A map showing the main road linking Aden to Sanaa through Al-Dhalea (Google Maps, South24 Center)

Between Maritime and Land Routes, The Yemeni Crisis is Becoming More Complicated


Sat, 23-03-2024 04:58 PM, Aden

The establishment of such a road opening initiative would be a military setback if fighters flow in from the Houthi-controlled areas to South Yemen under the pretext of deteriorating humanitarian conditions.

Farida Ahmed (South24) 

Several weeks ago, an all-out campaign was launched demanding the opening of roads linking the Houthi-controlled areas with those affiliated with the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the Yemeni Internationally-Recognized Government (YIRG), that have been closed for the past nine years since the war began. The campaign is particularly related to the United Nation's failure to reach an agreement among the warring parties to re-open the roads that would facilitate the movement of civilians between the Yemeni governorates and cities. In addition to their suffering from the repercussions of a dragging war that has plunged the country into the worst humanitarian disaster in the world, the closing of roads linking governorates and cities is one of the most complicated manifestations of daily suffering. In order to circumvent the situation, civilians have resorted to using alternative side routes that often pass through more rugged, and dangerous terrain besides being expensive. This causes the health condition of many sick travellers to deteriorate further, and many times, the humanitarian aid does not reach the intended beneficiaries due to the blocked roads.

Moreover, the blocking of roads has hit the movement, quality and price of commodities. This is due to the longer transit time taken by trucks as well as waiting long hours for inspection, coupled with the growing prices of main commodities in many major cities. In a previous report that assessed Yemen’s needs in 2020, the World Bank said that the roads were largely affected in some cities as a result of the conflict. It also said that the main roads were partially or totally damaged, with some of them ceasing to exist while others could be used only for limited operations. In general, 29% of the internal road networks in cities have been damaged or destroyed. 

On February 23, 2024, the YIRG announced the re-opening of the Marib-Sanaa Road which has been closed for the past nine years. It called on the Houthis to take a similar step in order to alleviate people’s suffering in areas under their control. Marib Governor Sultan Al-Arada, who serves as Vice President of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), expressed his readiness to open the Marib-Sanaa and the Marib-Al-Bayda roads within 48 hours if the Houthi militia takes similar action under international supervision. Taiz’s local authority opened the Akaba Munif-Al-Hawban Road linking between the city of Taiz and Al-Hawban, a city in Taiz under Houthi control. 

In return for agreeing to the opening the Marib-Sanaa road, the Houthis set two conditions. The first is “releasing all who were arrested at the security and military checkpoints while travelling or returning to Yemen”. The second is “signing an agreement stipulating that no one passing through the checkpoints will be arrested”. The government said the Houthi preconditions are aimed at thwarting all initiatives and efforts by local mediation as well as UN-sponsored agreements to open the roads. This is although the Houthis had announced their readiness to open the pot-holed, sandy and unsafe roads. Notably, in many cases the Houthis have forced passengers to turn back while trying to use their allegedly 'open’ roads. The Houthis delivered a violent response when they bombed a government location with mortar artillery at a security checkpoint on the Marib-Sanaa Road, killing one soldier and injuring three others.

Meanwhile, after the failure of opening the main road linking Aden to Sanaa through Al-Dhalea following an exchange of gunfire with the Houthis, the STC has stuck to its conditions for reopening roads and crossings between the governorates in North and South. It has rejected any unilateral measures, stressing that reopening of the roads is linked to the political roadmap and should be carried out “under the supervision of the United Nations along with security committees as well as local and international oversight by both parties”. Recently, the STC said it intends to set up a committee of experts to prepare a comprehensive plan for opening the land crossing in Al-Dhalea “in line with the ceasefire measures included in the UN-sponsored roadmap and in response to the humanitarian concerns”.

Many Southerners convincingly argue that reciprocating to the ‘opening the roads’ campaign without proper arrangement or international oversight would endanger South Yemen again. This is in view of the fact that the Houthis haven’t adhered to any past agreements or initiatives, foremost of which is the 2018 Stockholm Agreement. The latter includes a sub-agreement regarding opening humanitarian corridors in Taiz to allow humanitarian aid into the governorate. But the Houthis haven’t respected it. Many Yemenis have a general view that the UN has been a reason behind the failure of negotiations for opening roads between the Yemeni areas, especially as they are seen to quickly surrender to any Houthi preconditions.

Therefore, for Southerners who liberated their territories from Houthi presence in 2015, the establishment of such a road opening initiative would be a military setback if fighters flow in from the Houthi-controlled areas to South Yemen under the pretext of deteriorating humanitarian conditions. The roads and crossings are still closed in many Northern cities located between the legitimate authority’s areas and the Houthi-controlled ones. Opening the roads by a unilateral move would be a risk that Southerners may pay more for, especially if it is devoid of any regional or international guarantees.

The Impact of the Maritime Escalation

The closed roads are not the only dilemma that has led to rise in commodity prices or the worsening of the humanitarian conditions. The ongoing Houthi military escalation in the Red Sea, Bab Al-Mandab Strait and the Gulf of Aden has led to a massive increase in the prices of goods and commodities in some Yemeni cities. This is due to the reluctance of many shipping companies to head to the Yemeni ports on the Red Sea. This is in addition to the wave of looting and blackmail by the Houthis against leading traders and exporters at checkpoints as well as imposing huge fees on vessels and tankers that transport the commodities coming from abroad. 

Militarization of the Red Sea and enflaming the maritime corridor by the Houthis will undoubtedly lead to more economic hardships and deterioration in living conditions for many Yemenis in the country. The Yemeni economy has progressively declined as a result of the cessation of oil exports1 and the decreasing value of the riyal. In addition, humanitarian aid has been halted in the densely-populated areas under Houthi control. This may ultimately lead to the spread of hunger among millions of people.

It is important to state that the several military fronts opened by the Houthis have become extremely exhausting for the Yemeni people. This will gradually have a negative impact on them. The maritime escalation will hinder stability in the region and the progress toward peace, especially amid the slow international response. 

Obstacles to Peace

The Israeli war on Gaza, that started more than five months ago, has delayed the peace efforts in Yemen. Last year, the roadmap agreement, brokered by the Sultanate of Oman, supported by Saudi Arabia and sponsored by the UN, witnessed its final touches. The UN Special Envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg said on February 14: “Rising regional tensions linked to the war in Gaza, and in particular the military escalation in the Red Sea, are slowing down the pace of peace efforts in Yemen." 

Therefore, it seems that the international community which backs the peace efforts in Yemen will now delay any understandings until reaching an agreement to reduce tensions in the Red Sea. The United States appears to be more dismayed over the escalation of the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and Bab Al-Mandab and their ramifications than reaching a ceasefire in Gaza. This is despite the views that support the continuity of peace efforts in Yemen irrespective of what is happening in the Red Sea. Regional states, foremost of them being Saudi Arabia, haven't joined the US-led ‘Operation Prosperity Guardian’ maritime security coalition. It is clear that Riyadh still looks at Washington as the one adopting double standards with allies, including Saudi Arabia and Israel. Riyadh hasn’t forgotten “how the US opposed hunting the Houthis in recent years when they attacked Saudi ships”2. These factors and others have pushed Saudi Arabia to reject allowing Washington to use its territory for launching strikes against the Houthis. 

Thus, mitigating the escalation in the Red Sea or opening roads connecting areas controlled by the warring Yemeni parties will be closely related to the path of peace efforts in Yemen. It has become necessary for the international community to seriously reflect on the Houthi intimidation of maritime navigation and the extent to which this could pose a threat to regional and international security in general. The inflexibility of that religious group will likely lead the international and regional parties to reconsider making peace with it. It is apparent that the attitude of these parties has increased the Houthi's confidence amid a lack of suitable deterrents to undermine the group or push them to retreat ultimately. 

1. The Houthis carried out drone attacks in October-November 2022 on oil ports in South Yemen, leading to the cessation of the Yemeni government’s oil exports, which continues even today. The Houthis had also threatened international shipping companies with bombing oil ships heading toward the South Yemen ports.

2. In 2018, when the Houthis attacked Saudi oil tankers the US and members of the international community did not intervene, leading the Kingdom to suspend oil shipments through the Red Sea for several months.

Farida Ahmed 

Executive Director, South24 Center for News and Studies

Note: This is a translated version of the original text written in Arabic 

South YemenNorth YemenAdenAl-DhaleaSanaaMaritime escalationHouthisRoadmapOpening roads