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Eight Days in Aden – a Forgotten City in Yemen’s Forgotten War
Eight Days in Aden – a Forgotten City in Yemen’s Forgotten War
The Counter-productive Isolation of Proud and Hungry Sanaa
The Counter-productive Isolation of Proud and Hungry Sanaa

Eight Days in Aden – a Forgotten City in Yemen’s Forgotten War

Two and a half years after the last major fighting in the southern port city of Aden, officially Yemen’s “temporary capital”, our Arabian Peninsula Project Director April Longley Alley finds a patchwork of rival armed forces, buildings in ruins and political groups’ effective steps toward autonomy, if not outright separation.

ADEN, Yemen – For now, there is little fighting in Yemen’s southern port city of Aden. But it takes me more than a year to arrange my journey. Everything about getting there drives home how deeply three years of war have broken and divided the country.

I start by seeking a visa at a consulate of the Yemeni government headed by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. My first application in January 2017 languishes in bureaucratic limbo. Unofficially, I am told that Aden is too unsafe for me.

I press for help from the upper reaches of Hadi’s administration, which, far from the complications of life in Aden, are mostly located in exile in Saudi Arabia. I make progress but lose that visa in a bureaucratic mix-up. Then, at last, all my phone calls, meetings, messages and form-filling pay off. A Yemeni diplomat pastes the visa into my passport while I am visiting the United States in the late fall of 2017.

Bureaucratic hurdles and technical difficulties are frequent obstacles to my and Crisis Group’s mission.

The importance attached to this official symbol of Yemeni statehood is, of course, in stark contrast to the reality on the ground. It is a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition that is the main support of the internationally recognised Hadi government, which Houthi rebels and allies of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh ousted from the capital Sanaa in 2015.

After three years of war, the country is in fact fragmented into several competing power centres. The Houthis retain control of the north-west, including Sanaa. Components of the Hadi government aligned with Saudi Arabia are dominant in Marib, east of Sanaa. Those aligned with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) focus on the territories of the former South Yemen, an independent state prior to 1990. Nominally one bloc, the Saudi-led coalition and its Yemeni allies are divided, with UAE-aligned southern forces at odds with the Hadi government, especially over control and influence in Aden.

Bureaucratic hurdles and technical difficulties are frequent obstacles to my and Crisis Group’s mission: finding and advocating ways to end Yemen’s war and mitigate its catastrophic impact on the country’s 27 million people. My most recent trip to Houthi-held Sanaa in 2017 was equally hard to arrange. It taught me how isolation, hunger and siege tactics are failing to win the war, worsening the country’s divisions and making northern Yemenis, many of whom are Houthi critics, rally against the U.S.-backed coalition.

Checking and Double-checking

A Hadi government visa is only one step in planning my trip to Aden. Before travelling, I inform UAE officials of my trip and obtain approval from the UAE-allied Yemeni security forces that control the airport and most of the city. My next challenge is to book a flight on Yemenia, the only airline flying there. With just one or two flights a day from either Cairo or Amman, competition for the seats is intense. Several Yemeni friends trying to reach Aden around the same time are told the flights are all booked, and some think they might have to pay bribes to jump the queue. In my case, a contact in Aden is able to do the labour-intensive work of constant personal follow-up at the Yemenia offices. When the airline quotes me a price of over $1,000 for the short flight, I pay up. What choice do I have?

When I board the Yemenia plane in Cairo at the end of February, I am surprised to see that one third of the seats are empty. I suspect that potential travellers are deterred by the exorbitant price for anything less than emergency occasions. Many of my fellow passengers are returning home after medical treatment abroad. I see one young man I had previously met, who had taken a relative to India for treatment of a medical problem that could not be resolved in Yemen. It was too late. He died. The family is coming home to mourn his passing away with other relatives and friends.

We take off for Aden five hours late, typical for Yemenia flights from Cairo, which are scheduled to depart very early each morning. My nerves are jangling. The plane is in shocking disrepair. All the seats are at different levels, and mine is falling off its mountings. No staff member bothers to give the usual safety instructions.

Aden: A Shattered City in Fracturing Yemen

Arabian Peninsula Project Director April Longley Alley talks about her visit to Aden, Yemen. CRISISGROUP

Guns, Guns, Everywhere

The aircraft lands intact and I emerge to find an Aden transformed. I have not been here since January 2015, a few months before the Saudi-led intervention. Back then, southerners were preparing to repulse the coming Houthi offensive, but as yet there had been no combat. Now there are bombed buildings in and around the airport and a sense of militarisation everywhere. A new military-style barrier made of large sand-filled canvas bags is under construction around the airport perimeter.

The terminal is still in one piece, and passport control is open, if sparsely manned given the limited flights. Because the terminal is closed to car traffic for security reasons, there is nobody outside to meet me. A friend had arranged entry, but it was denied at the last minute. So we walk through the large, empty car park outside. My fellow passengers and I carry our bags to the entrance checkpoint, where we cross into a narrow, congested two-lane street that now functions as the access road to the airport. As painstakingly arranged, a friend of a friend is loyally waiting. He picks me up and drives me to where I will stay.

Boureiqa, looking toward the oil refinery of little Aden, in February 2018. CRISISGROUP/April Longley Alley

I am to spend the first part of my eight days in Aden in the Bouraiqa district, on an island-like peninsula 15km west of the main city, itself also almost an island in the Gulf of Aden. On the way to Bouraiqa, we pass through a stretch of desert wasteland where security forces from the UAE have set up a base. We share the road with armoured personnel carriers either headed to Bouraiqa’s port or possibly to the war front at Mocha, a city on the Red Sea coast. This is my only sighting of Emirati troops. The UAE wields great authority in Aden, but its soldiers mostly seem to stay hunkered down in their compound.

The highway from the airport to Bouraiqa, like many of Aden’s roads, is still wrecked from the fight to expel the Houthis two and a half years ago. Incongruously, there are also shiny new billboards along the causeway. One shows Aydaroos Qasim al-Zubaydi, head of the UAE-backed Southern Transition Council (STC), his deputy, a Salafi cleric, Hani bin Breik, and smaller photos of other council members. Another displays the leader of the opposing political bloc, President Hadi. Other pictures are of southerners who fought the Houthis, only to be killed later by al-Qaeda or Yemen’s branch of the Islamic State (ISIS).

Causeway exiting Khormaksar, going toward Boureiqa. The billboards show southerners killed by AQAP or IS, in February 2018. AL-AYYAM Newspaper

Travelling from the airport toward the south’s only oil refinery, which is also in Bouraiqa, I pass through at least six checkpoints manned by the security belt forces set up after the Houthis were pushed out of Aden to protect the city’s approaches from any renewed offensive. They are made up of southerners allied with Zubaydi and the STC. The Hadi government calls them illegitimate militias on the UAE payroll.

It was the Emiratis who led the military campaign that ousted the Houthis from Aden. And they support and pay the security belt forces, in part because they know that many in the city perceive Hadi, who is aligned more closely with the Saudis, as corrupt and ineffectual. The Hadi government includes the Islamist party Islah, which contains the Yemeni version of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both the UAE and its southern Yemeni allies view Islah with deep suspicion and associate the group with political radicalism and violence. Many southerners in Aden resent Hadi and Islah, and the UAE-aligned local groups have the military advantage on the ground.

There is also a regional component to the raging intra-southern feuds. True or not, many people I spoke with in Aden believe the UAE is taking sides with individuals from Dalia and Lahj governorates against their historic adversaries from Abyan, President Hadi’s home governorate. There is a perception that the security belt forces in Aden draw too heavily from these areas and that the STC, whose membership is regionally diverse, under-represents Aden. Others vehemently deny the importance of regionalism. While current divisions are not carbon copies of the past – in which groups from the current governorates of Dalia and Lahj fought a brutal ten-day civil war against Abyan and Shebwa in 1986 – history does appear to have an echo.

Many in society [...] seem to suffer from a lack of information about what the UAE can and cannot do, or what the Gulf country’s long-term aims are.

The friction between the UAE and Hadi camps erupted into open clashes in January 2018 that lasted two or three days before the Emiratis and Saudis stepped in to impose a ceasefire, which has remained fragile and tense. Yemeni government officials, and many in society at large, seem to suffer from a lack of information about what the UAE can and cannot do, or what the Gulf country’s long-term aims are. If the Emiratis wish to gain more traction, they need to communicate better what their military and political goals and capacities are.

The January truce has held, but there has been no political reconciliation. Instead there is Balkanisation and political paralysis. In parts of the city, for instance in the vicinity of the Interior Ministry, pro-Hadi forces hold sway. Elsewhere, STC-allied forces are in charge. And then there are pockets of the city held by local, almost neighbourhood-based, “resistance” forces that played a role in evicting the Houthis and are not completely aligned with either faction.

What surprises me most, however, are the guns. In northern Yemen, especially in rural areas, guns are ubiquitous, but that was never the case in Aden. Not under British colonial rule, not under the communists who ruled the South when it was an independent state until 1990, and not in unified Yemen under the regime of President Saleh. Today, guns are everywhere, carried by the security forces in pickup trucks with heavy machine guns mounted on the back – some of them clearly dressed in uniforms, others in a confusing mix of tribal and military garb – and by young men on motorbikes, some of whom may be part of the divided security services, others not. For Aden, this is not the “normal” I am used to.

In northern Yemen, especially in rural areas, guns are ubiquitous, but that was never the case in Aden.

Another danger feeds underlying tensions. Since 2016, unknown assailants have assassinated over twenty clerics and preachers, many of them associated with the Sunni Islamist party, Islah. The party’s headquarters have been set ablaze and its members feel targeted by UAE-allied security services, who share the Emirates’ animosity toward the party. Al-Qaeda and ISIS are also present and both have attacked the city’s security services and government officials. All of this violence is targeted, of course, but I do not want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This makes Aden quite unlike Sanaa, which the Houthis run as a relatively secure police state.

Because of the insecurity, I do not move around much. Most of my contacts and friends come to see me where I am staying in Bouraiqa, with a family of business people who have a fine villa overlooking a lovely small fishing bay. When I do go out, I always wear the abaya and niqab – a long black robe and a full-face veil. That way, at checkpoints and in public, I draw less attention.

A City Holding its Breath

Moving around town, I am shocked by the scale of war damage in Aden. The main road into the city from the north, where the Houthis advanced and retreated, I am told looks like east Aleppo. In Aden, almost every large hotel is destroyed. On past visits I would stay at the Mercure Hotel, right on the beach. The Mercure is now ripped open, its entire lobby exposed by an airstrike aimed at the Houthis, who were occupying the building at the time. The nearby Aden Hotel was destroyed in Saudi coalition airstrikes. ISIS bombed a third hotel built by Saleh. Many parts of the city are in ruins. There has been a lot of looting.

Mercure Hotel and Aden Hotel destroyed by airstrikes, in February 2018. CRISISGROUP/April Longley Alley

Amid the destruction, there is still plenty of life. Fishermen are out in the bay off Bouraiqa. At lunchtime, the fruit and vegetable markets are packed. A few state institutions have relocated to Aden, bringing life to a city that was sleepy and neglected under Saleh. Here, unlike in Sanaa, state employees, teachers, street cleaners and medical workers are, for the most part, being paid. Most noticeable are the security belt forces members in the markets buying leafy bunches of qat, a mildly narcotic plant chewed by many Yemenis. The UAE is paying them well and on time. The value of the government’s Yemeni riyal is plummeting, though, so dwindling purchasing power is a constant complaint. And the daytime bustle cannot mask Aden’s deeper problems.

I meet all sorts of people: civilians and security personnel, backed by either the UAE or President Hadi; government officials and other politicians; Salafis and secularists; men and women; doctors, journalists and NGO activists. Everyone I talk to brings up how the city feels paralysed, especially by the political impasse between Hadi and the UAE-backed forces, a national struggle complicated by a regional intervention layered on top of local feuding.

Hadi’s interior minister is the only cabinet member present in Aden while I am here. He is barricaded behind concrete walls in the area policed by pro-Hadi fighters. He is refusing to leave Aden, even after a battle in January laid bare the depth of the dispute between Hadi-aligned forces and UAE-backed groups and underscored the latter’s military dominance. Still, he is confident and eager to tell the government’s side of the story. 

The lack of governance is evident everywhere.

The local government is barely functioning. The last Hadi-appointed governor never effectively took up his post or stayed in the city longer than a few months. A deputy governor is filling in as best he can, but at least in part because the governor is a pivotal person for getting things done locally, Aden’s local government is frozen. The city is held hostage by an interconnected tug of war between, on the one hand, Hadi government supporters and their STC opponents and, on the other, between competing national and local government interests, with all seeking control over resources and none effectively governing.

The lack of governance is evident everywhere. A friend living near the airport complained to me that nothing could be done when someone started a construction project that cut a main local sewage pipe, and now sewage is spilling into the street. “In my district, it’s the survival of the fittest”, she says. A businessman laments how men with guns occupy buildings that do not belong to them and evict the rightful owners. “The fighters say they shed blood for these buildings while fighting the Houthis, and have taken them as spoils of war”, he tells me. The businessman is asking the courts for help, and is being told he can file suit and win, but that no one will enforce the verdict. No one can do anything about the situation.

Traditional Adeni families, many of them in business, long felt neglected or abused by northerners during the Saleh years and by their southern rural compatriots, who dominated politically during the pre-1990 socialist period. They say history is repeating itself as fighters from the countryside are struggling with each other for power in Aden now that the Houthis have been evicted. The younger Adeni generation, many of whom took up arms against the Houthis, remain armed. Some are aligned with the STC, others with Hadi, and others with neither side.

There is plenty of anger and frustration with outside powers as well. I arrange to meet a large group of educated, professional women. These are lawyers and businesswomen, and they feel helpless, pawns in a game played by the Saudis, Emiratis, Americans and British. They say their lives are in ruins because of the war against the Houthis but also and especially because of continued infighting in the south. They are holding their breath, wondering if the next phase is going to be even worse.

These women are my friends. I always see them when I visit. They tell me what is going on in society, which I do not learn about in structured interviews, and that helps me contextualise local politics. I hear details about corruption that I would not know otherwise.

Before the war, we used to gather at a women’s sports club, but this time we cannot go because the club was damaged by the war and the women consider the area where it is located unsafe for them. So this time we meet at one of the women’s homes. My friends joke that they have to get together because without some kind of normalcy they would go crazy. One woman says she had a medical problem that was misdiagnosed in Aden. She underwent unnecessary surgery, and her condition got worse and worse. She only received proper care after she managed at last to travel to India, a difficult journey given the expense and limited flights.

My friends joke that they have to get together because without some kind of normalcy they would go crazy.

Thanks to coalition spending, the economic situation in Aden is not as dire as I expected, and is better than in Sanaa. But my friends’ stories highlight the cost of the government’s failure to revive normal life. Yes, people are relieved that the Houthis were driven out. Yes, there is running water sometimes, unlike in many other towns in Yemen. When I am there, electricity is working, even as everyone worries that the intense summer heat will overwhelm the system. But in general, nothing is functioning properly. Frustrations run high, and the population, desperate for proper governance and better physical and economic security, has no champion in the Saudi-led coalition, the coalition’s foreign backers, Hadi or his local opponents.

Aden feels neglected. Two and a half years after the last Houthis left, little reconstruction has started. No foreign diplomatic missions are operating. The Adenis are starting to resent the inattention, from the UAE in particular, which residents say is overly focused on narrow security concerns, and especially counter-terrorism. The Emiratis were once viewed as liberators, but now the term “occupation” is in the air. I heard a lot of this talk even from people who are not on the side of the Hadi government.

Facts on the Ground

After staying in Bouraiqa, I move to Crater, the bowl of an ancient volcano in which nestles the old downtown centre of Aden. During my stay there, I meet Shalal Ali Shaiya, the chief of Aden police. He is at the forefront of counter-terrorism efforts. I decline to go to his headquarters, since he has been a target of assassination attempts. Going to his seafront home in the Tawahi district, out on its own peninsula, is the one time I get really nervous.

During my stay there, I meet Shalal Ali Shaiya, the chief of Aden police, in February 2018. CRISISGROUP/April Longley Alley

Shalal sees me partly because I first met him a decade ago when he was a fugitive southern rebel hiding from the Saleh government. He tells me – as others in Aden do too ­– how much he appreciates that in its reports, Crisis Group empathises with, and reflects, the plight of southerners, even if we may not come down on their side politically on the issue of separation. Back in 2007, he talked about the inevitability of the south splitting off from the north, and now here he is, in charge of a de facto autonomous southern force backed by the UAE. He does not seem triumphant. Southerners like Shalal still want their own country, but they have not declared an independent southern state at this point. They are still paying lip service to Hadi and sending fighters north to fight the Houthis.

The police chief’s personal trajectory underscores how unlikely Yemen is to reunify. So does the composition of the south’s new security apparatus. Both the army units aligned with the Hadi camp and the various security forces being built by the UAE in Aden are 100 per cent southern. With the exception of northern Hadramout province, there are no northerners with guns in the south. The south may be internally divided, but most factions say they want to build southern state institutions. This is the common narrative that unites them, even as they struggle for control over how to reach that goal.

Southern separatist sentiment has grown.

If there is anything I take away with me from Aden, it is a new awareness of this fundamental fault line. It goes deep. South Yemen was an independent socialist state from 1967 to 1990. Throughout the period after it unified with the North, southerners chafed at what they saw as northern domination. Southern separatists fought and lost a brief war for independence in 1994. Even before the nationwide revolt in 2011 that unseated Saleh, Hadi’s predecessor, the south rose up against the central government, calling for southern rights, and later, independence.

Southern separatist sentiment has grown since then, through the flawed post-Saleh transition plan, the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, the civil war and the Saudi-led intervention to reinstall Hadi. Now all that seems to hold the country together is the national currency and a war economy, but since 2016 the riyal’s value has mostly been falling. At the same time, the internal power struggles within the south are evident to all and are effectively becoming a war within a war.

Flag of the former state of South Yemen, in Boureiqa, in February 2018. CRISISGROUP/April Longley Alley

Each day in Aden is also reinforcing my sense of the limited traction the internationally recognised Hadi-government has, and my conviction that the UN’s past focus on bilateral peace talks has been unrealistic and unreasonable. It just does not make sense that the Houthis and the Hadi government are the only two actors that can negotiate a ceasefire or begin to solve the more complicated problems that led to the civil war in the first place. They both have a role, but so do an array of new actors on the ground, and also external parties.

Heading back to the airport, I feel again it is absolutely essential to deal with Yemen as it is on the ground and to understand these local aspirations and new power structures. My two dozen in-depth interviews have given me new ideas about how to improve the situation immediately. They include the need to reactivate local authorities and for political factions to agree on a governor who can unify the city’s security services – and govern.

When I board the Yemenia flight back to Cairo, the aircraft is once again only two-thirds full. I sit next to a family, an older gentleman, his wife and her older sister. They have made the treacherous drive from Sanaa, a north-south journey only the dedicated or desperate attempt any more. They say the trip took seventeen hours – it should only take six or seven – in part because as northerners they have so much trouble at checkpoints. But they have no choice. Aden and Sayoun in Hadramout are the only two cities with an airport from which civilians can leave the country.

From the air, I can spot the places where I had earlier seen the flag of the pre-1990 state, now a symbol of southern independence, painted on the remains of bombed-out buildings. On reflection, it seems as if the southerners are stamping a claim upon the ruins: “It may be rubble. But it’s our rubble”.

This commentary is part of Crisis Group’s series Our Journeys, giving behind the scenes access to our analysts’ field research.

Women walk on a bridge in the old quarter of Yemen's capital Sanaa, on 9 April 2016. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah.

The Counter-productive Isolation of Proud and Hungry Sanaa

Our Arabian Peninsula Senior Analyst April Longley Alley finds pride, resilience and an eagerness to end the conflict during field research and many conversations in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital. She concludes that isolating one side or making the famine and suffering worse will only prolong the war.

SANAA, Yemen – One of the most frustrating parts of working on Yemen’s conflicts is how hard it is to visit the country. I have spent five months lining up approvals and security protocols for my trip. Now, at last, I am boarding a UN flight from Amman to Sanaa. It is my first journey back since I left four days before a Saudi-led coalition, supported by the U.S. and UK, began a bombing campaign in March 2015. This operation aims to restore the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, which was toppled by Huthi rebels aligned with the former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

War damage is evident as we descend to land. Sanaa’s civilian and military airports are side by side and the military component has been almost entirely destroyed. We pass blasted hulks of helicopters and warplanes and then wrecks of civilian airliners from Yemen’s former Arabia Felix carrier. We taxi to the shrapnel-shredded terminal building, which is completely deserted, a far cry from the bustling crossroads that I remember. Since peace talks broke down in August 2016, only humanitarian flights organised by the UN are making it to Sanaa each week. One lone bus pulls up to deposit a hand-full of passengers in the empty terminal. I on the other hand am greeted by a member of Ansar Allah (aka the Huthi movement) and a representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sanaa, both there to ensure that there are no entry problems for the one visitor from America and an international non-governmental organisation on the flight.

Still a Vibrant City

As I drive into town, though, I am in for a surprise. I don’t initially see the human suffering I know is there. Superficially, the city seems in roughly the shape I left it in, crowded, noisy and full of life. There is a traffic jam in Tahrir (Freedom) Square – clearly petrol is making its way in. Sanaa’s famed tall, intricately decorated mud brick houses are mostly still standing and the old city is largely intact, albeit with more garbage in the streets and pictures of martyrs and Huthi slogans plastered everywhere. People are going about their daily lives: the streets seem vibrant, stores are open, and there is food on the shelves. My driver tells me that the city is more crowded than usual because it is absorbing the internally displaced from surrounding combat zones. Compared to other areas of the north, I am constantly reminded that Sanaa has suffered the least from Saudi-led coalition bombings and by the growing threat of famine. Areas like Hodeida, Saada and Hajja, I am told, are far worse.

The problem is not the availability of food – at least in Sanaa for now – but having the money to buy it.

There’s something else, too. I feel safe, even traveling in a regular taxi. It’s true that I’m wearing the black robe and traditional black women’s niqab face covering, meaning that nobody can see anything of me but my eyes. But there are remarkably few checkpoints in the city and little overt security presence on the streets. I go back to see a friend’s home where I used to live, and everything is still there, albeit covered in dust. There’s no sense from my conversations of widespread looting or lawlessness.

There is even some silver lining to the hardship. The reality of constant blackouts has inspired new innovations and many homes and businesses have gone green. There are more solar panels than I remember. The government can’t supply much electricity, or much of anything else, and this is forcing people to do what they do best and be creative.

As I get my bearings, though, I see the buildings that have been bombed, often flattened in the middle of a crowded urban setting. These are mostly government buildings or private houses belonging to Saleh, his family or officials in his party, the General People’s Congress (GPC). The most shocking gap in the urban landscape is the snarled metal frame of what was Sanaa’s largest gathering hall, which the Saudis say they mistakenly bombed on 8 October 2016, killing 140 people and wounding over 600 mourners at a funeral.

I visit the site several days into the trip to witness the damage first-hand. Faded pictures of those who lost their lives in the inferno that day line the gate. I see the picture of a friend and respected local leader, Abdul Qadir Hilal. He would have been one of the first I would have visited on this trip to learn of the prospects for a settlement. But he, and so many others I relied on for insights in the past, are either dead, living abroad or based in other parts of this divided country.

That the coalition is targeting the Huthi/Saleh alliance is little solace to the Yemenis I meet. Strikes on the homes of GPC officials in particular are often in densely populated neighbourhoods, making collateral damage inevitable. In each place, I hear about casualties: a next-door family of six being wiped out, a young girl killed, a mother burned to death. People speak of many “double taps”, when rescuers rush in to help after a first bombing, and then coalition planes drop a second wave of bombs, killing rescuers and anyone else who happens to be nearby. Not once do I hear of a high-ranking GPC or Huthi official being killed in these bombings.

During the six days I am in town there are no air raids. From time to time, I hear the far-away roar of reconnaissance planes. My Yemeni friends, now keenly aware of their presence, point them out to me. A few days after I leave, they bomb again, hitting, as they mostly do, the same military installations in the mountains around the city.

A Hidden Hunger

I see no lines of people queuing for food. Bakeries and restaurants are still open, and there are fruits and vegetables in the stands. But desperation lies beneath Sanaa’s bustling surface. Poverty has always been present in the city, but there are many more people than I remember picking through piles of rubbish, looking for something to eat or sell.

The problem is not the availability of food – at least in Sanaa for now – but having the money to buy it. After two years of war, the economy is collapsing and a crisis between Yemen’s warring factions over the Central Bank has contributed to a situation in which civil-servant salaries have not been paid consistently since August 2016. Everyone I spoke to soon broached the subject of economic difficulties: politicians, friends, guards, taxi drivers, hotel workers, and seemingly every chance acquaintance.

April Longley Alley meets with Mohammed al-Dailimi, Executive Director of the Rehabilitation Fund and Care of Handicapped Persons, in Sanaa, Yemen, on 24 April 2017. CRISISGROUP/April Longley Alley

Silent suffering is growing under the façade of normality. People talk of spending down their savings. Landlords say they are not collecting rent because renters cannot pay. People are depending ever more deeply on their personal networks, with money from relatives abroad being sent in via money transfer agencies.

Women are at an immediate disadvantage because local customs make it hard for them to go out and get help on their own. A friend tells me of a neighbour whose husband disappeared: she has no word of his fate, no income, no extended family and few options to feed six young children. In another home, I meet a family of 14 women and children in two rooms. They are frighteningly thin, just skin and bones. But they are proud people, and make no fuss about their clearly desperate needs.

Us and Them

A sense of proud resilience is probably what is underestimated most by the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition. Even people who are not natural supporters of the alliance between the Huthis’ militia and former President Saleh feel a kind of solidarity as a result of the war, the isolation that has been imposed on them, and the wider damage inflicted by the bombing and the blockade. If people felt the targets were just Huthi fighters, they might feel differently; instead, the deaths of civilians, including women and children, and growing economic hardship make people feel that everyone is a target. Indeed, one of the strongest impressions of my stay is a seething anger at the way the war is destroying the lives of ordinary people.

The 'us versus them' mentality that pits Sanaa against Saudi Arabia is mirrored inside Yemen along a number of internal divides.

This is not to say that there is no frustration or anger directed at the Huthis, whom many Yemenis blame for triggering the violence and now for not being able to run an effective government. But most anger, even hatred, is directed toward Saudi Arabia, a country with which Yemenis have a long and complicated history of rivalry. Even though the Huthi/Saleh forces have only light weapons and completely lack air power, this gives rise to a stubborn resistance that can be summed up as: “if the choice is: ‘surrender or starve’ then we’ll fight instead”. One tribal sheikh proudly tells me that “the Yemenis will never be slaves of Saudi Arabia”. There is also widespread and growing hatred of the U.S. for its support of the war, which Yemenis find difficult to comprehend. As an American, probably the most frequent question I am asked is: “Why is the United States attacking us?”

The prospect of a Saudi-led invasion of the north’s most important port, Hodeida, is stoking anti-Saudi and anti-U.S. sentiment, as well as a sense of solidarity in Sanaa. An attack on the port is universally perceived as an attempt to squeeze the north economically in order to force the Huthi/Saleh coalition to surrender or agree to a settlement on less favourable terms. This is allowing Huthi/Saleh politicians to grandstand on the issue, trumpeting that they are ready to extract as much blood as possible in defence of Hodeida and to expand the war further into Saudi territory in retaliation.

The “us versus them” mentality that pits Sanaa against Saudi Arabia is mirrored inside Yemen along a number of internal divides. In Sanaa, I witness strong solidarity, despite differences, against what is viewed as “foreign aggression”. Yet in other parts of the country the war narrative is radically different. From my contacts in the former south Yemen, a separate state prior to 1990 where the desire for independence is still strong, I hear that the Huthi/Saleh front are external invaders and that the Saudi-led coalition is right to intervene militarily. In the northern governorate of Marib, a historically Sunni tribal area with significant hydrocarbon resources, tribes and politicians, many associated with the Huthis’ main ideological enemy, the Sunni Islamist party Islah, are aligned with Saudi Arabia and functioning independently of both Sanaa and the internationally recognised government of Hadi. Hadi himself is nominally based in Aden, but has far less support there than local separatist leaders. Currently the areas of Huthi/Saleh control mostly overlap with the northern/Zaydi highlands, with notable exceptions like the port of Hodeida, a reality that has effectively divided the country along sectarian lines.

In both Sanaa and Aden, Yemenis have the idea that the other place is terrible and chaotic, which further deepens the conceptual division of the country. I haven’t been to Aden recently so I can’t tell my friends in Sanaa much more about the reportedly higher rate of deadly incidents in the rival centre. In Sanaa, many people are convinced the situation is so bad in Aden that, whatever their problems, they are happy with what they feel is their own better security. “We’re not like the ‘liberated areas’” (areas nominally under Hadi government control), they like to say.

Huthi/Saleh supporters in Sanaa are quick to encourage me to meet with a wide range of people in the capital, Yemenis from all parts of the country and from a variety of different political parties. With the exception of Islah, whose leadership is either in prison or under close surveillance, I am able to do this. Yet I get the sense that this diversity and tolerance is under acute threat. While the Huthi/Saleh leadership wants to promote the idea of diversity still existing in the capital, they undermine this with their imprisonment campaign. At a meeting where I sit with a diverse group of party representatives and independent activists, a representative of the Huthis says there is respect for differing opinions in Sanaa. Some in the group laugh and then launch into examples of unlawful detention and harassment of journalists. It is refreshing to see that Yemenis are still willing to speak their minds, but clear that the space is shrinking.

Power in Sanaa

In Sanaa, the Huthis appear to have gained the upper hand over Saleh on military/security issues. Yet their capability on the battlefield is not matched by competence in governance, a dynamic that is reviving and increasing the popularity of Saleh and his GPC party.

Meeting the famed Yemeni leader is an unexpected highlight of the trip. As target number one for the coalition, I have not planned to risk a meeting with him. But word of a rare outside visitor has clearly spread and he drops by a place I am visiting. As we walk around a courtyard discussing the war, his energy is undiminished, clearly ambitious to put his GPC party back on top of Yemen if he can.

The Huthis themselves admit that governance is not their strong suit. In fact, they are running a police state, and make no excuse for it: “we are fighting a war”, one leader tells me. There is no functioning court system, no effective recourse to justice, and this results in egregious violations of human rights. If the Huthi/Saleh alliance perceives you as an enemy, you are in danger of going to jail. Islah’s ranks are being reduced by mass arrests. People just “disappear”, including Islah leader Mohammed Qahtan. Families often don’t know for sure if, why or where their relatives are being detained. The Bahais, a sect that broke off from the Muslim mainstream, are also being repressed. Only occasionally do you hear of cases where tribal or other personal affiliations with the Huthis enable the release of an individual. A commonly heard refrain from those who oppose the Huthis, including among Saleh’s GPC, is that the war is strengthening the Huthis and extending their political life, since no one can challenge them as long as they are leading the fight against the “external aggression”.

During my short visit, I see no overt sign in Sanaa of the Iranian support that some believe is critical to the Huthis’ resilience. The Huthis receive diplomatic and media support, as well as some military assistance from the Iranians, but the importance and scope of the latter is contested. As evidence of political support, the Iranian Embassy is one of the few diplomatic missions that have remained open. Yet from what I saw it was far from a hive of activity. It is surrounded by high concrete barriers following a car bombing in 2014 and is managed by an acting ambassador with a small staff. 

It is hard to overstate the impact of this isolation of the Huthi/Saleh alliance, and how much of an echo chamber Sanaa has become as a result.

Conversations in Sanaa are likely to mock Iranian influence as much as Saudi Arabia. “Show us one dead Iranian revolutionary guard”, is a common refrain one hears in response to accusations from Gulf countries of strong Iranian support for the war. Huthi leaders maintain that they make decisions independently of Iranian advice, even if many in the movement admire Iran’s regional political role and share with the Iranian political establishment a deep hostility towards Wahhabism (a strict interpretation of the Hanbali school of religious jurisprudence in Sunni Islam that developed in Saudi Arabia in the mid-18th century).

Both Huthi and GPC supporters say that Iran is not following through on promised financial support for the Huthis, an outcome that frustrates the movement. One GPC member says that Iran “should support the Huthis [financially] or shut up … Iran talks a lot, but gives little”. All of this is not to say that many Yemenis in Sanaa, especially those critical of the Huthis, do not fear greater Iranian involvement as well as becoming even more deeply entangled in –  and victims of –  the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. They do. But, for what it is worth, the story one hears in Sanaa is very different from the one heard most often in the Gulf, the U.S. or the UK.

Since the peace talks broke down in August 2016, the GPC and the Huthis are uncomfortably cooperating in a national salvation government. Despite near-complete political isolation and a lack of resources, this government is trying to keep up appearances. The minister of foreign affairs still goes to work in his ministry, although most of the sprawling structure is abandoned. The system is in suspended animation and institutions are literally crumbling. Without pay there are few staff ready to work, nobody is maintaining buildings and weeds are growing out of the cracks.

There’s a deepening sense of isolation. The foreign minister, unrecognised internationally, is cut off, save from the diplomatic presence of Iran, Russia and a few others. The only other foreigners in town are almost all working with the UN.

I also meet the speaker of parliament, a member of Saleh’s GPC party. He seizes the opportunity of a rare visit by a foreigner to fill the hall with parliamentarians and members of the press. Like many in Sanaa, he is eager to get his messages out about the humanitarian cost of continuing the conflict, and the way the West is worsening Yemen’s divisions by taking sides and recognising the other party in the conflict as the “legitimate” government.

It is hard to overstate the impact of this isolation of the Huthi/Saleh alliance, and how much of an echo chamber Sanaa has become as a result. There is no doubt that this alliance has significant popular support in the city and other areas under its control. Yet with minimal UN or diplomatic contact, there are few bridges between the effective rulers of north Yemen and the outside world. The Huthis have reinforced their isolation by detaining foreigners, especially Americans, and both the Huthis and Saleh’s forces have at times refused to meet with and/or denied entry to UN negotiators.

April Longley Alley meets with the speaker of parliament Yahya Ali al-Raee in Sanaa, Yemen, on 22 April 2017. CRISISGROUP/April Longley Alley

This isolation is clearly militating against negotiation and compromise. The closure of Sanaa airport in particular is compounding the siege mentality. Everyone wanting to leave must organise perilous, day-long trips across the front lines to Aden, which is under the control of the internationally recognised government. The journey takes nearly twice as long as before the war, the traveller is subjected to military checkpoints and harassment, and none with a political profile can feel secure they will reach their destination. Northerners are no longer welcome in the south and several people I speak with in Sanaa have been harassed and/or detained in southern territory.

For all intents and purposes, the people of Sanaa are stranded and can’t leave unless they feel forced to take a real risk, whether it is for medical attention, for family reasons or to study. If there’s one thing everyone I meet would like to see, it is the reopening of the airport. But people aren’t necessarily wanting to escape. In fact, many are stranded outside and would like to return.

The Search for Peace

As the days fly by I am so much back in my element that I mix up the date of my departure. I try to prolong my stay but the complex bureaucracy makes this impossible. I don’t want to leave. I remember how the war forced me out before, and I’m anxious that it will again be much too long before I can come back.

My whirl of meetings and impressions make me conscious that Yemen’s social fabric has been stretched and frayed, but not torn completely. Communities are working together at the local level to feed those in need. The idea and desire for diversity of opinion is present in Sanaa, even if there is little pluralism for now. Women, too, are playing an increasingly important role, especially on the dangerous divide between the Huthis and Islah. Islah women, for instance, are doing the hard work of following up on cases of disappearances or jailings of Islah members. Because people trust the women more and fear them less, their involvement can ease tensions. Many average Yemenis are swimming against the strong tides of sectarianism and social fragmentation engulfing the country and the region.

Yemenis are pining for a path out of the war. It will be tricky to find a solution to the confusingly regionalised aspect of the conflict, which must satisfy both Saudi political and security concerns while not trampling Yemenis’ honour or their various red lines in politics or security. Saudi Arabia, like many Yemenis, is concerned that Iran is gaining a foothold in the country through the Huthis. They also worry about security on their border and likely want to have significant influence over any new government in Sanaa. The Huthi/Saleh bloc is sensitive to any solution that would be perceived as surrender to Saudi Arabia or the Hadi government. They must work with local constituencies that are seething with revenge toward their northern neighbour.

Then there is the separate but related issue of finding a compromise among Yemen’s competing power centres, a challenge that will need to take into account the country’s new reality of decentralisation and regional autonomy. While the challenges to negotiators are many, my conversations in Sanaa lead me to believe that at least some practical measures are possible. Both Huthi and GPC interlocutors discuss ways of finding a compromise to prevent the extension of the war to Hodeida, to find a solution for the payment of salaries nationally and to move forward with political talks. There is some political room to work with, in other words, but finding this space requires consistent and broader engagement with, not the isolation of, stakeholders on the ground, including in Sanaa. 

As I head back out to the beaten-up, empty airport, I am sad that time is so short. Seeing the mix of suffering, isolation and defiance in Sanaa also makes me realise how much each side of Yemen’s tragedy needs to be explored effectively. Isolating one side or the other impedes diplomats or a conflict-prevention group like my own from helping bridge some of these differences. Perhaps the most poignant part is what happens after my plane touches down in Jordan: a stream of texts from my friends and interlocutors telling me – someone who has no decision-making powers – that my visit has “revived hope”.

This commentary is part of Crisis Group’s series Our Journeys, giving behind the scenes access to our analysts’ field research.