The new UN Special Envoy to Yemen: what is he facing?

Summary: on 5 September, Hans Grundberg, the new UN Special Envoy for Yemen will take up his post, after a two-month gap since his predecessor left to become UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs. So what is the state of affairs facing him? What are his prospects of success where his three predecessors failed?

We thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for nearly 15 years, and has written about the country’s political, social and economic issues. Helen works as a freelance rural development consultant. Her book “Yemen in Crisis: the Road to War”, published by Verso in 2019, is a seminal study of the current war and what lies behind it. Her most recent Arab Digest podcast on the Yemen situation is available here.

Militarily, the impasse in Yemen prevails: the Houthi offensive on the key governorate of Marib continues its on-off rhythm, as 70 airstrikes in July prevented them from taking the capital, Marib City. Meanwhile what little mainstream media coverage there is is frequently erroneous.  A case in point was a recent offensive in al Bayda Governorate.  It was reported as a government offensive against the Houthis, supported by 20 Saudi airstrikes. The air strikes happened but the offensive was actually an attack against the Internationally Recognised Government (IRG) by Southern separatists who had to go through Houthi-held territory to get at the IRG forces. In any event, the offensive failed and the Houthis rapidly regained control of the area. Elsewhere, particularly in Hodeida, clashes continue without significant changes.

A missile and drone attack on Al-Anad Air Base in Lahj province on Sunday killed at least 30 Yemeni troops in one of the deadliest attacks in the war in recent years.

With respect to the 2019 Riyadh agreement, intended to restore cooperative relations between the IRG and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), no meeting has been held since July. Events on the ground suggest that such a resumption is unlikely, as confrontations between the two groups is expanding beyond its earlier sites of Aden and Abyan. The STC strives to increase its influence in Shabwa and Hadhramaut governorates where it has little presence. Nearer to home, the STC has to contend with internal struggles within the separatist movement with, as yet undecisive, armed clashes within its Security Belt forces between Yafi’i and Subeihi elements, mostly in Aden and Lahej governorates. There are plenty of other divisions within the south, reminding observers that a future divide along the pre-1990 borders is highly unlikely to bring peace and stability in the southern governorates.

As has been the case for years, insecurity prevails in Aden, with daily factional clashes and assassinations adding to the problems of survival for citizens. The STC has demonstrated its inability to provide basic services despite controlling most local financial resources. The fuel war between importers and local authorities is ensuring shortages of electricity and water, worsening living conditions for residents already suffering from rapidly rising prices as the exchange rate of the riyal is now systematically more than YR 1000 per US dollar (by contrast with YR 600 in Houthi-controlled areas). The fuel supply conflict is also a major feature of daily life throughout the country, as only three fuel vessels have been allowed to dock in Hodeida since July.  Transport of fuel and basic commodities to Houthi-controlled areas and the interior in general is the opportunity for ‘taxation’ and increased profits for the full range of war profiteers everywhere.

Nationally, deterioration of the humanitarian situation is now a routine feature of life, and it was surprising not to hear an appeal for increased humanitarian aid from the new UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs at the 23 August UNSC meeting, where he mentioned 5 million Yemenis ‘one step away from succumbing to famine and the diseases that go with it, while 10 million more are right behind them’ reminding listeners of the gravity of the situation. He announced a proposed  ‘humanitarian event’ during the September UN General Assembly which is expected to focus on fundraising: as of 23 August, the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan was financed at 48.5% with no unpaid pledges, emphasizing the need for additional funding. Total humanitarian funding was at 64%, but US$422 million of the additional US$571 million was through the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen (SDRPY). Although there are justified criticisms of targeting for all humanitarian assistance, there is little doubt that Saudi and UAE humanitarian funds are even less focused on poverty and need than what goes through the UN system, whether in IRG or Houthi-controlled areas.

Not only do Yemenis have to cope with famine resulting from war-related developments, including a collapsed economy, lack of salaries for state employees and the impact of six and a half years of fighting but, in addition, this year is the second in a row when disastrous rains have caused havoc and destruction, with more than 100000 people affected in the most recent downpours in July. These floods are certainly partly caused by climate change, but at least one other major environmental threat, that of the impending disaster resulting from a leak or explosion of the oil storage tanker Safer FSO marooned in the Red Sea, is a further concern (see our posting of 20 July, 2020.)

Covid-19 has worsened the situation: reliable data on its incidence are unavailable as there is complete denial in Houthi controlled areas, while elsewhere ‘only’ 7580 cases have been officially recorded.  Vaccination, other than through embassies and for UN staff, are only available for a tiny minority: 360000 doses were delivered in March. By end July a mere 13400 people (less than .01% of the population) had been fully vaccinated and a US-donated batch of single dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine was due to arrive end of August. While international attention is focused on Covid, the other endemic medical crises of malaria, dengue, cholera, let alone malnutrition, continue to ravage the population, and to combat all these the WHO received a princely 0.8% of the UN’s humanitarian funding this year!

Hans Grundberg takes up the post of UN Special Envoy after two years’ experience as EU ambassador to Yemen so he knows the disastrous situation faced by Yemenis. His mandate does not include all these problems, but he can’t ignore them. He has the advantage of being a neutral European and a Swede, both characteristics perceived positively by the Houthis and other Yemenis. Arriving when US credibility is at its lowest following the Afghan debacle is another asset. Backed by the EU, this is an opportunity to take innovative initiatives, focusing on the reality of the political and military situation on the ground and to abandon the failed strategy of his predecessor. However, he is constrained by two major hurdles: UNSC 2216 (see our posting of 22 February, 2021), and the current Houthi unwillingness to enter into serious negotiations.

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