The Houthi group (Ansar Allah) has thrust Yemen into the international limelight and put regional politics in turmoil with an escalating series of high-profile attacks on Red Sea shipping. The Houthis have launched dozens of drones and missiles at ships since October and captured the commercial ship Galaxy Leader in a striking airborne commando raid (see Military section). Declaring solidarity with the besieged Palestinian inhabitants of Gaza, the Houthi leadership has now threatened to attack any ships heading to Israel until the Israeli military offensive ceases. Major shipping lines and oil companies are now diverting their vessels round the Cape of Good Hope, as the West and regional powers consider their response.
The Houthis first fired on ships soon after the onset of the Israel-Hamas war, but it was unclear at first how far the group would go in its announced solidarity with the Palestinians. But with the surging death toll in Gaza nearing 20,000 and continued tit-for-tat fighting on the Lebanese border, the Houthis have escalated operations dramatically, activating their primary deterrent capability with near-daily attacks, purportedly in an attempt to pressure the Israelis to stand down or for the West to intercede to halt the conflict. Neither seems likely, but the attacks have upended Yemeni politics, and a Saudi-Houthi peace deal that appeared imminent in November seems to have been put on ice for now. The group’s motives are not entirely clear – the attacks may be intended to pressure Saudi Arabia over an apparent plan to normalize relations with Israel, to seek greater leverage in a deal on Yemen, or, as the Houthis claim, as means of pressuring Israel to end its deadly incursion into Gaza. There have been no casualties from the Red Sea attacks as yet, but the group’s willingness and ability to jeopardize international trade raises the possibility of US or Israeli strikes and renewed consideration of the group’s long-term role in governing Yemen.
At first blush, the Houthis appear to have risked the legitimacy conferred by a peace deal with Saudi Arabia on a series of largely performative and militarily ineffective attacks – most of the drones and missiles they have fired have been intercepted by Western warships. But the rapid deterioration of maritime security has been enough to divert shipping and disrupt supply chains, raising the prospect of inflationary effects around the world and putting further pressure on the Israeli economy. Some 30 percent of container ship traffic passes through the Red Sea and Suez Canal, and the waterway also serves as an important route for oil. The Israel-Palestine conflict remains a highly resonant issue in the Global South, with Yemen no exception – solidarity demonstrations continue to be held across the country. So even as the economic situation in Houthi-controlled territory continues to deteriorate, the group’s stance on Palestine is wildly popular. Some Yemeni leaders have appeared reluctant to condemn their actions, and the Houthis’ defiant rhetoric on Gaza, along with the international projection of military power, confer their own legitimacy on the group.
It is likely the Houthis have been further emboldened through their negotiations with the Saudis, during which they have been able to extract substantial concessions due to Riyadh’s clear desire to exit the Yemeni conflict and secure their southern border through a comprehensive deal. The Houthi leadership may have calculated that neither the Saudis nor the West are willing to destabilize the status quo in Yemen with a peace deal so close at hand. They may yet be right. The Saudis have been largely silent on the attacks, and likely still hope to exert pressure on the Houthis through contacts with their Iranian backers, or through the types of economic and financial incentives they have promised in talks. Riyadh has now been in negotiations with the Houthis for over a year, and there is concern that if they are targeted with military action or punitive measures, it would put Saudi targets, including its vulnerable oil infrastructure, back in the crosshairs. To this end, Riyadh has reportedly urged the US to show restraint.
For its part, the UAE reportedly wants to take a stronger line, preferring that the US respond militarily and redesignate the Houthis as a terrorist organization. A group of Republican senators in the US Congress proposed a bill to do just that in November, and US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby recently stated that the White House was considering Houthi terrorist designations. The Emiratis, who back powerful military forces in Yemen, including the Giants Brigades and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), have long refused to entertain overtures from the Houthis, and have remained on the sidelines of the Saudi-Houthi negotiations. They lose little from the talks’ postponement or collapse, and may prefer for the Houthis to instead be sanctioned and weakened militarily.
Unwilling or unable to convince the Israelis to agree to a ceasefire, the US finds itself in a difficult position, evident in its mixed and muted response. Intent on restoring maritime security in the Red Sea, but cautious of the fallout from a more robust military response, it appears to be trying to split the difference. The Pentagon has announced a multinational task force to protect shipping, but participation at present is limited to a handful of Western countries, Seychelles, and Bahrain. The terms of participation and coordination are not yet clear. Even the UAE has not officially joined the group, demonstrating the popularity of the Houthi stance in the Arab world and the hesitance of regional leaders to be seen taking Israel’s side. Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) member and National Resistance forces leader Tareq Saleh declined a request by officials with the US Fifth Fleet to take part in the task force, as did the internationally recognized government. Omani officials reportedly attempted to engage the Houthis in negotiations, but privately told US Special Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking that they refuse to press the Houthis without a ceasefire in Gaza. That the new multinational task force is being touted as a protective, rather than a deterrent or coercive force, demonstrates either that the US shares Saudi concerns of destabilization in Yemen, or that it has been convinced to show a degree of patience, at least initially.
It is not clear how long such a position is tenable. If Houthi attacks continue at their current rate, the US – or Israel – will be tempted to respond militarily. They may already have decided to do so: at least 49 US and allied warships were in the vicinity of Yemen on December 20, from the Gulf of Aqaba through the Red Sea to the Gulf of Oman. The US has reportedly amended its practice of dealing exclusively with the internationally recognized government, and drawn closer to the STC and Saleh’s National Resistance forces, as one controls access to the Gulf of Aden and the other to the Bab al-Mandab Strait. The Houthis have put out feelers of their own to the Al-Subaiha tribes in Lahj, whose lands include Yemen’s southern Red Sea Coast. At least publicly, the group remains unfazed: “They’ve tried us for nine years; if they want to do it again, we are here and ready,” military spokesman Yahya Sarea said on December 20. Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi also warned in a speech that there would be no going back to the status quo ante if the US attacks, saying: “The Americans shouldn’t think they can conduct attacks here or there and then send intermediaries to calm the situation down.”
Saudi-Houthi Deal on Hold
The most consequential domestic effect of the Red Sea attacks has been to scupper what appeared in November to be the imminent announcement of a Saudi-Houthi deal on a comprehensive ceasefire. A declaration was expected as early as November 23, to mark the anniversary of the 2011 Gulf Cooperation Council initiative that sought to negotiate former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s exit from power. It would reportedly have included an immediate formal end to hostilities and the launch of the first phase of negotiations between the internationally recognized government and Houthi authorities. Unconfirmed reports suggested agreement had already been reached on oil and gas revenues and revenue from the ports of Hudaydah, which would have gone into a joint account administered by an economic committee. The Saudis would supposedly have paid public sector salaries as oil export infrastructure was repaired and brought back online.
The deal seemed as if it would go ahead even as the war in Gaza escalated and the Houthis began to target maritime traffic. Riyadh appeared to have largely succeeded in cowing its handpicked PLC into submitting to its terms, after months of acrimony. Saudi Defence Minister Khaled bin Salman called the governing council to Riyadh on November 15. “We discussed cooperation concerning the roadmap for the Yemeni parties, and I affirmed the kingdom’s continuing support for the PLC and the importance of all Yemeni parties putting the national interest first in order to arrive at a comprehensive and lasting peace,” he said in a tweet, which was accompanied by a photograph showed him meeting PLC chief Rashad al-Alimi and other PLC members. The US had reportedly cooled on the prospect of a deal with the Houthis but appeared to have given support for an agreement to go ahead despite its reservations.
But the resumption of the Israeli offensive in Gaza after a brief truce at the end of November, the massive escalation of Houthi operations, and the increasing reticence of the US about Saudi-Houthi rapprochement seem to have put the plans on hold. Tensions were already high – a number of recent border incidents suggested that not everyone in the Houthi camp looked favorably on the deal. Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi made a televised speech on November 14, claiming the US was threatening the Houthis with a resumption of the war, perhaps trying to set up a situation in which a Saudi-Houthi peace could be claimed as a victory over US malfeasance. But he also took aim at Saudi Arabia for the extraordinary efforts it has taken to suppress public discussion of Gaza and any public expressions of sympathy. “The scene in Saudi Arabia, while Gazans are murdered, is a form of moral and humanitarian apostasy and contrary even to tribal customs,” he said, denouncing a series of international business conferences and cultural events in the kingdom as “the season of dancing and depravity.”
Growing US angst likely stems from a desire not to appear to be rewarding the Houthis for their attacks on Israel, as well as growing concern over the group’s capabilities and intentions. A report from a meeting of the US and Saudi ambassadors to Yemen said the US had requested a delay, and Ambassador Steve Fagin reportedly told STC chief Aiderous al-Zubaidi that the plans were too vague and conciliatory toward the Houthis. A diplomatic source familiar with ongoing US mediation efforts says Washington is still keen for the Saudi-Houthi deal to move forward, just not at the present moment. On the Saudi side, the desire to delay will have its limits: Saudi development plans demand peace on the southern border. If a ceasefire in Gaza allows the optics on Yemen to change, a deal could again appear imminent. UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg has continued shuttle diplomacy between Riyadh and Muscat, where he met with Omani intermediaries, and his office announced that the UN remains committed to the peace process and agreement on a roadmap, publicly laying out the parameters of the proposed Saudi-Houthi deal.
Yet, the scale and boldness of Houthi military action may have permanently changed the calculus of the belligerent parties. Saudi officials may have thought they were locking the Houthis into a moderate position that would be the basis for future cooperation and nudge the group away from Tehran. But the Gaza crisis has turned the Houthis into would-be icons of resistance. If the US or Israel do launch strikes, they would likely leave the group in power, but further bolstered by claims that it went toe-to-toe with its sworn enemies and the most powerful militaries in the world. The hope, shared by both Saudi Arabia and the United States, that a Saudi-Houthi deal would lead to some form of normalization with the group as its more moderate wing rose to the occasion in meeting the responsibilities of governance now seems premature since the Houthis have this new outlet for military action. Moderates who visited Riyadh have likely lost the ear of Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi, as the group rides on a wave of popular support. Popular discontent over unpaid salaries still lingers, and the economic situation will further deteriorate as the attacks drive up the price of imports, but the Houthis have bought themselves time.
The US, and perhaps the Saudis, might also consider that if the Houthis are brazen enough to act like this now, there is no limit to what they might try to do in the future, not least if they continue to build up their military capabilities with Iranian help. In that scenario, Saudi appeasement will have entrenched a dangerous and volatile administration rather than helped to neuter it. Other Yemeni actors might also be encouraged to act if they perceive the Houthis as no longer palatable to the international community. The STC has notably changed its tone in recent weeks, as Al-Zubaidi appears at official events in his capacity as a member of the PLC, with his portrait aligned next to that of PLC chief Al-Alimi. In public comments, he has been careful to stay on script in affirming that military units in Aden operate under the Ministry of Defense, without specifically mentioning STC-controlled forces. Al-Zubaidi even tweeted in English on December 18, boasting that he had just visited Mayun Island and the Bab al-Mandab Strait area and was “working tirelessly with international allies” against “IRGC-backed Houthi hostilities” to protect the strategic trade route.
But as yet there is little to suggest that renewed conflict on the ground in Yemen would proceed differently than it has for the last decade. Houthi operations in Marib and Hudaydah have been escalating. Military sources on the government side say the Houthi forces could probably make a breakthrough in Marib if they wanted to, particularly if Saudi Arabia refrained from air strikes. It is important to remember that Saudi eagerness for a negotiated settlement came only after its coalition was wholly unable to remove the Houthis militarily. It will hesitate to renew that campaign absent conditions that greatly improve its prospects of success.
Renewed Speculation Over a New Prime Minister
Several years of backroom dealing and arguments over replacing Prime Minister Maeen Abdelmalek Saeed could finally come to a head in the coming weeks, as PLC leader Rashad al-Alimi tries to make a deal with STC chief Al-Zubaidi on a replacement. The main three figures in the running are former Transport Minister Badr Basalama; Finance Minister Salem Bin Breik; and Oil Minister Saeed al-Shamasi. It is not clear if Al-Zubaidi is on board with any of these options, but other PLC members have been kept out of the loop, and will likely be angry over any arrangement made behind their backs. When asked about the issue, PLC member Tareq Saleh seemed genuinely surprised, though the rumored replacements were publicized on social media on December 6. Two other names have also been touted. One is PLC member Abdullah al-Alimi, a southerner with close ties to Saudi Arabia and on decent terms with the UAE, but he would likely find it difficult to win STC approval given his connections with the Islamist Islah party. Al-Alimi has also said in private he would want to retain his PLC status. The other is the current director of Rashad al-Alimi’s presidential office, Yahya al-Shuaibi. Why Al-Alimi is trying to push the question again at this juncture is not yet clear.
Rival Factions in Hadramawt
An Emirati-backed faction of the Hadramawt Inclusive Conference (HIC) is attempting to restructure the group’s leadership, following recent criticism of UAE-sponsored moves in the governorate. These include the “Scales of Justice” security campaign in early October, during which UAE-backed forces used heavy-handed tactics to target individuals accused of rioting and disturbing the peace, and reportedly tortured other Yemeni forces at a UAE-run military camp. Khaled al-Kathiri, a UAE-backed tribal sheikh and one of the founders of the HIC, is leading the charge to restructure the group, which is currently led by Amr bin Habrish. The governorate’s Appeals Prosecution Office later accused Bin Habrish of “disturbing the peace and security” and Bin Habrish called on the PLC to conduct an impartial investigation into the allegations.
PLC chief Al-Alimi later held a meeting with members of the Saudi-backed Hadramawt National Council, following the recent appointment of a 23-member presidium, and praised the body for uniting all Hadrami voices under one roof. Saudi Arabia is obviously keeping the council as a card up its sleeve to counter future UAE-STC attempts to escalate tensions in the governorate, though the new body is seen as a Saudi project parachuted in from Riyadh and lacking the grassroots presence of the Hadramawt Inclusive Conference. HIC leader Amr bin Habrish said in December he was not a member of the new council and had only heard about the presidium via social media, despite being initially supportive of the initiative. The Seyoun-based 1st Military Region – the force that the STC wants removed from the governorate – seems incohesive and weak at this point. Recent senior appointments by Al-Alimi have not been capable of uniting it as a military force, and its leadership is concerned that the Nation’s Shield forces set up by Saudi Arabia are emerging as its replacement.
Other Developments in Brief
On November 14: the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2707, which renewed the sanctions regime on Yemeni figures and entities until November 15, 2024, and extended the mandate of the Panel of Experts until December 15, 2024.
On November 14: Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani announced that Iran would appoint a new ambassador to Yemen if conditions in the country continued to improve. Iran has not had an ambassador in Sana’a since the death of Hassan Irloo in December 2021.
On November 28: A European Union delegation arrived in Aden and met with the government-aligned Central Bank of Yemen Governor Ahmed Ghaleb. The EU delegation, which was led by EU ambassador to Yemen Gabriel Munera Viñales and included the ambassadors to Yemen of France, Germany, and the Netherlands as well as the EU’s deputy ambassador for Economic Affairs, pledged to continue supporting Yemen’s central bank.
December 12: Minister of Communications and Information Technology Najeeb Mansour al-Awj passed away in a hospital in the UAE after suddenly collapsing.
December 12: Sarhad Fatah was appointed as the Deputy Head of Mission at the UN Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General For Yemen (OSESGY). Fatah, who previously served as Deputy Permanent Representative of Iraq to the UN in New York, replaces Muin Shreim.
December 19: Representatives from the US, EU, NATO, and a group of 44 allied partner nations released a joint statement condemning Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and calling on Houthi leaders to release the hostages of the hijacked Galaxy Leader vessel.
December 19: UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg traveled to Riyadh, where he met with PLC chief Al-Alimi and PLC member Othman Mujalli. Grundberg also met with Saudi Ambassador to Yemen Mohammed al-Jaber, UAE Ambassador to Yemen Mohammed al-Zaabi, and ambassadors to Yemen from the UN Security Council P5. The following day, Grundberg traveled to Muscat where he met with Omani officials and Houthi spokesperson and chief negotiator, Mohammed Abdelsalam. His office subsequently announced its continued commitment to the peace process and to getting the parties to agree to a path forward.