How to Avert an Imminent Disaster off Yemen’s Red Sea Coast
How to Avert an Imminent Disaster off Yemen’s Red Sea Coast

The Huthis: From Saada to Sanaa

Continued fighting between Huthis and their various opponents could lead to a major conflagration, further undermining the Yemen’s troubled political transition.

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Executive Summary

The power balance in Yemen’s north is shifting. In early 2014, Zaydi Shiite fighters, known as the Huthis or Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), won a series of battles, in effect consolidating their control over Saada governorate, on the border of Saudi Arabia, and expanding southward to the gates of the capital, Sanaa. Now a patchwork of shaky ceasefires is in place, albeit battered by bouts of violence. Tensions are high between Huthis and their various opponents – the Ahmar family, Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (no relation to the Ahmar family) and his military allies, Salafi fighters, and the Sunni Islamist party, Islah, and their affiliated tribes. Fear is growing that an escalation could draw the state into a prolonged conflict. To head off a conflagration, the parties must turn the inchoate understandings reached during the country’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC) into an implementable peace plan.

Renewed violence comes at a sensitive time in the country’s transition. In January 2014, Yemenis completed the NDC, which produced a blueprint for far-reaching political reforms. But the plan is aspirational at best. The country has until January 2015 to complete drafting a constitution and a referendum approving it, before holding parliamentary and presidential elections later in the year. Obstacles are many, including a weak, divided government; a desperate economic situation; and deteriorated security. Widespread violence would imperil the transition by undermining the state’s already weak authority and its embryonic political consensus. The status quo is already doing so, albeit more slowly.

Fighting in the far north is nothing new. Between 2004 and 2010, when the Huthis fought six rounds with the government, they were political and military underdogs, confined primarily to Saada governorate, with ill-defined demands and no clear political agenda. But the 2011 uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh changed the country’s political dynamics, propelling the Huthis onto the national stage. Today, they have taken advantage of state weakness and political infighting to expand their popular support and territorial control in the north, including all of Saada governorate, where they run checkpoints, secure roads, collect taxes, oversee local government administration and administer justice. As the government has scant authority, they have become a virtual state within a state in these areas.

By joining the NDC, they gained a seat at the national bargaining table, where they advocated popular positions, including a federal state based on democratic principles, political pluralism, religious freedom and balance of powers. Their reputation as outsiders – opposed to Saleh-era power brokers and the widely disliked transition government – won them additional support, even outside their traditional base in the predominately Zaydi north. The result is a shifting coalition of competing streams – religious, tribal and even leftist – cooperating under an anti-establishment umbrella, the overall character of which has yet to be hashed out. Whether the group will emerge as a party, a social movement, an armed militia or some combination thereof will depend on how the transition is managed.

Huthis claim that their expansion is locally driven. Yemenis, they say, welcome them because they are frustrated with old regime forces, including the Salehs, Ali Mohsen, Islah and the Ahmars. With their foes, they claim, determined to violently halt the peaceful spread of their ideas, they insist on retaining their weapons, at least for now, to prevent a state controlled by their enemies from crushing them.

Opponents contrast the Huthis’ inclusive rhetoric with their often repressive tactics. Critics routinely accuse the group of wanting to reinstate, by force, a theocracy similar to the Zaydi imamate of Yemen’s past. Some go further, claiming that the Huthis have turned away from their Zaydi roots toward Twelver Shiism – to which Iran’s Shiites adhere – and are serving Tehran’s agenda. As the Huthis have gained ground, an increasingly wide array of Yemeni stakeholders have grown wary, demanding that they immediately relinquish heavy weapons and form a political party as proof they are serious about peaceful competition.

The situation is combustible. Emboldened by recent victories, the Huthis may overplay their hand and miss a chance to consolidate gains through compromise. Their opponents, who show no sign of giving in, are pushing state intervention to roll back Huthi advances. President Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi’s government is at risk of being pulled into a conflict that it cannot win militarily, especially while it fights an emboldened al-Qaeda branch. Southern separatists also are watching developments in the north closely; should the military become embroiled there, they could seize the opportunity to advance an independence bid.

The NDC agreements, while a helpful starting point, cannot halt the creeping violence. They did not fashion a clear consensus around the issues driving the fighting, such as power sharing and the division of the country into six federal regions. Some elements, like disarmament of non-state actors, are dangerously vague, lacking timetables and enforcement mechanisms.

In April 2014, President Hadi initiated talks with Huthi leader Abd-al-Malik al-Huthi about ending the recent fighting and implementing the NDC. But Hadi and UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar must go further and transform the NDC conclusions into an implementable peace deal. The talks must include, at least informally, additional stakeholders: high-level representatives of the General People’s Congress (GPC, former President Saleh’s party), Islah, the Ahmars, Ali Mohsen and Salafis. Any realistic peace plan will need to satisfy the core concerns of belligerents and guarantee them with enforcement mechanisms. Three elements are critical:

  • National and local power sharing until elections can be held. This should include a consensus government that would ideally comprise Huthi representatives, with ministers chosen on the basis of professional skill and political affiliation.
  • Disarmament. The Huthis should agree to a detailed, sequenced program for transferring weapons to the state in exchange for government steps to improve its neutrality, especially of the security services. Disarmament, first of heavy and then medium weaponry, must apply to all non-state actors. To promote transparency and implementation, all sides could agree to a monitoring framework.
  • Guarantees of freedom of religious belief and peaceful political activities. As a first step, the Ahmars, Islah, Salafis and Ali Mohsen should explicitly accept the Huthis’ right to propagate their religious views and pursue peaceful political activities. The Huthis should do the same for others and form a political party.

Negotiating the details and sequencing of implementation are far from easy. The parties were unable to do so during the NDC, which succeeded in no small part because difficult decisions were delayed. Yemen no longer has this luxury. At stake is not only a relapse into violence, but the country’s fragile transition.

The Smit Hunter heads a control operation of the FSO Safer at the Yemen Hunt Oil Terminal, Yemen, 1992. Flickr / Piet Sinke

How to Avert an Imminent Disaster off Yemen’s Red Sea Coast

A floating oil storage facility in Yemeni waters is on the verge of breaking or blowing up. Time is running out to raise the remaining $20 million needed for a salvage operation to prevent ecological and economic damage of historic proportions.

Crisis Group calls on governments, international institutions and affluent private individuals to reach into their pockets as a matter of extreme urgency to help stave off a disaster of dramatic magnitude in the Red Sea. The Safer (pronounced “saffer”), a large tanker-turned-floating storage and offloading vessel carrying over a million barrels of oil, could explode or break apart at any moment. Should it do so, it would almost certainly cause an environmental catastrophe that would far exceed the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the current “record holder” for marine ecological damage from a single incident. It would also aggravate Yemen’s already dire humanitarian plight and could complicate efforts to end the country’s war. A concerted salvage operation may still be possible, but time is extremely short, and the UN, which has negotiated a workable plan, remains desperately short of the necessary cash – $20 million – despite a vigorous fundraising effort.

The facts of the case are well known. They have been brought to the world’s attention by the UN humanitarian mission in Yemen and covered in an exposé in The New Yorker magazine. In short summary, they are as follows:

  • The Safer is anchored in waters off Yemen’s Red Sea coast that are controlled by Huthi rebels, who hold most of the country’s north. Seven years of war and sanctions have made it impossible to move the oil or perform routine maintenance on the floating facility; during this time, the vessel has started to corrode, while its onboard system to prevent flammable gases from exploding has become defunct.
  • Following painstaking UN-led negotiations, the Huthis and other parties in Yemen’s war have agreed for the oil to be offloaded from the Safer and for the vessel to be dismantled and replaced, probably by a smaller ship tethered to an offshore buoy, a system that several other countries, including Iran, use.
  • The first stage of the operation – offloading the oil – carries a price tag of $80 million. The second stage – putting the new facility in place – could cost an additional $64 million (from which can be deducted the expected revenue from sale of the Safer’s scrap metal, estimated at $25-30 million). The funds for the second stage are not needed with the same urgency.
  • Time is of the essence to complete the first stage. While the ship could break up or turn into a fireball at any time, the risk will rise significantly once the season changes in October, when rough winds will buffet the Red Sea. The salvage operation – by a Dutch concern – is estimated to need four months. It cannot be delayed a moment longer.
  • The UN’s appeal for funds for the first stage has yielded $60 million so far. Contributions from the Dutch, German, Saudi, Swiss, UK and U.S. governments have arrived, but the last $20 million are proving to be the most difficult to raise.
  • Yet the calculation is simple: spend $80 million now or billions upon billions later, namely on the environmental clean-up and to deal with second-order consequences, such as growing famine in Yemen (as the port cities through which the bulk of food imports arrive are forced to close down) and destruction of fisheries and other sources of income affected by the oil spill – not just in Yemen but all along the Red Sea coast. Add the impact on shipping through this vital waterway, for example in the form of additional supply-chain challenges that would affect the world economy, and the cost of inaction is even clearer. The incident with the Ever Given, which blocked the Suez Canal for six days in March 2021, should serve as a stark reminder of the interruptions even short-lived closure could cause.
  • Donors should therefore see the $80 million package not as a gift to the Huthi rebels, but as an essential act of protecting their strategic interests and economic wellbeing, as well as the fragile ecology of the Red Sea basin.

The UN has been at pains to keep the Safer crisis separate from the Yemen war from which it sprang, realising that the belligerents will try – as they already have, but in vain – to politicise the issue and in the process further delay the salvage operation. Yet the link is real, if only because the feared massive oil spill could easily hamper peacemaking efforts. Not only will the various parties almost certainly blame one another for the disaster, but the closure of ports and multiplying humanitarian challenges could reignite fighting just as Yemen is experiencing a moment of relative calm thanks to a UN-mediated truce, now in its third month. A spill could also heighten geopolitical tensions in the region.

This appeal may be the simplest Crisis Group has ever made. It is not about conflict parties putting aside deep differences and agreeing to painful compromises at the negotiating table. Rather, it is about governments and others digging into their budgets to allocate $20 million to this effort – an amount that is almost negligible for most Western stakeholders given the far greater outlays for other concerns as well as the scale of the looming disaster. There can be no doubt that tackling the Safer threat now would bring a huge return on what can only be seen as a minimal investment.

Of course, apart from the Safer issue, those with a stake in a negotiated end to the Yemeni war will need to do much more to accomplish that task and also to reduce the immense humanitarian suffering that the war has brought. Salvaging an ailing vessel would be a cheap, easy and utterly sensible first step toward this larger goal.

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