The truce between Yemen’s internationally recognized government and the armed Houthi movement, in place since April, was allowed to expire without renewal on October 2. The UN-facilitated agreement birthed the longest sustained period of relative peace since the conflict began, with a concomitant drop off in civilian casualties. September was dominated by fruitless negotiations to extend and expand the agreement. UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg shuttled across the region to build support for an extension, as government and Houthi negotiators sparred over the terms. Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) chairman Rashad al-Alimi, inNew York to attend the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, gave a speech accusing the Houthis of disregarding the provisions of the truce. In Yemen, Houthi leaders communicated their resolve to continue fighting with large military parades showcasing new weapons systems.
Negotiations for an extension and expansion of the agreement centered on the payment of public salaries, the reopening of roads, fuel imports to Hudaydah port and flights from Sana’a airport. Despite optimism that an extension would be agreed, talks broke down after Houthi negotiators made an eleventh-hour demand that the government pay some of its military salaries as well.
Efforts to revive the truce are ongoing, and no major military operations have taken place in the days following its expiration. The payment of salaries remains a major inducement for a new agreement as economic conditions deteriorate, though the Houthis may pursue the money by other means; the group has threats against international energy companies operating in the region should it not come through.
While the truce engineered a temporary peace between the major belligerents, internal tensions on both sides have increased in the interim, a trend which continued in September. Members of the PLC remain divided following the expulsion of Islah-aligned military and security forces from Shabwa by UAE-backed forces in August. With Alimi out of the country for most of the month, STC President Aiderous al-Zubaidi continued to expand his political footprint in STC-controlled Aden, presenting himself as the de facto leader of the PLC. The STC expanded its territorial control in Abyan and Shabwa with a nominally counterterrorist campaign and publicly supported calls to expel Islah and other non-STC forces from Wadi Hadramawt and Al-Mahra, and orchestrated local demonstrations. Toward the end of the month, the PLC was summoned to a meeting with newly-appointed Saudi Defense Minister Khaled bin Salman, marking the first time all its members had met together since the council’s formation in April 2022.
There were also signs of possible division within the Houthi leadership. With dueling military parades between the Houthi-aligned defense and interior ministries, contrasting rhetorics between movement leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi, Supreme Political Council President Mahdi al-Mashat and chief negotiator Mohammed Abdelsalem, and seeming ambivalence over a truce extension, the group may be divided about the best way forward amid deteriorating economic conditions and ongoing unrest in Houthi-held areas.
Despite optimism earlier in the month that the truce would be extended once again, concerns mounted later in September and it expired without renewal on October 2. The UN-facilitated talks, which sought to secure an expanded six-month truce, pitted a government under increased international pressure to secure an extension against a Houthi movement intent on extracting maximum concessions. A major discussion point in negotiations was a deal for Houthi forces to reopen roads into government-held Taiz city in exchange for the government’s participation in a mechanism to pay civil servant salaries in Houthi-held areas. Citing the terms of the original April 2022 truce agreement, the government insisted on the reopening of the Taiz roads first, while Houthi negotiators demanded salary payments take precedence. The Houthis also changed their position on who should receive salary payments throughout the month, initially demanding any agreement should cover employees hired by Houthi authorities since 2014, before seeming more open to only paying the workforce as constituted in 2014. Ultimately, the truce lapsed after an eleventh-hour demand by Houthi negotiators for payment of additional military and security salaries.
According to UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grunberg, the UN put forward a proposal to the warring parties on October 1 that included the payment of civil servant salaries, the reopening of roads in Taiz and other governorates, additional destinations for flights in and out of Sana’a airport, and unhindered entry of fuel ships into the port of Hudaydah. The government reportedly agreed to this proposed extension, but at the eleventh hour the Houthis insisted on including additional personnel from its ministries of defense and interior to the list of state employees in its areas who have received irregular salary payments since 2014. The PLC rejected this demand. UN negotiators suggested another formulation, by which some public sector military and security personnel could be added, but no agreement was reached. UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg said he is continuing efforts to reach a deal and prevent a return to major conflict.
Following the truce’s expiration, limited shelling was reported across frontlines in Marib, Taiz, and Al-Dhalea, but there were no major troop or arms movements likely to invite the resumption of coalition airstrikes. The Houthis ordered energy companies working in Yemen to halt operations under threat of attack and warned those working in Saudi Arabia and the UAE that they could be targeted as well. The threats could be precipitated by recent government efforts to persuade French energy giant Total to revive exports from the Balhaf liquefied gas plant in Shabwa.
The Houthi volte-face on the truce was surprising in many quarters. There is clearly domestic pressure in Houthi areas for economic relief, the discussions on roads and salaries had been moving toward an agreement. The PLC accused the Houthi side of throwing a spanner in the works as a favor to Iran, or under specific pressure from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), in the wake of anti-regime protests. The purported message would be that Saudi Arabia cannot have stability if Iran cannot enjoy the same. While it is possible that the IRGC acted on its own initiative or that the Iranian government is feigning ignorance, its foreign ministry has expressed support for a truce extension and Supreme leader Ali Khamenei has accused Saudi media of inflaming the situation.
The Houthi position could also reflect divisions within its leadership. Oman appears to have understood from Mohammed Abdelsalam, the Houthi negotiator in Muscat, that it had secured an agreement to a six-month extension, but the Houthi Supreme Political Council, headed by President Mahdi al-Mashat, issued a statement on October 2 rejecting the terms that had been under discussion. The truce itself had strained Houthi domestic cohesion, as different sectors of Houthi society competed over the control of resources, and the lack of conflict threatened to weaken the ideological glue holding disparate parts of the movement together. What the Houthi side wants at this juncture is not clear. Houthi officials in Sana’a have said in private that leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi decided well in advance that he would renew the truce only on condition of opening negotiations with Saudi Arabia. The likelihood at this point is either of another truce, preceded by some form of communication between the Houthis and Saudis, or a return to violence, potentially in new forms if the Houthi threat to oil and gas interests in Yemen and Suadi Arabia is to be taken seriously. A non-declared truce – a period of minor skirmishes absent a formal deal – could work in either party’s favor, given the internal disputes in play on both sides. The Houthi calculus may be that even in the absence of a renewal, the coalition will do all it can to refrain from cross-border strikes resuming ahead of the World Cup in Qatar in N0vember – when coalition members Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates both hope to attract visitors heading to Doha – which would allow Sana’a to focus on reinforcing its frontlines. With pressure and division mounting in both camps, the risk is that things spiral out of control.
Efforts to support the Yemen truce continued in September, with UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg concluding a visit to Iran, where he met with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on September 5. From September 26-27, as the truce extension looked increasingly fragile, Grundberg visited Muscat, whose mediation proved helpful in previous negotiations with the Houthis, and later Riyadh. On September 15, US Special Envoy Timothy Lenderking returned to the US following a regional trip to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman. According to the State Department, his meetings with Saudi, Emirati, and Omani officials focused on efforts to extend and expand the truce agreement.
PLC chairman Rashad al-Alimi traveled early in the month to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to seek financial support and ease tensions with Islah-aligned elements of his coalition following the UAE-backed advance into Shabwa governorate in August. Alimi left for a state visit to Germany on September 12, during which he met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who would later visit Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in Riyadh on September 25. From Berlin, Alimi traveled to the US on September 18 to participate in the annual United Nations General Assembly, meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Lenderking on September 19. In his speech before the General Assembly on September 22, Alimi accused the Houthis of looking for excuses to thwart the truce and block international efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace.
On September 28, as part of a cabinet reshuffle, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman named his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), prime minister, a post traditionally held by the king. Salman also promoted another son, Prince Khaled bin Salman, from deputy defense minister to defense minister. MBS, who is widely regarded as the kingdom’s de facto ruler, held the positions of deputy prime minister and defense minister before the latest shakeup.
Following the expiration of the truce, Yemeni government Defense Minister Mohsen al-Daeri and Army Chief of Staff Saghir bin Aziz met with the command of the Saudi-led military coalition in Riyadh on October 3, including commander of coalition forces Mutlaq al-Azima. According to Bin Aziz, the discussions focused on “the current military situation across frontlines and operational plans in preparation for the next stage.”
On September 7, Eritrean authorities released 198 Yemeni fishermen who had been detained on Tarma Island for more than two months. The fishermen were reportedly subjected to torture and forced to perform hard labor. Eritrea occupied the Hanish Islands from 1995 to 1998, when an international arbitration court granted Yemen sovereignty. Eritrea still contests a number of the islands and fishing rights in the Red Sea. Its navy has abducted hundreds of Yemeni fishermen and seized numerous fishing boats during the conflict.
Government Politics and Governance
Capitalizing on the absence of PLC chief Rashad al-Alimi, the STC continued its campaign to deepen and expand its influence. STC President Aiderous al-Zubaidi met with a range of southern stakeholders throughout the month, and was seen by some as presenting himself as the de facto head of the PLC. On September 18, Zubaidi chaired a special ministerial meeting attended by Prime Minister Maeen Abdelmalek, where he announced that it is no longer acceptable for ministers and their deputies to carry out their tasks from outside of Yemen and urged the resumption of all work from the government’s headquarters in Aden. The interim capital is controlled by the STC. Zubaidi criticized “the irresponsibility of some ministers and their hesitancy” as they continue to work from outside the country, and threatened to suspend the salaries of those who do not return. Facing financial pressure, the PLC is also reportedly on a drive to remove officials from the government’s bloated payrolls. Ministers and other officials are being pushed to return from exile abroad in places such as Egypt and Turkey, so that non-compliance can be used as a reason to let them go and save money. A series of unofficial attachés appointed to embassies since 2015 are thought to cost the government some 9 billion Yemeni rials (US$36 million) a year. Most ministers, including those affiliated with Islah, are currently in Aden; the security situation is seen as sufficiently under control with the domination of Zubaidi’s STC forces.
In late September, Saudi Arabia called the members of the PLC to Riyadh, where they met with Defense Minister Prince Khaled bin Salman on September 28. The Riyadh meeting was the first time all members of the PLC had been in the same place since the council’s formation in April 2022. Bin Salman was reportedly trying to make up for the Saudi absence over the summer, when the PLC was destabilized by the fighting in Shabwa. Abdullah al-Alimi, an Islah-affiliated figure on the PLC, argued for a deal whereby the Islah-affiliated Special Security forces would be able to return to Ataq and the UAE-backed Giants Brigades would withdraw, while Marib governor and PLC member Sultan al-Aradah argued that Shabwa governor Awadh bin al-Wazir al-Awlaki should resign.
Despite his return to Aden on September 5, after almost two months abroad for medical treatment, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Saeed maintained a low profile in September, only attending the cabinet meeting chaired by STC President Zubaidi on September 18. One reason is likely a desire to tamp down speculation that has been swirling for months over his potential replacement, not least since Saeed is one of three Taiz natives in a senior government position, alongside Alimi and parliament speaker Sultan al-Barakani. A lot happened during his absence, including a series of key ministerial and governmental appointments as well as the violence in Shabwa. Any decision to replace him would likely come from Riyadh, but the recent turmoil in the south could militate in favor of keeping him in place. Aden Governor Ahmed al-Lamlas – one of those tipped as a possible successor – was notably active in September, taking public stances on the paying of teachers’ and military salaries, and making a vow to striking teachers that their salaries would be paid, although the issue is legally outside his remit.
On September 26, commemorations across Yemen marked the 60th anniversary of the founding of the republic. Festivities included the lighting of torches, fireworks displays, and the playing of republican songs. The commemorations, particularly in Houthi-held areas, have been interpreted in some quarters as a symbol of rejection of Houthi rule. Houthi authorities were keen to suppress popular gatherings in support of Revolution Day, which was marked only by a speech from Mashat accusing foreign powers of having sought to undermine Yemeni independence since 1962. Marib Governor Sultan al-Aradah, who is affiliated with Islah, organized a large military parade in Marib. The show of force seemed intended as a message not only to the Houthis, but to Islah’s STC adversaries, indicating that it is still a force to be reckoned with. In Hadramawt, dozens of people from the Al-Kathir tribe and other locals celebrated the anniversary in the streets of Seyoun on cars and motorbikes, touring the city and raising the Yemeni flag. Dozens of people also celebrated in the streets of Mukalla, where units from the security and military forces arrested a number of people, reportedly for raising the Yemeni flag. STC-aligned media outlets accused the detainees of being northerners and supporters of Islah.
STC-aligned authorities in Aden governorate were accused of multiple press freedoms violations in September, probably reflecting an attempt to increase the group’s control over media in the interim capital. On September 6, journalist and researcher Fouad Massad sent a letter to local, regional, and international press freedom organizations, in which he claimed the deputy head of the Southern National Media Authority, Mukhtar al-Yafi’i, had prevented him from conducting an interview with BBC Arabic TV and forbade him from any future interviews with satellite TV channels in Aden. Massad accused Yafi’i of distributing a list of journalists who refuse to conform to his guidelines to media outlets, alerting them that these journalists are prohibited from speaking to the media. On September 7, Yafi’i denied the allegations in a press statement, claiming that they coincide with an Islah media campaign aimed at insulting the south, the STC, and the armed forces involved in counter-terrorism operations in Abyan governorate.
On September 20, armed men raided the headquarters of the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate (YJS) in Aden’s Al-Tawahi district. Hours later, following orders from Director of Aden Security Major General Mutahhar al-Shuaibi, police led by the Director of Al-Tawahi Police Amjad al-Subaihi intervened and instructed the men to evacuate the headquarters. The raid follows the formation of the STC-sponsored Preparatory Committee for the Southern Journalists Conference in Aden governorate earlier in the month and an incitement campaign by STC-aligned media against the YJS.
Following the appointment of new governor Mabkhoot bin Madi in early August, Hadramawt governorate continued to see STC agitation for the removal of Islah-aligned officials from Wadi Hadramawt. In concert with the expulsion of Islah from Shabwa in August and growing protests in neighboring Al-Mahra governorate, there are signs of a looming confrontation.
On August 31, a group calling itself the Youth of Anger in Wadi Hadramawt issued a statement calling on youth, community members, associations, and trade unions to take part in peaceful demonstrations in the cities and districts of Wadi Hadramawt. According to the statement, the protests aimed to put an end to the alleged systematic targeting of Hadramis and to protest worsening economic conditions. The organizers also called for the removal of the Islah-aligned 1st Military Region command. Hundreds demonstrated on September 2 in the city of Tarim, during which flags of the former South Yemen were raised. On September 23-24, in response to a call by STC-affiliated local committees, protesters in Al-Qatn city, Hawra city, and the Sah district of Wadi Hadramawt rallied to call for the removal of forces of the Islah-aligned 1st Military Region. On September 17, the STC Presidium reaffirmed its support for what it called popular protests, commending “the momentum” that protestors had created with their peaceful demonstrations to demand the replacement of “northern forces.”
On September 12, Hadramawt Governor Bin Madhi arrived in Seyoun, Wadi Hadramawt to tour the Valley and Desert districts for the first time since his appointment on July 31. The following day, Bin Madi delegated Assistant Undersecretary for Hadramawt Valley and Desert Affairs Hisham Mohammed al-Saidi to carry out the work of the executive offices, in practice replacing Hadramawt Deputy Governor Essam al-Kathiri, a pro-Islah official who was suspended by former Hadramawt Governor Faraj al-Bahsani before being reinstated in late July. On September 19, Bin Madhi dismissed a number of advisors and indicated that his office will take a new approach of listening and seeking consultations in an inclusive manner that includes civil society actors. Following the announcement, the UAE reportedly sent a plane to take the governor to Abu Dhabi. Although there was speculation that Mahdi’s meetings in the UAE will discuss potential replacements for pro-Islah officials in Wadi Hadramawt, other theories posited his trip was a sign of Emirati displeasure at some of his new appointments, including the removal of some local STC officials and the director of the Education Ministry’s office in coastal Hadramawt, Jamal Salem Abdoun.
Despite being removed as Hadramawt governor in late July, PLC member Faraj al-Bahsani also remained an active presence in the governorate. On September 6, Bahsani met with the executive director of the Al-Awn Foundation for Development in his office in Mukalla. Prior to the meeting, Bahsani received Hadramawt Governor Bin Mahdi to discuss the performance of local authorities and plans to provide services to citizens. He also held recent meetings with officials from the Ministry of Oil and Minerals, religious leaders, and security officials.
Al-Mahra saw increased tensions in September as the STC continued attempts to increase its influence in the governorate and in neighboring Wadi Hadramawt. On September 4, the Peaceful Sit-In Committee accused Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and “their proxies” of planning to spread chaos and conflict in Al-Mahra, after a group of STC supporters demanded the removal of “northern forces,” particularly those affiliated with the Islah party. The Committee, which is backed by Oman and opposes the presence of coalition forces in the governorate, has a relatively stable relationship with the northern military forces that the STC is targeting. Its leader, Sheikh Ali al-Hurayzi, has issued several warnings to the STC about dragging Mahris into conflict and has pledged to defend the governorate from outside forces.
Tensions were further highlighted by several pro-STC demonstrations. On September 6, thousands of people in the districts of Sayhut and Al-Masila protested in the streets, and on September 8 long convoys of cars toured the streets of Al-Mahra’s capital Al-Ghaydah demanding the exit of the military forces affiliated with the Islah party. On September 16, STC officials, including Vice President in Al-Mahra Hassan Mahdi Balhaf, delivered speeches to large crowds of protesters in Qishn district, echoing demands for the removal of military forces from northern governorates. On September 22, the STC announced the launch of an organizational center in the Hassai area of Al-Masilah district in the presence of a number of tribal sheikhs and dignitaries. The aim of the STC rallies appears to be to get a sense of the public’s willingness to mobilize against northern military units, while also weakening the morale of these forces. However, the STC leadership seems concerned about a potential alliance between these forces and the Peaceful Sit-In Committee led by Hurayzi, who has repeatedly warned the STC against a power grab in the governorate.
Oman’s long-standing influence in Al-Mahra raises the stakes for any STC-UAE action and will be a major test for Saudi Arabia. Riyadh acquiesced in the takeover of Shabwa, but it is unclear whether it would object to the STC moving against Islah in Hadramawt. The Saudi leadership has moved closer to Oman since Sultan Haitham took over in 2020, but Omani military maneuvers in August in its Dhofar region, which neighbors Al-Mahra, appear to have been intended as a message that it will try to stop the STC, which it sees as a UAE proxy, from bringing Al-Mahra into its fold. Oman’s relations with the UAE have been fractious in recent years, most notably after Muscat announced it had uncovered a UAE spy ring in 2011. Saudi Arabia is thought to be sympathetic to the UAE’s desire to defang Islah in southern governorates, but will not want to risk Oman increasing its cooperation with the Houthis in retaliation. Al-Mahra has seen several years of popular protests against the Saudi presence, which recently led to a coalition raid on the home of Hurayzi. The Saudis accuse Hurayzi of links to military camps concealed in the rugged Oman-Yemen border area that have enabled arms smuggling.
Houthi Politics and Governance
Houthi preparations for the truce’s possible collapse were made clear throughout September in a series of military parades to display new missiles and other weapons. After a smaller parade held by the Houthi-aligned Ministry of Interior on September 15, on September 21 the Houthis celebrated the eighth anniversary of their takeover of Sana’a with a large military parade in Al-Sabaeen Square. Revealing capabilities many thought had been destroyed early in the war, a helicopter and drones flew above a procession of ballistic missiles, drones, missiles, naval mines, armored vehicles, military boats, and Houthi fighters. Many of the weapons on display were of Iranian origin, despite Houthi claims that they had been produced domestically. Several “Houthi” missiles are simply renamed Iranian rockets: the Hatem missile is the Iranian Khyber missile; the Robej naval missile is the Iranian Hoveyza missile; and the Bab al-Mandab missiles 1 and 2 are the Iranian Nour and Qadir missiles.
The parades were intended as a message of strength to back up the Houthi negotiating position, but the separate events also appear to reflect internal rivalries. Interior ministry forces organized the parade in Sana’a on September 15, the military organized a major parade in Sana’a on September 21, and others have been held in recent weeks in Ibb, and in Hudaydah by forces loyal to Houthi military commander Yousef al-Madani. Speeches by Houthi leaders at the September 21 parade also hinted at potential divisions, with Houthi Supreme Political Council head Mahdi al-Mashat adopting more dovish rhetoric, while Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi issued a warning about the resumption of hostilities, and spent considerable time assailing internal critics of Houthi policies.
Sana’a witnessed multiple attacks targeting judges and other officials in September. On September 1, former member of parliament Abdullah Mohammed al-Kibsi was shot and killed in front of his home in Sana’a by his brother-in-law. The Houthi-run Ministry of the Interior announced that Kibsi’s brother-in-law was later arrested in Dhamar governorate. The same day, Supreme Court Judge Mohammed Hamran was killed by kidnappers two days after being abducted from his home in Al-Asbahi area of Sana’a city. The kidnappers, widely believed to be affiliated with the Houthis, were reportedly arrested during a raid by security forces in the Haddah neighborhood. Hamran had been the target of criticism and incitement by influential media figures and Houthi leaders. In response to the killing, sheikhs and community figures from Ibb governorate, where Hamran is from, launched a sit-in protest on Al-Sabaeen Street in Sana’a, demanding that the killers be brought to justice and that an investigation be launched to determine who was behind the smear campaign against the judge. The Yemen Judges’ Club also announced the suspension of work at prosecution offices and courts. Judges in Houthi-run territories are still paid by the Aden-based government, which in the Houthis’ view explains their resistance to its plans to reform the judiciary, including removing and replacing judges to bring it under their control.
On September 21, the tribes of Bani al-Harith issued a call for armed mobilization in response to the Houthis’ imprisonment of eight senior sheikhs who reportedly refused to pay extra levies for quarrying on their lands in Bir al-Ra’i, northeast of the capital Sana’a. The sheikhs are reportedly Houthi supporters, who had supplied the group with young fighters for the frontlines. Following a meeting of the Bani al-Harith tribes on September 22, a statement was issued demanding Mohammed Ali al-Houthi himself be detained alongside the sheikhs.
On September 21, Houthi forces forced merchants throughout the governorate to paint the doors of their shops green, install decorative lights, and hang banners bearing slogans celebrating the Prophet’s birthday. Each shop was also required to pay an annual fee, ostensibly to help fund the upcoming celebrations. Imposing taxes related to a growing list of religious holidays and other Houthi-sponsored celebrations has become a considerable source of revenue for the group.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this text misstated that journalist Fouad Massad was affiliated with a political party. The Sana’ Center regrets the error.