A roadside vendor sells a small model of the hijacked ‘Galaxy Leader’ in Sanaa on Dec 5, 2023 (Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)

Will the Political Stagnation in Yemen Last Long?


Mon, 17-06-2024 01:40 PM, Aden

The international actors, including the United States, don’t appear keen to open the peace file in Yemen currently, or at least according to the previous conditions agreed to by Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the Houthis.

Farida Ahmed (South24)

Since the incidents of October 7, 2023 in Gaza, Yemen has remained in a state of political stagnation following the escalation of the Houthi military attacks on the maritime navigation in the Red Sea over the past eight months. This has been part of the escalation operation led by the Iran-backed group in the region. The major states, foremost of which are the United States and Britain, have directed their efforts to thwart these attacks militarily. Moreover, Washington was able to pass an international resolution at the UN Security Council in January 2024 that called on the Houthis to immediately stop their attacks which hinder global trade and undermine regional peace and security. In February 2022, the UNSC had designated the Houthis as a terrorist group.

Despite all this, the international community has failed to restrain the Houthis or pressure Israel for reaching a ceasefire agreement in Gaza, that would put a stop to the Houthi’s excuse for linking their maritime attacks on the situation in Palestine. The intensified Western presence in the Red Sea has enhanced the foreign military influence along this strategic waterway. This is related, in one form or another, to the Yemeni issue. The UN-sponsored roadmap agreement on Yemen, announced in December 2023, remains suspended. According to the UN Envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, “The war in Gaza and the escalation in the Red Sea have slowed the peace efforts in Yemen.” These developments could threaten the fragile truce announced two years ago if the political deadlock continues. This foreshadows a wider comeback of the conflict. 

Mobilization and Military Escalation

While continuing with their attacks on maritime navigation, the Houthis have also been igniting the internal fronts. The Houthis launched a series of deadly attacks on several border fronts in the governorates of Lahj and Al-Dhalea against the Southern armed forces. These resulted in the killing of and injuries to dozens of people from both parties. For example, 24 Southern soldiers were killed in March 2024 alone. The Houthis also targeted the Harib front, south of Marib governorate, with drones. Another Houthi attack there killed six persons affiliated with the Southern Giants Brigades and injured several others.

The Houthi attacks against navigation in the Red Sea under the pretext of defending Gaza have increased the group’s popularity in the areas under their control in North Yemen. The Houthis have exploited this opportunity to make extensive recruitment, targeting the marginalized youth. They have allocated money for this purpose in Sanaa, Ibb, and other areas. Amid a military paralysis in the areas controlled by the Internationally-Recognized Government, the Houthis have benefited from their growing popularity to make gains on the ground. 

An official governmental approach to resume the military battles against the Houthis appears to be lacking despite the militia’s repeated assaults. It is clear that the pressures of regional countries to maintain the path of truce will remain necessary for them, at least at this stage. However, the visit by Rashad Al-Alimi, the Chairman of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), to Marib, for the first time since the PLC’s establishment, suggests that there could be possible military arrangements in the offing, especially since he has vowed to achieve victory and make Marib1 the starting point for liberating the areas which are still under the grip of the Houthi militia. 

Political Deadlock

There is no doubt that the escalation of the war in Gaza and its impact on regional security have contributed to delaying discussions about the UN-sponsored roadmap solution in Yemen. The international actors, including the United States, don’t appear keen to open the peace file in Yemen currently, or at least according to the previous conditions agreed to by Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the Houthis. Washington informed the relevant parties in Yemen on June 6 that the UN-sponsored roadmap for a peace deal can’t continue unless the Houthis halt their attacks in the Red Sea.

Actually, it seems that not all of the PLC’s parties accept the current articles of the roadmap which was prepared in advance without engaging them in its discussions. This is despite their formal response to the roadmap as a result of Saudi pressure. For example, the Southerners had clear reservations about the roadmap. They have repeatedly confirmed their rejection of any deal that doesn’t allocate a special negotiation framework for the South Issue, as determined by the Yemeni Consultations in Riyadh2 in April 2022. The Southern Transitional Council (STC) has also rejected the Houthi demand to benefit from South Yemen’s financial and economic resources. 

Despite the ongoing shuttle trips by Hans Grundberg to the Yemeni parties, the political path according to the current estimates is likely to remain stagnant till the end of the year. This is keeping in mind the fact that the US is busy in preparing for its Presidential elections that are scheduled to be held in November 2024. There is also the fact that Britain is preoccupied with its early general elections, announced by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to be held in July 2024. Usually, the government’s ministerial and administrative activities are restrained during election campaigns. It appears that their election campaigns will distract attention from urgent issues in the region, including the Yemeni file. Moreover, it will be difficult for any new government to deal with the complexities of the Yemeni issue in a short time. Therefore, any Yemeni political approach will likely be ruled out until the election results are decided in the major capitals. This will accordingly depend on the capabilities of the new governments to determine the space in which they can apply their foreign policies, based on their interests. 

Economic Pressures

The unprecedented directives issued by the Central Bank of Yemen affiliated with the official government in Aden have stirred much controversy over the past days. This came after the Aden CBY took a series of legal measures, the most important of which is giving a two-month deadline to withdraw the old currency operating in the Houthi-controlled areas. This is in addition to suspending dealings with six of the biggest Yemeni commercial banks after they failed to move their main headquarters from Sanaa to Aden and for being non-compliant to its directives. Furthermore, the activities of external money transfers are now limited to banks as well as the licensed exchange companies which are accredited to the Aden CBY. In the long run, these measures may enhance the Aden CBY’s control on the national economy and reduce the Houthi threats. 

In response to these measures, the Houthi Leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi warned of “an economic aggression” planned by the US and Saudi Arabia against Yemen. It is important to state that the military, political, and economic issues are intertwined with each other. The international incidents in the Red Sea have hastened the taking of such economic measures, which are apparently supported by the US and Western allies. They may also have received tacit approval from Saudi Arabia, according to Bloomberg.

The Internationally-Recognized Government has likely exploited the Houthi confrontation with the US and Britain in the Red Sea as well as the American designation of Houthis as a terrorist group, in making its decisions. The IRGY earlier desisted from taking such decisions with the apprehension that the US and Britain would have rejected any such economic measures. This was before the escalation of tensions in the Red Sea. 

According to this approach, the economic pressures may increase the Houthi military escalation. The battle fronts in Yemen with the IRGY may flare again depending on the impact that these measures will have on the Houthis, and the link between their attacks against navigation and the Iranian strategy in the region. Both things can be tested over the next few months.

Humanitarian Issue 

The humanitarian conditions in Yemen over the past months have become more difficult and severe with the escalation of the international conflict in the Red Sea, increasing the risk of starvation and disease. This is due to the lack of food and medicine, a situation aggravated by the interruption in the inflow of vital supplies that pass through the local ports due to the Houthi attacks on ships. The attacks have led to a decrease in the supply of many humanitarian and relief aids to Yemen.

On the other hand, the Houthis have resorted to arresting dozens of employees affiliated with the UN agencies as well as international and local humanitarian organizations in Sanaa and other cities, including women. As part of the group’s escalating hostility against humanitarian activities, nearly 35 employees and humanitarian workers were arrested in Sanaa, Hajjah, Al-Hodeida, Amran, and Saada in one day. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has condemned these arrests and asked for their immediate release, and cast doubts on the Houthi’s commitment to peace. The Houthis levelled espionage accusations against former Yemeni employees of the US Embassy in Sanaa and broadcast their alleged confessions. The US Department of State strongly condemned “the Houthis’ efforts to spread disinformation regarding the role of detained current and former U.S. mission local staff through televised forced and fake confessions”. It called for their immediate release.

The arrest campaign and the espionage accusations against the employees of these organizations are apparently linked to the Houthi’s security considerations. Moreover, it is also related to the lack of facilities given to the Houthis by international organizations following their being designated as a terrorist group by Washington in January 2024. A large percentage of financial support and international grants were received by the Houthis through the Central Bank in Sanaa, controlled by the group. This provided them with large financial benefits.

It is interesting that the Houthis have made unilateral efforts to open roads in Taiz as well as other roads linking Marib with Al-Bayda and Abyan. There have been different reactions to this Houthi move. While some look at it as an attempt to absorb the economic efforts, others believe it is just a cover for a military operation. The local authorities affiliated with the Internationally-Recognized Government in Taiz have removed rubble and other obstacles such as trees to pave the way for traffic. However, no mechanism for the movement of pedestrians has been determined as yet, and also whether the military checkpoints will be removed or stricter checkpoints will be installed.

There are still concerns about the deployment of Houthi snipers in the mountains or of encountering landmines in the roads or unexpected fighting preparations such as trenches and cement and ground barriers extending along the line separating the two parties. Moreover, the close relationship between ’Ghazwan Al-Makhlafi‘, a leader of an armed group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Houthis has stirred much concern among many people, especially since Al-Makhlafi has a long record of violations in the governorate. Some observers believe that efforts made by Al-Makhlafi to open the Taiz road may be a military ploy to infiltrate the city of Taiz again3.

On the other hand, these legitimate fears are a matter of concern for Southerners, especially if the Al-Rahida front in Taiz, in the direction of South Yemen’s areas, is penetrated in an attempt to change the equation of power on the ground before the resumption of any political discussions with the Internationally-Recognized Government and its regional allies. A committee affiliated with the Yemeni Defense Ministry has warned of being dragged by the Houthi moves to open the road between Al-Bayda (under Houthi control) and Abyan (under IRGY control). It said that “opening the roads should be made by a political decision after a comprehensive ceasefire and through specialized committees with UN sponsorship”.

Accordingly, the next stage in the framework of the Yemeni file may witness a long political procrastination for political reasons. The first one is that the international military effort to deter the Houthis in the Red Sea hasn’t been achieved. The second is that the world is preoccupied by the upcoming US elections and its outcomes. Then, the international community will think about how to finance its difficult choices amid the flaring war that has been ongoing for months, north of the Red Sea, and for years, south of it.

Executive Director, South24 Center for News and Studies

Note: This is a translated version of the original text written in Arabic on June 13, 2024 

1. Marib, in North Yemen, is just 120 km east of Sanaa and sits at a crossroads between South and North. It is located on a single highway to Saudi Arabia. It boasts of oil and gas reserves, making it a major economic prize. The Safer oil refinery, one of the two refineries in Yemen, with a capacity to produce 10,000 to 20,000 barrels per day, is in Marib.

2. The intra-Yemeni consultations under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh March 29 until April 7, 2022, were held along six parallel tracks — political, security, economic, social development, humanitarian and media. On April 7, the last day of the talks, then President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi issued a decree establishing the Presidential Leadership Council, composed of eight members representing the most important factions in the government camp.

3. The Houthi militia laid siege to the city of Taiz in early 2015 after their forces were unable to seize control due to stiff opposition from Yemeni government troops and allied resistance fighters. The group barricaded the city’s major exits, posted snipers and laid landmines to prevent civilians from leaving or entering. The blockade has forced more than two million civilians to use perilous dirt tracks to leave or enter the city.

YemenPLCHouthisTaizTruceUNRoadmapMaribEscalationSaudiArabiaIranRed Sea