Yemen: many questions remain in the wake of the Riyadh Agreement

Summary: The agreement signed between the Southern Yemeni separatists and the Saudi supported Hadi government leaves many questions unanswered

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 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 was published by Saqi books in October 2017.

On 5 November, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s internationally recognised government signed the Riyadh agreement in the presence of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the United Arab Emirates crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed and President Hadi.  The deal followed a battle in August that saw the Security Belts and other UAE-supported militias, operating on behalf of the separatist STC, take complete control of Yemen’s interim capital Aden, expelling the ministers and Hadi’s forces (see our posting of 10 September 2019). But will the deal bring together the anti-Houthi factions? Can it establish an effective government administration providing services to the third of Yemen’s population living outside Houthi control?

The Hadi government and STC met to sign the Riyadh Agreement

The agreement confirms the complete transfer of coalition power in southern Yemen from the UAE to Saudi Arabia, which is now the only representative of the Coalition.  Following the official withdrawal of Emirati forces and equipment from most of Yemen since June 2019,  in the last three months Saudi troops have taken up command posts and field positions throughout the Red Sea coast and in Aden on the Arabian Coast, replacing UAE heavy weaponry and equipment with their own.  UAE forces are now only officially present along the coasts in Hadramaut and Shabwa as well as in Socotra. During these three months, difficult negotiations were taking place under Saudi auspices between the STC and Hadi’s government leading, after many delays,  to the signing of the Riyadh agreement.

This agreement shares characteristics with earlier ones in Yemeni history: a combination of imprecision in implementation mechanisms together with unrealistic deadlines in the absence of stated sequencing.  Militarily it calls for the integration of all UAE-supported militias into the official armed forces under the authority of the Ministry of Defence, while other security elements are to be integrated into the Ministry of the Interior. All armed elements in and around Aden are to withdraw to their pre-August positions and heavy weapons removed under the control of the Coalition, that is the Saudi forces.  Given the total absence of  trust between the parties, whether this takes place will depend on the identity of the new ministers,  the enforcement capacity of the Saudi forces in Yemen, and the willingness of the UAE to persuade its clients to comply.

Politically a new government of ‘only’ 24 ministers is to be formed within 15 days of the agreement and be appointed on the basis of ‘competence and integrity’ neither of which have been characteristics associated with recent Yemeni governments.  It is to include 50% southerners, a lower ratio than the current government. There is little doubt that this element is subject to multiple interpretations: for example, the STC is specifically mentioned only with respect to participation in future UN sponsored negotiations with the Houthis, something which other southern separatists may not appreciate.  Government members from the south currently include non-separatists and indeed even President Hadi is a southerner!  This future Aden-based government is expected to “activate all state institutions in the various liberated provinces…. and work on the payment of salaries and financial benefits to employees of all military sector.”  In particular all state resources are to be managed through the Aden-based Central Bank of Yemen, and to be financially accountable to the Parliament:  this particular clause is unlikely to be popular in the governorates which have, in the past year, taken control of their oil revenues, mainly Mareb, Hadramaut and Shabwa, let alone the fact that separatists have prevented Parliament from meeting in Aden since it became the capital.

Saudi Arabia has clearly noted that economic issues are fundamental to Yemen’s future, and has just held yet another conference on the future development and reconstruction in Yemen with international agencies and under the auspices of the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Programme for Yemen (SDRPY) established in May 2018. It has, to date, been primarily involved in expensive and flashy infrastructure projects, many in al Mahra where Saudi Arabia hopes to build a pipeline to the Arabian Sea, freeing it from dependence on the Straits of Hormuz.  Subjecting Yemen to development strategies designed by Saudi Arabia and neo-liberal international institutions does not augur well for the welfare of most Yemenis.

Of greatest long-term concern is the Riyadh Agreement’s establishment of a Saudi led committee to oversee its implementation, giving Saudi Arabia authority over all government and military activities of the Yemeni government which, if the agreement is implemented, will include the previously rival forces of the STC.  This is reminiscent of the authority given to the Gulf Cooperation Council Agreement of 2011, which was one of the steps leading to the disintegration of the country. Does this new move make Yemen a Saudi protectorate? A week after signature, it is too early to tell, but the first deadline has passed without implementation.

Elsewhere there have been other important developments in the Yemeni crisis: a day after the signature of the Riyadh Agreement, Saudi Arabia formally announced that it is involved in talks with the Houthi movement, almost two months after the latter proclaimed a unilateral end to drone and missile attacks inside Saudi territory.  These talks are ongoing and may lead to a ceasefire. Saudi airstrikes have reduced steadily throughout this year, October being the month with the lowest number.  These moves must be seen in the context of profound Saudi disappointment at the lack of US support in its rivalry with Iran, as demonstrated so vividly in response to the September attacks on Aramco, attacks which the Houthis claimed, to universal disbelief. Some have suggested that Houthi-Saudi talks are intended to de-link the Houthis from their Iranian supporters, but new Saudi awareness of the unreliability of their US alliance may be a better explanation for its search for a solution in Yemen particularly since the UAE’s formal withdrawal leaves the Coalition under exclusive Saudi control and authority.

Widespread praise for the Riyadh Agreement may well be misplaced and politically motivated: mutual hostility between the STC and the Hadi government runs deep. Other political groups and views are still excluded from the discourse.  Many questions remain. Can Saudi Arabia enforce its decisions and if so at what cost? Has the UAE really disengaged from the Yemen file or will it continue to undermine the Hadi’s government ability to function by continuing to support STC ambitions? Is the UAE now reconciled to Hadi’s Islah Party connections? Will a new vice president be appointed, in addition to or to replace the current Islahi one?

Lessons should be learnt from the Stockholm Agreement, signed 11 months ago to loud international praise.  Consider the current status of its three elements: the UN asserts successful disengagement in Hodeida, but in reality there has been little change on the ground, with the Houthis retaining control; there has been no progress whatever on Taiz; and the prisoner exchanges which have taken place were initiated and implemented bilaterally between the Houthis and local forces, outside of the UN and the Hadi government framework.

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