Can Yemen hold together?
Fragmented states the Middle East is not rare – think Iraq, Libya, Palestine and Syria – but Yemen is the most disunited of them all. Torn by civil war for the past eight years, it is an area of competing factions. Last year a ceasefire between Saudi Arabia, which backs a toothless but internationally recognized government, and the Houthi rebels, who control a large swath of territory, gave a -into the capital, Sana’a, to stabilize the country and, on paper, keep it. together. Instead, the fragile ceasefire has allowed the Houthis to maintain their grip on the area under their control and weakened the forces opposing them. After fighting those of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to draw, the Houthis seem ready to win the peace.
At least nine different groups have been vying for power. The President’s Presidential Council (PLC) that Saudi Arabia created last year claims to be the legitimate government of Yemen. The Saudis, who will pay for it, recently pledged another $1.2bn to keep it going. The PLC claims to control the entire country but has perhaps the smallest footprint of Yemen’s power-seeking groups. It is limited to just a wing of the presidential palace in Yemen’s second city, Aden, near southern Yemen (see map). Most of the PLCMembers are staying at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, where Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), the de facto ruler of the kingdom, has been known to keep troubled politicians and family members in a kind of golden cage. The PLCA chieftain often has eight representatives.
After the Houthis captured Sana’a in 2014, Saudi Arabia and the UAE they gathered a variety of alliances within Yemen to fight back. But recently these two heavyweights of the Arabian Peninsula have fallen out, causing their coalition in Yemen to emerge. The UAE supporting secession from the South in the form of the Interim Southern Council (STC) led by Aiderus al-Zubaidi, a former general, although he is a member of the Saudi-backed group. PLC.
Gulf rivalry fuels Yemeni conflict. The south under Mr Zubaidi flies a separate flag over a strip of what used to be a separate country, once known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen before it joined the north. in 1990. The UAE under its strong leader, Muhammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan, he may have an eye on the ports and oil wells of southern Yemen. Although he has drawn down his forces since 2019, he still supports Mr. Zubaidi militarily and has his own bases on his turf.
The Saudis are now trying to block it UAE’intentions by maintaining the local intentions of the old principalities and tribes of Yemen against the broken state that Mr. Zubaidi would have. They also hope to carve a north-south land route through to the Indian Ocean. In recent weeks the Saudis have supported the creation of a “national council” in the Hadhramout and a “tribal federation” in Shabwa, more than 500km east of Mr Zubaidi’s seat in Aden. Tensions have already turned into violence. Militias loyal to the council of Hadhramaut in Seiyun have clashed with activists who support Mr. Zubaidi. Both sides have fought for control of Mukalla, another port to the south.
Other parts of Yemen are also threatening to break away. Pockets of al-Qaeda are still hiding in the remote rural area of Hadhramaut. The governors of Marib and Taiz have close ties to Islah, a group close to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic movement backed by the gas-rich state in the Gulf of Qatar. Fearful of losing out to wealthier Gulf states, Yemen’s eastern neighbor, Oman, may want to take the neighboring Yemeni province of Mahra under its wing.
This breach is manna from heaven for the Houthis. Twenty years ago it was a rough band of rebellious northern tribes who followed a branch of Shia Islam and often had to hide in mountains and caves from the authorities in Sana’a. Now they control the country. Their leadership is united, bound by a religious glue. Armed and trained by Iran and its Lebanese Shia proxy, Hizbullah, they have held on to Sana’a and the northern coast down to the port of Hodeida, despite years of Saudi-backed Yemeni counter-offensives. . They responded to airstrikes by the Saudis with missile and drone attacks deep inside Saudi Arabia and even the UAE. In March 2022 they implemented MBS call a ceasefire.
The Saudis have since tried to win back the Houthis. They lifted their siege of Hodeida, allowed flights to Sana’a to resume and sent a delegation to negotiate with the Houthis without talking to PLC. They will allow the Houthi leader to fly with his followers to Saudi Arabia for the year haj, or pilgrimage, in Mecca. And while Yemen’s secessionist south is starving for money, they have proposed paying the salaries of the Houthi administration. Some are MBSAdvisors have even suggested that, following the kingdom’s standoff with Iran last March, the Saudis could form a full-blown alliance with the Houthis.
The ceasefire, however, has only strengthened the Houthis against the Saudis. They point to the victory of the poorest Arab state over the richest – and demand compensation. In sermons their leader, Abdelmalik al-Houthi, presents himself as the legitimate ruler of the me, or the Muslim world, due to its descent from the Prophet Muhammad. Some Houthis even dream of conquering Mecca and Medina, the holiest places of Islam, claiming them as historical parts of Yemen. When the Saudi delegation arrived in Sana’a in April, they were derided as aggressors, not peacemakers. “The Saudis have granted most of the Houthis’ ridiculous demands and have received nothing in return,” said Abdelghani al-Iryani, a former Yemeni mediator.
Give them an inch…
Since the ceasefire, the Houthis have consolidated their ideology in their own region, for example by prohibiting interest charges, and have tried to spread their reach elsewhere. No sooner had the Saudis lifted the siege of Hodeida than the Houthis attacked Aden and announced a boycott of any goods imported from the south. Late last year they attacked oil installations in the south. They have recently moved their forces around the city of Taiz, a stronghold of the internationally recognized government that was once Yemen’s business center.
Many Yemenis now fear that the official government may fall. While the Saudis are promising handouts to the Houthis, they have quickly cut off funds for their Yemeni allies. “They pay Ronaldo almost as much as they pay 33m Yemenis,” says Bara Shiban, a Yemen watcher in London, referring to a footballer a Portuguese footballer who was recently bought by a Saudi club. Houthi attacks have also taken away oil and customs revenues, further eroding the government’s economic base. A Saudi is worth about a third of its value in the Houthi-controlled north. Ali al-Bukhaiti, a former Houthi spokesman in exile in Britain, believes that Yemen could re-emerge as one state, regardless of what its residents want. “At the end of the day, the Houthis will pick them all up.” ■