by Zeenat Adam
South Africa’s silence regarding human rights atrocities perpetrated by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is conspicuous, as demonstrated in September, when it abstained from voting on a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council that called for extending the mandate of an international investigation into human rights violations in Yemen. The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) argues that such abstentions on human rights issues (there have been others) are ‘in line with government’s policy in the United Nations to abstain on country-specific situations outside the African continent in order not to align South Africa with any particular geopolitical bloc, and to ensure that we retain our ability to adopt independent policy positions in multilateral forums.’
In the Yemeni case, it is plausible that South Africa is reluctant to risk losing the $10 billion in investments pledged by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to President Cyril Ramaphosa during his visits to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in July. Questions have already been raised about the political, diplomatic and reputational cost of these investments to South Africa. Despite these two states’ notorious human rights records, arms exports from South Africa to both countries have grown since the war began in Yemen, rendering Pretoria possibly complicit in war crimes committed since 2015. Both countries remain the most prolific purchasers of South African weapons.
South Africa’s approach of abstaining from voting on human rights issues in international fora renders it ineffectual and raises the question of why it wants to serve on the UNHRC and the UN Security Council – where it will begin its third two-year non-permanent term in 2019, if it is reluctant to take positions on matters of global importance. The fence-sitting deviates from South Africa’s approach during the Mandela era when it stood as a firm human rights defender on the international stage. In recent years, South African foreign policy seems to have drastically shifted from a human rights foundation to a drive for economic development through foreign investment. Using a mask of economic diplomacy, South Africa thus relinquishes its proclaimed core value of human rights.
For more than three years, the war in poverty-stricken Yemen continued, sparked by Houthi rebels and forces loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, seizing control of Yemen’s largest city and then-capital, Sana'a, in September 2014, and their move southwards towards Aden. By March 2015, a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the USA launched a military campaign to defeat the Houthis, who have since been supported by Iran. The Saudi-led campaign exacerbated the humanitarian impact of the war through intense aerial bombardments that caused mass civilian casualties; controlling ports of entry in a way that hindered the delivery of food and basic necessities; and creating the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe.
The United Nations Group of Regional and International Eminent Experts on Yemen released a report in August, in which it stated that there were ‘reasonable grounds to believe that the parties to the armed conflict in Yemen have committed a substantial number of violations of international humanitarian law’. The report covers the period from September 2014 to June 2018, and found that individuals in the Yemeni government and the coalition – including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and in the de facto authorities (the Houthi) have committed acts that may amount to international crimes. Coalition air strikes, the report asserts, may have been disproportionate and caused the most direct civilian casualties. The chairperson of the panel, Kamel Jendoubi, alleged that the UAE and Saudi Arabia interfered with the work of the panel, despite its attempts to maintain neutrality.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on Saudi Arabia to end airstrikes in Yemen, and to ensure that the perpetrators of attacks on children are brought to justice, thus adding to the mounting pressure on the coalition. The Panel of Experts’ report highlighted the use of children by all parties as child soldiers. In addition, it provided detailed reports of the use of torture in detention, sexual violence and rape as a weapon of war.
Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders – MSF) reported that outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and diphtheria and an upsurge in fighting have worsened the dire humanitarian situation, where more than three million people have been displaced since the war began. Over 20 million people need humanitarian assistance. MSF adds that indiscriminate bombings and chronic shortages of supplies and staff have led to the closure of more than half of Yemen’s health facilities. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights estimated that Saudi-led coalition air strikes may be responsible for approximately two-thirds of civilian deaths. Human Rights Watch reported that ‘the armed conflict has taken a terrible toll on the civilian population. The coalition has conducted scores of indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes hitting civilian objects that have killed thousands of civilians in violation of the laws of war, with munitions that the US, United Kingdom, and others still supply.’ In September, UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva failed because the Houthi delegation did not attend, citing obstruction in its attempts to travel by the national delegation.
The ‘others’ that HRW refers to includes South Africa. According to annual reports of the South African National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), South Africa supplied arms, ammunition and armoured vehicles, as well as surveillance and military technology to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2016 and 2017, amounting to more than three billion Rands, while the two states were deeply embroiled in Yemen, with devastating humanitarian consequences. Evidence of South African military equipment being used in Yemen by the coalition emerged as early as 2015 when footage was broadcast by Al Masirah news channel of a Seeker II unmanned aerial vehicle that had been downed. The images indicate a plate worded: ‘Made in South Africa Carl Zeiss Optronics Pty Ltd’.
In August 2018, an attack on a fish market in the port city of Hodeida resulted in the death of at least fifty-five civilians. Indications are that the munition fragments found at the scene resemble 120mm mortar bombs manufactured by the South African arms manufacturer Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM).
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which documents the global flow of weapons, noted that arms sales to the Middle East increased exponentially between 2013 and 2017, with Saudi Arabia as the largest purchaser in the region, followed closely by the world’s fourth largest arms importer, the UAE. South Africa ranks among UAE’s top arms suppliers for the period 2007-2017.
Despite glaring human rights’ concerns, arms supplying countries like South Africa continue to export weapons to states in the Saudi-led coalition. South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Act mandates the NCACC to ‘avoid transfers of conventional arms to governments that systematically violate or suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms’ and to ‘avoid transfers of conventional weapons that are likely to contribute to the escalation of regional military conflicts, endanger peace by introducing destabilising military capabilities into a region or otherwise contribute to regional instability’.
Established in 1995, the NCACC is a cabinet committee, uniquely protected, and the appointment of whose members is the sole responsibility of the president. Jeff Radebe, currently the Minister of Energy, has served as the committee’s chairperson since 2009. The committee is supported by an inspectorate that looks after matters of compliance, and a Scrutiny Committee that considers applications submitted by companies seeking to sell arms. The NCACC is required to consult certain government departments regularly, including DIRCO, the Department of Trade and Industry, and the State Security Agency (SSA).Cabinet established an NCACC organisational structure that comprises ‘four accountable levels of responsibility:
The structure was meant to ensure that authority over South African arms sales would be vested in a senior ministerial caucus rather than in civil servants. The NCACC should meet monthly to consider arms transfer applications. However, the committee seems to have been less serious in its responsibilities in the recent few years, thus allowing loopholes for corruption and unchecked weapons’ transfers. If it has doubt over sales to a particular purchaser, the committee should suspend applications until assessments are conducted by the relevant departments. In such cases, DIRCO and the SSA would monitor the country in question and submit recommendations to the committee, which will then decide to approve or deny the application. Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence provides oversight to the committee and is authorised to question its decisions. Radebe and the minister of defence, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, appeared before the Joint Standing Committee, but their responses to questions on arms’ sales to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners appeared deflective. Empty promises were made that investigations would be undertaken to determine the reasons for sales to countries where human rights atrocities are perpetrated. The two ministers feigned ignorance of the situation in Yemen and overlooked the culpability of the Saudi coalition.
The $10 billion investment pledge by Saudi Arabia and the UAE may also play a role in the arms market. Though the investment is expected to focus mainly on the energy sector, indications are that South Africa’s failing defence industry may get a boost off the back of the energy deals. The link between energy and arms raises a concern about the chairperson of the committee. Because the chairperson is required to be neutral in the deliberation of the committee, the position is usually filled by a minister whose portfolio does not conflict with NCACC decisions. In this case, it is debatable whether the minister of energy’s heading the committee might be regarded as neutral.
Apart from domestic legislation on weapons’ sales, South Africa is also a signatory to the Arms Trade Treaty, which it ratified in 2014. The conditions of the treaty stipulate, among other things, that the state parties must assess the potential that conventional arms could be used to commit serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. South Africa continues to authorise the sale of conventional weapons that have been used by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Yemen, despite widely-known allegations, as documented by the UN, of serious violations of international law by members of their coalition in Yemen. Significantly, Saudi officials themselves claim to have conducted more than 145 000 missions over Yemen in the past three years. One Saudi general estimated that more than 100 000 of those missions were of a combative nature, and that the military had conducted as many as 300 such operations in a single day.
In addition to the sale of small arms, assault rifles, heavy artillery guns and armoured vehicles, South Africa has supplied the UAE and Saudi Arabia with mortar bombs, armoured personnel carriers, artillery, ammunition, electronic attack systems, software, and a range of other controlled products.
When the Barack Obama administration in the USA declined Saudi Arabia’s request for the supply of Predator drones in 2013, the kingdom turned to South Africa’s Denel Dynamics to assist Riyadh in the development of its own armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programme. Denel adapted the Seeker-400 with a range of 250 kilometres and an endurance of 16 hours to carry the Makopa air-to-ground missile and the Impi laser-guided missile, which has a multipurpose warhead suited for assassination missions. By May 2017, Saudi Arabia unveiled its own combat drone, Saqr 1, which resembled Denel’s design.
In June 2016, South Africa’s then-president, Jacob Zuma, travelled to Saudi Arabia to inaugurate a Saudi Military Industries Corporation facility in Al-Kharjnear Riyadh. He did so together with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who is seen as the architect of the war in Yemen. The 240 million dollar projectiles’ factory was built in collaboration with South Africa’s Rheinmetall Denel Munitions, and is expected to produce a minimum of 300 artillery shells or 600 mortar projectiles per day, as well as aircraft bombs ranging from 500lb-2000lb.
Earlier this year, notorious South African arms dealer, Ivor Ichikowitz, announced that his Paramount Group was in talks with Saudi Arabia with a view to transferring technology and establishing production plants. Since Saudi Arabia and the UAE are not signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, South African companies may ultimately assist these countries to establish munitions factories that are capable of manufacturing cluster munitions. Both Gulf states have used cluster munitions in the war in Yemen. In transferring its technology, South Africa protects itself from a future legal quagmire that may arise domestically in terms of the NCACC, or, internationally, since it is signatory to the Arms Trade Treaty. It may thus absolve itself of responsibility in case of human rights atrocities committed with the weapons, since they would be manufactured in a country where neither law applies.
MBS is touted as the face of a changing Saudi Arabia and the successor to his father Salman, the king. The young crown prince has consolidated power in himself by violently rooting out dissidents and family members and seizing control of key ministries, including defence. With Saudi Arabia being among the top three global arms purchasers, the regime has plans to grow its arms industry and manufacturing capabilities by 2030 through a new state-owned company, Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI).
In September, SAMI’s CEO, Andreas Schwer, attended the 10th Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) exhibition in Pretoria, where he announced SAMI’s intention to enter into joint ventures with South African entities, and potentially explore an equity investment into South Africa’s cash-strapped state-owned enterprise, Denel. The South Africans seem interested in the proposal, especially suggestions of an economic bailout for Denel. The minister of international relations and cooperation, Lindiwe Sisulu, confirmed the Saudi overtures on 11 October, and indicated that she did ‘not know what the outcome of those negotiations will be when it gets to the NCACC’. She added that the committee would consider the merits of the proposed deal, including human rights implications.
The reference to human rights came amidst growing media pressure for South Africa to reconsider its arms sales to the Middle East. She too appeared ill-informed about the situation in Yemen. Her department had only issued two statements on the situation in Yemen over the past three years. On both occasions, the statements appeared to justify Saudi actions as a response to Iranian-backed Houthi militia attacks. In the October press conference, she disclosed that Saudi Arabia had approached Pretoria to intervene with Iran. She grappled with questions about South Africa’s commitment to human rights in the light of arms sales to countries such as Saudi Arabia. ‘We do not sell arms to any country that we have been advised by our officials within the security and international relations environment is violating human rights... The reason we established the NCACC in 1994 is that our foreign policy and our own understanding of ourselves is based on human rights. Our common religion is human rights. We have suffered too long to ever veer away from that religious belief,’ she said.
The UAE too has quietly built a formidable military, using its oil wealth to stealthily purchase arms, making it the fourth largest buyer of arms globally. The UAE has also contracted private military security companies linked to Blackwater’s founder Erik Prince to develop a new model army with a strictly no Muslim hiring policy because ‘Muslim soldiers could not be counted on to kill fellow Muslims’. This force consists of foreign troops trained by western veterans and includes several South African mercenaries, in violation of South Africa’s Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act.
Between 2006 and 2016, Denel supplied an estimated 192 Nyala (rebranded as Agrab in the UAE) armoured mortar carriers to the UAE through an Emirati company, International Golden Group. Another significant deal was the sale of Al-Tariq (known as Umbani in South Africa) guided bombs for mirage jets, produced by Tawazun Dynamics, a joint venture with Denel. This deal, worth 500 million dollars, ensured the delivery of at least 1 600 bombs to the UAE by end 2016. After the Emiratis failed to procure Predator drones from the USA, they acquired Chinese-manufactured drones equipped with South African targeting equipment.
At the 2017 Dubai Airshow, a UAE spokesperson, Staff Pilot Air-Vice Marshal Abdulla Al Sayed Al Hashemi, announced that the UAE had ordered Seeker surveillance drones from Denel Dynamics to the value of AED 48.1 million (USD 13 million), to be delivered in 2018. The UAE has a reputation for redirecting and re-exporting weapons to other countries (including African states), in violation of the Arms Trade Treaty. A recent investigation by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia alleges that the UAE violated the arms embargo imposed on Somalia by transferring military equipment to the Horn of Africa despite international resolutions against the shipments. If South Africa is aware of any such onward sales or transfers of weapons it manufactured, this would violate domestic and international laws, and be in breach of the end user agreement between the UAE and South Africa that assures that any arms purchased would only be utilised by the UAE.
As proxy wars play out between Iran and the Saudi-led coalition in Syria and Yemen at the expense of innocent civilians, there is an increasing indication of an arms race under way in the Middle East. Widespread debate about arms transfers from the UK, Europe and the USA has erupted in those countries because of human rights atrocities committed in the Middle East. Germany and Norway have halted the sale of arms to countries involved in the Yemen war, citing concerns over the humanitarian crisis. To date, the NCACC has not questioned the sale of South African weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, despite glaring allegations of human rights atrocities.
There are other examples too of South Africa not being strict in its responsibility regarding arms sales. In 2010, the NCACC authorised weapons sales to Libya. In responding to opposition questions about the deal, NCACC chair, Jeff Radebe, defended the government position, arguing that at the time the deal was concluded, there had been no evidence that there would be any political unrest in that country. Similar responses were proffered by Radebe when questioned about more recent dubious deals.
South Africa recently applied to the United Nations for authorisation to sell 1,5 billion Rands worth of Umkhonto surface-to-air missiles to Iran, a country that is currently embroiled in the conflict in Syria, and allegedly supportive of the Houthi in Yemen. Such a move would also add to the growing militarisation of a region already fraught with intense conflicts.
As Saudi atrocities in Yemen and its repression of its own citizens come to light, there appears to be a shift amongst its traditional allies. Following the disappearance and likely murder of Saudi journalist and critic of the regime, Jamal Khashoggi, earlier this month, pressure has mounted on the US president, Donald Trump to punish Saudi Arabia. While he has vehemently defended US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, amounting to $110 billion, the US Senate Foreign Relations chairperson announced that weapons sales to Saudi Arabia would not be passed by Congress. The UK has also threatened serious consequences should Saudi Arabia be found culpable in Khashoggi’s disappearance. Saudi Arabia has begun a diplomatic drive to rescue its reputation and will seek new arms suppliers should the US and UK avenues be blocked. South Africa needs to tread with caution in responding to the temptation to fill such a void, and must ponder carefully its role in further destabilising a region that is already fraught with conflict.
In pursuing its national interests and in advancing economic diplomacy, the South African government believes that promising profitable investments will address the poverty and unemployment scourge. For the South African government, the deals with Saudi Arabia fit well into Ramaphosa’s Thuma Mina (send me) campaign – a slogan inspired by the lyrics of a popular song by the late Hugh Masekela, which paints a picture of societal change. However, the cost to South Africa may be immeasurable.
The right to life and human dignity that are emphasised in the South African constitution cannot be forsaken in favour of financial gain, while blood continues to be spilled. Continued engagement with the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the defence sector may render South Africa culpable in the deaths of innocent people, the implications of which are far-reaching beyond the Gulf region and could have a direct impact on international stability. Pretoria must carefully consider the long-term costs and consequences of short-term deals. As South Africa prepares to take its seat at the UNSC in January 2019, it must ensure that such offers do not compromise its neutrality, and that it renews its reputation as a fair, independent defender of human rights.
* Zeenat Adam is a former diplomat and an independent international relations strategist based in Johannesburg, South Africa
The recent and ongoing Saudi-Emirati offensive on the Yemeni port city of Hudaida will render UN special envoy Martin Griffiths’s ‘new’ solution to the five-year-long Yemeni crisis difficult to implement. The partial success of the Hudaida offensive has already emboldened the UAE to demand the return of the city to troops aligned to Yemen’s president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. As Griffiths engages the different players, it is likely that the Houthi, who currently control the port city, will be willing eventually to hand Hudaida over to a third party. Griffiths alluded to this when he referred to his meetings with Houthi officials as ‘fruitful’. This despite the group’s initial rejection of the envoy’s proposal. Clearly, the devastating military hardware supplied by Saudi Arabia and the UAE confronted the group with insurmountable odds, and it has reevaluated its position.
Griffiths will, however, likely face pressure from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which insist that Hudaida be transferred to their direct control, and that UNSC resolution 2216, which calls for Houthi disarmament, be the basis for negotiations. Their belligerence is fuelled by the lack of consequences for their offensive, which has been condemned by the United Nations and most global powers.
Before the Hudaida offensive commenced on 12 June, Griffiths had been meeting roleplayers in an attempt to formulate an enduring solution to the current impasse. His solution closely resembledthe 2016 Kuwait and Kerry initiatives, and called for a ceasefire that would end with the disarmament of the Houthi. The major difference between his proposal and the other two was that he proposed a unity government be formed before disarmament. Other issues, including reconciliation, the status of southern Yemen, and the holding of elections were to be decided in a second phase. Disagreements over the ceasefire and the handover of Hudaida to a third party aborted his initiative. Saudi Arabia and the UAE had previously insisted that the port be handed over to a third party without commensurately agreeing to lift the blockade on Sana'a airport. Significantly, UNSC resolution 2216, adopted in April 2015, ratified Hadi as Yemen’s president and advocated Houthi disarmament and withdrawal. This resolution remains skewed and unrepresentative of the balance of forces, but Saudi Arabia and the UAE insist on it as a basis for negotiations, thus ensuring that no initiative can succeed.
Hudaida is a strategic port through which northern Yemen receives over seventy per cent of its aid; the Saudi coalition has been plotting its capture for two years. The plan to take the city is consistent with the UAE’s recent attempts to secure controlof ports along both the Asian and African sides of the Red Sea. In Yemen alone, Abu Dhabi controls the port of Mukallah, Mocha and Aden, and has significant influence in Socotra; in the Horn of Africa it controlsthe ports of Assab (Eritrea), Berbera (Somaliland/Somalia) and Bosaso (Somalia), and had previously attempted to control Djibouti’s main port.
Fearing that Saudi-Emirati control of Hudaida would halt aid to northern Yemen, the international community had previously scuppered an attack on the city. Significantly, even the USA, in Donald Trump’s first year as president, refused to endorse the operation, and refused to supply Saudi Arabia with military hardware required to detect and remove sea mines and land-sea missiles that have prevented Saudi-backed forces from being able to amphibiously dock in the port.
However, on 12 June, Saudi- and Emirati-supported troops commenced their operation to capture Hudaida, despite warnings from the UNSC, which condemned the offensive and unsuccessfully attempted mediation talks the day before. Worryingly, Saudi Arabia and the UAE forced Yemen’s exiled president, Hadi, to endorse the offensive when it seemed that the international community would not. Under duress, he supported it, believing that his failure to do so would not halt UAE actions, but would, instead, allow the Emiratis to control Hudaida in the same way that they control Aden. Hadi’s lesson from Aden goes back to January when UAE-supported forces routed troops aligned to him. In February 2017, the UAE even forcefully prevented Hadi, a southerner and the internationally-recognised president of Yemen who the UAE supposedly supports, from returning to the region. He was allowed to enter Aden only four months later, on 14 June, after his acquiescence with the Hudaida offensive.
Griffiths has travelled to Sana'a twice in the past two months – between16 and 20 Juneand from 2 to 4 Julyin an unsuccessful attempt to secure a ceasefire. His proposal to broker a solution, including the handover of Hudaida to a third party, was accepted by the Houthi in June, even though they publicly rejected it. Although the group’s support is largely intact, its lacks the military hardware, especially airpower, to contain Emirati- and Saudi-backed forces, allowing them to rapidly capture Hudaida’s airport. Houthi fighters are attempting to stall the offensive through guerrilla tactics. Their leaders realise the asymmetry of forces, and will likely accept a solution which allows them a stake in governance and allows them to keep their weapons. They unsuccessfully proposed a second ceasefire offerfollowing Griffiths’s June visit, offering to surrender the whole of Hudaida to the UN in return for Houthi fighters being allowed to remain. This was rejected by Hadi. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are unwilling to accept any solution that will allow the Houthi to maintain their arms. Further, they have demanded that Hudaida be transferred to Hadi, rather than accepting third party control. The ‘pause’ in operations during Griffith’s recent visit was thus an attempt by the Saudi-UAE coalition to allow him the space to convince the Houthi to capitulate, and has little to do with the flow of aid. Significantly, it was the UAE, not Hadi, that announcedthe ‘pause’, clearly indicating its oversized influence in the conflict.
The Houthi still control most of northern Yemen, including the capital Sana'a, where the majority of the country’s population resides. Moreover, the group’s ability to use guerrilla tactics will ensure that recapturing territory will be a protracted process for the Hadi-Saudi-Emirati coalition, especially since northern Yemen is mostly mountainous. Even in Hudaida, UAE-backed forces are seeking to avert street battles, which would result in a large number of deaths. The UAE ‘pause’ is thus both tactical and strategic.
Despite global criticism of the Saudi-Emirati offensive, there have been no concrete consequences for their actions, which will likely embolden them further. Even the USA, which previously had cautioned against the offensive, now tentatively supportsit. With the capture of Mukallah and Mocha, Saudi- and UAE-backed troops no longer required equipment to detect and remove sea mines and to counter land-to-sea missiles since they are able to travel on land along the coast. Additionally, the defection of troops aligned to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh from the Houthi to the Hadi camp, opened another front against the former. Abu Dhabi also countered concerns that a siege of Hudaida will prevent aid from reaching northern Yemen by sending aid, instead, overland through the UAE. The blockade on Hudaida thus also has economic benefits for the UAE.
Griffiths’s initiative, based on a leaked draft, fails to adequately address Yemen’s complexities. His travels in the past few weeks indicate that he has been forced to adopt a piecemeal approach to find common ground. This too has largely failed owing to Saudi and UAE intransigence, which will likely intensify if Hudaida is handed to Hadi. A solution for Yemen needs to be holistic, allowing for the parties to agree on sets of measures simultaneously in an attempt to catalyse compromise.
In his 18 June report to the UNSC, Griffiths promised that a new peace plan would be presented in July. However, the new situation will render it difficult for him to formulate a solution acceptable to both the Hadi and Houthi coalitions. Further, the leaked plan does not account for the many smaller conflicts within Yemen’s larger milieu.
In addition, the Saudi-UAE rejection of the UN process illustrates how little influence Hadi has in the conflict. Indeed, while he is touted as the recognised president, he is increasingly marginalised. The UAE’s increasing support for Tariq Saleh, nephew of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, could result in Abu Dhabi having him play a role similar to that of Khalifa Haftar in Libya, to ensure that the conflict endures, especially since Saleh’s rise will further pressure the already-fragmented Hadi coalition. Southern Transitional Council (STC) officials, based in Aden, have acknowledgedthat a battle for southern independence will likely commence after the Houthi are defeated. It is probable that Abu Dhabi will continue supporting the STC to secure control of the country’s Red Sea ports, most of which are located in southern provinces.
by Helen Lackner
Yemen remains in the grip of its most severe crisis ever: the civil war between forces loyal to the internationally-recognised government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition on the one side and those of the alliance between the Houthi rebel movement and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh on the other has devastated the country. ‘Chaos’ is an appropriate term to describe the situation in a turbulent region. With no immediate prospects for the stable, peaceful, and democratic state that hundreds of thousands of demonstrators called for during the 2011 uprisings, what went wrong? Why is there no prospect even of an internationally brokered plan to help end hostilities, let alone find peace? Conflicts in Yemen stem from a combination of internal rivalries between elites, rising demands of an increasingly impoverished population, interventions from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and western states and neoliberal financiers.
On 12 July 2017, the United Nations Special Envoy told the UN Security Council, ‘The situation in Yemen remains extremely grave. The intensity of the conflict increases day after day…The humanitarian situation is appalling…The country is not suffering from a single emergency but a number of complex emergencies, which have affected more than 20 million people and whose scale and effect will be felt long after the end of the war.’ The UN also declared the spread of cholera in Yemen the worst ever recorded worldwide. There are now over 300 000 suspected cases and over 1 700 people have died as a result of the epidemic. Fourteen million people are food insecure, of whom almost 7 million are at risk of famine.
This paper probes the main causes behind the disintegration of the Yemeni state established in 1990, and discusses early promises that were dashed by a succession of problems culminating in the 2011 uprisings, the failed transition of 2012-14, the Houthi takeover of Sana’a, their alliance with Saleh, and the Saudi-led intervention. It also deconstructs the rationale behind the events that led to the collapse of the Yemeni state, as well as the reasons why the international military intervention, starting in 2015, has ensured the prolonging of the war, and its catastrophic consequences for the population.
Origins of the New Republic
The Republic of Yemen was established in 1990 by the merger of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), the former resulting from the overthrow of the imamate in 1962 by a group of republican officers, and the latter emerging from British-administered Aden and the protectorates. These states had different political orientations; the YAR following a capitalist one while the PDRY was the only socialist state in the Arab world. Despite these differences, the two states shared common features that made Yemen a nation: a common culture, a similar fundamental social structure despite both regimes’ efforts to transform society in divergent directions, and a shared economic base of agriculture and fisheries with hopes of discovering oil. Families – and both states – relied considerably on remittances from migrant labour elsewhere in the peninsula and beyond.
Unification was the most popular political slogan on both sides of the border, and was embraced by both populations. But unification was born by forceps rather than through a democratic process: Saleh, who was president of the YAR (1978-2017), persuaded southern leader Ali Salem al-Beidh to agree to a full merger only hours after the PDRY’s ruling Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) had confirmed its commitment to a federal agreement that left considerable autonomy to each former state. This shift laid the basis for tension and led to a short civil war in 1994, decisively won by Saleh with the military support of the factions that had been defeated in the 1986 internal conflict in PDRY, including current ‘legitimate’ president Hadi, and the Salafis returning from Afghanistan.
Mounting Crisis and The 2011 uprisings
The Republic of Yemen’s first two decades were characterised by economic crises. More than 800 000 Yemenis were deported from GCC states when Yemen voted against UNSC Resolution 678 that approved military action against Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait. This reduced foreign economic aid to Yemen to almost zero, and added close to a million job seekers at a time of high unemployment. Although this crisis receded by 1995 and aid was resumed, it is worth remembering that remittances from workers abroad, mostly in GCC states, remained more important to Yemen’s economy than aid. Moreover, remittances directly reached mostly rural households, while aid went to state institutions in the early years. This shift changed in the late 1990s when IFIs actively weakened the state by financing organisations such as the Social Fund for Development and the Public Works Project, which operated according to ‘efficient’ private sector principles, though in fact they are parastatals whose salaries allow them to poach the best staff from line ministries, thus reducing their technical capacity. Other factors, such as climate change, rapid population growth and the corruption of the ‘elite’, contributed to increasing poverty and worsened the gap between the majority of the population and the small group of beneficiaries of the Saleh regime. Earning potential within Yemen and beyond was negatively impacted by constraints on migration and lack of job creation policies at home.
Political tensions increased through three episodes:
Combined with the social and economic crises, the only missing element was a trigger for a major uprising. The turning point came in the form of the apparently successful overthrow of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, encouraging Yemenis to believe that fundamental change was possible. Symbolised in the slogan ‘Saleh out’, the movement included thousands of independent youth and women, and members of opposition parties who were later joined by their leaderships. With a split in the military/security forces in March 2011, the country came close to large-scale warfare between opposing military factions, while the anti-Saleh peaceful civil movement persisted but was increasingly influenced by the political parties, particularly Islah and the Houthi movement. These developments led to intervention by the ‘international community’ in the alleged pursuit of a peaceful solution to the crisis.
The GCC Agreement and the transitional regime
Various events in the course of 2011 gradually weakened the Saleh regime and led, by the end of the year, to the GCC Agreement, which included Saleh’s resignation and his replacement by his former vice-president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who was to lead a transitional regime. According to the GCC Agreement, the two-year transition would get the political and economic support of the international community. It included a government of national unity that brought together Saleh’s forces and the opposition’s forces, the restructuring of the military/security sector, and a National Dialogue Conference (NDC) to design Yemen’s post transition structures. This was to be followed by a Constitution Drafting Committee, a referendum on the draft constitution, and elections.
Most of these steps were formally undertaken between 2012 and 2014. However, they failed to achieve the desired result, largely due to inherent design faults, such as allowing Saleh not only to stay in the country, but to continue leading the GPC, and allocating half of the government posts to his party. While this arrangement reflected the actual balance of power in 2011, it jeopardised the national unity government’s potential as ministers from the two main groups (GPC and Islah) competed for power and actively undermined each other. The government developed an unenviable reputation of being Yemen’s most corrupt ever, while failing to halt the deterioration of living conditions. The international community also shared considerable responsibility for the absence of social and economic development. Close to USD 8 billion was pledged for Yemen in September 2012, but these funds were withheld under various pretexts, resulting in continued deterioration in public services.
This period witnessed the quiet rise of the Houthis, who consolidated their control over the northern governorate of Sa’ada. They expanded their control zone militarily and politically westward towards the Red Sea, aiming to control the small port of Midi to ensure they were not landlocked, as well as controlling the entire western part of the border with Saudi Arabia. They also moved east into Jawf governorate, again on the Saudi border, but this time in the belief that the area had significant oil resources. Moreover, they expanded southwards and reached Amran town in mid-2014, only fifty kilometres north of Sana’a, after taking over the stronghold of the senior Hashed leaders.
There have been several points of correlation between the waning transitional regime and the rise of the Houthis. The former was known for its corruption, incompetence, and inability to address the social and economic problems of the population, whereas the latter benefited from their (secret) alliance with Saleh. A final contributor to their success was the internal rivalry within the transitional regime. Hadi had sought to weaken Islah by allowing the Houthis to defeat it, with the intention of controlling the Houthis. One can only presume that he was unaware of their cooperation with Saleh.
In the summer of 2014, large anti-government demonstrations contested the IMF-recommended rises in fuel prices. The Houthis capitalised on their image as an oppressed minority, supporting the popular demands and pushing for government accountability. They managed to take over Sana’a on 21 September 2014, and consolidated their position in the following months.
By January 2015, the submission of the new constitution draft to the post-NDC body was an excuse for a final showdown. Both Houthis and Saleh regarded the proposed federal state as unacceptable for different reasons. Hadi and his new government were placed under house arrest as the Houthi-Saleh military forces moved further south and captured Aden by March. After escaping from Sana’a, Hadi named Aden the country’s interim capital. He and his ministers escaped to Riyadh, while requesting the GCC to provide military support to restore the transitional regime.
A Wider Radius of the War
In the regional context, there was a likelihood of victory in favour of the Saleh-Houthi forces in spring 2015. The newly-appointed minister of defence in Saudi Arabia, ambitious young Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), saw the Yemen downturn as an opportunity to prove himself as a new leader, full of initiative, and determined to solidify Saudi Arabia’s role in the region. He presumed his modern air force, equipped with the latest western weaponry, would easily defeat the ill-trained forces of the poorest Arab state. The Saudi-led coalition destroyed the Yemeni airforce on the first day of the war. By the summer of 2015, it became imperative to involve ground troops, mostly from the UAE and other coalition members, primarily Sudan, alongside mercenaries from various Latin American states. This tactic enabled the coalition forces to ‘liberate’ the area of the former PDRY and some of the northeast of the country by the autumn of 2015. However, the military stalemate has prevailed.
The UN-sponsored negotiation process has thrice failed to stimulate a settlement plan between the warring parties. Since mid-2016, UN mediation has not been able to convene another round of talks. There have been two main political developments in the last two years:
While the Arab Coalition includes several states, the decision-making process is controlled by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. However, there is increasing divergence in policy and strategy between them, most visible in the south. Regardless of the rhetoric, Emirati forces are actively supporting separatists via the STC and the security forces. While claiming to address the problem of jihadi groups (AQAP and the Islamic State group), most of their interventions and arrests are against Islah, considered by the UAE to be Muslim Brothers, whom they pathologically detest. Outsiders have difficulty understanding support for extremist Salafi groups who are more dangerous to a moderate Islam than the Muslim Brothers. Divergence with the Saudi regime focuses on this aspect as it supports Ali Mohsen, who is an important Islah leader, and have had, for decades, very different approaches to Muslim Brother-related institutions.
Deepening humanitarian crisis
In the poorest Arab country with high levels of poverty and malnutrition, the current war has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Some 22 million of the 29 million population are in dire need of humanitarian assistance; 16 million individuals lack clean water and sanitation; 18 million are food insecure, including 8 million ‘on the brink’ of famine; and more than 1 million are victims of cholera, another world record.
About 16 000 individuals have been killed by coalition air strikes, with the most effective weapon being the blockade of Yemen’s main port Hodeida and other Red Sea ports, as well as the imposed closure of Sana’a airport. Several thousands of Yemenis have died by hunger, disease and other side effects of the blockade, a driving force behind the humanitarian crisis.
An Open-ended war?
The perpetuation of the Yemeni war derives from two main reasons. First, international intervention has added another layer of complex issues, which seem irrelevant to Yemen and Yemenis. The main issue is Iranian-Saudi rivalry. Saudi accusations that the Houthis are no more than ‘Iranian proxies’ have become part of the official discourse throughout the region and beyond, including in the USA. While the reality is that Iran’s actual involvement is minimal, it benefits from a massive propaganda advantage in exchange for limited practical support to the Houthis. This added element tends to complicate the pursuit of a solution.
The second reason is both internal and external vis-à-vis Yemen. In the domestic context, numerous figures on all sides benefit from the war. Not only do they have no incentive to end it, but they have every incentive to prolong it. They include men and boys manning checkpoints and ‘taxing’ passengers and goods (including the basics to keep people alive: food, fuel and people seeking medical aid). Next are the Houthis in areas they control. They both fill their pockets and finance their ‘administration’ through the ransoming of traders and others, but do not use these funds to pay salaries of medical, education or any other civil staff. In the ‘liberated’ areas, the beneficiaries of the war include any number of groups, ranging from AQAP and IS militants to officials of everything from the various southern separatist groups to the few remaining Hadi loyalists. Outside the country, members of Hadi’s government collect massive salaries, submit exorbitant bills to the coalition, but fail to pay staff inside Yemen. This is the irony of the political economy of war.
On the international level, western states sell sophisticated and expensive weapons and ammunition to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. According to SIPRI, in the period 2013 to 2017, Saudi Arabia was the second largest importer of arms in the world, with 10 per cent of all arms imports. Its share of imports had risen by 225 per cent from the previous five-year period. About 61 per cent of its weapons came from the USA, 23 per cent from the UK, and 3.6 per cent from France. In the case of the UAE, the fourth largest importer, the USA is also its largest supplier (58 per cent) followed by France (13 per cent) and Italy (6 per cent). Recently, the US president, Donald Trump, sat with MbS and did a ‘show-and-tell’ display of the latest proposed sales.
This paper has provided a rapid sketch of the events which led to Yemen’s disintegration. Fundamentally, the collapse is due to a combination of internal rivalries between elites, the rising demands of a population which has experienced increased hardship, and the impact of international interventions, both from neoliberal international financiers and politically-motivated actors in support or opposition to the internal rival factions.
The Yemeni war shares some characteristics with the Lebanese civil war, with different external actors attempting to use local factions to pursue international rivalries. Yemenis suffer the consequences to a nightmarish extent. A small ray of hope emerged early 2018 with the appointment of a new Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General, as well as the presence in the UNSC of members who are committed to end this war. This window of opportunity, however, will demand major transformations of the current UNSC resolutions, as well as a new complex and sophisticated approach involving many actors currently excluded from the official negotiating process. This will not be easy, and success is not guaranteed, particularly in view of the complicated international dimension of Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
* This article was first published by AlJeazeera Centre for Studies
* Helen Lackner is a research associate at the London Middle East Institute in SOAS and author of the forthcoming book Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, neoliberalism and the Disintegration of a State
 Helen Lackner (2017). Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State, London: Saqi Books.
 Lackner (2017). “Yemen in Crisis”.
 A detailed analysis of the transition can be found in Helen Lackner (2016), “Yemen’s Peaceful Transition from Autocracy: could it have succeeded?” Stockholm, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
 UN News (2018). “Secretary-General's remarks to the Pledging Conference on Yemen”, 3 April. https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2018-04-03/secretary-generals-remarks-pledging-conference-yemen-delivered.
 SIPRI (2017. “Trends in international arms transfers, 2017”. https://www.sipri.org/publications/2018/sipri-fact-sheets/trends-international-arms-transfers-2017.
By Justin Podur
Yemen is a small, poor country in a region empires have plundered for centuries. This civil war is a local struggle that has been escalated out of control by the ambitions of powers outside of Yemen—mainly Saudi Arabia.
The British Empire ruled the Yemeni city of Aden in South Yemen as a colony, a refueling station for ships on the way to the Empire's Indian possessions. Gaining independence in 1967, South Yemen had a socialist government from 1970 on, becoming the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY).
Northern Yemen was ruled by a king from the city of Sana'a who followed of the Zaydi denomination of Islam, clashing periodically with both the British and with the Saudi kingdom over borders in the 1930s. Arab nationalist revolutionaries overthrew the king in 1962, starting a civil war between nationalists, backed by Arab nationalist (Nasserite) Egypt and royalists, backed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iran (then a monarchy too). A peace deal was reached and by 1970, even Saudi Arabia recognized North Yemen as the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR).
North and South Yemen talked about unification throughout the 1970s and '80s, and it finally happened in 1990, after the fall of the Soviet Union that had been South Yemen's most important ally.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was killed this December 3, was a military man who had been president of North Yemen since he was appointed by a junta in 1978. He became president of the unified country in 1990.
Saleh had to navigate a dangerous time for the Arab world. When Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in 1990, the US under Bush declared a New World Order, showing that the US could now operate in the region without any concern about a Soviet deterrent. Yemen happened to be on the UN Security Council in November 1990 when Resolution 678 authorizing the use of force to remove Iraq from Kuwait—authorizing the first Gulf War, in effect—came up for debate. Yemen voted against the resolution. The American representative famously told his Yemeni counterpart, “That was the most expensive vote you ever cast.” Yemen, which had hundreds of thousands of workers in the oil-rich Gulf countries including Kuwait, found its workers expelled and its Western aid programs cut when the war was over. Yemen was made an example of.
The post-1990 war sanctions on Iraq, which by most estimates killed hundreds of thousands of children through malnutrition and preventable disease, as well as the US military bases in the Arabian peninsula, were extremely unpopular in Yemen (as elsewhere in the Arab world). So was the lack of progress in ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by Israel, as people gradually realized that the Oslo Accords had frozen the occupation rather than ending it.
People from wealthy and powerful Yemeni families, among them veteran of the Afghan jihad Osama bin Laden (in fact there were numerous Yemenis who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan), wanted to raise a local Arab force to secure the Arab peninsula and have the US military leave. But the idea was a non-starter with the Saudi kingdom that hosted the Americans.
When bin Laden's al Qaeda attacked US embassies (killing 44 embassy personnel and 150 African civilians), a US naval vessel (the USS Cole), and finally US civilians on 9/11, the US declared a war on terror. Saleh had learned his lesson from 1990 and agreed to cooperate with the US after 2001.
By this time, Saleh had been in power for more than two decades, and had enriched himself and his family in the process (his son, Ahmed Saleh, was a commander in an elite army unit). The vice-president, Abdrabbah Mansur Hadi, also headed a powerful and wealthy family. Other “big names” in Yemen include the Al-Ahmar family (which includes the current Vice President in exile and army general Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, billionaire media owner Hamid al Ahmar, and the founders of the Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Islah party) and of course the Houthi family of Sa'ada, a mountainous governorate on the border with Saudi Arabia. The Houthis, like the old kings of North Yemen, are of the Zaydi denomination.
The term “tribe,” used by the British Empire for its imperial purposes of classification and rule, refers to a genuine social phenomenon, but is not especially useful in explaining the politics of Yemen. The country's elite is indeed organized in extended family networks, but this is arguably not so different from Western countries (how many Bushes and Clintons have participated in ruling the US empire by now?). Politicians and bureaucrats use public office to enrich themselves.
This, too, is not so different from Western countries, with the Trump brand being the starkest example. The Yemeni version of elite profiteering is exemplified in the smuggling of diesel fuel out of the country. Sarah Philips, author of Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis, cites analyses suggesting that 12% of Yemen's GDP is smuggled out, the profits siphoned off by the elite – dollar estimates run as high as $900 million, with reports of a single man from a prominent family taking $155 million in smuggling profits in one year.
As Yemenis watched Israel crush the second Intifada from 2000 on, as well as the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, Saleh's cooperation in the war on terror became ever more unpopular. One prominent scion of the Houthi family, Hussein al-Houthi, led followers in Sa'ada in a famous chant: “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.”
In the chant, "curse on the Jews" stands out from the group of otherwise hyperbolic items seeking victory for one's own side and death to the other. Even before this civil war, the Jewish community in Yemen was very small and long-suffering. Ginny Hill, author of the 2016 book Yemen Endures, found in her travels that “prejudice against the Jews was prevalent and unabashed,” and that Yemeni Jews in Sa'ada and elsewhere have suffered greatly from being caught in the middle of the Houthi insurgency.
Provoked by the Houthi chant and hoping to show his eagerness to fight the war on terror, Saleh sent the army into Sa'ada in 2004. The Houthis fought back. The army killed Hussein al-Houthi, who became a martyr of the Houthis' cause. Six waves of warfare followed over the next seven years, as Saleh's forces kept trying to quell the Houthis, whose power base in the north continued to grow. Saudi Arabia stepped in to support Saleh in 2009, and the Houthis responded with a quick raid from Sa'ada into the Saudi kingdom itself.
Meanwhile, in what had been South Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) was growing as well, and also challenging Saleh's government. President Obama's drone program blasted away in the south, leaving civilian casualties and terror in its wake. Saleh's strategy was to focus on fighting the Houthis and make exaggerated claims that they were sponsored by Iran, while keeping a lighter touch with AQAP, which had more powerful patrons in Yemen's elite.
At the same time, the Saudi royals were escalating their arms purchases, with contracts in the tens of billions with the US (and a $1.5 billion contract with a Canadian company now famous in that country). Saudi oil sales to and arms purchases from the US underpin the unbreakable bond between the kingdom and the empire. It explains why you hear much more about Russian (a competitor in the global arms trade) than Saudi (the greatest and most reliable purchaser of US arms) collusion in the US media. It also explains why the US provides military advice and help with targeting and intelligence to the Saudis as they use all their expensive purchases destroying Yemen.
In 2011, the Arab Spring came to Yemen and an alliance from the elite families joined the mass call for the end of Saleh's rule. Saleh first agreed to step down, then refused. He was injured by a bomb blast in June and went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. He finally did step down, handing power over to his vice-president, Hadi, in 2012.
Hadi presided over a constitution-drafting exercise. One feature enraged the Houthis: a plan to redraw the regions of Yemen, making Sana'a and Aden self-governing and merging Sada'a into a new highland governorate, “a formation that would deny the Houthis control over the Red Sea coast to west, cut them off from natural resources to the east, and fence them up against the Saudi border to the north,” as Ginny Hill wrote.
The Houthis, in alliance with the ex-president Saleh, arrived in force in the capital, besieging the presidential palace in 2014 and taking it at the beginning of 2015. Hadi fled to Aden, where he declared that he was still the lawful president of Yemen.
Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen in support of Hadi in March of 2015. The Saudi intervention magnified the humanitarian impact of the civil war into a full-blown catastrophe, bombing, besieging, and blockading the entire country to try to force the Houthis out.
The Saudi blockade and bombing have scaled up a local power struggle to genocidal proportions. They believe Yemen is their backyard and that it is their right to impose a solution. Military victory has proven elusive for them, but their unlimited resources and the wide license given them by the Western media to freely commit crimes has allowed them to keep raising the stakes and nudging Yemen towards catastrophe.
The Houthis have held on, however, withstanding the bombardment and siege, even as the humanitarian catastrophe continues to expand. By now, the casualty figures are more than 10,000 dead, two million displaced, 2.2 million facing starvation, and one million infected with cholera since 2015 (27% of whom are under 5 years old). In addition to directly helping the Saudi military use its weapons, the US, including the media, has continued to run interference for the Saudi intervention. The humanitarian disaster is presented as a natural disaster, not a direct outcome of the way the Saudi kingdom has pursued the war.
Saleh, a wily operator who had survived in power since 1978, could not survive this last alliance with the Saudis: he was killed within 24 hours of making it. This December 3, Saleh announced he was switching sides, leaving his alliance with the Houthis and joining Hadi and the Saudis. The Houthis quickly routed his forces in the capital and blew up his house. The next day they stopped him at a checkpoint and killed him too, announcing that they had avenged Hussein al-Houthi. Saleh's son Ahmed quickly announced his plans to avenge his father.
The UN, Oman, Iran, and others have put forward peace plans to end the Yemeni civil war. Most feature a national unity government that includes the Houthis, who will convert their movement into a political party, with elections to follow. Saleh switching sides and the Houthi killing him makes a peace deal much less likely in the short term. But the biggest obstacle to peace remains Saudi Arabia, which has also been the biggest escalating force of the war.
* This article was first published on alternet.org
The 4 December death of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, at the hands of his former Houthi coalition partners, is a culmination of the differing interests that informed the coalition’s initial inception, and alludes to the intractable and unwieldy nature of the conflict’s many belligerents. Saleh’s death foreshadows further fragmentation of the warring coalitions, and is likely to ensure that ‘smaller’ wars transpire in the country’s northern highlands in addition to the existent southern conflicts. In addition, the rapid consolidation of the Houthi in Sana'a represents a blow to Saudi Arabia’s attempts to extricate itself from the unwinnable Yemeni quagmire and the UAE’s intention to support regional strongmen in an attempt to contain participatory Islamists.
Having once equated the task of governing Yemen to ‘dancing on the heads of snakes’, Saleh’s death was the result of his incessant duplicity, which saw him fight six wars with the Houthi between 2004 and 2010, with limited success, yet later successfully enticing them to unite with him in efforts to force the Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi government out of Sana'a in 2014. Prior to this Saleh emerged victorious in two civil wars between Yemen’s South and North; angered the USA by not supporting the 1991 Gulf War, but then received US support for his claimed role in the ‘global war on terror’; and withstood the 2011 Arab uprisings, in which he survived a failed suicide bombing in 2011. At the heart of Saleh’s actions was his belief that he alone could only hold Yemen together, and that the November 2011 Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative, negotiated by GCC states in an attempt to contain the Yemeni uprising from initiating real change, had betrayed him. Under the initiative, Saleh received immunity in return for his transfer of power to his then deputy, Hadi. He remained in control of the General People’s Congress (GPC) and was allowed to remain in Yemen, although he was forced to cease his attempt to transfer power to his son Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh’s thirty-three years in control of Yemen had allowed him to entrench alliances with the country’s disparate military, civil and tribal elements, and he remained in de facto control over the elite Republican Guard and tribal leaders in the North. His acquiescence was thus imperative in ensuring the success of the Houthi takeover of Sana'a; Republican Guard forces refused to halt the Houthi move southward, especially in Sana'a and Abyan.
However, the partnership between Saleh’s GPC and the Houthi was bound to fail in light of their differing agendas, and was mainly a ‘marriage of convenience’. At the time, both Saleh and the Houthi were aggrieved at being left out of governing following the implementation of the GCC initiative. Despite having a place at the national dialogue conference between March 2012 and January 2014, which intended to chart a path forward for the country, both quickly realised that a Hadi-Islah coalition still controlled the day-to-day running of the state.
The Houthi remain sceptical of the GPC in light of their history of opposition, while many in the GPC oppose the Houthi’s religious fervour. The alliance was thus tactical; both sought to extend their influence by creating parallel governance structures. Already in February 2015 Saleh criticised the Houthi decision to dissolve the then government, and in March that year, Houthi–GPC conflict erupted over control of the Raymat military base in Sana'a. The subsequent Saudi coalition aerial intervention in March 2015 only served to postpone this inevitability.
Tensions had since increased owing to Houthi weariness over UAE attempts to lure Saleh away from the coalition. As part of these attempts, in June 2017 Saleh’s son Ahmed, the current ambassador to the UAE, met with Ahmed al-Asiri, Saudi Arabia’s former army spokesperson in charge of the Yemeni war and current advisor to Saudi’s defence minister, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Subsequently, ties frayed between Saleh and the Houthis as the Emirates sought to more overtly back the former president as an alternative to Hadi. In August, the intra-coalition violence heightened when the Houthi unsuccessfully sought to halt the GPC’s thirty-fifth anniversary celebrations. Last week’s clashes resulted in the deaths of over two hundred people and Saleh announcing his defection. The Houthi had been preparing for this eventuality since August and had consolidated control of the North’s religious institutions and finances.
Seeking to extricate itself from Yemen, Saudi Arabia supported the defection, and has since provided aerial cover to troops loyal to Saleh. However, Saleh’s death likely means that Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has miscalculated on regional matters once again, especially since the Houthi have largely consolidated control over Sana'a. Further, the reported clash between MBS and Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2015 would ensure that Riyadh does not wholly support him as an alternative to Hadi, inhibiting the fruition of UAE interests in the country. This is in a context in which Abu Dhabi is supporting the Southern Hirak and Southern Belt forces in Aden and Taiz in an attempt to counter the influence of the participatory Islamist Yemeni Islah party, which still receives support from Saudi Arabia.
Houthi troops have since managed to consolidate control of the Sawad and Raymat military bases, the two main GPC-affiliated bases in Sana'a; Saleh’s nephew Tariq, who commanded the Republican Guard, was killed, and his two sons, Salah and Madyan were arrested; and tribal shaykhs, such as the Hashed’s Mabkhout Mashraqi, have been forced to defect. This alludes to the fact that although the Houthi governance of the North is tenuous, the group’s military capacity has increased, and its control over finances in Sana'a has meant that it remains able to pay combatants.
Consequently, clashes in northern provinces are likely to intensify, especially since many tribes support Saleh, and because the UAE will intensify its support for Ahmed. Intra-northern clashes, similar to those between groups in the South, will increase, making a political solution more unlikely. This is especially since the GPC remains popular, as demonstrated by the tens of thousands that gathered in Sabeen Square in August 2017, in defiance of Houthi attempts to halt the party’s thirty-fifth anniversary celebrations. Further, the party’s long existence has enabled it to develop its institutional capacity, and it continues to maintain influence over Republican Guard units. In addition, Saleh’s death will make it more difficult for MBS to conceive a face-saving solution to the conflict, even though the Houthi have expressed their willingness to enter into negotiations. The current civil war is thus likely to continue, ensuring the country’s further fragmentation, and making it more difficult to envisage a solution that will allow the various political, tribal and military elements to reunite.