Yemen’s IRG: a portrait in failure

Summary: Yemen’s Internationally Recognised Government is supported by a powerful international coalition, so why hasn’t it defeated the Huthis?

We thank our regular contributor Helen Lackner for today’s article. A Yemen expert, Helen also works as a freelance rural development consultant with a particular interest in water among other environmental issues. Saqi Books has published the paperback edition with new material of her Yemen In Crisis, now subtitled Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope. It is a seminal study of the war, what lies behind it and what can happen for it to end. In July 2022 Routledge published her latest book Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. Helen’s most recent Arab Digest podcast “Yemen in the Gaza war” is available here.

The ninth anniversary of the beginning of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen (26 March 2015) is an appropriate time to assess the state of the Yemeni government that Operation Decisive Storm purported to want to re-instate in power. Further, in view of the diplomatic and military support the Internationally Recognised Government [IRG] has received since its inception, it is reasonable to wonder why the IRG has not yet won Yemen’s civil war. It claims ‘legitimacy’ and is doubtless more ‘legitimate’ than the Huthi appointed government in Sana’a, but this legitimacy is debatable given numerous breaches of constitutional procedures since it was ousted from Sana’a in 2015. Given its divisions, many observers prefer to use the ‘anti-Huthi’ label when discussing its role in the Yemeni crisis.

The IRG leadership is the best illustration of these rivalries. In April 2022, President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi (who had held the position since 2012) formally handed over his powers to a Presidential Leadership Council [PLC] whose members had been selected by the Saudi and Emirati authorities [see our posting of 12 April 2022.] The PLC is composed of eight men. President Rashad al Alimi, a former Minister of the Interior, is the only one who at the time of his appointment controlled no military forces; all the others led military units which depended on financial and materiel support from either the Saudis or the UAE.

The PLC was evenly divided between supporters of these two states and its members can, at best, be described as rivals. In the two years since its creation, PLC members have spent more energy in competition with one another than on the task assigned to them by Hadi in his hand-over speech to negotiate “with (Ansar Allah) the Houthis for a permanent ceasefire throughout the republic and sit at the negotiating table to reach a final and comprehensive political solution that includes a transitional phase that will move Yemen from a state of war to a state of peace.”

Personal rivalries and competition for power are not the only reasons for the ineffectiveness of the PLC; Saudi-Emirati worsening competition is another element of division. While none of its members has a meaningful programme focused on addressing Yemen’s grave social, economic and political crises, there are identifiable differences between them. The most internationally prominent figure is Aydaroos al Zubaydi leader of the Southern Transitional Council [STC], a separatist grouping seeking the return of a southern state along the borders of the former PDRY or British Protectorates. His forces have controlled Aden, the country’s ‘interim’ capital since August 2019 when they defeated their rivals in the IRG. Since then, ministers and other senior officials not aligned with the STC’s separatist agenda only visit this capital on sufferance from his forces.

President of the Southern Transitional Council, Vice President of the Presidential Leadeship Council, Aidros Al Zubidi and PLC President PresidentRashad meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State Blinken, September 18, 2023
President of the Southern Transitional Council, Vice President of the Presidential Leadeship Council, Aidros Al Zubidi and PLC President PresidentRashad meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State Blinken, September 18, 2023

Al Zubaydi’s influence in Yemeni politics is largely due to diplomatic, military and political support from the UAE which enabled him to integrate two other PLC members, Abdul Rahman al Muharrami and Faraj Bahsani, into the leadership of the STC in May 2023. However, neither Muharrami nor Bahsani are particularly enamoured of the STC and they have no ideological commitment to the separatist cause. Bahsani is from Hadhramaut, a governorate whose people and leaders have historically objected to any close political relationship with the sources of Zubaydi’s support, that is minor tribal leaders from Dhali, Lahej or Abyan. The Salafist Muharrami heads up the Al Amaliqa (Giants) Brigade, generally viewed as anti-Huthi rather than pro-STC.

Demonstrating a sophisticated strategy, the UAE also support Tareq Saleh, nephew of former President Saleh and leader of the National Resistance Forces. He is committed to Yemeni unity and is loosely aligned with the General People’s Congress, the ruling party of the Saleh period.

The PLC officially rules about 30% of the population and 70% of the country’s territory, much of it uninhabited desert, including two areas which were formerly part of the pre-unification Yemen Arab Republic, Marib under governor Sultan Arada and the south-west coast under Tareq Saleh. Therefore the frequently used ‘North’ and ‘South’ terminology is both incorrect and misleading.

The Council of Ministers, responsible for day to day administration and management, only partly operates from Aden. Of the four Prime Ministers since 2015, Maeen Abdul Malik Saeed was the longest serving [Oct 2018-Feb 2024]. Despite frequent rumours about his replacement he lasted well over 5 years, the second longest serving since unification in 1990. Contrary to normal procedures, and widespread expectation, his replacement in February by the Minister of Foreign Affairs has not, to date, led to the formation of a new government and the PM retains his earlier position.

Throughout the area under their control and particularly in the southern cities of Aden and Mukalla, there are regular and frequent popular demonstrations complaining of the lack of basic services, high inflation, non-payment of salaries, corruption and generally ineffective governance. International support for the IRG has been far below needs at all levels. Financially the regime suffers from the collapse of its revenues sources, particularly since November 2022 when Huthi attacks put an end to oil exports which formed 75% of its income. Both Saudi and UAE financial commitments trickle in late. This contributes to its inability to provide basic services like water and electricity, let alone pay salaries. Given the financial clout of both the Saudis and the Emiratis, speculation is rife as to the reasons for such weak support. Government mismanagement and corruption play a part, but there must be other reasons which thus far remain obscure. Meanwhile, Western support for the IRG is focused on humanitarian activities.

Before the 2022 truce, the US and UK provided technical support to the Saudi-led coalition’s military involvement. The new Red Sea war creates additional risks and dangers. Senior PLC members, including the President, have called for direct military support short of ground troops, to help them defeat the Huthis, including training, equipment and intelligence. This is somewhat ironic as both countries are known, in the case of the US, and suspected in that of the UK to already have forces involved in ‘counter terrorism’ activities in the country.

Prior to US and UK air strikes on Huthi targets there had been no strikes since the April 2022 truce and ground fighting was at a low level. Yemenis watch with deep concern a resumption of increased fighting on the main fronts as the Huthi are reinforcing their forces with new recruits while the US and UK are being encouraged by the IRG to help it resume fighting. By contrast, the Saudis and the Emiratis are reluctant to act against the Huthis. That’s because as the death toll in Gaza mounts their citizens, widely supportive of Palestine, see the leadership of both states continuing to issue ineffectual diplomatic statements while it is the Huthis who are taking impressive military action in support of the Palestinians in the Gaza war.

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