Analysis Main Publications News The Yemen Review Publications Index

Politics & Diplomacy Govt Pushes Ahead with Terrorism Designation as Port Attacks Continue

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

When the UN-backed truce expired on October 2, there was hope that it might be quickly reinstated, with negotiated agreements on outstanding issues such as the payment of public sector salaries and the reopening of roads. But efforts to restore the truce stalled in November. Despite multiple visits with regional officials by UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg and US Special Envoy Tim Lenderking, the former reported no progress during a brief report to the UN Security Council on November 22.

Both the Houthis and the internationally recognized government have instead pursued escalatory measures. Houthi attacks on government-controlled oil terminals paralyzed exports for a second straight month, an attempt to pressure the government into paying civil servant and military salaries in Houthi-held areas. The government responded by designating the Houthi movement a terrorist group, but there are fears that resulting measures could cause further harm to Yemen’s economic stability, while doing little to push the Houthis to the table.

Within the government, internal strife continued between members of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) for much of November, although tensions appeared to ease as various factions united around sanctioning the Houthi leadership. After months of barely contained conflict, relations between the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and Islah showed some improvement given the prospect of a return to full-scale fighting with the Houthis. Still, November was characterized by heightened tensions in Aden, where the STC exercises security control, and most PLC members were absent from the interim capital for much of the month. PLC President Rashad al-Alimi embarked on a regional tour, attending the Arab League summit in Algeria, the COP27 UN climate summit in Egypt, and the UAE’s Commemoration Day in Abu Dhabi. STC President and PLC member Aiderous al-Zubaidi was reportedly kept in the UAE at the behest of his Emirati backers to reduce tensions in Aden. Despite this, political maneuvering continued, particularly in Hadramawt, where STC-aligned leaders continued to mobilize public demonstrations demanding the removal of the Islah-aligned military commanders of the 1st Military Region in Seyoun.

Tareq Saleh, a PLC member and commander of the National Resistance forces on Yemen’s West Coast, appeared to strengthen his military and political clout when the first humanitarian flight landed at a new, UAE-financed airport in the port city of Al-Mokha. Saleh’s UAE-backed National Resistance forces control the coastal strip where Al-Mokha is located, near the Bab al-Mandab Strait. The new airport’s strategic significance will be in facilitating the activities of Saleh and his forces, who until now have been obliged to use distant airstrips and rely on UAE helicopters for movement and resupply.

November also saw the signing of the much-awaited US$1 billion agreement between the government and the Arab Monetary Fund, financed by Saudi Arabia. The agreement is part of the US$2 billion in financial support that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi committed to the government in April this year, the release of which was purportedly delayed pending the implementation of governance and institutional reforms. The value of the new Yemeni rial, which circulates in government-held areas, was briefly buoyed by the announcement.

The Houthis continue to institutionalize their political and sectarian ideology as they further tighten their rule. Authorities in Sana’a arranged for the implementation of a newly published “Code of Conduct and Work Ethics for Public Work,” which includes a requirement to recognize the group’s divine right to rule. New guidelines were also issued by the Education Department in Sana’a, banning female students from using mobile phones, playing music, and talking or laughing loudly during school excursions. Unrest over Houthi land seizures continued in various parts of northern Yemen, with protests reported in Sana’a city and tribal clashes in Al-Jawf.

Developments in Government-Held Territory

Government Continues International Engagement as Truce Talks Stall

International diplomacy continued in November with little progress on the reinstatement of the truce that expired in early October. On November 2, US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking concluded a trip to the UAE and Saudi Arabia for talks focused on renewing and expanding the UN-mediated truce. On November 8, both Lenderking and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met separately in Washington with Omani Foreign Minister Badr al-Busaidi to discuss the peace process in Yemen, among other topics. On November 7, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grunberg concluded a visit to Riyadh, where he held meetings with Saudi ambassador to Yemen Mohammed al-Jaber and other international diplomats focused on renewing the truce and pushing forward the political process. Grundberg reported no breakthroughs in an uncharacteristically brief monthly address to the UN Security Council on November 22.

Senior government officials spent much of November abroad engaged in talks. PLC head Rashad al-Alimi attended the Arab League summit in Algiers on November 1-2 before traveling to Egypt for the opening of the COP27 climate summit. In late November, Alimi attended Martyr’s Day in Abu-Dhabi. Also known as Commemoration Day, the event has taken on added importance in the Emirates since the UAE’s intervention in Yemen in March 2015; 45 Emirati soldiers have lost their lives in the conflict. Alimi visited Amman in late November, where he met Jordan’s King Abdullah. Also present during the visit were PLC members Abdullah al-Alimi and Tareq Saleh; the latter is known to have close ties with the Jordanian monarch dating back to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s years in office.

Other government officials attended the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Manama Dialogue in Bahrain from November 18-20. Yemen’s military chief of staff and commander of joint operations, Lt. General Saghir Hammoud bin Aziz, met with US, French, and other military leaders on the sidelines of the annual regional security conference. They discussed cooperation on various issues, including securing freedom of navigation, in light of a Houthi anti-ship missile test on the eve of the conference. Sources close to Bin Aziz said French military officials expressed a willingness to explore support for a new military operation on the West Coast as part of a strategy to force Sana’a back to the negotiating table, reinstate the truce, and end attacks on the energy sector – though the Sana’a Center has not been able to independently confirm this information. Foreign Minister Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak also participated in the Manama Dialogue, underscoring the Houthi menace to maritime security through the use of drones and naval mines, and claimed that Iranian support has turned the Houthis into an international threat.

Government Pushes Ahead with Terrorism Designation as Port Attacks Continue

After strikes on the Nushayma and Al-Dabba oil terminals in October, Houthi drone attacks against government oil ports continued in November, delaying the potential restoration of exports and intensifying the government’s financial woes. On November 9, a Houthi drone carrying explosives targeted an oil tanker at the port of Qana in Shabwa, with the air defense forces of the 2nd Marine Brigade reportedly shooting the drone down just before it struck the ship. Egyptian and Sudanese crew members were injured in the attack, and the vessel sustained minor damage. This was followed by an attack on the Al-Dabba terminal on November 21, which prevented a Panamanian-flagged tanker from taking on oil. The Houthis have warned oil companies to cease operations in Yemen, accusing them of stealing the country’s natural resources. The port attacks are almost certainly intended to extract financial concessions and intensify pressure on the government to restart public sector salary payments to hundreds of thousands of employees in Houthi-controlled areas.

In response to the attacks, the government pushed ahead with efforts to sanction Houthi-affiliated individuals and entities operating under its de facto jurisdiction, following its designation of the Houthis as a terrorist group in October. Earlier in the month, senior officials told the Sana’a Center that the government had asked Interpol to issue warrants for Houthi officials and owners of companies affiliated with the movement, and called upon regional and international allies to pressure for the same. Houthi officials routinely travel abroad to Oman and Jordan, and sometimes further afield. As of late November, the government’s plan was to focus on Houthi officials and other figures present in Egypt, Jordan, and European countries and request those governments to extradite them or prevent them from traveling internationally. Government officials have clarified that they will only prohibit interactions with companies established in Houthi-run areas after the Houthis dissolved the parliament in Sana’a in February 2015. So far, individuals from Houthi-affiliated oil firms form the majority of names on the sanctions list being prepared by the government, in addition to a number of businessmen.

It is not clear what the government’s endgame is in pursuing this strategy. In private conversations, senior officials have said they understand that with the designation and sanctions they are responding to Houthi brinkmanship with a major escalation of their own. They acknowledge that is unlikely to push the Houthi side back into the truce and will probably provoke further attacks on energy installations. There is also a risk of a return to full-blown frontline fighting. The government is beefing up security at its ports, including with drone defense systems, and is working with insurance companies to persuade tankers to return and export oil despite the Houthi threat.

The proposed sanctions are also unlikely to be effective in squeezing the Houthi economy. Houthi authorities will likely be able to circumvent the measures by opening new private sector companies to replace sanctioned ones. As in Syria, UN agencies might seek to block sanctions against companies deemed to be performing key humanitarian functions. In terms of international buy-in, the United States and Saudi Arabia are perhaps more ready than at any point since 2015 to reach terms with the Houthi-run government in Sana’a and bring the conflict to an end.

Discord Among PLC Members Continues, Tareq Saleh Consolidates Position

Relations among the members of the PLC remain tense following the August 2022 clashes in Shabwa between Islah-affiliated forces and UAE-backed groups. The discord worsened on November 6, when STC lead negotiator Nasser al-Khobaji leveled a series of accusations against the PLC and the cabinet in an interview broadcast on the STC’s television channel. Khobaji accused Prime Minister Maeen Abdelmalek Saeed of preventing anti-corruption bodies from doing their work, demanded that PLC member Sultan al-Aradah be removed as Marib Governor, argued Marib’s hydrocarbon revenues should be deposited with the central bank in Aden, and requested that the forces of the 1st and 2nd Military Regions based in Wadi Hadramawt and Al-Mahra be moved to the frontlines. In comments made shortly before the interview was aired, Khobaji appeared to threaten the PLC, suggesting that the STC could seize control of southern areas and that Alimi “might not return to Aden.” He also accused Interior Minister Ibrahim Haydan of protecting Islah elements in Shabwa and Hadramawt. A leader of the STC’s hardline wing without close connections with the UAE, it was not clear how far Khobaji’s comments reflected the STC’s position. Later in the month, STC head Aiderous al-Zubaidi denied that there was a systematic campaign to denigrate the government and distanced himself from the views expressed by Khobaji, saying they were not representative of the STC.

PLC member Tareq Saleh appears to be strengthening his military and political clout. The opening of the Al-Mokha airport on the Red Sea coast in Taiz governorate, which is gradually coming into operation with the intent for eventual commercial use, will benefit him strategically. A plane belonging to humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders was the first to land there on November 24 after a three-kilometer landing strip was completed last year; a second phase of construction is now underway on a passenger hall and air traffic control tower. The government has said it is developing the airport as an alternative to the Houthi-held airport in Taiz city, but there are greater ramifications in the new airport’s role in facilitating the activities of Saleh and his forces.

New Saudi-Backed Paramilitary Force Angers STC

STC agitation against Alimi continued in his absence, notably over the Nation’s Shield forces that Saudi Arabia established and placed under his control. Pro-STC media depicted the new force, which has started moving equipment into Aden, as a direct threat to its own paramilitary presence in the city and elsewhere in the south. Maeen al-Maqrahi, an STC-affiliated officer in the 1st Support and Backup Brigade, rallied checkpoint personnel to detain members of the recently-formed National Shield forces, whom he characterized as “northerners.” National Shield forces, formerly known as the Al-Yemen Al-Saeed forces, in fact consist mostly of Al-Subaiha tribesmen from Lahj, led by Salafist commander Bashir al-Madrabi. The STC has monopolized control of security in the interim capital since August 2019 and is likely mobilizing historical concerns of northern dominance to justify its continued supremacy. In response to the detentions, the Al-Subaiha tribe issued a statement calling Maqrahi’s actions an insult and provocation.

Hadramawt: American Delegation in Mukalla and Mobilization of Hadrami Tribes

Hadramawt Governor Mabkhout bin Madi hosted multiple American delegations in Mukalla in November, meeting with a US civil-military affairs delegation to discuss security coordination on November 1, and US Ambassador to Yemen Steven Fagin on November 8. In parallel, Bin Madi continued his bureaucratic shakeup of governorate operations with a series of appointments and administrative orders, including the appointment of Abdelrahman Aizah Salmeen Belfas as general manager of the Yemen Petroleum Company’s (YPC) Hadramawt coastal branch. Bin Madi also appointed leaders from the popular movement known as the Hadrami Uprising, Sheikh Hassan Saeed al-Jabri and Sheikh Saleh Mohsen bin Hariz al-Marri, as Directors-General of the Sah and Al-Qatn districts respectively.

Tribal politicking over the continued presence of the Islah-aligned 1st Military Region in Wadi Hadramawt and Hadramawt’s position in ongoing intra-PLC tensions continued in November. In early November, a meeting of Hadrami tribes headed by Abdullah Saleh al-Kathiri, a major tribal leader in Wadi Hadramawt, called on the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior to recruit 30,000 locals and task them with handling security in the governorate, a longstanding demand by the STC-aligned 2nd Hadrami Uprising to replace 1st Military Region forces. Another Al-Kathir tribal gathering issued a statement in support of Governor Mabkhout bin Madi’s recent demands that security control of the Al-Wadea border crossing with Saudi Arabia – currently under the control of Islah-aligned military units – be handed over to the UAE-backed Hadrami Elite forces. However, not all members of the al-Kathiri tribe support Sheikh Abdullah. Other sheikhs now allege he has become closer to Jabri and the STC and is prioritizing his own interests. According to a statement issued by his critics, the representation of the Al-Kathiri tribe must not be confined to Sheikh Abdullah Al-Kathiri and his council.

In early November, the Arbitration of Hadramawt Tribes held an expanded consultative meeting in Mukalla aimed at strengthening social cohesion and advancing Hadrami interests. The main demands of the meeting included protecting the governorate’s sovereignty and right to self-determination, the replacement of non-Hadrami forces with Hadramis, including 40,000 Hadrami Elite forces, creating a unified Hadrami leadership, and formation of a high-level negotiating team. A statement issued after the meeting warned all parties and companies against exploiting and removing oil and natural resources from Hadramawt. In the run-up to the meeting, some of the co-founders of the Arbitration of Hadramawt Tribes issued a statement declining to participate in the meeting, which had been called by Amro Bin Habrish. In mid-to-late November, members of the Hamoum tribe, of which Amro bin Habrish and PLC member Faraj al-Bahsani are both members, visited the STC-aligned Barsheed camp and showed their support for the southern tribes. The visit stood in contrast to previous statements by the tribe, which has rejected the marginalization of its leaders by outside forces and has not supported STC-orchestrated protests in Wadi Hadramawt.

Smuggling in Al-Mahra

On November 15, Major General Mohsen Ali Nasser Marsa, commander of the Al-Ghaydah Military Axis, visited the naval command center at the port of Nishtun. Marsa stressed the need to combat smuggling operations, protect ports, and increase maritime security. The visit followed a November 8 announcement by US Central Command forces of a seizure of a dhow in the Gulf of Oman smuggling explosive material from Iran to Yemen. On November 18, Marsa visited Al-Mahra’s nearby Shihn border crossing with Oman to discuss the development and coordination of security and military units focused on combating smuggling.

Developments in Houthi-controlled Territory

Houthi-Saudi Backchannel Talks Continue

Despite Houthi attacks on southern oil facilities in October and November, Houthi-Saudi talks are reportedly still taking place, although the status of the negotiations remains shrouded in mystery. Currently, the Saudi invitation for Houthi President Mahdi al-Mashat to visit Riyadh still stands. Publicly, the Houthis are sticking to their demands for an end to the restrictions on ports and the full payment of public sector salaries, including military personnel, before any formal talks are considered. In the short term, Saudi Arabia is likely to maintain contact with the hope of dissuading the Houthis from carrying out drone or missile strikes on Saudi Arabia or the UAE, particularly during this period of heightened global attention with the World Cup in Qatar. In the long term, Riyadh could take a clearer stance on the Houthi leadership’s demands, which would either mean making further concessions to secure a deal or more firmly rejecting Houthi brinksmanship. In an uncharacteristically vocal stance, senior Omani officials countered criticism of the Houthis during the COP27 climate summit in Egypt, defending them as legitimate Yemeni actors with a sincere desire for peace. Such comments are highly unusual for Omanis, more so given that Sultan Haitham appointed a new team to handle the Yemen file over the summer, raising Houthi fears that the hitherto neutral sultanate was turning against them.

Houthi Officials Delete World Cup Tweets Congratulating Saudi Arabia

Mixed Houthi policy toward Riyadh was on full display when the Saudi football team notched a shock 2-1 win against Argentina at the World Cup in Qatar on November 22, setting off celebrations across the Arabian Peninsula. Although there was no official statement of congratulation from the Sana’a authorities, several Houthi officials surprised observers with messages of support on Twitter. After outraged responses from Houthi supporters, the three officials – Houthi political bureau member and Information Ministry spokesperson Daifallah al-Shami; Chairman of the Houthi Committee for Prisoners’ Affairs Abdelqader al-Mortada; and Deputy Foreign Minister al-Ezzi – all deleted their tweets. Houthi authorities arranged for the public to follow the World Cup for free through large public screens provided by Qatar’s Red Crescent, in cooperation with the Qatari foreign ministry and the Qatari media group beIN Sports.

Houthis Dictate New Guidelines for the Civil Service

On November 7, the Houthi-run Saba News Agency published a new set of guidelines for civil servants working in Houthi-controlled areas. The “Code of Conduct and Work Ethics for Public Work,” a 36-page document issued by the Ministry of Civil Service, contains numerous religious references that reinforce the group’s sectarian and political agenda. Public employees must sign a document vowing to abide by the code of conduct, which includes recognizing and respecting the Houthis’ divine right to rule as descendants of the Prophet, participating in “general mobilization” activities in support of the war effort, and attending “cultural courses and educational programs” for ideological indoctrination. Following the code’s publication, various Houthi-run state institutions and local authorities throughout Houthi-held areas were reported to have held meetings to discuss the guidelines’ implementation. The education office in Sana’a has also issued a new set of regulations to be observed by female students during school excursions. According to the guidelines, schools must ensure that field trips are segregated, that female supervisors are assigned to school buses, that girls adhere to modest attire in keeping with religious values, and that they refrain from bringing their mobile phones or “playing music, speaking or laughing loudly” on school buses.

Pushback Against Houthi Land Seizures

November also saw more attempts to seize land by the Houthis in Sana’a. On November 4, residents in the Sawan neighborhood of Al-Hamdi city in Shaoub district held a sit-in to protest the seizure of local land by Houthi authorities. Houthi supervisor Abu Haider Jahaf ordered lands to be seized on the pretext that they are state-owned religious endowments (known as waqf), despite residents holding ownership documents. On November 7, Houthi gunmen raided homes belonging to Marib businessman Abdullah Nasser al-Kharraz in Sana’a, expelling residents and looting the properties. Facebook activists condemned the seizures and criticized pro-Houthi Maribi tribesmen in Sana’a for not denouncing the group.

Fighting broke out in Al-Jawf governorate between Houthi and local tribal forces after Houthi authorities seized multiple tracts of land from the Hamdan tribe in Al-Hazm district. The Hamdan tribe gave a one-hour deadline for Houthi Ministry of Interior forces to evacuate the lands on November 2, which police ignored, instead sending additional reinforcements. This prompted clashes, which ended with the tribesmen retaking the land. The same day, a meeting of the Dahm tribes, including representatives from the Hamdan, Dhou Hussein, Bani Nouf, Al-Mahabib, Al-Muslim, Al-Ashraf, and Faqman tribes agreed to form an alliance against parties violating tribal lands. The Hamdan tribe and Houthi authorities subsequently negotiated a truce, although locals speculated a November 18 attack by unknown gunmen on the Al-Aslat security checkpoint was intended to cause tension between the two parties.

FSO Safer

After months of fundraising and an ostensible UN-Houthi agreement to salvage the vessel, the saga surrounding the derelict tanker FSO Safer saw multiple developments in November. On November 1, Minister of Information Muammar al-Eryani accused the Houthis of preventing a UN technical team from visiting the FSO Safer to evaluate and maintain the vessel. On November 11, the Minister of Water and Environment, Tawfiq al-Sharjabi, met the Ambassador of Sustainable Development at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, René van Hell, on the sidelines of the COP27 climate conference to discuss the issue. During talks with the Sana’a Center at COP27, Sharjabi expressed the government’s reservations about the plan to transfer oil from the FSO Safer to a new tanker, arguing instead that the oil should be removed from the area entirely, as its continued presence would still provide the Houthis the means for blackmail. However, in a November 21 interview with the newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, head of the government-aligned Maritime Affairs Authority Mohammed Mubarak bin Aifan stressed the need to first unload the oil from the decaying tanker and then agree on its ultimate destination. On November 18, the UN announced the operation to unload the FSO Safer would begin in early 2023.

Other Political Developments in Brief

November 6: The union of the General Authority of Civil Aviation and Meteorology issued a statement condemning the construction of buildings at Sana’a airport that do not adhere to International Civil Aviation Organization standards and warning that failure to follow international security and safety procedures may result in the suspension of flights. The union urged Houthi authorities to stop construction and remove all structures that do not comply. Local media reported that Houthi authorities threatened union employees following the statement’s release. There are currently three flights a week between Sana’a and Amman.

November 18: Fouad Rashid, head of the Supreme Council of the Revolutionary Hirak, issued a decision dismissing five high-profile members from the movement in response to their holding a special meeting at which they themselves tried to dismiss him from the leadership of the group. Rashid accused STC leaders and employees of the office of STC-aligned Aden Governor Ahmed Lamlas of supporting the five in an attempt to co-opt the group.

Program/Project: The Yemen Review