Yemen: prospects for 2021

Summary: as 2020 draws to a close, there is a flicker of hope that a just-announced unity government and the Biden presidency may signal the beginning of the end of a brutal war that has raged for nearly six years.

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.

 State of affairs at end 2020

The year 2020 has been a bitter one for Yemenis. Far from the hopes in late 2019  of seeing a reduction in fighting, active conflict worsened with a major Houthi offensive in the north-east, leading to them taking Jawf governorate and much of Mareb. They did fail, however, to take Mareb city and the oil/gas fields by the end of the year, largely as a result of increased support from Saudi Arabia for the forces of the Internationally Recognised Government (IRG). This calmed neither the Dhala’ nor the Hodeida fronts; in the latter despite the 2018 Stockholm Agreement, fighting intensified and the Joint Redeployment Monitoring team working alongside the UN Mission to Assist the Hodeida Agreement completely ceased operations in April after the Houthis killed one of the IRG’s monitors.

The population had to contend with the Covid-19 pandemic whose death toll and other impacts are difficult to assess as the Houthis prevent publication of data and treat patients like criminals. In Aden, early death tolls appeared to be very high, based on new graves, but more recent information suggests that the pandemic has been less destructive than anticipated, though in the presence of the other major epidemics in the country, there is no room for complacency, as people continue to die from cholera, dengue, malaria, chikungunya and children from acute malnutrition and more.

In August, Ahmed Al-Batati, a Lance Corporal in the British army, staged a public protest against UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, concerned that “a child was dying every 10 minutes” in Yemen.

In this situation, the international community has been particularly noticeable by its inability to achieve anything much on any front. Intensified fighting was the Yemeni response to the UN’s appeal for cease fires to address the Covid-19 emergency, while UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths spent most of the year trying to persuade the only two parties he deals with [the Houthis and the IRG] to sign a ‘Joint Declaration’ which, itself, would be little more than a commitment to returning to the negotiating table. His monthly reports to the UNSC varied from wild optimism [April] to close to despair later in the year.  The UN’s only political achievement of 2020 was the release of more than 1000 prisoners in November.

On the humanitarian front, the end of year was marked by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warning the world of ‘imminent’ famine in Yemen [see our posting of 1 December] followed by more appeals from the UN, the WFP, UNICEF and others for funding for Yemen and other states in emergency crises following Covid-19 and other issues. By 20 December funding for the UN Humanitarian Action Plan [one quarter lower than that for 2019] crept close to  50%. In plain English, at the end of the year, despite massively increased need, less than half of the humanitarian funding requirement had been realised.

Meanwhile, a mere year and two weeks after signature of the Riyadh agreement, the IRG finally announced its new government on 18 December. It demonstrates the real priorities of the negotiators: unlike earlier governments in the past two decades, women are excluded, though women never held major ministries. The complex manoeuvres to combine maximum geographical and party coverage still leaves the Tihama region, which runs north to south along the Red Sea coast, without a single cabinet representative. Although supposed to have equal south-north representation, there is a majority of southern ministers, completely ignoring the country’s demographic balance where the south only represents about one third of the population. The Southern Transitional Council (STC) achieved 5 of the 13 southern positions, other southerners have three of the four most powerful ones [foreign affairs, interior and finance]. Immediate questions include where the new government will be sworn in and whether [and indeed where] Parliament will endorse it, particularly as many MPs are from the Tihama. Whether this government decisively reconciles the factions, re-establishes a working relationship between the STC and the IRG, actually operates from Aden and introduces effective governance in the parts of the country out of Houthi control are all issues for 2021. Watch this space!

Prospects for 2021

Hopefully, for Yemen as elsewhere, 2021 will be a better year. There is considerable scope for improvement and the new US administration could play a positive role. While the likelihood of the war ending is low, the new US administration could initiate a different approach not only from Trump’s but also from Obama’s. The internationalisation of war started under President Obama; he supported the Saudi-led coalition, largely to mollify the Saudi leadership’s reaction to the JCPOA, providing the Saudis with technical and logistical support including in-flight refuelling for bombing raids.

Certainly the first step is to re-introduce the congressionally approved ban on sale of advanced weaponry and associated equipment. Should Trump in his final days implement his threat of designating the Houthis as a terrorist organisation, this would obviously need to be reversed as rapidly as possible, given its impact on humanitarian interventions, food trade [which supplies 90% of the country’s staples] and on possible negotiations.

The US could re-assert international leadership by initiating a new UNSC resolution which would untie the hands of its negotiators by ending the unrealistic conditions attached to UNSC 2216. Such a resolution would recognise Houthi actual strength, the real influence of the IRG, and take into consideration other forces on the ground throughout Yemen, including political parties, civil society and the range of separatist and special interest factions. A renewed UN initiative would best be implemented under a Special Envoy from a nationality not perceived negatively by any of the parties concerned.

The international community must provide adequate funding for humanitarian emergencies if Yemenis are to be saved from famine and medical disasters, but such funding should be closely linked with financing for development.  Waiting for the war to end before supporting development activities is a strategy which has failed for decades and should be replaced by a new slogan ‘no peace without development’ realising that development and improved living standards bring peace as, among other side effects, it reduces the attraction of military engagement for people provided with alternative peaceful and productive sources of income.

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