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Russian Investments in Yemen Could Incentivize Moscow to Mediate a Resolution to its Conflict


Sat, 18-05-2024 02:15 PM, Aden

Andrew Korybko (South24) 

A high-ranking Yemeni delegation just visited Moscow to discuss the return of Russian investment to their country. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates reported on their website that “these projects include al-Huswah thermoelectric power plant and the fishing port in Hodeida, in addition to various investment opportunities in the oil, energy, and fisheries sectors.” The Russian Deputy Minister of Energy expressed interest in this, but it might still be some time before that happens. 

The greatest impediment to foreign investment in South Yemen remains the unresolved war with the Houthi militia, which has taken on a new dimension since January after the US and the UK began launching strikes against that group in response to their attacks against civilian vessels. Tensions have remained manageable for the time being since the Houthis haven’t destroyed any warships, the US and the UK only target Houthi arms and installations, and Saudi Arabia hasn’t resumed [military operations] with the Houthi militia. 

Nevertheless, most shipping through the Gulf of Aden-Red Sea (GARS) region has stopped as a result of skyrocketing insurance costs connected to obvious security risks, which has deterred foreign investment in the region for the time being. Furthermore, there’s always the chance that the interconnected civil-international Yemeni conflict could resume with full force in the worst-case scenario despite the ongoing lull in violence, with this also serving to deter foreign investment into that country in particular. 

A truly neutral mediator is therefore required to ensure that last fall’s expired ceasefire continues being respected despite the newfound uncertainty brought about by the Houthis’ blockade of the GARS region and the consequent US-UK bombing campaign. Therein lies the role that Russia could play, which isn’t wishful thinking but predicated on its balanced approach towards other conflicts like the Israeli-Palestinian and Syrian-Turkish ones as well as the Saudi-Iranian and Sino-Indo rivalries et al. 

Despite Russian UN Ambassador Vasily Nebenzia’s condemnation of the Houthis’ attacks against civilian vessels, his government doesn’t believe that the US-UK bombing campaign is a proportionate response to these provocations and has consistently condemned it as well. Russia also has excellent relations with Iran, the de facto rulers of North Yemen's the Houthis, alongside the internationally recognized Yemeni government’s close Emirati and Saudi partners. The stage is therefore set for Russia to possibly mediate. 

Courting the return of Russian investments to Yemen is likely intended by the delegation to be a means for encouraging the Kremlin to more seriously explore this diplomatic opportunity with the incentive being that success would secure these selfsame investments and create the environment for expanding them. The challenge though is that Russian diplomacy has almost been stretched to the limit already dealing with the consequences of the Ukrainian Conflict and other crises like the Israeli-Palestinian one. 

Like all countries, Russia only has a finite number of diplomats, and many are already dealing with those aforementioned two issues as well as managing the previously mentioned rivalries, dealing with the latest political instability in the South Caucasus on their country’s doorstep, and preparing for the BRICS Summit. Seeing as how the Yemeni Conflict has remained largely stable till now despite US-UK and Houthi risks of escalation, Moscow doesn’t seem to consider its resolution to be a priority. 

These calculations could change though depending on the outcome of the latest Russian-Yemeni talks, which importantly built upon the current Yemeni Prime Minister and former Foreign Minister Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak’s inaugural trip to Moscow in February as the first foreign visit of his tenure. He represents the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) within which the Southern Transitional Council (STC) prominently participates so this was powerful proof of Yemen’s intent to comprehensively expand ties with Russia. 

If the proposed projects are deemed attractive enough by top policymakers to justify allocating finite diplomatic resources towards exploring Russian-led mediation efforts, especially if some might have to be pulled from other files like the Israeli-Palestinian one, then something by happen by this summer. The odds of this occurring would greatly increase, however, if Russia was also offered the possibility of setting up a naval or at least a logistics base in South Yemen as part of a larger strategic partnership deal. 

Russia planned to open up such a facility in Sudan after reaching an agreement about this in 2020, but that host country’s political tumult since then has delayed its implementation. Even worse, the Wall Street Journal reported in March that Sudan has been secretly supplying Ukraine with arms and even paying its soldiers to fight allegedly Wagner-backed rebels, thus further decreasing the likelihood of a naval base being set up there anytime soon. In fact, no such base might be set up there after all. 

This increasingly real scenario adds context to Russia’s first-ever joint naval drills with neighboring Eritrea earlier this spring, which some interpreted as a signal that it was exploring a replacement facility in that country. While that can’t be ruled out, the risk is that it could exacerbate the Ethiopian-Eritrean security dilemma if Asmara spins any such agreement as falsely implying mutual defense commitments, which could result in Russia losing public support in Ethiopia, its oldest African partner. 

Meanwhile, Djibouti isn’t interested in hosting yet another foreign base after already having several on its territory, while Somaliland remains unrecognized by Russia and Turkiye just clinched a 10-year maritime security deal with Somalia. The only realistic option for Russia to replace its possibly lost naval base in Sudan without the risk of embroiling itself in regional disputes like the Ethiopian-Eritrean one with associated soft power blowback is to explore reviving its Soviet-era partnership with South Yemen. 

If Russian investment opportunities in Yemen were paired with the invitation to set up a naval base or at least a logistics facility in exchange for mediating a resolution to that country’s conflict, which includes the question of South Yemen’s political future, then Moscow might very well take Aden up on this. The first half of this proposal was already advanced through the latest delegation visit to Moscow while it’s unclear whether the second one will make any progress even though it should seriously be considered. 

The STC should keep in mind that Russia’s diplomatic resources are finite and have almost been stretched to the limit already so an additional incentive might be required to convince it to allocate some of these same resources to exploring Russian-led mediation efforts for resolving the Yemeni Conflict. A naval base or logistics facility offer might therefore be exactly what’s needed in this respect, which would enable it to achieve its strategic objectives in the GARS region if the deal with Sudan falls through.  

For that reason, it’s advised that the STC discuss this proposal with other stakeholders in the PLC since they’d all also objectively benefit by Russia expanding its economic footprint in Yemen and mediating a resolution to their country’s conflict, especially the question of South Yemen’s political future. There’s no better party capable of doing so than Russia, which has excellent relations with all warring sides and their top foreign partners, so hopefully something positive can come of this proposal by summertime. 

Andrew Korybko 

Moscow-based American political analyst

- Opinions expressed in this analysis reflects its author and doesn't represent the center's views

YemenRussiaEconomyEconomic partnershipSouth YemenMoscowAdenHouthisSTCPLCUSUKAirstrikes