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Yemen: Enduring Conflicts, Threatened Transition
Yemen: Enduring Conflicts, Threatened Transition
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  1. Executive Summary

Yemen: Enduring Conflicts, Threatened Transition

Flawed as it is, Yemen’s political settlement avoided a potentially devastating civil war and secured President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s resignation, but now the challenge is to address longstanding political and economic grievances.

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Executive Summary

As messy as it has been and unfinished as it remains, Yemen’s transition accomplished two critical goals: avoiding a potentially devastating civil war and securing the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled the impoverished country for over three decades. It also cracked the regime’s foundations, while making it possible to imagine new rules of the game. Still, much remains in doubt, notably the scope and direction of change. The nation essentially has witnessed a political game of musical chairs, one elite faction swapping places with the other but remaining at loggerheads. Important constituencies – northern Huthi, southern Hiraak, some independent youth movements – feel excluded and view the transition agreement with scepticism, if not distain. Al-Qaeda and other militants are taking advantage of a security vacuum. Socio-economic needs remain unmet. The new government must rapidly show tangible progress (security, economic, political) to contain centrifugal forces pulling Yemen apart, while reaching out to stakeholders and preparing the political environment for inclusive national dialogue.

On 23 November 2011, following eleven months of popular protest, Saleh signed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative and an accompanying set of implementation mechanisms. Boiled down to its essentials, the GCC initiative provided the former president domestic immunity from prosecution in return for his stepping down. The UN-backed implementation document added flesh to the bones, providing valuable details on the mechanics and timetable of the transition roadmap.

The agreement outlined a two-phase process. In the first, Saleh delegated powers to his vice president, Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi. Feuding politicians then formed an opposition-led national consensus government with cabinet portfolios split equally between the former ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and the opposition bloc, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). The president established a military committee tasked with reducing tensions and divisions within the armed forces, which had split between pro- and anti-Saleh factions during the uprising. Phase one ended with early presidential elections, on 21 February 2012, in which Hadi was the uncontested, consensus candidate.

In phase two, Hadi and the government are given two years to, among other things, restructure the military-secu­rity apparatus, address issues of transitional justice and launch an inclusive National Dialogue Conference with the goal of revising the constitution before new elections in February 2014. It is a laudatory program, but also plainly an ambitious one. Already the scorecard is mixed, as implementation has fallen short.

Indeed, although much has changed, a considerable amount remains the same. Begin with the most important: the settlement failed to resolve the highly personalised conflict between Saleh and his family on the one hand, and General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, as well as, the powerful al-Ahmar family, on the other. As both camps seek to protect their interests and undermine their rivals, the contours of their struggle have changed but not its fundamental nature or the identity of its protagonists. Likewise, the underlying political economy of corruption has remained virtually untouched. The same families retain control of most of the country’s resources while relying on patronage networks and dominating decision-making in the government, military and political parties.

For frustrated independent activists, the struggle at the top amounts to little more than a political see-saw between two camps that have dominated the country for some 33 years, a reshuffling of the political deck that has, at the party level, hurt the GPC and helped the JMP. This has serious policy implications. As politicians squabble in Sanaa, urgent national problems await. Humanitarian conditions have worsened dramatically since the uprising, with hunger and malnutrition levels growing at an alarming rate. A year of political turmoil has resulted in severe shortages of basic commodities; aggravated already high poverty and unemployment rates; and brought economic activity to a virtual halt.

The army is still divided, with warring commanders escaping the president’s full authority. Armed factions and tribal groups loyal to Saleh, Ali Mohsen or the Al-Ahmars remain in the capital; elsewhere the situation is far worse. The government’s writ over the periphery, already tenuous before the uprising, has contracted sharply since. In the North, the Huthis have vastly expanded their territorial control. In the South, the government must contend with challenges from the Hiraak and its affiliated armed groups. Most worrisome is the spread of Ansar Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), a murky mix of al-Qaeda militants and young local recruits, many of whom appear motivated by economic rewards more than by ideological conviction. The government, fighting alongside local popular committees, has recaptured territories in the South, but the battle with al-Qaeda is far from over.

Yet, despite these multiple crises, partisan politics and jockeying for the most part persists in the capital. Encumbered by infighting and lacking capacity, the new government has yet to articulate or put forward a political and economic vision for the transitional period. What is more, it has done too little to bring in long-marginalised groups and is sticking to a largely Sanaa-centric approach. Reformers are concerned that vested interests in both the GPC and JMP are seeking to maintain a highly centralised, corrupt state that favours northern tribal and Islamist leaders, thus further deepening the divide with the rest of the country.

Securing Saleh’s peaceful exit from the presidency was hard enough; implementing the remainder of the agreement will be harder still. Neutralising potential spoilers – competing elites associated with the old regime as well as the divided military/security apparatus – is a priority. This cannot be done too abruptly or in a way that privileges one side over the other, lest it trigger violent resistance from the losing side. Instead, Hadi should gradually remove or rotate powerful commanders in a politically even-handed fashion and end their control over individual army units, while forcing them to demonstrate respect for the military chain of command under the president and defence minister. In like manner, the influence of powerful political parties and interest groups should be diluted in a way that ensures no single one finds itself in a position to dominate the transitional process. Equally important, the national dialogue needs to be broadly inclusive, requiring immediate confidence-building measures and continued outreach efforts toward sidelined groups: the youth, the Huthis and the Hiraak.

Implementation also is suffering from its overall opaqueness. No one – not the government, parliament, or military committee – has publicly kept score so as to shed light on who is violating the agreement and how. Nor has Hadi formed the interpretation committee, even though it is mandated by the agreement, and even though it could usefully settle disputes over the meaning of the initiative and its implementation mechanisms.

The political settlement has numerous flaws. It was an elite compromise that excluded many original protesters as well as marginalised constituencies. It failed to adequately address issues of justice, and it kept in power leaders and parties at least partially responsible for the country’s woes. But, at a minimum, it offers the chance for a different future. If politicians in Sanaa fail to resolve, or at least contain, the ongoing elite confrontation and move forward with an inclusive dialogue, the country risks experiencing further violence and fragmentation. Yemen has long run away from critical decisions. It should run no more.

Sanaa/Brussels, 3 July 2012

Arresting Yemen’s Freefall

UN-led, U.S.-supported efforts to reach a nationwide ceasefire in Yemen have made little progress. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2021 – Spring Update, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to send more aid to Yemen, and push the UN to increase diplomatic outreach, especially to the Huthis, the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council.

In the spring 2020 EU Watch List, Crisis Group warned that the military, political and humanitarian situation in Yemen could go “from bad to worse”. That has happened: Yemen is in freefall. UN-led, U.S.-supported efforts to reach a nationwide ceasefire have borne no fruit. Nor have attempts to prevent a battle for Marib, the internationally recognised government’s last bastion in the north. Huthi rebels appear poised to launch another offensive on the city in the coming weeks and months. If Marib falls, and even if it does not, fighting is also likely to intensify on other fronts. A Saudi-brokered deal between the government and southern secessionists hangs by a thread, even after the sides formed a power-sharing government in December 2020. A Huthi takeover of Marib would also likely precipitate a fresh wave of conflict in Yemen’s south and west.

The humanitarian crisis continues to worsen amid huge aid shortfalls and a Yemeni government-imposed fuel embargo on Huthi-held territory. The UN has warned repeatedly that famine is imminent. Only the infusion of billions of dollars in aid has staved off mass starvation to date. But donors have pledged just half of the money the UN says it needs for 2021 amid a coronavirus-induced funding crunch. Fighting over Marib city could make aid agencies’ work harder by triggering mass displacement and further limiting the supply of basic commodities. On top of everything, a year after COVID-19’s spread in Yemen first drew global attention, the country is suffering its deadliest outbreak yet.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Send more aid, escalating Yemen’s status as a priority recipient of the EU’s global response to COVID-19 through joint initiatives between Brussels and member states; increasing humanitarian funding under the new budget programming; and accelerating discussions about investment in medium-term projects – away from front lines – that foster local stability.
  • Advocate for forming a UN-led international contact group to help coordinate the world’s response to Yemen’s disaster, including through more concerted diplomacy in support of a ceasefire and the peace process. Such a group should include the EU, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and representatives from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
  • Push the UN to shift its mediation efforts away from a two-party focus on the Huthis and the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi toward a more inclusive peace process that encompasses other political and armed factions as well as women’s and youth groups and other civil society actors.
  • Working within EU COVID-19 protocols, increase diplomatic outreach to the Huthis in Sanaa, the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council in Aden.

Marib Offensive and UN Mediation

Since early 2020, Huthi fighters have focused on taking Marib governorate, in particular the eponymous city, along with nearby oil, gas and electricity production facilities. The Huthi campaign has been intermittent, and the rebels have at times struggled to advance. Saudi Arabia, which is allied with the internationally recognised government led by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has mounted a fierce aerial defence. Thousands of Huthi and anti-Huthi fighters have been killed and injured over the course of the year. Yet the Huthis have shrugged off their losses. A clear trend has emerged on the ground: gradual if uneven Huthi progress, coupled with growing unease and falling morale among forces aligned with the Hadi government. Absent a major shift in the balance of power, the Huthis appear set to take more territory and gain greater leverage in talks with local leaders as they seek to negotiate the governorate’s surrender.

Absent a major shift in the balance of power, the Huthis appear set to take more territory and gain greater leverage in talks with local leaders as they seek to negotiate the governorate’s surrender.

Fearing a growing humanitarian and displacement crisis amid a major coronavirus outbreak, and aware that a Huthi takeover of Marib would have a knock-on effect on dynamics elsewhere in Yemen, UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths has sought since early 2020 to broker a nationwide ceasefire. In 2020, the Huthis told Griffiths they would agree to a truce if the Saudi-led coalition and Hadi government lifted all restrictions on Hodeida port on Yemen’s Red Sea coast and allowed the Sanaa airport to reopen to international flights after four years of Saudi-imposed closure. For much of the year, the government and the Saudis argued that the Huthi proposal gave the rebels too much and quibbled over the fine print in draft agreements.

The parties failed to reach an accord, and now the landscape has shifted. In early 2021, after making a series of rapid military gains, the rebels shifted the goalposts, insisting that the government and Saudis unblock the port and airport unilaterally before they would consider a truce. They also backed away from the prospect of a nationwide ceasefire, saying they would first consider a cross-border ceasefire under which they would stop drone and missile strikes on Saudi Arabia in return for a moratorium on Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, including Marib. Riyadh and the Hadi government deemed the Huthi position a non-starter. In turn, the Huthis rejected a public Saudi offer made in March to ease restrictions on Sanaa airport and resume negotiations over Hodeida in return for a nationwide ceasefire and a mutual halt to cross-border attacks.

Fresh U.S. Energy

The recent change in leadership in Washington has injected fresh energy into international efforts to stop the fighting, with President Joe Biden making ending the Yemen war a top Middle East policy priority along with returning to the Iran nuclear deal. In February, Biden announced that he was halting all offensive support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen. He also said the administration would cease some arms sales, remove the Huthis’ designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) and appoint a new U.S. special envoy for Yemen – a role now filled by veteran diplomat Timothy Lenderking. Lenderking has been highly active since his appointment, travelling regularly to the Gulf (but not yet Yemen), and pushing the Huthis and Saudis to agree to a truce.

Washington’s frustration with the Huthis is palpable.

Washington wishes to engineer a conflict outcome acceptable to both itself and Riyadh. Yet its ability to do so is limited, as the Huthis hold the upper hand. By publicly prioritising ending the Yemen war, the administration may also have given the Huthis, and their main external supporter Iran, the sense that the conflict represents a more valuable bargaining chip than in the past. Washington’s frustration with the Huthis is palpable, and U.S. officials appear to be increasingly convinced that they cannot persuade the rebels to abandon their quest for victory in Marib.

Humanitarian Meltdown

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has placed greater limits on aid agencies’ ability to work in Yemen, and on donors’ generosity toward a country the UN says is already the site of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Yemen continues to sit at the brink of famine. Donors pledged $1.7 billion to fund the UN’s humanitarian appeal in March, less than half the figure the UN had asked for, leaving a $2 billion gap in the UN’s budget for the year. The UN humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, warned that as a result the UN “doesn’t have enough money to stop famine”.

A battle for Marib would make the humanitarian crisis still graver and more complex. Local government officials claim that two million people have moved to Marib since the war began six years ago, many of them with sufficient resources to settle and live without aid assistance, while UN estimates of poorer, formally displaced people living in temporary settlements hover around 700,000. In the event that fighting reaches Marib city, the UN believes that around 350,000 people will be displaced, seeking to travel either eastward to Seiyoun, a six-hour drive under normal circumstances, or southward to Shebwa. Both routes are likely to be dangerous, and fighting could cut off the Shebwa road entirely. The UN says it has contingency plans for a battle, but the response will put further strain on its already limited aid budget.

A Way Forward

With chances of a diplomatic breakthrough slim, Yemen’s trajectory in the coming months will largely be determined by developments in Marib. If the Huthis take Marib city, or negotiate its surrender, the government will lose its last major stronghold in the north; it may then face an attempted takeover by the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in southern governorates as well. A Huthi victory in Marib could also precipitate intra-Yemeni deal-making, most likely between the Huthis and one or more rival factions, potentially including the STC, at the expense of the Hadi government. Moreover, the STC and other groups are likely to press for a direct role in UN-led talks, rather than the indirect one they are afforded as part of the Saudi-brokered 2019 Riyadh Agreement. Even if the Huthis and government can reach a ceasefire in Marib, many local conflict parties remain sceptical it will last, or that it is in their interest to comply with its terms if they are not given a say in subsequent UN-led political talks.

For these reasons, whatever happens next in Marib, it is increasingly clear that the international approach to Yemen needs to be rethought. The UN’s current two-party mediation framework that focuses narrowly on the Huthis and the Hadi government (with Saudi Arabia active behind the scenes and wielding a de facto veto over any settlement) excludes many of the armed and political factions likely to influence the durability of a ceasefire or political settlement. It also boxes out political parties, civil society actors, women’s groups and youth organisations that have been crucial throughout the war to preserving local stability and social cohesion and whose buy-in and support will thus be important in sustaining any pact.

With EU support, Washington should advocate for an approach to peacemaking that takes into account the conflict’s deepening complexity and creates space for this range of actors.

With EU support, Washington should advocate for an approach to peacemaking that takes into account the conflict’s deepening complexity and creates space for this range of actors. The EU and Special Envoy Lenderking should press for the creation of a UN-chaired international contact group, which can revisit the UN mediation framework and encourage adoption of a new multi-party approach that better reflects the emerging reality on the ground. Such a body could establish a division of labour among its members to support the peace process, with sub-groups focusing on key topics such as sub-national conflicts (like the one between the government and STC), economic warfare and outreach to the Huthis in Sanaa, which has been constrained by COVID-19, with no senior diplomat visiting since early 2020.

A Role for the EU and Its Member States

The EU and its member states should bolster UN-led efforts to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. They should also help coordinate the international diplomatic response to the war.

The EU’s inclusion in an international contact group would allow EU representatives to act as a force multiplier, positioning them to solicit funds and diplomatic capacity from member states for issues the group determines to be priorities. The EU and member states can also, along with P5 members and others, push for contact group members to start making regular diplomatic trips to Sanaa, Aden and perhaps Marib to ensure better contact with the Huthis, the Hadi government and other relevant groups in Yemen, providing them with a clearer picture of international thinking about the conflict. The EU and its member states can also play an important role in advocating within the contact group for a more inclusive political process, and share their practical experience in brokering local truces, reopening roads and freeing prisoners.

Whether or not as part of any contact group, to help make the peace process properly inclusive, the EU and its member states should throw their weight behind efforts to press the UN Security Council to adopt a broader interpretation of Resolution 2216 (prevalent interpretations of which have unhelpfully limited UN mediation to two-party negotiations to end the fighting) so that the UN can introduce a quota for women and other civil society figures in direct talks. The EU should also work with the UN to establish a parallel mediation track with women’s and civil society organisations, that at a minimum enjoys a direct channel of communication with UN deliberations, and ideally leads to a substantive role in the negotiation of a political settlement for those involved. The EU already funds work for women’s inclusion; it should increase its support for and engagement with groups on the ground.

The EU and member states should also begin active discussions about how to increase humanitarian funding for Yemen in light of COVID-19’s continued spread, the troubling socio-economic indicators and the huge deficit facing UN aid agencies in 2021. The EU should make it an even greater priority to allocate extraordinary humanitarian funds in response to the virus and increase its development assistance through joint programming with member states under the new EU multi-annual budget. Finally, whether or not the war continues, the EU and member states should start making medium-term plans to help improve conditions – potentially entailing local infrastructure development, capacity-building support for local government and civil society organisations, small business loans and similar efforts in areas away from the front lines that are starved of basic services and governance. Such projects could help foster at least a modicum of stability away from the fighting and may prevent the further deterioration of local institutions.