In the early hours of April 7, Yemen witnessed a dramatic political change as President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi dismissed Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and then signed over the executive authority he has held for the past decade to a presidential council. The eight-man body, known officially as the Presidential Command Council (PCC), was announced from Riyadh, where Yemeni parties to the anti-Houthi coalition had gathered under the auspices of Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-sponsored consultations.
The reformed leadership body brings together disparate factions within the anti-Houthi alliance. It is headed by Rashad al-Alimi, a former interior minister. The other seven members of the PCC are: Marib Governor Sultan al-Aradah, Southern Transitional Council President Aiderous al-Zubaidi, National Resistance forces leader Tariq Saleh, Chief of Staff of the Presidential Office Abdullah al-Alimi, Hadramawt Governor Faraj al-Bahsani, Giants Brigades Commander Abdelrahman Abou Zaraa and Member of Parliament Othman al-Majali.
Sana’a Center senior experts Maged al-Madhaji, Maysaa Shuja al-Deen and Abdulghani al-Iryani react to the change at the top of Yemen’s internationally recognized government, and look ahead to what it means for the future of the conflict in Yemen.
Council Must be Ready to Govern, Negotiate and Fight
The creation of a new leadership council is the house-cleaning the internationally recognized government has long needed. President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi had lost the support of virtually every party backing the fight to restore legitimate authority in the war. Under his watch, key territory was lost to Houthi forces over the past two years. He was increasingly frail and detached from the job, which became especially problematic with the conflict recently reaching a critical inflection point. After seven years of hugely destructive war, an unprecedented two-month truce has gone into force, which includes among its confidence-building measures the easing of the blockade of fuel deliveries to Hudaydah port and resumption of commercial flights to and from Sana’a airport. For all Yemenis this pause in the fighting is a huge relief, but previous experience has shown how fragile such agreements can be. If ever there was a time for leadership, it is now.
The new eight-member body finally groups leading figures from the various military forces on the ground under one umbrella. It is led by an experienced politician in the person of Rashad al-Alimi, who is well-known to all parties. The key external players supporting the government – Saudi Arabia and the UAE – are on the same page in terms of the new council, and the absence of any figure from the Islamist party Islah clearly reflects a Saudi desire to accommodate Emirati concerns. In other words, this is the most serious attempt in years to resolve the internal and external sources of division that have crippled the government’s policies and performance.
With Saudi and UAE guidance, the council faces two scenarios: one in which an agreement can be made with the Houthis to extend the truce and use it as a basis for a political settlement; and a second in which the truce collapses – or simply lapses – and the military option must be taken up again. It is no secret that Saudi Arabia, with strong US encouragement, is keen to move on from the war, as was reflected in Hadi’s declaration citing the aim of a permanent cease-fire and negotiations for peace. The Houthis dragged their feet on talks for over a year as they tried to seize complete control of Marib governorate and its energy resources. The hope is that the temporary truce indicates all parties, including the Houthis, now realize a military solution cannot be found.
Herein lies the second importance of the council – making clear to the Houthis that the government is in a position militarily to resist any attempts to change the status quo in Marib or elsewhere. Unfortunately, there are already signs of Houthi backsliding, and the government must be ready for all possibilities. Houthi gains have been a direct result of a lack of coordination among the array of anti-Houthi forces, but the Giants Brigades’ swift and decisive intervention in Shabwa, Marib and Al-Bayda in January showed what is possible when disputes are set aside. There is a high probability that the Houthis will test the council’s resolve in this manner. Dissuading them will require not only a strong political push from the UN and US, but also the kind of political and military unity on the Yemeni side that the new council promises.
In the short term, Al-Alimi’s main challenge will be to maintain the unity and effectiveness of the council. Crucially, he has no military power of his own behind him while leading a council of military chiefs. This can be a benefit if he manages the Saudi and UAE relationship well, builds inclusive alliances and acts collegially. He needs to show results – bringing order to the economic and security spheres in territory under government control and showing the people that the government knows how to govern again. The council also needs to demonstrate that it has the capacity to both negotiate and, if necessary, to fight.
Risks Abound for the New Presidential Council
Almost one year has passed since I suggested the formation of a presidential council to replace President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Intended as interim president for a two-year transitional period, Hadi remained in office for a decade, living mostly in exile during a war over his legitimacy.
Yemen has had several presidential councils in its history. Most failed because they were either window dressing for individual rule, or made up of divided parties, which led to violence and conflict. This newly-formed council attempts to avoid the mistakes of previous councils by defining its mandates. While it represents a variety of political parties and views, it is too early to say how it will balance the powers and mandates assigned to its members. A legal committee has been appointed to draft rules that will regulate its work.
The choice of Rashad al-Alimi to head the council is an interesting one. He has been among the Saudis’ most trusted men in Yemen since the early 2000s, when he was in charge of security cooperation between the two countries. At the same time, Al-Alimi is an experienced politician, intelligent, has a strong presence and tends to compromise. These traits should help him manage the difficulties of his position in a council that represents ideologically conflicting parties.
It is also notable that this council was formed and announced outside of Yemen, and maintaining a balance between Saudi and UAE loyalists appeared to be the primary standard in choosing members. Yemen has increasingly become the battlefield of others’ wars, and even the most critical decisions are taken by external powers, not Yemenis. This means that council members will be accountable to the countries that appointed them, not to Yemeni political parties or elites, so they can be expected to put the demands and agenda of their patrons ahead of the Yemeni street.
Yemeni participants at the Riyadh conference had no idea about this council until it was announced following hours of closed-door discussions between de-facto Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman and a small group of Yemeni politicians. No one can realistically claim that “consultations” resulted in this council. This raises deeply problematic questions about this council’s apparent lack of legitimacy, which are compounded by the absence of any reference to such a formulation in the Yemen constitution, the 2011 GCC initiative, the 2013-14 National Dialogue Conference conference or even UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which provided the international community with an initial legitimization of Hadi’s presidency.
A term for this presidential council has not yet been defined. This type of compromise body should be temporary, as it risks increasing existing political and social polarization and weakening the institution of the presidency over time.
A Fragile Window for Peace Opens
Two major obstacles to peace were finally removed when Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi fired his vice-president, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and then irrevocably transferred his own power to a Presidential Command Council (PCC). The Council meets the minimum requirements to move forward toward peace negotiations. The main parties and armed groups on the government side are represented in the PCC. More importantly, the main demographic blocs are also represented, indicating that the pro-government camp and their international backers have finally acknowledged that the Yemen war has mutated into a conflict of identities. The PCC president, Rashad al-Alimi, is the most experienced of its members; he demonstrated competence in reforming the Ministry of Interior during his first tenure leading the ministry in the early 2000s.
Much has been done for the cause of peace in this transfer of power, and much is still ahead if it is to bring peace to Yemen. First and foremost is the devil of working out the details of bylaws of the operation of the extra-constitutional collective leadership. With this reform, pro-government factions can close ranks and be in a position to enter into serious negotiations with the Houthi movement (Ansar Allah) for restoration of the Yemeni state. Calls from some quarters that the newly established unity should be used to change the military balance are dangerous, even criminal. It has become abundantly clear that the Yemeni government will never attain the level of military competence of the Houthis, which has incorporated the bulk of the pre-conflict Yemeni armed forces into its own battle-hardened ideological militia. Military adventurism will only destroy the emerging prospects for peace. Rectifying the military imbalance should be sought only at the negotiations table.
It is important for the PCC to realize that its main task is to create the conditions for a competent cabinet to carry out its constitutional duties. The operational term here is “competent”, not partisan and not corrupt. When such a cabinet is formed, it must be clear that past attempts at cloning the Yemeni state institutions that are now under control of the Houthi movement, such as the Central Bank of Yemen, have led to one disaster after another. The cabinet’s main task will be to work toward reunifying Yemeni state institutions and, simultaneously, empowering local governments in line with the professed government commitment to decentralization, as per the outcomes of the 2013-14 National Dialogue Conference. If the Yemeni government continues its corrupt and predatory ways, all will be lost.
The fear, fueled by the bombastic response of the Houthis to Hadi’s transfer of power, is that the Houthi authorities will allow their militant faction to renew its offensive on Marib city. In reality, the Houthis have never been as vulnerable as they are now. At some point last year, the moderates within the movement had come to the conclusion that they could only take Marib via a political deal. Several spokespersons for the Houthi movement, including deputy foreign minister Hussein al-Ezzi, posted on social media to that effect. That deal is not on the table. What is on the table, and what should alarm Houthi leaders, is the Yemen file at the JCPOA nuclear negotiations in Vienna. They should heed this advice: make a deal with your Yemeni brothers before Iran makes a deal at your expense.