Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council Offers Hope Amid Uncertainty

The surprise resignation of Yemeni President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi in early April and his immediate replacement by an eight-member Presidential Leadership Council has brought hope in some quarters that the Yemeni civil war might be headed toward a settlement in the near future. The leadership change roughly coincided with the start of a two-month ceasefire that has held for the most part between the Houthi rebels, also known as Ansar Allah, and the government backed by the Saudi-led Arab coalition. The accompanying delivery of humanitarian supplies via the Hodeida seaport and the resumption of flights from Sanaa airport have given the hard-pressed Yemeni people a reprieve from the violence and a glimmer of a better future, both of which have redounded to the Council’s benefit. However, uncertainties still abound because it is unclear whether the truce will be extended, while the Council itself is made up of leaders of disparate political factions and militias that have strikingly different views on the political future of the country.

A Saudi- and Emirati-induced Change

On April 7, Hadi announced from the Saudi capital Riyadh that he was removing his vice president, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and immediately ceding power to an eight-member Presidential Leadership Council, headed by former Interior Minister Rashad al-Alimi. Reportedly, the Council members were apparently selected at a Gulf Cooperation Council-convened conference held in Riyadh where Hadi had been living for years.

The Council members were apparently selected at a Gulf Cooperation Council-convened conference held in Riyadh where Hadi had been living for years.

Even though it was Hadi himself who announced this leadership change, it was obvious that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had a determinative hand in this decision. Hadi was increasingly seen as an ineffective leader and a “stumbling block” who was not able to manage the disparate Yemeni groups that make up the anti-Houthi coalition. Moreover, he spent most of his time in Riyadh and not in the government-controlled parts of Yemen during most of his tenure. The Saudi and the Emirati governments likely concluded that the longer Hadi stayed, the more of a liability he would be, especially as the former in particular has been eager for a political settlement of the crisis that has become too costly for it in military, economic, and reputational terms as the Saudi bombing campaign against the Houthis was part of a war that resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths according to UN officials.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman met with the Council members shortly after they were selected, indicating strong Saudi support for this new collective body. The Saudi government then announced it would provide $2 billion to help the Yemeni economy, while the UAE pledged an additional $1 billion. In terms of the Council’s purview, it would have jurisdiction over foreign policy, diplomatic appointments, national security, and counterterrorism, as well as the power to appoint governors, security directors, and judges. The Council is to be assisted by a 50-member commission which will have an advisory role. To be sure, the unspoken reality is that Saudi Arabia and the UAE will be consulted on all major decisions by the Council since they control the purse strings in addition to the weapons deliveries to the Yemeni government.

The Council’s Disparate Ideologies and Goals

There is no doubt that the selection of the Presidential Leadership Council was done with an eye toward political balancing, as half of its members are northerners and the other half are southerners, reflecting the historical differences that have marked Yemen for decades, even after the 1990 unification of the country’s north and south. It seems that the members were also chosen because of their links to either the Emiratis or the Saudis who have their own ideological and political favorites in Yemen and who, they believe, would advance their own particular interests. For example, one member of the Presidential Leadership Council is Aidarous al-Zubaidi, who is head of the Southern Transitional Council, a group that seeks the independence of southern Yemen and is backed by the UAE. Another UAE-backed member is Abdel-Rahman Abu Zaraa, who is a militia leader of the so-called “Giants Brigade” that recently fought the Houthis over Shabwa and Marib areas where the bulk of Yemen’s oil lies. On the other hand, several Council members are close to the Saudis: in addition to Rashad al-Alimi, the Council’s leader, another pro-Saudi member is Abdullah Bawazeer who is linked to the Saudi-backed Islah party, Yemen’s equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet another Saudi-backed Council member is Othman Megalli who was a former agriculture minister and is a tribal leader from Saada province in northern Yemen.

Doubts about the Council’s Effectiveness

The fact that these Council members were all chosen by countries outside of Yemen has led some Yemenis to question their legitimacy. As one specialist recently stated: “The council wasn’t formed through Yemeni-Yemeni talks, it was the result of exterior forces.”

Although the Council’s diversity reflects the different sections of the anti-Houthi Yemeni factions and is, therefore, almost fully representative, the question arises as to how it can govern effectively when these factions and militias have such different goals, backed by their outside patrons. For example, the Saudis and their Yemeni allies seem to want a unified Yemen to include former members of the government of the deceased former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, whereas the Emiratis and their allies seem to want a separate southern Yemen and are strongly opposed to Islah because the UAE is dead set against the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates. The Southern Transitional Council has in the past accused Islah and other Brotherhood affiliates of being “terrorist” organizations. It should be remembered that Saudi- and UAE-backed forces even engaged in hostilities with one another in the southern port city of Aden not too long ago.

Meanwhile, the Houthis have been dismissive of the Presidential Leadership Council, denouncing it as a “desperate attempt to rearrange the ranks of the mercenaries.” Uninvited to Riyadh ahead of the Council’s appointment, and unwilling to attend, they are in no mood to approve its creation or help it achieve its mission.

But Facts on the Ground Are Working in the Council’s Favor

Nonetheless, in the short-term at least, the fact that the truce has been holding is working to the Presidential Leadership Council’s benefit. Two specific reasons stand out: Yemenis have not enjoyed even a temporary cessation of hostilities for a long time, and the new executive body is in fact operating on Yemeni soil. Moreover, part of the truce agreement is to allow fuel and humanitarian goods to come through the port of Hodeida (controlled by the Houthis) which has helped ameliorate dire conditions in the country. For the first time in many years, the Saudis, who control Yemen’s airspace, have allowed some flights to and from Sanaa airport to resume (the first one took place on May 16). This development has been particularly important for Yemenis in desperate need of medical care and operations, and has allowed some family reunifications to take place. These events have been popular regardless of ideological affiliations. As the new political entity, the Council can claim credit for presiding over these achievements even though, in reality, it was the United Nations that had been working behind the scenes for many years to bring about such a ceasefire.

The Presidential Council is trying to present itself as a unifier for the anti-Houthi coalition while working toward a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

The Presidential Council is trying to present itself as a unifier for the anti-Houthi coalition while working toward a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Indeed, Hans Grundberg, the UN’s special envoy for Yemen, is trying to work with both the Council and the Houthis to extend the truce and then move toward negotiations that would be aimed at a political settlement. Whether this process succeeds is a different matter altogether because many developments could derail the process.

Will the Current Ceasefire Be Extended?

Some analysts believe the current truce came about because of the stalemate among the warring factions. An offensive begun by the Houthis in early 2021 to take over Marib province, while initially successful in making gains on the ground, was stymied by the anti-Houthi coalition forces, including the UAE-backed Giants Brigade. However, these forces were not strong enough to completely dislodge the Houthis from neighboring areas. In addition, while the Houthis were able to launch missile attacks into Saudi Arabia and the UAE, they faced a renewal of sustained Saudi bombing campaigns.

However, while the ceasefire has obviously been popular with the Yemeni people, the Houthis may be using this period to regroup and recalibrate. They may still have their eye on capturing Marib province with its oil resources and may be gearing up for such an offensive as soon as the truce formally ends in early June. If they are successful on the battlefield, not only would they benefit from the oil resources in that region, but they would be able to discredit the President Leadership Council and break up the coalition it represents.

While the ceasefire has obviously been popular with the Yemeni people, the Houthis may be using this period to regroup and recalibrate.

On the other hand, the Houthis know that the majority of the people under their control in northern Yemen may not share their ideological goals as a militant, anti-Sunni, and anti-Western organization. If they were to launch an offensive after the two-month truce ends, the Saudi-led coalition would undoubtedly close the airspace over Sanaa airport again and prevent supplies from coming into Hodeida. Such closures would hurt millions of Yemenis, but there is a very good chance that the Houthis would be blamed by the populace for this situation as much as the Saudi-backed forces for scuttling a ceasefire. Hence, the Houthis would have to think twice about restarting an offensive, as it could prove politically risky.

The Houthis have not ruled out talks beyond a ceasefire with the Saudi-led forces but have insisted that they take place in a neutral country, not in Saudi Arabia. Traditionally, Oman has offered its good offices for this purpose. Even though past attempts have failed, there is likely to be a renewed push by the Sultanate in the near future. Currently, talks are centered on extending the truce and opening the roads in the contested area of Taiz in the lower part of northern Yemen which would ease travel and the transport of humanitarian supplies. With Alimi, the head of the Presidential Council, backing an extension of the ceasefire, Oman has a good opportunity to secure the agreement of the Houthis, which will give the political solution a much needed boost.

Recommendations for US Policy

The Biden Administration is walking a political tightrope vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and the UAE regarding the Yemen crisis. Because the Russia-Ukraine crisis has led to higher global oil prices, and the Saudis and the Emiratis have rebuffed US entreaties to increase production in order to lower prices—because they claim to be angry that the Biden team has not been responsive enough to Iranian threats and Houthi attacks against them—US officials have gone out of their way to shore up ties with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. Simultaneously, however, members of Congress, particularly Democrats, are still angry over Saudi policies and believe more needs to be done to bring about a settlement of the Yemen crisis that would halt the killing of civilians in that country.

Although the Biden team has been supportive of UN efforts in Yemen—Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Rashad al-Alimi in a phone call to “seize the momentum” from the ceasefire and push for a political solution—it should redouble these efforts even as the Russia-Ukraine crisis occupies much of its time. Even though Washington may not succeed in persuading Saudi Arabia and the UAE to increase oil production, it can still use its influence with these countries to weigh in with the new Council, over which they have enormous influence, to support a political settlement. Although the Council is made up of disparate elements and may not last long as a governing entity, all of the outside powers should take advantage of the temporary unity on the government side to push for an extended ceasefire and a political settlement. Moreover, if the Houthis come to believe that they cannot split the government coalition as represented by the Council, they may be more amenable to ending their military ambitions and agree to a genuine settlement.