Yemeni President Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi attends his government’s only parliamentary session since the conflict began five years ago, held in Sayoun, Yemen, on March 13, 2019 // Photo: SPA
It is usually a losing game to predict how many days or years an Arab leader has left in power — even those entering their 80s or 90s. Nevertheless, locally, regionally, and internationally, officials and stakeholders involved in the Yemen file have been increasingly asking in apprehensive whispers: “What if President Hadi dies?” The health of 74-year-old Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi is already weak: He has traveled to the world-leading Cleveland Clinic, a cardiovascular treatment center in the United States, on a Saudi private plane five times in the last five years — and has only made six visits to Yemen during that time. The statesman has a known aversion to physical activity and it does not help that he only recently curtailed his qat-chewing habit, after Saudi Arabia imposed a curfew amid the coronavirus pandemic that disrupted the movement of qat smugglers.
The arrival of the coronavirus to Riyadh — beyond causing qat shortages in the city — also presents a new threat to the president, whose age and underlying conditions mean he is among those vulnerable to COVID-19. As the New York Times reported, the disease has spread through the inner circles of the Saudi royal family.
The departure of Hadi from the presidency would be another major turning point in the Yemen War, with the fallout far from certain. To explore possible scenarios and take a deeper look at what Yemen, and the ongoing conflict, may look like post Hadi, the Sana’a Center asked five experts for their insights.
An Ornamental President Who Became the Last Stand for Legitimacy
By Gregory Johnsen
He has always been a bit of a placeholder, the politician you slot in until something better comes along. He’s bland and uncharismatic – short, bald and chubby – more mid-level clerk than president. For years he was known as “the statue,” a constitutionally mandated ornament notable for his presence at official functions and little else. He didn’t speak in meetings and rarely offered an opinion outside of them. Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi rose to the top of presidential politics in Yemen by convincing those in charge that he was not a threat.
In 1994, after the South tried and failed to secede, then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh named Hadi his vice president purely for what he represented: a southerner who had sided with the North during the civil war. Nearly two decades later in 2012, after Arab Spring protests forced Saleh to resign in exchange for immunity, Hadi was still there, a vice president without a constituency. The international community, led largely by the United States, the United Nations and Saudi Arabia, selected Hadi as president once again for what he represented: constitutional continuity. Hadi was supposed to be a caretaker, a two-year transitional president. In a plebiscite, only Hadi’s name appeared on the ballot with no option to vote “no.” In February 2014, Hadi’s term was extended for another year without a vote. But before the year was up the Houthis had taken Sana’a and placed Hadi under house arrest.
Hadi eventually resigned, escaped to Aden, retracted his resignation, flew to Saudi Arabia and, in March 2015, asked for his neighbors to militarily intervene and restore him to power. Whether Hadi actually had the authority to invite foreign troops into Yemen is an open legal question. He had already resigned once (albeit under pressure), and his invitation came after the end of his already extended term. But the international community agreed to act as if he had the requisite authority. The Saudi-led military coalition started bombing Yemen, and Hadi’s government went from being described as “Yemen’s legitimate government” to “Yemen’s internationally recognized government.”
The question now is what happens next if Hadi, a 74-year-old with a documented heart condition, were to die suddenly. Hadi’s vice president, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, is a non-starter. A former military commander in Saleh’s regime with too many ties to too many worrisome individuals, Al-Ahmar is loathed by large segments of the Yemeni population. Indeed, Hadi only appointed him in 2016 as a way of undercutting peace talks in Kuwait.
At the same time, Yemen is far too divided for anything resembling free and fair elections. Without Hadi, what little legitimacy Yemen’s internationally recognized government has left will fade, particularly among Yemenis. No one candidate is in a position to unite even a majority of Yemen’s disparate factions. Already Hadi’s decrees, issued mostly from exile in Saudi Arabia, have a limited impact on what happens on the ground in Yemen. New officials replace old ones, but nothing really changes. Large segments of the Yemeni army are loyal to him in name only, while other Yemeni forces, which have been trained and paid by the United Arab Emirates, operate outside his control and frequently clash with his troops.
Yemen already has fragmented into a handful of statelets with little connection to what passes for a central government. Hadi’s passing would only hasten the breakup of Yemen as a single state. After Hadi, comes the collapse.
Dr. Gregory Johnsen is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. He served on the Panel of Experts for the UN Security Council on Yemen from 2016 to 2018, and is the author of ‘The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia’.
Hadi is a Deadbeat President; Without a Successor the Problem Only Gets Worse
By Maged Al-Madhaji
Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s health issues have long stirred questions about the impact of his possible death on the Yemeni political situation. The potential repercussions go beyond the legal aspect related to the death of a president, which is governed by a constitutional mechanism that would see Vice President Ali Mohsen temporarily assume the presidential office. Yemen is in a state of war with complex local, regional and international dimensions; therefore, one cannot rest assured that everything will be fine just because there is a mechanism that will take its legal course. The ascension of Ali Mohsen to the presidency would likely face both international and domestic opposition. The former top general has a reputation for murky dealings with Islamic and extremist groups, including Al-Qaeda, during his tenure in the Yemeni army, meaning he is unlikely to be accepted by the United States. The Southern Transitional Council (STC) and other southern components – putting aside the general consensus since the 2011 uprising that the president of Yemen must be a southerner – harbor deep animosity toward Al-Ahmar for his leading role with northern forces in the short-lived 1994 civil war against the south, as well as for his ties with Islah, the Islamist party and the STC’s political rival. In addition, Yemen’s other major political parties – the Socialists, the Nasserists and the General People’s Congress – have a complex history with the vice president and are likely, even despite their current divisions, to reject his rise to the country’s top post.
The likely vetoes of the current vice president raise worrying questions about whether Saudi Arabia, the United States, Islah, the STC and other political parties could all agree on a consensus candidate. This is not expected to be a smooth process. One of the most important qualifications parties must consider is how a candidate would impact the chances for peace in the current war with the Houthis. In an optimal scenario, a new, engaged president could seize the chance to bring the Houthis back to the negotiating table.
Despite the risks associated with a sudden succession crisis, there do not seem to have been any preparations for it – save for hypothetical conversations, usually among international diplomats, exploring and speculating on the names of potential successors. This is the case for several reasons. Hadi, who retains the ability to bring down the temple on everyone’s heads, is likely to view any arrangements for succession as part of a plot to depose him. Meanwhile, any process to select a successor would almost certainly see Islah, the most powerful political party aligned with Hadi’s government, seeking to impose a candidate who would ensure its dominant position for the future, making Islah’s rivals in the anti-Houthi coalition reluctant to initiate such a process. Finally, Saudi Arabia, fearing a process they may not be able to control, lacks the courage and strategic imagination to lead an initiative planning for a future alternative to Hadi, despite its ability to influence different Yemeni powers and in light of the importance of the coalition maintaining a unified stance – internal disagreements notwithstanding – against the existential threat posed by the Houthis.
Hadi, as head of the internationally recognized government, provides the legal and political cover for the Saudi-led coalition, and his death could have destructive consequences for the war effort against the Houthis. As the symbol of constitutional legitimacy, anti-Houthi actors are compelled to at least pay lip service to Hadi and the idea of Yemeni unity. Thus, there is plenty to lose if he dies. The fragile alliance between rival parties – whose differences are far greater than what unites them – may explode. This would further fragment the Yemeni political scene and hamper the military effectiveness of the coalition. The absence of a swift agreement that grants legitimacy to a new president on whom there is a consensus would be a gift to the Houthis.
Hadi’s tenure as president has been defined by poor performance, mismanagement and corruption. From the Houthis’ perspective, he is an ideal opponent: a man who accidentally rose to power without any dreams, imagination or agenda, who does nothing to protect Yemenis’ lives and interests, and who only mobilizes when he needs to protect his own interests and position in exile. The scenario only gets better for the Houthis if a suitable successor to Hadi isn’t identified while he remains president, given how this sets up the anti-Houthi coalition for further fragmentation.
For the Saudis Hadi is the deadbeat cousin they cannot disown due to the risk to their family reputation and, more problematically, due to the legal umbrella he provides all Houthi rivals in prosecuting the war. Dead or alive, Hadi is a problem for his allies; without a proper successor, the Hadi problem only gets worse.
With or Without Hadi, Little Possibility for a President Who Can Govern
By Sheila Carapico
Modern Egyptian presidents are famously said to have been advised to appoint deputies less intelligent than themselves. Modern Yemeni presidents have been equally wary of their seconds-in-command. President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi never earned high office, and never truly governed. Ali Abdullah Saleh, maniacally obsessed with his own power, hand-picked him as his vice president precisely because Hadi lacked charisma, leadership skills or a personal following. Yes, his background in South Yemen’s independence struggle, his military training in Egypt and the Soviet Union, and his affiliation with the Socialist Party faction that fled Aden for Sana’a lent Hadi some credibility. Saleh found this credibility expedient, but never threatening.
When Saleh lost favor with the Yemeni street during the 2011 popular uprising, and perhaps more importantly with Gulf monarchs, Hadi assumed Yemen’s presidency. “Elected” in a hastily arranged one-candidate referendum for an “interim” period that would later be extended indefinitely, irresolutely and ineffectually, he inherited a poisoned chalice. Hadi neither had a chance to successfully lead, nor was he up to the task.
Even a talented, well-meaning, nationalist leader would have been hard-pressed to reconcile myriad fissures in the Arabian Peninsula, especially those dividing the rich, monolithic, absolute monarchies and the pluralistic, fractionalized, underprivileged Yemeni republic. Hadi, “governing” from exile in Riyadh, has not been that gifted leader.
It is difficult to spin best-case scenarios, regardless of President Hadi’s health or longevity. Even as he continues to occupy the presidency, it is in what many regard as the role of puppet for the House of Saud and perhaps other Gulf royalty. If or when he leaves this earth, at least two possibilities present themselves. There could be a fractious, vicious all-out fight (that Western media would likely instinctively label as “tribal”) among various factions: current Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar; southern elements; the armed Houthi movement; Al-Qaeda; local or regional warlords in Marib, Taiz, Hadramawt or elsewhere; and other militias. Many of these actors would enjoy foreign patronage, mostly from Gulf royals. Dueling parliaments might compete in this scenario. It would be a Yemeni variant of the Libyan crisis, where no central authority claims either domestic or international legitimacy — a recipe for chaos, anarchy and mayhem.
Alternatively, a post-2013 Egyptian model could, potentially, place a strongman or a council presidency in charge as a new “internationally recognized government,” perhaps with the facade of elections. In the Yemeni reenactment of this scenario, Saudi Arabia, with the support of the United States and other permanent members of the UN Security Council, might back a “new Hadi,” perhaps with the support of a new UNSC resolution. Whether this person would ever govern is another story.
Dr. Sheila Carapico is a professor of political science at the University of Richmond. She is the author of Civil Society in Yemen: A Political Economy of Activism in Modern Arabia, and editor of Arabia Incognita: Dispatches from Yemen and the Gulf.
‘Legitimacy’ Protecting Yemen’s President Complicates Process of Replacing Him
By Elana DeLozier
With Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s health and popularity in constant question, the succession issue in Yemen remains a source of intense, whispered speculation. Names of potential successors ebb and flow with the changing political dynamics, but the more critical conversation is about the legal process. There are two basic scenarios to explore: If a president were removed due to unpopularity, how would that occur? If a president were to exit suddenly from the scene, what is the process for selecting his replacement?
A critical element to the succession question lies in the concept of legitimacy, which has been central to the coalition’s raison d’être for war. In 2015, when the war began in Yemen, Hadi quickly became the symbol of “the legitimacy” – the term used to refer to the internationally recognized government of Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition regularly asserts that its intervention in Yemen is entirely at the request of the internationally recognized Yemeni government. This legitimacy argument is critical for the Saudis, who want to avoid any impression they are a colonizing power. As a result, they have remained steadfast behind this justification, even when Hadi has defied their preferences and as his popularity has declined among both Yemenis and the coalition partners.
Such unwavering support for the recognized government may provide a pretext for the coalition’s role in the eyes of international law, but it has also boxed in negotiators, who are constrained by this need to protect the concept of legitimacy manifested in Hadi. Negotiators, even before the war, have long sought a transitional presidential council. In 2016, when talks between the warring parties looked promising, the Houthis were adamant that Hadi had to go because he had come to symbolize the war. Many involved in negotiations agreed. To both replace Hadi and maintain the perception of legitimacy, rumors percolated that then-Vice President Khaled Bahah might be installed as a compromise candidate for either a transitional presidency or as a member of a council presidency. Hadi, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, unceremoniously fired Bahah shortly before talks were to begin in Kuwait. Furthermore, he appointed Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a man reviled by many in Yemen and within the coalition, as vice president. In effect, by trading a second-in-command who was more popular than him for one who was less so, Hadi had secured his position as president, and the 2016 talks ultimately failed.
Some believe the coalition may at some point be able to convince the president to replace the vice president or appoint a second vice president, thus opening up the option of a council presidency again and avoiding a situation wherein Ali Mohsen becomes president, even temporarily. Constitutionally, if the president passes from the scene, the vice president takes the reins for up to 60 days while elections are held. Ali Mohsen is an untenable long-term option for many stakeholders, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the United States, southern Yemenis and the Houthi movement. Such a scenario might put the coalition in quite a bind, which may explain occasional rumors of alternative VP candidates.
Another commonly cited scenario suggests interested parties may try to develop alternative, “legitimate” Yemeni power centers. The meeting of the parliament last year – elected in 2003, so long ago that its own legitimacy is questionable – is cited as one example. Credible sources suggest that Saudi Arabia pushed for that meeting. Yet, if this was a ploy to develop a surrogate “legitimacy” in Yemen, it is not clear how this would legally work. According to the Yemeni constitution, the head of parliament rules Yemen only if both the president and vice president depart the scene at the same time.
In an ideal scenario, the next Yemeni leader would possess legitimacy, popularity with the Yemeni people across the political spectrum and a commitment to peace. Such a figure would also be sensitive to southern demands and northern grievances. Finding a process to install a new legitimate president is hard; finding a person who fits the bill may be harder still.
Elana DeLozier is a research fellow in the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where she specializes in Gulf politics, particularly in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. She is the author of “A Caretaker President Clings to Legitimacy.”
Yemen Needs a Presidential Council
By Abdulghani Al-Iryani
Since the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 2216 in 2015, allowing it to take enforcement action in Yemen, regional and international actors have had the final say on the country’s fate. It is the UNSC and stakeholder countries – rather than the Yemeni people – that impart legitimacy on the presidency of Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Their logic in taking that right and responsibility away from the Yemeni people is that legitimacy is key to preventing the Yemeni state from total collapse and safeguarding the unity and territorial integrity of the country. Hadi’s legitimacy is also extended to the Saudi-led coalition’s military intervention that has — due to divisions among coalition members, Saudi designs on Yemeni territory and sheer incompetence — failed miserably.
Stakeholders’ past considerations of Hadi’s successor catered to Saudi interest in continuing its intervention in Yemen. This mainly involved advancing proposals for a single person – whether the current vice president or a new president – taking Hadi’s place. There is another option, however, one that is more practical in Yemen’s current context where the political conflict has degenerated into a conflict of identities and a single president is unable to meet the crucial need of representing various identity blocks.
A presidential council that provides a platform for Yemen’s multiple stakeholders is a more viable option. Its membership should include representatives of key governorates in addition to major political organizations and military formations. Detractors to this idea, who point out that a large membership will be contentious, forget that the original Yemeni constitution assigned most executive authority to the cabinet. Even a less effective presidential council would be an improvement on current governance, as executive authority would be in the hands of a cabinet that is accountable both to the presidential office and parliament. Another response to the presidential council proposal is that it should come after a peace agreement, missing the point that the question of the presidency was and continues to be a major obstacle to reaching a peace agreement, and the person of Hadi further complicates that effort.
As Saudi Arabia has come to regret its intervention and is increasingly focusing on extricating itself from the Yemen conflict, it is time to revisit the notion of a representative presidential council. This requires taking into account two key points on Yemen’s current governance: (1) Local governments have taken most of the competencies of the central government, rendering its future role to one of regulation, coordination and oversight; (2) Central state institutions are still squarely under Houthi control, and thus no agreement that centralizes power in a single executive within existing state institutions will be acceptable to the other parties, as it would be tantamount to a full surrender to the Houthis.
A presidential council should not wait until an agreement is reached as its formation would in fact improve the chances of reaching an accord. Given that Hadi enjoys the legitimacy imparted upon him by the UN Security Council, the process of building the body should begin with him appointing a council of advisors. Among the representatives of key governorates as well as political parties and military formations a sufficient number of seats should be reserved for the Houthi movement and the Southern Transitional Council (and the governorates under their control). After the appointment of the council and promulgation of its bylaws, Hadi should delegate his authority to the new body and quietly exit the scene.
Abdulghani Al-Iryani is a senior researcher with the Sana’a Center where he focuses on the peace process, conflict analysis and transformations of the Yemeni state. He worked previously with the United Nations Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen. He tweets at @AbdulGhani1959
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.