Days ago, Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi sworn in Maeen Abdul Malik as his new prime minister, making him the latest member of the government-in-exile in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. This followed Hadi’s sacking of the previous prime minister, Ahmed Obaid bin Dagher who, since his appointment in April 2016, had become the president’s partner in failure. Notably, bin Dagher had become prime minister following an implicit coup which he and Hadi had launched against his predecessor, Khaled Bahah. So what is the context and background of this new appointment, and what will its implications be?
A History of Failure and Corruption
As a result of several fallouts between the Yemeni government and the United Arab Emirates, a supposed ally in the war against the Houthis, bin Dagher had managed to rally important constituencies behind himself. When the Emirates deployed troops on the Yemeni island Socotra and took over both the airport and the marine terminal, bin Dagher visited the island and openly accused the Emirati allies of assaulting Yemen’s sovereignty. This increased his popularity among many Yemenis – despite his failure in everything else: since bin Dagher took office as prime minister in the spring of 2016, the Yemeni riyal has collapsed from 275 riyals per one dollar, to 735 riyals per dollar. On the day he was sacked on October 15, 2018, the United Nations’ Coordinator for Yemen stated that starvation threatens 13 million people, around half of the population, making it potentially the worst famine the world has seen in a century.
Hadi had two motives for the dismissal of bin Dagher. With bin Dagher’s dynamism and tendency of switching sides, he appeared to be starting to pull the rug from under Hadi’s feet. More importantly, he was preparing himself to lead the General People’s Congress party (GPC), which has been fractured and leaderless since the killing of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Hadi’s dismissal of bin Dagher, and the subsequent corruption investigation launch against the former prime minister, was aimed at blocking him from reaching the party leadership, as well as wiping out his political presence.
Bin Dagher had become a nuisance to Hadi as he began to make his own decisions, despite continuing to facilitate the corruption of the president and his relatives. Hadi did not hesitate to resort to blackmailing him by means that concern his personal life, while not holding him accountable for corruption. Bin Dagher headed a government that included a ministry for tourism in a country whose only tourists were its own officials, who would visit Yemen occasionally.
In brief, Khaled Bahah was dismissed two years ago because he was seen as not being hawkish enough in his approach to the war. Then Ahmed bin Dagher was dismissed, not for being corrupt, but for his political virtues. His successor, Maeen Abdul Malik, has now been appointed because he poses no threat of any kind.
Abdul Malik is a relatively young man (42 years old) and a rising politician with a comparably clean reputation. He is well connected with both the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Economically, he is neo-liberal. As a personality, he is rarely disagreeable. He almost never expresses anger and can speak for hours without saying anything of substance. He has few animosities and fewer strategic loyalties. Although he has held several positions since 2011 – such as his roles at the National Dialogue Conference where he was on the committee responsible for drawing up new federal regions, as well as the Constitutional Drafting Committee, etc. – he has never been a major political force. He is an employee, not a politician.
However, Abdul Malik is close to the private sector and has its confidence. He is protected by his financially clean reputation – at least until now. However, the most important connection that Abdul Malik has is with international actors. He is an upper middle-class man, the son of a diplomat and investor, fluent in English and has worked closely with many international organizations and ambassadors of the G18. He has not expressed any direct opposition to, or even publicly discussed, the policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Yemen. That is despite the fact that a number of these policies – such as the IMF’s 2014 directive to lift fuel subsidies – have played a direct role in undermining the country’s stability.
So while there is a potential political risk coming with the proximity to international financial institutions, Abdul Malik could use the confidence he enjoys among them to mobilize financial resources towards Yemen. Over the past years, it has been difficult to receive any international support to Yemen through the state, except occasional support from the Gulf. The reasons are many, including the loss of confidence in the transparency and effectiveness of the previous governments. Abdul Malik could restore that confidence.
Winners and Losers
Politically, the first loser of the replacement of the prime minister is the Southern Transitional Council (STC). While the STC’s long-standing demand for bin Dagher’s ouster has been met, the rest of the cabinet was left intact, and bin Dagher was far from the sole source of his government’s poor performance and corruption. The failure of bin Dagher’s government towards the southerners had provoked violent clashes in Aden early in 2018, when the STC, which is supported by the United Arab Emirates, sent its fighters to temporarily take over key government buildings and military. Even with bin Dagher gone, the government – and its ineptitudes – that had initially spurred the STC’s creation largely remain in place.
The GPC is at loss as well with bin Dagher’s dismissal, as it is left with no one of any weight in power, neither in Sana’a nor in Riyadh. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Islah party also loses, even if not much, as Abdul Malik, unlike bin Dagher, does not sign invoices or documents without reading them, and Abdul Malik does not pay for ‘ghost soldiers’ – a common form of corruption in Yemen, whereby payroll numbers are inflated with employees who do not actually work. Islah, however, has protected its interests through securing posts for its members at the highest levels of the administration, including the president’s chief of staff. It is satisfied with its leading role on the battlefield.
The groups that are most at a loss, however, are the supporters of 2011 revolution and the youth. Abdul Malik emerged in 2011 as a face of the Youth movement during the revolution, but placing him in office now – with few capabilities, resources or sovereignty – in fact soils what the revolution stood for. Hadi is using Abdul Malik as a means to wash his own very dirty clothes. Hadi has burned through all of his strategic allies and no longer has any significant political tools other than the 2011 Revolution. The 2011 uprising was the greatest, most inclusive Yemeni achievement of this generation, and Abdul Malik’s appointment is a slap in its face, degrading it into a symbolic position in exile, surrounded by the rivalries between Yemen’s political elite and regional proxies that are tearing the country apart.
While Abdul Malik’s appointment can be seen as an attempt to restore the image of the internationally recognized government, all governmental decisions are made between the president and his sons and a small group of people around him. Therefore, it is not clear what Abdul Malik is armed with to face the complications of this wars, as well as having more than half of his country on the verge of starvation.
Furthermore, Abdul Malik’s legitimacy as head of government is equal to the legitimacy of bin Dagher before him, and even to their their rival bin Habtoor of the Houthi government in Sana’a. This is because they all have one thing in common: they violate UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which only recognized the government led by Bahah. They are governments that have not held a single parliamentary vote, neither are they subject to oversight, and their formation in essence undermines the foundations of the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative for a political transition in Yemen. Perhaps the most dangerous issue in all of this is that those governments are subject only to the power calculations of the different parties. For example, when Khaled Bahah was dismissed two years ago, the Islah party supported the decision, because it matched their military calculations at the time, despite the terrible consequences this step had for legitimacy.
Abdul Malik’s ability to deliver under the current circumstances will remain the most important criteria by which to assess him. He could work from his position to speed up the end of the war, making his current position a bridge to gain the legitimacy of achievement, a task that his predecessors failed at. If he succeeds in exploiting the international momentum on the economic front in order to reactivate the economic truce and have Yemeni public sector salaries paid, he would have succeeded much more than the expectations surrounding him. Bin Dagher, by the way, had threatened not to pay Yemenis under Houthi rule their salaries when he came into power, which is the only promise that he actually fulfilled.
The greatest stigma of the internationally recognized government is that it is the “government of hotels.” Despite its claim of having liberated 75 percent of Yemeni territory, it still lives in exile. If Abdul-Malik wants to distinguish himself from it, and to maintain his self-respect and the his people’s respect for him, he must act as the Prime Minister of Yemen and not as an ambassador for Yemen based abroad.
**Farea Al-Muslimi is the Chairman of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies and Associate Fellow at Chatham House.