A Ceasefire and a Presidential Council, but Uncertainties Abound in Yemen

Another chapter in Yemen’s domestic developments and regional entanglements seems to have begun, but with no assurances that it will have a happy ending. Following a conference in Saudi Arabia in early April, President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi transferred his powers to a Presidential Leadership Council composed of eight civilian and military leaders, in effect ending his tenure as the country’s chief executive. Declaring that his decision is irreversible, Mansour Hadi said that the council would negotiate with the insurgent Houthis (Ansar Allah) for a permanent ceasefire in the country. A two-month, United Nations-arranged ceasefire, negotiated by UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg, had been reached by Yemen’s antagonists at the end of March. One of its essential provisions was halting military operations by all parties to the conflict and another was allowing the delivery of fuel through Hodeida port and commercial flights in and out of Sanaa airport.

True to their declared positions and accustomed rejections of Mansour Hadi’s decisions, the Houthis rejected the council on the grounds that the president was not legitimate and thus cannot bestow legitimacy on any new body or institution in the country. But for the time being, they continue to honor the declared ceasefire that included them, the forces supporting the president’s government, and the Saudi-led Arab coalition that has arguably been a party to everything Yemeni since 2015. To be sure, the survival of the current ceasefire and the government’s commitment to allow the new council to take up its responsibilities open the door for the possibility that Yemen may yet find a way toward the coveted political solution that can end its festering crises and the humanitarian disaster facing its people every day.

Reuniting Forces in the Presidential Council?

From the looks of it, Yemen’s new Presidential Council tries to unite previously discordant political and military elites and forces whose only point of agreement has been the overall goal of ending the Houthi challenge to what over the last decade has been considered legitimate authority in the country, i.e., the Mansour Hadi presidency. Headed by a former minister and advisor to the president, Rashad al-Alimi, the council is composed of seven other men who represent different regions in the country that have resisted the Houthis but who probably are equally beholden to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, arguably the two most powerful regional states involved in the Yemeni conflict. In point of fact, the council members’ relations with the two neighboring states cast doubt on the Yemeni authenticity of the process of its establishment and may later deprive it of the element of legitimacy that can rally people behind it.

The elements of disunity among the council’s members abound, considering the differences in their positions, interests, and agendas, in addition to those of their foreign patrons.

Moreover, the elements of disunity among the members abound, considering the differences in their positions, interests, and agendas, in addition to those of their foreign patrons. For example, it is hard to imagine how Aidarous al-Zubaidi, one of the members of the council but head of the secessionist Southern Transitional Council, will abandon his wish for a separate south and work toward unifying the country. Equally difficult will be convincing the military chiefs among the council’s members not to use their coercive powers to force others to agree to their demands and satisfy their ambitions. At the moment, it appears that an accord between Saudi Arabia and the UAE about glossing over serious strategic differences regarding Yemen is helping to keep their protégés in line in order to present a unified front vis-à-vis the Houthis. Previous attempts to keep the anti-Houthi, legitimacy camp unified have not necessarily been successful, which hurt the overall military campaign and, in fact, allowed Ansar Allah to score victories and continue to practically hold the bulk of inhabited areas in the country.

In other words, the council’s future work will likely be contingent upon the continued agreement between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, a tall order when compared to the record of their activities, cross purposes, and preferences over the last few years. For the sake of the new arrangement, Saudi Arabia prevailed upon Mansour Hadi to, first, sack his vice president, the Islamist Islah Party-aligned Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and second, accept the council with diluted Islah influence, all for the purpose of satisfying the UAE and its allies in the country. On the other hand, the UAE scaled back its Yemeni ambitions by convincing its protégés—such as al-Zubaidi—to participate in a council signifying a unified Yemen, a Saudi strategic desire. The two countries also pledged $3 billion in assistance to Yemen ($2 billion by Saudi Arabia and $1 billion by the UAE) in order to give the council necessary tools to help ameliorate what have been dire economic conditions for the last decade.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE had to find a way of limiting the Houthis’ strength and reach, considering that their own efforts since 2015 and those of the Mansour Hadi-aligned troops have not been able to do that.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had to find a way of limiting the Houthis’ strength and reach, considering that their own efforts since 2015 and those of the Mansour Hadi-aligned troops have not been able to do that. Both countries have sustained embarrassing attacks by the Houthis, despite continued coalition bombardment and air strikes on the insurgent Ansar Allah. The latter’s drones and missiles struck targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE last January, causing death, destruction, and disruption. Last March, a six-hour attack by the Houthis hit targets in Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah and Riyadh, including ARAMCO, the crown jewel of the kingdom’s oil industry. And these came on top of many others over the last few years that have not only shown the Houthis to be tough opponents but also necessitated addressing the double failure by the coalition and Yemeni authorities to stop Ansar Allah.

This is specifically why the new Presidential Council does not provide ironclad assurances that it will, first, work smoothly and effectively and, second, survive a potential crisis, either between its members or resulting from different Saudi Arabian and Emirati interpretations of what they desire to happen. But for now, the council provides a different set of hopes; most importantly that related to its anointed leader al-Alimi’s pledge in his first major speech to work to end the conflict and establish the sought-after peace to which Yemenis yearn. Another hope is that the Houthis would find that pursuing a military solution to the strife—by trying again to control Marib and its oil riches, for example—is folly after they suffered a strategic defeat in neighboring Shabwa governorate. As the cliché goes, time will tell. But so too will two months of ceasefire that began with Ramadan on the first of April as well as UN and other efforts to cobble together elements of a peaceful resolution to a conflict that has long outlived the capacity of any of its protagonists to endure its calamities.

What Can Be in Store?

From the way things have looked in Yemen for quite some time, it is natural for many involved there or concerned about the country to welcome the announced two-month ceasefire, or the establishment of the Presidential Council. Yemen’s regional players—specifically Saudi Arabia and the UAE—agreed to the ceasefire and sponsored the creation of the council. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that the temporary cessation of hostilities can be “the start of a better future for the people of Yemen,” and hoped that all parties work toward implementing the elements of the ceasefire agreement. The Biden Administration also welcomed the announcement; and, perhaps seeing an opportunity to mollify Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Secretary of State Antony Blinken officially welcomed the formation of the Presidential Leadership Council, reaffirming the belief that only a peaceful resolution is possible in Yemen. Even Iran was on board in approving the ceasefire and calling for a political solution, although it has not shown its cards regarding the council.

As with other UN envoys before him, it is hard to decipher what the UN’s Grundberg has up his sleeve, whether he will propose a full plan for a peaceful resolution in Yemen, or what its elements would be. But what he appears to have secured in the ceasefire agreement had been a very tall order for a long time. Saudi Arabia had previously resisted all pressure to allow fuel and other shipments through Hodeida or flights to and out of Sanaa airport. To be sure, this concession to the Houthis is logical and may have needed to be made a long time ago because, while Ansar Allah will no doubt benefit from it, it serves the larger humanitarian interests of Yemenis living under their sway. However, as an insurance policy against attacks by the Houthis and to prevent their using this provision to smuggle weapons, the United States announced that it established a naval task force to monitor Red Sea waters down to the Bab al-Mandab waterway and the Omani-Yemeni maritime border, a decision that was roundly criticized by Ansar Allah. On the other hand, this provision should be very consequential and should prompt the Houthis to, first, limit their obstructionism and, second, abandon their thinking about militarily dictating the end of the country’s conflict. Indeed, it is high time Ansar Allah accepted a good gesture from the Yemeni government or the coalition and reciprocated in kind; they cannot keep maneuvering for concessions only to ask for more.

It is high time Ansar Allah accepted a good gesture from the Yemeni government or the coalition and reciprocated in kind; they cannot keep maneuvering for concessions only to ask for more.

From his side, Grundberg hopes that his intervention will lead Yemen to a good place. In a briefing on April 15 in front of the UN Security Council, Grundberg said that he sees light at the end of the tunnel, and welcomed the establishment of the Presidential Council that, he said, “reflects a broader array of political actors.” But judging from the history of UN interventions—by envoys Jamal Benomar, Ismail Ould Sheikh Ahmad, and Martin Griffiths—Mr. Grundberg’s mission remains subject to a number of contingencies over which he has little control. Said mission still needs a wholehearted buy-in from Yemen’s domestic actors and the regional players who, so far, and aside from agreeing to the recent ceasefire, may believe that they can sway developments in their favor.

Many questions arise as to whether Grundberg will be able to realize his hope of getting Yemen out of its long and dark tunnel, despite the enthusiasm surrounding the new Presidential Council. Will the Houthis just accept the ceasefire for what it is: a goodwill gesture for which they have been waiting for a long time? Do they really still have illusions that their Yemeni opponents and the coalition will let them take over Marib and its oil riches? Will the members of the new Presidential Council give the new outfit, temporary and transitional as it may seem, the opportunity to appear as pan-Yemeni as required at this juncture? As competitors for prominence in the country, will they just set aside their differences in order to present themselves as a unified institution that can negotiate purposeful UN proposals? Will Saudi Arabia and the UAE set aside their strategic objectives and allow their Yemeni allies to speak for themselves and work toward a strictly Yemeni resolution to the conflict? Finally, will Iran signal that it is on the side of Houthi moderation and seize to exploit the Yemeni conflict to weaken the Gulf Arab allies? These and many other questions will continue to impact Grundberg’s work, future endeavors, and ultimate success, but his diligence and Yemeni and regional cooperation remain essential.

In the end, what should be in store for Yemen is a peaceful resolution to its conflict that has spawned one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world. What will suffice is the conviction of the country’s domestic actors that military means no longer offer a potential and satisfactory end to the conflict as well as the diligent work required to put a purposeful political plan shepherded by the United Nations. The same applies to all involved regional and international players, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, and the United States. More than a decade after hundreds of thousands of Yemenis came out to demand political change in their country, eight years following the extra-legal seizure of power by Ansar Allah, and millions of dead, maimed, homeless, and hungry, it is time peace returned to Yemen and its destitute people.