In February, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) formally adopted a highly politicized UN Panel of Experts report on Yemen. The report – one aspect of which asserts Iran is in non-compliance with the UN arms embargo on Yemen – was seized upon by the United States and its allies at the UNSC as an opportunity to push for council action against Iran (see ‘UN Panel of Experts Report’).
Russia led the opposition to this push at the Security Council, eventually exercising its veto power to quash a United Kingdom draft resolution that Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said would have “dangerous, destabilising ramifications, not only for Yemen but the region as a whole” (see ‘Russia’s Veto’).
Last month also saw UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres officially appointed Martin Griffiths of the UK as the new UN Special Envoy for Yemen. The three-year tenure of the outgoing Special Envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, saw three rounds of failed UN-led peace negotiations and numerous failed ceasefire agreements; in 2017 Ould Cheikh Ahmed was unable to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table at all (see ‘A New UN Special Envoy for Yemen’).
In Yemen, following widespread clashes in the southern city of Aden at the end of January, relative calm prevailed over the city in February. Aiderous al-Zubaidi, leader of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), made moves to allay concerns within the Saudi-led military coalition that conflict in Aden between the STC fighters and Yemeni government troops had weakened the larger military efforts against the Houthis (see ‘Military Developments’).
In February, Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi also sacked the governor of the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) in Aden, Monasseral-Quaiti. His replacement, former finance Minister Mohammad Zammam, subsequently met with Saudi officials to finalize terms for the CBY to access the US$2 billion deposit Riyadh made at the CBY in January 2018 (see ‘Economic Developments’).
Also last month, the Director of Operations and Advocacy at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, John Ging, highlighted that as a result of an escalation of fighting since November, a further 100,000 Yemenis have been displaced from their homes (see ‘Humanitarian Developments’).
Since the inauguration of United States President Donald Trump, the US administration has advanced a characterisation of the Houthis as agents of Iran and a policy that aims to “hit Iran in Yemen.” Since late 2017, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has been the central public figure of this campaign. Haley has regularly alleged illegal Iranian involvement in the Yemen conflict and used such allegations as a basis from which to cast Iran as a threat to international peace and security, and push for more assertive international action against Tehran.
The day after the release of the UN Panel of Experts report Haley issued a statement saying it “was time for the Security Council to act” against Iran for its involvement in Yemen. In a February 17 New York Times op-ed she reiterated this point. In regards to the Panel’s findings, Haley wrote in her op-ed that “some members of the United Nations don’t want to hear it because it is further proof that Iran is defying Security Council resolutions, and the pressure will be on the UN to do something about it.”
Through the first half of February, the United Kingdom consulted with UNSC members regarding a resolution to renew the mandate of the Panel of Experts – normally a routine procedure. On February 16, the UK submitted a draft resolution including non-routine passages condemning Iran for violating the arms embargo on Yemen and asserting that these violations required the UNSC to take further measures. China and Russia subsequently objected to the language against Iran, saying that the Panel of Experts had not met the necessary standard of evidence necessary to deem that Iran was in non-compliance, pointing out that the Experts had offered no clear determination regarding how the weapons arrived in the Houthi arsenal.
On February 21, the Permanent Representative of Iran to the UN, Gholamali Khoshroo, addressed the UN Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council in an official letter (S/2018/145). The letter stated that Iran “categorically rejects all allegations” against it contained in the Panel of Experts report, and that the Panel’s findings regarding Iran being in non-compliance with resolution 2216 “fail to render an impartial and objective assessment of the issues at hand.” Khoshroo asserted that, “My Government re-emphasizes that it neither has a policy nor seeks to transfer arms or military equipment in Yemen or manufacture them therein.”
On February 22, the UK circulated a revised resolution in which the wording on Iran was altered, stating that Iran was in “non-compliance” rather than in “violation” of UN resolution 2216. The following day Russia, China and Bolivia opposed this draft. The UK again revised the wording and circulated another new proposal, moderating the language such that it no longer condemned Iran for violating the sanctions regime. The new proposal also stipulated that the UNSC intended to address Iran’s violations, rather than saying that the UNSC was required to take action.
On February 24, Russia then tabled its own resolution devoid of any UK additions regarding Iran. The proposed Russian resolution was effectively a routine extension of the sanctions measures until February 26, 2019, and the mandate of the Panel of Experts to March 28, 2019. The UK then tabled a further revision of its draft resolution, containing language that “expressed particular concern” regarding Iranian non-compliance with the arms embargo and making no mention of further UNSC action.
Speaking before the February 26 UNSC vote on the UK resolution, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said that: “The wording advanced in the British draft is liable to have dangerous, destabilising ramifications, not only for Yemen but the region as a whole. This will inevitably escalate regional tensions and lead to conflict amongst key regional players.”
In voting Russia, as a permanent UNSC member state, exercised its veto power; Bolivia also voted against the draft, China and Kazakhstan abstained, while the remaining eleven council members voted in favor. The UNSC then voted unanimously to adopt the Russian draft resolution (S/Red/2402), given that, with the failure of the UK draft, the Russian resolution was necessary for the sanctions committee and the Panel of Experts to continue operating for the upcoming year.
The Russian veto was the first time that any UNSC permanent member state had exercised their veto power in relation to the Yemen conflict and the first time the council has been so publicly at odds regarding the war. There have been divisions among UNSC members in the past that stemmed from member states advancing and protecting the position of the Saudi-led military coalition intervening in the Yemen conflict, those highlighting the viewpoints of the coalition’s rivals in Yemen, and other member states that were primarily concerned with the humanitarian situation; however, prior to the February 26 vote, accommodations had been successfully made between member states to find mutually acceptable language in council texts adopted regarding Yemen.
Following the vote, Ambassador Kelley Currie, Representative for Economic and Social Affairs for the US mission to the UN, said in her statement to the UNSC: “Russia’s veto today serves only to protect Iran’s efforts to destabilize the region and spread its malign influence… We will not stop until Tehran is stopped and peace is once more possible for the people of the Middle East.”
Ambassador Currie followed up on this during the February 27 UNSC meeting on Yemen, stating that: “This Council must hold those violating sanctions – like Iran – accountable.” She also noted that “in addition to addressing Yemen’s humanitarian concerns however, we must also recognize the very real security concerns of Saudi Arabia.”
On February 27, France, Germany, the UK, and the US then issued a joint statement saying: “We condemn Iran’s non-compliance, as described by the Panel, which poses serious risks to peace and stability in the region. We call upon Iran to immediately cease all activities that are inconsistent with or would violate the terms of Security Council resolution 2216.”
Other Aspects of the Panel of Experts Report
It should be noted that the Panel of Experts report is an expansive document, of which Iran’s non-compliance with the arms embargo made up only a portion. Among the other aspects of the report are its documentation of “widespread violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights by all parties to the conflict.”
These include Saudi-led military coalition air strikes on civilians and civilian targets, as well as the “indiscriminate use of explosive ordnance by Houthi-Saleh forces.” The Panel stressed that it has “seen no evidence to suggest that appropriate measures were taken by any side to mitigate the devastating impact of these attacks on the civilian population.” It then called on all belligerent parties to “comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law and human rights law.”
None of the UNSC draft resolutions tabled last month, nor any of the statements by UN member states following the adoption of the Russian draft, explicitly mentioned these other aspects of the the Panel of Experts report.
A New UN Special Envoy for Yemen
On February 9, the outgoing UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, stated that his successor would prepare a new round of UN-sponsored peace negotiations to take place in Oman; the Saudi-led military coalition subsequently stated its willingness to join these negotiations in support of the internationally recognized Government of Yemen.
On February 16, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres officially appointed Martin Griffiths of the UK as the new UN Special Envoy for Yemen. Until his appointment Griffiths had been the executive director of the European Institute of Peace in Brussels. Previously, he was also a mediation adviser for UN envoys to Syria and deputy head of the UN Observer Mission there.
On February 27, the outgoing Special Envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, gave his final 60-day briefing to the UNSC. In his statement to the council, Ould Cheikh Ahmed said: “Those who follow the Yemen file closely will acknowledge that the United Nations has spared no effort to help the Yemeni parties reach a peaceful solution.”
The outgoing Special Envoy said he had been on the cusp of securing a peace agreement between the warring parties, “but they refused to sign in the last minute. In the end of the consultations, it became clear that the Houthis were not prepared to make concessions on the proposed security arrangements. This has been a major stumbling block towards reaching a negotiated solution.” At a press briefing following his UNSC briefing, Ould Cheikh Ahmed clarified that his statement regarding the Houthis was in reference to UN-led negotiations in Kuwait in 2016.
Over the first two years of his tenure, 2015 and 2016, Ould Cheikh Ahmed presided over three rounds of failed UN-led peace negotiations and various ceasefire agreements that the warring parties broke almost immediately; in 2017 he was unable to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table at all.
In December 2016, Ould Cheikh Ahmed put forward a peace proposal that Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi had immediately and outright rejected. In February 2017, a high-ranking Houthi official submitted a letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres requesting that he not renew the Special Envoy’s term, claiming that Ould Cheikh Ahmed had shown a “lack of neutrality” and was biased toward the Saudi-led military coalition. In June 2017, Houthi senior leader Saleh Ali al-Samad declared that the Special Envoy was “not desirable for future peace negotiations,” and barred Ould Cheikh Ahmed from future entry into areas controlled by the Houthis and then-allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Other International Developments in Brief
February 17: Meetings took place in Germany between EU member states and Iran on the sidelines of theMunich Security Conference, where Yemen is a main focus of discussion.
February 28: In the US, a bipartisan group of senators – Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) Chris Murphy, (D-Conn.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) – put forward legislation that, if passed, would end US support for the Saudi-led military coalition intervention in Yemen. Under Senate rules the sponsors can force a vote after 10 days. A similar measure launched in the House of Representatives last fall was effectively quashed by leaders in both parties.
March 4: A new coalition government was approved to take office in Berlin after both Germany’s Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democrats voted in favour of a coalition agreement between the parties. A clause in this agreement bars arms sales to countries participating in the Yemen conflict, such as member states of the Saudi-led military coalition.
Developments in Yemen
Tensions in the southern city of Aden appeared to subside somewhat through February, with a notable absence of armed conflict. This followed widespread violence there at the end of January between ostensible allies in the coalition of forces fighting on behalf of the country’s internationally recognized government; these clashes involved the Southern Transition Council (STC), a secessionist group backed by the United Arab Emirates, and troops loyal to Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
After Abu Dhabi and Riyadh sent a military and security delegation to intervene and stop the fighting in early February, STC leader Aiderous al-Zubaidi visited frontlines against the Houthis in the north of al-Dhalea governorate, north of Aden. Al-Zubaidi’s move was widely interpreted as an attempt to allay concerns within the Saudi-led military coalition that conflict in Aden between the STC and Hadi troops had weakened the larger military efforts against the Houthis.
The movements of Tariq Saleh, the nephew of the late former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, continued to be fodder for speculation in Yemen through February after his public appearance in Shabwa governorate in January. According to Sana’a Center sources, the Saudi-led military coalition, and the UAE in particular, is looking to utilise Tariq as part of its anti-Houthi military strategy in north Yemen. Media reports from February reported that Saleh’s nephew had visited the Mokha district of Taiz governorate mid-month in order to assess the current state of anti-Houthi operations being conducted along Yemen’s Red Sea coastline. According to the same report, pro-Hadi, Salafi military commanders from the “Giants Brigade” stationed in western Taiz were reluctant to meet Tariq and opposed to his potential involvement in the Red Sea offensive.
Throughout February, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) conducted a series of asymmetric attacks against multiple opponents that included Houthi fighters, members of the UAE-backed Security Belt forces, and counterterrorism officials. During the month of February, the UAE launched two separate anti-AQAP operations in Hadramawt and Shabwa governorates. The UAE first launched “Operation Faisal” on February 16, which saw the mobilisation of UAE-backed Hadramawt Elite Forces against AQAP militants in the al-Masini valley that is located approximately 100 km west of al-Mukalla, Hadramawt. The UAE then launched “Operation Decisive Sword” on February 26, which is being led by UAE-backed Shabwa Elite Forces and aims to clear Wadi Yeshbum of al-Said district, Shabwa, of AQAP militants.
Military Developments in Brief
Early February: Major General Gameel al-Mamari, who previously fought with Houthi-Saleh forces, defected to the Hadi government after fleeing Sana’a for Aden.
February 11: The US military announced a drone strike in al-Bayda governorate that it says killed six suspected AQAP militants.
February 24: The Yemeni government’s Minister of Transportation Saleh al-Jabwani accused the UAE of fragmenting Yemen, stating that “There are tribal and regional armies set up by the Emiratis… We as a state can’t accept continuation of this situation.” His comments came after UAE-backed Shabwa Elite Forces blocked him from visiting the Balhaf Liquid Natural Gas terminal in Shabwa governorate. Reports from the area indicated that the Yemeni army 13th infantry brigade, loyal to President Hadi, subsequently redeployed nearby.
February 24: ISIS carried out a coordinated attack against a counterterrorism headquarters in Aden. Two attackers driving vehicles rigged with explosives blew themselves up at the entrance of the building. ISIS gunmen then followed up this initial attack with an armed assault. Local security and medical sources told Reuters new agency that at least 14 people were killed and 40injured.
February 26: In an apparent ‘friendly fire’ incident, a Saudi-led military coalition airstrike hit a Yemeni government troop position in the Nihm region east of Sana’a, killing three prominent officers, four soldiers and wounding at least 15 others.
On February 12, President Hadi replaced the Governor of the Central Bank of Yemen in Aden, Monasseral-Quaiti, with former finance Minister Mohammad Zammam. Sana’a Center sources indicate that the decision was largely undertaken in response to al-Quaiti’s inability to establish a fully functioning CBY headquarters in Aden in the face of continuing logistical and security challenges there. A meeting then took place between the new governor of the CBY and the head of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority to discuss the terms of the US$2 billion deposit Saudi Arabia made to the CBY in Aden in January. According to Sana’a Center sources, although the CBY in Aden had yet to sign the necessary agreement that would allow it to access the funds at to the time of this writing, such is likely to be formalized in March.
In northern areas of Yemen under Houthi control, February saw cooking gas shortages and price hikes, sparking public protests. The crisis has been exacerbated by the Sana’a authorities’ significant taxation of cooking gas, as well as rising demand; due to high fuel prices, many vehicle owners have converted from fuel to gas combustion engines.
The Yemeni Rial
Through February the Yemeni rial (YR) continued to witness a steady depreciation, going from YR 458 to the US$ to more than YR 492 in market trading. However, following news of an impending agreement over the US$2 billion Saudi deposit, the YR appreciated again to approximately YR 480 at the time of writing.
In late February the CBY in Aden began to distribute the new YR 1000 banknotes on the local market. These notes, like the YR 500 notes released in 2017, are of a different size to older Yemeni notes and their distribution and circulation has been quite political. In Houthi-controlled areas, the authorities have banned financial actors and the private sector from using the new banknotes, in an effort to reduce the value of the new bills to the Hadi government, which is attempting to use them to pay public sector salaries and increase liquidity. As such, many people in the north of the country are hesitant to trade with the new currency, limiting its distribution and effectiveness.
In his briefing to the UNSC on February 27, the Director of Operations and Advocacy at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, John Ging, expressed concern over recent humanitarian developments: “People’s lives have continued unravelling. Conflict has escalated significantly since November, driving an estimated 100,000 people from their homes, according to UNHCR [UN High Commission for Refugees]. More people are going hungry, and famine remains a real threat. Although cholera cases are in decline, the disease is not yet beaten and is likely to rebound in the upcoming rainy season.”
Ging described how humanitarian access within the country has deteriorated, notably in territories controlled by Houthi forces. Even though access into the country has improved since December 2017, when the coalition eased its blockade of Yemen’s Red Sea ports, Ging raised concerns over “the Coalition policy to divert containerized cargo to Aden” and the continued closure of Sana’a airport for commercial traffic. The number of vessels seeking clearances from the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism to enter Hudaydah and Saleef ports has halved since the blockade, given delays imposed on ships even after they have been issued clearances.
“Vessels cleared by this mechanism should be able to proceed directly to port without additional delays,” said Ging. “For that to happen, Hudaydah and Saleef ports must remain open without time limits or other restrictions that may discourage commercial shipping companies from serving them.” Ging also called the full funding of the 2018 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan (YHRP), tallied at US$2.96 billion, a top priority. He stated that about one third of the YHRP had already been pledged by donors, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (as part of the Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations initiative announced in January), and that Sweden and Switzerland would host a pledging conference in Geneva on April 3.
February 24: The World Health Organization and the UN Children’s Fund reported that Yemen has seen 1,067,524 cases of cholera and 2,259 associated deaths since 27 April 2017. Diphtheria has accounted for a total of 1,172 probable cases in 20 governorates, including 72 associated deaths.
February 26/27: Saudi Arabia launched the first Riyadh International Humanitarian Forum, likely intended to coincide with the two UNSC consultations that took place on Yemen. It included an NGO workshop aiming “to both inform a wider audience of the humanitarian community about the YCHO, and to enhance communication and cooperation with the UN agencies and INGOs working in Yemen.”
Human Rights and War Crimes Developments in Brief
February 1-8: The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported that in the first week of February 27 civilians were killed and 76 injured by violence in Yemen. These incidents included three Saudi-led military coalition airstrikes that hit the Ministry of Interior in Sana’a’s Bani al-Harith district on February 4, killing eight civilians and injuring 32. OHCHR reported that there were no military objects in close proximity. On February 6 Houthi forces also shelled Usayfrah in al-Qahirah district, northern Taiz, killing three children.
February 15: Amnesty International reported that a “woman and two men were forcibly disappeared, ill-treated and given a patently unfair trial before being sentenced to death” by the Houthi-aligned Specialized Criminal Court in Sana’a in January “for allegedly aiding an enemy country.” Amnesty’s Senior Crisis Advisor Rawya Rageh describes the trial as “part of a wider pattern of the Houthis using the judiciary to settle political scores,” calling it “a clear violation of international law.”
February 16: Amnesty International released its statement for the 37th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), slated to run from February 26 to March 23 in Geneva. In it, Amnesty lays out that all warring parties in Yemen have continued to violate international humanitarian and human rights law, following the establishment of an expert group, mandated by the HRC to investigate such violations. Amnesty documented indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks as well as attacks against civilians and civilian objects, the use of banned weapons, arbitrary and incommunicado detentions, enforced disappearances, torture, death sentences after unlawful trials, the recruitment and deployment of child soldiers, and restrictions on humanitarian and commercial imports as well as on the movement of humanitarian aid.
February 20: Alexandre Faite, the head of the ICRC’s delegation in Yemen, warned that the Red Sea frontline is moving closer to the historic city of Zabid, a World Heritage Site with “the highest concentration of mosques in Yemen… International humanitarian law makes it clear that special care must be taken in military operations to avoid damaging this outstanding archaeological and historical site,” he stated.
February 21: A coalition airstrike hit three vehicles near a checkpoint south of Sa’ada city, killing at least 15 civilians and injuring several others.
This report was prepared by Waleed Alhariri, Spencer Osberg, Alex J. Harper, Taima Al-Iriani, Victoria K. Sauer and Ali Abdullah.
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, humanitarian, and human rights developments on the ground.
This month’s report was developed with the support of the Friedrich-Ebert Yemen office.
In January, widespread violence erupted in Yemen’s southern port city of Aden between ostensible allies in the coalition of forces fighting on behalf of the country’s internationally recognized government. On January 21, the Southern Transition Council (STC), a secessionist group back by the United Arab Emirates, issued an ultimatum to Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi to dismiss his prime minister and other cabinet members for alleged corruption. On January 28 the ultimatum expired and clashes broke out between the Presidential Protection Forces and STC-allied armed groups, with STC forces quickly routing Hadi-allied units from positions across the city and from nearby military bases.
In early 2017 the United Nations (UN) declared that Yemen was enduring the single largest humanitarian crisis in the world. By year’s end, UN agencies estimated that 17.8 million people in Yemen were food insecure and 8.4 million were at risk of famine. Economic and public service collapse left more than 16 million Yemenis without access to safe water and sanitation, and 16.4 million without proper healthcare. All of these factors played into an outbreak of cholera in 2017 that surpassed 1 million suspected cases by December – the largest cholera epidemic ever recorded in a single year. The UN’s 2017 humanitarian appeal for Yemen amounted US$2.3 billion, of which the international community had funded 70.5 percent by year’s end (see ‘Humanitarian Developments’ below for details).
In response to this crisis, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held a combined nine briefing and consultation sessions related to Yemen in 2017, during which no new resolutions were adopted and one Presidential Statement – a council product less weighty than a resolution – was issued. Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who as United Nations Special Envoy to Yemen heads UN efforts to end the conflict that is driving the humanitarian crisis, initiated no new peace talks between the warring parties during this time.
While no party to the conflict appeared receptive to peace overtures in 2017, the Houthi leadership and then-allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh stated early in the year that they felt the Special Envoy was biased against them and could not be a fair peace arbiter. However, deterred neither by this nor by the numerous broken ceasefires and failed peace negotiations that the Special Envoy presided over in 2015 and 2016, in 2017 UN Secretary-General António Guterres and UNSC member states regularly reiterated their support for Ould Cheikh Ahmed and his efforts toward resolving the conflict.
UNSC member state representatives, UN officials, and diplomats speaking privately with the Sana’a Center in 2017 consistently noted the same primary causes of UNSC inaction regarding Yemen: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other partners in the regional military coalition intervening in the Yemen war – among them Egypt, which sat on the UNSC in 2017 – assertively pressured UNSC member states not to take actions the coalition deemed unfavorable, with other nations generally apprehensive about antagonizing Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The United States (US), United Kingdom (UK) and France – all veto-wielding permanent UNSC members, as well as the Saudi-led military coalition’s primary arms suppliers – have also quashed attempts at the UNSC to restrain the coalition or to implicate its members in war crimes. Representatives from other UNSC member states told the Sana’a Center in 2017 that the council had thus exhausted all plausible options for action regarding Yemen and had essentially been reduced to an observer of the crisis (see ‘At the United Nations’ below for details).
In the US, former President Barack Obama’s official exit from the White House in January 2017 marked the end of the outgoing administration’s last-ditch effort to end the Yemen war. It ushered in a new era of US belligerence regarding Yemen, and the world generally, under President Donald Trump. However, there are two pillars of the previous administration’s Yemen policy that Trump has not only upheld but in fact championed during his inaugural year in office. One is steadfast US support for the Saudi-led military coalition. Trump has shown renewed zeal for arms sales to US allies in the Gulf. The new US administration has also fully adopted – and spent considerable energy propagating – the Saudi narrative that the Houthis are Iran’s “proxy terrorist group” (see ‘In the United States’ below for details).
The second Obama-era policy continued by the Trump administration is a myopic focus on military firepower to counter al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) rather than programs addressing the socio-economic and political accelerants of extremism. This passing of the torch between presidents was epitomized just days after Trump entered the White House when he signed off on a US Navy SEAL raid – planned when Obama was still in office – against a suspected AQAP hideout in Yemen’s al-Bayda governorate. Casualties of the raid included 25 civilians – nine of them children under the age of 13 – and a US commando (see ‘AQAP, Daesh and Counterterrorism Operations’ below for details).
In other international diplomatic developments in 2017, the European Union (EU) and individual EU member states intensified their engagement with Yemen, from pursuing track II negotiations with Yemeni tribal leaders and supporting the humanitarian campaign to calling for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia. In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and the Yemeni government abruptly severed diplomatic ties with Qatar in June, imposing travel and trade bans and expelling Doha from the Saudi-led military coalition. Moscow, meanwhile, continued to operate the last foreign diplomatic mission in Sana’a – other than the Iranian embassy – through most of 2017. This ended in December, however: the Russian embassy closed following the Houthi killing of former President Saleh (see ‘Other Regional and International Diplomatic Developments’ below for details).
In Yemen, both the conflict and humanitarian crisis dramatically escalated toward the end of the year. This began in early November when Houthi forces fired a ballistic missile towards Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport. Saudi officials claimed the missile had been smuggled into Yemen from Iran. In response the Saudi-led military coalition ordered the closure of Yemen’s sea and air ports to all aid and commercial traffic. This sparked price surges and shortages of fuel and basic commodities across the country (see ‘Humanitarian Developments’ below for details).
Weeks later the conflict took another startling turn when the alliance between the Houthis and Saleh violently collapsed in late November, with the Houthis then killing Saleh in early December. Saleh was the most prominent Yemeni political figure of the last four decades; for years he weaved sprawling networks of power, patronage, influence and money across the country, around the region and throughout the world. The death of arguably the most connected and most corrupt man in Yemen is widely understood to have made a negotiated settlement to the conflict far harder to achieve.
Following Saleh’s death, the Houthis consolidated control in Sana’a and areas of the country’s north that they had co-managed with Saleh’s General People’s Congress party (GPC) since 2015. Saleh’s death precipitated the disintegration of the GPC, eliminating the Houthi’s primary competition in northern Yemen in the plunder of state revenue streams. The Houthis also carried out a targeted campaign of mass arrests and enforced oppressive new security measures throughout December. Key Saleh loyalists whom the Houthis were unable to arrest either went into hiding or fled to Marib and other areas controlled by the forces associated with Yemen’s internationally recognized government (see ‘Collapse of the Houthi-Saleh Alliance and Saleh’s Death’ below for details).
Throughout 2017 the authority of President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Yemeni government weakened in many areas across the country’s south that they purportedly controlled, even as forces nominally fighting on the government’s behalf made moderate battlefield gains at both the beginning and end of the year. Public protests over failing public services repeatedly erupted in Aden, the government’s de facto capital in southern Yemen. Hadi and his cabinet, who largely operated from Riyadh throughout 2017, were widely panned as corrupt and inept. Tensions between armed factions in the city – primarily Yemeni government-affiliated troops and various UAE-backed local forces – also regularly erupted in clashes. This, coupled with several spectacularly violent terrorist attacks, produced in Aden a profound sense of insecurity.
Further undermining the Hadi government were various new political and military actors whose influence expanded across southern Yemen in 2017. The Southern Transitional Council (STC), for instance, formed in May with the explicit goal of seceding South Yemen from the greater Yemeni republic; by December the STC had representative offices across the south. In attempts to quash the council, President Hadi had sacked seven governors for their association with the STC by year’s end. Importantly, the UAE – ostensibly a Hadi ally through its participation in the Saudi-led military coalition – actively supported the STC. Abu Dhabi’s other interventions have included funding, training and arming local paramilitary groups that increasingly challenged Yemeni government troops for dominance in several southern governorates as well as the northern governorate of Taiz. Meanwhile, relatively successful models of self-governance in Marib and Hadramawt last year empowered local political leaders to demand that the Yemeni government officially sanction their increased autonomy (see ‘Fragmentation Amongst Anti-Houthi Forces’ below for details).
In frontline developments, coalition-backed forces launched “Operation Golden Spear” in January 2017, advancing northward along Yemen’s western Red Sea coastline to seize Mokha port in Taiz governorate from Houthi-Saleh forces. Further progress stalled, however, with frontlines around the country remaining essentially static for most of the rest of the year; until December the only notable coalition achievement was the capture of Khalid bin al-Walid military base in Taiz governorate after a prolonged siege. Following Saleh’s death in December, however, coalition forces moved north of Mokha to seize Khokha district in Hudaydah governorate, while also gaining territory in Shabwa, al-Bayda and al-Jawf governorates. These territorial losses for the Houthis at the end of 2017 were significant only in so far as they constituted frontline movements after prolonged stalemate. In the overall military dynamics of the Yemen war, a decisive military victory for any side remained a remote possibility as 2018 began (see ‘Frontline Developments’ below for details).
Among the most significant military developments of 2017 was the preemption of a Saudi-led military coalition assault on the Houthi-held Red Sea port of Hudaydah. Throughout the first quarter of 2017 Saudi Arabia and the UAE lobbied their allies in Washington, D.C., to approve direct US military support for a coalition assault on Hudaydah. The coalition has long claimed that Iranian weapons are being smuggled to Houthi forces through Hudaydah port – a claim widely disputed by UN agencies. Critics of the proposed assault pointed to how it would dramatically exacerbate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, given that Yemen imports nearly all its food supplies and that the vast majority of these supplies – both commercial and humanitarian – arrive through Hudaydah port.
The possibility of an attack on the port thus dominated foreign policy discussions regarding Yemen in the US, at the UN and throughout much of the international community in March and April. However, by late April, intense opposition within the US Congress, at the UNSC, and throughout the international humanitarian community appeared to prevail: the US administration took a tentative stance regarding the attack and the Saudi-led military coalition eased off the rush to launch it (see ‘Operation Golden Spear and Hudaydah Port’ below for details).
A consistent aspect of the conflict since the beginning has been the lack of respect for the laws of war. As stated by a UN Panel of Experts report in January 2017, all the belligerent parties have carried out “widespread violations” of international humanitarian and human rights law. This trend continued through 2017. Houthi-Saleh forces, Yemeni government troops, the Saudi-led military coalition and affiliated ground forces, as well as various non-state actors regularly attacked civilians and civilian objects, launched indiscriminate attacks, carried out arbitrary detainments and torture, used banned weapons, impeded humanitarian aid and access, starved civilian populations, and carried out forced displacements, among other violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.
A significant development regarding accountability in 2017 was the UN’s annual Children and Armed Conflict report including Saudi Arabia on its list of actors guilty of grave violations against the rights of children. This listing was based upon Riyadh’s conduct during the Yemen war. Saudi Arabia had initially been named to the list in 2016, but was removed after threatening to withdraw hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for UN aid programs. While Houthi-Saleh forces, Yemeni government troops, coalition-backed militias and AQAP were all again named to this year’s report, Saudi Arabia was included in an amended category that recognized its attempts to address issues the report raises. Another accountability development came in September when the UN Human Rights Council approved a resolution to establish of a group of experts to investigate human rights violations by all parties (see ‘Human Rights and War Crimes’ for details below).
Yemen’s economy continued to contract through 2017. The Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation reported that Yemen’s gross domestic product (GDP) shrank 14.4 percent year-on-year, signifying a 40.5 percent loss in GDP since 2015. The value of Yemen’s domestic currency, the rial, was consequently battered: in January 2017 the average market exchange rate for the Yemeni rial (YR) against the US dollar was YR 321 to US$1, according to Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) figures; as December ended, the rial was trading in the range of YR 460 to US$1. Relative to March 2015, when the conflict began and the rial was trading at YR 215 to US$1, the cost of purchasing dollars on the market had increased 114 percent (see ‘Economic Developments’ below for details).
Given that Yemen imports up to 90 percent of its basic foodstuffs this currency depreciation has decimated local per capita purchasing power. The inability to purchase available food – rather than the unavailability of food to purchase – is driving the country toward mass famine. This negative trend has been further compounded by the widespread loss of livelihood and paid employment. As 2017 ended, most of Yemen’s 1.2 million civil servants had received only a fraction of their salaries since September 2016. Meanwhile the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported in December that commercial businesses had, on average, cut operating hours by half since the conflict began, with layoffs estimated at 55 percent of the workforce.
International Diplomatic Developments
At the United Nations
The United Nations Security Council
In 2017 the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held nine briefings and consultations on the situation in Yemen. Besides a routine measure renewing the sanctions regime (resolution S/RES/2342 (2017)), it passed no new resolutions regarding the country. In June, however, the UNSC adopted Presidential Statement S/PRST/2017/7 – the first Security Council product related to Yemen to emerge in 14 months. Importantly, a Presidential Statement holds less weight than a UNSC resolution, while this particular Presidential Statement also lacked language mandating enforcement.
Speaking to the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, UNSC member states and Security Council observers said the council’s prolonged silence regarding Yemen – site of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis – had become untenable. As the situation in Yemen continued to deteriorate, lobbying intensified by non-governmental organizations, United Nation (UN) agencies, and some UNSC member states.
While the United Kingdom (UK), as council pen-holder for Yemen, was ultimately responsible for drafting the presidential statement, the process of shaping the language and content of the text elicited ministerial-level involvement from various UNSC member states. Among other deliberations and negotiations in drafting the wide-ranging document, the Swedish delegation lobbied for the inclusion of the clauses insisting that the warring parties distinguish between military and civilian targets; the Italian mission pushed for language regarding allowing humanitarian access through Hudaydah port; the Russian delegation forced language to be cut from the document that condemned the Houthis for not meeting with the Special Envoy while he had been in Sana’a in May; and the Egyptian mission attempted to scrap language specifically referring to the installation of cranes at Hudaydah port and the opening of Sana’a Airport to commercial flights, though in the end they accepted the inclusion of language referring to the cranes (see ‘Humanitarian Developments’ for details below). UNSC member states also told the Sana’a Center that Saudi officials, including the foreign minister, heavily scrutinized and weighed in on the language of the statement through the Egyptian mission to the UNSC.
Even before it was adopted, the feasibility of various aspects of the presidential statement was in doubt. For instance, in the presidential statement the UNSC reiterated its continued support for the efforts of UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed to broker peace, and it called on the warring parties to engage with the Special Envoy’s proposals. This came, however, just 10 days after one of the most senior Houthi officials in Sana’a had condemned Ould Cheikh Ahmed and banned him from ever returning to Yemen (see ‘The UN Special Envoy for Yemen and the Peace Process’ below for details). In addition, within two days of the presidential statement calling for the warring parties to distinguish between military and civilian targets, the Saudi-led coalition, for the second time in 2017, bombed a market in northern Yemen, killing 23 civilians (see ‘Human Rights and War Crimes’ below for details).
UNSC Member State Positions
The UNSC last adopted a new resolution regarding Yemen in April 2015: UNSC Resolution 2216, which the Saudi-led military coalition has since used to legitimize its intervention in the conflict. Security Council members expect no new resolutions regarding Yemen in the near future. Throughout 2017 three permanent members, namely the United States (US), UK, and France, continued to back the coalition through arms sales worth billions of US dollars. The US also continued to provide technical, intelligence, and air refuel support to the Saudi-led military coalition.
While several non-permanent UNSC member states have at different times expressed an interest in proposing new resolutions and pursuing more assertive council actions regarding Yemen, these efforts have all been derailed. The veto-wielding US and UK missions to the UNSC have consistently blocked proposals that would restrain the Saudi-led military coalition; Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have lobbied assertively and effectively for the same, and acted by proxy at the UNSC through the Egyptian mission. Egypt’s rotating term on the council ended, however, in December 2017. Going forward Kuwait, which took up a council seat in January 2018, is expected to champion the coalition position. Like Egypt, Kuwait is a coalition member.
Throughout 2017 the Russia representative to the UNSC has appeared somewhat at odds with the positions staked out by the US, UK, and France. Russia has arguably remained a neutral party throughout the Yemen conflict, maintaining open lines of communication with all parties to the conflict (see ‘Other Regional and International Developments’ below for details). Russia is the only UNSC member to have abstained during the 2015 vote on UNSC Resolution 2216, which the Russian mission described as “imbalanced” and lacking the stipulation for ceasefire requested by Moscow. At various times throughout 2017 Russia spotlighted the Houthi perspective during UNSC discussions, arguing that the council ought to take a more considered approach.
In December 2017, rotating UNSC membership ended for six countries: Egypt, Italy, Japan, Senegal, Ukraine, and Uruguay. Six new members joined the council: Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Kuwait, Netherlands, Peru, and Poland. Having chaired the 2140 Yemen Sanctions Committee for the previous two years, Japan handed the chairmanship to Peru.
The UN Special Envoy for Yemen
In 2017 Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed entered his third year as United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen, leading the UN’s efforts to bring about a negotiated end to the conflict. Throughout 2015 and 2016 the Special Envoy had presided over several rounds of unsuccessful peace talks and ceasefires that failed within days; in 2017 he was unable to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table at all.
In December 2016 Ould Cheikh Ahmed had put forward a peace proposal that Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi had immediately and outright rejected. The next month Ould Cheikh Ahmed had entered a period of shuttle diplomacy around Middle Eastern capitals in an attempt to garner support for that same proposal, but to no greater success. As reported by the UN 2140 Sanctions Committee Panel of Experts at the end of that month, no side in the conflict had “demonstrated sustained interest in or commitment to a political settlement or peace talks.” Forces affiliated with the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led military coalition backing it sought to capitalize on battlefield gains early in 2017 (see ‘Operation Golden Spear and Hudaydah Port’ below for details). This, coupled with the a new and far more belligerent White House administration backing the coalition (see ‘In the United States’ below for details), heavily disincentivized the Hadi government and coalition member states from genuinely engaging with the Special Envoy.
On the other side of the conflict, the Houthis and then-allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh made it clear early in 2017 that they no longer trusted Ould Cheikh Ahmed to be a fair arbitrator. In February a high-ranking Houthi official submitted a letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres requesting that he not renew the Special Envoy’s term, claiming that Ould Cheikh Ahmed had shown a “lack of neutrality” and was biased toward the Saudi-led coalition.
In May the Special Envoy went on a three-day visit to Sana’a to discuss his plan to avert a possible coalition attack on the Red Sea port of Hudaydah (see ‘Operation Golden Spear and Hudaydah Port’ below for details). This proposal involved Houthi-Saleh forces turning port management over to third-party security and financial committees. However, no senior leadership from either the Houthis or the Saleh-allied General People’s Congress (GPC) party agreed to meet with Ould Cheikh Ahmed. The Special Envoy would also later describe in a UNSC briefing that his convoy was attacked and an assassination attempt made against him on the same trip.
The following month, Saleh Ali al-Samad, the President of the Houthi-Saleh Supreme Political Council, declared that the Special Envoy was “not desirable for future peace negotiations,” and barred Ould Cheikh Ahmed from future entry into Houthi-Saleh controlled areas.
At various times throughout the rest of 2017 the Special Envoy met with officials from the US, Europe, and the Gulf. He gave briefings to both the UNSC and the so-called Quint – a multilateral group of foreign ministers from the US, UK, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Oman. Ould Cheikh Ahmed generally used his public speaking events to highlight the plight of Yemenis, the need for the international community to respond, the inability of any side to win a decisive military victory, and the lack of progress toward a negotiated settlement to the war. Throughout, the UNSC and UN Secretary General regularlyreiterated their support for the Special Envoy’s efforts.
January 26: In a UNSC briefing UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien says, “The conflict in Yemen is now the primary driver of the largest food security emergency in the world,”and warns of the likelihood of famine in 2017.
January 27: The UN 2140 Sanctions Committee Panel of Experts meets to discuss the panel’sreport, which states that neither side in the conflict has “demonstrated sustained interest in or commitment to a political settlement or peace talks.” The report also finds that all parties to the war in Yemen are implicated in “widespread violations” of international humanitarian law.
February 10: A high-ranking Houthi official submits a letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, requesting that Guterres not renew the term of the UN Special Envoy.
March 17: The UNSC issues an “elements to the press” to express concern over the possibility of a Saudi-led military coalition attack on Hudaydah port – Yemen’s primary entry point for humanitarian and commercial imports – given the extreme likelihood of catastrophic humanitarian fallout across the country. Notably, no UNSC member state goes on record as saying the assault should not take place.
March 21: The UN refuses a Saudi request to assume jurisdiction over Hudaydah port, with UN spokesperson Farhan Haq saying, “Parties to the conflict have a clear responsibility to protect civilian infrastructure and fundamentally to protect civilians. These are not obligations they can shift to others.” The Saudi request came after an incident on March 16 in which a coalition attack helicopter repeatedly strafed a boat near Hudaydah port carrying Somali refugees, killing at least 43 people (see ‘Human Rights and War Crimes’ section below for details).
May 22: An incident occurs in Sana’a that the UN Special Envoy Ould Cheikh Ahmed later describes as an “attack” on his convoy and an “assassination attempt.”
May 30: During a briefing to the UNSC, Ould Cheikh Ahmed states, “we are not close” to a peace agreement in Yemen. The Special Envoy also outlines a plan aimed at averting the Saudi-led military coalition’s proposed assault on Hudaydah port (see ‘Frontline Developments’ for details below). At the same briefing Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien tells the UNSC that the Yemen crisis is both the result of actions taken by the warring parties and “sadly, a result of inaction – whether due to inability or indifference – by the international community.”
June 5: Saleh Ali al-Samad, the President of the Houthi-Saleh Supreme Political Council, bans the UN Special Envoy from returning to Houthi-Saleh-controlled areas and declares him “not desirable for future peace negotiations.”
June 15: The UNSC adopts a wide-ranging presidential statement highlighting key aspects of the Yemeni crisis. It is the first UNSC decision regarding Yemen in almost 14 months.
July 12: In a briefing to the UNSC, Special Envoy Ould Cheikh Ahmed highlights the escalation of violence in many areas of Yemen; the warring parties’ continued targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure; the escalating cholera epidemic; rampant food insecurity; and widespread economic hardship.
Early August: The Yemen Sanctions Committee receives its midterm annual report from the Yemen Panel of Experts. The report finds that coalition forces, contrary to obligations under the sanctions regime, have not reported cargo ship inspections since UNSC Resolution 2216 was adopted more than two years earlier. The report adds that this lack of reporting impairs safeguards included in the sanctions regime that are meant to prevent the coalition from leveraging sanctions to achieve other objectives, and that this has impeded the delivery of humanitarian aid.
August 21: The UNSC holds an Arria-formula meeting entitled, “The Vital Role of the UN’s Humanitarian Assistance Partners in the Crisis in Yemen.” Following the briefing, the UNSC issues ‘press elements,’ the weakest form of official Security Council statements, reiterating the need for access to Hudaydah and condemning the missile attack on Riyadh.
September 19-25: During their time to speak at the September United Nations General Assembly Debate, more than two dozen heads of state highlight the plight of Yemenis and the need to end the conflict.
October 10: The Special Envoy gives an open briefing to the UNSC where he expresses concern over the sharp increase in civilian casualties. He urges all parties to uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law.
November 10: The UNSC panel of experts submitted a confidential study to the 2140 Yemen Sanctions Committee detailing that the “imposition of access restrictions is another attempt by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition to use resolution 2216 as justification for obstructing the delivery of commodities that are essentially civilian in nature.” (See both ‘Humanitarian Developments’ and ‘Human Rights and War Crimes’ for details below)
November 16: Fifteen international nongovernmental organizations and UN agencies issue a press release expressing “outrage” at the continued Saudi-led military coalition blockade of northern Yemen.
November 18-20: The UN Panel of Experts visits Saudi Arabia to investigate recent Houthi missile attacks.
November 24: The UN Panel of Experts submit an updated report in which they state that the missile debris presented to them by the Saudis is “consistent with those reported for the Iranian designed and manufactured Qiam-1 missile,” but also state that there was “no evidence as to the identity of the broker or supplier.”
December 5: The UNSC receives briefings on Yemen from Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. Ismail reflects on the killing of former Saleh and a number of GPC leaders, describing the situation as “reaching a new adverse development…[which] will constitute a considerable change to the political dynamics in Yemen.”
December 20: The Saudi-led military coalition announces that it will allow Hudaydah port to reopen to commercial cargo deliveries for 30 days.
December 22: The UNSC releases a press statement condemning in the strongest possible terms the Houthis’ continued ballistic missile attack on Riyadh. The council also expresses its concern over the continued non‑implementation of council resolutions, including Resolution 2216 (2015).
December 24: Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock releases a statement reporting on the alarming starvation levels in Yemen and the urgency of allowing more commercial imports into the country after the coalition enforced a total blockade in early November. According to Lowcock, “8.4 million […] are already on the edge of starvation” and that “commercial food imports are needed to keep food available and affordable in markets across the country.”
In the United States
The end of the administration of US President Barack Obama in January 2017 marked the collapse of a last-ditch peace push by outgoing US Secretary of State John Kerry. The collapse of this effort foreshadowed the wider withdrawal of the US from the peace process in Yemen in 2017 – and, under the new administration of President Donald Trump, a more belligerent stance in the world generally. During private conversations with UNSC member state representatives and other UN sources in March 2017, the Sana’a Center found that the new US administration was generally expected to erase any diplomatic detente engendered by Yemen peace negotiations since 2015. UNSC member states also foresaw the new Trump White House embracing the Saudi and Emirati narrative that the Houthis are Iranian proxies, akin to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Yemen’s internationally recognized government had a similar assessment, welcoming the new US president and the prospect of increased US military support, while in parallel, Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi showed decreased interest in engaging with the UN Special Envoy in the peace process.
While abandoning one aspect of the Obama administration’s Yemen policy – peace arbitration – Trump has doubled down on two other strategies pursued by the previous president: stalwart support for the Saudi-led military coalition and a myopic focus on military firepower in countering al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), rather than addressing the socio-economic and political accelerants of extremism.
Just days after coming into office, Trump approved a US Navy SEAL raid in Yemen’s al-Bayda governorate. Death tolls from the scene varied slightly; however, villagers report 25 civilians killed, including 9 children under the age of 13. AQAP reported 14 members killed, while the US Navy reported that one commando was killed, four were wounded, and a $70 million US Navy Osprey aircraft was destroyed. The White House press secretary dubbed the event a “successful operation by all standards.” This – and at least six drone strikes in Yemen authorized by Trump during his first 10 days in office – portended a surge in US military activity in Yemen for the year ahead (see the ‘AQAP, Daesh and counterterrorism operations’ section below for details).
Also among Trump’s first acts after taking office was an executive order entitled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” – the so-called Muslim ban – prohibiting people from seven Muslim-majority countries, Yemen among them, from entering the US.
Trump’s burgeoning relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE has increasingly guided and framed his administration’s actions regarding Yemen. Packed with hardliners deeply anxious over the growth of Iran’s influence in the region, his cabinet was the first US administration to label the Houthis officially one of Iran’s “proxy terrorists groups.” A year that saw the Trump administration increasing portray the Houthis as an extension of Iranian power was capped, in December, with US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley staging a media event at a military base in Washington, D.C.. There she displayed reconstructed missiles which she claimed the Houthis had fired into Saudi Arabia. Haley said Iran had smuggled these, among other weapons on display, into Yemen and thus were evidence of how Tehran was “fanning the flames” of Middle East conflict.
That said, the Trump administration has not been fully in lockstep with the Saudi-led military coalition this past year. The US administration declined the coalition’s requests for direct US military support in launching an offensive against Hudaydah port (see the ‘Operation Golden Spear and Hudaydah Port’ section below for details). In a rare admonishment of the coalition’s blockade of North Yemen, the White House released a statement on December 6, 2017 calling on Riyadh to “completely allow food, fuel, water, and medicine to reach the Yemeni people who desperately need it.”
In addition, Democratic and Republican legislators increasingly pushed back against the administration’s involvement in the Yemen war. Bipartisan groups proposed multiple pieces of legislation throughout 2017 to curtail or end US support for Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. These legislative efforts included resolution HR 81, which gained 40 congressional cosponsors by the end of October. However, leaders from both political parties introduced amendments watering down the text: while the original bill would have quickly ended US military support for the coalition, the final version instead called for “U.S. support for the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s commitments to abide by their no-strike list and restricted target list and improve targeting capabilities.”
January 20: Donald J. Trump is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.
January 27: President Trump signs Executive Order 13769, banning nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen, from entering the US.
January 29: Following approval by Trump, US Navy SEALs launch a commando raid in Yemen that results in the death of 25 civilians, 14 AQAP militants, and one US commando, as well as the loss of a $70 million US Navy aircraft.
February 3: National Security Advisor Michael Flynn issues a statement on Iran through the White House press secretary’s office in which he describes the Houthis as one of Iran’s “proxy terrorist groups.” This marks the first time that a US administration has called the Houthis a “terrorist” group.
March sees intense debate among members of the US Congress, current and former government officials, and US agency representatives over the implications of, and potential US military involvement in, a Hudaydah offensive. Those advocating for robust US military involvement – including mainly Republican senators, some White House officials, and Pentagon staff, among others – argue that capturing Hudaydah is necessary to protect US interests. A group of bipartisan senators opposed to US involvement pen a letter to the White House expressing concern that the US will be drawn into a military quagmire with no clear exit strategy.
March 8: Media reports emerge that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has signed measures to begin selling precision-guided weapons to Saudi Arabia. This is a reversal of policy: the Obama administration had blocked sales of such weapons to Riyadh, following a 2016 Saudi airstrike on a funeral hall in Sana’a that killed more than 150 people.
April 10: 55 US representatives send a letter to the White House requesting that Trump seek congressional approval for any possible US military escalation or involvement in Yemen.
May 2: Members of Congress send a letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis calling for greater congressional oversight of US involvement in the Yemen conflict.
May 20: Trump makes international headlines for signing an agreement to sell US$110 billion worth of US military equipment to Saudi Arabia, in addition to US$350 billion more over the next 10 years. Subsequent analysis of the arms deal, however, showed it consisted largely of pre-existing arrangements, as well as letters of interest or intent, with few new contracts.
May 25: A bipartisan group of senators again begins a campaign to halt a small portion of the arms sales to Saudi Arabia that included precision-guided munitions, citing what they say is the Kingdom’s established pattern of targeting civilians in Yemen. On the same day, Representatives Ted Lieu and Ted Yoho, both members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, issue a letter to the committee chairman urging an oversight review of the Saudi arms sale.
June 7: Six Democratic members of Congress introduce the “Yemen Security and Humanity Act,” developed to coordinate federal agencies and departments looking to assist the humanitarian effort.
June 13: In the US Senate, a joint resolution to block the precision-guided weapons sale to Saudi Arabia is defeated in a 47-to-53 vote.
July 14: Three amendments are added to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) aiming to halt funding for the Saudi-led military coalition’s war in Yemen, while also requiring more transparency regarding the United State’s involvement. The clauses are ultimately removed or watered down.
September 21: Media reports emerge that Trump is in the midst of expanding the authority of the US military and the Central Intelligence Agency to carry out drone strikes in a number of selected countries. These reports note that the Trump initiative involves further dismantling Obama-era safeguards regarding military operations outside of officially declared war zones. Yemen is expected to be among the countries most affected by the policy change.
September 27: US Representatives Ro Khanna, Thomas Massie, Mark Pocan, and Walter Jones introduce HR 81 which, if passed, will require the president to terminate unauthorized military operations in Yemen.
October 30: A bipartisan bill calling for the withdrawal of US support for the war in Yemen is introduced. However, by November 2, leaders from both parties water down the language to call on the US to support the Saudis in abiding by their “no-strike” list.
November 7: US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley strongly advises the UN to take action against Iran for violating UNSC resolutions through its alleged activities in Yemen.
November 10: Commander of the US Air Forces Central Command Southwest Asia Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian says Iran is providing Houthi-Saleh forces with ballistic missile capabilities, claiming Iranian markings had been found on missiles launched into Saudi Arabia.
November 13: The US House of Representatives passes a non-binding resolution stating that US military assistance for Saudi Arabia’s military efforts in Yemen have not been authorized by Congress, apart from that assistance authorized by the 2001 or 2003 Authorizations for Use of Military Force.
December 11: A bill is introduced in the US House of Representatives to sanction Iran for its support of Houthi rebels.
December 14: In Washington D.C., Ambassador Haley displays what she claims are pieces of the Houthi missile fired at Saudi Arabia on November 4.
December 21: At a press briefing, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tim Lenderking says that there is no military solution to the Yemen conflict, while suggesting that Houthis can be part of future political negotiations if they stop attacking Saudi Arabia.
December 29: In a statement to reporters, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says the US will continue to train Saudi-led military coalition pilots to identify authorized targets properly and to minimize civilian casualties.
Other Regional and International Developments
In 2017 the European Union took advantage of its comparatively neutral position in the conflict in Yemen to continue to build its profile, with EU diplomatic officials visiting Sana’a in August to meet with Houthi leaders and former President Saleh – something that the UN Special Envoy himself had been unable to do earlier in the year. The European Parliament then passed a resolution (2017/2849(RSP)) calling for a negotiated end to the Yemen conflict and the enforcement of another EU resolution from February 2016. This previous resolution called for an arms embargo on Riyadh “given the serious allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.”
Many EU member states have also increased their Yemen-related activities. Both publicly and behind the scenes, Paris has increased its engagements with Yemen, with French government officials close to President Emmanuel Macron telling the Sana’a Center that these moves reflect the president’s personal policy agenda. Visiting the region in April, German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE a more active German role in the peace process, while also calling for an end to coalition airstrikes in Yemen. Sweden and the Netherlands took increasingly activist stances, helping to pave the way for the UN Human Rights Commission’s call for an independent inquiry into human rights violations this year. Sweden and Switzerland also co-hosted with the UN the “High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen” in Geneva in April 2017, which raised US$1.1 billion for humanitarian assistance (see ‘Humanitarian Developments’ for details below). Despite being perceived as somewhat in retreat from the international stage following the Brexit vote, the UK – as has historically been the case – has continued its engagement with the Yemen file, notably through the so-called “Quintet” – composed of the US, UK, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman.
Moscow also continued to exercise behind-the-scenes influence and diplomacy in 2017. For instance, in October the Saudi-led military coalition agreed to suspend its air blockade of the Sana’a airport to allow a flight carrying Russian surgeons to land, with these doctors coming to perform cataract surgery on Saleh. Much of this was facilitated through the continued Russian diplomatic presence in Sana’a, with Moscow being the only foreign power besides Tehran to maintain its embassy in the Yemeni capital throughout the conflict. Circumstances changed following Saleh’s death in December, however. According to Sana’a Center sources, members of Saleh’s GPC party fleeing the Houthis had sought refuge at the Russian embassy. The Houthis responded by threatening to storm the building. Moscow promptly closed its diplomatic mission in Sana’a and evacuated its staff.
April 30: German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits Saudi Arabia and the UAE to discuss, among other things, increased German engagement in the Yemen peace process. While in Saudi Arabia she also calls for an end to coalition airstrikes in Yemen.
June 5: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, the Maldives and the Yemeni government sever diplomatic ties with Qatar and impose trade and travel bans, initiating the so-called ‘Gulf Crisis’.
August 6: The EU sends an official delegation, headed by Ambassador Antonia Calvo-Puerto, to Sana’a to meet with key Houthi figures and former President Saleh. This is the highest-level foreign diplomatic visit to the Yemeni capital since the launch of Operation Decisive Storm. Plans for follow-up visits are put on hold in December following clashes in Sana’a and Saleh’s killing.
September 11-15: The EU delegation to Yemen hosts informal consultations in Château Jemeppe, Belgium, with more than 30 tribal leaders from various areas across Yemen. While details of the discussions remained confidential, the general premise of the meeting is to explore potential new avenues for conflict resolution and track II negotiations.
October 11: Russian doctors are flown to Sana’a to treat Saleh for cataracts. The arrival of the doctors entails a rare pause in the Saudi-led military coalition’s air blockade of northern Yemen. According to AFP, the US has facilitated their entry; US government officials apparently want Saleh to be “in good health” in order to facilitate negotiations with the Houthis.
November 6: The Saudi-led military coalition imposes the immediate closure of all land, sea and air ports into Yemen. In mid-November, ports in southern Yemen under Yemeni government control are allowed to re-open.
November 21: Speaking about the continued blockade of northern areas under Houthi control, EU High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini calls for “restoring immediate and full humanitarian and commercial access to Yemen, as provided under International Humanitarian Law.”
November 30: The European parliament passes a resolution calling for a political resolution to the Yemen conflict and an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia.
December 13: In Riyadh, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan meet the Chairman of Islah, Mohammed Abdullah al-Yidoumi, and Islah Secretary-General, Abdulwahab Ahmad al-Anisi. Other Saudi and UAE intelligence officials are also present.
In January 2017, then-UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien said Yemen had become the single largest food security emergency in the world and warned of the likelihood of famine in 2017. Shortly after, the UN and humanitarian partners launched the largest ever international humanitarian appeal for Yemen of US$2.1 billion. This amount was later increased to US$2.3 billion in response to the cholera epidemic. By mid-December 2017 the international community had provided 70.5 percent of the US$2.3 billion appeal.
According to the FAO, 2017 ended with 17.8 million Yemenis being food insecure, an increase of 800,000 people since the first quarter of the year. (Importantly, in the spring of 2017, UN agencies updated their method for calculating populations experiencing food insecurity. This led to an apparent month-to-month decrease in the number of food insecure individuals; UN officials, however, pointed out this was a one-off circumstance that did not correlate to actual improved food security on the ground.) December 2017 saw 8.4 million Yemenis at risk of famine, a 24 percent increase relative to March.
According to the OCHA Humanitarian Needs Overview 2018, there was a 15 percent increase in the number of Yemenis in acute need of humanitarian assistance to survive in the last five months of the 2017, with their number reaching 11.3 million people. At year’s end, 16 million Yemenis had difficulty accessing safe water and sanitation, while 16.4 million lacked access to proper healthcare.
A cholera outbreak erupted in Yemen at the end of April 2017. This outbreak represented a second, much more virulent, wave of cholera following the first outbreak in October 2016. The first outbreak, though it had resulted in 24,000 suspected cases of cholera/acute watery diarrhea (AWD) over the intervening months, had been showing a steadily declining incidence prior to April 2017. Between the end of April and mid-May last year, however, the World Health Organization (WHO) recorded some 23,500 new suspected cases of cholera/AWD, with 242 associated deaths. As of 2 June, 2017, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) was reporting almost 70,000 suspected cases of cholera/AWD and 600 deaths. A UNICEF official stated at the time that the number of cases in Yemen could rise to as much as 300,000 “within a few weeks’ time.” By December, the number of people estimated to have contracted cholera had surpassed 1 million, with more than 2,200 deaths.
The cholera epidemic is the result of several factors. One is the breakdown of Yemen’s public health system due to the nonpayment of public sector salaries and a lack of operating funds. Another is the weakened immunities of those experiencing extended periods of malnutrition. Finally, public infrastructure is dysfunctional, with key water and sewage systems failing. Due to a lack of funds and high fuel prices, pumping stations have ceased operations; this in turn has forced many Yemenis to rely on unsanitary water sources, particularly locally drilled bore wells.
As UN officials and humanitarian actors have repeatedly noted, the Saudi-led military coalition blockade of northern Yemen – which intensified substantially on November 6, 2017 – is a primary factor underlying the humanitarian crisis. The blockade has devastated the economy, causing mass loss of public services and livelihoods, price surges, and currency depreciation (see ‘Economic Developments’ for details below). All of these have undermined per capita purchasing power and the population’s ability to afford basic commodities such as food and medicine.
At the same time, although the country’s health sector is devastated, Yemenis cannot seek medical assistance abroad. In particular, the coalition’s forced closure of Sana’a International Airport to commercial flights since August 9, 2016, has prevented thousands from seeking medical care outside the country, “killing more people than airstrikes,” according to an August 2017 Norwegian Refugee Council report.
The ongoing conflict has also displaced more than three million people from their homes — approximately 11% of the total Yemeni population. Although roughly a third of those displaced have returned, two million Yemenis remain unable to return home. Prolonged exposure to armed conflict and violence has traumatized the population, leading to serious mental health concerns (for a more detailed overview of the long-term psychological effects of the conflict, see ‘The Impact of War on Mental Health in Yemen’, a joint report by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic, and the Mailman School of Public Health).
Compounding the humanitarian crisis, aid organizations attempting to respond to the crisis in 2017 faced obstacles, interference, and harassment to their operations by a range of parties to the conflict. Saudi-led military coalition forces repeatedly delayed ships carrying humanitarian cargo to Hudaydah port, even after being issued clearances by the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen. Beyond delaying humanitarian aid, the coalition’s air and naval blockade has also disrupted the commercial import food, fuel, and medical supplies.
Coalition airstrikes in August 2015 also damaged cranes at Hudaydah port, forcing the port to operate at a reduced offloading capacity. In January 2017 the WFP attempted to deliver four new cranes – paid for by the US government – to Hudaydah to replace those damaged. The coalition, however, revoked the shipment’s entry permit, and the cranes were redirected to a storage facility in Dubai. In December the coalition announced it would allow the delivery of the cranes, and in mid-January 2018 the cranes were offloaded in Hudaydah.
In September 2017, Human Rights Watch reported that Houthi-Saleh forces had also been “blocking and confiscating aid,” and had “denied access to populations in need, and restricted the movement of ill civilians and aid workers.”
January 26: Then-UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien says the Yemeni conflict is driving the single largest food insecurity emergency in the world.
In late January the Saudi-led military coalition revokes the entry permit for four WFP cranes destined for Hudaydah port. The new cranes are meant to restore offloading capacity that was lost following coalition airstrikes on the port in August 2015.
February 8: UN launches an international appeal for aid amounting to $2.1 billion to “provide life-saving assistance to 12 million people in Yemen in 2017”. The UN will later revise this amount upward to US$2.3 billion to accomodate for the Cholera outbreak. Importantly, the UN’s previous humanitarian appeal of $1.8 billion for Yemen in 2016 was only 60 percent met by the end of 2016, with the shortfall rolled into 2017.)
February 10: Mirroring Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien’s comments in January, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) releases a report stating that Yemen is the world’s largest food security emergency, where “an estimated 17.1 million people are food insecure and struggling to feed themselves – an increase of 3 million in 7 months… This includes 7.3 million people who are severely food insecure.”
March 18: The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that “the cholera/AWD epidemic curve shows a declining trend of incidents occurring in the most affected districts.”
April 12: The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and international sanctions, Idriss Jazairy, states that the Saudi-led military coalition blockade of Yemen is “one of the main causes of the humanitarian catastrophe” and that it “involves grave breaches of the most basic norms of human rights law, as well as of the law of armed conflict.”
April 12: The World Food Program announces that it is scaling up its emergency food operations in Yemen, attempting to reach 9 million people through 2017.
End of April: A cholera epidemic breaks out and spreads across Yemen. Between the end of April and mid-May, the World Health Organization (WHO) records some 23,500 suspected new cases of cholera and acute watery diarrhea (AWD), with 242 associated deaths.
May 23: The Health Cluster, led by the WHO, and the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Cluster, led by UNICEF, appeals for US$66.7 million in funding to implement an Integrated Response Plan to the cholera outbreak.
June 2: UNICEF reports almost 70,000 suspected cases of cholera/AWD and 600 deaths. The following day, UNICEF Regional Director Geert Cappelaere tells the New York Times that without significant intervention the number of cases in Yemen could rise to as much as 300,000 “within a few weeks’ time.”
July 1: The WHO reports almost 250,000 suspected cases of cholera/AWD in Yemen, with some 5,000 new cases appearing daily and 1,500 deaths from the disease to date. Later in July, the epidemic in Yemen becomes the largest cholera outbreak ever recorded in one country in a single year. The previous largest outbreak over the course of a year had been the 340,oo0 cases recorded in Haiti in 2011; Yemen surpasses that in less than seven months.
Largely in response to the cholera outbreak, OCHA revises and increases its Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan for 2017 by 13 percent. The new UN appeal for Yemen calls for international donations worth US$2.3 billion.
August 17: The UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen Jamie McGoldrick reports “delays by authorities in Sana’a to facilitate the entry of aid workers into Yemen, interference in the delivery of humanitarian assistance and the choice of implementing partners, and obstructions in the conduct of assessments” as well as “increased incidents of aid diversion away from intended beneficiaries in areas under the control of the Sana’a authorities.”
November 10: The UNSC Panel of Experts submitted a confidential briefing to the 2140 Yemen Sanctions Committee detailing that the “imposition of access restrictions is another attempt by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition to use resolution 2216 as justification for obstructing the delivery of commodities that are essentially civilian in nature.”
November 13: Coalition reopens ports in Yemeni government controlled areas, while the blockade of Houthi-Saleh held areas in northern Yemen remains.
November 16: Fifteen international nongovernmental organizations and UN agencies issue a press release expressing “outrage” at the continued Saudi-led military coalition blockade of northern Yemen.
December 20: UNICEF delivers approximately 6 million more doses of vaccines for various diseases to Sana’a International Airport.
December 20: The Saudi-led military coalition announces it will reopen Hudaydah port to commercial imports of food and fuel for 30 days and allow for four new cranes to be installed to restore lost offloading capacity.
December 24: Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock releases a statement on the alarming number of people on the edge of starvation in Yemen. He reiterates the urgency of allowing more commercial imports into the country after the coalition enforced a total blockade in early November. According to Lowcock, “8.4 million […] are already on the edge of starvation” and that “commercial food imports are needed to keep food available and affordable in markets across the country.” On the same day the first commercial fuel cargo since the blockade was eased is allowed to dock at Hudaydah port.
December 31: By year’s end the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) receives 70.5% of its appeal for USD $2.3 billion to implement its humanitarian response plan for Yemen in 2017. This is a US$690.6 million shortfall which carries over into 2018.
According to Yemen’s Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, Yemen’s gross domestic product contracted 14.4 percent in 2017. This, following an economic contraction of 15.3 percent in 2016 and 17.6 percent in 2015, amounts to a 40.5 percent loss in economic activity since the start of the conflict.
In January 2017 the average market exchange rate for the Yemeni rial (YR) versus the US dollar was YR 321 to US$1, according to Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) figures. By December 2017 the average market price was YR 453 to US$1 – a change of 41 percent relative to the start of the year. As December ended, the rial was trading in the range of YR 460 to $1. For perspective, Yemen’s domestic currency was trading at YR 215 to US$1 at the start of the conflict, meaning that the number of rials it took to purchase a single US dollar increased 114 percent between March 2015 and the end of 2017. Currency stability was a critical issue for Yemen in 2017, given the country’s overwhelming dependence on imports to meet the population’s nutritional needs – prior to the conflict, the country imported 90 percent of its basic foodstuffs.
Source: Central Bank of Yemen
Factors that continued to weigh on the rial in 2017 were the widespread collapse of economic activity and government services; widespread insecurity and worsening humanitarian conditions; the cessation of oil exports (previously the largest source of foreign currency and government revenue); and the decreasing ability of the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) to intervene in the market, given its depleted foreign currency holdings. President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s 2016 decision to move the CBY headquarters from Sana’a to Aden, and the CBY’s subsequent dysfunction, also continued to complicate the country’s fiscal and monetary management through 2017.
Several factors mitigated the downward pressure on the rial: foreign remittances from Yemenis working abroad constituted the largest source of new foreign currency following the cessation of oil exports; international humanitarian aid funds continued throughout 2017; and regional parties to the conflict also contributed to currency inflows. These inflows, however, were not enough to halt the rial’s general decline in value through 2017. Yemen’s domestic currency also experienced periods of dramatic instability, one in early February and another that began in October and intensified through until the end of the year. (For details on the causes and ramifications of Yemen’s currency instability, see the Sana’a Center Economic Bulletins from March, September and October.) As documented by the Sana’a Center, authorities on both sides of the conflict have made significant efforts to combat currency instability and decline. However, these actions have been primarily stopgap measures and have been unable to address the fundamental issues causing the decline in currency.
President Hadi claimed in early 2017 that Saudi authorities had promised to make a $2 billion deposit into the CBY in Aden to shore up its nearly exhausted foreign currency reserves. As 2017 ended, this deposit had yet to arrive; however, in early December a Sana’a Center financial source stated that the Saudi transfer was likely to take place in early 2018.
Public Sector Wages
Throughout 2017, many Yemeni public sector workers, particularly those in healthcare and education, suffered from the non- or partial payment of their wages (for details on the challenges facing the CBY and the non-payment of public sector wages, see the Sana’a Center report on Yemen Without a Functioning Central Bank). The inability to pay wages has been exacerbated by a continuing cash liquidity crisis and the decline of government revenues. The use of newly printed rials by the Yemeni government to pay public sector wages has been a source of controversy, largely due to fears that disbursing currency unsupported by increased economic activity or a replenishment in CBY’s foreign reserves would exacerbate inflationary pressures.
When salaries were in fact paid in 2017, it was on an ad hoc, irregular basis. In areas nominally controlled by the internationally recognized Yemeni government, the payment of salaries was hampered by the security and administrative challenges facing the Aden CBY. In Taiz, for example, the Hadi government only ensured a delivery of salaries to the governorate after the governor resigned in protest.
In northern Yemen – where the majority of the population and roughly 1 million of the country’s 1.2 million public sector workers are based – the Houthi-Saleh authorities continued to face a cash liquidity crisis. In the first half of the year, a commodity voucher system was deployed as an alternative payment measure. Inherently flawed and only ever partially implemented, the voucher system was largely discontinued months later (for more details on the voucher system, see the Sana’a Center April 2017 Review). Given that public sector workers were generally the breadwinners in their household, an estimated 7 million people continue to be impacted by the non-payment of public sector salaries in 2017, exacerbating the country’s food security crisis.
Regarding private sector losses, commercial businesses have on average cut operating hours by half since the conflict began, with layoffs estimated at 55 percent of the workforce. This shift has been spurred by surging costs, due to insecurity and shortages of inputs, and falling demand for goods and services, with public purchasing power tumbling on the back of widespread livelihood loss and domestic currency depreciation.
Restarting the Social Welfare Fund
Some 1.5 million Yemenis registered with the country’s Social Welfare Fund (SWF) had been without support since the fund ceased operations in December 2014. Last year, however, the World Bank supplied UNICEF and the United Nations Development Program with $400 million to restart the SWF. The first $50 million distribution of cash occuring in August in partnership with the local al-Amal Microfinance Bank. The program is intended to initiate cash-for-work programs and reach 1.5 million beneficiaries in six Yemeni governorates.
Importantly, the CBY in Aden issued a circular a week before the restarting of SWF cash distributions, stating that the central bank will float the value of the rial, with the official exchange rate to be set according to the market rate. Sana’a Center sources say the move came after pressure from the World Bank. The floating currency is to prevent those Yemeni banks that exchange money for foreign aid organizations from using currency arbitrage to profit at the expense of intended aid recipients. For instance, at the end of July 2017, the market exchange rate was YR 367 to US$1, while aid organizations were exchanging foreign funds at the official rate of YR 250 to US$1. (For details, please see the Sana’a Center publication ‘Yemen Economic Bulletin: How currency arbitrage has reduced the funds available to address the humanitarian crisis’, September 6, 2017.)
End of January: The market exchange rate for the rial is roughly YR 330 to US$1.
The Yemeni rial falls as much as 20 percent in value against the US dollar in market trading before authorities in both Sana’a and Aden enact stabilization measures.
Late February: Houthi-Saleh authorities impose a customs duty on all commercial trucks entering Houthi-Saleh controlled governorates, effectively doubling the customs duty already paid by traders at the ports.
April 9: The Ministry of Trade in Sana’a initiates a program to pay 50 percent of public wages with vouchers, which workers can redeem at pre-approved marketplaces.
July 6: The Aden CBY reactivates its connection to the SWIFT international financial transfer system. Following this, the US Treasury unfreezes Yemen’s foreign currency reserves, frozen since the transfer of the CBY headquarters from Sana’a to Aden in September 2016.
End of July: Banking sources in Sana’a reported that the voucher system implemented in April 2017 by the Houthi-Saleh authorities has substantially ceased to operate.
End of July: The CBY in Sana’a begins publishing monthly exchange rate data, in a move interpreted as an effort to pressure banks and currency traders to offer fairer rial-dollar exchange rates.
August 12: The CBY in Aden issues a statement that the Saudi-led military coalition is impeding the delivery of urgently needed financial reserves to the government in Aden. The statement claims that the coalition has 13 times denied landing permits to aircraft carrying cash funds.
August 14: The CBY in Aden issues a circular stating that it will float the value of the rial, with the official exchange rate to be set according to the market rate.
August 20: Distribution of the first $50 million installment of a new $400 million UNICEF and UNDP program begins, restarting Yemen’s Social Welfare Fund (SWF) to aid some 1.5 million people in the poorest segments of society.
October 4-6: A meeting took place in Berlin between the International Monetary Fund (IMF), UN, World Bank, representatives of the CBY, Yemeni businesses, and private Yemeni banks. 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 debt private sector companies hold at the CBY.
Throughout October: The Yemeni rial loses 10 percent of its value relative to the US dollar, beginning the currency’s second period of rapid depreciation in 2017.
November 20: The US Department of the Treasury announces that it has designated a major currency counterfeiting network involving individuals and entities associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds 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,” states the Treasury.
December 26: Houthi authorities instruct the Sana’a CBY to freeze and seize 1,223 bank accounts at public and private banks. Many of these accounts are held by Yemenis living abroad and are accused by Houthi authorities of loyalty to the Hadi government. The Aden CBY issues a circular the same day claiming that the Houthi measures are “illegal” and ordering Yemeni banks not to obey.
December 31: The rial is trading in the range of YR 460 to US$1.
Collapse of the Houthi-Saleh Alliance and Saleh’s Death
Among the most significant events of 2017 in Yemen was the collapse of the Houthi-Saleh alliance and the killing of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh at the hands of the Houthi fighters in early December. Saleh was the most prominent Yemeni political figure of the last four decades, and his death is widely seen to have made it far more difficult to achieve a negotiated settlement to the conflict. The General People’s Congress (GPC) party – which Saleh had founded and headed – also began to fracture in his absence.
Tensions within the Houthi-Saleh alliance had existed throughout the conflict. However, these tensions increased throughout 2017 as internal competition emerged over government positions and as the Houthi leadership challenged Saleh’s entrenched patronage networks for access to public revenues. As 2017 progressed, the Houthi leadership also became more suspicious of Saleh’s intentions, not least due to the former president’s repeated calls for dialogue with Saudi Arabia.
These tensions were apparent in August, when Saleh’s GPC staged a large rally in Sana’a to mark the party’s 35th anniversary and to demonstrate his popular support. Later in the month, armed clashes broke out between fighters on both sides and resulted in three deaths. Tensions and competitive grandstanding continued through September, notably over ministerial portfolios. The Houthis held demonstrations to celebrate the anniversary of their September 2014 takeover of the capital. On October 19 Houthi and GPC leaders again 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.
These tensions escalated significantly in late November, and by the beginning of December had burst into widespread battles in the streets of Sana’a. On December 2, Saleh made a televised speech calling on Yemenis to rise up against the Houthis, as well as declaring his readiness to turn a “new page” with the Saudi-led military coalition. Saleh-allied forces initially appeared to gain the upper hand, though were quickly routed by Houthi fighters. On December 4 Houthi fighters posted a video online of the former president’s bullet-ridden body being hoisted into the back of a pickup truck. (For more on the implications of Saleh’s death, see recent analysis by the Sana’a Center on Yemen After Saleh). The Saudi-led military coalition subsequently 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 violence.
While the Houthis have since consolidated political and military control over the areas of northern Yemen that they had previously co-managed with the GPC, a number of key Saleh loyalists – most notably, military leader Fadl al-Qawsi – have broken with the Houthis and fled to Marib and other areas under the control of coalition forces.
Throughout February disputes within the Houthi-Saleh alliance continue to prevent the appointment of a successor to Ali al-Jaifi, the head of the Republican Guard who was killed in Saudi-led military coalition airstrikes on a funeral gathering in Sana’a in October 2016.
August 22: As Houthi leadership and Saleh use increasingly hostile rhetoric toward each other, Saleh gives a speech in which he blames the Houthis for the divided and dysfunctional government ministries they mutually control. He threatens to abandon the alliance and labels the Houthis a “militia.”
September 21: The Houthis hold a large rally in Sana’a to mark three years since their takeover of the capital. The rally is a show of force to domestic onlookers, including Saleh and his supporters, as well as to regional and international actors.
October 7: Houthi forces bar GPC-allied Foreign Minister Hisham Sharaf Abdullah and his staff from the Foreign Ministry, acting under what they claim are direct orders from the President of the Supreme Political Council, Saleh al-Samad.
October 19: Houthi and GPC leaders trade public allegations: the GPC accuses the Houthis of conducting an “orchestrated campaign” against Saleh, while the Houthis claim that the GPC is accepting money from the Hadi government.
November 28: Saleh gives a speech in which he says that if the Saudi-led military coalition lifts the blockade and stops its bombing campaign, “decision makers” will stop firing missiles into Saudi Arabia.
On November 29, clashes break out between Houthi and Saleh forces at the Saleh Mosque in Sana’a. The clashes stem from Houthi demands for access and space to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The initial clashes result in the death of four Saleh loyalists. Over the next several days further clashes follow, along with heated exchanges of rhetoric, while Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi publicly warns Saleh against undermining the alliance.
December 2: Following failed de-escalation attempts, violence between Houthi and Saleh forces breaks out across the capital. On the same day, Saleh makes a televised speech. In it he calls on Yemenis to rise up against the Houthis, whom he refers to as a “coup militia,” and declares his readiness to turn a “new page” with the Saudi-led military coalition. In response, the internationally recognized Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia acknowledge Saleh’s decision to break his alliance with the Houthis.
December 2-4: After Saleh forces initially gain the upper hand in the battle for Sana’a, Houthi reinforcements from Sa’ada and Amran governorates arrive to support a decisive Houthi counteroffensive. Houthi forces successfully overturn the initial gains made by Saleh forces and assail the homes of the former president and his family.
December 4: Graphic footage emerges showing the dead body of Saleh being dumped in the back of a pickup truck by Houthi gunmen. Abdulmalik al-Houthi publicly states that Saleh has been killed for his “treason.” (For more on the events leading to Saleh’s death, see the Sana’a Center’s Yemen at the UN – November 2017 Review.)
Fragmentation Among Anti-Houthi Forces
Insecurity in Aden
Yemen has witnessed increasing socio-political fragmentation since the beginning of the conflict – a trend that continued through 2017. Among the most prominent fault lines that emerged were those between various groups and armed factions affiliated with the internationally recognized Yemeni government and local forces and political figures backed by the UAE. This became apparent in February when a dispute over unpaid wages for soldiers guarding the Aden airport spilled into armed clashes between the Presidential Guard, headed by Hadi’s son Nasser, and two armed groups affiliated with the UAE. The violence climaxed with an Emirati helicopter gunship opening fire on a Presidential Guard vehicle, killing multiple soldiers. Shortly after, Hadi and Emirati officials met in Riyadh to try and smooth tensions.
April saw more clashes between the UAE-backed Hezam al-Amni, or “Security Belt” forces – at the time headed by the prominent UAE-allied Salafi leader Hani bin Brayk – and Presidential Guard units. At the beginning of the month the two fought for control over the strategic Al-Alam checkpoint in eastern Aden. At the end of April, UAE-allied forces controlling the airport and the Presidential Guard were then involved in another armed standoff, again erupting into clashes in May. Similar violent incidents and insecurity remained constant features of life in Aden through the rest of 2017, accompanied by sporadic and spectacularly violent terrorist attacks (see ‘AQAP, Daesh and Counterterrorism Operations’ for details below).
The Southern Transitional Council
At the end of April, Hadi sacked UAE-allied Aiderous al-Zubaidi from his position as governor of Aden and Hani bin Brayk, who aside from heading the Security Belt forces was also a minister of state. These events sparked escalating public protests that culminated in al-Zubaidi announcing the formation of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) on May 11. Supported by the Southern Movement coalition, the STC was to be made up of 26 southern Yemeni political, military and tribal leaders. Later in May, thousands of supporters of the STC gathered in Aden’s Khormaksar district calling for an independent South Yemen.
Tensions were heightened on June 28, when President Hadi issued a decree sacking the governors of Hadramawt, Socotra and Shabwa. All three governors were members of the STC, and Hadi justified the move as retaliation for their support for the secessionist movement. By the end of 2017, Hadi’s efforts to purge officials sympathetic to the STC had resulted in him sacking the governors of Lahj, al-Dhale, Soqotra, Hadramawt, Aden, Abyan and Shabwa.
In October, the STC staged demonstrations in Aden during which al-Zubaidi, now president of the STC, announced the establishment of a 303-seat “Southern National Assembly” (SNA) and an upcoming independence referendum to be held on an unspecified date. By late 2017, the STC had named the 303 members of its new governing body and appointed local STC leaders for each southern Yemeni governorate.
In addition to general insecurity in Aden, Southern Movement organizers have also capitalized on popular dissatisfaction with the Hadi government related to Aden’s failing public services. On October 30, for example, protesters blocked roads in the southern coastal city with burning tires. They expressed anger at the constant power outages and fuel and water shortages, which had left hospitals in the city warning they could be forced to shut down due to lack of electricity. On November 16, Abdulaziz al-Muflihi, the new governor of Aden, resigned after months of complaining that he was being inhibited from carrying out the functions of his office.
During the final months of the year the rivalry between the Islah party – a major supporter of President Hadi – and the Southern Movement then escalated, with attacks and assassinations targeting members of both sides. In late December, bin Brayk, now STC vice-president, publicly blamed Islah for the lack of successful militaryadvances towards Sana’a.
Hadramawt’s growing autonomy
Hadramawt witnessed its own momentum for increasing autonomy during 2017. In April, the Hadramawt Inclusive Conference was staged in Mukalla city, where stakeholders and power brokers exclusively from Hadramawt emphasized the centrality of their Hadrami identity over their Yemeni one. At the conference, participants made public statements regarding the need for the governorate to assert control over its security institutions, governance, and natural resources such as oil and gas. Various speakers referred to “50 years of oppression” – covering the period both after Hadramawt had joined South Yemen (1967), and after the unification of North and South Yemen (1990). This implied a rejection not only of central government rule from Sana’a and President Hadi’s project for a unified Yemen, but also of the Southern Movement’s goal to establish a unified, independent South Yemen including Hadramawt.
The UAE has played patron to Hadrami ambitions for greater independence, helping to create, train, and arm the Hadrami Elite Forces. These have acted with increasing autonomy from the Hadi government, asserting their lead in operations against AQAP and demanding that government troops hand over control of various checkpoints across Hadramawt. Similar UAE-backed security forces have been set up in Shabwa, and, more recently, Mahra. The increasing desire for autonomy in Hadramawt was seen by observers as being a central reason why the governorate was given a disproportionately large number of seats in the SNA (for more on the SNA, see the Sana’a Center’s November edition of Yemen at the UN).
February 10: Fighting breaks out at Aden airport between forces loyal to President Hadi and UAE-backed Security Belt forces (for details, see the Sana’a Center’s February edition of Yemen at the UN).
April 4: Aden governor Aiderous al-Zubaidi issues the “Aden Historic Declaration.” In it, he calls for the formation of a national political leadership under his stewardship to manage an independent South Yemen.
April 23: The Hadramawt Inclusive Conference is held in Mukalla. While attracting a wide spectrum of Hadrami leaders and garnering significant support and attention, the event does not result in any immediate, tangible policy shift.
May 11: The Southern Transitional Council (STC) is officially formed under the leadership of al-Zubaidi. An umbrella group for secessionists, the STC quickly garners widespread popular support in much of the south while fueling resentment and distrust within the internationally recognized government. The STC’s formation is rejected by the internationally recognized government, and in late June Hadi fires a number of officials who have joined the body, as well as the governors of Hadramawt, Socotra, and Shabwa.
October 14: At STC-organized demonstrations in Aden, al-Zubaidi announces the formation of a 303-member “Southern National Assembly.” This comes amid a flurry of activity that sees STC members inaugurate localoffices in key cities across the south.
In the first week of November, the Sana’a Center organizes a press delegation to Marib governorate that brings almost 20 journalists from Western media outlets together with leading politicians, tribal leaders, and civil society. This is the first delegation of foreign journalists to visit Yemen since the beginning of the current conflict, and is the largest foreign delegation to visit Marib since 2007.
November 17: Aden governor Abdulaziz al-Muflihi resigns in protest, claiming he is unable to perform his duties and accusing Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghir’s government of corruption.
December 24: Hadi sacks the last remaining STC members holding ministerial or gubernatorial positions in his government.
Operation Golden Spear and Hudaydah Port
From July 2015, when the Saudi-led military coalition backed southern Yemeni forces in pushing Houthi-Saleh fighters from Aden, until early 2017, the conflict’s frontlines remained largely static in Yemen. Then, in January 2017, the coalition and allied Yemeni ground units launched “Operation Golden Spear.” The first phase of this was aimed to clear Houthi-Saleh fighters from the western coastline of Taiz, to secure the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait, and to reclaim Mokha port. These stated objectives were achieved by the end of the month. However, the second phase of the operation – whose stated objectives included the retaking of Hudaydah port – quickly stalled.
On the ground, Houthi-Saleh units’ mass deployment of landmines and stiff resistance kept coalition backed-forces from advancing along the coast north of Mokha for most of the year. In early 2017 this spurred Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and their supporters in Washington, D.C., to call for the US to increase military support for the Hudaydah offensive. The Saudi-led military coalition had long claimed that Iranian weapons were being smuggled to Houthi forces through Hudaydah port – a claim widely disputed by UN agencies.
Importantly, the administration of former US President Obama had rejected a 2016 request from the UAE for military aid to attack Hudaydah. The Obama administration had concluded that even with US support the assault was unlikely to succeed, given how well-entrenched and well-armed Houthi-Saleh forces were in the area. Obama’s advisors had also noted that the assault would dramatically exacerbate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis; the country had imported up to 90 percent of its food supplies prior to the conflict, with Hudaydah port since accounting for an estimated 70-80 percent of humanitarian deliveries and an even greater share of commercial imports. However, the belligerent rhetoric of the subsequent US administration toward Iran was widely seen to embolden Saudi-led military coalition attempts to solicit direct US military aid for a potential Hudaydah offensive.
March 2017 witnessed intense debate over the implications of a Hudaydah offensive among members of the US Congress, current and former government officials, and US agency representatives. Those advocating for robust US military involvement – including mainly Republican senators, some White House officials, and Pentagon staff – argued that capturing Hudaydah would help to secure Red Sea commercial shipping and would assist US allies to contain Iranian expansionism through proxy forces. US policymakers opposed to US involvement in a Hudaydah offensive raised concerns similar to those of the Obama administration, while also warning that the US risked being drawn into a military quagmire with no clear exit, noting that the Houthis posed no direct threat to US interests. US senators penned a bipartisan letter to the Trump administration noting that “Al Qaeda in Yemen has emerged as a de facto ally of the Saudi-led militaries with whom your administration aims to partner more closely.”
On March 17, following a Russian request, UNSC member states discussed the expected Hudaydah attack. During the discussion many member states expressed concern that the attack would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis, though none went so far as to say that the assault should not take place. Following the briefing, UNSC member states released an “elements to the press” ‒ the weakest form of Security Council public statements ‒ calling for access for humanitarian and commercial goods in Yemen, including through Hudaydah.
Throughout April, the proposed assault and its likely humanitarian fallout dominated international policy discussions regarding Yemen. However, by month’s end, opposition within the US, at the UN, within the humanitarian community and elsewhere appeared to gain purchase. Among hawkish US policy makers and the Saudi-led military coalition, the rush to attack lost momentum.
Operation Golden Spear thus made almost no headway through 2017 until the death of former President Saleh in early December. Just days after Saleh’s death, UAE-backed local forces, supported by Sudanese troops, advanced north of Mokha and forced the Houthis to withdraw from Khokha district on December 7.
Although the stated objective of the second phase of Operation Golden Spear remains the capture of Hudaydah and its port, as 2017 ended it was unclear whether the coalition planned a more concerted attempt to achieve this objective.
Other Military Developments
Inland from Taiz’ western coastline, coalition-backed efforts focused on the capture of the Khalid bin al-Walid military base through much of the first half of 2017 – an objective the coalition achieved in July. Inside Taiz city, frontlines moved slightly in favour of anti-Houthi forces in 2017, while infighting among various anti-Houthi factions created security vacuums in areas ostensibly controlled by the Yemeni government. The most significant of these internal feuds within the anti-Houthi ranks pitted the UAE-backed commander Abbu al-Abbas and his Salafi fighters against various Islah-affiliated brigades. (For details, see ‘The evolution of militant Salafism in Taiz’, publish by the Sana’a Center on September 29, 2017.)
Among the most notable political developments with military implications following Saleh’s death was the public reconciliation between the Yemeni Islah party and the UAE. From the Saudi-led military coalition’s initial intervention in March 2015 until Saleh’s death, the UAE had been reluctant to coordinate with Islah-affiliated politicians and militias – such as those operating in the Taiz, Marib and al-Jawf governorates, among other areas – due to Islah’s links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Also following Saleh’s death, Houthi forces in Shabwa governorate lost control of Bayhan and Asailan districts. These two strategic areas, held by the Houthis throughout the conflict, provided a base from which to threaten the supply lines of Yemeni government troops and UAE-backed local forces. Barring a few pockets of resistance, Houthi forces were subsequently pushed out of the governorate altogether. In December, anti-Houthi forces also made new advances and territorial gains in al-Bayda and al-Jawf governorates.
Houthi territorial losses at the end of 2017 were significant in that they constituted the first major frontline movements in many months. However, in the overall military dynamics of the Yemen war, their strategic value is relatively minor. A decisive military victory by any side in the conflict appears no more likely at the beginning of 2018 than it did a year earlier.
Increased Sudanese contribution
Sudanese troops represented a major, underreported component of Saudi-led military coalition efforts on the western coastline in 2017, with thousands of Sudanese troops participating in Operation Golden Spear. An April brief by the Small Arms Survey suggested that several thousand Sudanese troops in Yemen are from Sudan’s “Rapid Support Forces” (RSF). The RSF are officially sanctioned paramilitary units that were largely formed from the Janjaweed militias – infamous for their genocide campaign against tribes in Sudan’s western Darfur region in the 2000s. Sudanese losses have been significant, with reports of over 400 Sudanese soldiers being killed in Yemen by mid-2017.
January 7: Coalition-backed forces mobilize in southwestern Taiz and Lahj governorates for the launch of “Operation Golden Spear.” The bulk of the fighters participating in the offensive are southern fighters redeployed from Aden and Lahj governorates.
Following intense clashes that began in late January, through early February anti-Houthi forces clear the town of Mokha of remaining pockets of Houthi-Saleh resistance. Houthi allied fighters withdraw towards the town of Khokha, north of Mokha, and to areas around the Khalid Bin Al-Walid military base to the east. The coalition-backed offensive stalls, however, as Houthi-Saleh forces deploy landmines and mount stiff resistance to halt coalition units from advancing north of the city.
Throughout April, international policy discussions on Yemen again focus on the Saudi-led military coalition’s proposed assault on Hudaydah port. By the end of April, however, the coalition and US policymakers advocating in favour of increased US military support for the offensive appear to bow to widespread international opposition to the offensive.
May 10: Houthi forces attempt to seize control of Saudi watchtowers in the Najran province of Saudi Arabia north of the Houthi stronghold of Sa’ada governorate. The operation is part of the two-pronged Houthi strategy against Saudi Arabia, consisting of cross-border raids and missile launches into Saudi territory.
May 19: The Houthis fire a missile at an area west of the Saudi capital of Riyadh shortly before US President Trump is due to arrive to the Kingdom. Saudi media claim the missile safely intercepted by Saudi air defence systems. The missile attack aids Saudi Arabia as it casts the Houthis as an Iranian proxy, a narrative also subsequently adopted by the Trump administration.
Taiz witnesses a sharp uptick in military activity as anti-Houthi forces make a series of territorial gains inside Taiz city, capturing Taiz University Medical College and the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) office. At the end of the month, anti-Houthi forces increase their efforts to wrest control of Taiz’ Presidential Palace and its environs from Houthi-Saleh forces.
May 30: Following a UNSC meeting, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed outlines a plan aimed at averting the proposed Saudi-led military coalition assault on Hudaydah port. The plan seeks to address coalition concerns over revenues the Houthis are generating from the port and uncorroborated allegations of weapons smuggling. The UN Special Envoy’s plan included security and port management components, with the proposed establishment of “a military committee to manage the security of the port – composed of army officers who are respected by both warring sides and who have not participated in the conflict – and an economic and financial committee to handle revenues, customs and port management – made up of local businessmen such as from the local Chamber of Commerce. Both committees would receive UN support.”
July 26: Anti-Houthi forces capture the Khalid bin al-Walid military base after months of fighting in areas surrounding the base. Khalid bin al-Walid is one of the largest military bases in Yemen and is situated near the Mafraq junction linking Mokha, Hudaydah and Taiz city. Its capture marks the most significant military breakthrough for anti-Houthi forces since taking full control of Mokha in February 2017. The capture of the base enables anti-Houthi forces to consolidate their control of western Taiz and the governorate’s southwestern coastline, as well as to threaten Houthi-Saleh supply lines and Houthi-Saleh forces located further north in Hudaydah governorate.
November 4: The Houthis fire a ballistic missile at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh. The Houthi-controlled defence ministry claims the missile attack is in retaliation for a Saudi-led military coalition airstrike on a market and hotel in the Sahar district of Sa’ada, resulting in at least 31 civilian casualties, including six children. Saudi Arabia claims that its air defence systems intercepted the missile, though independent investigations suggest otherwise.
December 7: UAE-backed local forces, supported by Sudanese troops, capture the Khokha district, which is located on the southwestern edge of Hudaydah governorate.
December 15: Anti-Houthi forces drive Houthi forces out of the Bayhan district of Shabwa governorate. Bayhan is located on a key road connecting the governorates of Shabwa and Marib. On the same day, anti-Houthi forces also drive Houthi forces out of eight anti-Houthi areas of Asailan district.
December 26: After participating in the Bayhan offensive, members of the 107th Brigade affiliated with the internationally recognized Yemeni government launch a new offensive in the Nati’ district of al-Bayda governorate.
End of December: Anti-Houthi forces advance in the Khab al-Sha’af district of al-Jawf governorate. At the beginning of January 2018, they take control of a key road that connects al-Jawf to Sa’ada governorate.
AQAP, Daesh and Counterterrorism Operations
In 2017, the United States under President Trump pursued a more aggressive campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) than it had under former President Obama. Shortly after President Trump assumed the presidency, US Special Forces conducted an unprecedented raid in al-Bayda. Further Special Forces ground operations were carried out throughout the year, such as those in Marib in May and in Shabwa three months later. These raids demonstrated that US Special Forces were operating in close coordination with their UAE counterparts.
The US also sharply increased the rate of its drone and airstrikes in Yemen throughout 2017. For perspective: the previous record of US-led aerial strikes, set in 2012, was 41 in a single calendar year. In 2017, the US surpassed this record in a single week in March as it conducted over 40 manned and unmanned aerial strikes in Abyan, al-Bayda, and Shabwa. In December, the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) stated that in 2017 the United States had carried out upward of 120 aerial strikes in Yemen against suspected militants from AQAP and Daesh (also known as the so-called ‘Islamic State’).
In addition to the use of force, the United States sought to counter the threat of terrorism in Yemen through the exercise of soft power via the US Department of State and the US Department of the Treasury, which targeted various individuals and organizations in Yemen affiliated with AQAP and Daesh.
For its part, the UAE expanded its established anti-AQAP model in Yemen, which aims to counter the threat of AQAP through the build-up and deployment of local, UAE-backed forces in Yemen’s southern and eastern governorates. Among the main strategic objectives of this model is to clear and subsequently hold areas where AQAP is known to be active. In February 2017, the Shabwa Elite Forces were officially established after beingtrained by the UAE in Hadhramaut. The Shabwa Elite Forces were then subsequently deployed across the governorate – adding to the presence of the already-established UAE-backed Security Belt forces in Aden, Abyan, and Lahij, as well as the Hadrami Elite Forces that had all been formed in 2016. In mid-2017, the Shabwa Elite Forces engaged in a UAE- and US-backed attempt to clear strategic areas associated with the governorate’s oil and gas infrastructure. In parallel to the anti-AQAP operation in Shabwa, Security Belt forces in Abyan sought to gain control of key roads, including the main road that connects Abyan to al-Bayda, the coastal road that runs from Zinjibar through Shabwa to al-Mukalla in Hadramawt, and the road passing through the Lawder district of Abyan.
Despite suffering setbacks due to the counterterrorism efforts of the US and the UAE, AQAP remains an active threat. It is able to carry out attacks, recruit new membership, and deploy significant financial and military resources. Throughout 2017, AQAP continued its campaign of asymmetric warfare on several fronts, targeting UAE-backed forces in the southern and eastern governorates, while combatting Houthi-Saleh forces in the central al-Bayda and Ibb governorates where the Yemen affiliate of Daesh is also present.
It is worth noting that AQAP’s forced withdrawal from areas in Shabwa and Abyan in mid-2017 is not necessarily a sign of weakness. AQAP’s withdrawal can partly be explained by its grand strategy of avoiding direct confrontation with superior forces in order to preserve its membership and capabilities.
As illustrated by three significant terrorist attacks that occured in Aden in November, while comparatively smaller than AQAP, the Yemen affiliate of Daesh remained an active, arguably rising threat in 2017. Daesh in Yemen was most influential and active in al-Bayda governorate, where actions last year included a June 18 attack in which the group claimed to have killed 15 Houthi-Saleh fighters. The US military also claimed its first operations against Daesh in Yemen last year. The Pentagon said unmanned drones killed “dozens” of Daesh militants with missiles barrages on two training camps on October 16 and 25.
January 29: Just nine days after Donald Trump is sworn in as US President, US Navy SEAL commandos conduct an unprecedented raid on a suspected AQAP compound in the village of Yakla, located in al-Bayda governorate. Although the US has previously conducted raids in Yemen in an attempt to free Western hostages, this is the first known instance of US Special Forces targeting a suspected AQAP compound. The raid results in an estimated 25 civilian casualties, including 9 children under the age of 13, in addition to the deaths of 14 AQAP members and one Special Forces commando. The raid also leaves four SEALs injured and results in the destruction of a $70 million US Navy aircraft.
Throughout February, AQAP carries out a series of attacks against Houthi-Saleh forces, UAE-backed forces, and Southern Movement leaders, as well as other local military and security officials. AQAP fighters capture three towns in northern Abyan and briefly occupy several neighbourhoods in the city of Lowder. They assassinate two Houthi-Saleh commanders in Ibb governorate and then clash with Houthi-Saleh forces in the governorate’s al-Sayyani and Udayn districts.
June 21: The US Department of State amends AQAP’s terror group categorization to include what it claims are AQAP front groups in Yemen, including ‘Sons of Abyan’, ‘Sons of Hadramawt’, ‘Sons of Hadramawt Council’, the ‘Civil Council of Hadramawt’ and the ‘National Hadramawt Council’.
July 29: AQAP claims responsibility for the assassination of a prominent UAE-backed Security Belt forces commander, Colonel Nasir Saleh al-Ja’ari, in Abyan. Al-Ja’ari played an important role in retaking Abyan from AQAP militants in 2012.
August 4: US Special Forces, UAE armed forces and UAE-backed Hadrami Elite Forces launch a joint operation to clear Shabwa of AQAP militants and to secure the energy resources and facilities located in the governorate. This includes the liquified natural gas (LNG) export facility in the coastal town of Belhaf.
With the support of Saudi-led military coalition fighter jets, UAE-backed Security Belt forces continue the anti-AQAP campaign begun in August and aimed at securing parts of Abyan governorate. Throughout September, Security Belt forces conduct raids on AQAP safehouses in Abyan and reportedly kill two mid-level operatives in the districts of Mudiyah and al-Wadea. In retaliation, AQAP target a Security Belt forces checkpoint in Abyan.
October 25: US Department of the Treasury sanctions eight individuals and one entity affiliated with AQAP and Daesh.
November 5: Daesh militants target the criminal investigation department building in Aden’s Khormaksar district. The coordinated assault involves the detonation of explosives-laden vehicles and fighters storming the building. Daesh claims that the attack results in the deaths of more than 50 security personnel, while government sources report only 15 casualties.
November 14: A Daesh-affiliated suicide bomber targets a UAE-backed Security Belt forces building located in Aden’s al-Mansoura district, killing at least six and injuring dozens.
November 29: Daesh militants detonate a vehicle-borne explosive outside the Ministry of Finance building in Aden’s Khormaksar district. The attack kills four and heavily damages the building. Daesh also claims responsibility for several assassinations in November, including those of a crime investigator and counterterrorism unit member in Aden.
Human Rights and War Crimes
In January 2017 a UN Panel of Experts report found that, up to that point in the conflict, all the belligerent parties had carried out “widespread violations” of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. This established pattern continued throughout the rest of 2017. The warring parties – including Houthi-Saleh forces, Yemeni government troops, the Saudi-led military coalition and affiliated local forces, as well as various non-state actors – regularly attacked civilians and civilian objects, launched indiscriminate attacks, carried out arbitrary detainments and torture, used banned weapons, impeded humanitarian aid and access, starved civilian populations, and carried out forced displacements, among other violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.
In a major development in terms of accountability, the UN’s annual Children and Armed Conflict report – released in October 2017 and covering 2016 – included Saudi Arabia. The report stated that in its military actions in Yemen, Saudi Arabia had committed grave violations of the rights of children. Saudi Arabia was placed on the report’s so-called “child killer” list for its bombing campaign in Yemen, specifically for “the killing and maiming of children with 683 child casualties.”
Houthi-Saleh forces, Yemeni government troops, coalition-backed militias and AQAP have all been named in the report in two years in a row, and it should be noted that Saudi Arabia had initially been named in the 2016 report as well. Riyadh was, however, controversially removed from the 2016 report by then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, after threatening to withdraw hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for UN aid programs. Saudi Arabia’s response to being named in the 2017 report was significantly more moderate. This is likely due to considerable consultation between it and the UN in the lead-up to the announcement. There is also a noticeable difference in the nature of the report. Instead of listing Saudi Arabia as a standard offender, the report listed the kingdom in a new category specifically for violators who have taken actions to address the problems documented in the report.
Throughout the conflict, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has repeatedly called for the creation of an international, independent body to investigate allegations of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by all sides in the Yemen war. For the third year in a row, this proposal was blocked at the UN Human Rights Council, notably by Saudi Arabia, the US and the UK. However, in late September the UN Human Rights Council approved a resolution to establish a group of three experts to investigate human rights violations by all the belligerent parties. Importantly, the mission scope and capacity of the group of experts – who were appointed in December – is less than that of a commission of inquiry.
Notably, at year’s end media reports emerged that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein would step down in the summer of 2018. In an internal memo to staff explaining his decision, al-Hussein said: “I have decided not to seek a second four-year term. To do so, in the current geopolitical context, might involve bending a knee in supplication; muting a statement of advocacy; lessening the independence and integrity of my voice.” In the letter al-Hussein questioned the UN’s credibility as a champion of human rights when its top official, Secretary-General António Guterres, is reluctant to speak out against human rights abuses by powerful governments.
In commenting on al-Hussein to Foreign Policy, Philippe Bolopion, the deputy director for global advocacy at Human Rights Watch, described him as such: “In a world where human rights champions are few and far between, the High Commissioner has been a rare example of moral clarity, principle and independence.”
January 27: The UN 2140 Sanctions Committee Panel of Experts meets to discuss the panel’sreport, which states that the conflict has seen widespread violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by all parties to the conflict.
January 31: A US Navy SEAL counterterrorism operation on the village of Yakla, al-Bayda governorate, kills at least 25 civilians, nine of them children (see ‘AQAP, Daesh and Counterterrorism Operations’ for details above).
February 10: The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issues a statement on “extremely worrying reports” of civilians being targeted during the battle for Mokha port. OHCHR states that “credible reports indicate that Houthi-affiliated snipers shot at families attempting to flee their homes in Houthi-controlled areas – suggesting the use of civilians as human shields.” OHCHR also notes that more than 200 private homes were either damaged or destroyed in coalition airstrikes.
February 28: OHCHR urges all warring parties to release child soldiers. Between March 2015 and January 2017, the UN has recorded 1476 cases of child recruitment. According to a UN spokesperson the “numbers are likely to be much higher as most families are not willing to talk about the recruitment of their children, for fear of reprisals,” adding that most reports on child recruitment have been associated with the Houthi-affiliated “Popular Committees.”
March 16: A Saudi-led military coalition Apache gunship strafes a boat carrying Somali refugees off the coast of Hudaydah, killing 43 people. Following the incident the UAE issues a statement saying its forces did not target the Somali vessel, having “clearly recognised the non-military nature of the boat which was carrying a large number of civilians.” The UAE calls for an independent international investigation into the incident – an unprecedented move which observers say is an attempt to ensure that Riyadh bears responsibility. Speaking about the incident and other attacks against civilians later in the month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warns that continued US arms sales to Saudi Arabia risk exposing American individuals involved in these transactions to criminal liability for aiding and abetting war crimes.
April 20: HRW issues a report highlighting the Houthi-Saleh forces’ use of banned antipersonnel landmines, which the HRW says has caused hundreds of civilian deaths and injuries, hindered the return of people displaced by fighting, and will continue to pose a threat to civilians long after the conflict ends. Numbers provided in the report indicate that Houthi-Saleh forces have deployed tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of landmines.
May 26: HRW releases a report detailing how Houthi-Saleh forces, pro-government troops and UAE-backed security forces regularly carry out arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances, and torture and mistreat prisoners. These human rights abuses have targeted journalists, activists, political opponents, members of the general population, and children.
June 13: The Sana’a Center and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic publish a report that reveals the US has disclosed details of only 20 percent of its lethal force operations in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan since 2002. The report notes that, as of June, the US has carried out at least 90 airstrikes in Yemen in 2017 using drones, aircraft and missiles. These strikes have led to at least 81 deaths, including 30 civilians.
June 22: HRW releases a report documenting how “the UAE supports Yemeni forces that have arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared, tortured, and abused dozens of people during security operations,” while also running secret prisons in Aden and Hadramawt. The report says HRW has further document “scores” of cases in which Houthi-Saleh forces have arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared people in the country’s north and abused prisoners.
July 26: A team of UN investigators accuses the Saudi-led military coalition of having killed 43 people in March during an attack on a boat of Somali migrants off the coast of Hudaydah. Investigators add that the coalition has become a cover for the nations involved to avoid individual blame for war crimes.
August 1: The UNSC subsidiary sanctions committee on Yemen receives its midterm report. Among the report’s findings are that Saudi-led military coalition forces have not reported cargo ship inspections since UNSC Resolution 2216 was adopted more than two years ago, contrary to the coalition’s obligations under the sanctions regime. Other findings include that all belligerent parties to the conflict regularly violate international humanitarian and human rights law, and that individual coalition member states are using the coalition as an umbrella to protect themselves from being directly implicated in war crimes.
August 16: Aconfidential UN report, leaked to the press, recommends that the Saudi-led military coalition be added to the UN black list of countries that “kill and maim” children in armed conflict. The report states that the coalition and Houthi forces were together responsible for killing 502 children and injuring 838 in the previous year.
August 23: A Saudi-led coalition airstrike near Sana’a city hits a hotel in Arhab district, killing at least 41 civilians, including women and children. Two days later, another coalition airstrike in the southern district of Faj Attan, Sana’a governorate, kills 14 civilians and injures 16 others, with at least five children among the dead.
September 11: For the third straight year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein reiterates his call for the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to establish an independent international body to investigate violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in Yemen.
September 29: At the 36th session of the HRC in Geneva, a resolution is adopted to establish a group of eminent international and regional experts to investigate human rights abuses in Yemen since September 2014.
October 5: The UN’s annual Children and Armed Conflict report is released. The report lists belligerent parties globally that are guilty of grave violations of children’s rights; all the main warring parties in Yemen are included on the list (see above section in ‘Human Rights and War Crimes’ for details.)
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.
November 4: Houthi forces launch a Scud missile at the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, targeting civilian infrastructure.
November 6: The coalition announces it is closing all land, sea and air ports into Yemen to commercial and humanitarian traffic.
November 10: Following the Saudi-led military coalition’s imposition of a complete blockade of Yemen’s sea and air ports, the UNSC Panel of Experts submits a confidential briefing to the 2140 Yemen Sanctions Committee stating that the “imposition of access restrictions is another attempt by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition to use paragraph 14 of [UNSC] resolution 2216 (2015) as justification for obstructing the delivery of commodities that are essentially civilian in nature.”
December 6-26: The Saudi-led military coalition kills 231 civilians, including dozens of children, and injures 162 in airstrikes on hospitals, markets, farms, a TV station and a prison, according to OHCHR reports (see here and here). While the strikes took place across northern Yemen, civilian casualties were concentrated in Sana’a, Sa’ada, Hudaydah and Taiz governorates.
December 31: As 2017 ends, at least 15 journalists remain held in Houthi jails, some having been detained since 2015.
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies would like to sincerely thank all the people who have contributed to the publication of Yemen at the UN in the year 2017. They are, in alphabetical order: Ola Abdulla, Ziad Al-Eryani, Tawfeek Al-Ganad, Hamza Al-Hammadi, Maged Al-Madhaji, Osamah Al-Rawhani, Sala Al-Sakkaf, Aisha Al-Warraq, Wadah Alawlaki, Waleed Alhariri, Nickolas Ask, Yaaser Azzayyaat, Adam Baron, Anthony Biswell, Isadora Gotts, Marcus Hallinan, Alex J. Harper, Maxwell Jenkins-Goetz, Raed Khelifi, Michael McCall, Amal Nasser, Spencer Osberg, Mansour Rageh, Victoria K. Sauer, and Olivia Segal.
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, humanitarian, and human rights developments on the ground.
Yemen at the UN / Special Edition – 2017 in Review was developed in partnership with the Friedrich-Ebert Yemen office.
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.
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.
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.”
The reopening of Sana’a airport in the last week of November allowed UN humanitarian flights to deliver 1.9 million doses of vaccines, enough to protect 600,000 children from diphtheria, whooping cough, tuberculosis, pneumonia, and meningitis.
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 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.
UAE-backed Security Forces also continued there counterterrorism operations on the ground in Yemen last month. On November 7, Security Belt forces raided AQAP’s Sheikh Osama bin Laden camp, in Mahfad district, Abyan. On November 27, Security Forces raided the home of an AQAP militant in Lahaj governorate. During the raid, the AQAP fighter killed a Security Belt commander and injured three other Security Force members before being shot and killed himself.
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.
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.
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 apress 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, resolutionH. 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 aprovision 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 Khannapublished 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 YemenToday 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”