On August 2, Yemen’s warring parties agreed to extend the country’s ongoing truce for an additional two months, until October 2. The deal came after intensive shuttle diplomacy by the UN and the US, and the arrival of an Omani delegation in Sana’a on July 31. UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg was unable to secure terms for a broader six-month truce deal, which included proposals to reopen roads in Al-Dhalea, Sa’ada, and Taiz; establish new mechanisms to pay public sector salaries in Houthi areas; expand destinations from Sana’a airport to include India, Cairo, Amman, and Doha; and create a new committee for dialogue and reconciliation. The expanded truce proposal was largely accepted by the government, but was rejected outright by Houthi authorities, although both parties agreed to work towards reaching an expanded truce agreement in the interim.
A major sticking point remains the payment of salaries, with Houthi authorities insisting on using a mechanism similar to the one employed in the 2018 Stockholm Agreement, in which both parties agreed to deposit revenues from the port of Hudaydah into an account at the local branch of the central bank under UN supervision. The Houthis later unilaterally accessed the Hudaydah funds, allegedly channeling the money for military purposes, and the salaries went unpaid. Houthi intransigence on the issue also appears to reflect a concern about popular unrest in light of general economic deterioration – authorities likely feel pressure to be seen fighting for peoples’ livelihoods, and the salary negotiations offer an opportunity to do so.
The truce came under increased strain at the end of the month after Houthi forces launched an attack near Taiz in an attempt to seize control of the last major government-controlled road out of the city. The attack took place on August 28-29, during meetings of the UN-backed Military Coordination and Taiz Road committees in Amman, and resulted in the government pulling out of the Military Coordination Committee on August 30 and prompted an uncharacteristically direct condemnation from UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg on August 31.
Developments in Government-Controlled Areas
PLC Cohesion Rattled Following Shabwa Crisis
The PLC faced the most serious crisis of its brief tenure in August, as fallout from intra-coalition fighting in Shabwa threatened to destabilize the government, jeopardize the ongoing truce, and reshape the contours of a future negotiated settlement. On August 8, heavy fighting broke out between Islah-aligned security forces and UAE-backed, STC-aligned Shabwa Defense Forces in Ataq city. With the assistance of the UAE-backed Giants Brigades, pro-Islah forces were driven out of Ataq by August 11. Subsequent military and political developments saw UAE-backed forces take control of positions in northern Shabwa, reaching the Shabwa-Hadramawt border by August 21.
The political implications of the Shabwa clashes were immense. In response to its losses in the governorate, the Islah party hinted it would withdraw from the Yemeni government if the PLC did not set up a neutral committee to investigate the clashes (the party rejected a government inquiry including Giants Brigade and STC representatives) and remove UAE-backed Shabwa Governor Awadh Bin al-Wazir al-Awlaki. Islah-affiliated PLC member Abdullah Al-Alimi reportedly went so far as to request official letterhead to draft his resignation from the council, although he ultimately submit it, and Marib Governor Sultan al-Aradah, who maintains close ties with Islah, refused to attend PLC meetings in protest of the government’s perceived efforts to empower the STC. Concerningly for Islah, its humiliation did not rouse any dissent from Saudi Arabia. While the UAE has long sought to remove Islah from power and is the primary backer of the rival STC, Saudi silence may indicate a newfound acceptance of Emirati priorities in southeast Yemen. Despite its declining influence, the Islah party remains popular in a number of key areas and commands the loyalty of strategically placed troops in areas like Marib and Taiz. Whether or not it leaves government, moves into opposition, or even comes to a separate understanding with the Houthis, its diminishing relative power could destabilize and delegitimize what has, until now, served as a wartime national unity government.
PLC head Rashad al-Alimi also seems to have lost stature in the Shabwa clashes, with the recently-appointed head of the Yemeni government appearing increasingly hostage to the political dictates of his external backers and their military proxies. Alimi has no real constituency or military forces of his own and owes his position to past cooperation with Riyadh and the closed-door Saudi and Emirati process that birthed the PLC. While this may make him well-placed to impartially coordinate and moderate disparate interests on the council, he lacks the political capital to pursue much-needed structural reforms or the military capacity to unify southern forces and turn back the Houthis. Unwilling or unable to balance the competing parties, Alimi appears to have thrown in his lot with the faction that currently wields the most power – the STC. But this perceived favoritism carries the threat of isolation, as evidenced by Alimi’s seeming inability to mobilize the members of the PLC to forestall or resolve the Shabwa crisis. After the clashes subsided, Alimi left Aden on a trip to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, nominally to hasten the arrival of the US$2 billion in promised financial support from the Saudi-led coalition, but likely also to try and shore up his position. Alimi has also continued his efforts to ease tensions with Islah leaders.
The big winners of the events in Shabwa were undeniably UAE-backed groups, especially the STC, which succeeded in taking an important southern governorate with substantial oil resources. The group has not been coy about its hopes to one day control of all of southern Yemen. On 23 August, days after UAE-backed forces completed the takeover of Shabwa, STC-aligned forces seized the coastal town of Shuqra in Abyan governorate from pro-government forces. The move was made under the guise of a counterterrorism campaign, and contradicted direct orders from PLC head Alimi. With UAE-backed groups now along Shabwa’s northern border with Hadramawt governorate, there has been speculation they could seek to move into Wadi Hadramawt, an oil-rich area home to the Islah-aligned First Military Region, and Al-Mahra governorate, an area controlled by Saudi-led coalition forces.
However, despite possessing a common backer, the two UAE-backed forces which drove Islah out of Shabwa, the STC and Giants Brigades, have discrete political loyalties. The Giants Brigades are commanded by Abdelrahman Abou Zaraa al-Maharrami, a Salafi and member of the PLC, who sees his forces as the army of the Yemeni republic. Abou Zaraa is also notably respectful to Alimi, who appears to be his closest ally on the council. Alimi, Zubaidi and Abou Zaraa are currently the three most powerful men on the PLC. To date, Alimi has made concession after concession to Zubaidi and the STC, but, as demonstrated by the recent fighting, the coalition’s power dynamics remain fluid. With the Giants Brigades now holding Shabwa’s oil fields, domestic competition between the Emirati-backed groups could be on the rise.
Further STC gains could have massive implications for any future peace settlement. Since 2014, the Houthis’ territorial ambitions in Yemen have appeared insatiable. The brief conquest of Aden and repeated offensives to acquire southern territory suggested the movement’s aim was nothing short of unification under Houthi rule. But they may no longer be committed to the conquest of Yemen. The STC’s secessionist agenda might make them an ideal counterpart for the redivision of the country, and the events in Shabwa make them appear an even more credible partner in such an endeavor. Should the STC continue to gain ground in the south, the long-term prospects of a unified Yemen will grow dimmer.
Political Shakeup in Hadramawt
In addition to the Shabwa crisis, the government saw continued political change in favor of UAE-backed groups in neighboring Hadramawt governorate, where PLC member Faraj al-Bahsani relinquished even more power following his removal as Hadramawt’s governor in favor of the UAE-linked General People’s Congress MP Mabkhout bin Madi on July 31. Although removed as governor, Bahsani initially retained his position as head of the Second Military Region, covering coastal Hadramawt, and signaled he intended to remain active in local politics by chairing a meeting of the Second Military Region leadership on August 9. However, these plans were apparently dashed on August 13, when the PLC issued a presidential decree replacing Bahsani as commander with Brigadier Fa’az Mansour Qahtan. While Bahsani retained his position on the PLC, it is unclear exactly how much influence he will continue to wield without the financial resources of the Hadramawt governorship or the military power of the Second Military Region.
Following his accession, Governor Bin Madi moved to limit the fallout from the recent conflict in Shabwa and insulate his oil-rich governorate from the fighting. On August 22, Bin Madi met with the Executive Committee of Hadramawt General Meeting Outcomes, a gathering of local civil society groups to discuss management of the governorate’s natural resources, corruption, and how to improve popular support for the local authorities. In an August 25 address to the Hadramawt General Meeting Committee, Bin Madi expressed support for popular demands to extend the control of the Hadrami Elite forces all over the governorate – including Islah-controlled Wadi Hadramawt. This echoed an August 9 statement from the Hadramawt General Meeting Outcomes announcing its resolution to form the “Hadramawt Defense Forces,” which it claims will include 25,000 personnel following the clashes in Shabwa. The ouster of Islah forces in Shabwa has brought the continued presence of First Military Region forces in Wadi Hadramawt – which are seen as dominated by Islah figures and loyalists to former Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar – to the fore. Protests on August 26 in Seyoun, where the First Military Region is based, gave all the impression of being an STC and Emirati attempt to agitate the situation in their favor.
Developments in Houthi-Controlled Areas
Houthi Areas See Continued Tribal Unrest
Tribal unrest in Houthi-held territories, perceived to be on the increase in recent months, continued in various governorates in August.
In Al-Bayda, a number of local tribesmen, thought to be former soldiers in the government 173rd Infantry Brigade, ambushed a Houthi vehicle in the area of Zalqah, in Nate’ district, northern Al-Bayda. The tribesmen opened fire on the military supply vehicle, gravely wounding a driver. On August 18, clashes erupted between the Houthis and Qayfa tribesmen from the Al-Jawfi family in the village of Al-Hattam in Radaa district, western Al-Bayda. The fighting began as Houthi forces tried to stop armed tribesmen of the Al-Jawfi family from firing on the houses of the Al-Qadthi family in Radaa. The Al-Jawfi family accuses a member of the Al-Qadthi family, a pro-government military leader, of killing one of its members in Marib. One man from the Al-Jawfi family was killed and another injured in the fighting.
On August 12, Houthi forces stormed the home of a local tribal sheikh in the Bait Baus area in southern Sana’a city. Jamal Ahmed Saeed al-Ma’eedhi was kidnapped, according to his brother, who told local news agencies that 20 Houthi militants stormed the house, causing panic among the women and children present. Al-Ma’eedi is reportedly being held in an unknown location as punishment for refusing to help the group recruit new fighters.
On August 24, a dispute over agricultural lands broke out between the Al-Faqman subtribe of the Hamdan tribe and the Al-Hamad subtribe of the Dhu Hussain tribe in southern Al-Hazm district. Abdel Wahed al-Aji Munif, a prominent figure in the Al-Hamad subtribe, was killed in the ensuing clashes. Prominent sheikhs and influential community leaders from the Hamdan and Bani Nawf tribes intervened to halt the conflict and secure a truce for eight days. The conflict is expected to negatively affect tribal and civil society in the area, given that the parties to the conflict are some of the most influential tribes in Al- Jawf.
Professor Imprisoned Over Salary Payment Demands
A university professor was forcibly disappeared in Sana’a after calling for an open strike by public sector employees until their salaries are paid. Ibrahim al-Kibsi, of Hashemite descent, was reportedly abducted by the group after he wrote on Facebook that he was receiving threats from the Houthis in response to his writings. Al-Kibsi was later released and allowed to return to his home, although he has not made any public statements since his detention. Dissatisfaction over unpaid salaries is growing, but the Houthis have deflected blame elsewhere. On August 16, hundreds of employees organized a protest in front of the UN office in Sana’a to demand it pay their overdue wages. In a televised speech on August 23, Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi warned residents in Houthi-controlled areas against demanding salaries and services, claiming that such calls are a cover for sowing unrest and chaos. Al-Houthi has issued similar warnings previously.
Russia Receives Houthi Representatives in Moscow
On August 10, a Houthi delegation headed by chief negotiator Mohammed Abdel Salam traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who has overseen Yemen policy for the last several years. The delegation notably included the Governor of the Central Bank of Yemen in Sana’a, Hashim Ismail, and followed a June trip to Tehran. In an interview following the visit, Abdel Salam – who has visited Russia several times, most recently in 2019 – noted there had been “real changes in the Russian position and the realization that Yemen can be a strategic influence.” Bogdanov met with the Emirati and Saudi ambassadors to Russia on August 18 and September 1, with the readout from the latter meeting mentioning discussions of events in Yemen.