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Yemen’s Houthi Takeover
Yemen’s Houthi Takeover
From Bad to Worse in Yemen
From Bad to Worse in Yemen

Yemen’s Houthi Takeover

Originally published in Middle East Institute

Once touted as a relative success story among Arab uprisings, the internationally backed transition process in Yemen has unravelled in the wake of the September 21 Houthi takeover of Sana. Nominally there is still a political process in place, but events on the ground are moving in a different direction and the country appears poised for yet another round of upheaval, possibly more transformative than the events of 2011.

In the north, the balance of power has tipped sharply in favor of the Houthis, a predominantly Zaydi-Shi‘i movement that took control of the capital in September and has since consolidated and expanded southward and along the Red Sea coast. Supporters of the movement see the Houthis as correcting the wrongs of the country’s 2011 transition agreement, which preserved the power and corruption of old regime elites. They praise the movement’s willingness to confront corruption, combat al-Qa‘ida, and fill a security vacuum left by a feckless government.

Opponents see things differently. They view the Houthis as an Iranian-backed militia and accuse them of aligning with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in a marriage of convenience to gain power. They are convinced that the Houthis harbor a discriminatory agenda aimed at preserving the political dominance of the northern, Zaydi highlands and, more specifically, of reviving the privileged political status of Hashemites, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad who ruled north Yemen for over a millennia before the republican revolution of 1962.

Undoubtedly, the Houthis have shaken a moribund transition process and opened new opportunities to upend the corrupt political economy. But they are also polarizing politics and compounding political and economic challenges. Saudi Arabia increasingly views them as Iranian proxies and has reportedly suspended the bulk of its financial assistance to Yemen. Support from the Kingdom has kept the country’s economy afloat to the tune of at least $4 billion since 2012. If they do pull the plug, it will almost certainly increase hardship for average Yemenis, undermine the new technocratic government formed in November, and raise the prospect of fiscal collapse in early 2015.

Inside the country, the Houthi takeover is galvanizing calls for southern independence. Separatists argue that recent events are further evidence that they cannot tie their political future to the north. They are betting that Saudi Arabia will eventually change its stance on unity and support their independence bid as a bulwark to a Houthi-dominated north. Most worrisome, by taking the lead in the fight against al-Qa‘ida, the Houthis are opening the door to a sectarian conflict that the country has never experienced. Yemen does not have a history of Shi‘i-Sunni violence—Zaydis, Shi‘i Muslims who form the majority in the far north, and Shafais, Sunnis who are the majority in the rest of the country, are close in religious practice and have lived relatively peacefully for centuries. Al-Qa‘ida, however, is explicitly framing the battle in sectarian terms and is using it as a recruitment tool. This dynamic is overlapping with historically grounded political tensions between the Zaydi highlands and the Shafai south in ways that could open new conflict dynamics.   

The political and economic situation is increasingly grim, but Yemen’s post-Saleh transition has been in trouble for some time. The November 2011 Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) Initiative and UN-backed implementation mechanisms removed the long-time autocrat from power and temporarily avoided a civil war, but they failed to resolve intra-elite rivalries or to fundamentally change the corrupt political economy in which these fights are played out. Instead, over the course of three years, a shuffled deck of old regime elites belatedly ticked off a transition to-do list and fought over state spoils, while economic and security conditions for average Yemenis deteriorated, giving way to frustration with the political process and those leading it.

For a time, widespread conflict was held at bay by the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a ten-month negotiation intended to lay the groundwork for a new constitution. The NDC succeeded in bringing together diverse political stakeholders and producing a set of principles for building a democratic, federal state. Yet results were often vague and the conference failed to produce a clear consensus on pre-election power sharing arrangements or on the contentious issue of state structure, particularly the future of the south, where the desire for independence is widespread and growing.

The conference ended in January 2014, but six months later core political agreements, such as the formation of a more inclusive and capable government, remained unmet. Worse still, a poorly-timed decision by the government to lift fuel subsidies in July proved too much for the system to bear. The Houthis took quick advantage of the national discord, organizing demonstrations demanding a reinstatement of subsidies, a new government, and a swift implementation of NDC agreements. Their demands resonated widely and far beyond their core support base.

Even before protests came to Sana, the Houthis had been gaining strength. They succeeded in attenuating the power of their political rivals in the far north through a series of battles in which they aligned with disgruntled tribesmen and Saleh loyalists against common enemies, including Salafis, the Sunni Islamist party Islah, the Ahmar family, and General Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, a powerful commander under Saleh who defected during the 2011 uprising.

A similar dynamic played out in the capital. As peaceful protests degenerated into battles between the Houthis and fighters loyal to their arch rival, Ali Mohsin, large parts of the security forces, many with connections to Saleh, sided with or at least refused to fight the Houthis. When President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi declined to issue public orders for the military to oppose Houthi advances, thousands of Sunni militiamen affiliated with Islah chose not to enter the fray. The result was a swift Houthi victory and a virtual surrendering of the city, the implications of which are still unfolding.

In the shadow of the takeover, all parties signed the UN-brokered September 21 Peace and National Power Sharing Agreement (PNPA). On paper, the agreement is positive and long overdue. Already it has produced a new, inclusive technocratic government. It also outlines steps for addressing far-reaching economic and military-security sector reforms, to include anti-corruption measures and disarmament. Theoretically, it reopens the unresolved issue of state structure, particularly the number of federal regions.

But the agreement may be too little, too late. Confidence in and commitment to the existing political process is at a new low. The Houthis claim commitment to the PNPA, but they have little incentive to implement steps like disarmament that would impinge upon their growing power. Already they have broken the spirit of the deal by tightening their grip in Sana and expanding territorial control, ostensibly to fight al-Qa‘ida and to provide security and stop corruption until the government can carry out its responsibilities. As of December, they are the dominant authority in no less than nine of the country’s 21 governorates, with representatives in ministries and other state institutions overseeing decision making. Most recently they have directly challenged Hadi and the authority of the new government by, among other things, rejecting the president’s appointment of a new army chief of staff, storming the central bank, and ousting the director of the country’s second largest port, Hodeidah.

The two main political parties are also less than committed. Following the November 7 UNSC sanctions against Saleh for his alleged role in the Houthi takeover, his party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), is now openly hostile to the president, the UN Special Envoy Jamal bin Omar, and the newly appointed transition government. Saleh’s supporters have voted to remove Hadi from the party’s leadership and they appear to be betting on government failure, possibly waiting on an opportunity to step into the political void. The other major political party, Islah, has no confidence that the Houthis will honour the PNPA and they feel betrayed by Hadi for failing to use the military to stop Houthi advances. The party is still in shock from Houthi gains, but they are far from defeated. As they recalibrate, members worry that some of their rank and file will turn to extremism, even al-Qa‘ida, to counter Houthi advances.  

In the south, calls for separation are louder than ever and what limited support existed for the NDC has largely dissipated. A minority of southern movement activists, a group seeking independence or greater autonomy for the south, are still open to the possibility of two-part (north-south) federalism, a position that the Houthis were supportive of during the dialogue. But the majority view recent events as an opportunity to galvanize domestic momentum and Gulf support for independence.  

In this context, reviving a realistic, locally supported political process will be far from easy and may not be possible. Much depends on the Houthis and how they interpret their strengths and weaknesses. They are the victors for now and have rapidly filled a void left by an inept government. But their dominance is as real as it is fragile, dependent on common enemies and frustration with the transition, rather than support for a specific political program. If they realize their limitations and embrace inclusiveness and compromise, especially with Islah and southern movement activists, they would significantly improve the prospects for peaceful reform. If they do not, they risk unleashing new rounds of conflict with regional and sectarian undertones.

Yemen’s political trajectory is also tied to decisions made in the Gulf. GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, are in a unique position to exacerbate or mitigate growing tensions. Unfortunately for Yemen, Riyadh increasingly views events in Sana through the prism of its regional struggle with Iran, in which the Houthis are seen as Tehran’s proxies. Based on this understanding, Saudi may be tempted to financially pull the plug on the new government, leaving the Houthis and by extension Iran holding the bag. They may also pursue divide and rule tactics by supporting anti-Houthi proxies.

Both policies are likely to backfire, worsening security conditions in Yemen and, by extension, Saudi. If the Kingdom wants to support Yemen’s political process, it should provide the new government, which is not controlled by the Houthis, with the support it needs to rebuild confidence in the state and the political process. This may not work, but the alternative is worse. If the new government falters under economic collapse, this will almost certainly open the door to a renewed power struggle in the north and possibly a chaotic disintegration into multiple regions, not just north and south.

Alternatively, Saudi could help to calm growing tensions and to channel inter-communal competition back into a political process. It has the financial leverage to demand cooperation from the government and the Houthis for implementing key economic and security sector reforms, particularly the phased disarmament and integration of Houthis fighters in to the security services, in exchange for economic assistance and investment. Saudi Arabia and the GCC also have long-standing ties with key stakeholders in both the north and the south that could help reach the informal political consensus necessary to implement agreements, or, in the case of the south, come to a more durable solution. Unfortunately, the history of Saudi-Yemeni relations as well as recent dynamics bode poorly for this option.

Unlike other countries experiencing popular mobilization in 2011, Yemen has neither a full-fledged counter revolution nor civil war. Instead it is hanging somewhere in between. The Houthi takeover and accompanying power sharing agreement in some ways opens a new opportunity to implement reforms and to address outstanding issues, including state structure. But it has also produced a new set of domestic and regional obstacles that leave little room for optimism.
 

From Bad to Worse in Yemen

In Yemen, COVID-19 threatens to ravage what is already one of the world’s most vulnerable populations. In this excerpt from the Spring Edition of our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to encourage greater inclusion in UN-led efforts to secure a ceasefire and settlement talks, and to increase humanitarian funding for Yemen in light of the pandemic.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020 - Spring Edition

Things have been terrible in Yemen for the past five years, but they could still get worse. If COVID-19, escalating fighting and an accelerating economic crisis are not contained, the world’s biggest humanitarian disaster will grow just as local and international actors’ capacity to mitigate its worst effects contracts. Local authorities reported the first case of the novel coronavirus in April 2020. The virus has since spread, with more than 100 cases reported in ten of Yemen’s 21 governorates. It now threatens to overwhelm a health care system already collapsing under the weight of war damage and a lack of funds, while humanitarian aid dries up. Fighting is also on the rise after a lull in late 2019, while national and subnational mediation efforts led by the UN and regional actors, particularly Saudi Arabia, are largely frozen because of the stubbornness of the conflict parties and a surfeit of interdependent but uncoordinated diplomatic initiatives. The economic crisis is also worsening as hard currency supplies run critically low and the cost of imports continues to outstrip Yemen’s declining oil income. The UN and other international partners need to keep their eyes trained on peacemaking efforts even as they help blunt the pandemic’s impact on this embattled country.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Make Yemen a priority of the EU’s global response to COVID-19, including in funds the EU, its member states and agencies have pooled under the Team Europe program, and increase overall humanitarian aid to the country.
  • Advocate and express willingness for the EU’s diplomatic service to participate in a UN-led international contact group to help coordinate mediation tracks under a UN umbrella and to more effectively deploy diplomatic efforts in support of a ceasefire and the peace process.
  • Call for a broadening of UN-led efforts to secure a ceasefire and a restart of a more inclusive peace process, encompassing Yemeni actors beyond the Huthis and the internationally recognised government, particularly the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which has declared “self-administration” in formerly independent provinces in the south of Yemen. Encourage the STC to table its demands for autonomy/independence for the south during national political talks, and to reverse its self-administration declaration while UN-led mediation is ongoing.
  • Step up direct diplomacy with the Huthis in Sanaa and the STC in Aden, possibly by establishing a permanent delegation in both locations.
  • Reinvigorate efforts to lay the technical groundwork for Sanaa International Airport to reopen for commercial flights.

A Perfect Storm

The spread of COVID-19 to Yemen threatens to ravage what is already one of the world’s most vulnerable populations. The UN’s humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, has warned that “nowhere else on earth will COVID-19 spread faster, more widely, with deadlier consequences”. So far, numbers appear modest: as of mid-May 2020, of the 134 people diagnosed with the illness, 21 are reported to have died. But both the number of cases and the death toll are likely far higher. The World Health Organization believes that the coronavirus is “actively circulating” throughout Yemen. It says the country’s fragile health system faces “catastrophic shortages” of test kits and other key supplies. Yemen has access to about 6,700 tests but it needs around 9.3 million. Making matters worse, even before the outbreak, UN humanitarian programming faced huge funding shortfalls. Of the $3.4 billion the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says it needs to run humanitarian operations in 2020, less than 15 per cent had been funded by international donors by mid-May. OCHA has said it will have to shutter up to three quarters of humanitarian operations in Yemen absent a large cash injection.

The spread of COVID-19 to Yemen threatens to ravage what is already one of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

The UN had initially hoped to turn the pandemic’s threat into a conflict resolution opportunity. UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a nationwide ceasefire on 25 March to allow for a coordinated COVID-19 response. The government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the Huthis and several other Yemeni combatant groups made supportive public statements, and UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths subsequently announced an initiative that included a nationwide ceasefire, economic and humanitarian confidence-building measures, and revived UN-spon­sored peace talks. But thus far the warring parties appear to calculate that the virus poses less of a danger to their positions than would political compromise. Fighting has continued, and both the government and the Huthis have yet to take part in a crisis meeting to discuss Griffiths’ proposal. Saudi Arabia has announced, and extended, what it calls a unilateral ceasefire in support of the UN initiative. But in practice Riyadh has continued to back the government’s military campaign and launch airstrikes against the Huthis. The Huthis have labelled the Saudi ceasefire announcement a media ploy and have likewise continued their war effort unabated.

Trend lines point to more, not less, fighting. Armed conflict and political feuding escalated over the first four months of 2020 after a respite in 2019 due to Saudi-Huthi de-escalation talks. The Huthis made major territorial gains in al-Jawf governorate during intense battles between January and March and are threatening an offensive on Marib city and governorate, the government’s last stronghold in the north. Combat has also intensified on almost all of Yemen’s other major fronts, most recently in Huthi-held parts of al-Bayda governorate.

Collapsing truces elsewhere could trigger additional violence. The government has temporarily withdrawn from the UN-led ceasefire monitoring mission in Hodeida, on the country’s Red Sea coast, and threatened to overturn the UN-brokered truce there. On 25 April, the STC, which pushed forces loyal to Hadi out of Aden in August 2019, broke the terms of the Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement by announcing “self-administration” in the territories of the formerly independent state of South Yemen. Since then, the STC has begun to take over state institutions in Aden and attempted to seize control of Hadibo, the capital of Soqotra island in the Arabian Sea, which is still secured by government forces. On 11 May, the government responded by initiating an offensive in the southern Abyan governorate aimed at pushing STC forces out of the provincial capital, Zinjibar. The fighting there is ongoing.

The economic crisis is also set to worsen. The STC’s self-administration announcement opened a new front in the struggle for control of Yemen’s financial institutions. The group seized physical control of the headquarters of the government-run central bank in Aden, which the government had moved there from Sanaa in September 2016. The secessionists have threatened to start running the bank themselves, a move that would likely lead the government to freeze its access to the international financial system. Until now, Saudi forces located inside the bank have deterred the STC from making good on their threat. As a workaround, on 29 April, the STC reportedly began to divert Aden port revenues, which normally would go to the central bank, to an account it controls at the local al-Ahli bank. Making matters worse, the central bank may have less than a month’s worth of hard currency needed to underwrite imports. Dollar income from oil exports is also falling on the back of a sharp decline in global oil prices. The Yemeni riyal dropped by about 9 per cent in value after the STC’s self-administration declaration and has since depreciated further, raising living costs for already impoverished Yemenis. Saudi Arabia is unlikely to top up the central bank’s dollar accounts, as it has done in the past, if the bank is not under government control.

Meanwhile, a worsening humanitarian and economic situation will disproportionately affect Yemen’s women and girls, who bear the brunt of unpaid care work, are the first to feel the effects of the loss of household income, and also are more likely to suffer from domestic violence during periods of social strain. Lockdown measures may also lead to the reimposition of gender barriers that have lowered in some parts of the country over the course of the war.

A Way Out

Preventing further territorial fragmentation, fighting and human suffering will require a shift in key combatants’ calculations. No side seems ready to make the compromises necessary to get the UN’s ceasefire proposal off the ground. Riyadh believes that its ceasefire announcement should be sufficient to bring the Huthis to the table, but the de facto authorities in Sanaa argue that a truce must include lifting Saudi-imposed restrictions on their territory’s land, sea and air borders. The UN ceasefire initiative includes confidence-building measures that would ease – although not end – some of these restrictions. But negotiations have been difficult, and it is not clear that the Huthis, the Yemeni government and the Saudis will be able to reach a mutually acceptable compromise.

Another obstacle is the surplus of disparate and disjointed diplomatic efforts to end the war. By April 2020, mediation tracks included: the UN’s ceasefire/confidence-
building/peace talks plan; Saudi-Huthi talks focused on border security and the rebels’ relationship with Iran; Saudi-overseen efforts to implement the Riyadh Agreement; and the UN’s stalled attempts to get the Huthis and the government to carry out the Hodeida Agreement. The tracks are somewhat interdependent – conflict parties have at times made progress on one agreement conditional on moving forward with others – but there is no mechanism to prevent setbacks in one track from disrupting others.

Coordinating mediation and diplomatic efforts under a single UN-led process would improve chances of a COVID-19 ceasefire and a return to the political process. To this end, Crisis Group has recommended the formation of a UN-chaired international contact group made up of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, the EU and Gulf Cooperation Council member states. EU member states Germany and Sweden, as well as the EU’s European External Action Service (EEAS), have signalled support for the initiative. This group could help identify the minimum level of implementation of the Riyadh and Hodeida agreements required to support nationwide talks. It could also establish a division of labour for supporting UN-led negotiations. Riyadh may resist such an initiative on the grounds that it could impinge on the kingdom’s efforts to leave the war behind. But it is increasingly clear that the Saudis, while the most important external actor, cannot single-handedly cajole the Yemeni parties to end the conflict. In addition to support for efforts to weave the different diplomatic tracks into a single UN-led effort, UN Envoy Griffiths also needs assistance in addressing a shortcoming of current negotiations, namely that they are limited to the Huthis and the government. The UN and its partners will need to broaden talks to include other major parties to the conflict.

A Role for the EU and its Member States

The EEAS and EU member states are well placed to assist in the coordination and revitalisation of an international diplomatic approach. First, they can advocate for the formation of the new contact group, and secondly, the EEAS can act as the EU’s representative at the group.

The EU and member states can also play a critical role in advocating for a more inclusive UN process, which is increasingly important given Yemen’s deepening fragmentation. The UN’s current mediation plan is built around brokering a political settlement between the Huthis and the Hadi government, with Saudi input. This plan is increasingly unlikely to produce a sustainable peace, as it leaves out armed factions with the ability to upend any settlement as well as a range of political parties, civil society actors, women’s groups and youth whose buy-in and support will be important in sustaining any pact. The EEAS and EU member states should encourage greater inclusion in UN-backed ceasefire and settlement talks. As the main funders of Track II initiatives, which have included informal dialogues on everything from post-conflict security arrangements to the role of women and youth in Yemen’s future politics, they are also well positioned to ensure that ideas for these efforts are incorporated into any potential settlement. Those ideas are almost certain to include calls for a more representative UN-led peace process, the devolution of governance to local authorities during a transition period, and guarantees of women’s participation in UN-led negotiations and any future government.

Yemen will remain a global hotspot for humanitarian needs for the foreseeable future with 24 million war-affected Yemenis requiring assistance, 250,000 of whom are on the brink of starvation.

More direct contact is also needed on the ground. The Huthis and the STC complain of diplomatic isolation. The EEAS and some EU member states have a good working relationship with both and should consider setting up a delegation in the country, potentially inside the UN enclaves in Aden and/or Sanaa. The EU has also been closely involved in efforts to lay the technical groundwork for reopening Sanaa airport, a key confidence-building measure for the Huthis and, given the spread of COVID-19, a humanitarian imperative. This project should continue and, if possible, be accelerated.

Finally, the EU should begin active discussions over how to increase humanitarian funding for Yemen in light of both COVID-19’s spread and Washington’s decision in April to suspend tens of millions of dollars in assistance in response to allegations of Huthi aid diversion. Apart from Saudi Arabia’s pledge of an additional $500 million to help humanitarian agencies respond to the outbreak, no further funding offer has been made. Even counting the Saudi pledge, the UN would need to collect more than $1 billion to fund its pre-coronavirus humanitarian plan. With the EU working to reallocate development and humanitarian funds in response to the virus under its Team Europe program, it should make Yemen a priority, and if possible, augment unrelated aid as well. Yemen will remain a global hotspot for humanitarian needs for the foreseeable future with 24 million war-affected Yemenis requiring assistance, 250,000 of whom are on the brink of starvation. The EU and its member states have been at the forefront of humanitarian support, but the COVID-19 pandemic may constrain spending capacity since European states are facing their own domestic social and economic challenges. As member states renegotiate the EU’s overall Multiannual Financial Framework and its budget for the 2021-2027 period, they should ensure that their humanitarian and development assistance to Yemen will not decrease, while pledging new funds to the UN humanitarian appeal.