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Yemeni parties came together in Riyadh at the end of March in an effort to build unity, but in the month running up to the event the schisms among them were on full display in southern Yemen, where the Southern Transitional Council (STC) pushed back against political competitors in Aden and Shabwa.

On March 1, forces affiliated with the STC stormed the headquarters of the General People’s Congress (GPC) party in Al-Tuwahi district in the interim capital of Aden, abducted its security guards and shuttered the building. The GPC issued a statement accusing the STC-aligned governor of Aden, Ahmed Lamlas, of ordering a “provocative criminal act that undermines the foundations and rules of democracy on which the peaceful political parties in the country were based.”

Hours after the takeover of the building, forces wearing police uniforms removed a GPC sign on the outside of the building and raised an STC banner. An STC-organized protest in Sayoun on the same day demanded Yemeni army troops be removed from Hadramawt governorate. The rift played out later in the month as well, when the Interior Ministry overruled an STC order to restructure security forces outside the command and control of the ministry (see: Military and Security, ‘Interior Minister Cancels Restructure of STC Forces’).

The storming of the GPC headquarters took place a day after the Political Bureau of the National Resistance Forces, led by Tariq Saleh, nephew of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, announced the opening of an office in Shabwa governorate. Following suit on March 14, the STC inaugurated an office in the capital, Ataq, having previously seen its political activities in the governorate severely curtailed under the pro-Islah former governor, Mohammed bin Adio.

On March 19, STC supporters in Shabwa demonstrated in the capital, Ataq, against the presence of northern Yemeni political parties in general and the National Resistance Forces’ political office specifically. The director of the STC’s Foreign Affairs Department, Mohammed al-Ghaishi, said in a later interview that the STC would support northern parties against the Houthis in northern governorates, but that they were not welcome in the south.

Both Saleh’s National Resistance Forces and the STC are backed by the United Arab Emirates. The former, which has been based in the port city of Mokha in Taiz governorate since 2018, announced the establishment of a political arm on March 24, 2021, in the presence of several well-known individuals from the GPC. Tariq Saleh remains a popular figure among some segments of the former ruling party.

The STC appears increasingly threatened by the GPC’s growing clout in the south. In the final days of December, President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi appointed Awadh bin al-Wazir al-Awlaqi, a Shabwani tribal leader and GPC member of parliament, as governor of Shabwa. He succeeded Bin Adio, who was sacked on December 25.

Gov’t Says Prisoner Swap Deal With the Houthis Not Finalized

On March 27, the head of the Houthis’ prisoner affairs committee, Abdul Qader al-Murtada, announced that a prisoner exchange deal had been reached with the internationally recognized government. Al-Murtada said on Twitter that the UN-supported agreement includes 1,400 Houthi prisoners in exchange for 823 prisoners, including 16 Saudis, three Sudanese nationals, the brother of Yemeni President Hadi and former Defense Minister Mahmoud al-Subaihi.

A few hours after Al-Murtada’s announcement, his counterpart in the internationally recognized government, Hadi Haig, said in a Twitter post that a prisoner swap deal was still under discussion. “Upon final approval, the [UN] envoy’s office will be notified in an official memorandum, which will be published,” he said.

The Twitter exchange came two days before the start of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-hosted summit for peace consultations in Riyadh.

GCC Hosts Consultations in Riyadh; 3 Activists Abducted en Route to Riyadh

On March 17, GCC Secretary General Nayef al-Hajraf announced that the Gulf bloc would host consultations among Yemeni parties between March 29 and April 7 in Riyadh to discuss a peace deal. Al-Hajraf said that 500 people from all Yemeni parties would be invited to participate in the consultations, no parties would be excluded and no agenda would be imposed on the participants. The internationally recognized government and the STC issued statements supporting the GCC consultations, while the Houthis said the peace talks were “not sincere” and declined to attend unless talks were held in a neutral country. The membership of the GCC consists of six oil-rich monarchies: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.

On March 28, Houthi security forces in Ibb governorate abducted three civil rights activists on their way to the Yemeni peace consultations in Riyadh. The three men – Hammoud al-Awdi, a professor of sociology at Sana’a University, Anwar Shaab and Abdulrahman al-Olfi – were traveling to Aden airport when they were stopped at a Houthi checkpoint in Ibb and taken to the Political Security Organization prison in the governorate. The men had reportedly obtained approval from senior Houthi leaders in Sana’a to travel to Riyadh.

Tentative Deal on Safer Oil Tanker

On March 5, senior Houthi official Mohammed Ali al-Houthi announced on Twitter that the group had signed a preliminary agreement with the UN to safely offload the 1.1 million barrels of oil aboard the aging FSO Safer oil tanker moored off the Houthi-controlled port of Hudaydah. A spill from the 45-year-old oil tanker could potentially cause an unprecedented environmental disaster in the Red Sea.

The tentative agreement states that the UN is to provide an alternative tanker vessel to offload the oil, while the Houthis will facilitate the process without any financial obligations.

The Houthis have repeatedly obstructed technical teams from taking steps to inspect, maintain and repair the Floating Storage and Offloading (FSO) terminal, owned by Yemen’s national oil company, SAFER Exploration and Production Operation Company. In February 2021, UN officials called off a planned mission to do so because the Houthis would not provide written security guarantees.

Other Political and Diplomatic Developments in Brief:

  • March 7-24: Yemeni political parties met with UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grunberg throughout March in Amman, Jordan, for talks focused on charting a path toward a sustainable political settlement to the conflict. Three weeks of consultations wrapped up on March 24, with plans to resume discussions in April. Grundberg met with representatives from the GPC, Islah, the Yemeni Socialist Party, the Nasserist Unionist People’s Organization, the Inclusive Hadramawt Conference and the Political Bureau of the National Resistance forces, as well as other military and security professionals, politicians and civil society leaders.
  • March 12: Houthi authorities began demolishing a Turkish monument near the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense in Sana’a city. The pyramid-shaped monument was built to memorialize Turkish soldiers who died in Yemen while serving in the armies of the Ottoman Empire. Former Turkish President Abdullah Gul inaugurated the monument during a visit to Sana’a in 2011. A similar monument had been built in Sana’a a century ago but was destroyed during the Imamate era.