The two-month truce between the combatants in the Yemen civil war, brokered by the UN on April 2, has been swiftly followed by dramatic action calculated to bring about a more permanent end to the hostilities, and even the start of a reconstruction program.
On Thursday, April 7 Yemen’s ineffective, unpopular and largely absent president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, dismissed his vice president and went on TV to announce that he was abdicating in favor of a new presidential council that had been established for just that purpose. “I irreversibly delegate to the Presidential Leadership Council my full powers,” he said.
According to his statement, the new body will assume the duties of both the president and his deputy, and will carry out political, military and security duties for the Yemeni government during what he refers to as a “transitional period”.
No sooner were details of the unprecedented political changes in the public domain than Saudi Arabia and the UAE announced a support package for the new Yemeni presidential council to the tune of $3 billion – a vast sum, but arguably only enough to start the immense task of repairing the ravages of seven years of conflict.
Seven years of civil war left Yemen divided between an internationally-recognized government led by Hadi and backed by Saudi Arabia based in the southern city of Aden, and the Houthis based in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, which they captured back in 2014, controlling a fair chunk of territory in the west of the country.
The new 8-member Leadership Council is chaired by Rashad Al-Alimi, a minister during the presidency of Hadis’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Alimi has the support of Saudi Arabia, but he also has a close relationship with Yemen’s major political group, the Islamist Islah party.
Yemen’s misery started during the sadly misnamed “Arab spring” of 2011. Its political activists responded to the wave of protest sweeping the Arab world with its own mass protests and a near-assassination of the then president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh was eventually forced to step down in favor of his vice-president, Hadi, who attempted to meet some of the activists’ demands. In 2015 he tried sponsoring a draft constitution which proposed a federal system split between northerners and southerners, but the Iran-backed Houthi rebels rejected it.
The Houthis are a fundamentalist Shia group supported by Iran. Saleh, although a Sunni Muslim, gave up the presidency with great reluctance, and then sought to maneuver a return to power in collaboration with his erstwhile enemies. It was through Saleh that the Houthis were able to gain control of most of the Yemeni military, including its air force. As a result, and supported with military hardware from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, they overran large tracts of the country.
Saudi Arabia, determined to prevent Iran from consolidating a strong presence in the Arabian peninsula, intervened in March 2015 to beat back the Houthis. The fighting has continued ever since, with neither party able to gain a clear advantage.
When Hadi took over the presidency in 2012, he was supposed to be in power for two years and serve as a transition to a full, inclusive Yemeni democracy. He proved a sad disappointment, and the end of his period in power is not being mourned by many Yemenis. Hadi never rose to the challenge of being a wartime leader. He was a silent president who spoke to his people on camera only a handful of times. As Saudi Arabia launched its attack on the Houthis in March 2015, he fled to Saudi Arabia, and holed up in its capital, Riyadh.
As for the new Presidential Leadership Council, seeds of disunity are unfortunately already sown within in. One of the eight members is Aidarous al-Zubaydi, who supports an independent South Yemen and labels himself its president. South Yemen has a checkered history. Back in 1967, just after Britain left its South Arabia protectorate, South Yemen became an independent communist state backed by the USSR. It was only in 1990, with the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, that South Yemen agreed to unite with the north to form the Unified Republic of Yemen. The glue binding the two quickly became unstuck. It took only four years for the south to try to break away again. A short civil war ended with the south being overrun by northern troops and the national government back firmly in control. In 2020 South Yemen again declared independence. It is now governed by a Southern Transitional Council (STC), but there is cooperation and dialogue with the Yemeni government.
To be successful the new Council will need to set aside their differences and cooperate in the interests of the nation as a whole. It has clearly won the confidence of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the task of disbursing its windfall $3bn to best effect is likely to occupy a good deal of its time and attention.
As for the Houthis, they refused to attend the Riyadh talks that preceded the establishment of the presidential council, and have subsequently denounced it as a foreign and illegitimate imposition. This reaction is perhaps not unexpected, but the current two-month ceasefire is a reality, brought about by extensive Saudi-Houthi negotiation. If negotiations continue, the ceasefire could be extended into something approaching a truce.
What Yemen needs are elections, an inclusive government, and a new structure for the state. UN Resolution 2216 aims to establish democracy in a federally united Yemen. The Houthis must be given the opportunity to choose. Do they wish to remain an outlawed militia permanently, or would they prefer to become a legitimate political party, able to contest parliamentary and presidential elections and participate in government? The price would be serious engagement in negotiations aimed at a peaceful transition to a political solution for a united Yemen.