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Ahead of a new year, the internationally recognised government in Yemen formed a new unified cabinet in a country that has now experienced layers of conflict. The new deal has halted fighting on one front but recent events show there are multiple parties that could benefit from further instability in the region.
Emerging from a Riyadh-brokered agreement back in November 2019, the new unity deal brings together anti-Houthi forces that have been fighting a new front to the conflict.
The 24-member cabinet will now be made up in equal parts of Hadi loyalists, south secessionists and members of the Islamist Islah party in a power-sharing pact with Taiz-born Maeen Abdulmalik remaining as prime minister. Other Hadi allies will take up crucial appointments in the ministries of defence, foreign affairs, interior and finance.
The new government will be located in Aden, where fighting has ensued between the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the internationally recognised government, continuing even after the 2019 agreement was signed. The STC eventually declared self-rule in April this year and later seized the archipelago of Socotra, of which the UAE has taken de facto control.
The “infighting” has been thought to be one of the key reasons UN-mediated peace efforts have broken down and how the Houthis have gained considerable ground in the north.
The process of disengagement has already begun with troops to reorganise themselves to fight their common rival. The government will now seek to address Yemen’s dire financial situation.
As well as the power-sharing element, other aspects of the deal includes military directions and guarantees and measures to ensure security and prevent further clashes among unity factions; incorporation of STC forces into the defence and interior ministries; folding in STC members into security and counterterrorism forces in Aden; and it also directs the depositing of state finances.
However, events since the government formation have indicated resolution is far from within reach, including an explosion conveniently timed for the new cabinet’s arrival by plane to Aden airport. Twenty-six people were killed in the airport blast on 30 December 2020, including two ICRC staff. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, although the Houthis have been blamed as the obvious culprit.
“This is a message that the Houthis do not want stability or peace in Yemen. I can assure you we will keep working from Aden”, said Deputy minister Al-Kamali, talking to the Independent.
The conflict in Yemen has been raging since 2014, when Zaidi Shia Houthi rebels ousted the government after years of social and economic disenfranchisement.
Violence escalated, however, when an international coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and that includes the UAE, intervened to provide military and logistical support to the Sunni Hadi government.
The Houthis, which formed the unrecognised National Salvation Government in Sanaa, have received weaponry from elements in Iran, but while some have labelled Yemen a proxy war, others reject it can be oversimplified as such.
A further complication in the conflict ensued after the STC, formed in 2017 and backed by the UAE, and its security belt forces seized Aden from Hadi in 2019. Tensions heightened over what the STC says is the domination of the north and their own political and economic marginalisation and exclusion, which can be traced to the 1994 civil war, after which thousands of southern military personnel were dismissed.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 233,000 people have died as a result of the Yemen conflict. The UN has labelled it the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, teetering on the brink of famine.
Writer on Middle East affairs, Omar Ahmed, recently mused that the Riyadh agreement doesn’t change the “inevitable”, which he says is the National Salvation Government’s eventual domination.
Writing in Middle East Monitor, he said, “With both sides blaming the other for the failure to fulfil their obligations under the agreement, it is evident that the Sanaa-based de facto government has been gaining the upper hand politically and militarily despite the huge foreign support that the Hadi government and STC receive from their respective patrons”.
With the little overseas support the National Salvation Government receives, he said, it has managed to execute military maneuvers that have caused notable disruption, militarily, including cross-border attacks into Saudi Arabia.
Others argue that the Aden airport explosion, which was clearly targeting the new government, may not have been perpetrated by the Houthis as other parties could gain by the blast.
Zvi Bar’el from Haaretz says that the UAE is implicated as well as the STC, as some within the Council have reservations with the unification deal, believing the northern tribes’ interests will be prioritised over the south, still, while its oil and gas resources are co-opted.
The STC, as well as the Houthis, would have the capabilities to carry out the attack, says Bar’el, and the deputy head of the STC Hani bin Buraik himself warned against blaming Houthi forces because “They are not the only side hurt by the Riyadh deal. … Qatar and Turkey loudly denounced the agreement”.
Saudi Arabia would also look weak in Yemen, which would benefit the UAE and increase the STC’s chances of improving prospects for southern Yemen.
The Riyadh agreement has notably not demanded the removal of UAE forces from the Socotra Islands. Reports say the UAE intends to establish military bases there, which could show it will maintain a strategic influence in Yemen separate from the Saudis.
Evidence has been presented by analysts that could implicate both STC and the Houthis, but as Adel Dashela, Yemeni writer and academic researcher, told Fanack, “we need an international investigation to reveal who is responsible for this attack”.
In the long term, however, there will be a push for a new Yemen government to reach a political solution, says Dashela.
“This depends upon the implementation of the security and military aspects of the Riyadh Agreement. If the Saudis implement these aspects, I think the Yemeni government will pressure the Houthis to accept the political solution and peace deals either through negotiation or by the military option”, he says.
Dashela views international pressure as key to ending the crisis in Yemen: “The UN envoy for Yemen cannot achieve peace via negotiation, and we must know that the UN had failed to implement the Stockholm agreement reached in 2018 between Houthis and the Yemeni legitimate government”.
What’s more, despite a supposed peace deal in 2018, clashes and casualties have continued with international partners gaining from weapon sales to members of the coalition.
Proxy war or not, peace in Yemen will depend on more than just resolving a Sunni Shia conflict, it needs buy-in and urgency from wider regional and international players.