Toward Open Roads in Yemen’s Taiz
Toward Open Roads in Yemen’s Taiz
 Followers of the Shi'ite Houthi movement stand in front of riot police vehicles in Sanaa, on 7 September 2014. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
Followers of the Shi'ite Houthi movement stand in front of riot police vehicles in Sanaa, on 7 September 2014. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Unrest in Sanaa

Yemen’s troubled transition is at a crossroads more dangerous than any since 2011. The Huthis, a Zaydi Shiite movement also known as Ansar Allah, are mobilising in the capital, organising demonstrations calling for the government’s demise and reinstating the fuel subsidies that were lifted in July. More worrying, their tribal supporters, many of whom have ties to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, ousted in the 2011 uprising, are setting up protest camps on the outskirts of the city, implicitly threatening a siege or military invasion. The situation is tense and the possibility of violence real. Overcoming the impasse requires returning to the basic principles agreed upon in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) that concluded in January 2014: rejecting political exclusion and resolving differences through peaceful negotiation.

For over a year, the Huthis have been battling various foes in the far north, expanding their territorial control even as they debated the country’s future in the NDC. Many Yemenis, including Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party and supporters of President Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi, quietly cheered as the Huthis fought and weakened a loose coalition of their common foes – the al-Ahmar clan, Salafis, and tribal and military affiliates of the Sunni Islamist party, Islah. But when Huthis captured Amran city, 50km north of Sanaa, overrunning a military base and killing its commander, the political dynamics shifted. International and domestic concern grew that the Huthis – whose positive contributions to the NDC had gained them respect in many quarters – in fact might not be committed to peaceful change or competition, as their critics long had charged.

The debate over the Huthis’ ultimate intentions escalated at the end of July, after the consensus government, split evenly between the GPC and the former opposition bloc including Islah, lifted fuel subsidies. With bankruptcy looming, the state had little choice, but the way it was implemented – suddenly and absent a public awareness campaign or a larger, transparent economic reform strategy – was politically disastrous. The Huthis quickly took advantage, mobilising Yemenis from across the political spectrum. The protests called for reinstating subsidies, replacing the government and implementing NDC recommendations, including fighting corruption and adding other groups and parties to the cabinet.

Huthi demands resonate widely and if addressed through compromise could strengthen popular support for the country’s faltering transition. This is an opportunity to build an accord clarifying post-NDC power-sharing arrangements and timelines for implementing NDC outcomes. As Crisis Group warned in June 2014, the absence of such an agreement poses a threat to the transition and has been a core driver of conflict. Yet the Huthis’ continued mobilisation around the capital is dangerous and counterproductive, threatening violence should the government rebuff their demands.

While the Huthis’ ambitions are unclear and evolving, the protests are part of a bargaining process through which the movement hopes to become dominant in the north and more powerful on the national level. Even as their leaders make demands of the central government in Sanaa, their militias are fighting Islah-affiliated tribesmen and military units in Jawf governorate in what is widely viewed as an effort to create facts on the ground to force a renegotiation of the six-region federal structure proposed by the NDC.

The protests put President Hadi in a difficult position. They initially offered him an opportunity to push for changes to his ineffective government and to strengthen his position vis-à-vis the Saleh and Islah power centres. But when he hesitated and initial negotiation efforts failed, both sides escalated. Huthis set up camps in front of government ministries and around Sanaa, while the president supported a “National Alliance” to organise counter-rallies.

On 2 September, Hadi announced a compromise that partially addressed Huthi demands. It proposed, among other things, installing a more inclusive government and lowering fuel prices by approximately 30 per cent, a price change that was implemented the following day. The initiative was far from perfect: it was presented to the Huthis as a fait accompli and granted the president extraordinary power to appoint the prime minister, as well as the defence, interior, finance and foreign ministers, with little input or oversight. GPC and Islah members signed the initiative, but some party members have expressed reservations. Huthi representatives refused the offer, calling the fuel price reduction insufficient, demanding broader economic reform and criticising the proposed method of forming the government. The movement has escalated protest activities in the capital, seemingly convinced that agitation can achieve more. On 7 September, in a dangerous sign of what could come, government forces injured scores and killed at least two in an effort to prevent protesters from setting up tents and blocking a main road to Sanaa’s airport.

The president’s initiative, with amendments, could and should serve as a basis for an inclusive settlement. The alternative is a conflict at least as grave as that of 2011, when two parts of the army, one supporting Saleh and the other the uprising, faced off in the capital. The situation today is more dangerous, since the domestic political landscape is deeply fractured and multipolar. None of the major political forces – the Huthis, Saleh’s GPC, Islah or Hadi – can alone control the capital, nor is it clear that they would be able to restrain their supporters if fighting erupts. Moreover, a conflagration in Sanaa almost certainly would lead to a chaotic independence bid in the south, which is wracked by political infighting and al-Qaeda activity. Regionally too the landscape has changed, polarised along sectarian lines; widespread violence could draw Yemen deeper into that divisive fight.

Continued mediation by UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar is necessary to achieve a compromise, but primary responsibility lies with Yemenis to act in their national interest. Many principles already have been agreed: a new, more inclusive government with ministers whom the Huthis will have a role in nominating; clarifying the competencies of the National Authority for implementing NDC agreements; specifying an implementation timeline for NDC outcomes; and more. Finding a compromise on the fuel subsidies and guarantees for wider economic reform are the immediate sticking points. Now is the time to reach a deal on this issue so that de-escalation and talks over the details of NDC implementation can begin. Otherwise, growing tensions could undermine the progress made thus far in negotiations – and even scuttle the country’s nascent political settlement achieved through the NDC.

For his part, President Hadi should streamline negotiation efforts, which thus far have involved too many mediators and too few decision-makers. Further, the president should take additional measures to ensure the state security services do not needlessly provoke an already volatile situation. The Huthis must do their part as well. Critics have long accused the movement of nefarious intent, ranging from establishing an Iranian-inspired theocracy to building a Hizbollah-style state within a state. Now they should demonstrate otherwise by constructively engaging the president’s offer, where they disagree with it recommending clear amendments, and ultimately accepting a solution that falls short of all of their demands. The alternative is a conflict in which no group will win and Yemen will lose.


A car travelling from Yemen’s Taiz city to Aden via the Hajjat al-Abd road. This route is prone to car and truck accidents which can be deadly. CRISIS GROUP / Ahmed Basha

Toward Open Roads in Yemen’s Taiz

Taiz, a city in central Yemen, is besieged by Huthi rebels and practically cut off from the rest of the country. Restored road access would save lives and build trust that could help bring peace to Yemen, but time is short.

More than a month has passed since the UN announced a truce between Yemen’s internationally recognised government and the Huthi rebels it has been battling for the past seven years with backing from a coalition led by Saudi Arabia. Thus far, the truce itself has held, if somewhat shakily. But the UN has been able to secure partial implementation of only two of the three confidence-building measures it attached to the deal that has halted the fighting: passage of fuel shipments into the Huthi-held Red Sea port of Hodeida and reopening of the Huthi-held Sanaa International Airport to commercial flights for the first time since 2016. There has been little if any progress on the third measure – reinvigoration of efforts to restore road access to Taiz, a city in central Yemen that the Huthis have besieged since 2016. UN officials are now in a race against time to ensure that the Sanaa airport remains open in the hope of prolonging the truce and starting political talks. Important as that task is, they must not forget Taiz. What happens there could either accelerate a shift away from violent confrontation to political negotiations, or become an impediment that derails UN-led efforts to finally end Yemen’s destructive war.

A Fragile Opportunity

Recent developments present a moment of opportunity in Yemen. The two-month truce came into effect on 2 April. It is an informal, self-policed agreement by the parties to stop fighting. In theory, it is renewable. The UN’s hope is that an extended truce can be a springboard for political talks about a formal ceasefire and a negotiated way out of the conflict.

Less than a week after the UN announced the truce, Yemen’s president of ten years, Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, announced that he was ceding power to a new eight-member presidential council led by the former interior minister, Rashad al-Alimi. Hadi reportedly stepped down under pressure from Saudi Arabia as part of an initiative to reorganise the anti-Huthi bloc. Anti-Huthi Yemenis had heavily criticised Hadi for exercising too little leadership in the disparate anti-Huthi alliance. The Huthis publicly dismissed the new council as a mere “reshuffling of mercenaries” that underscores what they see as the government’s lack of legitimacy. Yet the council is broadly representative of the range of military and political factions opposing the Huthis. It has since been inaugurated in Aden, along with a prime minister and cabinet.

The truce and the council’s formation ... present an important, if limited opportunity to kickstart a political process.

The truce and the council’s formation – and the latter’s public declarations that it will pursue peace with the Huthis – present an important, if limited opportunity to kickstart a political process, particularly given the decline in the Huthis’ battlefield dominance as a result of renewed Emirati support for anti-Huthi forces. It is probably an exaggeration to say peace is an immediate possibility, and many Yemenis see the truce as an opportunity for the rival parties to regroup rather than to cease hostilities. Still, prospects for a move from violent combat to meaningful political negotiations are better now than they have been in years.

In order to capitalise on the opportunity for a truce extension, the parties need to make sustained progress on all three of the related confidence-building measures. The UN appears already to be pushing hard on fuel shipments and reopening Sanaa airport. The Taiz issue, however, requires closer attention.

A four-wheel vehicle carries passengers travelling from Aden to Taiz city through the Hajjat al-Abd road, a dangerous detour route linking both governorates. CRISIS GROUP / Ahmed Basha

Taiz and the Truce

That the truce has held up so far, if a bit tenuously, is an achievement in and of itself given the depth of distrust between the Huthis and their rivals, who have exchanged recriminations over delays in taking the agreed-upon steps. Yet nowhere does distrust of the Huthis’ intentions run higher than in Taiz, where residents greeted the truce announcement with protest instead of celebration. Many residents saw the agreement’s provisions for their city as unrealistic. For many in the anti-Huthi camp, Taiz has become a symbol of what they see as a lopsided international approach that gives short shrift to their grievances while seeking to appease the Huthis. 

Taiz governorate has been isolated from the rest of Yemen since battles in 2015 left the Huthis holding its economically and strategically important northern regions and encircling Taiz city, whose centre remained under the control of government-aligned forces. Fighting has cut off all the main overland routes linking Taiz with Huthi- and government-controlled areas. No matter where they travel, Yemenis who live in the city are forced to navigate single-track mountain roads with perilous hairpin bends and checkpoints manned by armed groups. 

The consequences have been debilitating for civic life and commerce. Travel time to and from Taiz has increased dramatically. A trip from Huthi-controlled Hawban, Taiz governorate’s industrial hub where many residents work, to government-controlled Taiz city centre once took between 5 and 15 minutes by car and now takes 5 to 6 hours along a poorly maintained one-lane road. Travelling from Taiz to the southern port city of Aden takes from 6 to 8 hours by car; it took 2 to 3 hours before 2015. Moving basic goods like food and fuel by truck between the two nominally allied cities can take anywhere from 14 hours to several days. Higher transport costs and checkpoint fees, combined with other costs of operating in a war economy, have driven up food and fuel prices inside the city, making it one of the most expensive places to live in Yemen. It is not uncommon for sick Taizis to die on their way to Aden or Sanaa for urgent medical care. Thus far, the Huthis have had little incentive to improve road access to the city: they control the governorate’s economic heart and are keeping their main local rivals boxed in. Further complicating matters, parts of Taiz governorate not controlled by the Huthis are heavily contested by rival groups within the anti-Huthi bloc, sometimes violently.

Hawban to Taiz
Aden to Taiz

Failed Precedents

A series of local and international initiatives has failed to improve access to Taiz city – a failure that many residents see as the product of a UN and international bias in favour of the Huthis. In explaining their frustration, they point to the 2018 Stockholm Agreement, which staved off a battle for Hodeida, and was intended to set the stage for broader peace talks. That agreement contained a vague sub-agreement on Taiz: it called on both sides to select representatives to a joint committee, which would work toward the goal of reopening humanitarian corridors into the city centre. The committee was also to submit a single report on movement toward improving road access into the city in the run-up to future consultations.

But the sub-agreement yielded no meaningful progress on restoring Taiz residents’ access to the rest of the country. Although the UN held individual meetings with each of the parties’ representatives, the delegations never met jointly as a committee, much less reached agreement on how to achieve the goals articulated in Sweden. Anti-Huthi Yemenis criticised the UN for failing to expend the same energy on reopening Taiz – which residents see as a humanitarian issue – that it did on ending the siege of Hodeida. Many of the Yemenis who have worked on the Taiz road issue since the start of the war believe the UN should not have made it part of the Stockholm deal and instead should have negotiated access on a separate track. In their view, placing Taiz in the Stockholm framework made it too easy for the Huthis to make progress on this issue contingent on implementation of other aspects of the agreement. There is also a widespread perception that the UN gave up too quickly when negotiations over the roads faltered and other pressing issues took precedence.

The Taiz situation plays into tensions among the anti-Huthi bloc’s various components.

The Taiz situation plays into tensions among the anti-Huthi bloc’s various components, which Riyadh has been trying to unify under a single umbrella. Many Taizis believe that the Saudi-led coalition – and especially the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has an expressly anti-Islamist domestic and regional agenda – wishes for Taiz to remain isolated in order to keep Islah, an Islamist group dominant in Taiz, weak. Yemenis in this camp point to the ability of UAE-backed forces to mobilise troops and retake territory in other parts of the country, as they did in three districts in southern Shebwa and Marib earlier in 2022. They believe that the Saudi-led coalition could, if it wished, provide more military assistance to anti-Huthi forces in Taiz to push the Huthis back from the roads around the city at the very least. Some anti-Huthi Yemenis also perceive the truce as a signal that Saudi Arabia wants to extricate itself from the war. They believe that the Saudis agreed to include progress on Taiz issues as one of the three confidence-building measures only to mollify the Hadi government, which reportedly had resisted the deal.

But this anti-Saudi sentiment, and a sense that Riyadh acted imperiously in pushing for formation of the new presidential council, could wind up working in Taiz’s favour. The council, whose head, al-Alimi, is himself from Taiz, is under pressure to demonstrate that it is working at least as much with ordinary Yemenis in mind as with Riyadh’s desire to be done with Yemen. Thus, it is possible that the council will seek to underscore its bona fides by making road access a central pillar of its negotiating strategy in much the same way that the Huthis have done with Hodeida port and Sanaa airport, namely by refusing to allow talks on other issues to progress without movement on the roads in Taiz.

Thus far, however, there has been very little progress of any kind. As part of the truce agreement, the Huthis and the government committed to form a joint negotiating committee to tackle the Taiz roads issue, as they did previously under the Stockholm Agreement. Yemeni government officials say they have named their candidates for the committee and provided proposals on reopening the Taiz-Hodeida, Taiz-Sanaa and Taiz-Aden roads. They claim that the Huthis have yet to nominate their own negotiators, casting the rebels as the main barrier to progress. In fact, the Huthis have laid out new demands to reopen roads in Taiz, the first of which are to halt fighting in the governorate and remove military equipment from its main arteries.

The currently closed Hawban road which used to connect government-controlled Taiz city and Huthi-held Hawban. CRISIS GROUP / Ahmed Basha

Building Confidence Goes Both Ways

Whatever happens next, the Taiz road access issue is likely to become increasingly contentious, particularly as the UN ramps up efforts to sustain progress on the other two confidence-building measures in an effort to extend and expand the truce. To date, according to a Yemeni government official who spoke with Crisis Group, at least eleven fuel ships have arrived at Hodeida port. Moreover, the first commercial flight out of Sanaa in six years departed for Amman shortly after the government announced it would allow people carrying Huthi-issued passports to travel. Despite such progress, rumours are spreading of a military build-up as the parties prepare for the possibility of the truce either buckling or expiring.

The risk is that the truce may not survive beyond its current two-month timeframe if there is no meaningful progress on all three of the confidence-building measures. Pushing Taiz to the side would jeopardise prospects for renewal. As noted, some in the government camp may advocate making negotiations over fully reopening Sanaa airport dependent on progress on Taiz, thus undermining the possibility of the truce being extended if the Huthis continue to delay on the latter. The Huthis, for their part, continue to be dismissive of the Taiz roads issue and show signs of slow-walking negotiations, giving the government a perfect excuse to stall efforts to move toward talks.

Resolving the Taiz roads question is thus closely linked to the fate of the truce overall, as well as of any future talks between the belligerents. Outside powers should employ a two-pronged approach to reaching a resolution. First, as part of a broader diplomatic push with the Huthis in Sanaa, they should focus the rebels on the need to make progress on Taiz, signalling that the issue is high on their agenda. The absence of sustained, serious diplomacy around the Taiz question can only have contributed to the lack of action to date. Secondly, mindful of the risk of mixing the road access file with other political and military issues, diplomats should raise Taiz in their discussions with Saudi Arabia, since the kingdom has its own channels with the Huthis. Involving Saudi Arabia in advocacy to reopen Taiz can enhance the kingdom’s credibility, since many Yemenis believe (and resent) that it wishes to keep Islah on the back foot in one of the country’s most economically important areas. It would also serve Riyadh’s aim of helping bring the war to a close.

The parties should not miss this opportunity for progress. The partial reopening of Sanaa airport has rekindled hope among Yemenis that they will once again be able to travel outside the country. Likewise, the reopening of Taiz roads would bring great benefits for the city’s residents whose freedom of movement has been curtailed for too long. If there is no movement on Taiz, the chances of a truce extension beyond the two-month timeline, and peace in Yemen, will only grow slimmer. Despite widespread scepticism, the truce, the first countrywide halt in fighting since 2016, has held thus far. Yemenis should not be made to wait six more years for another opportunity for peace.

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