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Politics & Diplomacy Yemeni Gov’t: Houthis Cede Little Ground in Taiz Road Negotiations

Delegations from the internationally recognized government and the Houthi movement failed to agree on a plan to reopen four Houthi-controlled main roads in and out of Taiz city during UN-backed negotiations in Amman, Jordan, in late May. Negotiations began May 25, and on May 27, the government delegation issued a statement saying that the Houthis had not responded to their proposals for reopening the roads, which were operational before the war, and instead offered to open one rugged mountain road that is virtually inaccessible by car and used primarily by donkeys and camels.

The reopening of roads in Taiz, along with resuming flights to and from Sana’a airport (see: ‘Sana’a Airport Reopens to the Public’) and fuel shipments into Houthi-held Hudaydah port, were three key confidence building measures outlined in the UN-brokered two-month military truce agreed at the start of April. The government statement accused the Houthis of “intransigence and procrastination” despite having “obtained everything they wanted from the reopening of the Sana’a airport and Hudaydah seaport, including collecting tens of billions of rials in taxes and fees from oil imports and being allowed to let departing travelers use unofficial passports.” On May 28, the head of the Houthi delegation, Yahya Abdullah al-Razami, said the government side only wanted to discuss the opening on roads “in confined areas”, and said his team had presented initiatives to open roads in Taiz as well as in Marib and Al-Dhalea governorates.

On the May 28 conclusion of the opening round of talks, the office of UN special envoy Hans Grundberg issued a statement, noting that “a proposal for the phased re-opening of roads, including an implementation mechanism and guarantees for the safety of civilian travelers, was drawn up based on the three-day discussions and options presented by both sides.” On May 31, Grundberg raised the Taiz issue in a meeting with the Houthis’ chief negotiator, Mohammed Abdelsalem, in Muscat.

Earlier, on May 18, the president of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, Mahdi al-Mashat, said that the group might be willing to agree to extend the truce beyond two months and referred to the opening of roads in Taiz a “priority.” Three days later, the Houthis announced four members of their negotiating team on the Taiz issue: Yahya al-Razami, Hussein Deif, Mohammed Mohammed al-Mahturi and Shukri Mahyoub Abdo Noman. Members of the Houthi delegation to Amman were later criticized on social media for attending the negotiations in military uniforms. The government’s negotiating team was led by Abdelkarim Shaiban, its other members were Mohammed al-Mahmoudi, Abdelaziz al-Majidi and Ali al-Ajar.

Ahead of the Amman negotiations, Shaiban told Turkey’s Anadolu Agency that the decision to open roads in Taiz and lift the siege on Taiz city ultimately lies with the Houthi movement’s chief, Abdelmalek al-Houthi.

In the last 10 days of May, the UN special envoy’s office conducted several other meetings in Amman with Yemeni groups as part of efforts to build on the two-month truce and prioritize topics for further discussion. On May 22, Grundberg met with a group of Yemeni women peace activists, experts, civil society and private sector actors and leaders. On May 24, he concluded two days of consultations with Yemeni economic experts. On May 28, the UN envoy’s military adviser, Brigadier General Antony Hayward, convened the first meeting of the military coordination committee composed of representatives of the internationally recognized government, the Saudi-led coalition’s Joint Forces Command and the Houthis, who discussed a coordination and de-escalation mechanism.

Developments in Government-Controlled Territory

PLC Unity Weathers Stress Tests in First Month of Work

The newly-formed Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) faced a series of tests in May, as competing interests among members of the eight-member executive body appeared to undermine its message of unity and consensus.

On May 2, PLC chief Rashad al-Alimi performed Eid al-Fitr prayers in Aden alongside other members of the PLC and senior officials in the internationally recognized government, including Speaker of Parliament Sultan al-Barakani, Shura Council Speaker Ahmed bin Dagher, Prime Minister Maeen Abdelmalek Saeed and Defense Minister Mohammed al-Maqdashi. Following the prayers, which marked the end of Ramadan, Al-Alimi called on Yemenis gathered at the event to “strengthen the spirit of brotherhood and love, and to work toward tolerance and consensus.” The speech echoed the theme of unity among anti-Houthi allies that the PLC is supposed to embody.

One of Al-Alimi’s first orders of business in May was to appoint a director of the PLC’s Presidential Office. On May 10, Yahya Mohammed al-Shuaibi was selected for the role. Originally from Lahj governorate, Al-Shuaibi, a prominent politician and academic affiliated with the General People’s Congress party, has held several senior government positions since the late 1990s, including Minister of Education, Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Minister of State and Mayor of Sana’a, Governor of Aden and, most recently, ambassador to Germany from 2016 until his current appointment.

On May 11, Faraj al-Bahsani, the governor of Hadramawt, commander of the Second Military Region and member of the PLC, appointed several new officials to lead security and other departments throughout the governorate, including a new chief of the Hadramawt Police Department in the wadi (central) and desert (northern) regions. On May 14, the Interior Ministry issued a memorandum canceling the latter appointment, stating that it was outside Al-Bahsani’s jurisdiction and any such decision would require the approval of PLC President Al-Alimi and Minister of Interior Ibrahim Haidan. Although Al-Bahsani is nominally the most senior government official in Hadramawt, in practice his authority is limited to the coastal (southern) region of the governorate, which is also part of the Second Military Region that he commands. The wadi and desert regions are part of the First Military Region and are under the direct control of other officials, such as Deputy Governor Esam al-Katheeri, who runs the local authority in the wadi region.

On May 22, which marked the 32nd anniversary of the unification of North and South Yemen, loyalists of PLC members Aiderous al-Zubaidi, president of the STC, and Tareq Saleh, head of the National Resistance forces, faced off at Maashiq Palace, the seat of the government in the interim capital, according to STC-affiliated sources. The incident occurred after Saleh’s supporters raised the Republic of Yemen flag above his residence at the palace. Provoked by the move, pro-secessionist STC forces stormed Saleh’s residence, took down the flag and trampled on it. Saleh’s forces stood down before the incident escalated any further. A day earlier, STC loyalists and other separatist southern groups celebrated the 28th anniversary of the attempted secession of southern governorates from the unity pact, which led to the 1994 war. The face-off attracted minimal media coverage from news outlets in areas controlled by the internationally recognized government, perhaps suggesting that the PLC’s requests for consensus and tolerance may have led some journalists to avoid critical reporting on the issue.

On May 26, Al-Alimi appointed Judge Qaher Mustafa Ali as Attorney General to replace Dr. Ahmed bin Ahmed Saleh al-Mousai. Ali enjoys good relations with the STC, which criticized Al-Mousai’s January 2021 appointment by former President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi as a “unilateral” move that threatened to derail the power-sharing stipulated in the Riyadh Agreement.

In the coming weeks, Al-Alimi is expected to announce further appointments, including a reshuffle of some cabinet positions, according to sources in the internationally recognized government. In particular, Defense Minister Mohammed Ali al-Maqdashi is expected to be replaced. Candidates in the running for that position include Major General Saghir bin Aziz, commander of joint operations of the armed forces and the Yemeni army’s chief of staff, Brigadier General Mohsen al-Da’ari, deputy commander of joint operations, and former commander of the Sixth Military Region Hashem al-Ahmar.

Other Developments in Government-Controlled Territory in Brief:

  • May 9: The Yemeni attaché for expatriate affairs in Egypt and North Africa, Ibrahim al-Jahmi, resigned, alleging ill treatment from Yemen’s ambassador to Egypt, Mohammed Marem. In a statement posted on Facebook, which included a copy of his resignation letter, Al-Jahmi accused Marem of preventing him from entering the embassy in Cairo, failing to renew his work and travel documents and requesting his deportation.
  • May 12: Masked gunmen abducted the deputy governor of Aden, Rashad Shaye, from his home in the interim capital. The gunmen accused one of Shaye’s bodyguards of killing a young man named Salam al-Mahali a day earlier and demanded that the suspect be handed over in exchange for Shaye’s release. Shaye was taken to Radfan district in Lahj governorate, where Al-Mahali’s family lives. The deputy governor was released three days later, after the bodyguard turned himself in, according to Al-Masdar Online.

Developments in Houthi-Controlled Territory

Sana’a Airport Reopens to the Public

Commercial flights resumed at Sana’a International Airport on May 16 for the first time since 2016. The inaugural flight transported 137 passengers from Sana’a to Amman, Jordan, before returning with 60 passengers to Sana’a.

The first flights were scheduled to take place last month, as part of a two-month truce brokered by the UN special envoy, Hans Grundberg, that started on April 2, but a disagreement over the use of Houthi-issued passports prompted the delay. The information minister for the internationally recognized government, Muammar al-Eryani, accused the Houthis of planning to use unverified passports to smuggle its leaders and members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanese Hezbollah onto flights. An agreement was eventually reached in which travelers flying from Sana’a to Amman with Houthi-issued passports would receive second passports from the Yemeni embassy in Jordan.

On May 23, Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said a resumption of flights between Cairo and Sana’a was under consideration. The first Yemenia Airways commercial flights between Sana’a and Cairo, Egypt, in over six years took place on June 1.

Egyptian Fishermen Released; Racing Sailboat Targeted off Hudaydah

Twenty Egyptian fishermen were released May 2 after more than a month in Houthi custody. The Egyptian daily news outlet Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that the fishermen were detained by the Houthis on charges of illegally fishing in Yemen’s territorial waters in late March. The Houthis confiscated their boat and imposed a fine of US$25,000, according to the report.In February 2020, 32 Egyptian fishermen were released after being held by the Houthis under similar circumstances.

On May 19, an international racing sailboat was attacked off the coast of a Houthi-controlled area of Hudaydah governorate by militants armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The Hong Kong-flagged Lakota, a 62-foot sailboat recently purchased by French yachtsman Philippe Poupon, was chased by militants in three vessels who fired warning shots and waved grenade launchers, according to an Associated Press report citing a European Union naval force in the Red Sea. One of the militants boarded the Lakota but departed upon realizing there was no money on board the three-hulled trimaran, which was listed for sale for $263,000 earlier this year, the report said.

Contradictory Claims Over Prisoner Release

On May 6, the Saudi-led coalition said it freed over 100Houthi prisoners of war in coordination with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to support the two-month UN-sponsored truce. The Houthis, however, maintained that most of the detainees were unknown to the group. Houthi authorities allowed nine to be flown from Saudi Arabia to Sana’a, claiming that five were “prisoners of war” and the other four were fishermen “who had been kidnapped in the Red Sea. Of the remaining detainees, the Saudi-led coalition said that 108 were flown to the interim capital Aden and 37 were taken by land across the Saudi-Yemen border. An additional nine were “foreign fighters” who would be transferred to their embassies, according to Saudi state media. The Houthis stated that the foreigners were African. The ICRC confirmed in a statement that it had facilitated the repatriation of 117 detainees from Saudi Arabia to Yemen.

In late March, the head of the Houthis’ prisoner affairs committee, Abdul Qader al-Murtada, announced on Twitter a prisoner swap with the internationally recognized government in which 1,400 Houthi prisoners would be exchanged for 823 prisoners, including 16 Saudis, three Sudanese nationals, the brother of former Yemeni President Hadi and former Defense Minister Mahmoud al-Subaihi. The internationally recognized government quickly denied that a final deal had been reached.

Houthis Launch Annual Summer Courses for Children

On May 9, Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi urged enrollment in the group’s annual summer courses for children. Under the slogan “Education and Jihad,” this year’s program of study started May 14. In a speech on the Houthi-run news outlet Al-Masirah, Al-Houthi highlighted the role of information warfare in the Houthi struggle, stating that “enemies’ disinformation and propaganda war against the Yemeni nation are aimed at liquidation of the nation’s spirit of liberation and faith.” Muslim youth in general and Yemeni youth specifically are the targets of these campaigns, he added.

In a recent Yemen Policy Center interview about disinformation in Yemen, the head of communications at the independent fact-checking platform Sidq Yemen described Houthi disinformation campaigns as the most organized of any group in the country.The Houthis, who have made sectarian and ideological changes to the educational system in areas they control, have used extra-curricular education programs such as the summer courses to instill their ideology in children as a means to recruit fighters.

On April 25, the UN announced that a Houthi official had signed an “action plan” to “end and prevent recruiting or using children in armed conflict, killing or maiming children and attacking schools and hospitals.” UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said the Houthi official pledged to identify children in their ranks and release them within six months.

US Embassy Employee Dies in Houthi Custody

On May 27, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that a retired Yemeni employee, Abdulhameed al-Ajmi, had died in a Houthi prison. Al-Ajmi, who suffered from moderate kidney failure at the time of his detention in November 2021, had no access to medication or medical treatment as his condition worsened in the prison, according to the Associated Press, and he was denied contact with his family during captivity. The Houthis took control of the US Embassy in Sana’a in October 2021, six years after the US suspended its operation, and proceeded to detain dozens of former and current Yemeni staffers who were acting as caretakers of the embassy compound, 11 of whom remain in Houthi custody.

International Developments

UN Demands Houthis Release Detained Staff Members

On May 4, the UN called on the Houthis to immediately release two of its employees who have been detained by the group since November 2021. In a joint statement issued by the director-general of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michel Bachelet, the officials said they were “deeply concerned about their well-being” after having received repeated assurances since November that the two would be immediately released. It said their whereabouts remain unknown.

US Ambassador to Yemen Sworn In

On May 19, the US swore in its new ambassador to Yemen, Steven Fagin. The diplomatic posting has been vacant since Christopher P. Henzel stepped down last year. During that time, Chargé d’Affaires Cathy Westley led the US diplomatic mission, which has been based in Riyadh throughout the war. Fagin was previously deputy chief of mission of the US Embassy to Iraq. Prior to that, he was the principal officer at the US Consulate General in Erbil and director of the Office of Iranian Affairs in the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau of the State Department.

Program/Project: The Yemen Review