Summary: A prisoner exchange represents a breakthrough of sorts and a new government may finally emerge but the war grinds on with the Houthis continuing their offensive in the north-east governorate of Mareb while the UAE consolidates its gains in the south.
Once again we thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for close to 15 years, and has written about the country’s political, social and economic issues. She works as a freelance rural development consultant. Her book “Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State”, published by Saqi Books, is a seminal study of the current war and what lies behind it.
As we approach the first anniversary of the Riyadh Agreement, what has it achieved? After the Southern Transitional Council (STC) took control of Aden in August 2019, the Saudi regime has made considerable efforts to force a reconciliation between the STC and President Hadi’s Internationally Recognised Government (IRG), receiving little help from its supposed close ally, the UAE. After the ‘renewal’ of the Agreement on 28 July, the latest UNSC press statement on 16 October calls for its urgent implementation, signalling its current status.
Initially due to be completed within weeks, most of its clauses remain unimplemented. No new government has been formed though recent weeks have seen progress with the designated Prime Minister, Main Abdul Malik involved in discussions since late July. The Riyadh Agreement called for an equal split of ministries between north and south but disagreements focus on the selection of four crucial ministers (Defence, Interior, Foreign Affairs and Finance). That the makeup of the new government should include half coming from the south has been interpreted by the STC to mean 50% STC members, no doubt a different interpretation from that of the IRG. The sequencing of activities between military repositioning and political appointments, a persistent major cause of contention, may have been solved in recent days. Thus the hope a new government is in the offing.
Still, the only substantial achievement thus far is the appointment of a governor in Aden, Ahmed Hamed Lamlas, a Shabwani who was governor in his home governorate. He arrived in August and has appointed new district heads and witnessed demonstrations by furious citizens demanding salaries, electricity and other services leaving him to appeal to the coalition and government to take action to respond to the citizens’ needs. The newly appointed head of Security for Aden, the Hadhrami Ahmed al Haamedi, has been unable to wrest control from the supporters of the STC’s Shalal Shaye who continues to manage security forces remotely while both sides ‘argue it out’ under Saudi auspices in Riyadh. The STC’s most senior leaders, Aydaroos al Zubaidi its president, Hani bin Breik his deputy, Nasser al Khubaji chief negotiator, and Shalal are all in Riyadh and are prevented from returning to Aden.
Military confrontations between the two sides focus on the contested governorates of Abyan and Shabwa, the latter mostly under IRG control with occasional outbursts of fighting involving both UAE and STC forces. In recent weeks, action is around the Balhaf gas export facility, [evacuated by Yemen LNG in April 2015] and now turned into a UAE military base, reputed to include a torture centre for Yemenis opposing the UAE and STC. The latest development has been the expulsion of Yemeni army forces from the less secure barracks next to the Yemen LNG enclosure. Recently tribesmen protesting against the UAE’s lack of action against the killers of their relatives have demonstrated at the gates of the UAE’s Alam military base in the centre of Shabwa where they have been ‘buzzed’ by UAE aircraft, causing Shabwa’s governor to call for UAE evacuation of both bases.
Abyan, President Hadi’s home governorate, is very divided politically and socially. On-off fighting between STC Security Belt forces and those of the President has continued for the past six months in the western, coastal part of the governorate near Aden. Neither side is winning, and the stalemate may be connected with the lack of progress in appointing a new government, while Saudi mediation has failed to achieve a cease fire.
Elsewhere, the STC has attempted to increase its influence in Hadhramaut through demonstrations, but the governor, formally aligned with the IRG but supportive of Hadhrami autonomy, remains firmly in charge. By contrast, after a series of skirmishes between IRG and Emirati/STC supporters, the Soqotra archipelago is likely to remain under Emirati control as the UAE has significantly increased its military infrastructure and is rumoured to be building a surveillance facility possibly involving its new close ally, Israel. The situation on the ground suggests that Saudi Arabia is allowing the UAE a free hand in Soqotra while strengthening its own control over the far eastern governorate of al Mahra, despite meaningful local resistance.
The first exchange of prisoners took place on 15-16 October
Meanwhile, in other elements of the Yemeni war, the UN Special Envoy and his team can finally boast some success: implemented by the ICRC, the first exchange of prisoners under UN auspices took place on 15-16 October after almost two years of negotiations between the Houthi movement and the IRG. 1056 prisoners have returned to their families, including 671 Houthis, 15 Saudis and 4 Sudanese, the remaining from the anti-Houthi forces. A further 182 prisoners were exchanged on 1 October between the STC and the Hadi government in a deal mediated by tribal leaders outside the UN process, but also implemented by the ICRC. This is of course extremely welcome news for the freed prisoners and their relatives, and a rare opportunity for celebration for Yemenis.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely to lead to significant progress towards a peace agreement, at a time when the Houthi offensive in the north-east against Mareb continues regardless of heavy losses and stiff resistance by Saudi supported IRG forces. However slowly the Houthis progress, they have almost surrounded Mareb city thanks to agreements with leaders from major local tribes reputed to be historically resistant to Houthi and Zaydi ideology.
Meanwhile the disasters Yemenis face daily simply worsen: famine is real, and whether officially declared or not, the Nobel Peace Prize winner World Food Programme has reduced its assistance throughout the country and completely abandoned 4 million Yemenis due to shortages of funds. Treatment for Covid 19 and the many local epidemics also suffers from financial constraints, the UN humanitarian appeal having received 42% of its annual requirement in mid-October. The continued blockade of Hodeida port ensures shortages of fuel and basic staples, while the FSO Safer (the decaying oil tanker abandoned in the Red Sea) is still awaiting examination from a UN technical mission. Despite its latest rejection by the Hadi government, Special Envoy Griffiths persists with his now six-months old ‘Joint Declaration’ telling the UNSC on 15 October that the parties “have yet to agree a final text. And I’d like to say that I am neither surprised nor indeed frankly discouraged by this.”