Yemen’s Houthi Takeover
Yemen’s Houthi Takeover
Toward Open Roads in Yemen’s Taiz
Toward Open Roads in Yemen’s Taiz

Yemen’s Houthi Takeover

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.
 

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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