Yemen at the UN – March 2017 Review

Yemen at the UN – March 2017 Review


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

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

In the US the debate centered around whether the offensive would serve American interests in countering Iranian influence in the region, and to what degree the US military should support a coalition assault on Hudaydah. There were strong indications in March that the nascent Trump Administration favored US military support of the Saudi-led coalition’s efforts.

Meanwhile, the World Food Program reported that 17 million people in Yemen were food insecure – three million more than in January – while the Yemeni rial faced the imminent threat of rapid depreciation, which would destroy per-capita purchasing power in the country and significantly accelerate the spread of famine.  

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also described to the Security Council the many attacks on civilians by all sides of the conflict during March, the worst of which was a Saudi-led coalition attack on a boat carrying Somali refugees off of the coast of Hudaydah that killed 43 civilians.


Yemen-related UN happenings in March

Following a request from the Russian mission, on March 10 the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Stephen O’Brien, briefed the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) regarding several of the world’s humanitarian crises, chief among them Yemen.

O’Brien, who had visited Yemen from February 26 to March 2, said the country is in the midst of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and that the Yemeni people face the “spectre of famine.” Given Yemen’s heavy reliance on imports – with the country importing up to 90 percent of its nutritional needs – the OCHA head said that famine cannot be prevented without the active participation of the private sector, that commercial imports must be allowed to resume normally through all entry points and, in particular, Hudaydah port “must be kept open and expanded.” He added that “all parties to the conflict are arbitrarily denying sustained humanitarian access and are politicizing aid.”

Notable among the responses of the ambassadors in attendance was that of US representative Michele Sison, who said council members must use their influence over the warring parties involved in humanitarian crises to ensure “unfettered access” for aid, and with regard to Yemen in particular referred to Hudaydah Port and Sana’a Airport in stating that “obstructions to aid in Yemen must be lifted.” In an apparent deviation from the trajectory of the new US administration, Sison reaffirmed the necessity for a political peace process and said “there is no military solution to the conflict in Yemen.”

On March 13, the Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova released a statement expressing Moscow’s concern regarding the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and calling for an “immediate cessation of all use of force.” Particularly worrying, said Zakharova, were plans by the Saudi-led coalition and forces fighting on behalf of the internationally-recognized government to launch an offensive against rebel-held Hudaydah, adding that such an assault would cause the mass displacement of civilians and cut Sana’a off from food and humanitarian aid, leading to “disastrous consequences.” The Russian spokesperson also said its embassy in Sana’a – one of only two foreign diplomatic missions operating in Yemen, along with Iran’s – had established a secretariat to facilitate cooperation between the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick, and “the de-facto authorities in the capital.”  

On March 14, the “Quint” multilateral group – until recently dubbed the “Quad”, which consisted of the US, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but now also including Oman – met with the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, in London. International observers noted that the lack of a press statement following the meeting likely implied that the talks were unproductive. The London meeting was part of a four-day European tour by Ould Cheikh Ahmed, during which he also visited Paris and Berlin, met with senior officials and Middle East experts, and publicly reiterated the need for a political settlement to the conflict and increased international humanitarian assistance.  

Following another Russian request, on March 17 UNSC member states discussed the expected attack on Hudaydah, with Political Affairs Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman providing a briefing. At the talks many member states expressed concern that the attack would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis, though none went as far as saying the assault should not take place. In an “elements to the press” – the weakest form of Security Council public statement – following the briefing, UNSC member states called for there to be access for humanitarian and commercial goods in Yemen, including through Hudaydah, and for the warring parties to abide by international humanitarian law.     

On March 23 the Swedish mission organized a meeting of the UNSC’s Informal Experts Group on Women, Peace and Security, which included the Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, as well as the UN Special Envoy and the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen. The discussions revolved around various issues arising from the past two years of conflict – including the rising rates of violence against women, child marriage, female-headed households, women enduring famine – as well as ways to address these issues and promote more equitable political engagement for women.  

On March 29, both Special Envoy Ould Chiekh Ahmed and Ambassador Koro Bessho of Japan, Chair of the Yemen 2140 Sanctions Committee, briefed UNSC members. The Special Envoy reiterated his dismay at the deteriorating humanitarian and economic situation and the likelihood of intensified military operations. He urged UNSC members to pressure all sides in the conflict to engage constructively with his proposed framework for achieving peace, and emphasized that the impacts of the current situation threaten to undermine Yemen’s stability far into the future.

“It is my firm belief that further military escalation and humanitarian suffering will not bring the parties closer together,” said Ould Chiekh Ahmed, urging the UNSC to “use all of its diplomatic weight to push for the relevant parties to make the concessions required to reach a final agreement before more lives are lost. We must give peace another chance.”


The prospect of a Hudaydah offensive

Hudaydah city, situated along Yemen’s north-western Red Sea coast, contains an urban area of some one million people, with the wider governorate having a population of some 2.6 million. Being within close proximity of the country’s largest urban centers, the city is home to Yemen’s most active port facilities and is currently the entry point for 70-80 percent of the country’s current humanitarian deliveries, and an even greater share of commercial fuel and food imports.

At the beginning of the year, forces fighting on behalf of the internationally-recognized government of Yemen, backed by the Saudi-led regional military coalition, launched a renewed effort to retake the country’s west coast and cut off the Houthi rebels and allied forces of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh from their access to the Red Sea. In early February pro-government forces succeeded in capturing the town of Mokha, less than 200 kilometers south of Hudaydah, and made public their intentions to push their offensive north to retake Hudaydah itself.

Through the rest of February and March, however, despite sustained support from coalition airstrikes and shelling from warships offshore, pro-government ground forces made little headway, held back by the Houthis’ heavy use of landmines and stiff armed resistance. This contributed to renewed calls by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their supporters in Washington, for increased US military support to pursue the Hudaydah offensive.


The debate in Washington

March witnessed intense debate among members of congress, current and former government officials and US agency representatives as to the implications of a Hudaydah offensive and whether, or to what degree, the American military should engage.

Those advocating for robust US military involvement – including mainly Republican senators, some White House officials and Pentagon staff, among others – argued that capturing Hudaydah was essential to protect American interests, given that it would help secure Red Sea commercial shipping and assist American allies in containing Iranian attempts to destabilize the region through proxy forces. Proponents also argued that denying the Houthi rebels their last major seaport and means of resupply would likely force them to re-engage in peace negotiations, that capturing Hudaydah would facilitate speedier access for humanitarian aid delivery in Yemen, and that support for the Saudi-led coalition is necessary to help counter Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Late last year the Obama administration rejected a request to aid Emirati forces in attacking Hudaydah, after it concluded that even with US support the assault was likely to be unsuccessful against rebels who were well entrenched and well armed, also noting that the assault would dramatically exacerbate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, which the UN shortly thereafter called the largest food security emergency in the world.   

Vocal opponents of last month’s push in Washington for greater US involvement in an offensive against Hudaydah repeated the same concerns, while also warning that the US risked being drawn into a military quagmire with no clear exit, that the Houthis posed no direct threat to American interests, and indeed 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,” as noted in a letter addressed to the US president penned by a bipartisan group of senators. (For more on how Al Qaeda has benefited from US policy in Yemen, see this recent Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies report: The Limits of US Military Power in Yemen: Why Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continues to thrive.)

While the Trump administration itself is currently undertaking a review of its Yemen policy, with the results not expected until the end of April, many observers suggest their position will ultimately align with that of Saudi Arabia; indeed, following a White House meeting on March 13 between Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and President Trump, the two reaffirmed their commitment to “a strong, broad, and enduring strategic partnership based on a shared interest and commitment to the stability and prosperity of the Middle East region… [and] the importance of confronting Iran’s destabilizing regional activities.”

In the first week of March, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson approved measures to restart the sale of precision-guided weapons to Saudi Arabia, which the Obama White House had banned following a Saudi air strike on a funeral hall in Sana’a last October that killed well more than 100 people and wounded hundreds more. At the end of last month, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis then issued a request for the White House to rescind another Obama-era restriction preventing the US military from supporting Saudi-led coalition operations in Yemen. Both requests require presidential approval to go into effect, which President Trump had yet to give as of this writing.


UN reaction

In speaking with representatives from UNSC member state representatives and other UN sources through March 2017, the Sana’a Center found there was a general sense that the new US administration will erase all diplomatic efforts over the past two years aimed at ending the Yemeni conflict. Despite UN reports detailing only small-scale Iranian support for the Houthis to date, UNSC member states foresee the Trump White House embracing the Saudi-led coalition narrative that casts the Houthis in Yemen akin to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and thus as an existential threat to American interests. The internationally-recognized government of Yemen has also been seen as welcoming the prospective increase in US military support, with President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi concurrently showing decreased interest in engaging with the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, in the peace process.  

Faced with the shifting policies in Washington, through March it became apparent that neither the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, nor UNSC member states, had any practical suggestions regarding how to move forward the peace process, beyond the general idea that the framework for domestic negotiations and the international political process should be broadened.


Humanitarian and economic updates

On March 13, Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) Ertharin Cousin, following a three-day trip to Sana’a and Aden, urged the international community to help prevent famine in Yemen, given that 17 million Yemenis are food insecure – an increase of three million people since January this year – and seven million of these were “severely food insecure.”

A Famine Early Warning Systems Networks report at the end of March noted that: “Recent food import data suggest that food imports into Al Hudaydah port have recently declined sharply. As this port supplies many key markets in western Yemen, these declining imports raise concerns about future supply levels and food prices at markets that rely on this port as a source.” At the beginning of April the WFP then reported that increased tensions around the port had spurred commercial shipping lines to cease deliveries. The WFP noted that “as an immediate implication, a rise in transportation costs and an increase in delivery times are expected.” The agency then said it was working on a contingency plan, with one option to redirect humanitarian operations to Aden.

While the WFP was able to reach 4.9 million people with food aid in February, “because of inadequate funding WFP reduced the food ration to stretch assistance to more people.” As of March 10, the $2.1 billion international humanitarian appeal for Yemen for 2017 had only been 6 percent met. In an effort to raise funds the governments of Switzerland and Sweden are co-hosting a “High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen,” slated to take place at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on April 25. As of the end of March, however, no governments had made any public pledges for the event.

In a move that is certain to impact future Yemeni relief efforts – and indeed was described by one observer as possibly entailing “the breakdown of the international humanitarian system as we know it” – the American administration instructed government staff last month to identify cuts of up to 50% in general US spending to the United Nations for 2018, with Foreign Policy reporting that this likely includes a 36% cut in US funding for humanitarian programs. The US is currently the largest financial contributor to the UN, with roughly $10 billion in annual spending. In an attempt to stave off the devastating funding cuts, the UN responded by appointing South Carolina governor David Beasley, a Trump loyalist, to head the WFP.


Economic collapse  

Widespread economic collapse is magnifying Yemen’s humanitarian crisis: per capita GDP is estimated to have dropped 35 percent in two years; most civil servants – roughly a quarter of the country’s employed – have not been paid since August 2016; fishing and agricultural activity are down 65 and 50 percent, respectively, and “over 70 percent of small and medium enterprises have been forced to lay off half of their workforce,” according to March 18 OCHA bulletin. OCHA further highlighted the collapse of public services: roughly half of all healthcare facilities closed – and most of those remaining open suffering shortages of medicine, equipment and staff – leaving an estimated 14.8 million people without access to basic healthcare, while two million children are out of school.

Furthermore, immediately threatening to exacerbate the humanitarian situation is the likelihood of a rapid depreciation of the Yemeni rial, should there be no robust international financial intervention to provide the Yemeni market with access to foreign currency exchange. (For more on Yemeni rial depreciation, see this recent Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies report: Rapid currency depreciation and the decimation of Yemeni purchasing power). Given the country’s massive reliance on imports, such would devastate remaining per-capita purchasing power, undermine Yemenis’ ability to buy food and other necessities and significantly accelerate the spread of famine.

Among the only positive trends emerging in the humanitarian situation in Yemen last month was in regards to the cholera/Acute Watery Diarrhea (AWD) outbreak: in January this year there were 15,000 suspected cases in 156 Yemeni districts; thanks in large part to the efforts of the UN and partner organizations, OCHA reported last month that “the cholera/AWD epidemic curve shows a declining trend of incidences occurring in the most affected districts.”


Continuing evidence of war crimes

On March 24 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein released a statement detailing attacks over the previous month that had killed 106 civilians. These included helicopter gunships and warships from the Saudi-led military coalition firing on fishing boats off Yemen’s Red Sea coast, and air strikes on food trucks and markets. Al Hussein also noted the Houthi forces had shelled a market in Taiz and were laying siege to densely populated areas of the governorate, causing severe shortages of food, water and milk for infants for civilians trapped inside.

The human rights commissioner said the worst incident last month occurred on March 16 off of the coast of Hudaydah, when a boat carrying Somali refugees attempting to get to Europe was fired upon by coalition forces. A Reuters report, based on numerous eyewitness accounts, said that for half an hour an Apache helicopter had fanned back and forth over the vessel spraying it with bullets, killing a total of 43 people.     

The human rights commissioner then reiterated his call for an independent international investigation into war crimes by all sides – a proposal that has been repeatedly put before the Human Rights Council during the Yemeni conflict and each time rejected by Saudi Arabia and its allies on the council, including the United States and the United Kingdom.  

Following the incident the UAE issued a statement saying its forces had not targeted the Somali vessel, having “clearly recognised the non-military nature of the boat which was carrying a large number of civilians”; the UAE then called for an independent international investigation into the incident – an unprecedented move which observers say was an attempt to ensure that Riyadh bore responsibility.     

Days later the Saudi-led coalition called on the UN to assume jurisdiction over the port and supervise its operations; the UN refused, with spokesperson Farhan Haq adding that “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.”

Speaking later in the month about the incident and other attacks against civilians, Human Rights Watch warned that continued US arms sale to Saudi Arabia risked exposing American individuals involved in these transactions to criminal liability for aiding and abetting war crimes.

In related news, US Secretary of State Tillerson said the US would withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council if it did not undertake “considerable reform.” As reported by Foreign Policy, Tillerson said in a letter to various NGOs that “the United States ‘continues to evaluate the effectiveness’ of the Council, [and] remains skeptical about the virtues of membership in a human rights organization that includes states with troubled human rights records, such as China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.”


In brief

  • The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of April 5, received 10% of the USD $2.1 billion it has appealed for to implement its humanitarian response plan for Yemen in 2017.
  • In the month of March, 41 vessels applied for clearance from the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM); 34 requests for clearance were issued certification and the average time to issue clearance was 31 hours, an average of three hours less than the month before. A total of 636,810 metric tons (mt) of cargo was approved through the UNVIM in March, consisting of 636,810 mt of food, 236,854 mt of fuel and 145,266 mt of general cargo. This is a increase by a total of 223,467 mt of cargo from the month before.


Yemen at the UN is a monthly report produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies to identify and assess UN-led efforts to resolve the crisis in Yemen. Through this analysis, Yemen at the UN aims to provide readers with an understanding of the international political context that accompanies developments on the ground. This month’s Yemen at the UN report is in partnership with Friedrich-Ebert- Yemen office.

Yemen at the UN – February 2017 Review

Yemen at the UN – February 2017 Review


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

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

The infighting that broke out in January between groups backing President Hadi continued through February in the cities of Taiz and Aden, while resource and revenue scarcities helped fuel tensions within the Houthi-Saleh alliance and between the Houthi-Saleh alliance and populations in areas they control. 

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continued to exploit the chaos brought on by the conflict, the humanitarian crisis and the country’s economic collapse to improve its domestic position, and throughout February stepped up attacks against both main warring sides.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, in his second month on the job, visited the Gulf region and after meeting with regional governments publicly reiterated his support for the UN Special Envoy for Yemen and his efforts to mediate a peaceful resolution to the war.


At the UN

Continuing war crimes reports

On February 10, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement citing “extremely worrying reports” that over the preceding two weeks there had been numerous violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in the battle for the port city of Mukha. This follows on the heels of the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen’s report on January 27, which stated that over the past two years there has been clear evidence of widespread and systematic violations of international law by all sides in the conflict.  

The human rights commission’s February statement noted that the warring sides had issued civilians in various areas of Mukha city contradictory commands – with forces loyal to President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi ordering them to evacuate as those allied with the Houthi movement demanding they remain – with credible reports then emerging from Mukha of fleeing civilians being shot by Houthi snipers and others who remained being killed in their homes by airstrikes from the Saudi-led military coalition backing Hadi.

In a statement, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said: “Civilians were trapped and targeted during the Al Mukha fighting. There are real fears that the situation will repeat itself in the port of Al Hudaidah, to the north of Al Mukha, where air strikes are already intensifying. The already catastrophic humanitarian situation in the country could spiral further downwards if Al Hudaidah port – a key entry point for imports into Yemen – is seriously damaged.”  

Zeid noted the “alarming frequency” with which incidents of possible war crimes had been reported over the last two years of conflict, and to “break the climate of impunity in Yemen” he reiterated his call for an independent international investigation – a proposal that has been put before the Human Rights Council several times over the past two years and each time was rejected by Saudi Arabia and its allies on the council, including the United States and the United Kingdom. 

At a press briefing on February 28, Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN human rights commission, said the UN had verified almost 1,500 cases of children being recruited as soldiers since March 2015. She urged all sides in the conflict to refrain from such practices, which are strictly forbidden by international humanitarian and human rights law and may amount to war crimes in cases where the child is under 15 years old. Shamdasani added that “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.” She said most of the cases they had uncovered related to recruitment by Houthi-affiliated “Popular Committees”.


Diplomatic maneuvering

On February 10, a high ranking Houthi official submitted a letter to the newly-minted UN Secretary-General António Guterres requesting that he not renew the term of the current UN Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who was appointed by former Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in April 2015. The letter claimed Ould Cheikh Ahmed has shown a “lack of neutrality”, was biased toward the Saudi-led coalition and urged the UN to investigate a Saudi-led coalition airstrike on a funeral gathering in Sana’a in October 2016 that resulted in hundreds of casualties.

In a direct rebuff to the Houthi request, two days later the Secretary-General, speaking at a press conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said: “Our envoy has my full support and I believe that he is doing an impartial work [sic], that he is doing it in a very professional way and independently of what other people may think.”

Guterres also noted during the press conference that Saudi Arabia was “an important pillar of stability in the region.” The Secretary-General was in Riyadh as part of his first major international tour in his new position, a trip which also took him to Oman, Qatar and Egypt. While also discussing the situations in Libya and Syria with regional leaders, Guterres noted that a specific priority on his trip was to support Ould Cheikh Ahmed in his attempts to restart peace negotiations in Yemen. In the nearly two years he has been Special Envoy, Ould Cheikh Ahmed and his small team of staff – relative to other comparable UN missions – have failed to secure a meaningful de-escalation of hostilities or even establish a framework the warring parties could agree upon by which further peace negotiations would proceed. Indeed, President Hadi rejected outright the last “roadmap” to peace the Special Envoy proposed in December 2016.

On February 17, the internationally recognized government of Yemen’s representative to the UN then submitted a request to the Security Council asking that the Houthis and allied forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh be officially designated as “terrorists”, citing a Houthi attack in January on a Saudi vessel off Yemen’s Red Sea coast.

Also last month, foreign ministers from Oman and the “Quad” – the multilateral diplomatic initiative that includes the US, UK, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – met with the UN Special Envoy for Yemen in Bonn, Germany, though no significant public statement was forthcoming following the mid-February meeting. It should be noted that during the latter half of 2016, US Secretary of State John Kerry and the US were forcefully leading the Quad’s efforts to support the Special Envoy in bringing the warring parties to commit to a peace process. The new US administration inaugurated in January has yet to articulate a Yemen policy – something other western diplomats have said has effectively placed the peace process on hold – though indications are that going forward the White House will be more sympathetic towards Saudi Arabia and more aggressive toward Iran and the Houthis.

Meanwhile, representatives from several security council member states noted to the Sana’a Center last month that the lack of a diplomatic presence in Yemen – with only Iran and Russia maintaining functioning embassies in the country – is creating significant challenges for them to independently source information and analysis regarding evolving dynamics on the ground. This has created a situation in which many member state’s primary information sources are largely the UN’s own agencies. President Hadi’s calls for the UN and foreign governments to reopen their offices and embassies in Aden have gone unheeded, likely largely due to the general security vacuum that exists and the Yemeni government’s own tenuous presence in the city.


On the ground

Pro-Hadi forces capture Mukha, AQAP expands attacks

Fighting between the main warring parties occurred along frontlines across Yemen throughout February, as did Saudi-led coalition airstrikes within Houthi-Saleh held territory. Despite the warring parties’ frequent claims of grand victories in sympathetic media outlets, in most areas a relative stalemate and war of attrition prevailed. The major exception to this was along Yemen’s Red Sea coast, where Hadi-aligned forces, heavily supported by coalition airpower and naval bombardments, have succeeded since the beginning of 2017 in making progress in the western areas of Taiz province.

Intense battles in the later half of January and through February have resulted pro-Hadi fighters in the area seizing control of most of the port town of Mukha from the Houthi-Saleh alliance, with the apparent aim to continue northwards to Hudaidah, the most significant port the Houthis and Saleh still control. Following the loss of Mukha, Houthi allied fighters withdrew towards the town of Khokha, north of Mukha, and to areas around Khalid Bin Al-Walid military base to the east.   

On February 22, Hadi Government appealed for international assistance to help in demining operations, notably around Mukha, where Houthi/Saleh forces heavily deployed landmines and the fighting has left untold numbers of unexploded ordnance. The same day, Houthi-Saleh rocket fire toward Mukha killed Deputy Chief of Staff General Ahmed Said al-Yafei, one of President Hadi’s most senior commanders and an architect of the Red Sea offensive. (His replacement had yet to be named by end-February.)

Later the same week the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that some 25,000 people – the vast majority of Mukha’s population – had fled the town due to the fighting, and that “the main hospital is functioning at minimum capacity and there are reports of scores of dead bodies in the street.”

Among the many military actions elsewhere in the country in February were the intermittent Saudi-led coalition airstrikes around Sana’a. Early in the month several of these struck ostensibly military targets, however on February 15, OCHA reported that airstrikes on a funeral gathering in the Arhab district killed six women, one child, and wounded at least 15 other civilians.


Zone of control in Yemen as of February 28, 2017

Meanwhile, AQAP stepped up its attacks against both pro-Hadi forces and the Houthi-Saleh alliance throughout February. In the first 10 days of the month AQAP fighters captured three towns in northern Abyan and briefly occupied several neighbourhoods in the city of Lowder, assassinated two Houthi-Saleh commanders in Ibb governorate and then clashed with Houthi-Saleh forces in the governorate’s al-Sayyani and Udayn districts.

Through mid-February AQAP was suspected of being behind a rocket attack against UAE-affiliated forces in the capital of Hadramaut governorate, Mukalla, and responsible for the assassination of a local official and three others in the city of Araq, Shabwa governorate.

In the last seven days of the month AQAP ambushed a government convoy in the Lawder district of Abyan governorate and captured military hardware, attacked a Houthi-Saleh convoy in Qayfa, al-Bayda’ governorate, with an improvised explosive device, ambushed other Houthi-Saleh units in the town of al-Zuqab, destroyed a police complex in Shabwa governorate and initiated an attack on the government-held Najda military base in Abyan governorate with a massive a suicide car bomb. On the last day of February Southern Movement leader Hassan Hanshal al-Awlaqi was then assassinated in Ataq, in what is also suspected to be an AQAP operation.


Infighting amongst pro-Hadi forces

In the last week of January, Salafist groups in Taiz seized control of the city’s main administrative institutions in areas outside of Houthi-Saleh control. This sparked intermittent street battles since between the Salafists and other groups, primarily Islah (the Muslim Brotherhood Party in Yemen). In the almost complete absence of government institutions capable of policing the city, areas of Taiz under government “control” have experienced severe insecurity and the rise of criminal gangs. Notable events last month included the February 13 assassination attempt against an Islah leader and the February 23 attack on the market in the al-Koba area – gunmen opened fire on civilians, killing four and wounding nine, in what was reportedly a dispute between competing extortion rackets operating in the market.

On February 25 dozens of residents took to the streets to protest the lack of security, with the relative decrease in security-related events in government-held areas towards the end of the month being attributed to AQAP, whose affiliates were able to mediate between the various anti-Houthi groups. 

Meanwhile in the government-held southern city of Aden, soldiers protecting the airport, under the command of Saleh al-Omeri, shut down the facility for part of February 10 in protest of not having received their wages. The following day President Hadi sent presidential guard units to the airport to replace al-Omeri’s soldiers, resulting in a gun battle between the two when the latter refused to step down. The situation escalated when Salafist units in the area attempted to reinforce al-Omeri – both of whom receive substantial backing from the United Arab Emirates – after which an Emirati helicopter gunship opened fire on a Presidential Guard vehicle, killing multiple soldiers.

Negotiations followed, the fighting subsided and the airport officially reopened the next day with al-Omeri’s men still in control, though Yemenia Airlines continued to cancel or reroute flights to and from Aden. This incident is emblematic of the deep rifts that have developed within the military forces fighting against the Houthi-Saleh alliance, and specifically between President Hadi and the UAE. Shortly after the incident Hadi was in Riyadh, reportedly to discuss the airport battle with Saudi and Emirati government representatives.


Houthi-Saleh tensions

Throughout February disputes within the Houthi-Saleh alliance continued to prevent the appointment of a successor to Ali al-Jaifi, the head of the Republican Guard who was killed in the Saudi-led coalition airstrike on a funeral gathering in Sana’a in October 2016.

Later in the month tension also arose between the two allies in the Ibb governorate when Houthi affiliates began issuing local building permits, directly contradicting and overstepping the authority of ministry officials in Sana’a loyal to Saleh. It is important to note that, as the severity of the economic crisis has continued to intensify, licensing and official permits have become an important source of cash, though Saleh’s long-standing patronage networks within the state bureaucracy are now competing with new, parallel Houthi networks for these revenues.

In Houthi-controlled Dhamar governorate, south of Sana’a, escalating local frustration and resentment against the Houthis led to armed clashes in the Utma district, with Houthis fighters being captured and killed in skirmishes in the latter half of the month. The Houthis responded to this resistance by kidnapping prominent locals who had been vocal in their opposition, and destroying the homes of others. Numerous reports suggested the Houthis were employing similar methods of repression against the local population in various areas of the Taiz governorate.


Continuing humanitarian crisis

UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization declared in February that “Yemen is facing the largest food security emergency in the world”, and that “[c]urrent estimates indicate that existing supplies of wheat in the country will last until the end of March 2017.” This followed the February 8 UN launch of an international appeal for aid amounting to $2.1 billion to “provide life-saving assistance to 12 million people in Yemen in 2017”. It is the largest ever consolidated humanitarian appeal for Yemen.

In announcing the appeal OCHA noted that the conflict has left 18.8 million people – more than two thirds of the population – in need of humanitarian assistance; some 10.3 million Yemenis are acutely affected and require “some form of immediate humanitarian assistance to save and sustain their lives.” This includes food, healthcare, clean water and protection. Some 3.3 million people, including 2.1 million children, are acutely malnourished.

A February 21 UN report stated that since 2015 the conflict has displaced some 3 million Yemenis, but that some one million have since returned. “It’s testament to how catastrophic the situation in Yemen has become, that those displaced by the conflict are now returning home because life in the areas to which they had fled for safety is just as abysmal as in the areas from which they fled,” said the UNHCR’s Country Representative for Yemen, Ayman Gharaibeh. “Those attempting to return face tremendous challenges… They often return to homes that have been damaged, in areas lacking essential services. They still need humanitarian aid and are often forced to flee their homes again. These returns cannot be viewed as sustainable.” (Among those most recently displaced are some 44,000 people who have fled their homes because of the surge of fight in Taiz province, including those from Mukha.)  

On February 26, The Ministry of Public Health and Population in Yemen released figures showing that since the end of January 2017 there had been 1,610 new suspected cases of cholera reported, including 4 deaths. The report said there appeared to be a decline in the rate of new cases per week, with 80% of the new cases in this latest report located in 13 districts in the Al Hudaidah, Dhale, Hajjah and Taiz governorates. In a subsequent briefing spokesperson Christophe Boulierac from the UN Children’s Fund said every 10 minutes a Yemeni child under the age of five is dying from a preventable disease – such diarrhoea, pneumonia or measles – due to almost half the country’s medical facilities being out of service.

The dangers and difficulties aid agencies face while trying to operate in Yemen were also made apparent in two high profile incident in February. On February 14, six aid workers and a driver for the Norwegian Refugee Council were arrested by Houthi-Saleh forces while attempting to distribute aid in Hudaidah city; they were released again a week later “in good condition”, according to the NRC, which called the incident a “misunderstanding.” On February 28, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien – after having secured guarantees of safe passage from all parties – had his convoy turned back from entering besieged areas of Taiz at a Houthi-Saleh checkpoint. In a statement OCHA reported that: “O’Brien was extremely disappointed that humanitarian efforts to reach people in need were once again thwarted by parties to a conflict, especially at a time when millions of Yemenis are severely food insecure and face the risk of famine.”


Currency volatility and the loss of food reserves

Currency volatility was apparent last month, with the Yemeni rial falling as much as 20% in value against the US dollar in black market trading through the first half of February, before market interventions in both Sana’a and Aden helped the domestic currency to regain lost ground and stabilize. The interventions included the Houthi-Saleh authorities forbidding fuel and food importers from purchasing foreign exchange on the market for 30 days, and implement new measures against currency speculation. In parallel, the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) governor in Aden, Monasser Al Quaiti, met with exchange companies and banks to discuss currency stabilization, assuring them that the Aden-based Central Bank was soon to receive significant foreign exchange support.

Currency stability is a critical issue for Yemen, given that previous to the conflict the country imported 90% of its basic food stuffs. Worryingly, however, was that through February Yemen’s largest bulk wheat and rice importers reported their continued inability to access import guarantees from the CBY, a primary driver of the country’s food insecurity. In an effort to help make up for the loss of these commercial food imports and stave off famine, a World Food Program chartered cargo vessel was able to dock at Hudaidah port on March 1, where it planned to offload 14,000 metric tons (mt) of wheat, before heading to Aden to offload another 6,000 mt. 

Imports are being further hampered, however, by the challenges facing Yemen’s ports. Hodeidah, along the Red Sea coast, was previously one of Yemen’s busiest ports but had its offloading capacity severely curtailed by damage from Saudi-led coalition airstrikes early in the conflict – despite this it and the smaller Saleef port to the north continue to import the majority of Yemen’s bulk food items such as wheat and rice. Hudaidah’s port facilities were also briefly forced to cease operations last month by the coalition, which demanded cargo ships offload in Aden instead; insecurity in the southern port city, and security and logistics challenges transporting goods around Yemen from Aden, however, continue to make it unattractive for importers.  

In the later half of February, the Houthi-Saleh authorities imposed a customs duty on all commercial trucks entering Houthi-Saleh controlled governorates, effectively doubling the customs duty already paid by traders at the ports. Almost immediately there were reports from Sana’a that numerous pharmaceutical drugs had risen in price, some by as much as 35%. On February 22, the Yemeni Chamber of Commerce issued a letter protesting the new duty fee and threatening to redirect their business to markets in Hadi controlled areas.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of Yemen’s public sector workers – who made up one-third of Yemen’s employed workers pre-conflict – continued to go without their wages in February, as they have since August 2016, perpetuating the collapse of public services and the slide into extreme poverty for millions of people.  

In a sign that some economic relief may be on the horizon, President Hadi announced on February 20 that the Saudi government has agreed to deposit $2 billion as currency support at the CBY in Aden, and offered billions more in reconstruction aid to government-held areas.
As of March 2, 2017, this financial support had yet to materialize.



In brief

  • The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of March 2, received 2.3% of the USD $2.1 billion it has appealed for to implement its humanitarian response plan for Yemen in 2017.
  • In the month of February, 38 vessels applied for clearance from the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM); 27 requests for clearance were issued certification and the average time to issue clearance was 34 hours, an average of six hours less than the month before. A total of 413,343 metric tons (mt) of cargo was approved through the UNVIM in February, consisting of 207,906 mt of food, 73,782 mt of fuel and 131,655 mt of general cargo. This is a decrease by a total of 153,003 mt of cargo from the month before.


Yemen at the UN is a monthly report produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies to identify and assess UN-led efforts to resolve the crisis in Yemen. Through this analysis, Yemen at the UN aims to provide readers with an understanding of the international political context that accompanies developments on the ground.

Yemen at the UN – January 2017 Review

Yemen at the UN – January 2017 Review


In January, the UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ismael Ould Cheikh Ahmed entered a period of shuttle diplomacy in an attempt revive the same peace proposal he’d put forward in December 2016 – a proposal Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi had at that time flatly rejected. The UN 2140 Sanctions Committee’s Panel of Experts reported last month that neither side in the conflict has “demonstrated sustained interest in or commitment to a political settlement or peace talks”, while pro-Hadi forces appear poised to further capitalize on recent battlefield advances.

UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien said the Yemeni conflict is driving the single largest food insecurity crisis in the world and warned of the likelihood of famine in 2017; simultaneously the UN and humanitarian partners launched the largest ever international humanitarian appeal for Yemen: US$2.1 billion to provide life-saving assistance to some 12 million people.

A continuing liquidity crisis has left most civil servants – approximately one-third of employed Yemenis – without salaries for a fifth month in a row, while disparate efforts by President Hadi’s government and the Houthi-Saleh alliance to address the liquidity crisis threaten to further undermine the rial’s value.

US President Donald Trump’s also took office in January and authorized his first foreign policy actions related to Yemen. These included a US Navy SEAL raid on a suspected Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula compound in the Al-Bayda governorate. The raid left 25 civilians dead, including 9 children under the age of 13. Also killed were 14 AQAP members and one SEAL commando, while four SEALs were injured and a $70 million US Navy aircraft destroy; the White House Press Secretary called the event a “successful operation by all standards.”


Continued shuttle diplomacy

In mid-January the UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed began a new round of shuttle diplomacy. This was an attempt to revive a peace proposal he had put forward in December to bring the fighting to a halt, but which had been rejected by the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. After visiting Riyadh, Doha and Muscat for talks with various government officials, Ould Cheikh Ahmed travelled to Aden to again meet with President Hadi, before also traveling to Sana’a to meet representatives from the Houthi movement and the allied General People’s Congress (GPC), loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Following his meetings with the warring parties, the Special Envoy informed the Security Council during a January 26 briefing in New York that his office had completed preparations for a five-day planning meeting, which will include a workshop for the De-escalation and Coordination Committee (DCC), whose members include representatives from the main warring parties. The aim of the DCC is to develop a joint implementation plan to ensure the success and sustainability of a cessation of hostilities, with Ould Cheikh Ahmed noting that Jordan had expressed willingness to host the planning meeting.

During the briefing the Special Envoy emphasized the immense suffering the conflict has brought the Yemeni people, that with “political courage and will” a resolution is still within reach but that a military solution to the war is not possible.

The UN 2140 Sanctions Committee’s Panel of Experts then met on January 27 to discuss the panel’s report which, among other things, stated that neither side in the conflict has “demonstrated sustained interest in or commitment to a political settlement or peace talks.” The panel also noted that while there had possibly been small-scale weapons shipments from Iran to the Houthis, it had not seen sufficient evidence to confirm any large-scale Iranian weapons shipments.


Intensified fighting

January witnessed an intensification of fighting on multiple fronts. Pro-Hadi forces, heavily supported by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, launched attacks in the vicinity of Nehem, east of Sana’a, which, if it fell, would threaten Houthi-Saleh forces’ control of the capital and represent a major strategic and tactical victory for Hadi.

Along the south-western coast of Yemen fighting intensified as pro-Hadi forces launched operation “Golden Spear” to take control of Mocha and by January 30 they had had been successful in capturing large parts of the town and surrounding areas. Heavy fighting continued in central Mocha, where Houthi-Saleh forces withdrew after losing the port. Fighting in and around Mokha has resulted in a large number of civilians being displaced, with the UN estimating up to 30,000 had relocated to safer areas within Taiz or surrounding governorates. A large number of civilians were also trapped within Mokha itself, facing an increasingly dire humanitarian situation.

Given pro-Hadi forces’ military advances in January, and the new administration of U.S. President Donald Trump taking office – which has expressed support for the Saudi-led military intervention backing Hadi – it seems highly likely that Hadi will seek to push the initiative for further military gains, seeking to placing his government in a more advantageous position in eventual negotiations.

Indeed, in an event that was perhaps telling of the UN Special Envoy’s chances of securing a cessation of hostilities in the near-term, on January 30 the building in Dhahran Al-Janoub, Saudi Arabia, from which UN officials and DCC members were meant to monitor ceasefire violations, was itself damaged by rocket fire. In a statement, Ould Cheikh Ahmed expressed regret over the incident while refraining from blaming any side; Saudi news agencies, however, reported that the building had been hit by Houthi Katyusha rockets.



New UN humanitarian appeal

Also in a January 26th briefing to the Security Council, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien said the Yemeni conflict is driving the single largest food insecurity crisis in the world, and warned of the likelihood of famine in 2017 if immediate action is not taken. Twelve days later, the UN and humanitarian partners launched an international appeal for US$2.1 billion to provide life-saving assistance to some 12 million people in Yemen in 2017. It is the largest consolidated humanitarian appeal for Yemen ever.

An estimated 18.8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection – including 10.3 million people in need of immediate humanitarian assistance, including life-saving access to food, drinking water and medical services. Nearly 3.3 million people – including 2.1 million children – are acutely malnourished while 2 million people remain internally displaced. The recorded death toll in Yemen has surpassed 10,000.


Continuing liquidity crisis, inflation fears

The UN response plan also warned that the country is in social, economic and institutional collapse. A major contributing factor is that most public sector workers – approximately a third of wage-earning Yemenis – have not received salaries since August 2016 due to a severe liquidity crisis; Yemen is overwhelming a cash economy, and there has been an acute shortage in physical banknotes to pay civil servants.

Early last month, it was reported that a significant shipment of Yemeni rial banknotes arrived from printers in Russia to the Central Bank of Yemen, whose headquarters was relocated to Aden in September 2016. However, it is not clear how quickly this currency would be distributed and to which areas of the country. On the January 24 the CBY in Aden made its first public sector wage payments to civil servants in Houthi-Saleh control areas, though these payments were limited to educational staff. It is important to note that the cash transfer was not completed through the CBY’s own facilities and staff in Sana’a, but rather through an agreement with the private microfinance bank Al-Kuraimi. Authorities in Sana’a have threatened to punish banks cooperating with the Aden based CBY. This, in combination with continued lack of communication between CBY facilities in Sana’a and Aden, presents significant challenges to any future efforts to pay government wages.

Meanwhile, in an effort the circumvent the liquidity crisis themselves, at the beginning of January the Houthi-Saleh authorities in Sana’a directed central bank staff at the former CBY headquarters in the capital to explore the possibility of implementing a cashless electronic payment system using mobile phones. Central bank staff have since been examining the successful rollout of a similar model that was implemented in Kenya.

Both efforts to address the liquidity crisis have raised concerns, however, regarding a further devaluation of the Yemeni rial, given that neither the Hadi government in Aden nor that Houthi-Saleh administration in Sana’a has secured significant foreign currency reserves to back an increased supply of domestic currency. The black market exchange rate for the rial at the end of January was roughly YR330 to the US dollar, compared to YR215 to the US dollar when the Saudi-led intervention began in March 2015.


Trump’s first moves in Yemen

On January 20, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States, and between then and the end of the month his office authorized at least six US drone strikes aimed at suspected Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operatives in Yemen.


A week after his inauguration, President Trump signed an executive order barring citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Yemen among them, from entering the United States; a US federal judge and appeals court later suspended the Trump’s immigration order. Two days later after the signing of the order, on January 29, US Navy SEALs conducted a raid on a village in the Al-Bayda governorate. Death tolls vary slightly, however villagers report 25 civilians killed, including 9 children under the age of 13; AQAP reported 14 members killed. A US Navy SEAL commando was also killed, four wounded and a $70 million US Navy Osprey aircraft was destroyed. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer dubbed the event a “successful operation by all standards.”

The navy destroyer USS Cole was then ordered to patrol Yemen’s Red Sea coast to help protect shipping lanes in the Bab Al Mandeb strait, following a Houthi attack on a Saudi frigate using a “drone boat” at the end of January. On February 3, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn issued a statement on Iran through the White House press secretary in which he described the Houthis as one of Iran’s “proxy terrorist groups.”

This is the first time a US administration has called the Houthis a “terrorist” group. Should this shift in language, and perhaps policy, outlast Flynn’s time in office, it has the potential to complicate Washington’s future engagement in the conflict; the newly minted National Security Advisor was forced to resign amid controversy after just 24 days, the shortest tenure in the 63-year history of the office.


In brief

  • The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of February 9, received only 1.8% of the USD $2.1 billion it has called for to implement its humanitarian response plan in Yemen for 2017.
  • In the month of January, 40 vessels applied for clearance from the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM). Twenty-nine certificates of clearance were issued and the average time to issue clearance was 40 hours. A total of 566,346 metric tons (mt) of cargo was approved through the UNVIM in January, consisting of 294,550 mt of food, 117,020 mt of fuel and 154,776 mt of general cargo. In January also, the UNVIM released the data for November and December, with a total cargo of 585,572 mt and 628,858 mt respectively.


Yemen at the UN is a monthly report produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies to identify and assess UN-led efforts to resolve the crisis in Yemen. Through this analysis, Yemen at the UN aims to provide readers with an understanding of the international political context that accompanies developments on the ground.