Yemen at the UN – November 2017 Review

Yemen at the UN – November 2017 Review

Download paper pdf
Download paper PDF

Summary:

In November, long-simmering tensions between the Houthis and the allied forces of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh erupted into armed clashes on the streets of Sana’a.

Sana’a Center analysis identified a decisive factor in the battles being that the tribal groupings surrounding the capital largely abandoned Saleh; this helped Houthi fighters seize the entire city and kill Saleh in early December.

The death of the country’s long-time strongman threw vast new complexities and uncertainties into the Yemeni conflict, though several near-term consequences appeared likely, including: the dissolution of the General People’s Congress (GPC) party in its current form; the weakening of Houthi frontlines with the loss of Saleh-allied divisions, and increased security risks for the Houthis as they face a divided general public in which aggrieved GPC loyalists outnumber Houthi partisans. 

Earlier in November, Houthi forces fired a ballistic missile toward Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport. Saudi officials claimed the missile had been smuggled from Iran, and in response the Saudi-led military coalition intervening in the Yemeni conflict ordered the closure of Yemen’s sea and air ports to all aid and commercial traffic.

The blockade sparked price surges and shortages of fuel and basic commodities across Yemen. United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock said that if the blockade was maintained Yemen would be launched into famine, and warned that it would “be the largest famine the world has seen for many decades, with millions of victims.”

The Saudi-led coalition reopened air and sea access to southern areas of the country held by Yemen’s internationally recognized government in mid-November, and then allowed limited UN aid access to the north at the end of November.

UN agencies and humanitarian organizations continued to condemn the blockade, however, pointing out that there is no viable replacement to Hudaydah port – currently held by the Houthis – in terms of bringing in enough food to feed the population, while humanitarian deliveries also cannot compensate for the loss of commercial imports.

UN agencies reported at the beginning of December that fuel shortages had caused water networks to break down in cities across the country, threatening to leave 11 million people without safe drinking water. UN agencies also report that the breakdown in sewage systems threatened to cause a renewed spike in Yemen’s ongoing cholera epidemic, which was approaching 1 million suspected cases by November’s end.  

The Saudi-led coalition blockade of Yemen

Houthi missile attack on Riyadh

On November 1, Saudi-led military coalition airstrikes hit a market and a hotel in the Sahar district of Yemen’s Sa’ada governorate, killing at least 31 people including 6 children, according to the UN. On November 4, the Houthi-controlled defense ministry in Sana’a claimed that in retaliation for this strike it had launched a Scud missile targeting the King Khalid International Airport (KKIA) in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

Pieces of the missile landed in the al-Nafal area of downtown Riyadh, while travellers at the airport’s domestic terminal reported hearing an explosion and soon after seeing emergency vehicles on the runway. While the Saudi government claimed its American-supplied Patriot Air and Missile Defence System had intercepted the Houthi Scud – a claim widely circulated as fact in international media – subsequent analysis by missile experts, published in the New York Times, suggested that the Scud’s warhead was designed to separate from the fuselage on approach to target and that Saudi air defences almost certainly failed to intercept it.   

In the hours following the attack on KKIA, the Saudi-led military coalition unleashed its fiercest bombardment of Sana’a in more than a year, including multiple strikes on the Ministry of Defence building.

On November 6 the Saudi government issued a statement stating the missile attack could “be considered as an act of war” by Iran and that “the Kingdom reserves its right to respond to Iran in the appropriate time and manner.” The statement added that the Saudi-led coalition was immediately closing all land, sea and air ports into Yemen “to address the vulnerabilities” in the cargo inspection procedures, which the Saudis claim Iran had been exploiting to smuggle weapons to the Houthis. Days later the United States administration of President Donald Trump issued a statement backing the Saudi position, calling on the United Nations to investigate Iran’s role in the Yemen war and for “all nations to hold the Iranian regime accountable” for allegedly violating UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions.  

For its part, Tehran has repeatedly denied providing the Houthis with material assistance, while openly stating that it provides them with “advisory assistance.”

The blockade’s dire implications

Yemen is almost entirely dependent on imports to meet its basic commodity needs, historically importing as much as 90% of its food. Already the poorest and least developed country in the Middle East before the Saudi-led coalition began its military intervention in March 2015, Yemen has – through more than two and a half years of conflict since – witnessed precipitous economic collapse and the decimation of basic public services. Earlier this year the UN declared the country the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, among the aspects of which is that more than 7 million people are completely dependent on food assistance for survival.

Thus, the Saudi-led coalition’s implementation of a blockade against Yemeni ports on November 6 had immediate impact. Queues hundreds of vehicles long were reported at gas stations across the country in the days following, with price surges for almost all basic commodities and shortages of many, particularly fuel.

A week earlier, the Swedish mission to the UNSC had requested an update from Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock on his visit to Yemen at the end of October. Lowcock took the opportunity on November 8 to speak to the Security Council about the blockade’s implications. While condemning the Houthi missile attack on Riyadh, Lowcock said that if the Saudi blockade did not end soon, “there will be famine in Yemen,” warning that it would “be the largest famine the world has seen for many decades, with millions of victims.”

He then called for, among other things, the immediate resumption of UN and humanitarian flights to Sana’a and Aden, the resumption of humanitarian and commercial access to all Yemeni seaports, in particular regarding food, fuel and medical supplies, as well as an end to coalition “interference with, delays to or blockages of all vessels that have passed inspection by the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism (UNVIM). This is really important because humanitarian access through the ports was inadequate even before the measures that were announced on the 6th of November.” The UNVIM processes all cargo ships headed to the Houthi-controlled Red Sea ports of Hudaydah and nearby Saleef, to ensure the cargo does not violate the arms embargo against the Houthis stipulated in UNSC Resolution 2216.

Following the briefing, the UNSC issued ‘press elements’, the weakest form of official Security Council statements. This reiterated the need to implement the UNSC’s June presidential statement that called for, among other things, maintaining full access to Yemen’s sea and air ports, in particular Hudaydah, Yemen’s busiest port. Hudaydah accounted for 70 percent of all imports to Yemen in November 2016, even with coalition airstrikes having reduced the port’s offloading capacity. The UNSC press elements also condemned the Houthi missile attack on Riyadh and voiced support for the UNVIM.     

Shortly after, Egypt – currently a member of the UNSC and also party to the Saudi-led military coalition intervening in Yemen – circulated a new draft presidential statement to council members. That text, widely thought to have been drawn up by Saudi officials, condemned the attack on Riyadh but made no mention of the humanitarian situation in Yemen. Russia noted this omission, as well as the draft text’s failure to mention political efforts to resolve the crisis, which led Russia to declare the draft unfit for council adoption.

Egypt then added a single sentence regarding the humanitarian situation and circulated the draft anew. On November 13, Bolivia, France, Italy, Sweden and Uruguay jointly broke silence on the new draft, stating that any official UNSC statement needed to be balanced and reflect current developments. There was no subsequent council action regarding the Egyptian draft presidential statement.

Obstruction of civilian imports and unchecked weapons smuggling

On November 10, the UNSC panel of experts submitted a confidential briefing to the 2140 Yemen Sanctions Committee. As reported by The Intercept, the panel wrote that the “imposition of access restrictions is another attempt by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition to use paragraph 14 of [UN Security Council] resolution 2216 (2015) as justification for obstructing the delivery of commodities that are essentially civilian in nature.”

The panel added that it saw no evidence that short-range ballistic missiles had been transferred to Houthi-allied forces from outside Yemen, and that “analysis of the supply route options by land, sea or air identifies that any shipments of the large containers used to ship and protect the missiles in transit would stand a very high chance of being interdicted in transit by the Saudi-Arabia-led [sic] coalition forces.”

From November 18 to 20, the panel of experts visited Saudi Arabia to investigate the recent missile attacks. On November 24, the experts then submitted an updated report in which they stated that the missile debris the Saudis presented them was “consistent with those reported for the Iranian designed and manufactured Qiam-1 missile,” as reported by Reuters. The report added that there was no evidence as to the missile supplier, that the missile was likely transferred to Yemen in pieces and then reassembled, and that the most likely supply routes were through areas in Yemen supposedly under government control, specifically “the land routes from Oman or Ghaydah and Nishtun in Al-Mahra governorate (in Yemen) after ship-to-shore transshipment to small dhows, a route that has already seen limited seizures of anti-tank guided weapons.”    

Sana’a Center sources have also suggested that the main entry point for goods smuggled into Yemen are bays and unofficial ports along the coastal strips of Shabwa and Al-Mahra governorates, both of which are held by groups affiliated with Yemen’s internationally recognized government headed by President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Sana’a Center sources suggest these smuggling routes are managed by a wide network of businesses in Yemen that operate across the frontlines and are supervised by pro-government tribal chiefs, military commanders and political officials, all of whom reap large profits from supplying Houthi areas with smuggled goods, particularly arms.

Saudi-led coalition authorities, however, have consistently claimed that Iran is smuggling weapons to the Houthis through the port of Hudaydah, despite both UNVIM processing and coalition monitoring of ships docking there. Indeed, coalition spokesperson Turki al-Maliki claimed in late November to know definitively that the missile fired at KKIA had been smuggled through Hudaydah.  

“Easing” the blockade

In mid-November the Saudi authorities announced that they would reopen ports in areas of Yemen’s south controlled by the Yemeni government, while all ports in the north would remain closed. Shortly after, on November 14, the Saudi-led coalition bombed Sana’a International Airport, destroying the aircraft radio navigation station.  

Fifteen international nongovernmental organizations and UN agencies issued a press release on November 16 expressing “outrage” at the continued Saudi-led coalition blockade on northern Yemen. The statement said the Saudi move may amount to “collective punishment” by preventing “the entry of food, fuel, medicines and supplies, exposing millions of people to disease, starvation and death.” While acknowledging that the reopening of Aden port and airport was a positive move, the press release stated this was “insufficient to cover the needs of the entire Yemeni population.”

Indeed, as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has repeatedly noted, “there is no viable substitute for Al Hudaydah Port,” both in terms of infrastructure capacity and location – Yemen’s largest population centers are in the north, as well as 71 percent of those Yemenis in need of food assistance. As OCHA officials noted last month, attempting to transport food from Aden to the north would also involve “crossing conflict areas and frontlines, and can present delays, clearance restrictions, security-related complications, high transportation costs and disruption of supplies.” Meanwhile, land routes for food imports to Yemen would have the capacity to cover only a fraction of the country’s needs; a recent food security report noted that since 2014 less than 1 percent of Yemen’s wheat has arrived over land borders.

In the last week of November the Saudi-led coalition began allowing limited humanitarian access for UN cargo to Sana’a airport and Hudaydah port, while continuing to block commercial cargo deliveries. Importantly, however, humanitarian food deliveries account for only a small fraction of Yemen’s total food imports – between January and March 2017, only 3.5 percent of the more than 1.3 million tons of food imported to Yemen was in the form of humanitarian assistance, according to the UN’s Logistics Cluster, led by the World Food Programme (WFP). The heads of seven UN agencies highlighted such in a joint public statement on December 2. These agencies included the International Organization for Migration, World Health Organization, UN Development Programme, UN OCHA, WFP, UN Children’s Fund, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who collectively said that without the resumption of Yemen’s commercial imports mass starvation will happen.

The UN agencies said that the import restrictions had led to shortages in basic commodities and price shocks, with the cost of wheat flour jumping 30 percent, fuel prices doubling, and trucked water rising as much as 600 percent in various areas. The agencies said fuel shortages have caused water networks in seven cities to stop functioning and that more cities will follow shortly, which will leave 11 million people without safe drinking water. Fuel and water shortages are also forcing hospitals to close – half the country’s health facilities are already nonfunctional – while “sewage networks in six main cities are compromised, threatening a renewed spike in the country’s cholera outbreak, which has reached almost 1 million suspected cases and killed over 2,200 people,” noted the UN agencies.

The UN agencies reiterated that Yemen is on “the cusp of one of the largest famines in modern times. Nearly 400,000 children suffer from severe acute malnutrition and face an increased risk of death. More than 8 million people could starve without urgent food assistance coming into Yemen… This imminent catastrophe is entirely avoidable, but it requires immediate action by the coalition.”

Clashes in Sana’a and Saleh’s death

In northern Yemen tensions had for months been rising between the Houthis and the allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The fuel shortages brought on by the Saudi blockade further inflamed the enmity. Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party and Houthi officials traded public accusations over whether the Houthis were profiteering from the fuel crisis. Within the Supreme Political Council and the National Salvation Government – the official bodies in Sana’a that the Houthis and the GPC have used to implement joint governance – loyalists on both sides attempted blatant power moves to undermine the authority of opposing members.

Despite the rising hostility, Saleh himself was notably absent from the media for much of November. The former president did appear, however, on November 28 to give a speech in which he said that if the Saudi-led coalition lifted the blockade and stopped its bombing campaign, “decision makers” should stop firing missiles into Saudi Arabia.     

The next day, fighting broke out between Houthi forces and GPC security at the Saleh Mosque in Sana’a over access and space for Houthi celebrations to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The clasehs resulted in four dead Saleh supporters. Over the next several days, rhetoric and skirmishes between the two sides escalated. Abdulmalik al-Houthi, the movement’s leader, said publicly: “he who does not understand the concept of alliance and partnership, is an obstacle and knows only how to be a rival,” while the GPC referred to the Houthis as “cartoonish mercenary things.”

Local efforts at de-escalation were made on November 30, but by December 2 heavy clashes were being reported, with tank fire and heavy artillery rounds being heard across the city. That same day, Saleh made a televised speech condemning the Houthis, calling on Yemenis to rise up against them, and saying it was time to turn a new page with Saudi Arabia to end the conflict. The Saudis and the Hadi government in turn announced that they would support Saleh and the GPC against the Houthis.

For a brief period that weekend it appeared the GPC had gained the upper hand, capturing various areas of the city. This success was short-lived, however, with Houthi reinforcements quickly arriving from Sa’ada and Amran governorates.

By mid-Monday Houthi forces had retaken almost all of Sana’a, including overrunning Saleh’s home and the homes of his sons and family members. Shortly after video footage emerged online of Houthi fighters chanting and carrying a blanket in which lay Saleh’s body, with wounds in the abdomen and the back of the head. Conflicting accounts of his death emerged – one suggesting he has been killed fighting at his home; another, which the Houthis put forward, said he had been killed fleeing the city.  

The Saudi-led coalition then began heavy bombardment of Sana’a, with the International Committee of the Red Cross reporting on December 5  that more than 230 people had been killed and 400 wounded in the capital during the recent violence.

Analysis: GPC-Houthi battles and Yemen after Saleh

Sana’a Center analysts noted that in the lead-up to Saleh’s death there was minimal fighting around the outskirts of Sana’a, despite the Hadi government announcing that it was moving the Yemeni army’s 7th and 8th brigades toward Sana’a in support of the “uprising” against the Houthis. This government announcement thus appears to have been more of a propaganda play in the media than a signal of real policy changes on the ground; there was, clearly, an inclination within much of the Hadi government and the Saudi-led coalition not to support Saleh, but rather to leave him to his fate.

This was made apparent when the coalition made little effort to cut off Houthi reinforcements arriving in Sana’a from the north to support those battling Saleh’s fighters in the city. Likely the most significant disappointment for Saleh, however, related to the tribes surrounding Sana’a. In the last few days before his death, powerful sheikhs and tribal leaders in Sana’a recognized that the tide was turning against Saleh, making these pivotal figures unwilling to back him in a lost cause.

Simultaneously, the Houthis were able to secure these tribal allegiances during the battles with Saleh through both bribery and threats. This came on the back of the Houthis having, for more than two and a half years, used their access to state resources to purchase tribal loyalties. There were a small number of exceptions, but overall the tribal circle around Sana’a – with whom the former president had spent more than 30 years forging ties – broke with Saleh in the end.  

Now the Houthis have complete control over Sana’a and there is, for the first time, the centralization of power in the northern and western regions of Yemen under one party. The alliance of convenience and the political divisions between the Houthis and the GPC that characterized authority in the north over the past two and a half years have ended. The disintegration of the GPC is likely. Saleh was essentially the heart of the party; it was his personality, dynamism and skilled relationship building that held together under one political banner the many disparate parties that constitute the GPC. Without him as this central gravitational force, it is unlikely the party can survive in any recognizable form.  

While it is expected that the Houthis will try to maintain a symbolic GPC party to have a structured body that can incorporate current GPC membership and followers, the Houthis will almost certainly keep ultimate authority. Meanwhile, the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition are also attempting to keep a version of the GPC intact to counter the Houthis. These competing factors could result in a pro-Houthi GPC branch based in Sana’a, and a pro-Yemeni government GPC branch based in a coalition country, if not also further GPC branches elsewhere. In any circumstance, the GPC as it is currently known is unlikely to survive.  

Importantly, the Houthis have not come out of the recent clashes with major gains, other than eliminating Saleh as a political competitor. Indeed, the Houthis can no longer count on the many Saleh-allied divisions that had been fighting alongside them against the internationally recognized government and the Saudi-led coalition. This can only weaken the Houthi frontlines – as demonstrated on December 7 when UAE-backed forces quickly seized from the Houthis Khokha city in Hudaydah governorate. The Houthis now also face a divided general public in which aggrieved GPC loyalists outnumber Houthi partisans. These tensions will likely create widespread security risks for the Houthis across large areas where the population does not support them, but rather submits to them only by force and intimidation.

Detailed future scenarios are difficult to envision, with Saleh’s death adding new complexity and uncertainty to any calculations. However, the immediate momentum the Houthis have garnered from the Sana’a battles, Saleh’s defeat and the consolidation of power in the north will almost certainly make a peaceful political solution unobtainable in the near-term.

In brief

Economic developments

  • In the second week of November President Hadi announced that he had obtained a Saudi guarantee of $2 billion in support funds to replenish the Central Bank of Yemen’s (CBY) foreign currency reserves. A Sana’a Center financial source stated in early December that while the Saudi transfer was essentially ready, the CBY was still arranging the conditions and procedures to accept the deposit.
  • Due to the ongoing severe shortage in Yemeni banknotes held by the public sector in Houthi-controlled areas, roughly 1 million government workers in northern Yemen did not receive salaries in November.   
  • On November 20, the US Department of the Treasury announced that it had designated a major currency counterfeiting network involving individuals and entities associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force. “This network employed deceptive measures to circumvent European export control restrictions and procured advanced equipment and materials to print counterfeit Yemeni banknotes potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars,” stated the Treasury, adding that Iran intended to use the counterfeit Yemeni rials to support its “destabilizing activities.”

 

Humanitarian developments

 

Human rights developments

 

Political and diplomatic developments

  • President Trump appeared to change course regarding his administration’s support for the Saudi blockade when on December 6 the White House released an official statement calling on Saudi Arabia to “completely allow food, fuel, water and medicine to reach the Yemeni people who desperately need it. This must be done for humanitarian reasons immediately.”
  • The governor of Aden, Abdul Aziz al-Muflihi, resigned on November 16, after complaining for months about his inability to carry out the functions of his office. Al-Muflihi said he blamed Prime Minister Ahmed bin Dagher for obstructions of his work as a governor, and then verbally attacked the Saudi-led coalition and the UAE for their treatment of the Yemeni government and for obstructing the government’s work on the ground.
  • On November 27, President Hadi named Rajeh Said Bakrit as the new governor of al-Mahrah, replacing Mohammed Abdullah Kuddah.
  • On November 30, the Southern Transition Council (STC) named the 303 members of its Southern National Assembly, in addition to the local STC leaders for each southern Yemeni governorate.
  • Foreign ministers from the so-called “Quint” – comprised of the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman – met on November 29th in London. After, the group issued a communiqué highlighting the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Yemen, condemning the Houthi missile attack on Riyadh on November 4, and expressing support for Saudi Arabia and its legitimate security concerns.

 

Security developments

 

This report was prepared by Waleed Alhariri, Spencer Osberg, Maged al-Madhaji, Tawfeek al-Ganad, Victoria K. Sauer and Marcus Hallinan.  

Yemen at the UN is a monthly series produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. It aims to identify UN-led efforts to resolve the conflict in Yemen and contextualize these efforts relative to political, security, economic and humanitarian developments on the ground.

This month’s report was developed in partnership with Friedrich-Ebert Yemen office.

Yemen at the UN – October 2017 Review

Yemen at the UN – October 2017 Review

Summary:

In October, the annual United Nations Children and Armed Conflict report stated that Saudi Arabia was guilty of grave violations of the rights of children for its military actions in Yemen. This placed Saudi Arabia on the report’s so-called “child killer” list. Other belligerent parties to the Yemeni conflict named to the list were Houthi militants and the allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemeni government forces, pro-government militias and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Proposed legislation in the United States House of Representatives to end American support for the Saudi-led military coalition intervention in Yemen gained bipartisan backing through October. By month’s end, however, both Democratic and Republican leaders agreed to strip the legislation of its primary clause and change the text to call on “all responsible countries to take appropriate and necessary measures against the government of Iran.”

The Yemeni rial lost some 10 percent of its value relative to the US dollar through October. This is the rial’s second period of rapid depreciation in 2017 and it sparked fears that Yemen’s domestic currency is on the cusp of further steep deterioration. Sana’a Center sources confirmed that the governing authorities in Sana’a, in an effort to halt the rial’s collapse, are preparing to impose a fixed currency exchange rate in the country’s north – a monetary policy differing from the floating exchange rate in Yemen’s south.

Houthi Minister for Youth and Sports Hassan Zaid suggested suspending schools and sending pupils and teachers alike to the frontlines as reinforcements last month. He countered angry social media responses by referring to the teachers strike in northern Yemen that delayed the start of the school year: “People close the schools under the pretext of a strike and when we think about how to take advantage of this situation, they take offence,” said Zaid.

The southern city of Aden was rocked by a slew of assassinations, assassination attempts and public protests. Meanwhile, the Southern Transitional Council seemed to build further momentum toward its goal of southern separation from northern Yemen, with mass demonstrations, the announcement of a referendum, and the inauguration of new council branches in various governorates.        

Diplomatic developments

At the United Nations

On October 10, the UN Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed gave an open briefing to the Security Council. The special envoy expressed concern over the sharp increase in civilian casualties and urged all parties to uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law. On the new cash assistance disbursal from World Bank and UNICEF, Ould Cheikh Ahmed noted that the $400 million promised to the most vulnerable households will be fully dispersed in “the coming weeks and months.”

The special envoy also mentioned to the council that he is “currently in the process of discussing a proposal that includes humanitarian initiatives to rebuild trust and steps to bring the parties back to the negotiations table.” This was in regards to the UN-led proposal regarding Hudaydah port, which Ould Cheikh Ahmed has been pushing for since late May without success. The special envoy mentioned in his statement, “The people are getting poorer while influential leaders get richer. They are not interested in finding solutions, as they will lose their power and control in a settlement.”

On October 12, Secretary-General António Guterres briefed the Security Council on countries at a risk of famine. On Yemen, he noted that 700,000 people at risk of famine in Sa’ada, Hajjah, Hudaydah, and Taiz governorates are “hard to reach” because of bureaucratic obstacles, airstrikes, shelling and ground clashes. Both the Houthi militants and the allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the internationally recognized government of Yemen and the Saudi-led military coalition supporting it, have imposed restrictions on the movement and transportation of commercial goods as well as humanitarian personnel and aid into and within Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition also continues to impose severe vetting measures for all cargo entering Yemen that many have called a blockade.

In the latter half of October the special envoy travelled to Riyadh where he met with both Yemeni and Saudi officials, including Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Acting Assistant United States Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield, as well as Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General Abdullatif al-Zayyani. Nevertheless, there was no reported progress toward renewed peace negotiations.

Children and Armed Conflict report

On October 31 the UN Security Council also received the UN Secretary-General’s annual report on Children and Armed Conflict. Each year the report lists state and non-state actors alike that have perpetrated grave violations of the rights of children in conflict zones – the UN’s so-called “child killer” list. While Saudi Arabia was initially named to the list last year, then-Secretary General Ban Ki-moon removed the kingdom from the list after Riyadh threatened to withdraw hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for UN aid programs.

In this year’s report Saudi Arabia was again named to the list for its bombing campaign in Yemen that has led to “the killing and maiming of children with 683 child casualties.” This year’s report included a revision, however, that distinguishes between those actors that have not put in place measures to improve the protection of children in the past year, and those that have; Saudi Arabia was placed in the latter category. This was due to the Saudi military  revising its rules of engagement, operationalizing the Joint Incidents Assessment Team to review air strikes and issue recommendations for improved targeting, and establishing a Child Protection Unit.

In response to being blacklisted in the 2017 Children and Armed Conflict report, Saudi Arabia’s UN representative Abdallah al-Mouallimi challenged its accuracy at a press conference on October 6.

Other actors in the Yemeni conflict named to the child killer list – all of whom were also named last year – include Houthi-Saleh forces, Yemen government forces, pro-government militias and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

In the United States

On September 27, resolution H. Con. Res. 81 was introduced in the United States House of Representatives by a bipartisan group of legislators, led by congressman Ro Khanna (D-CA). The resolution aimed to end US military assistance to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen and remove any US armed forces involved in the conflict – though this excluded those engaged in counter-terrorism against AQAP. The bill invoked a provision of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which determines the authority and conditions for the deployment and involvement of US military forces in foreign hostilities. By invoking an existent law, it became a ‘privileged resolution’,  guaranteeing it a full vote on the house floor within 15 days from its inception; otherwise the bill would have needed the blessing of the Foreign Affairs Committee leadership or the Rules Committee at the House.

During the week of October 9, Yemen briefly became a major topic for advocates and organizations, with articles in major news outlets and a surge in social media activism in support of the legislation. This period marked the most active awareness campaign on Yemen in the US since the start of the war. Among these actions were a letter in support of the resolutions published in the Huffington Post on October 9, signed by a long list of prominent members of American society – from Nobel Peace Laureates, distinguished academics, former public servants and members of congress to celebrities, actors and musicians.

The following day Rep. Ro Khanna published an op-ed in The New York Times to rally public support; in it he stated “imagine that the entire population of Washington State – 7.3 million people – were on the brink of starvation, with the port city of Seattle under naval and aerial blockade… now more than ever, the House of Representatives must serve as a counterweight to an executive branch that has long run roughshod over the Constitution.” Congressmen Khanna compared the current situation to 1973, when congress overruled President Richard Nixon’s veto to implement the War Powers Resolution and curtail Nixon from continuing the US military campaign in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.  

The bill was initially co-sponsored by Thomas Massie (R-KY), Mark Pocan (D-WI), and Walter Jones (R-NC), but had, by end-October, gained an additional 40 cosponsors. On October 30, however, media reports surfaced that House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, (D-Md) – the number 2 Democratic lawmaker in the House – and Republican caucus leaders were, from behind the scenes, pressuring members not to sponsor the resolution. Then on November 2 it emerged that House leaders in both parties had agreed to strip the resolution of the clause requiring the withdrawal of US military forces from the war, effectively neutering the bill of its original intent.

The revised legislation now calls for the US to support “the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s commitments to abide by their no-strike list and restricted target list and improve targeting capabilities.” It also calls on “all responsible countries to take appropriate and necessary measures against the government of Iran, including the interdiction of Iranian weapons to the Houthis.”

Other diplomatic developments

At a ceremony for newly-appointed foreign ambassadors in Moscow on October 3, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his government would be willing to facilitate a Yemen peace process, saying that “We are certain that the road to peace and accord [in Yemen] lies through a wide national dialogue accommodating the opinion of all political forces.”

On October 5, Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz became the first Saudi ruler to travel to Moscow, where he met with the Russian President. The Saudi leader stressed the need to bring the Yemen war to an end through a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative, Yemeni national dialogue, as well as UN Security Council Resolution 2216.

Later in the month former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh appeared on the Yemen Today television show to say that he had undergone cataract surgery, performed by a team of Russian doctors who had flown to Sana’a on October 11. The arrival of the doctors entailed a rare pause in the Saudi-led coalition’s air blockade of northern Yemen. According to AFP, quoting a high-level US government source, the US had facilitated their entry; American government officials apparently want Saleh to be “in good health” in order to facilitate negotiations with the Houthis.

Notably, Russia is the only UNSC member state to have maintained a diplomatic presence in Sana’a throughout the conflict.

In Yemen

Rapid rial depreciation

Through October Yemen’s domestic currency, the Yemeni rial (YR), lost almost 10 percent of its value relative to the United States dollar (USD) in market trading, dropping from YR 375 to the USD to YR 412. This drop was roughly equivalent to the loss in value over the previous six months and the second time in 2017 that the rial has experienced rapid devaluation.

The authorities in Sana’a and Aden both implemented stop-gap measures to slow the rial’s decline. However, the latest currency instability highlights the continuing deterioration of the rial in the face of more than two-and-a-half years of civil war and regional military intervention, and has sparked widespread fears that the Yemeni currency is on the cusp of further steep depreciation.

One currency, two monetary policies?

Sana’a Center sources have confirmed that the authorities in Sana’a, in an effort to halt the rial’s depreciation, are preparing to impose a fixed currency exchange rate in areas of the country’s north which they control, while in the south the rial will continue to float.

The Sana’a Center foresees significant difficulties in operating one currency with differing monetary policies between the north and south. Separate monetary policies would likely precipitate a significant shift in remittances from Sana’a to Aden, incentivize massive currency smuggling between the areas, and shift ever greater financial flows away from the official economy.

Sana’a fuel imports from Dubai

In October, Sana’a Center sources also indicated that “very large” transactions took place between importing companies based in Sana’a, and those operating between Jeddah and Dubai. Notable were transactions made by the Black Gold Company, a fuel importing company owned by a Houthi leader in Sana’a, and which operates in cooperation with companies in Dubai. Black Gold is one of the largest fuel distributors in Houthi-Saleh areas.

Having private companies control fuel importation – where previously the publically-owned Yemen Petroleum Company was the sole importer – has increased downward pressure on the Yemeni currency. In addition, the connections between political authorities, importing companies, and businesses in Dubai highlight the complex nature of the war economy in Yemen today.

Financial meetings with global institutions

In first half of October a meeting took place in Berlin between representatives of the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY), Yemeni businesses and private Yemeni banks, the International Monetary Fund, the UN and the World Bank. Discussion involved the economic challenges currently facing the country. According to Sana’a Center sources, CBY Governor Monasser al-Quaiti promised private banks that the CBY would pay interest on the current accounts and treasury bonds private sector holds at the CBY.

If this occurs, it would likely help boost confidence in Yemen’s heavily constricted banking sector by allowing private banks to provide clients with a small measure of liquidity on held accounts. Reportedly, significant doubts remain in the private sector that the Governor will hold true to his word.  

Beijing forgives debt

Also last month, on October 18, the Yemeni and Chinese governments signed a memorandum of understanding in which the Chinese committed to forgiving some $111 million in Yemeni debt.

Unrest in government controlled areas

Aden saw a spree of assassinations, attempted assassinations and mass protest last month. In just the 10 days between October 18 and 28, Salafi Imam and director of the Al-Bunyan school, Sheikh Fahd Mohammed Qasim al-Younsi, was assassinated in the early morning in Aden’s Mansoura district; a bomb was found and defused under the vehicle of Imam Ali al-Nishiri, of Aden’s al-Rahman Mosque; gunmen fired on the convoy of Nabil al-Mashoushi, a commander in the UAE-backed Security Belt brigades, in the Bir Ahmed area (, though al-Mashoushi was uninjured); and, Sheikh Adel Al-Shehri was assassinated in front of Saad bin Waqas mosque in the Enma district. On October 30 protesters then blocked roads in Aden with burning tires, angry at the constant power outages and fuel shortages, with hospitals in the city warning they may be forced to shut down due to lack of electricity.

Elsewhere in areas nominally controlled by the Yemeni government, Governor of Taiz Ali al-Mamari resigned over the lack of government funding for public sector workers in Taiz; al-Mamari resumed his position later the same week after President Hadi promised the salaries would be forthcoming.

On October 1, government security forces opened fire on demonstrators protesting the visit of Prime Minister Ahmad Abid bin Daghir in Zinjibar city, Abyan governorate. At least three demonstrators were reported injured. Bin Dagher had been visiting Zinjibar to speak at the commemoration of the 1962 revolution. The protest was organized by the Southern Movement, commonly referred to as al-Hirak, which is increasingly calling for independence for southern Yemen.

In Marib on October 16, Islah-affiliated security forces fired on demonstrators protesting Abdul Malik al-Madani’s appointment as Marib security director, killing two and injuring five. The following day two protesters and a policeman were killed outside government buildings in Marib, after a protest by tribesmen demanding better employment opportunities turned violent.

Meanwhile, across the south AQAP continued to carry out small-scale attacks almost daily against government and UAE-backed security forces, while government and Saudi-led coalition operations against both AQAP and the Yemeni affiliate of ISIS remained ongoing. Notably, the US military reported on October 26 that in the 10 days prior it had killed 69 suspected ISIS militants; the identities of all those killed could not be confirmed as of this writing.

Southern Transitional Council rallies support

On October 14th, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) – formed earlier this year by prominent figures seeking autonomy for South Yemen – staged demonstrations in Aden, during which council President Aiderous al-Zubaidi announced the establishment of a 303-seat National Assembly to represent South Yemen and an upcoming independence referendum; he did not specify the date the referendum would be held.

On October 17, French Ambassador Christian Testot and his deputy met with the STC’s Adel al-Shabahi; discussions reportedly focused on the council’s role in fighting terrorism. Between October 24 and 28, the STC held rallies to inaugurate new branches in Azzan in Shabwa governorate, Mukalla in Hadramawt, and al-Ghaydah, in Mahra.

Tensions within the Houthi-Saleh alliance

From the end of September through October tensions and political rivalries continued between the Houthis and former President Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party. On September 30, media reports described how Houthi militants stormed the Ministry of Health in Sana’a and removed the minister, GPC-allied Mohammed Salem bin Hafez, at gunpoint, attempting to replace him with a Houthi partisan. On October 7 Houthi forces then barred the foreign minister and his staff from entering the ministry, under what they said was direct orders from the President of the Supreme Political Council, Saleh al-Samad.

On October 19, Houthi and GPC leaders traded public allegations, with the GPC accusing the Houthis of conducting an “orchestrated campaign” against Saleh, and the Houthis claiming that the GPC was accepting money from the Hadi government.

Houthi forces down aircraft

On October 1 Houthi-Saleh forces claimed to have shot down a US surveillance drone in the Jader area of Sana’a governorate with a surface-to-air missile. Footage of the downed aircraft was broadcasted on local news. Four weeks later, on October 27, the Houthis announced that they had shot down a Saudi warplane in Sana’a. The pilot has not been found and debate remains whether the plane was shot down or simply found by Houthi fighters.

Houthi-Saleh ballistic missile strikes into Saudi Arabia continued unabated through October. Saudi-led coalition spokesperson Colonel Turki al-Maliki stated on October 30 that there had been 77 such attacks on Saudi Arabia since the conflict began in March 2015. The colonel said Iran was smuggling these missiles to the Houthis through Hudaydah port.  

Houthis address teacher salaries

On October 11, the al-Houthi-Saleh Supreme Political Council (SPC) announced that teachers would have half their salaries paid in cash and half in the form of a commodity card. Just days earlier, Houthi forces broke up the teacher strike in Sana’a city, Northern Yemen. The northern Yemen’s teacher’s union had been on strike for two weeks, delaying the start of the school year until September 30. Nearly 4.5 million students attended schools in northern Yemen, according to UNICEF.

Cholera epidemic continues

From the beginning of the current cholera outbreak at the end of April 2017, until the end of October, the World Health Organization recorded a total of 884 000 suspected cases of the disease and almost 2,200 deaths, making it the largest and fastest spreading cholera epidemic in recorded history. The case-fatality rate (CFR) generally remains low at 0.25%, with the highest CFR recorded in Raymah governorate at 0.86%. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Save the Children assumed that the number of suspected cholera cases will reach one million by the end of 2017, including at least 600,000 children who are particularly affected by Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

Food insecurity

As of November 1, 2017, the United Nations was reported that 17 million Yemenis are food insecure, of which 6.8 million are severely food insecure and areas of the country are experiencing famine. These numbers are relatively consistent with the month previous.

Meanwhile, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of end-October, received 57% of the USD $2.3 billion it has appealed for to implement its humanitarian response plan for Yemen in 2017.

Human rights and war crimes

On October 26 – just prior a UN Security Council meeting to discuss the UN’s so-called “child killer” list (noted above) – the Yemeni government became the 70th country to sign the Safe Schools Declaration. This commits the internationally recognized government to protecting students, teachers, schools, and universities from attack and to stop the militarisation of education facilities in times of armed conflict. It remains a test case for Yemen to translate the declared commitment into actual enforcement.

In spite of these developments, apparent war crimes and human rights violations continued regularly in October. The Saudi-led coalition airstrikes throughout the month led to at least 35 civilian deaths in Sa’ada governorate and six civilian casualties in al-Jawf, respectively, according to local media. On October 4, for instance, a coalition airstrike hit a family house, killing 12 civilians in Baqim district, Sa’ada governorate, according to Houthi-Saleh allied media. There were four children among the dead. On October 17, a coalition airstrike hit a house in the Bart al-Anan district of al-Jawf governorate, killing six and leaving a child orphaned.

Throughout October, internationally prohibited weapons continued to be used. According to Houthi-Saleh media, Saudi-led coalition forces deployed cluster bombs on several occasions, notably on October 20 in Qahza area, north of Sa’ada city, injuring five children.

Since October 21, dozens of detainees have been on hunger strike in Aden city, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). The detainees, who are being held at the Bir Ahmed military camp, run by UAE-backed Security Belt forces, went on hunger strike in protest of continued violations against prisoners’ rights. On the first day, detainees’ families issued an announcement in which they said the hunger strike would not end until “legal and humanitarian rights” were granted. HRW supported this call, demanding that parties to the armed conflict “treat detainees humanely, free those arbitrarily held, and ensure that they have access to lawyers and family members”. The prison’s director reportedly threatened its detainees be transferred to another informal detention facility if they did not end the hunger strike. According to one detainee’s relatives, four other detainees had lost consciousness three days after the beginning of the hunger strike.

Meanwhile, in Sana’a the Houthi Minister for Youth and Sports Hassan Zaid suggested suspending school classes for a year in order to send pupils and teachers to battle fronts, to “reinforce the ranks with hundreds of thousands [of fighters] and win the battle”. He countered angry social media responses by referring to the teachers strike in northern Yemen that delayed the start of the school year: “People close the schools under the pretext of a strike and when we think about how to take advantage of this situation, they take offence,” said Zaid.

(*Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Yemeni government signed the ‘Safe Schools Declaration‘ just prior to being named in the UN’s Children and Armed Conflict Report. The Yemeni government in fact signed the Declaration after being named in the Report, but just prior to the UNSC session a which the council was officially briefed on the Report.)   

This report was prepared by Waleed Alhariri, Spencer Osberg, Ziad al-Eryani, Victoria K. Sauer, Nickolas Ask, Anthony Biswell and Michael McCall.

Yemen at the UN is a monthly series produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. It aims to identify UN-led efforts to resolve the conflict in Yemen and contextualize these efforts relative to political, security, economic and humanitarian developments on the ground.

Yemen at the UN – September 2017 Review

Yemen at the UN – September 2017 Review

In September, more than two dozen heads of state highlighted the plight of Yemenis and the need to end the conflict in speeches before the United Nations General Assembly.
At the 36th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, a resolution was adopted to establish an international group of experts to investigate human rights abuses in Yemen since the beginning of the war. This comes after more than two years of lobbying by UN officials, UN member states and human rights groups for an international inquiry into war crimes in Yemen.
In Belgium, the European Union hosted several dozen tribal leaders from Yemen in exploratory talks regarding potential new avenues for conflict resolution and track II negotiations.

Yemen at the UN – August 2017 Review

Yemen at the UN – August 2017 Review

In August, a confidential draft of the United Nation’s “Children and Armed Conflict” report recommended that the Saudi-led military coalition intervening in the Yemen war be named to the so-called “child killer” list. This annual UN list names government forces, terrorist organizations and armed groups that perpetrate wanton acts of violence against children in conflicts around the world. Through the latter half of August, the Saudi-led coalition staged various UN-affiliated events at which it emphasized the breadth and depth of its humanitarian assistance to Yemen.

Yemen at the UN – July 2017 Review

Yemen at the UN – July 2017 Review

In July, Yemen’s cholera epidemic became the largest ever recorded in one country in a single year, with the World Health Organization recording 430,000 suspected incidents and almost 2,000 associated deaths with the disease by month’s end. This comes following the UN declaring Yemen the world’s largest food security emergency earlier this year.

Yemen at the UN – June 2017 Review

Yemen at the UN – June 2017 Review

In June, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted a Presidential Statement regarding the Yemeni crisis – the first council outcome on Yemen in almost 14 months. A UNSC Presidential Statement, while important as a statement of council policy, is considered less weighty than a UNSC resolution and lacks the mandatory enforcement power of a Chapter 7 resolution.

Yemen at the UN – May 2017 Review

Yemen at the UN – May 2017 Review

In May, a cholera epidemic swept Yemen at terrifying speed. Between the beginning and the end of the month the number of suspected cases of cholera and acute watery diarrhea (AWD) nearly tripled to 70,000, with some 600 associated deaths. At the beginning of June, UNICEF regional director Geert Cappelaere said that without significant intervention the number of cases could rise to 300,000 “within a few weeks’ time.”

Yemen at the UN – April 2017 Review

Yemen at the UN – April 2017 Review

In April, the Saudi-led military coalition’s proposed assault on the rebel-held Red Sea port of Hudaydah, and the likely humanitarian catastrophe it would precipitate, was again the focus of most international policy discussions regarding Yemen. By month’s end, however, widespread opposition to the operation within the US, at the UN, within the humanitarian community and elsewhere appeared to gain purchase with both the Saudi-led coalition and American policy makers contemplating United States military support for the action, with these latter two groups apparently re-evaluating Saudi-led coalition plans for an offensive and exploring political alternatives to the attack.

Yemen at the UN – March 2017 Review

Yemen at the UN – March 2017 Review

In March, the prospect of a Saudi-led military coalition offensive on the rebel-held city of Hudaydah dominated Yemen-related policy discussions at the United Nations and in the United States.

Discussions among UN Security Council member states generally centered around how such an offensive would radically exacerbate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis – given that Hudaydah is the main entry point for humanitarian and commercial goods, and that the country is already facing the world’s largest food security emergency.

Yemen at the UN – February 2017 Review

Yemen at the UN – February 2017 Review

In February, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations stated that “Yemen is facing the largest food security emergency in the world”, and estimated that the country’s domestic reserves of wheat would be completely exhausted by the end of March 2017.

The UN human rights commission raised credible reports that war crimes were committed by both the main warring sides during battles for the Red Sea port town of Mukha. These battles saw the forces backing Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi capture the town from the Houthi movement and its main ally, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.