divisions and power struggles from escalating. Meanwhile, Marib’s Islah-affiliated security apparatus heavily oppressed political dissent.

Taiz: Islah Forces Oust Rivals

The Islah party took major steps to consolidate its political and military power in Taiz City in 2018. An ally of the internationally recognized Yemeni government, Islah utilized its strong grassroots support, local business ties and its loyalists in senior military positions to act with increasing independence in the southwestern city. It also faced vocal resistance in a city with strong political traditions that was once a main base for leftist parties.

As well as fighting the armed Houthi movement, Islah-affiliated forces also clashed with other anti-Houthi groups, in particular the Salafi-oriented Abu al-Abbas Brigades, who have been supported by the UAE. The group’s leader, Abu al-Abbas, is notable for the US Treasury designating him a “prominent military instructor” and fundraiser for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in 2017.

In August 2018, intense clashes erupted between Islah-affiliated groups and the Abu al-Abbas Brigades in Taiz City. Dozens of civilians were reported killed or wounded. President Hadi announced the creation of a presidential committee to end the violence, though the committee was dominated by Islah figures. In a deal brokered by the committee, both the Abu al-Abbas Brigades and Islah-affiliated army units and militias agreed to withdraw from positions within Taiz City. By the end of August, Abu al-Abbas’ forces had withdrawn but Islah-affiliated forces remained. Despite having fulfilled its mandate, the presidential committee then refused Taiz governor Amin Mahmoud’s request to dissolve. Instead, the committee aided Islah affiliates in asserting control over the local security apparatus and facilitated the withdrawal of other anti-Houthi forces from areas around Taiz, allowing Islah-affiliated forces to move in.

Tensions in the governorate of Taiz persisted in the following months. A wave of assassinations targeted high profile figures from both groups in the al-Turbah area in the south of the governorate, and disputes erupted over the control of checkpoints on the strategic road linking Taiz City and Aden.

The year closed with President Hadi’s dismissal of Governor Mahmoud, who had opposed the Islah takeover. To replace Mahmoud, Hadi nominated Nabil Shamsan, a technocrat and former minister of civil services from the GPC party (see ‘The GPC in Crisis’) with ties to Yemeni political figures from various camps. Mahmoud’s dismissal, which Islah had pushed for, appeared to be part of a deal that also included the replacement of the commander of the Taiz Military Axis, Khaled Fadel, who was a primary Islah ally in Taiz. Fadel was succeeded by Samir al-Hajj, a former military commander who has been on relatively good terms with Islah and Yemeni Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar.


Source: Sana’a Center research // Graphic: Ghaidaa Alrashidy

Red Sea Coast: Tariq Saleh Switches Sides

A new, controversial ally emerged in the fight against the armed Houthi movement in 2018. Tariq Saleh, a nephew of the late former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, survived the clashes with Houthi forces that killed his uncle in December 2017. The UAE had retained ties with the Saleh family throughout the conflict despite the family’s alliance with the armed Houthi movement, and began building Tariq into a new military ally early last year. In February, Tariq Saleh began mobilizing troops in Aden with military and financial support from the UAE.

In April, these troops, dubbed the National Resistance Forces, joined the fight against the armed Houthi movement on the Red Sea coastline, where prominent locals held longstanding ties to Saleh, as well as Vice-President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. Most members of parliament from Hudaydah are members of the General People’s Congress party – which Saleh founded and formerly led. Saleh had used patronage to build a constituency in Hudaydah, one of Yemen’s poorest governorates.

Several factions in the anti-Houthi alliance opposed Tariq Saleh assuming a prominent military role. In April, thousands of people joined a demonstration staged by an Islah-affiliated organization in Taiz to protest Tariq Saleh’s deployment on the governorate’s western coastline. Protester grievances centered around Saleh’s backing by the UAE. Local sources told the Sana’a Center that some demonstrators also objected to Tariq Saleh because of his role in the former regime. Military commanders from the Giants Brigades (al-Amaliqa) initially opposed Tariq Saleh’s involvement in the Red Sea offensive but later relented and fought alongside his troops.

Socotra: The Government vs. the UAE

Tensions between the UAE and the internationally recognized Yemeni government mounted in 2018, as the ostensible allies traded accusations publicly for the first time in an open spat over the island of Socotra. In May, President Hadi’s government sent a letter (S/2018/440) to the UN Security Council complaining that Abu Dhabi had undertaken “unjustified military action” on the island. The UAE had deployed some 100 Emirati troops and military equipment to Socotra, and taken control of the island’s seaport and airport.

The island archipelago is a UNESCO world heritage site located at the strategic intersection of shipping lanes between the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the rest of the Indian Ocean. Hadi’s prime minister at the time, Ahmed Obaid bin Dagher, had accused the UAE of breaching Yemen’s sovereignty during a visit to Socotra. Abu Dhabi denounced the allegation and accused the Muslim Brotherhood of instigating a media campaign against the UAE. Meanwhile, widespread discontent with the Emirati presence led to public protests in Socotra’s capital, Hadibu.

The crisis was resolved following US calls for political dialogue and Saudi mediation. According to a high-level official within the Yemeni government who spoke with the Sana’a Center, Hadi had agreed to endorse the US decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran in exchange for a US administration statement acknowledging Yemeni sovereignty over Socotra. The UAE relinquished control of the island on May 14, expressed regret over the “misunderstanding” and recognized Yemeni sovereignty over Socotra.

Mahra: Saudi Arabia Attempting to Limit Omani Clout

In the governorate of Mahra, for the first time, a geopolitical power struggle became apparent in 2018, when Oman started to support a local protest movement against the presence of the Saudi-led military coalition. Previously, the eastern region bordering Oman had been largely unaffected by the current conflict. This changed when the Saudi-led coalition gradually attempted to establish a military presence in Mahra in 2017. Local tribal leaders expressed concern about militarization affecting the social coherence and identity of Mahra, a region with an identity and language of its own; many locals speak Mahri, an old Semitic tongue.

Mahra’s Nishtun port and land border crossings had gained importance during the war as other entry points for trade became restricted due to the conflict. Its smuggling routes became a focal point for the coalition when it became apparent that military equipment used by Houthi forces had found its way into Yemen via Mahra.

The UAE, however, failed to establish a local proxy force in the way it had in other coastal areas, as locals in Mahra refused to take orders from the coalition that were in opposition to local authorities, according to Sana’a Center researchers. Citing the need to curb arms smuggling through Mahra, Saudi army officers then deployed in the governorate together with proxy forces originating from other areas of Yemen in November 2017 to seize control of Nishtun port, Shahen and Sarfit border crossings with Oman, and al-Ghaydah airport. Locals complained about trade restrictions and demanded the entry points be returned to local control.

Protests against the Saudi-led coalition’s imposition of military control on entrances to the governorate began in April, ebbed away over Ramadan and then resumed again at the end of June in the city of al-Ghaydah. An agreement between tribal leaders, local authorities and Saudi representatives was reached in July but later broke down, with locals accusing the Saudis of not implementing their agreed upon withdrawal from key positions within a two-month period. In September, local media reported that experts tasked with scouring sites to build a Saudi oil pipeline through Mahra had arrived in the governorate, further fueling anger among locals. Local residents and tribal leaders then protested near construction sites for Saudi military bases and near al-Ghaydah airport. According to the office of the former deputy governor and protest leader Ali Salem al-Harizi, a powerful local tribal sheikh and a critic of the Saudi presence in Mahra, the demonstrations were directed against the pipeline project as well as efforts by the Saudi-led military coalition to expand its influence in the governorate.

According to several Sana’a Center sources and research in Mahra, Oman started supporting the protest movement against Saudi presence through al-Harizi. Oman had traditionally supported Mahra through privileges like preferential trade relations, investments and health services, but this appeared to be the first time that Muscat provided financial assistance for a political cause in Mahra. Oman’s historic ties to the Yemeni region on its border meant that the Saudi military presence and control of border crossings represented an infringement on its zone of influence and a challenge to its clout in the area.

Saudi military presence gradually increased over the course of 2018, according to Sana’a Center researchers. In the second half of the year, there were between 1,500 and 2,000 Saudi troops in Mahra. In addition, according to diplomatic sources who spoke with the Sana’a Center, US special forces were deployed to Mahra to help the coalition counter the smuggling of Iranian weapons, in an apparent deviation from the Pentagon’s official line that direct military engagement in Yemen was limited to operations against AQAP and the so-called ‘Islamic State’ group, or Daesh.

Prior to the protests against Saudi military presence, the arrival of a large group of Salafis from other areas of Yemen had already sparked protests, as rumors circulated that Saudi Arabia was behind a plan to resettle Salafis in Mahra and change the social fabric of the area. In January, residents of Qishn demonstrated against Salafis settling in their town, as well as against alleged plans to establish a Salafi institute with Saudi support in Qishn. The governor then met with local dignitaries and assured them that there were no such plans; the Saudi-led military coalition was itself forced to deny claims it was involved in any such project. However, Saudi Arabia appeared to be investing in Mahra for the long haul. In December, the opening of Mahra TV, a new local TV station with headquarters in Riyadh, was announced.

Protests against Saudi Arabia in Mahra continued at the end of 2018, and the risk of an escalation with Saudi troops remained high going into 2019.

A New Prime Minister, a President in Bad Health

Maeen Abdul Malik Replaces Bin Dagher as PM

The president of the internationally recognized Yemeni government, Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, sacked his Prime Minister Ahmed Obaid bin Dagher on October 15, replacing him with the technocrat Maeen Abdul Malik. The new premier entered office with a relatively clean reputation, having first taken a public office during Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC) negotiations following the Arab Spring protest movement in 2011. Among the posts he held related to the political transition process were chairman of the Independent Authorities working group at the NDC, as well as seats on the committee responsible for drawing up new federal regions and the Constitutional Drafting Committee.

Officially, Hadi fired bin Dagher over corruption allegations, and the president opened an investigation into his former premier. However, a Sana’a Center investigation into the development of Yemen’s war economy found that Hadi himself has presided over rampant government corruption. It is widely thought that Hadi has sought to replace late former President Saleh as leader of the GPC party and that he saw bin Dagher – a politically dynamic figure also maneuvering to head the GPC – as a threat to these ambitions.

Some greeted Abdul Malik’s s appointment with cautious optimism due to his clean reputation and his international connections. 

President Hadi’s Health in Doubt

Questions regarding President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s health continued to be a source of speculation in the second half of 2018. The Yemeni president is known to have a heart condition, for which he has had regular check-ups at the Cleveland Clinic in the US for several years. In August, Hadi collapsed in a corridor of the Egyptian parliament in Cairo just prior to addressing lawmakers there, and by the end of the month he was back at the Cleveland Clinic. In late October Hadi was again in the US undergoing medical procedures. In November, Hadi’s office denied that his health was deteriorating, stating the president was in good health and undergoing regular tests.

Behind the scenes, many regional and international stakeholders in Yemen have been trying to assess possible scenarios that may arise should Hadi die. A general consensus is that it would represent a major turning point in the war and the future of the country, especially given the uncertainty of who might replace him, and how his successor would be chosen.  

Houthi Hardliners On The Rise

Moderates Silenced After the Deaths of Saleh And al-Samad

Hardliners and ideologues expanded their clout within the armed Houthi movement in 2018. Houthi forces began consolidating control in Yemen’s northern areas after killing their erstwhile ally, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in December 2017. The Houthi leadership’s tense alliance with Saleh had come to an end after the former president publicly sought an alliance with the Saudi-led coalition. While there has been controversy around the circumstances of Saleh’s death on December 4, 2017, according to Sana’a Center research and sources close to Saleh, Houthi forces killed the former president outside of Sana’a, in the village of al-Jahshi in the Sanhan area, from where he originated.    

On January 1, 2018, Houthi authorities in Sana’a cemented their control over government institutions, announcing the appointment of 32 new ministers, governors and advisors to fill vacancies left by the collapse of the Houthi-Saleh alliance. Meanwhile, the Sana’a branch of the GPC was greatly weakened by Saleh’s death, given that he had led the party since founding it in 1982. Many GPC leaders fled Sana’a after Saleh’s killing, while others stayed but assumed a low profile. Houthi authorities also carried out an arrest campaign against GPC members suspected of opposing them (see ‘The GPC in Crisis’).

The domination of hardliners within the ranks of the armed Houthi movement intensified in April with the killing of Saleh Ali al-Samad, president of the Supreme Political Council (SPC), the highest governing body in Houthi-controlled territory. Al-Samad, a senior Houthi official, was killed in a coalition airstrike along with prominent Houthi military commanders. According to a Foreign Policy report, the UAE targeted al-Samad using intelligence channeled through the networks of Tariq Saleh, nephew of the late former president (see ‘Tariq Saleh Switches Sides’).

Al-Samad was the highest-ranking member of the Houthi leadership to have been killed in the conflict thus far. Regarded as a moderate, al-Samad was well-connected within the Houthi organization and beyond. He was replaced by hardliner Mahdi al-Mashat, a close associate and former student of Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi, whose office he once headed. The deaths of Saleh and al-Samad and the rise of al-Mashat were major factors contributing to increased levels of oppression against, and the heavy imposition of Houthi ideology on, the citizenry of northern Yemen.

Spreading Sectarianism and Fear

The climate of fear and oppression in Houthi-controlled areas intensified in 2018. Human rights organizations documented widespread arrests and enforced disappearances (see ‘NGO and Media Investigations’). Houthi authorities strengthened their grip on economic levers and increasingly extorted taxes, tariffs and fees from individuals and businesses in northern Yemen (see ‘Houthi Authorities Strengthen Their Grip Over the Economy’). They also intensified pressure on the staff of international NGOs (see ‘Aid Diversion and Targeting Humanitarian Staff’) and local civil society. In a November 5 letter from the president of the Supreme Political Council in Sana’a to the Minister of Social Affairs and Labour, the former banned the latter from issuing or renewing licenses for any local NGOs, unions, syndicates, foundations or associations, “from this time until further notice”. The decree allows for “emergency” exceptions, implying those organizations that are Houthi-affiliated. With Saleh’s supporters scattered and the GPC hobbled, the armed Houthi movement no longer faced any meaningful opposition to its domination within northern areas of Yemen. The last newspaper in Sana’a that was not associated with Houthi forces, the Saleh-affiliated Yemen Today, was shuttered at the end of 2017.

In 2018, Houthi authorities began to force public servants to attend cultural camps, where they listened to speeches by Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi and his older brother, Hussein al-Houthi, the founder of the Houthi movement who was killed by the Yemeni army in 2004. Teachers who spoke with the Sana’a Center said that Houthi authorities had radically altered curricula and school textbooks, promoting Houthi ideology and adding a sectarian tone to history and religion courses. Houthi ideology was also propagated in summer camps for school children, and Houthi leaders escalated incitement against minorities, in particular the Baha’i faith (see Human Rights Violations). In Ramadan, Houthi authorities banned mosques from broadcasting the Tarawih prayer, a tradition among Yemen’s Shafais (as Sunni Muslims are called in the country). They also regularly installed surveillance cameras at mosques where the preachers were not Zaidi (the branch of Shia Islam of the armed Houthi movement).

Houthi authorities further intensified restrictions on social life throughout 2018, banning a film festival and shutting down coffee shops to prevent mixing between genders. While Sunni extremist groups also expanded their influence in 2018 in areas nominally held by the government – such as Aden and Taiz – the Zaidi Shiite sectarianization in Houthi-held areas was institutionalized by the governing authorities.

The GPC in Crisis

Following the death of its leader, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the General People’s Congress party (GPC) entered 2018 with a fragmented leadership and a deep identity crisis. The party had already been weakened by the 2011 uprising, Saleh’s departure from the presidency in 2012 and the onset of the current conflict in late 2014; however, Saleh’s death in December 2017 shook the foundations of the GPC, Yemen’s largest and most important non-sectarian political party.

Many senior GPC leaders and GPC-affiliated families, including most of Saleh’s family, fled Houthi-controlled areas in 2018. Many relocated to regional capitals, while some joined Tariq Saleh – the late president’s nephew who formed an armed force with Emirati support – to fight the armed Houthi movement (see Red Sea Coast: Tariq Saleh Switches Sides). GPC members who remained in Houthi-held territory were often arrested or placed under house arrest, while those considered innocuous remained free. Sadeq Amin Abu Ras, the former deputy of the late Saleh, became the head of the GPC faction in Sana’a, but with only limited political power. Given the Houthi security forces’ iron-fisted grip on the capital, the GPC has had little independent room to operate in Sana’a.

By the end of 2018, the upper ranks of the GPC were scattered across the region and beyond. The leadership had fragmented into several main factions: those close to President Hadi and Saudi Arabia, who were mostly based in Riyadh and Cairo; those close to the UAE; and those who remained in Houthi-controlled areas. Sana’a Center sources reported that Oman and Qatar had successfully convinced some GPC leaders to relocate to Muscat, with Qatar providing some with financial incentives.  

Saleh’s son Ahmad Ali Saleh, who was appointed ambassador to the UAE in 2013, was seen as a potential successor to his father. He maintained close ties with Abu Dhabi even while his father was allied with the Houthi forces. However, the late president’s son showed limited ability to mobilize the GPC base.

Saudi efforts to reunite the GPC also proved unsuccessful. An attempt to bring the party membership together in Jeddah in June drew no attendees from Sana’a. Participants at the meeting failed to agree on a new leader. Hadi’s aspirations to lead the party were well-known in 2018, but many prominent GPC members would not even consider this possibility. In the end, an agreed-upon action plan involving leaders from different factions was not followed up on or implemented.


Taiz in August: A tank from the Islah-affiliated 17th infantry brigade in action. Islah-affiliated anti-Houthi forces have ousted rivalling allies from parts of the governorate, as clashes with the Houthis were ongoing // Photo Credit: Ahmed Basha

Frontline Developments

Overview: The Armed Houthi Movement Cornered But Uncowed

Anti-Houthi forces, backed by the Saudi-led military coalition, made gains on several fronts in 2018. The most significant military campaign began in the summer as ground forces supported by coalition aircraft began moving northward up the Red Sea Coast toward the port city of Hudaydah. The UAE coordinated the offensive, named “Operation Golden Victory”, with the aim of conquering the last ports under the control of the armed Houthi movement, the largest being Hudaydah port, as well as the nearby ports of Saleef and Ras Issa. The campaign was characterized by stops and starts, with the most recent pause beginning after the warring parties agreed on a ceasefire during the Sweden consultations in December. (For full details, see ‘The Battle for Hudaydah’ and ‘The Stockholm Agreement’.)

Elsewhere in the country, anti-Houthi forces exerted pressure on several fronts simultaneously, including in the northern Sa’ada governorate, the birthplace and heartland of the Houthi movement. However, outside of Hudaydah and relatively minor movements in Sa’ada governorate, frontlines around the country remained largely unchanged over the course of the year and were static at the time of this writing. Armed clashes have continued and in some cases intensified since the December talks in Sweden, namely in Marib, Taiz, al-Jawf and Sa’ada. The armed Houthi movement retained control over Yemen’s largest population centers, including the capital Sana’a. As has been the case since the Saudi-led military coalition intervention in March 2015, an all-out military victory against Houthi forces remained highly unlikely heading into 2019. Meanwhile, as Houthi forces demonstrated in 2018 with regular missile and drone attacks into Saudi Arabia and against shipping in the Red Sea, they have continued to develop their capacities to harass their foes beyond Yemen’s borders.    

Power struggles and friction among the forces nominally aligned with the government at times weakened the fight against the armed Houthi movement (see ‘Cracks Within the Anti-Houthi Alliance’). When clashes occurred in Aden in January between southern secessionists and troops loyal to President Hadi (see ‘Aden: Hadi, Islah vs. UAE-backed Secessionists, Salafis‘), military commanders loyal to Hadi threatened to withdraw from key frontlines and redeploy to Aden. However, with the offensive on Hudaydah beginning in summer, these rivals largely closed ranks, with the UAE exerting pressure on the parties to do so. The UAE has supported groups challenging the government of Hadi, most notably the southern secessionists. But as the battle for Hudaydah began under Emirati leadership, unity on the battleground became the priority for Abu Dhabi.

Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) attacks in Yemen dropped significantly in 2018, as the group appeared far weaker as 2018 ended than it did when the ongoing Yemeni conflict began. While counterterrorism operations by the Saudi-led military coalition and US military have left AQAP smarting, reports also emerged last year of instances in which the coalition had paid off AQAP fighters to de-escalate conflicts, and even hired fighters out of the group and into the coalition-backed forces operating in Yemen. Also in 2018, AQAP for the first time battled it out with fighters from the so-called Islamic State group, or Daesh, signaling that the implicit non-aggression pact that had been in effect between the two jihadist rivals had ended.  


Most Important Anti-Houthi Ground Forces

The Yemeni national army fractured when the civil war broke out in 2014. Some army units fought alongside now-deceased former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the armed Houthi movement, others with the government and allied militias. Saudi Arabia supports army units loyal to the government. UAE-backed forces such as the Giants Brigades, the National Resistance Forces or the Security Belt Forces operate largely outside the control of the government, answering directly to the UAE.

  • Giants Brigades (al-Amaliqa): UAE-backed, composed of tribal fighters from southern Yemen as well as Salafis who adhere to the principle of wali al-amr, meaning they reject any disobedience to the ruler, who in the case of Yemen is President Hadi. At the same time they are loyal to the UAE to the extent that Abu Dhabi arms and funds them. Some of these Salafis also previously lived under Houthi siege, and thus are motivated by sectarian zeal and desire for revenge. Overall, southerners (particularly those from more western governorates) who wanted to fight against the Houthi forces but did not want to be part of the power struggle between Hadi and the STC joined the Giants. With six battalions totalling some 20,000 fighters, the Giants are the largest contingent of the ground forces spearheading the coalition-backed Hudaydah offensive.
  • National Resistance Forces: UAE-backed, led by Tariq Saleh, nephew of late former Yemeni President Saleh, mostly composed of former army units from northern Yemen; Tariq Saleh’s forces have been leading the battle for Hudaydah together with the Giants Brigades. 4000 of them were deployed at the beginning of the battle, with 2000 more being trained.
  • Tihama Resistance: A UAE-backed force of locals from the Red Sea Coast area recruited to join the Hudaydah offensive along side Tariq Saleh and the Giants Brigades, likely totalling several thousand fighters.
  • Government Army Factions: Troops from the fractured Yemeni national army affiliated with the government; a significant part of them are affiliated with the Islah party and Vice-President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar
    • Islah-affiliated troops control Marib together with tribal alliances. They ousted rivalling factions in Taiz and were challenged by southern groups in central Hadramawt in 2018; many of these go back to 2012 when President Hadi, in the course of security sector reform during political transition, recruited more than 20,000 new soldiers affiliated with Islah.
    • In Taiz, Islah-affiliated factions were in conflict with the UAE-backed local forces of the Abu al-Abbas Brigades, but also with another Yemeni army faction, Liwa 35. This latter group, based in the Turbah area as of end of 2018, is made up of general Yemeni army personnel and left-leaning nationalist figures from around Taiz governorate.
  • Abu al-Abbas Brigades: UAE-backed force from Taiz composed mostly of fighters from the old city of Taiz and surrounding areas. Its members are of a variety of ideological leanings, led by the Salafi Abu al-Abbas who is being accused by the US of being a fundraiser and military trainer of AQAP; have been in conflict with Islah-affiliated forces in Taiz.
  • Presidential Protection Forces: Force loyal to President Hadi controlling several military posts in the government’s temporary capital Aden, where the Security Belt Forces are generally in control; established in 2012 as force to protect President Hadi in the framework of security sector reform during the political transition; a small number have joined the Giants Brigades for the Red Sea offensive.
  • Hadrami Elite Forces: UAE-backed force operating in the southern part of Hadramawt, composed of tribal fighters and other locals. Involved in UAE-led operations against AQAP and Daesh.
  • Shabwa Elite Forces: UAE-backed tribal force operating in Shabwa. Involved in UAE-led operations against AQAP and Daesh.
  • Security Belt Forces: UAE-backed secessionist force from southern Yemen affiliated with the STC; numbers more than 15,000 troops, deployed in Aden, Abyan, al-Dhalea and Lahj. The majority are currently from al-Dhalea governorate. Involved in UAE-led operations against AQAP and Daesh. The UAE set up the Security Belt with fighters from the Southern Resistance that was formed to expel Houthi forces from Aden in 2015. President Hadi’s attempts to bring them under government control failed. The Security Belt has dominated security in Aden after clashes with troops loyal to President Hadi in January 2018. Some members are both secessionists (opposing Hadi) and Salafis – a rather unusual combination; however, the current Security Belt leader, Wadhah Omar Abdel Aziz, has no Salafi background.
  • Tribal Alliances have been formed in various areas to fight alongside anti-Houthi forces or to secure tribal areas nominally held by the government.

The Northern Front

Over the course of 2018, anti-Houthi forces continued their advance in Sa’ada governorate, moving southward from the Saudi-Yemeni border. As the birthplace and stronghold of the Houthi movement, Sa’ada has considerable symbolic and strategic significance, with its fate likely decisive for the wider conflict.

Anti-Houthi forces did not take control of any significant population centers during the year, but their encroachment on mountains in the northern governorate offered strategic dividends for subsequent advances. A new thrust into western Sa’ada from Saudi Arabia’s Jizan governorate was launched in January, with coalition airstrikes preceding assaults by ground troops. Coalition-backed forces then opened another front in southwest Sa’ada in April, with units comprised mostly of southern fighters, according to local media.

In April, anti-Houthi forces seized the town of al-Malahidh, al-Zaher district, western Sa’ada, putting pressure on Houthi supply lines between Sa’ada and Haradh City, Hajjah governorate. Coalition-backed forces then accelerated their advances in the summer, taking a strategic mountain range in northwest Sa’ada, overlooking Baqim district, while simultaneously moving south in Kitaf district, seizing sections of the road connecting Sa’ada City to the Saudi border. Given its significance, Sa’ada governorate was prioritized as the destination for Houthi reinforcements during the year, putting a strain on other active frontlines.

Coalition-backed advances in Sa’ada were generally characterized by gaining ground followed by counterattacks, but over the year as a whole the northern governorate was the site of the only significant anti-Houthi gains outside of Hudaydah. Nevertheless, the difficult terrain has made the offensive costly to coalition-backed forces. Sana’a Center sources reported a high death toll for small distances gained.

Houthi Missiles and Drones

Attacks Against Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Local Opponents

The armed Houthi movement demonstrated more sophisticated military capacities as the war progressed, with increasing missile attacks against Saudi Arabia and the deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) against coalition and local anti-Houthi forces. Houthi-affiliated media claimed to have targeted UAE military facilities in Mokha district with missiles and drones in April. In early July, Houthi forces released a video showing a drone dropping explosives on UAE-backed forces in an area south of Hudaydah City. Days later, for the first time, they targeted Aden with a drone that was subsequently shot down by the coalition. In the same month, the armed Houthi movement claimed attacks in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Saudi Aramco denied an alleged long-range UAV attack by Houthi forces at one of its oil refineries in Riyadh, while Abu Dhabi refuted the claim of a Houthi drone attack on its airport.

On March 25, on the third anniversary of the beginning of the Saudi-led coalition’s military intervention in Yemen, Houthi forces fired a barrage of missiles at Saudi Arabia, three of them targeting the capital Riyadh. Saudi Arabia claimed the interception of seven ballistic missiles, while one Egyptian national was reported killed by the falling debris. Saudi-led military coalition spokesman Col. Turki al-Maliki blamed Iran for the attacks, claiming that Tehran supplied the armed Houthi movement with ballistic missiles. Houthi forces have frequently used ballistic missiles to target Riyadh, the first time being in May 2017.

Throughout the month of April, the armed Houthi movement claimed almost daily missile and drone attacks targeting Saudi Arabia, with the majority of these attacks focusing on military, energy and transport infrastructure in southern areas bordering Yemen. Many of these claimed attacks were neither denied nor confirmed by Riyadh, while there was little indication of significant damage caused.

Attacks in Bab al-Mandab Strait

Houthi forces also carried out attacks on Saudi oil tankers off the Red Sea Coast with surface-to-ship missiles on April 3 and on July 25. In each case, one oil tanker suffered minor damages, according to statements from Saudi officials. Houthi media in both cases reported targeting Saudi warships. Saudi Arabia blamed Houthi forces and Iran for the attacks, accusing the latter of supplying missiles to the armed Houthi movement. In April, Saudi Arabia reacted decidedly undeterred, with the Saudi energy minister stating that the attacks against oil tankers were not affecting economic activity, meaning that transport through the Bab al-Mandab Strait would continue interrupted. In July however, Riyadh announced a temporary halt in all oil shipments through the strait.

While Saudi media reported that the UAE and Kuwait were also considering suspending oil shipments through the Bab al-Mandab Strait, Tehran escalated its rhetoric. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Quds force, said that due to the presence of US troops, the Red Sea was “no longer secure”. A week later, the Houthi leadership declared a unilateral two-week halt in military operations along the Red Sea. The Houthi authorities also suggested to extend the pause and “include all fronts” if the move was reciprocated by the Saudi-led military coalition. A day later at the start of August, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to send military forces to intervene if “Iran” were to attempt to block the Bab al-Mandab Strait. This was the first time Israel had threatened to directly assert itself in the Yemen conflict.

On August 4, Saudi Arabia resumed oil shipments through the Bab al-Mandab Strait.

A Weakened AQAP

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni affiliate of the global jihadi group, remained an active participant in the country’s domestic conflict in 2018, engaging in battles and attacks against coalition-backed forces, Yemeni government troops, Houthi fighters and, notably for the first time, the so-called “Islamic State” group, known as Daesh, in Yemen. The year witnessed an overall drop in the number of AQAP attacks in the country, with just 62 claimed operations in the first half of 2018 compared to more than 200 in both 2016 and 2017. These figures were indicative of the group’s reduced operational capacity and that it ended 2018 weaker than at any point in recent years. Meanwhile, counter-terrorism operations against the group, led by the US in conjunction with its coalition allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE, continued mostly in the form of airstrikes. However, 2018 also saw controversy grow regarding the coalition’s conduct and alleged accommodating attitude toward the group.

According to US State Department estimates, AQAP in 2018 had fighters numbering in the low thousands spread across several governorates, while the UN put this figure slightly higher at 6,000-7,000. AQAP’s presence was centered in al-Bayda, Shabwa and Abyan, with a smaller number of fighters present in Hadramawt governorate. US airstrikes also targeted members of the group in the Marib governorate.

In early 2018, the UAE launched several counter-terrorism operations against AQAP’s enclaves in Hadramawt, Shabwa and Abyan. In February, “Operation al-Faisal” mobilized the UAE-backed Hadramawt Elite Forces to target AQAP militants in the al-Masiuni valley approximately 100 km west of Mukalla in Hadramawt, while “Operation Decisive Sword” deployed the UAE-backed Shabwa Elite Forces to clear Wadi Yeshbum in Shabwa. The following month in Mahfad district, Abyan, “Operation Sweeping Torrent”, spearheaded by the Security Belt Forces, resulted in the arrest of nine local AQAP commanders, including the alleged AQAP emir in Mahfad. On March 11, the Emirates News Agency reported that Mahfad district was clear of AQAP militants, though whether the group withdrew from the district to avoid engaging with a superior force or as part of a deal with the coalition was unclear.

In June, AQAP published an interview with senior leader Khalid bin Umar Batarfi in which he acknowledged dwindling resources and military pressure on the group, but promised significant “operations” when conditions were more amenable. The month also witnessed a notable uptick in AQAP asymmetric attacks against multiple opponents. The group claimed a complex suicide attack against Security Belt Forces in al-Wade’a district, Abyan, while suspected AQAP improvised explosive device attacks killed three members of the UAE-backed Shabwa Elite Forces in southern Shabwa governorate and injured nine members of the UAE-backed Security Belt Forces in Abyan governorate. Moving into July, AQAP released a statement claiming three attacks against Houthi forces in al-Bayda governorate in the first 10 days of the month, resulting in the deaths of eight Houthi fighters, including a commander.

AQAP vs Daesh

In a significant development, AQAP fighters in July engaged in direct combat with fighters from Daesh for the first time in Yemen. In previous years, a tactical non-aggression pact existed between the two jihadi groups, according to Gregory Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia. This arrangement was particularly visible in al-Bayda, where the groups had training camps in close proximity to one another. Hostilities between the two groups were limited to a war of words. In his statement the previous month, AQAP leader Batarfi, without mentioning Daesh by name, said his organization was willing to collaborate with other militant Islamist groups in the country and had made attempts to open lines of communication. The non-aggression pact broke down when the two groups engaged in armed clashes in Qayfa, al-Bayda governorate. Following the clashes, Daesh released a video purportedly showing 12 captured AQAP members. In response, a prominent sheikh and former AQAP judge in Taiz called for the killing of Daesh militants in Qayfa. The hostilities between the jihadi groups continued into October when Daesh claimed another attack on AQAP positions in al-Hamida in northwest Qayfa.

Overall however, like AQAP, Daesh experienced a decline in 2018 in terms of strength and capacity. The group held only a few training camps and could call on a dwindling number of fighters, generally estimated to number in the hundreds. The most high-profile attacks carried out by the group in 2018 occurred in Aden. Daesh claimed responsibility in February for a raid on a counter-terrorism headquarters in the city that left 14 dead and more than 40 wounded. The next month, a suicide bombing by the group in Aden killed 10 Security Belt soldiers.

Counter-terrorism policy Yemen

According to figures released by US Central Command (CENTCOM), the US military launched 36 strikes in 2018 against AQAP and Daesh targets in Yemen. This figure was a significant drop from the 156 strikes over the course of 2017. In a change from Bush and Obama-era policies, the Trump administration in 2017 designated several governorates in Yemen as an “area of active hostility”, which expedited the approval process for launching strikes in those regions. It was unclear whether the decrease in strikes against AQAP was the result of a lack of reliable intelligence, fewer targets present on the ground, or other factors. It is also important to note that the US military has an established track record of under-reporting the number of airstrikes it conducts during counter-terrorism operations. Meanwhile, the Associated Press in November reported that civilians accounted for a third of deaths from US drone strikes in Yemen, based on estimates compiled through interviews with witnesses, families of victims, tribal leaders and local activists.

Controversy surrounding US and coalition counter-terrorism policy in Yemen also grew in 2018 following a report that the anti-Houthi coalition had cut secret deals with AQAP to vacate certain areas and had even recruited AQAP-aligned fighters into their ranks. According to the report by the Associated Press, AQAP was paid to retreat from key towns and cities starting in 2016, while militants were allowed to retain weapons, equipment and looted cash. This was allegedly the case in the coastal city Mukalla, from which AQAP retreated in 2016. 

AQAP’s evacuation from Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth largest city, spared residents and the city’s infrastructure from what would have been a large-scale assault. Meanwhile, Johnsen told the Sana’a Center that it was unclear whether the reported payments were made to AQAP’s central leadership or to affiliated groups less ideologically committed to the organization. The latter scenario could have been a means of separating fighters aligned with AQAP for convenience and material gain from the group’s hardcore jihadi ideologues. The issue is likely to remain a point of contention moving forward, evidenced by a December Washington Post interview with Abu al-Abbas, a prominent Islamist military commander in Taiz. In the interview, Abu al-Abbas claimed that he was still receiving military equipment and money from the UAE despite being sanctioned by the US in 2017 as an AQAP financier and “prominent military instructor”.

AQAP in 2019

Looking ahead to 2019, AQAP retains the capacity to carry out asymmetric attacks, recruit new members and deploy financial and military resources despite its weakened status. The group was able to garner significant financial resources over previous years from smuggling and the imposition of taxes. Most notably, the group looted an estimated US$100 million from the Hadramawt branch of the country’s central bank during its occupation of the Mukalla.

However, as an organization, AQAP enters 2019 in a different form to its pre-conflict incarnation. While its hardcore jihadi leadership remains, it has less central control over affiliate groups and allied tribal fighters, who often aligned with AQAP to serve their own ends in the country’s domestic conflict. Efforts by the coalition, particularly the UAE, to peel away these fighters with financial or other incentives could be repeated in the future.

Despite the group’s reduced operational capacity and increased focus on the domestic insurgency in Yemen, it has not relinquished its ambitions to act internationally. This was AQAP’s modus operandi in its earliest years, as witnessed by the failed attempt to bring down a US commercial airliner with an underwear bomb in 2009, the defusing of two parcel bombs bound for the US in 2010, and more recently, the 2015 attack against satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris that left 12 dead. If the war in Yemen continues, the organization’s safe havens in the country could again attract international recruits, as they did in the early 2010s before Yemen was eclipsed by Syria as a destination for jihadists.

Counter-terror operations against the organization, particularly those targeting its jihadi leadership, also look set to continue. In early January 2019, the US announced that it had killed AQAP commander Jamal al-Badawi in a “precision strike”. Al-Badawi was allegedly involved in the October 2000 attack against the USS Cole warship in Aden, which killed at least 40 people.


Taiz in October: A school boy reviews his notes in the city’s old airport area, which is regularly shelled by Houthi forces.  // Photo Credit: Anas al-Hajj

Humanitarian Developments

Overview: A Deepening Food Security Crisis

Already the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, in 2018 the situation in Yemen continued to deteriorate. By the end of 2018, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs was reporting that some 24 million people – almost 80 percent of the population – required some form of humanitarian assistance, an increase of almost 2 million over the course of a year.

In a December briefing to the UN Security Council, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator Mark Lowcock said that nearly a quarter of Yemen’s population was on the brink of starvation, with food insecurity affecting more than 20 million, or two-thirds of the population. Lowcock referred to the latest Integrated Phase Classification analysis for Yemen (IPC) which, for the first time, assessed that some 65,000 people had reached IPC phase 5, which indicates the onset of famine. In November, Save the Children estimated that since the beginning of the war, 85,000 children under the age of five may have died from starvation. In October, the UN warned that Yemen was on the brink of the “worst famine in 100 years”.

Humanitarian agencies meanwhile faced enormous challenges in distributing aid, and large amounts of food aid that made it into the country never reached those in need. At the end of the year, reports emerged that food aid was being stolen and diverted on a massive scale by armed groups in Yemen, both Houthi forces and militias affiliated with the government. Siege tactics and bureaucratic obstacles implemented by the warring parties, as well as escalating violence on several frontlines, further impeded the passage of aid and essential goods.

Multiple factors were responsible for the fact that so many people were in need of food assistance. Given that up to 90 percent of Yemen’s food was imported pre-conflict, the dramatic depreciation of the rial in the second half of 2018 caused food prices to soar in a country with an already weak per capita purchasing power. After a recovery of the currency at the end of the year, many food retailers only gradually adjusted prices. The escalation of fighting around the port of Hudaydah as well as a partial blockade imposed by the Saudi-led military coalition impeded both commercial and humanitarian imports (see above ‘Hudaydah, the Heart of the Crisis’).

Meanwhile, cholera numbers were less severe in 2018 than in the previous year in terms of reported new cases, but aid organizations continued to warn about the risk of a new surge. The health sector faced massive challenges due to staff going unpaid and insufficient medical supplies, as well as destroyed infrastructure. Aid organizations stepped up their response programs in Yemen to try and deal with the increasing need. The UN raised almost US$3 billion for its 2018 humanitarian response and announced that US$4 billion would be needed in 2019. However, a source from the humanitarian sector told the Sana’a Center that some organizations faced capacity problems in implementing earmarked projects due to both access restrictions and organizational limitations.

Obstacles to Aid Delivery

Aid Diversion and Targeting of Humanitarian Staff

At the end of December, the Associated Press published an investigation into the stealing of food aid. The report noted large scale, systematic theft of food aid from both sides. In Houthi-held areas, where 70 percent of the population resides, the phenomena was even more widespread than in areas nominally held by the government. The investigation revealed that for example, in the northern governorate of Sa’ada, the heartland of the armed Houthi movement, the UN at times had sent twice the amount of food rations that would cover the estimated half a million people in need. Yet, surveys showed that 65 percent of inhabitants in the governorate were facing severe food shortages, and 7,000 were in areas considered to have reached the level of famine.

In parallel, the World Food Programme (WFP) complained that food aid was being stolen and that at least one of its local partner organizations operating in Houthi-run areas had committed fraud. WFP said its monitors had gathered evidence of trucks illicitly removing food from distribution centers in Houthi-controlled areas. It also complained that many of those registered as beneficiaries never received any of the food aid they were entitled to, while others didn’t obtain full rations. WFP had previously announced that it would further step up its provision of food assistance in Yemen, aiming to reach 14 million people. Since early 2018, the WFP had provided assistance to between 7 million and 8 million Yemenis. After the reports on stolen food aid emerged, the WFP said it would have to reconsider its engagement in Yemen if those responsible did not take the necessary measures to stop the theft of aid.

Meanwhile, international aid workers regularly faced threats and intimidation by the warring parties in 2018. In April in Taiz governorate, in an area held by forces affiliated with the Yemeni government, unidentified gunmen attacked a car belonging to the International Committee of the of Red Cross (ICRC) and killed Hanna Lahoud, a Lebanese national heading the ICRC’s local detention program. The assailants allegedly fled to areas under the control of the Abu al-Abbas Brigades. In June, the ICRC announced the withdrawal of 71 staff members from Yemen, citing increased security risks. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) temporarily suspended its activities in al-Dhalea governorate, southern Yemen, after a staff house in the area was targeted with explosives in October. Earlier in the year, MSF had withdrawn staff from seven hospitals after a coalition airstrike hit one of its facilities in Abs, despite MSF having shared the coordinates of the hospital. In Houthi-held areas, humanitarian organizations complained about the detention of humanitarian staff and the delay or denial of their visas to enter the country.

Access Impediments

In November 2017, the coalition imposed a total blockade of all Yemeni sea ports, airports and land crossings after Houthi forces had fired ballistic missiles toward Riyadh. This sparked price surges and shortages of fuel and basic commodities across the country. Through the end of 2017 and early 2018 the blockade was eased somewhat, however UN officials continued to raise concerns over the coalition’s diversions of containerized cargo to Aden, the delaying of cargo ships trying to enter Hudaydah and Saleef ports, and the continued closure of Sana’a International Airport for commercial traffic.

Throughout the year until the ceasefire agreement in December, the ports of Hudaydah and Saleef remained under the control of Houthi forces and were the most important lifeline for 70 percent of the population living in Houthi-controlled areas. The UNVIM, the UN inspections mechanism based in Djibouti, had been inspecting goods entering these ports since July 2016 to address coalition concerns about weapons smuggling, yet the Saudi-led coalition continued to enforce its own additional inspections and frequently caused delays. At the end of 2018, it remained unclear how the implementation of the Stockholm Agreement would impact deliveries at the ports of Hudaydah and nearby Saleef.

Due to the delays caused by the coalition throughout 2018, perishable food often spoiled before being offloaded. Shipping companies, fearing losses, were increasingly reluctant to enter these harbors. Food imports remained severely restricted despite several periods when relative improvements were recorded. In early December, the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) noted a 41 percent decline in vessels landing and discharging at Hudaydah and Saleef ports compared to pre-blockade levels in 2017. Access for humanitarian staff entering Yemen was also challenged. The WFP canceled the journey of a vessel carrying international staff after an attack on another vessel by unidentified forces.

Humanitarian access continued to be impeded inside Yemen in 2018, owing to escalations in the fighting as well as bureaucratic and other obstacles imposed by the warring parties. Particularly in Houthi-held areas, humanitarian actors who spoke to the Sana’a Center said they faced increasing bureaucratic limitations on their work and rising interference by local authorities. Humanitarian organizations often faced the choice of either working within such limitations or not working at all. In January 2018, UN sources told the Associated Press that more than 35 aid groups had been banned from working in Houthi-run territory.

In April, OCHA reported that more than 9.2 million people were located in areas that were difficult to access. In September, fighting east of Hudaydah closed the city’s main entrance. The minor road north of Hudaydah – linking the city’s Khatt al-Sham entrance to Hajjah governorate and then to Sana’a – became the only open land route left to access the city. The already-hampered movement of humanitarian goods and personnel was thus further obstructed.

OCHA announced plans for a humanitarian air bridge to Sana’a to allow those with severe medical needs to receive treatment abroad in September, however this did not materialize. The Saudi-led military coalition, which controls Yemeni airspace, continued to restrict flights to and from the airport to a number of UN-operated special planes, as it has since 2016. The coalition on several occasions in 2018 denied international humanitarian workers and diplomats permission to board these flights, while the peace consultations in Sweden failed to reach an agreement to reopen the airport.

Impacts of State Collapse on Education and Health Services

Education Crisis

According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), nearly 2 million Yemeni children were not able to attend school in 2018, an increase of half a million since 2015. An estimated 2,500 schools in Yemen were no longer operating, many of them either destroyed by the war, being used for military purposes, or hosting displaced people.

Meanwhile, schools that remained open faced severe challenges. In 2018, close to three quarters of Yemeni teachers had not received a salary for over two years, and the already underdeveloped education system lacked urgently needed investment. Yemen’s education crisis is a long-term threat and has already had societal impacts. Combined with increased unemployment and poverty levels, the absence of schooling is seen as contributing to a rise in child marriages, child labor and the recruitment of child soldiers. UNICEF reported that at least 2,400 children were recruited by armed groups between March 2015 and March 2018.

Struggling Health Sector

Like the school system, the health sector continued to suffer from unpaid salaries in 2018, with many hospital staff having not received a regular salary since the fall of 2016. Due to import restrictions and the depreciation of the local currency, the supply of medication was severely impeded. The unpredictability of fuel imports further jeopardized the operation of hospital generators, ambulances and water treatment plants, meaning millions of Yemenis struggled to access healthcare, clean water and sanitation.

Aid organizations estimated that around 50 percent of hospitals and health facilities were either not working or functioning partially. Hospitals largely lacked the capacity to treat non-communicable and chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and kidney disease. The International Rescue Committee stated in March that at least 9.8 million people in Yemen were acutely in need of health services. The closure of Sana’a and Rayan airports for civilian flights and the limited operation of civilian airplanes in government-held areas, as well as the cost of tickets, made it impossible for most to seek medical treatment abroad.

Warring parties continued to attack and endanger hospitals and medical staff in 2018. In November, various organizations including UNICEF, Save the Children and the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that hospitals in Hudaydah were under threat due to fighting closeby.

A lack of clean water, a collapsing health sector and widespread malnutrition have contributed to the world’s worst cholera outbreak in Yemen. Yet, compared to 2017, the number of newly reported suspected cases was significantly lower in 2018. The WHO in May launched the first ever oral cholera vaccination campaign in Yemen in Aden, Ibb and Hudaydah governorates. The escalation of fighting around targeted areas caused some delays. Houthi officials also delayed vaccination campaigns in territories under their control for almost a year, according to aid workers. By the end of October, around 700,000 people had been vaccinated and the WHO aimed to reach another 1.4 million.

Humanitarian Response Stepped Up

Humanitarian operations in Yemen, among the largest and most complex in the world, were stepped up in 2018. An appeal for US$2.96 billion was launched in January to support the UN-coordinated Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan (YHRP), an increase on the US$2.34 billion appeal in 2017. Donations of US$2.01 billion were secured in April at a high-level pledging event in Geneva co-hosted by Sweden and Switzerland. By the end of the year, more than 80 percent of the appeal was covered, compared to around 75 percent of the appeal in 2017. For the Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan 2019, the UN announced that as much as US$4 billion was needed to help 15 million people.

In 2018, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the largest international contributors to humanitarian relief in Yemen. Much of this came through their joint Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations (YCHO), through which they pledged US$1.5 billion to fund the UN-coordinated appeal. About US$1 billion of this was funds Saudi Arabia and the UAE committed directly toward the UN’s humanitarian response, with the remainder being a commitment to raise another US$500 million from donors in the region. Saudi Arabia also provided the government-controlled central bank with more than US$2 billion in 2018 to support imports and protect the value of the Yemeni rial (see ‘More Than US$2 Billion in Saudi Deposits and Fuel Grants).

While the UN welcomed the funds, the YCHO was still criticized in the humanitarian community for rejecting UN calls to end the blockade of Hudaydah and Saleef ports, which were under Houthi control, and for instead focusing on improving access solely to areas controlled by the Saudi-led military coalition and its local allies.


Mahra in October: Many in the eastern governorate were forced to find alternative routes after Cyclone Luban tore through Mahra, causing extensive damage and washing out roadways // Photo Credit: Nabil al-Awzari

Cyclones Hit Socotra and Mahra

Yemen’s eastern governorate of Mahra, bordering Oman, and the Socotra archipelago suffered several cyclones in 2018. Two cyclones crossed the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden in May. Cyclone Sagar had a minor impact in Yemen, but led to heavy rains and flash floods that increased the vulnerability to Cyclone Mekunu, which followed less than a week later. Mekunu first hit Socotra and then passed through Mahra, where hundreds of families had to be evacuated from their homes.

While the cyclones’ impact was less severe than initially feared, 20 people were reported killed in Socotra. Food stocks were destroyed, property and infrastructure badly damaged and water wells affected. In Mahra governorate, four people were reported dead and 20 injured. Infrastructure, agricultural equipment and vehicles were destroyed or damaged. In Mahra and in Socotra, access to some areas was temporarily cut off or restricted. Livelihoods were affected in Socotra, where many people rely on fishing and farming.  

In October, Cyclone Luban made landfall in Mahra governorate, killing three people, injuring more than 100 and displacing an estimated 2,200 families. Heavy floods damaged infrastructure and blocked the main road linking Mahra to Hadramawt governorate, impeding humanitarian access. On October 15, the government declared Mahra a disaster zone. The UN, Saudi and Omani charities, and other organizations responded with aid. A week later, families were reported be returning to their homes as rainfall ceased and water levels in valleys began to recede. Yemen’s new prime minister, Maeen Abdul Malik, announced the allocation of YR2 billion for reconstruction in Mahra. Local sources contacted at the end of 2018 however said the governorate was still suffering from damaged roads, with little sign of reconstruction underway.


Human Rights and War Crimes

Overview: More Investigations, More Impunity

Evidence of human rights violations and war crimes by all parties to the conflict continued to mount in the fourth year of the conflict. In August, the UN group of eminent international and regional experts (GEE) published its first report, and found little to no evidence that warring parties were taking any measures to minimize civilian casualties. Appointed in 2017 by the UN Human Rights Council, the GEE was the first independent, internationally mandated UN mechanism to investigate human rights and war crimes in Yemen. It was tasked with documenting a wide range of violations by all sides, such as the targeting of civilians, the recruitment of child soldiers, enforced disappearances and the torture of prisoners.

At the end of 2018, all sides continued to act with impunity. Despite the GEE’s findings, there was no indication that perpetrators feared accountability, beyond damage to their reputations. Sanctions and travel bans have little effect on a locally rooted group like the armed Houthi movement, with few ties to the world outside Yemen. Meanwhile, UN Security Council sanctions remained an unlikely prospect for the Saudi-led coalition, given the alliance’s direct support by permanent council members – the US and the UK.

Member states of the Saudi-led military coalition lobbied UN institutions in 2018, including the UN Security Council, seeking to avoid further damage to their reputations. The coalition’s lobbying efforts at the UN Human Rights Council failed in September when council members voted to renew the GEE’s mandate. Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland and Luxembourg took the lead in pushing for the renewal. Notably, the UK, which had not actively supported the establishment of the GEE in 2017, voted in favor of renewing the group’s mandate. Opponents of the renewal said the group lacked balance. While the group’s first report was mostly impartial, it was incomplete in its documentation of Houthi violations – for instance failing to discuss Houthi forces’ use of landmines in civilian areas and the indiscriminate nature of ballistic missile attacks. States in favor of the renewal argued that the GEE needed more time to investigate violations comprehensively.

Human Rights Reports Published in 2018

UN Reports

The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen, which operates under the 2140 Sanctions Committee on Yemen, documented widespread violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by all warring parties in a report released in January. Among the most serious accusations, the panel said the Saudi-led coalition’s restrictions against commercial and humanitarian imports to Houthi-held areas amounted to the weaponization of the threat of mass starvation.   

In July 2018, the UN Secretary General officially released the annual Children and Armed Conflict report which each year includes a list of conflict actors worldwide guilty of grave violations against the rights of children, often referred to as the “list of shame” or “child-killer list”. In regards to the Yemen war, the report listed Houthi forces, AQAP, pro-government militias, the UAE-backed Security Belt forces, the Yemeni Armed Forces and the Saudi-led military coalition. This was the third year running that these actors were named to the child killer list, though the coalition was removed from the 2016 report after Saudi Arabia threatened to withdraw hundreds of millions of dollars in UN aid funding. The 2018 report, as with the previous year’s, listed the coalition and the Yemeni government in a special annex, created for violators who had “put in place measures aimed at improving the protection of children”.

In August, the GEE published its first report, which found that all warring parties had likely committed war crimes. The group also submitted to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights a confidential list naming individuals suspected of violating international humanitarian and human rights law.

In October, a joint submission by human rights NGOs for the Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council reported that violations by security forces and non-state actors as well as widespread impunity had increased since the previous review in 2014.

NGO and Media Investigations

Investigations and reports on international humanitarian and human rights law violations in the Yemen conflict were published in 2018 by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Associated Press (AP), Mwatana for Human Rights and the New York Times (NYT), among others:

  • April: Amnesty report on the widening crackdown under Houthi rule;
  • April: HRW report on human rights violations committed against migrants and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa in a detention center in Aden;
  • May: Amnesty report on endangering civilian lives in Hudaydah;
  • June: Amnesty report on obstacles for humanitarian aid;
  • June: AP investigation on sexual abuse in UAE-controlled prisons;
  • July: Amnesty report on enforced disappearances in southern Yemen;
  • August: HRW report on the failures of the Joint Incidents Assessment Team, a body established by the Saudi-led military coalition to investigate incidents in the Yemen war;
  • September: HRW report on detention in Houthi-held areas;
  • November: Mwatana report on violations against cultural heritage;
  • December: NYT investigation on the coalition attacking fishermen in the Red Sea;
  • December: AP investigation on abuse in Houthi-controlled prisons;
  • December: AP report on Houthi forces recruiting child soldiers.

Overview of Violations

Disregard for Civilian Lives

In a new investigation, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) estimated in December 2018 that over 60,000 people had been killed in the Yemen war since just 2016. The number was significantly higher than a frequently-cited UN estimate that counted around 10,000 deaths, a figure that has not changed significantly since August 2016.

While the number of civilian deaths was not clear, according to the UN, the majority of civilian casualties it documented were caused by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes. Among the most high profile incident of this in 2018 was a coalition airstrike in August on a school bus in Sa’ada governorate that killed 44 children. The incident was met with international condemnation. Saudi Arabia initially described the strike as a “legitimate military action” targeting Houthi leaders, but it later reversed its position under pressure from the US Pentagon. The US government had come under increasing scrutiny domestically over its involvement in assisting airstrikes in Yemen (see ‘Increasing Domestic Pressure Over US Role in Yemen’). For the first time since the beginning of its intervention in Yemen, the coalition expressed regret, promised compensation to the victims and pledged to hold those responsible to account. As of this writing there had been no indications that victims had received compensation nor that any coalition personnel had been held accountable.

Houthi forces meanwhile continued to put civilians lives at risk with indiscriminate attacks on populated areas, especially in the governorates of Taiz and Hudaydah. Along the Red Sea Coast, Houthi landmines caused civilian deaths and injuries, while Houthi forces prevented civilians from fleeing the area and forcibly recruited fighters, including minors, according to Amnesty International. On various occasions Houthi forces also forcibly disappeared unpliant civilians, for example those who tried to prevent Houthi fighters from taking up positions in their homes in Hudaydah, according to residents who spoke with the Sana’a Center.

Impeding Humanitarian Access

The UN and international human rights organizations harshly criticized obstacles and delays to imports of food and humanitarian aid caused by the Saudi-led military coalition. Amnesty International said this may have amounted to collective punishment, a war crime, in a report in June, echoing concerns expressed earlier by the UN Panel of Experts. Amnesty International also accused Houthi authorities of obstructing the delivery of humanitarian aid in territories under their control (see above ‘Access Impediments’).

Human Rights Violations

The Yemeni Journalists Syndicate documented 226 violations of press freedom in 2018. In June, the Yemeni journalist Nabil Subay reported that his colleague Anwar al-Rukn had died one day after his release from prison, where he was tortured and deprived of food during a one-year detention by Houthi forces. In early July, several journalists were detained or kidnapped by different forces across Yemen. In Aden city, security forces detained the chief editor of Aden Tomorrow, Fathi bin Lazraq, before releasing him hours later. Meanwhile, the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate announced that Houthi forces had kidnapped Abdussalam al-Daees, who was working for the Saba News Agency in Sana’a. According to al-Daees, who spoke with the Sana’a Center about his ordeal, after several weeks of detention his health had deteriorated and he was forced to pay large bribes to Houthis commanders in charge of the prison in order to secure his release. He subsequently fled to Cairo to undergo rehabilitation. In September, Houthi authorities then referred 10 journalists, all of whom had been imprisoned for more than three years, to the Prosecutor General’s Office in Sana’a for investigation.

New reports documented arbitrary arrests and mistreatment of prisoners both by Houthi authorities and groups affiliated to the internationally recognized Yemeni government throughout 2018. Investigations shed light on enforced disappearances by UAE military personnel as well as various forms of torture and ill-treatment in prisons controlled by the UAE or its local allies. In May, the government of President Hadi formally asked the UAE about the fate of 12 detainees following public protests by mothers of detainees. In late June and early July, more than 80 detainees were released from prisons run by UAE-backed forces in Aden. Yemen’s deputy Interior Minister Maj. Gen. Ali Lakhsha then stated that all detention facilities had been placed under government control. However, security officials interviewed anonymously by the Associated Press denied this.

Investigations by human rights organizations collected further evidence of enforced disappearances, torture, mistreatment and death sentences following show trials under the Houthi authorities in 2018. Amnesty International concluded in a report published in April that these violations may have amounted to war crimes, given that they took place in the context of an armed conflict.

Houthi leaders also escalated their rhetoric and actions against religious minorities in 2018, especially adherents to the Baha’i faith. In a televised sermon aired in March, Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi accused the Baha’is of waging a war against Islam, aided by Israel. He also said other minorities – Ahmadis and Christians as well as atheists – posed a threat to Yemen’s Muslims. In January, a special criminal court in Sana’a sentenced Hamed bin Haydara, a prominent Baha’i community leader, to death. Houthi authorities accused him of being an Israeli spy. In September, Houthi authorities opened criminal proceedings against 24 individuals, mostly adherents of the Baha’i faith, among them eight women and a minor. Charges included apostasy and espionage, the latter punishable by death.


Marib in October: Farmers sow potatoes at the start of the agricultural season. Their work has been challenged by soaring prices for seeds and fertilizers as well as diesel shortage // Photo Credit: Ali Owida

 

Yemen and the World

Overview: Increased Regional and International Engagement

Regional engagement in Yemen intensified through 2018. Aside from leading the coalition military intervention in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also took steps to secure longer term positions with regard to the country. A primary focus of this was Yemen’s coastal waters, which appeared to be part of a wider regional strategy to solidify control of shipping routes around the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. In 2018, Saudi media announced plans for a Red Sea pact among African and Arab states surrounding the body of water, while the UAE continued to secure control over port facilities along Yemen’s southern and western coastlines via local proxy militias. In this context, ousting the Houthi forces from Hudaydah port would be a major step toward establishing dominance along the Red Sea.

Saudi Arabia also attempted to expand its influence in Yemen’s eastern Mahra governorate through building a new army base there, which is suspected to be a forerunner of pipeline plans through the area. This brought geopolitical tension with Oman, which considers Mahra part of its zone of influence and quietly supported local protests there against the Saudi presence.  

Meanwhile, a UN Panel of Experts report early in 2018 confirmed that Iranian military technology and parts had been supplied to Houthi forces. While the coalition claimed Iranian support for the Houthis had increased through the war, evidence for large-scale Iranian involvement remained illusive. There were indications, however, that Tehran’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, had been providing tactical assistance.   

The rift with Qatar appeared to bring new annoyances to the Saudi-led coalition: since its expulsion from the coalition in 2017, Doha has tried to undermine the coalition’s efforts in Yemen. This became more visible in 2018 in the critical reporting on coalition activities in Yemen by the Qatari media empire, first and foremost Al Jazeera. The shifting Qatari role in the region is a development to watch in 2019.

Meanwhile, GCC members Oman and Kuwait continued their efforts to play a more constructive role as mediators in Yemen. Also in the past year, Sudanese politicians questioned their country’s engagement in Yemen, which has involved the deployment of troops and aircraft to Yemen in support of the coalition. Sudan’s leader Omar Bashir, however, reaffirmed his commitment to the Saudi-led intervention.

Remarkably, in the midst of Yemen’s ongoing war, migrants and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa continued to arrive in Yemen in numbers that exceeded the number of migrant arrivals in Europe in 2018.

The US and the UK continued to support the Saudi-led coalition, while the US adopted a more hawkish stance towards Tehran. In Washington, Mike Pompeo, a hardliner on Iran, took office as US Secretary of State in April. Days later, US President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, citing Iranian support for the armed Houthi movement in Yemen among the reasons for the withdrawal. European countries for their part had initiated an ongoing dialogue with Tehran on the region in 2018, spurred by attempts to save the Iran nuclear deal. European diplomats also travelled to Sana’a and met with Houthi representatives. Russia meanwhile, which has little vested interest in Yemen, appeared to be testing mediation waters, positioning itself as a neutral outsider.

Toward the end of the year, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi stirred a broader debate on arms sales and military support for Saudi Arabia in Western countries allied with the coalition powers. The UK and the US, under pressure to reign in their Gulf ally, publicly called for a ceasefire in Yemen. The UK, as a penholder for the Yemen file in the UN Security Council, increased diplomatic activity in support of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen and drafted a new resolution for the first time since the beginning of the war (see above ‘UN Security Council Ends Impasse on Yemen).

In perhaps the most significant sign of Washington’s displeasure with Riyadh, the US halted in-air refueling of coalition aircraft in late 2018. Lawmakers in Washington were increasingly critical of US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. While the legal ramifications of this remained unclear, legislative pressure was likely to increase in 2019, as control of the House of Representatives returns to the Democrats. Following the murder of Khashoggi, several European countries declared that they would stop issuing export licenses for military equipment to Riyadh. The role of the UAE in Yemen meanwhile continued to escape the Western public’s attention.

Yemen and the Region

UAE and Saudi Arabia Expanding Regional Clout

While Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as leading members of the Saudi-led military coalition, have declared that the main aims of their military intervention are to defeat the armed Houthi movement, reinstate the internationally recognized Yemeni government, and curb Iranian influence in the country, they have also established zones of influence in Yemen in the process.

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE took steps to expand their clout in the wider region around the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in 2018. In December, Saudi state media reported plans to establish a Red Sea pact among neighboring Arab and African states after a meeting with officials from Egypt, Djibouti, Somalia, Yemen and Jordan. A peace deal reached between Eritrea and Ethiopia in July, after nearly two decades without diplomatic relations, was brokered with Saudi and Emirati help, removing a major impediment to greater cooperation in the Red Sea Region. Meanwhile, the UAE established a foothold in ports and maritime trade routes all the way from Limassol in Cyprus to the Horn of Africa via the Red Sea, competing at times with other Gulf states such as Qatar, as well as China. While the Dubai-based maritime terminal operator DP World won concessions to operate ports along this route, Abu Dhabi also made arrangements with local authorities for the control of naval bases in Somaliland and Eritrea. In Yemen, the UAE took control over key ports with the help of local allies.

Saudi Arabia maintained a military presence in its border areas in the north of Yemen as well as in Mahra, where it started building army bases and was suspected of developing plans for the construction of an oil pipeline in 2018. As a result, Mahra was transformed into a cold battleground for competing geopolitical aspirations, with Oman, wary of Saudi encroachment in its backyard, supporting local protests against the presence of the coalition. The Saudi-led military coalition justified its deployment in the area by citing the need to curb the smuggling of Iranian military equipment entering Yemen through Mahra. US special forces were deployed alongside the coalition to assist in countering Iranian weapons smuggling (see ‘Mahra: Saudi Arabia Attempting to Limit Omani Clout’).

The UAE was even more active than Saudi Arabia on the ground in Yemen, deploying troops as well as recruiting, funding and training a variety of local proxy forces in southern Yemen. The Emirati military presence at times was met with resistance. While some southern Yemeni factions struck alliances with the UAE, others labeled Abu Dhabi an occupying power. After a spat with the Yemeni government, the UAE was forced to withdraw troops from Socotra island (see ‘Socotra: The Government vs. the UAE). The UAE in particular sought to establish its influence in Yemen’s coastal areas. Assisted by local allies, the UAE took control of the ports of Aden, Mukalla, and Shihr along Yemen’s southern coast, as well as Mokha port on the Red Sea Coast. Abu Dhabi also took the lead role in planning the June 2018 offensive in Hudaydah that aimed to seize the last Houthi-controlled ports in the country at Hudaydah, Saleef and Ras Issa.

Some have argued that the UAE’s aim in exercising control over Yemen’s ports was to prevent the rise of another port in the region that could compete with Dubai’s less favorably located Jebel Ali port. While this claim may seem far-fetched, there was some evidence of the Emirates obstructing attempts to develop port capacities and establish robust security in Yemen’s coastal areas. Several members of the Aden port administration repeatedly complained to Sana’a Center researchers that the UAE was ignoring, or even actively hampering, the implementation of a blueprint to increase the capacity of Aden port. Several credible sources also corroborated to the Sana’a Center that a Saudi-supported government initiative to establish a task force to deal with coastline smuggling was being obstructed by the UAE.

Iran and Hezbollah

The leading members of the military coalition intervening in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, continued throughout 2018 to emphasize Iran’s links with the armed Houthi movement. In a Washington Post op-ed, UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba said that his country was fighting both al-Qaeda and Iran in Yemen. He also mentioned the UN Panel of Experts report, which established that Iranian missile remnants and military-grade unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) of Iranian origin had ended up in the hands of Houthi forces. The coalition and its backers used the report to support their claim that Tehran was directly providing Houthi forces with missiles and drones. The latter have used such increasingly as the war proceeded (see ‘Houthi Missiles and Drones).

Although reports alleging Iranian support for the Houthi forces continued to increase as the war progressed, evidence remained scant. There were indications that Tehran was channeling support to the armed Houthi movement via its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. The militia-cum-political party is widely thought to have provided military advice to Houthi forces. The Yemeni government also accused Hezbollah of sending fighters to assist the Houthi forces, which Hezbollah has denied. In June 2018, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah denied reports that coalition airstrikes had killed eight Hezbollah fighters in Yemen, but expressed his party’s support for the armed Houthi movement. In August, Hezbollah confirmed that Nasrallah had met with a Houthi delegation led by Mohammed Abdel Salam, a senior Houthi negotiator and spokesperson, to discuss developments in Yemen.

Iran provided direct financial support for two Houthi-affiliated TV stations based in Lebanon, Sahat and al-Masirah, paying for equipment and salaries for the Yemeni staff, including correspondents based in Yemen. According to sources at the stations who spoke with the Sana’a Center. after sanctions against Iran were reinstated following the US decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Tehran, salaries started to arrive late. In his last visit to Lebanon, Abdel Salam met with staff from both channels, and assured them that Houthi authorities would continue funding to both channels if Iran cut its support, according to staff from the channels who attended the meeting.

A Divided Arab Gulf

While Saudi Arabia and the UAE continued to spearhead the coalition military intervention in Yemen, other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have not followed their lead. Oman declined to join the coalition when it was formed in 2015, preferring to stick to its traditional role as mediator in the region. Meanwhile, Qatar was expelled from the coalition in 2017 as part of the Saudi-initiated blockade against the country in 2017. Following this diplomatic split, Qatari policy toward Yemen shifted.

Following the start of the Saudi-led blockade, the Qatari-owned news channel Al Jazeera for the first time changed its tone in reporting on Yemen, becoming harshly critical of the Saudi-led military coalition. Since then, Al Jazeera and other Qatari media outlets have beefed up their Yemen coverage. While other factors, such as the threat of famine and the Khashoggi case, played a major role in the expanded and increasingly critical coverage of the Saudi-led Yemen intervention in international media in general, the Qatari media empire contributed a sizeable share to critical reporting in 2018.

Evidence for other claims about Doha attempting to undermine the coalition in Yemen remained anecdotal. There were indications of Qatar establishing connections with groups in Yemen opposed to the coalition. For example, Houthi negotiator and spokesman Mohammed Abdel Salam confirmed to the Sana’a Center that he traveled to Doha in 2018. Meanwhile, the son of Hassan Baoum, the famous leader of the Southern Movement’s anti-coalition branch that has preserved ties with Iran, relocated from Beirut to Doha. Qatar, together with Turkey, also maintained its strong relations with members of the Islah party, which is part of the anti-Houthi alliance but has a tense relationship with the UAE due to the party’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

While Qatar was the most outspoken GCC member in its critical view of Saudi and Emirati policy in the region, Oman and Kuwait also deviated from the hawkish approach taken by Abu Dhabi and Riyadh in Yemen and elsewhere. Kuwait, a member of the Saudi-led military coalition, on the one hand, used its position as a non-permanent member at the UN Security Council to lobby for coalition-friendly positions at the council. On the other hand, Kuwait also maintained a diplomatic approach to the region, including maintaining relatively friendly ties with Iran. In Yemen, it positioned itself as a mediator in 2016 when it hosted UN-led peace consultations. The UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, after meeting the Emir of Kuwait in July 2018, stated that Kuwait should play a role in resolving the Yemen conflict. Kuwait provided the airplane for the Houthi delegation that traveled from Sana’a to attend the peace consultations in Sweden in December, with the Kuwaiti ambassador to Yemen accompanying the Houthi delegation on the flight (see Failure in Geneva, Success in Rimbo).

Oman continued to maintain its friendly ties with all actors in the region, including the armed Houthi movement in Yemen. This provided Saudi Arabia with a backchannel of communication to the group via Muscat, which eventually led to Saudi officials holding conversations with Houthi representatives, facilitated by the UK, in the Omani capital in 2018. In order to fulfil a precondition set by the Houthi leadership for attending the UN-led peace consultations in December, Muscat also facilitated the evacuation of some 50 injured Houthi fighters out of Sana’a to receive medical treatment in Oman. Muscat had also been involved in negotiating the release of a French sailor in October, who had been detained by Houthi forces after making an emergency landing in Hudaydah earlier in the summer (see ‘Europe Steps Up Engagement’).

Oman’s foreign policy approach of open communication even extended to a meeting between Omani rule Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in October. After Netanyahu’s visit to Oman, the first by an Israeli prime minister since 1996, Oman’s foreign minister said his country was offering ideas to help regional peace efforts. This direct diplomatic engagement with Israel implicitly distanced Oman from being seen as aligned with Iran and the armed Houthi movement, upsetting Houthi ideologists who had praised Oman and whose sermons often revolve around hatred for the US and Israel.

At the same time, the increased Saudi military presence in Mahra governorate, which borders Oman to the east and has traditionally had close ties to Muscat, was a source of tension between Saudi Arabia and Oman (see ‘Mahra: Saudi Arabia Attempting to Limit Omani Clout).

Controversy in Sudan Over Troops in Yemen

In May 2018, Sudan’s President Omar Bashir defended Sudanese troop deployments as part of the Saudi-led military coalition. Weeks earlier, Defense Minister Ali Salem told the Sudanese parliament that the government was reconsidering its participation with the coalition in Yemen. Discontent within the parliament had been growing over the cost of the deployment and the deaths of Sudanese troops. In April, dozens of Sudanese soldiers were reportedly killed in a Houthi ambush. Some parliamentarians argued that Sudan was not benefiting from its contribution to the Yemen war and complained about insufficient Saudi and Emirati financial support for its own faltering economy.

Sudan has deployed at least 3,000 ground troops and several fighter jets to Yemen since joining the Saudi-led military coalition in 2015. Some media reports also mentioned that between 10,000 and 14,000 Sudanese militiamen were on the ground fighting in Yemen. Most of these were from the Sudanese tribal militia formerly known as Janjaweed, which was notorious for having committed war crimes during the Darfur conflict. These reports indicated that hundreds of Sudanese had been killed in Yemen. The New York Times also reported that there were child soldiers among the Sudanese militiamen, though Saudi Arabia denied these claims.

Migration from the Horn of Africa

Despite the war and the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Yemen, migrants and refugees from the Horn of Africa continued to enter the country. In fact, the International Organization of Migration (IOM) noted a surge in new arrivals in 2018. The agency counted almost 150,000 migrant arrivals in Yemen, almost double the 87,000 documented in 2017. Remarkably, more documented migrants and asylum seekers reached Yemen in 2018 than Europe, where the IOM counted some 140,000 arrivals for the whole year.

According to IOM, the majority of migrants arriving in Yemen were Ethiopian, in addition to some Somalis. Migrants and asylum seekers mostly travel via a land route to Djibouti before embarking on a risky boat journey across the Gulf of Aden to reach Yemen, from where they usually hope to continue on to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. These boat journeys frequently end in tragedy. Since the beginning of 2014, the IOM has documented more than 700 deaths of migrants in the Gulf of Aden.

There were several such incidents in 2018. In September, the IOM reported that at least 33 out of a group of 360 migrants from Somalia and Ethiopia had drowned off the coast of Shabwa after smugglers had forced them into the sea from two overcrowded boats. In Yemen, migrants risked exposure to the war, kidnapping, and torture by local authorities. In April, HRW published a report on human rights violations against hundreds of detained migrants and asylum seekers in a government-controlled prison in Aden. The report documented violations such as torture, rape, executions and forced deportations.

In its latest regional migrant response plan released in August, the IOM also estimated that some 150,000 Ethiopian and 50,000 Somali nationals returned from Yemen and other Gulf states to their home countries in 2018. The IOM frequently organizes the maritime evacuation of migrants and refugees from Yemen back to the Horn of Africa, at times working in conjunction with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. After the start of the battle for Hudaydah in June (see ‘The Battle For Hudaydah), the voluntary return program was put on hold. The IOM at the time estimated that thousands of migrants were stranded in and around frontline areas.

Allies of the Coalition: US and UK Policy Toward Yemen

Increasing Domestic Pressure Over US Role in Yemen

At the close of 2018, the US Senate voted to withdraw support for the Saudi-led military coalition, rounding off a year of growing pressure on the White House related to Washington’s involvement in the conflict in Yemen. As with most of the draft legislation aimed at changing US policy toward Yemen over the past year, Senate Joint Resolution 54 (S. J. Res 54) is unlikely to become law. Instead, it is the political weight of such moves in Congress that may prove instrumental in 2019, with the Trump administration set to face ever-greater scrutiny and increased oversight from the newly Democrat-controlled House of Representatives.

The US said in April that support for the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen was limited to intelligence sharing, logistical support (including target vetting), border defense in Saudi Arabia and until November, mid-air aircraft refueling. Perhaps more valuable though, is the reputational cover Washington offers the coalition through its public support for the campaign against the Houthi movement, especially at the UN Security Council. Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear deal in May – and exaggerating Iran’s role in the Yemen conflict as among the justifications – should be understood in this context. US support for Riyadh has translated to strategic decisions on the ground in Yemen. Despite warnings from the UN and international community, the Saudi-led military coalition launched a long-expected offensive on Hudaydah port in June 2018 following what was described as a US “yellow light” for the assault. The exact nature and extent of US involvement in Yemen continues, however, to be somewhat ambiguous, with mixed messaging between and within the executive branch and the US military, and distanced and weakened leadership from the State Department.

  • Legislative Pressure

The December Senate vote to end involvement in Yemen was indicative of a shift in lawmakers’ positions on US policy toward the war. S. J. Res. 54 called for the end of US involvement in the Yemen conflict within 30 days, excluding operations against AQAP. The resolution passed by a 56-41 vote margin, a far cry from an attempt in March to pass the same bill, which failed in its first stage after garnering only 44 votes. Importantly, seven Republicans voted to adopt the resolution in December.

It is unlikely that the bill will ever become law; there is an ongoing debate around the constitutionality of the legislation upon which it rests – the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which asserts that Congress has the sole constitutional privilege to declare war. Republicans blocked debate on a similar bill in the House of Representatives in September, and, although it may see a warmer reception from a Democratic-controlled House in 2019, the Trump administration has said that it would veto the legislation should it be approved by both chambers and make it to the Oval Office for signature by the president.

Underpinning S. J. Res. 54 is growing concern regarding opaque US troop deployments abroad with little or no congressional oversight, largely ratified by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists passed in the wake of September 11. Mission creep has been witnessed in Yemen itself, with reports emerging in May that US special forces were assisting Saudi Arabia in destroying Houthi forces’ weapons caches near the border with Yemen. The Sana’a Center has also learned that US special forces were deployed to Mahra governorate in eastern Yemen to help the Saudi-led military coalition curb weapons smuggling into Yemen. The Pentagon maintained that its direct military operations on Yemeni soil only targeted AQAP, chiefly in the form of a 16-year drone campaign.

US legislation relating to Yemen increased political pressure on the White House throughout 2018. Although the legal ramifications are still unclear, the bills have succeeded in keeping the conflict on the agenda in Congress and mandating further action – even if only forcing the administration to publicly defend its current policy. Ahead of the vote on S. J. Res. 54, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis gave a private briefing to senators on US involvement in Yemen, which Bob Corker, outgoing Republican chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, characterized as “lacking.”

This ongoing political pressure also manifested itself in September when an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – the yearly defense spending bill – required State Department certification of the Saudi-led coalition’s efforts to minimize civilian casualties and address the humanitarian emergency in Yemen as a condition for continued US support. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s subsequent certification was met with backlash in Congress, the press, and within the State Department itself – coming less than a month after a coalition airstrike on a bus killed 44 children in Sa’ada governorate using a US-supplied bomb.

The NDAA requires further certifications in 2019, calling on the State Department to defend what many have characterized as an indefensible assessment of coalition operations. Larry Lewis, a former State Department adviser who worked with the Saudi-led military coalition until May 2017 on measures to reduce civilian harm, told the Sana’a Center in September that “objectively, [Pompeo’s] conclusion is false”.

The NDAA also called for a Pentagon review of US conduct relating to alleged abuse and torture in UAE-run prisons in southern Yemen, following investigations by HRW, the AP and the UN Panel of Experts. The AP report claimed that US personnel participated in interrogations of detainees who had been subjected to torture.

Meanwhile, the White House also announced in July that it would extend the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designation by at least 18 months for Yemenis who arrived in the US before early 2017. TPS affords legal status to an estimated 1,200 Yemeni nationals based in the US. Meanwhile, on June 26, the US Supreme Court upheld President Trump’s September 2017 executive order restricting entry to the US for nationals from eight countries, including Yemen, by a 5-4 margin. While the ban applied to a narrower group of visa applicants from the named countries than its previous iterations, this updated version contained no end date.

  • The Khashoggi Effect

The murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October and allegations of Saudi state complicity put the spotlight on Riyadh’s foreign policy and human rights record – including in Yemen. In response, a flurry of bills were introduced seeking to end or limit arms sales to Saudi Arabia, while a Senate resolution adopted in December – the same day as the vote on S. J. Res. 54 – linked the Khashoggi killing with the war in Yemen, blamed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder, and called for an immediate ceasefire in Yemen and cessation of support for the Saudi-led military coalition.

While the Trump administration has been at pains to separate the Khashoggi killing from the conflict, Democrats have pushed to include US policy toward Yemen in draft legislation condemning Saudi Arabia for the journalist’s death. While there was a risk that such bills would be torpedoed given polarization in Congress over Washington’s role in Yemen, the linking of the two issues proved beneficial to Yemen-related legislation at times; Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said that he voted for S. J. Res. 54 at the committee stage in November because of his frustration over the administration’s handling of the Khashoggi affair, even though he disagreed with the underlying resolution itself.

  • A Policy Shift?

Developments toward the end of 2018 were suggestive of the start of some sort of shift in US policy on Yemen. This occurred simultaneously to growing diplomatic momentum backing UN-brokered talks between the Yemeni government and the Houthi movement. At the end of October, both Pompeo and Mattis called for a ceasefire in Yemen within 30 days and urged all parties to participate in UN-brokered peace talks to end the conflict. These were the first public comments related to Yemen since Khashoggi’s disappearance and constituted a strong political message from the White House, which was grappling with the strongest domestic criticism of its Gulf ally Saudi Arabia since the September 11 attacks in 2001. Shortly after the public calls for a ceasefire, US officials, speaking off the record, said that Khashoggi’s death had altered the cost-benefit analysis in US-Saudi relations, with the Trump administration having “reached the maximum weight of what they’re willing to bear.”

Just over a week later, on November 9, the Saudi-led military coalition announced that it would no longer require US support for mid-air refueling operations for their fighter aircraft over Yemen, saying that it now had the capabilities to do so independently. This refueling had been a cornerstone of US military support for the coalition and was the subject of staunch criticism domestically, given its central role in facilitating coalition airstrikes, which the UN says have been responsible for the majority of civilian deaths in Yemen since 2015.

Sana’a Center sources said at the time that the decision to halt refueling originated in Washington, with the announcement by the Saudi-led coalition’s Joint Forces Command agreed upon as a face-saving measure. Longtime opponents of US involvement in Yemen praised the development as a “major victory”, and NBC News quoted a Senate staffer as saying that the decision was intended to pre-empt a more wide-ranging vote in Congress on US support for the Saudi-led military coalition, a claim echoed by US-based analysts.

  • Looking to 2019

Throughout 2018, as opposition to Washington’s role in Yemen gathered pace and was then turbocharged by the outcry over Khashoggi’s death, President Trump consistently dug his heels in on the US-Saudi relationship. His public justifications for this support were the usual considerations: the long-standing alliance between the countries, valuable arms and business deals, counter-terrorism coordination, and the perceived need to help the US Gulf allies counter “Iranian expansionism” in the Middle East.

The Trump administration regularly depict the Yemen conflict as nothing more than an expression of a regional conflict in which Tehran is master of its Houthi puppets. Washington’s Iran hawks were emboldened by Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May and regard both Yemen and Syria primarily as battlegrounds to curb what they see as Tehran’s growing regional influence.

Sana’a Center discussions with UNSC member state representatives and diplomats from European countries during 2018 indicated that the US was continuing to pressure other countries to adopt a more hawkish posture toward Iran – often by alluding to Tehran’s involvement in the Yemen war. Outgoing US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley on several occasions urged the Security Council to take action on Iran, citing alleged violations of the UN arms embargo on Yemen.

A continued legislative push around US policy in Yemen was expected for 2019, revitalized by a Democratic majority in the House – although such efforts will be competing with other foreign policy priorities. The resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis in December, following Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of Syria, added some uncertainty regarding the administration’s policy in the region moving into 2019. Though moderately hawkish on Iran and a staunch defender of current US policy in Yemen, the defense chief was widely regarded as a steady hand within the Trump administration.

The UK Starts Pushing for Negotiations

While the UK continued in 2018 to provide support to the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen, primarily through arms sales to Saudi Arabia, its visible role in the conflict remained limited. Much as with the US, UK policy related to Yemen was largely driven by economic and counter-terrorism considerations, as well as its long-standing alliances with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Opposition to UK policy toward Yemen continued in parliament, which remained divided over weapons exports to Saudi Arabia. On March 7, the same day as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrived in the UK on a three-day visit, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said in a House of Commons debate that British military advisers were “directing the war” being fought by the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen. Corbyn accused the UK government of complicity in war crimes through this support and British arms sales to Riyadh. Saudi Arabia is the largest buyer of UK arms, the destination of nearly half the UK’s total sales to all countries across the period 2010-2017. The following day, Prime Minister Theresa May’s meeting with the Saudi crown prince prompted protests near Downing Street against Britain’s role in the conflict. A joint statement released by the parties following the meeting affirmed the need for a political solution to the war in Yemen. The UK also “welcomed” Riyadh’s “continuing commitment to ensuring that the coalition’s military campaign is conducted in accordance with international humanitarian law.”

Days after the meeting between May and Mohammed bin Salman, the UK government approved the sale of 48 Typhoon fighter jets to Saudi Arabia. Although details of the deal were not released, a previous UK agreement with Qatar to sell half as many Typhoons aircraft was worth close to US$7 billion. However, following the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, there were renewed calls for a review of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

In July, May appointed Jeremy Hunt the UK’s new foreign secretary, to replace Boris Johnson. As foreign secretary, Hunt championed the continuation of UK policy on Yemen, including weapons sales and support for the Saudi-led military coalition, although public statements were tempered slightly after the death of Khashoggi. In November, Hunt backed US calls for a ceasefire in Yemen during meetings in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Shortly after, he traveled to Tehran for talks with his Iranian counterpart, whom he called on to pressure Houthi authorities to attend the UN-brokered talks in Sweden.

These moves came against the backdrop of a drive by the UK’s UN delegation for a new UN Security Council resolution on Yemen, which eventually passed in December. While the language of the final resolution was watered down under pressure from the US and Kuwait, its passage was indicative that the UK could play a more active role in diplomatic efforts to end war going into 2019. As penholder for Yemen at the UN Security Council since 2011, the UK had been instrumental in the council’s relative inaction over the conflict.

Other World Powers: Between Peace Brokers and Arms Dealers

Europe Steps Up Engagement

Diplomatic activity from Europe increased in 2018 with regards to Yemen and outreach to all actors involved in the conflict. The European Union (EU) and several European governments in particular attempted to establish lines of communication with Iran and the Houthi leadership, advocating that the parties support a political settlement to the conflict. While the Saudi-led military coalition receives direct support from the US and the UK, who in turn have the leverage to pressure both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Europe has been capitalizing on being perceived as relatively neutral in Yemen, with good diplomatic ties not only with coalition powers but also with Tehran.

In early 2018 European officials opened a dialogue with Tehran on several regional issues, including the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. Government officials in various European capitals told the Sana’a Center that efforts to save the nuclear deal were ongoing and said that the Yemen conflict was on the agenda for talks with Tehran, which had expressed a willingness to facilitate talks with the Houthis. The talks regarding Yemen were held in parallel to discussions over the future of the Iran nuclear agreement initiated in the runup to President Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the deal. The initial intent was to address Washington’s concern regarding Iran’s regional role and to showcase Europe’s ability to mediate with Tehran. The first dialogue was initiated on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich in February. Two follow-up consultations were later held in Rome and Brussels, with France, Germany, Italy, and the UK meeting with a delegation from Iran.

Several European leaders also reached out directly to the Houthi leadership in 2018. During June and July, leading diplomats from Sweden, France and the EU met with Houthi officials in Sana’a. Among them was the head of the EU Delegation to Yemen, Antonia Calvo-Puerta, who met with Houthi leader Abdulmalek al-Houthi and Mahdi al-Mashat, the head of the Houthi government body. On July 18, a French delegation led by the French ambassador to Yemen met with Houthi officials in Sana’a. France notably had domestic reasons for talking with Houthi representatives too, after a French sailor was imprisoned by the group in June. The sailor, who had been detained by Houthi forces in Hudaydah after landing there due to damage to his ship, was released in October.

The Houthi leadership – after the killing of their former ally Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had managed the alliance’s international relations – also undertook its own diplomatic outreach initiatives in 2018. Senior Houthi negotiator Mohammed Abdel Salam in March confirmed to the Sana’a Center that he had discussed issues regarding peace consultations during visits to Turkey and Germany.

Although developing a coherent European foreign policy position toward the Yemen conflict remained a challenge due to diverging priorities among its member states, some unified action was undertaken. In early October, the European Parliament voted in favor of a resolution calling for a cessation of hostilities in Yemen, the resumption of peace talks and the implementation of confidence-building measures. The resolution also tasked the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, with developing a comprehensive EU strategy for Yemen.

Controversies Over EU Arms Exports

The disappearance and later confirmed death of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October added significantly to the pressure on European governments to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia, while also drawing attention to the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, including in the EU Parliament. In October, the European Parliament voted in favor of a resolution calling for an investigation into the Khashoggi murder that mentioned possible Saudi violations of humanitarian law in Yemen. The next month, a resolution was adopted that judged arms exports by EU member state to the Saudi-led military coalition to be in non-compliance with EU standards for the export of military equipment adopted in 2008.

Prior to the death of Khashoggi, some governments had already restricted weapons deals to the Saudi-led coalition. In June, Belgium suspended a number of licenses of arms manufacturer FN Herstal to export arms to Saudi Arabia. On September 4, Spain announced the cancelation of a 2015 arms sales contract with Saudi Arabia after a Saudi airstrike on a bus killed 44 children in August. On September 12, however, Spain reversed this decision. Saudi Arabia had, according to Spanish media, threatened to cancel a 1.8 billion euro order of corvette-class warships from Spain’s Navantia ship-building company, which would have put thousands of Spanish jobs at stake.

Germany’s new governing coalition stipulated in March that it would cease weapons sales to countries involved in the Yemen war. However, German media reported in September that the government had still authorized arms deals with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan. In November, in the wake of the Khashoggi killing, the German government publicly declared a halt to all arms shipments to Saudi Arabia. Again, German media reported in December that Berlin, contrary to its public pronouncements, was continuing to export military equipment to Riyadh. According to a government written response to a parliamentary inquiry, while the German government had indeed not issued new export licences to Saudi Arabia during the last three months of 2018, this was not the case for other members of the Saudi-led military coalition.

Norway, Denmark and Finland announced in November they would halt arms export licenses to Saudi Arabia while Finland also ceased the sale of military equipment to the UAE. In late December, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced that his government intended to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

French President Emmanuel Macron criticized the response of other European governments, saying that there was no link between arms sales and the Khashoggi affair. France is third largest arms vendor to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi after the US and UK. Civil society groups in France increased pressure against the French government over the weapon sales prior to visits by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in April and November respectively. In a somewhat unsuccessful attempt to appease the French public, France and Saudi Arabia co-hosted a humanitarian conference on Yemen in Paris in June. In response, 30 humanitarian organizations voiced heavy criticism of the event, stating that the conference lacked credibility with Saudi Arabia as a co-host. The event ended with no clear outcome.

Canada Calls for Ceasefire, Continues Arming Belligerents

On October 22, Canada’s opposition left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) demanded in parliament that the country end arms exports to Saudi Arabia in light of the kingdom’s military engagement in Yemen and the Khashoggi killing. At issue was an ongoing deal worth CAN$15 billion for defense contractor General Dynamic Land Systems Canada to deliver hundreds of weaponized Light Armored Vehicles (LAV) to Saudi Arabia, which Riyadh has been deploying in the Yemen conflict. The contract also supports thousands of manufacturing jobs in southern Ontario, an area considered pivotal for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party in the upcoming 2019 Canadian federal election.

Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland had defended the arms dealing by saying its cancelation would harm Canada’s reputation, while following the NDP’s calls, Trudeau decried that it would cost Canada CAN$1 billion to cancel the deal, though he later added that his government was looking for ways to end the contract.  

On November 1, Freeland issued a statement echoing other Western governments in calling for a ceasefire in Yemen and supporting the UN Special Envoy’s peace efforts.

“We remain deeply concerned by reports that all parties to the conflict have repeatedly contravened international law,” she said. On December 23 another batch of Canadian-made LAVs was loaded onto a container ship in eastern Canada and shipped to Saudi Arabia.

Russia Tests Mediation Waters

While Russia has little vested interest in Yemen, it made indications in 2018 that it was interested in playing a role as a mediator, including in regard to the conflict in southern Yemen that erupted in January in Aden between government and UAE-backed forces (see Aden: Hadi, Islah vs. UAE-backed Secessionists, Salafis). In April, Russia’s Envoy to the Middle East and Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov stated that his country was ready for any role that “serves peace, security, and stability in Yemen” after he met with President Hadi on the sidelines of the 29th Arab League Summit in Saudi Arabia. Russia played the counterweight against allies of the Saudi-led military coalition in the UN Security Council when in February, Moscow used its veto power to kill a draft resolution on Yemen that it saw as biased against Iran (see ‘UNSC Deadlocked Throughout Most of 2018).

In June, both the Houthi leadership and the Yemeni government made overtures to Moscow. Mahdi al-Mashat, the head of the Houthi government body in Sana’a, in a letter requested that Russian President Vladimir Putin provide assistance in negotiating a political settlement to the conflict. Days later, Mansour Baggash, the Yemeni government’s Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, met with Russia’s Ambassador to Yemen in Riyadh. According to Yemen’s Ministry of Foreign Affairsthe Russian ambassador reiterated Moscow’s support for the internationally recognized Yemeni government and a political solution to the conflict.


List of Acronyms

ACLED Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project
AP Associated Press
AQAP Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
CBY Central Bank of Yemen
CENTCOM United States Central Command
Daesh (The so-called Islamic State group)
EU European Union
GCC Gulf Cooperation Council
GEE UN group of eminent international and regional experts
GPC General People’s Congress
HRW Human Rights Watch
ICRC International Committee of the of Red Cross
IOM International Organization of Migration
LAV Light Armored Vehicles
MSF Médecins Sans Frontières
NDAA National Defense Authorization Act
NDC National Dialogue Conference
NDP New Democratic Party
NGO Non-Governmental Organization
NYT New York Times
RCC Redeployment Coordination Committee
SPC Supreme Political Council
STC Southern Transitional Council
TPS Temporary Protected Status
UAE United Arab Emirates  
UK United Kingdom
UNHCR United Nations Refugee Agency
UNICEF United Nations Children’s Fund  
UNOCHA United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs UNSC United Nations Security Council UNVIM United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism
UAV Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
US United States
WFP World Food Program
WHO World Health Organization
YCHO Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations
YHRP Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan
YPC Yemen Petroleum Company


Acknowledgments

The Yemen Annual Review 2018  required the steadfast commitment of a team of individuals from across Yemen and around the globe. Without them, this document would never have come to fruition. They are (in alphabetical order): Ali Abdullah, Yaaser Azzayyaat, Ryan Bailey, Anthony Biswell, Monika Bolliger, Ziad Al-Eryani, Hamza al-Hammadi, Waleed Alhariri, Taima Al-Iriani, Raed Khelifi, Sajeela Munir, Spencer Osberg, Hannah Patchett, Ghaidaa Alrashidy, Osamah al-Rawhani, Sala al-Sakkaf, Victoria K. Sauer, Holly Topham, and Aisha al-Warraq. The Sana’a Center would also like to recognize the hard work and dedication of the dozens of researchers who must remain unnamed, and the sources who have helped provide invaluable insights. 


The Yemen Review – formerly known as Yemen at the UN – is a monthly publication produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. Launched in June 2016, it aims to identify and assess current diplomatic, economic, political, military, security, humanitarian and human rights developments related to Yemen.  

In producing The Yemen Review, Sana’a Center staff throughout Yemen and around the world gather information, conduct research, and hold private meetings with local, regional, and international stakeholders in order to analyze domestic and international developments regarding Yemen.

This monthly series is designed to provide readers with contextualized insight into the country’s most important ongoing issues.

The Yemen Annual Review 2018 was developed with the support of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Friedrich-Ebert Yemen office.

Yemen’s War Profiteers Are Potential Spoilers of the Peace Process

Yemen’s War Profiteers Are Potential Spoilers of the Peace Process

The Sana’a Center Editorial

Even as economic and state collapse have propelled millions of Yemenis toward famine, the war economy that has developed over almost four years of conflict has also allowed a select cadre of individuals to become incredibly wealthy. These people – many of whom hold the highest positions of authority on either side of the frontlines, and indeed often cooperate with each other across those frontlines – have little incentive to end the war. As such, there is a high likelihood that they will act as spoilers in any peace process, such as that which the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is currently pursuing at talks between the warring parties in Sweden. A successful outcome of any peace efforts in Yemen requires that these war profiteers are taken into account. Measures must be introduced – such as sanctions – to counter these individuals’ incentive and ability to continue the war, or to try to destabilize the country in the event that a peace agreement is signed.

As a year-long Sana’a Center investigation found, perceived adversaries in Yemen’s war have often cooperated for personal profit. Over the past three and a half years, and under the cover of violence and failing diplomacy, complex and fluid networks of corruption have transcended active frontlines. Among the clearest example of this has been the flow of Saudi-led military coalition weapons to Houthi forces. At the heart of this particular money-making scheme are senior Yemeni anti-Houthi military commanders on the Saudi or Emirati payroll. After vastly inflating the number of soldiers in their ranks to receive excess salaries and armaments from their patrons, they then sell their weapons surplus across the frontlines to the same Houthi forces they are meant to be fighting.

The weapons are transported from areas nominally under the control of the government to Houthi-controlled areas through formal and informal corridors, including via desert tracks in Mahra, Hadramawt, and Shabwa governorates. This requires local, expert knowledge of the terrain, and many greased palms along the way. Ultimately though, as long as each party is paid their share – from arms dealers to those driving the trucks and individuals stationed along the road manning checkpoints – then arms sales run smoothly, no matter the destination..

These networks of corruption extend beyond Yemen’s borders. A telling example is the prevalence of fuel import deals that involve cheap, low quality Iranian fuel that is transshipped via the United Arab Emirates or Oman before arriving to Yemen, where the fuel is then sold on the local market at a hefty markup. These deals, like all other fuel shipments to Houthi-controlled ports, are effectively agreed in Sana’a and signed off on in Riyadh.

The plot thickens further still when it comes to financial flows and external money transfers. To pay fuel exporters and brokers located outside Yemen, certain Yemeni fuel importers – particularly those that have risen in clout since 2016 – have turned to informal financial networks, and specifically the services provided by money exchangers. Fuel importers desperate to get their hands on foreign currency at any price are thought to be among the biggest factors depressing the rial’s value, which is in turn the primary catalyst for the spreading famine.

The new business elite and the informal financial networks that aided their rise appeared to come under threat recently, owing to new food and fuel import regulations that the Economic Committee introduced in September 2018 under the authority of the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) in Aden. Early indicators suggest, however, that these regulations have simply forced an adaptation to new forms of business relations and activity. Partnerships are being formed amongst importers that can meet the necessary requirements and those that cannot. The fact is that the more profitable Yemeni markets are in Houthi-controlled areas, where an estimated 70 percent of the population resides. Those seeking to profit from this war have proven themselves adept at working around new restrictions. This is how the war economy has evolved to where it is today.

In September 2018, UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths declared his intention to place greater emphasis on addressing Yemen’s economic crisis, acknowledging the direct, catastrophic impact that Yemen’s economic decline is having on the lives and livelihoods of Yemeni people. This declaration, which occurred at a time in which the local currency was in an unprecedented free fall, is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. What is also needed, however, is a greater emphasis on identifying the key figures on all sides who are profiting from this war, the networks through which their finances flow, and the points of leverage that can be brought to bear upon them. Without reining in the influence of the war profiteers, the chances of achieving peace are grim.

 

This editorial appeared in ‘The Yemen Review – November 2018

The Yemen Review –  November 2018

The Yemen Review – November 2018

Residents in the Tha’abat area of Taiz City inspect a home in November that was damaged by shelling from Houthi forces // Photo Credit: Anas Alhajj

Download the report

Executive Summary

Representatives from Yemen’s warring parties sat at a negotiating table for the first time in more than two years at the beginning of December. The peace consultations – which took place in Sweden and were mediated by the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths – followed international pressure for a ceasefire that began in October and intensified through November.

Rifts between Saudi Arabia and its most important ally, the United States, over the former’s intervention in the Yemen conflict appeared to deepen last month with the announced end of US in-flight refueling for Saudi-led military coalition aircraft operating over Yemen, and a vote in the US Senate to debate a bill to suspend military assistance to the coalition. Various governments in Europe also took steps toward banning arms sales to members of the coalition.

United Nations Security Council (UNSC) member states began negotiating a new draft resolution related to the Yemen conflict in November, calling for measures to de-escalate the war and address the humanitarian crisis. This was the first proposed UNSC resolution related to Yemen since April 2015. Lobbying from Saudi Arabia and the United States, however, appeared to postpone any vote on the text at least until after the negotiations in Sweden.

In Yemen, the domestic currency rebounded sharply in value against the US dollar in November after a steep collapse in the months previous. While this had the potential to help mitigate the humanitarian crisis, most of the benefits of the Yemeni rial’s recovery were absorbed before they reached consumers. Acting as a cartel to manipulate the currency market, money exchangers profited significantly from the Yemeni rial’s appreciation and most commercial retailers refused to lower prices to match the rial’s recovery. Meanwhile, international humanitarian organization Save the Children released an estimate that some 85,000 children had died of hunger in Yemen since the conflict began.

In military developments, a spike in violence around Hudaydah City at the beginning of November sparked a surge in suspected violations of humanitarian and international human rights law by the warring parties involved. Elsewhere, anti-Houthi forces made battlefield gains on multiple frontlines in both the north and south of the country.

Also in November, one of the main fissures in the anti-Houthi coalition appeared to mend somewhat. Following a visit by representatives of Yemen’s Islah party to Abu Dhabi, it appeared that the party had reconciled long-standing differences with the United Arab Emirates. Despite this, however, tensions between UAE-backed forces and Islah partisans once again erupted in Taiz governorate, including a spree of tit-for-tat assassinations.


The Sana’a Center Editorial

Yemen’s War Profiteers Are Potential Spoilers of the Peace Process

Even as economic and state collapse have propelled millions of Yemenis toward famine, the war economy that has developed over almost four years of conflict has also allowed a select cadre of individuals to become incredibly wealthy. These people – many of whom hold the highest positions of authority on either side of the frontlines, and indeed often cooperate with each other across those frontlines – have little incentive to end the war. As such, there is a high likelihood that they will act as spoilers in any peace process, such as that which the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is currently pursuing at talks between the warring parties in Sweden. A successful outcome of any peace efforts in Yemen requires that these war profiteers are taken into account. Measures must be introduced – such as sanctions – to counter these individuals’ incentive and ability to continue the war, or to try to destabilize the country in the event that a peace agreement is signed.      

As a year-long Sana’a Center investigation found, perceived adversaries in Yemen’s war have often cooperated for personal profit. Over the past three and a half years, and under the cover of violence and failing diplomacy, complex and fluid networks of corruption have transcended active frontlines. Among the clearest example of this has been the flow of Saudi-led military coalition weapons to Houthi forces. At the heart of this particular money-making scheme are senior Yemeni anti-Houthi military commanders on the Saudi or Emirati payroll. After vastly inflating the number of soldiers in their ranks to receive excess salaries and armaments from their patrons, they then sell their weapons surplus across the frontlines to the same Houthi forces they are meant to be fighting.

The weapons are transported from areas nominally under the control of the government to Houthi-controlled areas through formal and informal corridors, including via desert tracks in Mahra, Hadramawt, and Shabwa governorates. This requires local, expert knowledge of the terrain, and many greased palms along the way. Ultimately though, as long as each party is paid their share – from arms dealers to those driving the trucks and individuals stationed along the road manning checkpoints – then arms sales run smoothly, no matter the destination..

These networks of corruption extend beyond Yemen’s borders. A telling example is the prevalence of fuel import deals that involve cheap, low quality Iranian fuel that is transshipped via the United Arab Emirates or Oman before arriving to Yemen, where the fuel is then sold on the local market at a hefty markup. These deals, like all other fuel shipments to Houthi-controlled ports, are effectively agreed in Sana’a and signed off on in Riyadh.

The plot thickens further still when it comes to financial flows and external money transfers. To pay fuel exporters and brokers located outside Yemen, certain Yemeni fuel importers – particularly those that have risen in clout since 2016 – have turned to informal financial networks, and specifically the services provided by money exchangers. Fuel importers desperate to get their hands on foreign currency at any price are thought to be among the biggest factors depressing the rial’s value, which is in turn the primary catalyst for the spreading famine.

The new business elite and the informal financial networks that aided their rise appeared to come under threat recently, owing to new food and fuel import regulations that the Economic Committee introduced in September 2018 under the authority of the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) in Aden. Early indicators suggest, however, that these regulations have simply forced an adaptation to new forms of business relations and activity. Partnerships are being formed amongst importers that can meet the necessary requirements and those that cannot. The fact is that the more profitable Yemeni markets are in Houthi-controlled areas, where an estimated 70 percent of the population resides. Those seeking to profit from this war have proven themselves adept at working around new restrictions. This is how the war economy has evolved to where it is today.

In September 2018, UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths declared his intention to place greater emphasis on addressing Yemen’s economic crisis, acknowledging the direct, catastrophic impact that Yemen’s economic decline is having on the lives and livelihoods of Yemeni people. This declaration, which occurred at a time in which the local currency was in an unprecedented free fall, is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. What is also needed, however, is a greater emphasis on identifying the key figures on all sides who are profiting from this war, the networks through which their finances flow, and the points of leverage that can be brought to bear upon them. Without reining in the influence of the war profiteers, the chances of achieving peace are grim.     


UN-led Peace Talks Restart As Security Council Seeks New Yemen Resolution

Special Envoy Brings Warring Parties to Sweden

For the first time in more than two years, representatives from Yemen’s warring parties – the armed Houthi movement and the internationally recognized Yemeni government – sat together at a negotiating table in early December. The meeting – mediated by the UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths – took place in Rimbo, north of Stockholm, Sweden, with the stage for such having been set during the previous month.

On November 16, the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths had briefed the UN Security Council about his intention to try and bring the parties together. Griffiths said that a window of opportunity had been created by the increased international and UN focus on Yemen and calls for a ceasefire, and the urgency of the moment, given that Yemen was slipping toward the largest famine the world has seen in generations. Following a spike in clashes in and around Houthi-held Hudaydah City in early November, the Special Envoy told the Security Council these had diminished again (see below Coalition Presses, Then Halts, Hudaydah Offensive). This followed international pressure on the Saudi-led military coalition refrain from an attack on the port.

In September this year, Griffiths had tried to stage peace consultations between the warring parties in Geneva, with these talks then being canceled at the last minute due to a logistics impasse between the warring parties related to the Houthi delegation traveling to the talks. This time, the Special Envoy told the council that the Saudi-led military coalition had agreed to his suggested logistical arrangements, and the coalition and Oman had offered to facilitate the medical evaluation of some 50 injured Houthi fighters out of Sana’a. When the Houthi delegation actually did leave Sana’a on December 4 aboard a Kuwaiti airliner, Griffiths himself was also on board as reassurance for the Houthi officials that the Saudi-led military coalition, which controls Yemeni airspace, would not intercept the flight.

In the November 16 UNSC briefing, the Special Envoy said he was pursuing confidence-building measure between the two parties, including a prisoner swap. Indeed, on the first day of the talks, December 6, the Houthis and the Yemeni government agreed to swap thousands of prisoners. Other efforts by Griffiths included the reopening of Sana’a airport, and the de-escalation of hostilities around Hudaydah port and city by turning the port over to UN administration. The port, through which more than 70 percent of Yemen’s commercial and humanitarian cargo passes, is considered crucial to addressing the humanitarian crisis.

Following his November 16 briefing, the Special Envoy traveled to Sana’a where he met with the Houthi leadership to discuss the planned consultations in Sweden. He then moved on to Hudaydah on November 23, along with Lise Grande, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator, and the Stephen Anderson, The World Food Programme country Director of Yemen. From Hudaydah, Griffiths’ office released a statement noting that the UN delegates had reached an agreement with the Houthi leadership regarding UN administration of the port. The Saudi-led military coalition continued to maintain, as of this writing, that it would only accept UN administration of the port if Houthi fighters left Hudaydah.

UN Security Council Negotiates Resolution on Yemen

For the first time since adopting Resolution 2216 in April 2015, the UNSC introduced a new draft resolution for the council to consider and negotiate. The UK, penholder of the Yemen file at the council, led the drafting of the resolution on November 1, in consultation with the US. Top US and UK officials had, days earlier, called for the warring parties in Yemen to enter a ceasefire and for a new round of UN-led peace consultations.

The UK draft text of the resolution called for a cessation of hostilities and for the implementation of the October 23 recommendations that Mark Lowcock, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, had made to the Security Council. (These included ending hostilities around infrastructure crucial for aid operations and commercial imports; protecting food supply chains throughout the country; rapidly injecting more foreign currency into the economy through the central bank; increasing funding for aid operations; and calling on the belligerent parties to engage with the UN Special Envoy’s peace efforts.)

On November 12, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt travelled to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to support the UN-led peace consultations and the UK’s efforts at the UNSC. Hunt met with, among others, Saudi King Salman Bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. As CNN later reported, Hunt – after consulting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian – shared a copy of the draft resolution with the Saudi Crown Prince. According to the reports, bin Salman opposed the text. Hunt also urged Saudi authorities not to try and seek military victory, referring to the intensified offensive on Hudaydah last month. A week later the UK Foreign Secretary was also in Tehran to meet with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, to discuss the Yemen peace process.

On November 19, the UK circulated an updated draft UN Security Council resolution on Yemen, with minor changes from the first draft and with updates from the UNSC briefing on Yemen held on November 16. This text called for the halting of hostilities in Hudaydah governorate; an end to all attacks on densely populated civilian areas across Yemen; and the cessation of all missile and drone attacks against neighboring countries and maritime traffic, and that all domestic and regional parties to the conflict to de-escalate tensions and engage with the UN-led peace process. The text also called for rapid increased support for the Central Bank of Yemen, for quicker access for traders to import financing, and for payment of civil servant salaries across Yemen.

While the UK held strong on trying to keep the draft resolution without major changes and push it to the table for a vote, Sana’a Center sources stated the Saudis brought intense pressure to bear on Security Council member states against the resolution. On November 27, the US mission ask the council to hold off finalizing the draft resolution until after the peace consultations in Sweden. The US position, which won quiet support from several other nations, was that a resolution before the peace talks would likely have a negative impact on those talks, angering the Saudis and possibly undermining the commitments to attend, which the warring parties had made to the UN Special Envoy.

Sana’a Center sources noted that developments on the ground through November — such as Yemeni rial’s recovery (see below ‘Yemeni Rial Appreciates’) and the scaling down of the battle for Hudaydah — had also relieved the sense of urgency for some UNSC member states regarding a new resolution.

 

Pressure Mounts in US, EU to End Support for Saudi-led Coalition

US to Stop Refuelling Coalition Aircraft

On November 9, the Saudi-led military coalition announced that it would no longer require the US to provide air-to-air refuelling for their fighter aircraft operating over Yemen, saying that it now had the capabilities to do so independently. Sana’a Center sources indicated, however, that this Saudi announcement was a compromise to allow Riyadh to publically save face, and that the call to end US refueling support had originated in Washington. This US support had drawn criticism domestically, given its central role in facilitating coalition airstrikes, which the UN says have been responsible for the majority of civilian deaths since 2015 in Yemen’s conflict.

In a statement, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis officially welcomed the Saudi announcement, saying that it would continue working with the coalition to “minimize civilian casualties and expand urgent humanitarian efforts,” while reiterating Washington’s support for the UN drive for fresh peace talks. The statement alluded to the growing bipartisan pressure in Congress regarding the US role in Yemen’s war, ranging from calls for greater congressional oversight, to demands for immediate cessation of all support for the coalition. NBC News quoted a senate staffer as saying that the decision was intended to pre-empt a more wide-ranging vote in Congress on US support for the Saudi-led military coalition, an assertion echoed by US-based analysts. However, while longtime opponents of US involvement in Yemen praised the development as a “major victory,” reports published following the announcement have questioned whether the move goes far enough to quell such opposition, given that the US continues to provide intelligence support, targeting assistance and weapons to the coalition.

While many news outlets covering the development said that the US refuels 20 percent of coalition aircraft, in a September 2018 report, The Intercept said that CENTCOM does not track refuelling in a way that allows for accurate data on the Pentagon’s contribution to the coalition air campaign.

Draft Legislation Takes Aim at US Support for the Saudi-led Military Coalition

On November 15, Democrat and Republican senators introduced a bill that would suspend weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and prohibit refueling of coalition aircraft. The sponsors of ‘The Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act of 2018’ (S.3652) – which include Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) – said the legislation was introduced in response to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October, as well as Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen’s war.

On November 28, the Senate advanced a separate resolution that would end all US support for the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen. Senate Joint Resolution 54 passed the first committee stage vote 63 to 37 – a turnaround from March, when the same bill failed to pass by a vote of 55 to 44. The bill invokes the 1973 War Powers Resolution – which asserts that Congress has the sole constitutional privilege to declare war – and calls for the end of US involvement in the Yemen conflict within 30 days, excluding operations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Prior to the vote, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis privately briefed senators on America’s role in the Yemen conflict, urging them to reject the resolution. In comments to reporters, Pompeo said the “poorly timed” move would bolster Iran and undermine UN-backed peace talks expected for December. After the vote, the White House released a statement saying the president would likely veto the resolution if it were to pass the Senate after the next two votes – the first of which is expected to take place in early December. The administration called the legislation “flawed,” saying it does not reflect the limited involvement of the US in the conflict and disputes that this support is unconstitutional. It added that the bill would harm bilateral relationships with countries in the region, with knock-on effects for US counterterrorism efforts.

These legislative moves come on the heels of the US midterm elections, in which the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, and the Republican Party retained control of the Senate. As the majority party in the House from January 2019, Democrats will occupy key leadership positions, exerting control over the bills that the House will consider, and amendments offered by representatives. The Democrats have vowed to establish greater oversight of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, with hearings expected regarding support for the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen. While Republican leaders this month blocked debate on House Resolution 138 – legislation that would force a congressional vote on the US role in the Yemen – the bill is likely to be reintroduced when the Democrats are in a stronger position from January 2019 (for more on the bill, see ‘The Yemen Review – September 2018’).

Also in the US last month, on November 11, senior Obama-administration officials released a strongly worded statement urging the US government to end all support to the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen in light of the humanitarian impact of the conflict. The officials acknowledged that this support began under Obama’s presidency, but said that this was “not intended to become a blank check,” which they claim US-backing had become under the Trump administration.

EU Moves Towards an Arms Embargo on the Saudi-led Military Coalition

On November 14, the European Parliament adopted a non-binding resolution, calling for the implementation of a EU Common Position of 2008 which had set EU standards for the licensing and delivery of arms exports. The resolution also holds that exports to members of the Saudi-led military coalition are in non-compliance with these standards, therefore reiterating its call for the imposition of an EU arms embargo on Saudi Arabia and members of the Saudi-led military coalition. Although the Common Position is described as legally-binding, article 4.2 holds that “[t]he decision to transfer or deny the transfer of any military technology or equipment shall remain at the national discretion of each Member State.”  

In October, the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and the humanitarian impact of the Yemen war had fuelled discussions in Europe over arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Discussions continued throughout last month, with Norway, Denmark and Finland announcing they would halt arms export licenses to Saudi Arabia – and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in regards to Finland – following a similar announcement by Germany in October. On November 19, the German government added it would also halt those arms exports to Saudi Arabia that had been approved prior to the October announcement.

MBZ Meets Macron in Paris, Protests Ensue

On November 21, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, visited Paris to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe and foreign affairs minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Similar to when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited to Paris in April, bin Zayed’s trip triggered civil society activities related to the UAE’s military role in Yemen. Human Rights Watch called upon President Macron to raise concerns with the crown prince regarding war crimes in Yemen and to threaten to halt arms sales. Meanwhile, the human rights NGO International Alliance for the Defence of Rights and Freedoms (AIDL), along with six Yemeni nationals, filed a lawsuit against bin Zayed, accusing him of being complicit in torture and war crimes in Yemen as Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. AIDL also organized demonstrations in front of the UAE embassy in Paris on November 20.

Following the meeting between Macron and bin Zayed, France and the UAE issued a joint declaration in which the two announced their willingness to enhance bilateral cooperation, including in regional security issues. Regarding Yemen, they affirmed their support for the upcoming UN-led peace negotiations, as well as their general support for a political solution to the conflict and the importance of enhancing humanitarian access throughout Yemen. The declaration mentioned neither French arms sales to the UAE nor the latter’s military role in Yemen.


The Yemeni army’s First Brigade celebrates Independence Day in Aden on November 30, which commemorates South Yemen’s independence from British rule // Photo Credit: Ahmed Shihab Al-Qadi

Economic Developments

Yemeni Rial Appreciates Rapidly As Money Exchangers Cash-In

During November, the Yemeni rial (YR) hit unpredicted levels of appreciation, gaining value more rapidly, and for a longer period, than at any time since the conflict began. Between early August and end of October this year the currency had entered its steepest depreciation of the conflict, losing around 42 percent in value. November however, saw a turnaround: the rial was valued at YR750 per US$1 at the beginning of the month, but by month’s end, it was trading at YR380 per US$1 – a recovery of roughly 49 percent over this period and almost 22 percent on November 28 alone. By December 2, the rial had retreated again to YR480 per US$1. (In March 2015, when the regional intervention in the Yemeni conflict began, the rial was trading at YR215 per US$1.)

According to sources working in the exchange market who spoke with the Sana’a Center Economic Unit, the supply of rials in the parallel market has decreased lately as importers have increasingly been withdrawing liquidity from the exchangers to open letters of credit at the Aden-based Central Bank of Yemen (CBY). As an enticement to open these letters of credit and bring liquidity back into the formal financial networks, the Aden-based CBY has also been offering importers a preferential exchange rate relative to the parallel markets.   

As the rial appreciated in November, there was a rush in the market to exchange stored foreign currency holdings into domestic currency to stave off losses in the value of savings. The same sources said many money exchange outlets acted as a cartel to buy foreign currency out of the market at a premium – meaning at a rate better than what the Aden-based CBY was offering importers. This was a purposeful overvaluation of the rial intended to absorb citizens foreign currency holdings. Simultaneously, these exchange outlets temporarily refused to sell, or severely limited their sale of foreign currency back into the market, anticipating that the rial would lose value again.

On December 1, the rial depreciated – from YR380 per US$1 to YR460 per US$1 – allowing the money exchangers to sell their foreign currency again for significantly more rials than they had bought it last month.

    Source: Sana’a Center Economic Unit

 

Commercial Traders Maintain High Prices Despite YR Appreciation

In a country highly dependent on imports, the foreign exchange rate is closely correlated with basic goods prices. Prior to the conflict in 2015, Yemen imported almost 90 percent of its basic necessities from abroad, and since then the average price of the minimum food basket has increased 110 percent relative to the pre-conflict average, according to a recent World Food Programme report. Previous spikes in food commodity prices during the conflict were primarily due to the loss in domestic currency value.

In conjunction with the rial’s appreciation in value during the second half of November, commercial groups and companies announced new price lists for their products, most notably the Hayel Saeed Anam Group, which is Yemen’s largest importer of basic foodstuffs. Price reductions announced by this group ranged from roughly 10 to 23 percent for products including wheat flour, cooking oils, and soap detergents.

In attempts to regulate the price of goods following the rial’s appreciation, both the internationally recognized Yemeni government and the Houthi authorities issued detailed lists stipulating the maximum prices for various wholesale and retail commodities in their respective areas, while also implementing widespread campaigns to punish violators. On November 27, for instance, Houthi authorities closed four large shopping malls and many pharmacies in Sana’a that had been caught violating the price listings published by the Ministry of Industry and Trade. In Aden, the Bureau of Industry and Trade, under the Ministry of Industry and Trade, was tasked to monitor traders adherence to formally set-out prices. Despite such efforts, however, anecdotal reports from Sana’a and other areas indicated that many retailers did not lower their prices, while others had applied slight price cuts ranging from less than 5 to 10 percent – still far from matching rial’s recent appreciation. 

A common explanation among retailers for not applying price reductions was that their inventories were restocked or purchased when rial was declining in value over September and October, and thus at higher cost, and the higher prices are needed to recoup the difference. In reality, the absence of governing authorities to supervise and regulate prices has created a conducive environment for food traders to exploit, allowing them to manipulate prices and inflate their profit margins.

For instance, even with the Aden-based CBY’s importation mechanism to offer importers of selected basic foodstuffs a privileged exchange rate – lower than the parallel market rate – Yemeni citizens are not benefiting. Instead, commodity wholesalers and retailers are the main beneficiaries. According to traders based in Sana’a, retail shops were, as of the end of November, still selling commodities based on an exchange rate of YR800 per US$1, which was the exchange rate in early October when the rial had depreciated to record lows.

The intent of the CBY’s preferential exchange rate for financing imports is that it allow foodstuffs to be available on the market at reasonable prices. However, as long as the current scenario continues, the Aden-based CBY will continue depleting its foreign currency holdings without achieving its primary goal of maintaining price stability.

Thus, the Sana’a Center Economic Unit recommends that CBY establish a joint comprehensive mechanism for regulating the commodity market. This mechanism should offer a database and information on all the CBY’s financially-supported commodity foodstuffs, the size of these commodity stocks available in the market, and how long they are estimated to last, thus allowing a determination of fair retail prices for these commodities.

Factors Supporting the YR’s Appreciating Value:

  • Accelerated Import Financing, New Domestic Debt Issuance

On November 3, the Aden-based CBY announced it was finalizing a new round of basic import financing. This amounted to the allocation of US$170 million to support the importation of six food commodities at the special exchange rate of YR585 per US$1. The amount was broken down as follows: US$98.16 million for wheat, US$33.3 million for rice, US$20.37 million for sugar, US$12.72 million for edible oil, US$3.63 million for corn, US$1.72 million for milk. The CBY also stated that it had shortened the approval period for letters of credit to less than 15 days, a process that was previously regarded by importers as excessively long.

In a circular directed to Yemeni banks, dated November 18, the Aden-based CBY informed commercial banks that it had reached an agreement with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA) to facilitate the transfer of their foreign cash holdings. Since early 2015, Yemeni banks have been unable to move their cash holdings of foreign currencies to their accounts abroad. According to the agreement, the Aden-based CBY would be responsible for transferring the banks’ accumulated stocks of foreign currencies to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. If successful, such a move could allow the CBY to utilize such stocks to fund imports and ensure Yemeni banks have the capacity to facilitate global trade and financial transactions. In attempt to encourage this transition the central bank pledged, as a service to the banking sector, to bear all costs of the mechanism until sufficient liquidity had returned to the formal financial system and the monetary cycle had been regained.   

Furthermore, the Aden-based CBY, on behalf of the Ministry of Finance, had its first successful domestic debt issuance, using new rates and debt instruments the bank had announced in September this year. According to a well-placed source in the Aden banking sector who spoke with the Sana’a Center Economic Unit, the Aden-based CBY was able to sell YR100 billion in debt to a group of Yemeni commercial and Islamic banks. The move offers support for the government budget deficit from non-inflationary sources – a marked change for a government that, for most of the conflict, has been trying to cover expenses through simply printing more rials.   

  • Oil Grants and Lower Demand for Foreign Currency to Import Fuels   

While the Aden-based CBY and its associated Economic Committee have in recent months attempted to regulate fuels imports and curb fuel importers’ over-speculation in the exchange market, other recent oil-relevant developments last month also appear to have eased the downward pressures on the rial’s value.

On November 30, Saudi Arabia, under its Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen, delivered the second instalment of its diesel and mazut fuel grant, worth US$60 million. This fuel is intended to allow power plants to operate and address the electricity shortages in Yemeni government held areas, potentially benefiting some 8.5 million people. This is in addition to the first Saudi fuel grant made available to the internationally recognized government at the end of this October, bringing the total fuel grants thus far to US$120 million.

In addition, there has been a recent decline in global oil prices, with the benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude declining some 19 percent, dropping from roughly US$64 per barrel on November 1 to almost US$51 as of month end.

The Sana’a Center Economic Unit last month ran a multi regression analysis on the correlation between fluctuations in global oil prices and the value of the Yemeni rial between January 2017 and October 2018. This analysis found that changes in both variables have strong positive and negative correlation. This supports the findings of a Yemeni Banking Association survey, published in October, in which bankers identified fuel importers’ demand for foreign currency as the primary factor influence the rial exchange rate.  

  • New Foreign Currency Support Announced

According to Sana’a Center sources, on November 30 the Aden-based CBY reached an agreement with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to coordinate a grant worth US$500 million from several donors to facilitate a trade funding program for Yemen. To determine if Yemeni commercial banks’ eligibility to participate in the program, starting in February next year the IFC will initiate a comprehensive review of commercial banks’ procedures. This assessment will include the banks’ governance practices in regards to their board of directors and executive management structure, and compliance requirements related to anti-money laundering and counter terrorism financing.

Furthermore, on December 1 the Aden-based CBY governor, Mohammed Zemmam, told Yemeni News Agency (Saba) that the CBY is currently awaiting promises worth US$3 billion. Zemmam also told Saba News that “there is a set of decisions to be taken by the United Nations or some countries regarding the new deposits.”

If such grants materialized, they would play a crucial role in supporting local currency stabilization and would help mitigate Yemen’s widespread  humanitarian crisis. In September this Year, former CBY governor Mohamed bin Humam told the Sana’a Center that he estimated that US$4 billion was required for currency stabilization.

Commercial Banks Express Concerns Over New Import Financing Regulations

On November 12, Yemen Banks Association (YBA) sent a letter to the CBY Governor in Aden, Mohammed Zammam, outlining the difficulties commercial banks face in regards to underwriting letters of credit (LCs) for food and fuel importers using cash. As noted in the letter to the governor, the Economic Committee and Aden-based CBY are looking to enforce this measure – and are threatening fines for non-compliance – as part of the new import regulations included in Ministerial Decree 75, announced in September.

Meanwhile, on November 4, the Sana’a-based CBY issued a strongly-worded circular to commercial banks mandating that they use checks to pay for importer LCs, and warning them of the severe repercussions – including imprisonment of senior staff – should they do otherwise. A major concern of the Sana’a-based authorities is cash liquidity being drawn out of Houthi-controlled areas to Yemeni-government controlled areas.    

The cash liquidity crisis in Yemen – which set in dramatically through 2016 – resulted in domestic cash being overvalued in the market relative to checks. Forcing banks to supply cash to pay for importer LCs would thus pass on this overpricing, meaning importers, when they sold their foodstuffs on the market, would do so at higher prices to recoup the difference. Thus, regular consumers would not benefit from the Aden-based CBY’s preferential exchange rate for imports.

According to Sana’a Center sources, the Aden-based CBY as well as the Economic Committee were, as of this writing, working on a new mechanism to address this concern.

Houthi-run YPC Lowers Official Fuel Prices

Per official documentation that the Sana’a Center’s Economic Unit obtained, the Houthi-run Yemen Petroleum Company (YPC) ordered the reduction of official YPC petrol and diesel prices in Houthi-controlled areas on two separate occasions in late November. The first price reduction was declared on November 21 and came into effect two days later, with the price of petrol at YR10,000 per 20 liters. The price of diesel was set at YR10,600 per 20 liters. YPC declared further price reductions a week later on November 28. The new price of petrol at YPC fuel stations was set at YR8,700 per 20 liters, while the price of diesel was set at YR9,500. The latest price reductions are scheduled to be implemented on December 1. According to the official documents, the Houthi-run YPC lowered the price of petrol and diesel in response to the appreciation of the rial.

 

Military and Security Developments

Coalition Presses, Then Halts, Hudaydah Offensive

Heavy fighting took place in and around Hudaydah after the launch of a new offensive by anti-Houthi forces on the west coast port city on November 2. Following advances by coalition-backed forces in the city’s eastern and southern suburbs, on November 14 the Saudi-led military coalition halted the offensive. Days later, the Houthis said they would cease missile and UAV attacks against coalition and Yemeni targets. Both sides have since accused the other of violating the ceasefire.

On November 7, there were reports that pro-government forces were within 5 km of Hudaydah port, approaching from the east, taking control of the May 22 hospital on November 10. Eyewitnesses reported street battles and coalition strikes in the southern al-Rabsa neighborhood on November 12, which – as a densely populated residential area – locals said caused considerable displacement. Medical and military sources reported at least 149 killed during 24 hours. On November 9, Mohammed al-Bukaiti of the Houthi Political Bureau called for the group’s forces to move to the west coast, echoing similar statements by Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi in a televised speech on November 7.

On November 14, the Saudi-led military coalition temporarily halted the offensive, saying the ceasefire was intended to allow civilians to flee and facilitate humanitarian interventions. Reuters quoted an unnamed source as saying the move came following western pressure – particularly from the US – for a ceasefire to ensure the Houthis attended proposed peace talks in Sweden. Houthi officials subsequently claimed that the coalition had continued to carry out airstrikes, while UAE-backed forces say that Houthi missiles targeted residential areas in the city. On November 14, the director of President Hadi’s office, Abdullah al-Alimi, said retaking of Hudaydah is inevitable, by military or political means.

Credit: Ghaidaa Alrashidy, Sana’a Center research

Pro-Government Forces Advance on Northern and Southern Fronts

Elsewhere, anti-Houthi forces made gains in Sa’ada, Hajjah, and al-Dhale governorates. In the Houthi stronghold of Sa’ada, northern Yemen, the Yemeni army reported advances in the border districts of Baqim, Razih and Dhaher. On November 3, government media quoted senior military figure Abdul Karim al-Sodai as saying that pro-government forces had moved to within 40 kilometers of Mount Marran, in Haydan district – the Houthi movement’s heartland. Heavy airstrikes and shelling were reported in areas close to the Saudi-Yemeni border, with Razih seeing particularly concentrated bombardment.

Government forces reported gains in northern Hajjah governorate, claiming on November 5 to have taken control of the Ahem junction in Haradh district – a strategic crossroads that connects Hardah city with Hudaydah governorate, to the south, and Amran governorate to the east. Efforts by coalition-backed forces to encircle Haradh district have encountered resistance from Houthi forces’ positions in the al-Nar mountains east of Haradah city, through which the road to Sa’ada runs.

In the south, the Yemeni army continued their drive toward the city of Damt, northern al-Dhale, in the small remaining area of the southern governorate that remains under Houthi control. Army media said that government forces took control of al-Hakab castle overlooking Damt on November 6, with clashes reported on the southern outskirts of the city by mid-November and claims that Houthi counterattacks on territory held by government forces have been largely repelled.

Tensions Persist Between Anti-Houthi Forces in Taiz

Ongoing tensions between anti-Houthi forces in Taiz governorate (background available here) escalated in November, centered in al-Turbah, in the south of the governorate. The area has seen a wave of attempted assassinations targeting high profile figures and disputes over control of checkpoints on the strategic road linking Taiz City and Aden. Competition between the UAE-backed Abu Abbas brigade and government military units aligned with the Islah party descended into clashes on the streets of Taiz city in August. While the subsequent withdrawal of Abu Abbas’ forces from the city put an end to the armed violence, the conflict has essentially moved southwards, where both sides continue to compete for territorial control and influence.

According to Sana’a Center sources, a meeting between high-level political and military figures in Taiz on November 4 – spurred by pressure from Riyadh – resulted in an agreement for both Abu Abbas’ and Islah-aligned forces to remove their checkpoints from al-Misrakh and al-Nashmah areas, both of which lie on minor roads leading to Taiz city. A spate of assassination attempts against high-level figures in the following weeks, however, belied cracks in the uneasy truce. The Islah-aligned 17th Infantry Brigade reported the targeting of two of its commanders, Brig. Gen. Abdulrahman al-Shamsani, on November 10, and Brig. Gen. Abdul Rahman al-Shamani, on November 17. Also on November 17, Brig. Gen. Adnan al-Hammadi, a commander of the 35th Armoured Brigade – which coordinates closely with Abu Abbas’ forces – reportedly survived an assassination attempt. Then, on November 21, gunmen reportedly fired on the convoy of Brig. Gen. Abdul Aziz al-Majidi, chief of staff of the Taiz Military Axis – the umbrella group of anti-Houthi forces fighting in the governorate.

Other Military and Security Developments In Brief:

 

Political Developments

Islah Leaders Visit Abu Dhabi

At the beginning of November representatives from the armed Houthi movement and Yemen’s Islah party met in the Omani capital Muscat, according to Sana’a Center sources familiar with the proceedings. These were follow-up talks to ones held earlier this year between the two parties, and were intended lay the foundation for mediation between the groups (Islah is currently a member of the pro-Yemeni government forces battling the Houthis).

However, seeking to forestall such mediation, the UAE intervened. On November 14, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan hosted senior Islah party leaders in the Emirati capital. These talks included Islah’s chairman, Colonel Mohammed Abdullah al-Yidoumi, and the party’s secretary-general, Abdulwahab Ahmad al-Anisi. Adnan al-Adini, a senior Islah leader, called the visit an “important and positive step” that aimed to “remove any confusion.”

The UAE regards Islah as a branch of the regional Muslim Brotherhood movement, which, along with Saudi Arabia, it designated as a terrorist organization in 2014. Islah denies any organizational ties with the political Islamist movement. Throughout the Yemen conflict, there have been regular tensions on the ground between armed groups funded by the UAE and those aligned with Islah, though there have been some indications of a thawing of relations, exemplified in a landmark meeting in December 2017 between senior Islah leaders, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

At the meeting last month, Sana’a Center sources reported that the Islah officials were issued a number of demands for them to comply with, which they accepted in exchange for the UAE ending its hostilities toward them. These demands included: that Islah end talks with the armed Houthi movement; that the party end its association with Yemeni Vice President Ali Mohsen; that Islah reactivate frontlines with the Houthis that have become relatively dormant, specifically in Taiz governorate and the Nihem district of Sana’a governorate; and that Islah cut its ties with Qatar.   

Notably, just prior to the meeting in Abu Dhabi on November 10, al-Odini accused Qatar – which has been locked in a diplomatic spat with it’s Gulf neighbors since May 2017 – of supporting the Houthis.  

Other Political Developments In Brief:

 

Humanitarian Developments

Almost 85,000 Yemeni Children Estimated to have Died From Hunger

On November 21, analysis by Save the Children stated that some 85,000 children are likely to have died from hunger in Yemen since the beginning of the conflict. This analysis was built on data collected by the United Nations, and calculated using conservative estimates of mortality rates for children less than five years old who suffer from untreated severe acute malnutrition. This follows the UN warning in October that Yemen was on the cusp of the worst famine the world has seen in a century.

In a press release, Bill Chamber, CEO of Save the Children, added that “the lives of an estimated 150,000 children still trapped” in the city of Hudaydah were also in imminent danger.

INGOs and Health Facilities Under Threat in Hudaydah

On November 8, 14 international nongovernmental organizations operating in Yemen issued a joint statement in which they said they were “appalled” by the escalation in violence in and around Hudaydah City. According to the World Food Programme, it has cause a “huge” number of displaced civilians. Additionally, Medecins Sans Frontieres reported that various Health facilities have been endanger, such as al-Thawrah hospital, the largest hospital in Hudaydah. On November 6, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore expressed her concerns regarding the fighting near al-Thawrah hospital. In early November, Houthis fighter took over a rooftop of a hospital in Hudaydah city, which led to three airstrikes on the building according to the Norwegian Refugee Council

November 7, Save the Children reported that its health facility was damaged by shelling into their area in Hudaydah city. The World Health Organization also reported on November 8 that the fightings now are close to the hospitals hindering the flow of medical staff and patients.

On November 11, an attack by the Saudi Coalition was close to al-Thawrah hospital and al-Salakhana hospital where constraints are being added to their operations. Notably, World Food Programme Executive director David Beasley said during a TV interview with CNN on November 14 that Houthis planted seven landmines inside their facility.

November 22, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock, and UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore released a joint statement urging warring parties to keep the reduction of hostilities in Hudaydah. And expressed serious concerns on the fightings near al-Thawrah hospital that has been damaged before and is now in danger. To avoid any upcoming disasters they demanded “a package of five measures” which are; “a cessation of hostilities, protection of the supply of food and essential goods, support for the economy, increased funding for the response, and engagement by the parties with the Special Envoy to end the conflict”.

Saudis, Emiratis Launch US$500 million Imdad Initiative

On November 20, the Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre (KSRelief) and Emirates Red Crescent announced the Imdad initiative. According to the announcement, Imdad will provide US$500 million worth of support, though the UN and other organizations, to address the food security crisis in Yemen. The initiative’s founding organizations estimated it will benefit 10 million to 12 million Yemenis. .

Other Humanitarian Developments in Brief:

 

Human Rights and War Crimes Developments

Hudaydah Battle Sparks Surge in Atrocities Against Civilians

The intensification of the in and around Hudaydah City in early November was accompanied by a spike in suspected violations of human rights and humanitarian law. In the first week of November, the UN reported that airstrikes, shelling and landmines killed 34 civilians and injured 92 injured in Hudaydah governorate, with most of these incidents occurring in the suburbs of Hudaydah City.   

On November 7, Houthis fighters took up position on the roof of al-Thawra Hospital, according to Amnesty International, putting patients and medical staff alike a risk of being targeted by coalition airstrikes. The same day, Houthi shelling killed four civilians and injured two in a residential area in al-Tahita district, southern Hudaydah governorate, according to al-Masdar Online.

Al-Masdar also reported that in early November Houthis fighters detained hundreds of workers at a silo facility at Hudaydah port. According to the report the silos contain the equivalent of 5 million bags of flour and are the largest such stockpile in northern Yemen. The Houthi fighters have prevented the workers from leaving the facility and forced them to continue working, while the fighters themselves have established sniper positions on atop the facility and dug tunnels around it.

For its part, the Saudi-led military coalition launched 200 airstrikes in Hudaydah over the first weekend of November, according to UN. On November 11, airstrikes hit close to al-Thawra Hospital, causing many inside to flee in panic, according to Amnesty International. On November 13, more airstrikes killed seven civilians and injured four while they were in a bus attempting to flee clashes in the city, according to New York Times.

Civilians Account for One-third of the Casualties of US Drone Strikes in Yemen

On November 14, the Associated Press (AP) reported that civilians account for a third of deaths from US drone strikes in Yemen, based on estimates compiled through interviews with witnesses to the strikes, families of victims, tribal leaders and local activists.

The US began its drone campaign against AQAP 16 years ago, with a marked uptick in strikes under the Trump presidency: 176 in his first two years in office, compared with 154 strikes in Obama’s whole eight-year tenure, according to AP.

UNHRC Body Reviews Riyadh’s Human Rights Record

On November 5, at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, member states discussed the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, and Saudi conduct in the Yemen conflict. Member states recommended that the Saudi-led military coalition take measures to enhance the peace process, protect civilians and particularly children in Yemen, ensure humanitarian access, immediately halt the conflict, end the blockade on Yemen and to implement the recommendations the UN Group of Eminent Experts released in August this year. Iran was the country delivering the highest number of recommendations on the Saudi role in the Yemen conflict.

In response, Saudi Arabia affirmed its full commitment to international humanitarian law and the protection of Yemeni civilians. Riyadh also emphasized the humanitarian and financial assistance that it had provided to Yemen, and said it had regularized the status of more than half a million Yemenis in Saudi Arabia, allowing them to work legally.

The Khashoggi affair also figured among recommendations, with several states calling for a credible investigation into the incident. Saudi Arabia, in turn, affirmed its commitment to investigate the case and prosecute all perpetrators.

Houthi Detainees Appear Before Special Criminal Court

On November 25 the Specialized Criminal Court held a hearing for 36 political prisoner held by Houthi security forces in Sana’a, with most having been detained for more than two years.

According to a brother of one of the detainees who spoke to the Sana’a Center, the hearing was the first at which the Houthi authorities allowed defense lawyers to present evidence. He added prosecutors had requested a copies of the evidence following the hearing, with the next hearing scheduled for December 30, 2018.


This report was prepared by Waleed Alhariri, Holly Topham, Hussam Radman, Ghaidaa Alrashidy, Anthony Biswell, Sala Khaled, Aisha al-Warraq, Ali Abdullah, Victoria K. Sauer, Hamza al-Hamadi, Taima al-Iriani and Spencer Osberg.


The Yemen Review – formerly known as Yemen at the UN – is a monthly publication produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. Launched in June 2016, it aims to identify and assess current diplomatic, economic, political, military, security, humanitarian and human rights developments related to Yemen.  

In producing The Yemen Review, Sana’a Center staff throughout Yemen and around the world gather information, conduct research, and hold private meetings with local, regional, and international stakeholders in order to analyze domestic and international developments regarding Yemen.

This monthly series is designed to provide readers with contextualized insight into the country’s most important ongoing issues.

This month’s report was developed with the support of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Friedrich-Ebert Yemen office.

Islah’s Political and Military Ascent in Taiz

Islah’s Political and Military Ascent in Taiz

Since August 2018, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, otherwise known as the Islah party, has taken major steps towards consolidating political and military power in Taiz City. Islah officially supports the internationally recognized Yemeni government of President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi; however, the party’s increasing capacity to act independently in Taiz represents a further erosion of the state’s purview within areas the government supposedly controls. Islah’s rise in Taiz, if solidified, is likely to complicate United Nations-led efforts to secure a peace agreement between the Houthi leadership and the internationally recognized Yemeni government. It also threatens potential post-conflict efforts to stabilize the country’s political and security environments and establish effective state sovereignty.

The Yemen Review – October 2018

The Yemen Review – October 2018

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Executive Summary:

In October, the United Nations warned that Yemen could become the worst famine the world has seen in a century, with some 14 million people – half the population – facing starvation. This crisis is primarily due to the collapsing value of the Yemeni rial: Yemen is overwhelmingly dependent on imports to feed itself and the rial’s depreciation has thus made foodstuffs vastly more expensive.

The murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul grabbed world headlines throughout the month. This in turn focused world attention on Riyadh’s role in the Yemen war, led the United States and the United Kingdom to call for a ceasefire, and prompted many Western governments to reconsider weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.

Following a build-up of anti-Houthi forces towards the end of October on the outskirts of the Houthi-held Red Sea city of Hudaydah – a crucial entry point of commercial and humanitarian goods for Yemen’s largest population centers – the battle for the city reignited in earnest at the beginning of November.  

Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi fired Prime Minister Ahmed bin Dagher on October 15 and launched an investigation against him for corruption and negligence. Bin Dagher had held the post since the spring of 2016 and was replaced by Maeen Abdelmalek Saeed, who was until then the Minister of Public Works and Roads.

A report from Buzzfeed News documented how the United Arab Emirates had paid US mercenaries to assassinate its political opponents in Yemen, primarily individuals associated with the Islah party in the southern Yemeni city of Aden.   

The internationally recognized Yemeni government’s Economic Committee implemented new fuel import regulations, which would disqualify many Houthi-affiliated traders from importing fuel. The Houthi authorities in Sana’a subsequently threatened the senior staff of Yemen’s commercial banks – almost all of which are headquartered in Sana’a – with imprisonment if they complied with the Economic Committee’s decrees. These developments – along with the Houthi authorities appointing new senior staff to the Sana’a-based branch of the central bank – have likely escalated the war’s economic and financial ramifications for the Yemeni population.

Cyclone Luban made landfall in Yemen’s eastern Mahra governorate (picture above), with the UN estimating that 2,200 families were displaced by the storm.

Meanwhile, the Islah party continued to consolidate political and military control in Taiz City, a development that began in August and one that threatens to complicate future conflict resolution efforts.


The Sana’a Center Editorial

Islah’s Political and Military Ascent in Taiz

Since August 2018, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, otherwise known as the Islah party, has taken major steps towards consolidating political and military power in Taiz City. Islah officially supports the internationally-recognized Yemeni government of President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi; however, the party’s increasing capacity to act independently in Taiz represents a further erosion of the state’s purview within areas the government supposedly controls. Islah’s rise in Taiz, if solidified, is likely to complicate United Nations-led efforts to secure a peace agreement between the Houthi leadership and the internationally-recognized Yemeni government. It also threatens potential post-conflict efforts to stabilize the country’s political and security environments and establish effective state sovereignty.   

With the escalation of the ongoing conflict in March 2015, Taiz City and the wider governorate have been an epicenter of violence, with Houthi fighters continually clashing with various anti-Houthi forces. Within the anti-Houthi coalition in Taiz City, Islah-affiliated forces and the Salafi-oriented Abu al-Abbas Brigades have also had long-running tensions and periodic clashes. Among the former’s most prominent backers are Yemeni Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and President Hadi’s chief of staff Abdulla al-Alimi; while the Abu al-Abbas Brigades are supported by the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

On August 8, 2018, intense clashes between Islah-affiliated groups and the Abu al-Abbas Brigades erupted, prompting President Hadi to hold an emergency meeting with Governor of Taiz Amin Mahmoud. Following this, Hadi announced the creation of a presidential committee to end the violence. The presidential committee, however, was dominated by Islah figures. Most prominent among these, and the committee chair is Abdu Farhan Salem, commonly referred to as “Salem.” He is arguably the most important Islah-affiliated military official in Taiz, as an advisor to the commander of the Taiz Military Axis, Khaled Fadl – also an Islah figure.

The presidential committee brokered a deal in which both the Abu al-Abbas Brigades and Islah-affiliated national army units and militias agreed to withdraw from positions within Taiz City. On August 18, the committee reported that all positions had been handed over to the Presidential Guard. However, by month’s end it was clear that while Abu al-Abbas’ forces had withdrawn, Islah-affiliated forces remained.

In September, Governor Mahmoud publicly thanked the presidential committee for its efforts before asking that it be dissolved, having seemingly fulfilled its mandate. The committee refused, insisting that, having been established through a presidential decree, another presidential decree was required for it to be dissolved. To date, President Hadi has not issued such a decree.  

In the meantime, Islah affiliates have leveraged the committee’s apparent authority to assert control over the official security apparatuses in Taiz that had technically been under the governor’s jurisdiction. Within these institutions, Islah has dismissed officials considered unloyal to it while promoting Islah affiliates. The committee has also facilitated the withdrawal of other anti-Houthi forces from areas around Taiz, in place of whom Islah-affiliated forces have moved in. Aiding Islah’s expanding clout in Taiz are the group’s strong grassroots support, local business ties, and loyalists in senior military positions. Currently, the largest anti-Houthi force unaffiliated with Islah still present in Taiz City is the Yemeni army’s 35th Armoured Brigade, which has worked closely with the Abu al-Abbas Brigades and is backed by the UAE.

Islah’s rapid ascent is allowing it, a non-state actor, to increasingly consolidate its authority in Taiz and be able to assert its own control independently from the internationally-recognized Yemeni government. Meanwhile, it also appears that Islah is coordinating efforts to have the current governor replaced with someone more amenable to the party.

The creation of another statelette within Yemen, however, is not inevitable. There are practical steps that local, regional and international stakeholders can take to head off this potential scenario. First, President Hadi must issue a decree officially disbanding the presidential committee. Second, he can order the removal of officers from Taiz’ military and security apparatuses who were appointed based on their political affiliations. Third, he can institute measures to increase the professional standards within, and decrease the ideological character of, the security forces in Taiz.

President Hadi should also help support the current governor’s legitimacy through greater financial support and ensuring that all civil servants in Taiz receive their salaries on a regular basis. While the consistency of public sector salary payments has improved relative to 2017, still not all civil servants are regularly receiving their salaries.

Saudi Arabia is the best-placed actor to compel Islah to follow the Yemeni government’s lead. This is due to the longstanding relationship between Saudi decision-makers and Islah, and the fact that many Islah leaders reside in or regularly travel to Riyadh.

UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths should be particularly interested in recent developments in Taiz, given how the governorate represents another power center where non-state actors are competing for influence. Ignoring Taiz could complicate his conflict mediation efforts between the main warring parties. He has recourse: Griffiths’ staff can communicate clearly with senior Islah figures, and other parties, that if their members are noncompliant and act as peace spoilers, their leadership will be placed on the UN 2140 Sanctions List.

General conflict de-escalation efforts in Taiz should also focus on opening the Sana’a Road. This thoroughfare is a key access route through the al-Hawban area, located northeast of Taiz city, and is currently a frontline between Yemeni government and Houthi forces. It connects Taiz with the cities of Ibb and Sana’a and opening it would dramatically reduce the time and expense it currently takes to transport people and goods to and from Taiz. An open Sana’a Road would thus increase humanitarian access to the population and reduce the cost of commercial goods.

Houthi forces are facing considerable pressure along various frontline areas around Taiz City, including: Haifan (east of Taiz City); al-Burj and al-Kadha (west of the city); al-Salal hill (to the northeast) and al-Qabbaytah and Karish (on Taiz’s southeastern border with Lahj governorate). Mediation efforts could thus involve de-escalation efforts along these frontlines in exchange for a ceasefire in al-Hawban and the reopening of Sana’a Road. Such would represent a major step towards ending the Houthi siege on government-held areas of Taiz City, and dramatically improve the dire situation facing the civilian population.  


Demonstrations against the economic situation in the country and the collapsing value of the Yemeni rial erupted in Taiz on October 2, with protesters rallying under the slogan “The Revolution of the Hungry.”

International Developments

Khashoggi Murder Focuses World Attention on Saudi Campaign in Yemen

On October 2, Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, apparently seeking documents related to his upcoming marriage. He was not seen alive again in public. While Saudi authorities initially claimed he had left the consulate later that day, Turkish officials soon asserted that Khashoggi had been killed by a 15-man hit squad that had flown in by private jet from Saudi Arabia. This group apparently included individuals who were part of the personal security entourage of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Turkish authorities released video surveillance footage showing Khashoggi entering the consulate and members of the hit squad landing in Istanbul and also entering the consulate. This led to intensifying international pressure on Riyadh to explain the journalist’s disappearance. After putting forth various narratives throughout October trying to explain the event, by month’s end Riyadh had admitted that Khashoggi was killed at its consulate in a “premeditated” manner. Saudi officials further stated that they would hold accountable those responsible and arrested 18 people. Istanbul’s chief prosecutor stated at the end of October that Khashoggi had been killed and dismembered shortly after he had entered the Saudi consulate.     

US, UK Call for a Ceasefire in Yemen

In separate statements made on October 30, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for a ceasefire in Yemen within 30 days and urged all parties to participate in UN-brokered peace talks to bring an end to the conflict. In his strongest words yet on the subject, Pompeo said that the Houthis must cease long range drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), after which the Saudi-led military coalition must halt airstrikes in populated areas. Mattis said that peace talks based on a ceasefire, a Houthi pullback from the Saudi border and the cessation of airstrikes should begin “within 30 days.”

While Mattis said that the two should not be considered as connected in terms of policy, the death of journalist Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul dramatically raised the profile of Yemen’s war in the US throughout October and prompted renewed calls for the US to reconsider its support for the Saudi-led military coalition. US officials, speaking off the record, said that Khashoggi’s death had altered the cost-benefit analysis in US-Saudi relations, with the Trump administration having “reached the maximum weight of what they’re willing to bear.”

On October 31, United Kingdom foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt reiterated the call for a ceasefire within a month. The same day, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths said he was “committed to bring the Yemeni parties to the negotiations table within a month.” The following week, however, he retracted this commitment and said instead that he was aiming to bring the warring parties back to the table by the end of 2018.

US Legislators Call for Restrictions on Arms Sales to Riyadh

After the Senate Foreign Relations Committee triggered an investigation on October 10 into Khashoggi’s disappearance, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced a bill that would cut off military aid to Saudi Arabia until the journalist was found “alive and free.” A group of bipartisan lawmakers then filed another, broader bill that, in addition to prohibiting arms sales, would also end any “security assistance” to Saudi Arabia, including intelligence and training support.

On October 19, Congressmen Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Jim McGovern (D-MA) introduced separate legislation that would increase congressional oversight of all US arms sales. The Arms Sale Oversight Act would allow any House member to force a debate on the floor in the event that the House Foreign Affairs Committee does not debate a weapons deal. In a tweet, Lieu specified exports to Saudi Arabia as in need of greater scrutiny – oversight that the congressman had been advocating for some time.

In response, President Donald Trump told reporters on October 20 that it would not be “helpful” to cancel arms exports to Saudi Arabia. He cited jobs and revenues tied up in US$110 billion worth of military contracts as part of wider bilateral agreements worth US$450 billion. This claim drew wide media attention, with Vox, Politifact, The Hill, and CNN, amongst others, disputing the figures and challenging Trump’s argument to continue arms sales based on domestic economic interest. Behind the scenes efforts to save existing deals took place in the wake of the Khashoggi affair, with the Aerospace Industry Association urging leading defence contractors to lobby government figures, and provide talking points when dealing with the media.

Also in the US, on October 8, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Ro Khanna (D-CA) wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo challenging his September certification that the Saudi-led military coalition was taking measures to reduce civilian casualties in its operations in Yemen. An amendment to a defence spending bill passed in August made continued US support for the coalition conditional upon Pompeo’s certification (for details see The Yemen Review – September 2018). The senators said that the UAE and Saudi Arabia had failed to implement US recommendations and that statistics on civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes demonstrated that sufficient action had not been taken. They added that Pompeo’s certification memorandum indicated that the coalition had, at times, violated US laws regulating arms sales.

Western Nations Reconsider Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia

Numerous heads of state and legislators from Western countries responded to Khashoggi’s killing last month. On October 21, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany would no longer approve arms sales to Saudi Arabia as long as investigations on the case were ongoing. According to spokesman Steffen Seibert, the German government had not yet decided how to deal with arms sales that had already been approved prior to Merkel’s announcement. A day later on the public television broadcaster ZDF, German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier demanded a common European stance towards Saudi Arabia, noting that sanctions would only be effective if jointly implemented. To note, in its coalition agreement of March 2018, the new German government had agreed to no longer approve arms sales to states participating in the Yemen conflict. Nevertheless, FAZ reported on October 1 that, since taking office in March, the new German government had approved arms exports worth €254 million and €21.8 million to Saudi Arabia and other members of the Saudi-led military coalition, respectively.

Austria, currently holding the presidency of the Council of the European Union, reiterated the German call, with Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, talking to the German Die Welt newspaper on October 26, demanding that the EU jointly halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Kneissl said that “the terrible war in Yemen” in particular should induce such common measures.

Other European and Western states, however, were more tentative in their responses. On October 21, the foreign ministers of France, the UK and Berlin released a joint statement in which they demanded further investigation into the case and accountability for the perpetrators of any crime committed.

On October 25, the Élysée Palace said that French President Emmanuel Macron had, in a telephone call the day before with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, demanded a full investigation into Khashoggi’s death. Macron added that in cooperation with its partners, France would not hesitate to impose sanctions against those found responsible for the killing – a position later reiterated by Minister for Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian. On October 26, President Macron called the step to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia “pure demagogy,” saying that while he understood “the link to Yemen,” there was none between arms sales and the Khashoggi affair. He added that he supported a common European reaction, such as sanctions, “once the facts [have been] established.”

While taking a stronger stance in condemning the killing of Khashoggi, a European Parliament resolution of October 25 largely stayed in line with the French position in calling upon the EU and its member states to “stand ready to impose targeted sanctions […] once the facts have been established.” According to the text, sanctions such as visa bans and asset freezes should be directed against the perpetrators as well as “the masterminds and inciters of this crime.” The resolution also called for an independent international investigation into the case and that EU member states propose to the Human Rights Council in early November that a Special Rapporteur be appointed to investigate human rights in Saudi Arabia.

On October 23, the Spanish parliament voted against a motion that called for a halt in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, following controversial statements and debates on the subject in Spain the preceding month (for more see ‘The Yemen Review – September 2018’).

On October 22, Canada’s opposition left-wing New Democratic Party demanded in parliament that the country end arms exports to Saudi Arabia in light of the kingdom’s military engagement in Yemen and the Khashoggi killing. The next day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned that it would be difficult and costly to cancel a 2014 arms deal with Saudi Arabia, due to the terms of the contract, which is worth up to US$13 billion. On October 25, the prime minister then said the government was reviewing existing export permits of arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia, referring to the Khashoggi killing.

Meanwhile, Arab countries generally expressed support and solidarity with Saudi Arabia, with the exception of Qatar, which called the affair a “wake-up call for everyone.” Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi said the  “cheap political and media targeting of Saudi Arabia will not deter it from continuing its leading role in the Arab and Islamic worlds.” Meanwhile in Sana’a, Mahdi al-Mashat, president of the Houthi’s Supreme Political Council, defended Saudi Arabia against US threats of sanctions over the journalists’ death, condemning what he called a “humiliating approach” by President Donald Trump.

 

European Parliament Calls For a Comprehensive EU Strategy on Yemen

On October 4, the European Parliament voted in favor of a resolution calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities in Yemen and the resumption of peace talks led by the UN Special Envoy. The resolution supports confidence-building measures such as the complete reopening of Sana’a International Airport and the payment of civil servants’ salaries in all areas of Yemen. In light of the divergent policies of different EU member states, it calls on the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to develop a comprehensive EU strategy for Yemen.

The resolution repeats a previous call to impose an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia and urges EU member states to refrain from selling military equipment to coalition members. It says that such arms transfers are in violation of common EU rules. The text calls for the belligerent parties to be held accountable for their actions, and for the US to judicially oversee their use of military drones in Yemen.

 

Other International Developments in Brief:

  • October 1: The US announced that it had completed a two-week training of Yemeni Border Guard troops in Riyadh, in a program aimed at countering weapons and weapons-related smuggling. In August, US defense representatives met with Yemen’s Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar to discuss increasing cooperation and training of counterterrorism forces.
  • October 16: The Élysée Palace announced that the French sailor, Alain Goma, who had been detained by the armed Houthi movement since early June, had been released. It stated that French President Macron thanked the Omani and Saudi authorities for their help in liberating the French citizen, without disclosing any details on how he was freed. According to his family quoted by Le Monde, Alain Goma was flown to Oman.
  • October 17: South Korea’s Justice Ministry denied refugee status to 339 Yemeni asylum seekers, granting them one-year renewable humanitarian permits instead. The ministry rejected 34 others based on criminal charges and postponed the decision on 85 others. More than 500 Yemenis have, via Malaysia, arrived on the South Korean resort island Jeju this year, given its visa-free policy. This policy was, however, recently dropped for Yemenis following anti-refugee protests in South Korea. While the majority of these Yemenis have applied for refugee status, no requests have been granted. Most remain on Jeju island, as they are prohibited from travelling to the South Korean mainland.
  • October 19: US Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) wrote a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, requesting an investigation into claims that the UAE had paid US nationals to assassinate political figures in Yemen (see below ‘UAE Paid US Mercenaries to Assassinate Political Opponents in Yemen).
  • October 26: The Swedish mission to the UN Security Council (UNSC) hosted a closed breakfast meeting with representatives from the German mission to the UN, UN Women, and the Yemeni Women’s Pact for Peace and Security. Discussions revolved around how Germany, an incoming UNSC member state for 2019, could continue supporting women’s participation in Yemen’s political process at the council when Sweden’s term ends this year.
  • October 26: Sultan Qaboos of Oman received Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his palace in Muscat, in a diplomatic visit that likely signals a turning point in relations between Israel and countries in the wider Middle East.     
  • October 30: The Elders, a group comprised of high-profile world figures advocating for peace and human rights, released a statement calling on the UNSC – with emphasis on the United Kingdom, the United States and France, as the three major powers backing the Saudi-led military coalition forces – to take urgent action to bring an end to the blockade of Yemen and avert a humanitarian catastrophe. 

In Yemen

Military and Security Developments

Anti-Houthi Forces Launch New Offensive on Hudaydah

On November 2, Yemen’s armed forces announced the launch of a new “large-scale offensive” in the Red Sea port city of Hudaydah. Pro-government media reported on November 4 that government forces had taken the eastern, western and southern entrances to the city, gaining full control of the Kilo 16 that links Hudaydah to the Houthi-held capital Sana’a.

Brig. Gen. Abdulrahman Saleh al-Mahrami, one of the top commanders of the UAE-backed Giants Brigades, reported that his forces had reached the town of al-Saleh, 3 kilometers from Hudaydah port and in the vicinity of the Red Sea Mills, home to some of the country’s largest grain-storage silos. Houthi military spokesman Brig. Yahia Sarei denied the reports, calling them a “tactic of misinformation.” Sarei claimed Houthi rockets and artillery fire had destroyed much of their opponent’s military hardware, while Houthi minefields had caused enemy troop casualties. Houthi media reported that more than 50 coalition airstrikes had hit the Kilo 16 area, east of Hudaydah, and Hudaydah airport on November 3.

UAE-backed anti-Houthi forces supported by coalition air power launched an offensive on the strategic port city in June. Frontlines had remained largely static during October, with fighting centered on areas in the south of the governorate. On October 30, Yemeni military officials said 10,000 new troops were due to arrive in Hudaydah ahead of a fresh drive to take the port.

Report Claims UAE Paid US Mercenaries to Assassinate Political Opponents in Yemen

On October 16, Buzzfeed News reported that the UAE had hired former US special forces personnel to assassinate political figures and clerics associated with the Islah party in southern Yemen. The UAE regards Islah as the Yemeni branch of the international Muslim Brotherhood movement, which Abu Dhabi considers a terrorist organization.

Hungarian-Israeli security contractor Abraham Golan, founder of Delaware-based Spear Operations Group, said the UAE had flown his team to Aden and paid them US$1.5 million per month – plus bonuses for successful kills – to assassinate figures whom Emirati officials designated as targets. He said this campaign was “sanctioned by the UAE within the coalition” and Buzzfeed quoted several unidentified sources saying members of the assassination team were given ranks in the Emirati military to provide them with legal cover. Golan claimed that his group was responsible for killing numerous high-profile figures in Yemen, but declined to name any of the targets besides their initial operation.

The Buzzfeed report recounts the details of the group’s first alleged operation in December 2015, in which Golan said he led a team of US mercenaries, backed by former members of the French Foreign Legion, in a botched assassination attempt of Islah leader Anssaf Ali Mayo in Aden. According to Golan’s account, the mercenaries had planned to kill Mayo using an explosive device attached to the doorway of the party’s headquarters in the city; the device did explode, however, Mayo had left shortly beforehand. The Sana’a Center spoke with an Islah member who was at the headquarters that night and confirmed there was an explosion, and that Mayo had left the building shortly beforehand.

Following this, Golan said Emirati military officials provided his team with high-end American weaponry, such as C4 explosives, pistols equipped with silencers, and M4 rifles. The Buzzfeed report also notes that the team was “outfitted with motorbikes they could use to scoot through Aden’s traffic and affix magnetized bombs to cars.”

Credit: Ghaidaa Alrashidy, Sana’a Center research

 

Tensions Escalate Between Islah and UAE-Backed Forces in Hadramawt

Amid protests over security and economic conditions in the administrative region of Hadramawt Valley (Wadi Hadramawt), tensions escalated between UAE-backed groups and Islah-dominated military units. Hadramawt valley’s security committee said on October 9 that it supported the protesters, in defiance of Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, whose forces control security in the area and clashed with demonstrators at the beginning of the month, according to reports on pro-separatist news websites.

On October 12, pro-UAE news website Golden News published a report in which Hadramawt Governor Faraj Bahsani accused Islah-affiliated brigades of harbouring “terrorist groups” in Hadramawt valley, and called for the deployment of the Hadrami Elite Forces in the region. Security control in the southeastern governorate is split between Islah-dominated forces loyal to Ali Mohsen in Hadramawt valley, and the UAE-backed Hadrami Elite Forces in the governorate’s coastal region. Bahsani’s comments came after STC spokesman Salim Thabet al-Awlaki declared that Hadramawt valley would be “purged” of Islah-affiliated forces.

Other Military and Security Developments in Brief

 

Political Developments

President Hadi Sacks Prime Minister Ahmed Bin Dagher

On October 15, President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi dismissed Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed Bin Dagher, citing government “negligence” over the country’s economic crisis and the insufficient response to tropical cyclone Luban (see below ‘Cyclone Luban Hits Mahra’). Hadi added that bin Dagher would be placed under investigation for corruption and failing in his duties as prime minister. Bin Dagher had been in the post since the spring of 2016, when he replaced then-Prime Minister and Vice President Khaled Bahah.

Dagher’s successor, Minister of Public Works and Roads Maeen Abdelmalek Saeed, is Yemen’s fourth prime minister since 2012. He arrived in Aden from Riyadh on October 30. He is generally considered to be more technocratic than political. As minister of public works, Saeed has worked closely with Saudi Arabia on projects in Yemen. Saeed was also vice president of the government’s coordination committee, which oversaw the deposit of US$2 billion Riyadh had granted the Aden-based Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) earlier this year. A Taiz native, Saeed was part of government delegations to previous UN-brokered peace talks with Houthi officials and took over the ministerial portfolio for public works in May 2017. (For more analysis, see ‘What Does the New Head of the Internationally Recognized Government Mean for Yemen?’)

STC Call for Uprising Against the Yemeni Government Fizzles Out

On October 3, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a UAE-backed secessionist group in southern Yemen, issued a statement saying that it supported a “popular uprising” against the Yemeni government, amid ongoing protests in southern governorates over price hikes and the devaluation of the rial. The STC said “catastrophic” government policies were to blame for the economic crisis and called for the seizure of government institutions “by peaceful means.” The STC’s call for an uprising represented the most serious escalation in Aden since deadly clashes between the separatists and pro-Hadi forces in January 2018, during which the STC had accused the government of corruption and called for its dissolution.

In a response to the statement, the government said it rejected the “Houthi and separatist rebellion, and all terrorist acts.” It also demanded the centralization of military units under state command and a halt to funding for armed groups outside of state control – taken to be a reference to various UAE-backed local security formations operating outside of the formal state military hierarchy in the south. Yemen’s Ministry of Interior added that the member states of the Saudi-led military coalition beared legal responsibility for the security situation in Aden and other government-held areas.

Shortly thereafter, STC leaders met with UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths in Abu Dhabi, following which their public statements were noticeably more subdued. The STC then called off demonstrations it had slated for October 14, Yemen’s southern independence day. The STC statement cited the economic crisis, saying resources dedicated to the planned protests would instead be used for humanitarian assistance.

Other Political Developments in Brief

 

Economic Developments

Economic Committee Implements New Fuel Importation Regulations, Houthis Threaten Bankers With Imprisonment if They Comply   

Yemen’s financial and economic schism appeared to worsen in October, with the Aden-based and Sana’a-based authorities wrestling for control over import regulations and private sector financial players – particularly commercial banks – being caught between the two. The latest tensions relate to Ministerial Decree 75, which the Government of Yemen issued in September this year and whose aspects regarding fuel imports came into effect on October 9. Implementation of new regulations regarding food imports was postponed until November.

Decree 75 attempts, among other things, to limit fuel importers to only those approved by the Economic Committee, which the Government of Yemen established to help guide and implement its economic policy. The committee includes representatives from the Aden-based CBY and the banking sector, chambers of commerce and industry, and money exchange institutions. Those importers that meet the committee’s criteria are then eligible for import financing from the Aden-based CBY. Adherence to this importer selection is enforced in coordination with the Saudi-led military coalition – which has navy vessels patrolling Yemen’s coastal waters – and the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM), which is mandated to inspect all cargo ships headed for Houthi-held ports.

Among the Economic Committee’s criteria for approval are that importers must provide three years worth of bank statements from their operations. Furthermore, importers are required to deal with the banking sector, deposit their daily receipts from fuel sales into their accounts held in commercial banks, refrain from speculation in the currency market without the Aden-based CBY’s consent, and place a one-time deposit in a commercial bank account not less than 100 percent of the average value of the last five imported shipments.

These requirements would, however, disqualify many importers in Houthi-controlled areas. In July 2015, the Houthi authorities eased fuel importation and distribution restrictions in areas they control, opening the market – previously dominated by the state-run Yemen Petroleum Company (YPC) – for private sector actors. While pre-established private firms filled the immediate void left by YPC, in 2016 and 2017 a number of newly established players entered the market and quickly increased their share. This was due to a number of factors, chief among these being that the importers were on good terms with the Houthi authorities and were able to operate outside the commercial banking system, by using money exchange outfits for international financial transactions. In a recent alteration of this policy, the Houthi authorities have, since July 2018, required importers in areas they control to sell fuel directly to the Houthi-run YPC, allowing the Houthis a near monopoly on distribution in northern Yemen and thus the ability to set favorable profit margins.  

In response to the Economic Committee’s moves last month, Houthi officials held a meeting with representatives from Yemen’s commercial banks in Sana’a on October 18. Here, the former threatened the bankers with reprisals, including imprisonment of senior staff, if they abided by Aden-based CBY and Economic Committee directives. The Houthi threats are thus likely to impede the committee’s efforts, given that all but one of Yemen’s 17 banks are headquartered in Sana’a, the exception being Yemen National Bank, which has a head office in Aden.  

On November 4, the Sana’a-based CBY ordered commercial banks to refrain from using cash to cover letters of credit that are opened for imports, but rather that these letters of credit should be covered only using checks. This is an attempt to prevent the transfer of physical cash liquidity from Houthi-controlled areas to areas controlled by the internationally recognized Yemeni government.

Loopholes in the New Fuel Import Regulations

An example of the new fuel import regime in action came in mid-October, when the UNVIM denied two vessels authorization to dock at Hudaydah while their application to the Economic Committee was still pending. According to Sana’a Center sources, a single importer had arranged deliveries aboard the Al-Mirqab and Sea Heart, which were carrying 7,500 and 27,000 tons of fuel, respectively. The Economic Committee subsequently approved the importer’s application and the ships were permitted to dock.

The Sana’a Center Economic Unit learned that the importer, wary of Houthi reprisals for having interacted with the Economic Committee, had reached an arrangement with the Houthi-run YPC to allow him to proceed with the transaction unobstructed. Such ad hoc agreements, or possibly longer-term partnerships with fuel importers able to meet the Economic Committee’s criteria, proffer a potential avenue through which the Houthi authorities may circumvent the import restrictions of Decree 75.   

Bankers: Fuel Imports Primary Cause of Rial Instability

On October 11, the Yemeni Banking Association in Sana’a published the findings of a survey it had sent to Yemeni commercial banks. The survey asking the bankers what they regarded as the factors contributing to the Yemeni rial’s (YR) rapid depreciation in August and September this year. The primary factor the bankers identified, above all others, was the increased demand for foreign currency in the market spurred by importers of fuel derivatives.    

Sources: CBY, WFP, Sana’a Center Economic Unit

Yemeni Rial Fluctuates Wildly Throughout October

Since August 2018, the value of the Yemeni rial (YR) has experienced several waves of fluctuation. On October 1 alone, the YR’s value dropped 9 percent relative to the US$. This followed a 54 percent loss of value between July and September this year. In March 2015, when the current conflict intensified, the exchange rate had been YR215 per US$1.

In the first week of last month, the rial started to show signs of recovery, rebounding from YR765 per US$1 at the end of September to YR720 per US$1 by October 7. This was concurrent with the Saudi announcement of a US$200 million grant to the Aden-based CBY to shore up foreign currency reserves and support the rial. This comes in addition to the US$2 billion deposit Riyadh made at the Aden-based CBY earlier this year to allow it to finance imports of essential commodities and support the value of Yemen’s domestic currency. Also likely impacting the YR value, on October 3 global oil prices began a sustained slide.

In the second half of October, the rial entered another phase of depreciation, at its lowest trading in the range of YR730-760 per US$1. As of November 3, the rial had again regained ground to YR700 per US$1, after the Aden-based CBY announced the approval of US$170 million to finance the importation of basic foodstuffs, offering traders a preferential exchange rate of YR585 per US$1. In addition, the recent appreciation in the YR followed the arrival of a long-promised Saudi fuel grant amounting to US$60 million. This is part of a monthly grant Riyadh has allocated to support power plants in areas controlled by the internationally recognized government.

Houthis Appoint Governor for Sana’a-based CBY

In mid-October, the Houthis officially appointed Mohammed al-Sayani as the governor of the Sana’a-based CBY. Al-Sayani had been appointed deputy governor at the CBY in August 2012. Since President Hadi fired the previous CBY governor, Mohamed bin Humam, and officially relocated the CBY headquarters from Sana’a to Aden in September 2016, al-Sayani has been heading operations at the Sana’a-based CBY. His appointment as governor is thus essentially an official recognition of a role he had already been playing.

The Houthi appointment of a central bank governor is symbolic, however, of Houthi attempts to establish an independent monetary authority in areas they control. This, along with the undermining of the Economic Committee and the Aden-based CBY, is strategically important for the Houthis on various fronts, including to prevent the marginalization of Houthi-linked businesses and maintain their respective market share. as well as to allow liquidity to continue to flow through unofficial financial networks – namely money exchangers and the black market. A fully empowered Economic Committee would also help legitimize the Aden-based CBY and the Yemeni government.

The Houthi authorities also made two other notable appointments at the Sana’a-based CBY. The new deputy governor al-Shami had previously worked closely with Mohammed al-Houthi at the Supreme Revolutionary Committee, and in May 2018 had been appointed Undersecretary of the General Authority for Zakat. Youssef Zabara was also appointed Deputy Governor for Banking Supervision Sector.

UN Special Envoy: Economic Crisis the Top Priority in Yemen

On October 4, the UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths said that the plummeting value of the Yemeni rial should be the top international priority regarding Yemen and stressed the need for an emergency plan to help address this crisis. He explained that the plan could be formulated in a collaboration between the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, UN agencies, Arab Gulf countries, and the internationally-recognized Yemeni government. On October 30, Griffiths stated that confidence-building measures for future negotiations would focus on “enhancing the capacities of the Central Bank of Yemen.”

The Special Envoy has, on multiple occasions in recent months, attempted to arrange meetings in Nairobi between representatives from the Sana’a and Aden-based CBY branches. These efforts aimed to kickstart the process of reunifying the CBY,. However, Griffiths attempts to stage these meetings failed. Moves by both the Economic Committee, the Aden-based CBY, and the Houthi authorities in Sana’a in October have likely increased the difficulty the Special Envoy faces in bringing together the CBY representatives.

In early November, Griffiths staged expert-level consultations in Amman, among which the topics of discussion included Yemen’s economic situation. Given the lack of influential decision makers at the meeting, however, there were little substantive outcomes.

 

Humanitarian Developments

UN Warns of Worst Famine in a Century

On October 15, the UN warned that Yemen was on the brink of the “worst famine in 100 years.” Lise Grande, the humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said that mass starvation could engulf the country in the next three months, should fighting continue. Violence continues to impede the passage of aid and essential goods, while the rapid depreciation of the rial has caused fuel and food prices to soar – pushing almost two-thirds of the country’s population into food insecurity.  

Source: WFP and Sana’a Center Economic Unit Survey for October 2018

In a briefing to the UN Security Council on October 23, Mark Lowcock, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator, said that his September estimate of the number of Yemenis facing pre-famine conditions was incorrect, adjusting the number from 11 to 14 million half the country’s population. Lowcock added that the risk of famine was currently greater than at any other point in Yemen’s war, owing chiefly to fighting around Hudaydah and the economic crisis. He slammed government regulations on imports of essential commodities, saying that vessels carrying much-needed fuel had been refused entry in the days preceding, and cautioned against the extension of the regulations to food imports scheduled for November (see above ‘Economic Committee Implements New Fuel Importation Regulations). In addition to a humanitarian ceasefire, Lowcock recommended a swift injection of foreign currency into Yemen’s economy to buttress the plunging rial. (For more on the connection between famine and the collapsing currency, see “Famine at Hand Without a Reunified Central Bank to Protect the Yemeni Rial”).

Cyclone Luban Hits Mahra

On October 14, Cyclone Luban made landfall in Yemen’s eastern Mahra governorate, with the UN estimating that 2,200 families were displaced by the storm. Mahra’s Emergency Operations Room confirmed three deaths and more than 100 injuries. Heavy floods damaged houses, water and electricity infrastructure in a number of districts, and blocked the main road linking Mahra to Hadramawt governorate, impeding humanitarian access. On October 15, the government declared Mahra a disaster zone.

The United Nations Population Fund, the Saudi King Salman Relief Centre, the Oman Charitable Organization and other national and international organizations assisted in providing tents, blankets, mattresses, humanitarian assistance, food baskets, and other emergency and medical supplies. In August OCHA reported that less than five organizations operate in Mahra, and in some districts organizations have no presence.

By October 21, rainfall had ceased in a number of Mahra’s cities and water levels in valleys had begun to decline. The numbers of displaced were reported to have decreased, with families returning to their homes. Following a visit to the governorate, Yemen’s new prime minister, Maeen Abdelmalek Saeed, announced on October 27 the allocation of YR2 billion for reconstruction in Mahra.

Other Humanitarian Developments in Brief

  • October 2: The World Health Organization (WHO) said cholera was on the rise again in Yemen, with 10,000 suspected new cases reported each week. In the first week of October, a six-day joint WHO-UNICEF campaign vaccinated more than 300,000 people in parts of Hudaydah and Ibb governorate.
  • October 7: UNICEF announced the third cycle of cash support assistance in Yemen – estimated to reach 1.5 million families. The World Bank-supported program began in August 2017 and aims to boost civilian purchasing power amid the rial’s rapid devaluation
  • October 21: Yemen’s education minister, Abdullah Lamels, said in a forum in Tunisia that more than one million children have been unable to attend school because of the conflict. He added that since the war started, more than 3,600 schools have closed down across the country.
  • October 22: Saudi Arabia and the UAE announced a US$70 million donation earmarked for salary payments to 135,000 teachers in Yemen.
  • October 30: As of this day, the UN and partner organizations had received 70.7% of the US$3 billion requested to implement its 2018 humanitarian response plan for Yemen.

 

Human Rights and War Crimes Developments

Airstrikes Kill Tens of Civilians in Hudaydah Governorate

On October 13, Saudi-led military coalition airstrikes hit mini buses passing a Houthi checkpoint in Jabal Ras town, Hudaydah governorate. The attack killed 15 civilians and injured 20, according to the UN. On October 24, airstrikes hit a vegetable packaging factory in Bait al-Faqih district, Hudaydah governorate, killing at least 21 civilians and injuring 10. On the same day, another three civilians were killed and six injured when airstrikes hit three vehicles in Hudaydah’s al-Hali district.

Houthis Detain Protesters in Sana’a and Ibb

On October 6, demonstrators turned out in Sana’a following calls on social media for protests in Tahrir Square against the declining economic conditions, under the slogan “The Hunger Revolution.” Houthi forces deployed across the city and at checkpoints prior to the demonstrations, including Houthi-trained female security forces, according to a female university student who spoke with the Sana’a Center. During the demonstrations, dozens of protesters were beaten and arrested. The female university student, who was among those arrested, said those detained were taken to a police station, investigated, and forced to sign pledges that they would not partake in future protests.

Simultaneous protests also occurred in front of Ibb University, according to online newspaper al-Masdar. Houthi forces responded similarly, with those arrested transferred to the Political Security building, but subsequently released.

Houthi media said the protesters were “mercenaries tasked by the aggressors to plant rumours and disturb public peace.” The official Houthi TV channel al-Masirah had, the day before the protests, aired a video about human rights activist Ali al-Sharabi, whom the Houthi Political Security forces had detained on September 18. Al-Sharabi appeared disheveled  in the video, in which he confessed to purposely instigating the demonstrations to stir unrest.

Prior to his arrest, al-Sharabi had been working in the Ministry of Civil Services as a department manager and regularly published statements critical of the armed Houthi movement on social media. On October 22, his family was allowed to visit him for the first time since his arrest.

Other Human Rights and War Crimes Developments in Brief

  • October 5: Ali Zaki al-Saqaldi, an Islah member and correspondent for al-Masdar in the southern city of al-Dhale, was killed by unknown gunmen.
  • October 5: Houthi forces shelled the bin Jaber camp for Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in Hudaydah city, killing one woman and injuring 12 civilians.
  • October 6: Artillery fire on an IDP camp in the Khoukhah area of Hudaydah City killed a civilian and injured 12 others, according to the UN.
  • October 16: Houthi landmines killed six civilians and wounded dozens in Tahyta district in Hudaydah city, according to Al-Masdar.
  • October 20: An airstrike killed one civilian and injured four, near a fuel station on Zayed Street in Hudaydah city.
  • October 21: Airstrikes on a vehicle traveling in the Bani Hasan area in Abs, Hajjah governorate, killed two civilians and injured three.
  • October 22: Two photographers were kidnapped by Houthi forces in Hudaydah City according to Al-Masdar.
  • October 22: The Yemeni Journalists Syndicate reported that the third quarter of 2018 – July 1 through September 30 – had seen 35 “violations” against the media. These included four members of the press murdered, 11 kidnapped, six attacked, and 14 detained under harsh conditions in Sana’a. The syndicate implicated all parties to the conflict in these violations.
  • October 25: Houthi security forces raided a civil society event in Sana’a regarding intolerance in Yemeni media. Among those arrested were the former head of Yemen’s Journalists Syndicate, Abdulbari Taher, as well as some of the country’s most respected media figures and intellectuals.    

This report was prepared by Waleed Alhariri, Holly Topham, Hussam Radman, Ghaidaa Alrashidy, Anthony Biswell, Sala Khaled, Aisha al-Warraq, Ali Abdullah, Victoria K. Sauer, Hamza al-Hamadi, Taima al-Iriani and Spencer Osberg.


The Yemen Review – formerly known as Yemen at the UN – is a monthly publication produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. Launched in June 2016, it aims to identify and assess current diplomatic, economic, political, military, security, humanitarian and human rights developments related to Yemen.  

In producing The Yemen Review, Sana’a Center staff throughout Yemen and around the world gather information, conduct research, and hold private meetings with local, regional, and international stakeholders in order to analyze domestic and international developments regarding Yemen.

This monthly series is designed to provide readers with contextualized insight into the country’s most important ongoing issues.

This month’s report was developed with the support of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Friedrich-Ebert Yemen office.

Famine at Hand Without a Reunified Central Bank to Protect the Yemeni Rial

Famine at Hand Without a Reunified Central Bank to Protect the Yemeni Rial

The Sana’a Center Editorial

The largest threat facing millions of Yemenis today is not the violence of war but the collapse of the local currency the war has brought on. Put differently, while bullets and bombs harm the individuals on the receiving end, a collapsing currency – in a country overwhelmingly dependant on imports – makes it harder for everyone to feed themselves. This crisis was not inevitable. It was man-made.

By the end of September, the Yemeni rial (YR) had dropped to close to a quarter of the value it had when the conflict escalated in March 2015 – from YR215 per United States dollar (US$) to YR760 per US$1 over that period. This decline has accelerated recently, with the rial dropping 40 percent in value relative to the US$ between August and September alone.  

Prices for everything in Yemen have skyrocketed and by mid-September a nation-wide fuel crisis had descended. The UN subsequently reported that another 3.5 million people were potentially in need of emergency food assistance, bringing the total number of Yemenis facing starvation to almost 12 million. This is not because there is no food. It is because people cannot buy it. This is a problem that can be fixed if there is the will to do so.

First, the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) must be reunified. The internationally recognized Yemeni government’s decision in September 2016 to relocate the CBY headquarters from Sana’a to Aden left Yemen with two central banks. With each operating independently from the other on either side of the war’s frontlines, neither has been able to effectively steward the currency or the economy. Multilateral pressure must be brought to bear on both the Yemeni government and the armed Houthi group to allow the CBY to reunify, and for that reunified entity to be able to operate independently from the belligerent parties. UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths has said economic de-escalation of the conflict is now his top priority; reunifying the CBY must be the central focus of these efforts.

Second, the international community – in particular Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who are primary parties to the war in Yemen – must provide the CBY with the financial resources to address the shortage of foreign currency in the Yemeni market. While Saudi Arabia deposited US$2 billion in the Aden-based CBY earlier this year to support the value of the rial, the conditions Riyadh placed on the CBY’s use of these funds, and the restrictions the Aden-based CBY has placed on their disbursement, have severely limited their impact. And even this amount is still likely insufficient, according to former CBY Governor Mohammed bin Hummam, who discussed the currency crisis with the Sana’a Center in September.

Keep in mind that this month Gulf neighbors offered Bahrain US$10 billion in financial support, and in August Qatar loaned Turkey US$15 billion to save the Turkish lira from collapse. Neither of these countries faces mass famine, and a fraction of the assistance they received could save millions of lives in Yemen. Indeed, a fraction of the billions of dollars the coalition has spent on its military campaign in Yemen for more than three-and-a-half years could end the country’s food crisis.  

Saudi Arabia must also stop expelling Yemeni expat workers by the thousands as part of its labor nationalization campaign. Since Yemen’s oil and gas exports ceased in March 2015, the country’s largest source of foreign currency has been remittances, with the majority of these coming from Saudi Arabia. The humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen is only amplified by every expat worker who is forced to return home.     

The Yemeni government must also stop paying civil servant salaries through ordering the Aden-based CBY to print new rial banknotes. Expanding the money supply in this way will depreciate the rial further. Instead, all efforts must be made to restore Yemen’s oil and gas production – previously the country’s largest source of foreign currency and government revenue – to full capacity. Until then, Gulf countries must help provide the hard currency resources to cover the Yemeni government’s public expenditure bill. Simultaneously, the newly appointed Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik must activate transparency mechanisms, address the corruption allegations his government faces, and eliminate the lavish spending of high-ranking officials.

In September, the Aden-based CBY announced that it would speed up the process by which fuel and commodity traders can qualify for import financing – the CBY’s primary means of influencing the currency market. It also said it would work with Yemeni banks and money exchangers to regulate the currency market and protect the rial. However, given that almost all of Yemen’s largest financial players are based in Sana’a, the Aden-based CBY’s influence with them is limited. Thus, the Aden-based CBY’s plans, while well intentioned, are likely to be ineffective.

Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is in reality an economic crisis, and one caused by the deliberate decisions of the stakeholders involved in the conflict. They have the means to end the crisis. If they do not, they will be culpable for the mass starvation that ensues.

 

This editorial appeared in The Yemen Review – September 2018.