Hadramawt witnessed growing tensions in January, as protesters affiliated with the Southern Transitional Council (STC) demonstrated in the streets of Seyoun, demanding the replacement of Islah-affiliated 1st Military Region forces with locally recruited fighters. But the STC faced pushback for its unbridled efforts to extend its influence into the governorate. Powerful tribal blocs ordered them to leave, calling them a threat to local security, while echoing calls for the recruitment of local fighters. Counter-protesters also held demonstrations in Seyoun to oppose the establishment of STC military camps in the region.
Demonstrations continued throughout the month and were soon accompanied by military mobilization. The 2nd Military Region forces, based in Mukalla in Coastal Hadramawt, moved a battalion of 500 fighters to a zone near Seyoun. An STC force was moved from Al-Rayyan airport near Mukalla to a strategic position on the southern plateau overlooking the 1st Military Region’s area of operations. Saudi Arabia worked with the Hadramawt Tribes Confederation to recruit at least 10,000 fighters and establish new military sites on Al-Kathiri tribal lands, with the aim of preventing STC-allied forces from moving into the Hadramawt Valley. Competition between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and their respective proxies in the governorate, has soured the relationship between the coalition partners, as has the former’s decision to pursue bilateral talks with the armed Houthi movement.
In February, the first international flight in four years arrived at Al-Rayyan airport. A Yemenia Airways flight, carrying around 100 passengers, landed on February 4 before returning to Jeddah. Governor Mabkhout bin Madi indicated that the reopening is intended to be permanent.
Saudi-Houthi back-channel talks increasingly came out into the open in January, with the UAE increasingly suspicious of where they might lead. The Houthis demanded that the Saudis respond to their proposals in writing, part of their strategy of extracting formal recognition of their rule in northern Yemen. An Omani team – which has acted as go-between – provided some insights into the talks to the UN Special Envoy’s office, indicating that although they were going well, they had not yet gone beyond general points of agreement. Saudi Arabia reportedly agreed in principle that it would pay civil servant salaries for one year, including those of military and security personnel in Houthi-controlled areas, but the specifics of the payrolls haven’t been laid out. In return, Riyadh wants security guarantees, including a buffer zone on the border and an end to the Houthi blockade of government energy exports, enforced through drone attacks on oil infrastructure along the southern coast. Other issues include concessions related to the further reopening of Sana’a airport and easing imports through Hudaydah, while Saudi Arabia is also looking to end the Houthi blockade of Taiz and bring the government into the talks.
Saudi Arabia’s overtures indicate its willingness to move on militarily, though it certainly wants to maintain and extend its influence. The two parties appear to be moving closer on a host of issues. Having failed to dislodge the Houthis from Sana’a while gaining international opprobrium, the Saudi aim is currently to present its kingdom as a neutral facilitator of peace rather than a party to war. Similarly, the Houthi demand to fully reopen the port of Hudaydah may no longer bother Riyadh, as under the current UN inspection mechanism no arms shipments have been found. Regarding the Saudi-Yemeni border, in addition to demanding an expanded, depopulated buffer zone, Saudi Arabia is proposing that Omani or international forces play a part in monitoring on the ground. The Houthi position on these issues isn’t clear.
A key element of the talks has been their exclusive nature. Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) chief Rashad al-Alimi has only been able to protest to Saudi Ambassador Mohammed al-Jaber that southerners will not accept any unilateral deal and that the Houthi side can’t be trusted. Notably, Al-Jaber has not given any specific assurances to the STC, and there has been no mention of power-sharing arrangements or the shape of government in the event of a deal. Questions remain about the UAE’s position. Abu Dhabi could use ongoing STC activity in Hadramawt to influence the talks, and its involvement there is a sign that the UAE may act independently in territories outside Houthi control.
In February, a senior Saudi source told the Sana’a Center that Riyadh was planning a conference that would publicly announce the outcomes of the negotiations, but it was quickly postponed until after Ramadan (which ends around April 21), apparently to gain more time to secure Houthi attendance. The conference is a chance for the Saudis to actualize their proposal for Houthi President Mehdi al-Mashat to visit Riyadh. In the Saudi view, this is a critical concession they expect from Sana’a that would also boost the status of the Houthi authorities. The Saudis believe Mashat’s appearance at the conference would be another milestone in their international rehabilitation after the debacles of the Jamal Khashoggi murder, the Qatar boycott, and their conduct in Yemen, all of which drew the ire of Western political circles. Senior diplomats note a new, relaxed attitude among Saudi officials regarding the Yemen situation in particular, as they sense for the first time since the intervention in 2015 that the international community now sees them as a force for peace rather than an aggressor.
For its part, the UAE has rejected talks outright. A danger remains that as soon as an agreement is announced, the STC will declare the secession of the south, with Emirati backing, which could in turn provoke other parties – for example in Hadramawt – to agitate for the same. This would play into the Houthis’ hands, giving them the excuse they have perhaps been waiting for to declare the territories they control an independent state. Despite their rhetoric, it is not clear that they still harbor the ambition to control the whole country.
Hudaydah Port Access
In late January, Houthi authorities began instructing shipping companies to head directly to the port of Hudaydah without following past procedures, which entailed passing through Saudi inspections after completing the UN inspection mechanism in Djibouti. The government has been unable to enforce compliance as Saudi Arabia has taken no action, in a further sign of its newfound cooperation with the Houthis and emblematic of Riyadh’s desire to place management of the conflict in international hands.
The Houthi push to fully reopen the port continued in February. While the government has objected, media reports suggested the loosening of restrictions was part of confidence-building measures agreed at the Saudi-Houthi talks. But reopening the port is also part of the Houthis’ broader efforts at economic warfare. Merchants bringing goods into Houthi territories by road after importing the cargo through government-controlled ports are being asked to sign a written commitment to use Hudaydah ports in the future. This is an ominous development for the government, and could significantly deepen its financial woes. The simplified customs system at Hudaydah is faster and cheaper than the multiple costs involved in off-loading in Aden and then transporting goods to the north, though these may be offset by higher insurance premiums and concerns over past confiscation of shipping containers. Houthi forces also appear to have cut the main road between Aden and Hudaydah in Al-Tuhaytah district.
The January 6 death of Sadeq al-Ahmar, sheikh of the Hashid tribal confederation and a founding member of the Islah party, marked the waning influence of Yemen’s once powerful tribes under Houthi rule. Thousands of tribal figures attended Al-Ahmar’s funeral in Sana’a on January 8, demonstrating that the confederation is still somewhat united under its new paramount sheikh, Sadeq’s brother Himyar, who wore Sadeq’s jambia (dagger) as a symbol of his new status. One of the keys to Houthi rule has been the movement’s ability to subjugate northern tribes – confederations such as the Hashid and Bakil are a shadow of what they were in the era of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Al-Ahmar family itself was humiliated during fighting with Houthi forces in Amran in 2014 when their ancestral home was demolished with explosives. The funeral was a chance for confederation figures to come together after difficult times but seemed to mark the end of an era more than it signaled renewed strength.
Oppression of Women
The Houthi crackdown on women’s rights was highlighted in Sana’a in January, as authorities arrested a well-known broadcaster and two of her colleagues for allegedly traveling between governorates without a male escort, in violation of mahram (guardian) restrictions imposed last year. Houthi leaders in the capital ordered shop owners to stop selling women’s abayas that are short, form-fitting, colorful, or have frills.
In February, a group of 25 prominent women in Sana’a presented a letter to Houthi Prime Minister Abdulaziz bin Habtoor calling to end a new trend of gender discrimination against women in Houthi-held territories. The text talks of “a general trend to exclude women from public work or to marginalize them,” through hindering movement unless accompanied by a male guardian and with permission from the authorities, segregating women inside ministries and other institutions and replacing them with men, and warnings in Friday sermons against women working and studying. The letter was striking in that it came from women largely from the Hashemite class, many of whom work inside Houthi ministries and are from families inside the Houthi movement. The letter implicitly acknowledged Houthi legitimacy, warning that the increased repression would create an opening for anti-Houthi forces to drive a wedge between society and the authorities. Reading further between the lines, the letter also appeared to reflect a fear that Sana’a will not be spared the Houthi ideological plan that has been rolled out in the northern highlands, shutting down a relatively liberal environment that has allowed women to work. More broadly, the letter highlights the Houthi regime’s tricky balancing act in appeasing different sectors of society, including religious ideologues, Hashemite families, and military cadres, not least at this critical juncture, when authorities see the possibility of finally securing regional and international recognition.