Through most of 2021, the armed Houthi movement appeared unstoppable. As their forces pushed relentlessly toward Marib city, the fall of the last government stronghold in the north began to seem inevitable. Rich in oil and gas, its loss would be a mortal blow to the spiraling economy and political legitimacy of the internationally recognized government. Along frontlines across the country, Houthi forces either held their ground or advanced, showing a cohesiveness, discipline and effectiveness unmatched by the motley array of armed groups opposing them. Houthi drones and ballistic missiles flew across the border into Saudi Arabia, and continued even in the face of retaliatory airstrikes, heightening the cost of conflict for the coalition.
Houthi military efforts were buttressed by developments behind the frontlines and beyond Yemen’s borders. A significant threat to the movement emerged and vanished without the Houthis even having to respond. The group was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in January 2021 as a swan song of the Trump administration in Washington, but the decision was rescinded less than a month later by newly inaugurated US President Joe Biden after the United Nations and aid organizations testified it would paralyze humanitarian operations. For Houthi leaders, it was an affirmation of their strategy of holding the wellbeing of the civilian population hostage, giving the international community the poisoned choice of abandoning people in need or propping up the Houthi state. The group has been able to marshal humanitarian assistance to underwrite economic activity in the areas it controls, helping to legitimate its rule and freeing up resources for its war effort. Houthi security forces have successfully suppressed dissent, and an ever-growing number of children and adults are indoctrinated into the group through the rewriting of school curricula and religious teachings at mosques. The economy remained relatively stable in Houthi-held areas, even as searing inflation took hold elsewhere in the country. Its apparent success has furthered the group’s zealotry and sense of impunity, both on display in September with the public executions of eight men and a minor in Sana’a. In sum, the Houthis’ theocratic state-building project continued to gain steam through 2021.
As the year wore on, non-Yemeni stakeholders appeared to abandon hope that Houthi leaders were serious about peace talks. Riyadh has now spent several years trying to extricate itself from its military intervention in Yemen but has been unable to negotiate a settlement. In Washington, President Biden appointed a special envoy for Yemen in February to spearhead US diplomatic efforts to halt the conflict, but to little effect. United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, having seen his Joint Declaration proposal for a nationwide cease-fire fail, left to become the UN’s head of humanitarian affairs in May. His successor, Hans Grundberg, assumed the post in September, making the grim assessment that he expected “no quick wins”.
Then, in late November 2021, came news that the Joint Forces were redeploying from their long-held positions south of Hudaydah city on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, and the shape of the conflict very quickly began to change.
In 2018, the United Arab Emirates took the lead in organizing, arming, training and funding three armed groups: the National Resistance Forces, led by Tareq Saleh; the Giants Brigades, consisting mostly of southerners and led by Salafis; and the Tihama Resistance, a local armed group from Yemen’s west coast formed early in the conflict. Collectively known as the “Joint Forces”, they spearheaded a push up the Red Sea coast to liberate the Houthi-held Hudaydah city, home to the country’s busiest port. The UN and international aid agencies decried the assault, arguing that the disruption to commercial and humanitarian imports would spark widespread famine. Saudi Arabia acceded to the pressure, forcing the UAE-backed forces to halt their advance on the southern outskirts of Hudaydah. This localized armistice was then formalized by the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement. In 2019, Abu Dhabi drew down most of its military investment in Yemen, while maintaining its patronage of the Joint Forces, which remained stationed on the west coast.
The sudden redeployment of the Joint Forces in November was unexpected and its initial motivation unclear. But then the Giants Brigades began to engage Houthi forces in Shabwa and southern Marib in late December and early January 2022, erasing Houthi aspirations for an imminent takeover of Marib city. Better trained, armed and coordinated than any force the Houthis had faced in their two-year push toward the city, the Giants Brigades accumulated a series of quick victories, retaking territory and cutting Houthi supply lines. That the Emirati-backed forces proved so effective, particularly relative to Saudi-backed groups, was both a source of relief and wounded pride in Riyadh; the most effective military push against Houthi forces since 2018 was again spearheaded by the kingdom’s much smaller neighbor. In Western capitals, the results of the redeployment made clear the respective organizational and military capabilities of the two Gulf states. The Giants Brigades’ string of victories upended the most significant Houthi military initiative of the past two years, in which the group has lost tens of thousands of fighters, dealing a blow to propaganda claiming a divine right to rule. The Houthi drone strike on Abu Dhabi in early January 2022 was not just to impose a cost on the UAE for its re-engagement, but a message to Houthis’ domestic audience, projecting an image of strength after a series of stinging setbacks.
Though the Houthi advance had stalled, the party that fell the farthest in stature and power in 2021 was Islah, particularly after the reengagement of the UAE. As the Yemeni affiliate of the regional Muslim Brotherhood, which Abu Dhabi deems a terrorist organization, Islah has been an Emirati target during the coalition’s intervention, even though it is ostensibly on the same side. A condition of Abu Dhabi’s reengagement was that Riyadh agreed to facilitate the sacking and replacement of the pro-Islah governor of Shabwa, which happened in late December. The speed with which the Giants Brigades racked up victories against Houthi forces in Shabwa, forcing them out of the southern governorate, underscored for many the ineptitude and corruption that had prevented Islah from mounting an effective resistance. Islah’s closest ally in the government, Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, has clearly fallen in standing and appears destined for replacement in 2022. President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, another key Islah ally, appears to be weaker, both politically and in terms of his physical health, than at any other time in the conflict. The party’s only bright news came from abroad, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the main Gulf backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, mending their years-long feud. But Islah has never looked weaker in Yemen, and the party’s prospects have appreciably dimmed.
Islah’s primary domestic rival, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), fared better in 2021. A secessionist party used to being in opposition, its participation in the national unity government has been predictably uncomfortable. The STC has had to parse the hypocrisy of attending cabinet functions while rallying its supporters to protest the government and demand a separate state in South Yemen. But in the latter half of 2021, the currency collapsed in areas outside of Houthi control, and the STC’s de facto rule over Aden and other southern areas exposed the group to growing public anger. Backed by the UAE, the STC benefited from Emirati reengagement and the removal of the pro-Islah governor in Shabwa, where the STC was defeated by pro-government forces in 2019. By year’s end, the STC was welcome in both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and managed to increase its stockpile of money, weapons and political support.
Away from the battlefield, the rapid collapse of the Yemeni rial in non-Houthi areas posed an existential threat to the government. The remnants of the government’s legitimacy could be felt evaporating with the currency’s plummeting value, which led to protests that threatened to dissolve what remained of social and political order. But just as Emirati reengagement dramatically reshaped the conflict, so did the government’s decision to sack the senior leadership of the Central Bank of Yemen in Aden (CBY-Aden). The bank has long faced accusations of mismanagement and massive corruption – including by the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen in January – and the threat of further graft has been a major obstacle to securing desperately needed financial support. Following the announcement of new leadership at the bank in early December, accompanied by reports that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries were considering renewing financial support to the bank, the Yemeni rial began a dramatic recovery. While the currency remained unstable, it held onto most of its December gains as 2022 began, with the market clearly pricing in its support of the new administration and the prospect of new external financial assistance. Should the rial’s recovery continue, it would be a dramatic step forward for economic stability, the humanitarian situation and the government’s legitimacy.
Had Houthi forces taken Marib, along with its oil and gas resources, the group would have secured the economic resource base for its de facto state and emerged with even less incentive to negotiate. The diplomatic track will remain fraught in the near term, however, as the redeployment of the Joint Forces increases the probability that other, long-dormant frontlines become active and push peace talks further off the table. Houthi drone and missile strikes against the UAE also threaten further regionalization of the Yemen war.
But the door is still open for common ground and compromise on the dire economic crises the country faces, which negatively impact far more Yemenis than the immediate violence. Diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict have yet to gain traction; there was little incentive for the Houthis to come to the table while their military successes continued. As the war enters its eighth year, the prospect of an economically strengthened Yemeni government, and a possibly chastened Houthi leadership, may offer the UN special envoy and other international stakeholders new avenues for mediation.
This editorial appeared in The Graveyard of Hubris – Yemen Annual Review 2021.
Previous Sana’a Center Editorials:
- January 2022: Yemen’s Tribes Offer a New Path Toward Peace
- November 2021: Aid Must Do More Good than Harm
- September 2021: Public Executions in Sana’a Herald Houthi Reign of Terror
- August 2021: Absent Reform, Yemenis Bear Brunt of Government Tariff Hike
- July 2021: Riyadh’s Unconscionable Campaign to Purge Yemeni Workers
- June 2021: The Urgency to Protect Yemen’s Minorities
- May 2021: A Presidential Council: The Best of Bad Alternatives to Hadi
- March/April 2021: Diplomacy May Pause the Fighting; It Cannot Impose the Peace
- November 2020: Biden Needs a Yemen Policy That Doesn’t Look Back
- October 2020: De Facto Partition of Yemen Looms with Riyadh Agreement’s Continued Failure
- September 2020: Six Years of Houthi Rule in Sana’a
- July-August 2020: FSO Safer: Why Are We Still Waiting?
- June 2020: Hadi Must Go
- 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.