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 defenses 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 Defense 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 Abdo 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. Abdulmalek al-Houthi, the movement’s leader, said publicly: “he who does not understand the concept of alliance and partnership, is an obstacle and knows only how to be a rival,” while the GPC referred to the Houthis as “cartoonish mercenary things.”
Local efforts at de-escalation were made on November 30, but by December 2 heavy clashes were being reported, with tank fire and heavy artillery rounds being heard across the city. That same day, Saleh made a televised speech condemning the Houthis, calling on Yemenis to rise up against them, and saying it was time to turn a new page with Saudi Arabia to end the conflict. The Saudis and the Hadi government in turn announced that they would support Saleh and the GPC against the Houthis.
For a brief period that weekend it appeared the GPC had gained the upper hand, capturing various areas of the city. This success was short-lived, however, with Houthi reinforcements quickly arriving from Sa’ada and Amran governorates.
By mid-Monday Houthi forces had retaken almost all of Sana’a, including overrunning Saleh’s home and the homes of his sons and family members. Shortly after video footage emerged online of Houthi fighters chanting and carrying a blanket in which lay Saleh’s body, with wounds in the abdomen and the back of the head. Conflicting accounts of his death emerged – one suggesting he has been killed fighting at his home; another, which the Houthis put forward, said he had been killed fleeing the city.
The Saudi-led coalition then began heavy bombardment of Sana’a, with the International Committee of the Red Cross reporting on December 5 that more than 230 people had been killed and 400 wounded in the capital during the recent violence.
Analysis: GPC-Houthi battles and Yemen after Saleh
Sana’a Center analysts noted that in the lead-up to Saleh’s death there was minimal fighting around the outskirts of Sana’a, despite the Hadi government announcing that it was moving the Yemeni army’s 7th and 8th brigades toward Sana’a in support of the “uprising” against the Houthis. This government announcement thus appears to have been more of a propaganda play in the media than a signal of real policy changes on the ground; there was, clearly, an inclination within much of the Hadi government and the Saudi-led coalition not to support Saleh, but rather to leave him to his fate.
This was made apparent when the coalition made little effort to cut off Houthi reinforcements arriving in Sana’a from the north to support those battling Saleh’s fighters in the city. Likely the most significant disappointment for Saleh, however, related to the tribes surrounding Sana’a. In the last few days before his death, powerful sheikhs and tribal leaders in Sana’a recognized that the tide was turning against Saleh, making these pivotal figures unwilling to back him in a lost cause.
Simultaneously, the Houthis were able to secure these tribal allegiances during the battles with Saleh through both bribery and threats. This came on the back of the Houthis having, for more than two and a half years, used their access to state resources to purchase tribal loyalties. There were a small number of exceptions, but overall the tribal circle around Sana’a – with whom the former president had spent more than 30 years forging ties – broke with Saleh in the end.
Now the Houthis have complete control over Sana’a and there is, for the first time, the centralization of power in the northern and western regions of Yemen under one party. The alliance of convenience and the political divisions between the Houthis and the GPC that characterized authority in the north over the past two and a half years have ended. The disintegration of the GPC is likely. Saleh was essentially the heart of the party; it was his personality, dynamism and skilled relationship building that held together under one political banner the many disparate parties that constitute the GPC. Without him as this central gravitational force, it is unlikely the party can survive in any recognizable form.
While it is expected that the Houthis will try to maintain a symbolic GPC party to have a structured body that can incorporate current GPC membership and followers, the Houthis will almost certainly keep ultimate authority. Meanwhile, the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition are also attempting to keep a version of the GPC intact to counter the Houthis. These competing factors could result in a pro-Houthi GPC branch based in Sana’a, and a pro-Yemeni government GPC branch based in a coalition country, if not also further GPC branches elsewhere. In any circumstance, the GPC as it is currently known is unlikely to survive.
Importantly, the Houthis have not come out of the recent clashes with major gains, other than eliminating Saleh as a political competitor. Indeed, the Houthis can no longer count on the many Saleh-allied divisions that had been fighting alongside them against the internationally recognized government and the Saudi-led coalition. This can only weaken the Houthi frontlines – as demonstrated on December 7 when UAE-backed forces quickly seized from the Houthis Khokha city in Hudaydah governorate. The Houthis now also face a divided general public in which aggrieved GPC loyalists outnumber Houthi partisans. These tensions will likely create widespread security risks for the Houthis across large areas where the population does not support them, but rather submits to them only by force and intimidation.
Detailed future scenarios are difficult to envision, with Saleh’s death adding new complexity and uncertainty to any calculations. However, the immediate momentum the Houthis have garnered from the Sana’a battles, Saleh’s defeat and the consolidation of power in the north will almost certainly make a peaceful political solution unobtainable in the near-term.
- In the second week of November President Hadi announced that he had obtained a Saudi guarantee of $2 billion in support funds to replenish the Central Bank of Yemen’s (CBY) foreign currency reserves. A Sana’a Center financial source stated in early December that while the Saudi transfer was essentially ready, the CBY was still arranging the conditions and procedures to accept the deposit.
- Due to the ongoing severe shortage in Yemeni banknotes held by the public sector in Houthi-controlled areas, roughly 1 million government workers in northern Yemen did not receive salaries in November.
- On November 20, the US Department of the Treasury announced that it had designated a major currency counterfeiting network involving individuals and entities associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force. “This network employed deceptive measures to circumvent European export control restrictions and procured advanced equipment and materials to print counterfeit Yemeni banknotes potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars,” stated the Treasury, adding that Iran intended to use the counterfeit Yemeni rials to support its “destabilizing activities.”
- On November 16, the World Health Organization stated that nearly 11 million Yemeni children are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance; 14.8 million Yemenis are in need of basic health care, 17 million do not know where their next meal is coming from; and 7 million are totally dependent on food assistance to survive.
- Between the beginning of the Saudi blockade and November 22, ships with close to 1,500 MT of humanitarian cargo had been denied access to Hudaydah port and were being held at Djibouti and Aden ports awaiting the permission to enter Hudaydah, according to the UN’s Logistics Cluster. In addition, the UNVIM reported that as of November 15 the Saudi blockade had prevented 29 vessels carrying 300,000 MT of food and close to 200,000 MT of fuel from docking in Yemen.
- 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.
- As of November 27, OCHA reported almost 960,000 suspected cholera cases and 2,219 associated deaths, with a case fatality rate of 0.23 percent and all but one governorate and 305 out of 333 Yemeni districts affected. Diphtheria, an easy preventable disease, is also now affecting 13 governorates, notably Ibb, where there were 189 clinically diagnosed cases and 20 deaths as of November 27.
- The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of December 7, received 60.9% of the USD $2.3 billion it has appealed for to implement its humanitarian response plan for Yemen in 2017.
Human rights developments
- On December 4, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein announced the appointment of the three members of an experts group to investigate human rights violations by all parties in the Yemen conflict. The group, established by the UN Human Rights Council, is due to submit their report to the High Commissioner in September 2018.
Political and diplomatic developments
- President Trump appeared to change course regarding his administration’s support for the Saudi blockade when on December 6 the White House released an official statement calling on Saudi Arabia to “completely allow food, fuel, water and medicine to reach the Yemeni people who desperately need it. This must be done for humanitarian reasons immediately.”
- The governor of Aden, Abdul Aziz al-Muflihi, resigned on November 16, after complaining for months about his inability to carry out the functions of his office. Al-Muflihi said he blamed Prime Minister Ahmed bin Dagher for obstructions of his work as a governor, and then verbally attacked the Saudi-led coalition and the UAE for their treatment of the Yemeni government and for obstructing the government’s work on the ground.
- On November 27, President Hadi named Rajeh Said Bakrit as the new governor of al-Mahrah, replacing Mohammed Abdullah Kuddah.
- On November 30, the Southern Transition Council (STC) named the 303 members of its Southern National Assembly, in addition to the local STC leaders for each southern Yemeni governorate.
- Foreign ministers from the so-called “Quint” – comprised of the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman – met on November 29th in London. After, the group issued a communiqué highlighting the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Yemen, condemning the Houthi missile attack on Riyadh on November 4, and expressing support for Saudi Arabia and its legitimate security concerns.
- The so-called ‘Islamic State’, otherwise known as Daesh, claimed responsibility for several high profile attacks in the southern city of Aden last month, among them: On November 5, was a coordinated assault on the criminal investigation department building in the Khormaksar district, involving the detonation of explosives-laden vehicles and fighters storming the building. Daesh later claimed at least 50 security personnel were killed in the attack, while government sources reported 15. On November 14, a suicide bomber targeted a building used by the UAE-backed Security Belt forces in al-Mansoura district, killing at least six and injured dozens. On November 29, a vehicle exploded outside the Ministry of Finance building in Khormaksar district, killing four and heavily damaging to the building. Daesh also claim several assassinations last month, including a crime investigator and counterterrorism unit member in Aden.
- Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remained active throughout November, claiming numerous assassinations and attacks using explosives, mainly against Security Belt forces, but also Houthi fighters, Shabwani Elite Forces, and other targets in Aden, Abyan, Hadramawt, Lahj, Ibb, and al-Bayda governorates. Those killed include six Shabwani Elite Force members, two Houthi fighters and a Houthi commander, two Security Belt commanders, 4 soldiers, an officer in the Hadrami Elite Forces, a local Head of Communications in Hadramawt, and at least three civilians.
- The United States continued its airstrike campaign against Daesh and AQAP targets in November. The strikes took place in Abyan, al-Bayda, Shabwah, and Marib, with reports of casualties including a least 25 AQAP fighters, five ISIS fighters, and up to 9 civilians. The most high-profile strike was the killing of AQAP leader Muhammad al Khader al-Walidi, in Abyan, on November 2.
- 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 Lahj 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.