Summary: the Biden administration offers some hope that Yemen’s long running war may be steered on a path towards peace but as the suffering of the Yemeni people continues huge obstacles remain in place.
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.
Just over a month after the long delayed appointment of the new internationally recognised government [IRG] in Yemen, what has it achieved? Sworn in in Riyadh, but not yet endorsed by the Parliament which has nowhere to meet, its members headed for Aden on 30 December. Following standard security procedures, the entire government and other officials travelled on the same plane, publicising their movements on social media! On arrival, immediately after landing, the airport was hit by three explosions, though the aircraft was not damaged. Among the welcoming crowds and others, 25 people were killed including senior officials and international staff of the Red Cross, as well as more than 100 injured.
The Prime Minister and government were prompt to accuse the Houthis of responsibility. The Houthis, who are usually truthful about such matters, if not others, have denied involvement, and attribute it to internal differences within the IRG. Iranian official media also condemned the action. Strengthening this claim, the type of weapons used had limited range, suggesting that they could not have been fired from sites under Houthi control. Further doubts about this accusation are raised by the fact that the outgoing head of Aden Security [after months of resistance including preventing one successor from taking office] had apparently exited the plane and was seen rushing out of the airport with dozens of supporters immediately prior to the explosions. Accusing southern separatists [however slightly dissident they might be] of the attack would have been an instant death blow to the hard won and long-worked Saudi efforts to form this government, hence the investigation committee set up by the government promptly confirmed initial accusations of Houthi responsibility. While the US and UK accept this conclusion, many others don’t.
To its credit, unlike previous occasions when government ministers came under attack in Aden, the government remained there and is still in situ a month later. This has enabled the UN Special Envoy to visit Aden and hold discussions with the government there and the council of ministers to meet in Aden. But it has achieved little more. Financial problems continue to plague the government. The final tranche of the US$ 2 billion Saudi deposit to support international trade was disbursed in December 2020. In the absence of additional funding from Saudi Arabia, the Aden Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) has little control over the financial situation; it is unclear whether the alternative Southern Transitional Council (STC) banking system which deprived the CBY from local income is still operating. The value of the Yemeni Riyal continues to deteriorate where the new IRG-printed currency exchanges at around YR 800 = US$ 1 (under Houthi rule it is steady at about YR 600). Meanwhile military personnel protested in Aden and Abyan demanding salaries unpaid for months. On 26 January, the Ministry of Defence announced it would pay servicemen salaries but only for August and September 2020.
Military aspects of the Riyadh agreement remain at stalemate. The Presidential Guard due to return to Aden under the agreement, remain in Shuqra [100 km east of Aden on the coast] and have been prevented from entering Aden by the STC. No progress has been made over the Balhaf gas terminal which, alongside Mukalla/Riyan airport remain under UAE control, despite the IRG’s demands for their handover.
On 7 January, Aydaroos al Zubeidi, the self-appointed president of the STC gave a hard line and totally uncompromising interview to a UAE based media outlet which might as well have been given on the day the STC announced its ‘self rule’ in April 2020, explicitly calling for the ‘restoration’ of the southern state; he is also unilaterally making military appointments, while the STC is objecting to president Hadi’s appointments of senior officials.
Meanwhile, predictably, and in complete disregard for the survival of 30 million Yemenis, in its final hours, the Trump administration designated the Houthi movement as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation. This was, and continues to be, opposed by the entire world with the exception of the Yemeni IRG and Saudi authorities. In anticipation of the lengthy procedures involved in reversing this decision, the Biden administration has, within a week of inauguration, countered this move by issuing a temporary licence effectively cancelling the original designation for a month.
While this change is not to the taste of the IRG, it is a step in the right direction for the Yemeni people, who desperately hope for improvements in 2021. Although 2020 saw ‘only’ 2155 airstrikes, this was 82% more than in 2019, the year with lowest number since the war started. Other aspects of life in Yemen deteriorated significantly during the year: in addition to the new problem of the Covid-19 virus whose management in Yemen was even worse than elsewhere [quite a record given the competition], there were ‘only’ 235 000 suspected cholera cases, and the number of operational medical facilities stayed at below half. The UN’s Humanitarian appeal achieved half its requirement for the entire year, despite being significantly below needs, and on 14 January, the UN’s Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief admitted that ‘about 50 000 people are essentially starving to death in what is essentially a small famine. Another 5 million are just one step behind them.’
Early indications of the new US administration’s prioritizing Yemen is encouraging and will, hopefully, be followed by further positive interventions: increased humanitarian aid and ending the sale of weapons and ammunition to Saudi Arabia and the UAE are on its agenda. (On Tuesday senior Raytheon executives admitted that they expect Biden will block the US$519 million sale of Paveway bombs to the Saudis.) An additional important US initiative would be sponsoring a new UNSC resolution to replace the outdated 2216 which hinders UN effectiveness. The appointment of a new Special Envoy, free of political ‘baggage’, would also help as would a ‘resetting’ of relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to prioritize human rights and freedom of expression over the commercial interests of the armaments industry.