Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi is doing his best to prevent an end to the conflict in Yemen. Ensuring that last year’s Riyadh Agreement – meant to mend divisions with his rivals in southern Yemen – never gets implemented is only his latest venture in this regard. Hadi’s tenure has been a case study in parasitic statesmanship, in which only his amoral pursuit of riches and self-preservation has been able to rise above his ineptitude. During his presidency, now in its ninth year, he has overseen Yemen’s steady dissolution from a nation hoping to transition to democracy post-Arab Spring, to a nation fragmented by civil war and regional military intervention, to a land of warring statelets, mass suffering and despair. Enough – it is time for Hadi to go. Once this clear necessity is acknowledged by all concerned parties – in particular Saudi Arabia, his patron, the United Nations Security Council, which bestows on him international legitimacy, and the shrinking number of Yemeni actors who ally with him for lack of better options – then the conversation can shift to how to replace him.
At a basic level, Hadi never had the qualities associated with successful leadership. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh appointed Hadi his deputy following the 1994 civil war because the latter – showing little in the way of managerial competence, decisiveness, charisma or vision – posed little threat to Saleh’s rule. Hadi was a senior southern military figure who fled north following his side’s defeat in the 1986 South Yemen Civil War and then allied with the Saleh regime in the 1994 north-south civil war, all of which helped to make him a highly divisive figure with little natural constituency. In the south he is widely regarded with suspicion and contempt. In the rest of the country, he is viewed as a nobody.
Hadi’s claim to the presidency is also tenuous. Following the 2011 Yemeni uprising, the internationally-backed Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative facilitated Saleh’s exit from office and Hadi’s ascent, with the latter’s popular mandate of a two-year transitional term affirmed in a one-candidate ‘election’ in 2012. Hadi subsequently oversaw the nearly year-long National Dialogue Conference, which was meant to bring Yemen’s various factions to a consensus on how to address the country’s most pressing issues. He then overstepped his mandate and torpedoed the transition by attempting to impose a six-region federation of Yemen that many see as the catalyst for the current armed conflict. Hadi’s two-year term was extended for one year in 2014. Following the Houthi forces’ invasion of the capital in September of that year, Hadi’s flight south and eventually to Riyadh, and the regional military intervention in March 2015, his term as president became indefinite and unaccountable to the Yemeni people.
Hadi’s legitimacy to head Yemen’s ‘internationally recognized government’ is almost wholly conferred by the UNSC and the international community through UNSC Resolution 2216, which recognizes him as the legitimate president of Yemen in the wake of the Houthi takeover of Sana’a. His legitimacy is entirely detached from his performance as a head of state. Riyadh, meanwhile, for the most part sees Hadi as useful for providing international legal cover for its military campaign in Yemen, and little else. This lack of accountability has allowed Hadi’s presidency to metastasize into a government in exile that serves primarily as a vehicle for corruption.
Hadi’s small inner circle, made up of his sons and powerful figures from his home governorate of Abyan, are far from the only figures profiting from the conflict, but given their placement atop the government hierarchy, the scope and scale of their corruption are exceptional. The continuity of this graft is dependent on Hadi maintaining the presidency, while at the same time any negotiated end to the war will likely require Hadi to transition out of power. Knowing this, the president and his circle’s vested interests are tied to the war continuing, removing any incentive to compromise during negotiations, whether with the Houthis or nominal allies in the anti-Houthi coalition.
In 2016, Hadi scuttled UN-sponsored peace talks in Kuwait. By firing then-Vice President Khaled Bahah – seen as a potential compromise candidate the warring parties might agree on to replace Hadi – and appointing General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a figure widely reviled across Yemen, he derailed negotiations and ensured no deal would be reached to replace him. By 2017, his government’s failure to provide basic public services in southern Yemen, and his personal targeting of rival southern leaders, led to the formation of the Southern Transitional Council (STC). Backed by the United Arab Emirates, the STC quickly began challenging Hadi for dominance in the south and splintered the common front against the Houthis. This rivalry broke out into open hostilities when STC-affiliated forces drove the Yemeni government out of Aden in the summer of 2019. With clashes again raging in the south, Hadi, the southerner exiled in 1980s South Yemen power politics, has made Abyan’s war the Republic’s war.
The Saudi-sponsored Riyadh Agreement in November 2019 was meant to mend the divide by integrating the STC into the Yemeni government both politically and militarily, in exchange for the STC having representation in the government delegation at any future UN-sponsored negotiations to end the war. Had genuine reconciliation been Hadi’s motivation, he could have eased tension with the STC by incorporating members into his government and demonstrating that he could be their president as well. But as per form, Hadi made no such concession, instead prioritizing a historic local feud over the good of the country.
Today, STC influence in the south is expanding as Hadi shrinks further into exile in Riyadh, leaving Yemenis facing the rapidly spreading COVID-19 pandemic without functioning state institutions to provide them even basic assistance. If the past eight years are any guide, maintaining the political status quo will entail continued failures in governance, further political and social division and unending war for Yemen.
Efforts to put Yemen on a better path politically must start without delay, and the change should begin at the top. The main parties within the anti-Houthi coalition should realize the president is beholden to them, not the other way around, and recognize the Yemeni government can be stronger without him. The parties that signed the GCC initiative and claim to commit to a real political transition for Yemen need to decide whether they are serving Yemen or Hadi.
The Saudis, meanwhile, are well aware of their dysfunctional relationship with Hadi. Ending support for him is both rational and an outside-the-box move to begin repairing the fractured anti-Houthi coalition. Backing the replacement of the ineffectual Hadi with a presidential council, representing the coalition’s main Yemeni parties, would be a major, and necessary, step in the right direction.
This bold move will need to be met with clear support from the international community through a new UNSC resolution reflecting the realities in Yemen. The UN claims its current framework responds to threats to peace in Yemen. Hadi has become such a threat and the UNSC should be glad to see the back of him, just as most Yemenis will be.
While pursuing alternatives to the Hadi presidency would carry risks, the current track should, to Yemenis and all concerned stakeholders, be unpalatable. Given the extent of elite capture in the executive office, diluting Hadi’s power or replacing him with a single figure would not create the conditions for effective leadership at the head of the Yemeni government to emerge. Rather, a presidential council that offers representation to the various political parties is likely the only viable option to both balance their vested interests and garner enough buy-in to begin reunifying areas of the country outside Houthi control. A more cohesive Yemeni government might then have some chance at developing the institutional capacity to provide for the population, and also be able to put forward a representative delegation for negotiations with the armed Houthi movement to end the wider war.
Previous Sana’a Center Editorials:
This editorial appeared in Struggle for the South – The Yemen Review, June 2020.
- May 2020: Will Yemen Survive COVID19?
- April 2020: The Drowning of Dissent
- March 2020: End the War Before the Pandemic
- January/February 2020: Humanitarian Agencies as Prisoners of War
- November 2019: The Minefield of Combating Corruption in Yemen
- October 2019: Signing Over Sovereignty
- September 2019: The Brinksmanship of a SAFER Disaster
- August 2019: Where Coalitions Come to Die
- July 2019: The March on Al-Mahra
- June 2019: War by Remote Control
- May 2019: A Houthi Masterclass in Dystopia
- April 2019: Yemen’s Game of Parliaments
- March 2019: Saudi Arabia’s ‘Deportation Storm’
- February 2019: The Apology of Aid
- The Yemen Annual Review 2018: Beyond the Brink
- November 2018: Yemen’s War Profiteers Are Potential Spoilers of the Peace Process
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.