PoliciesPublicationsStudiesThe military and economic consequences of the disagreements between the anti-Houthi parties in Yemen for the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement

22 March، 2022by Abdulkareem Ghanem0

This paper discusses the consequences of the continued divergence of goals adopted by the two anti-Houthi parties and their influence on the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement, in light of the military escalation carried out by the Houthi group against Marib, Al-Bayda, Shabwa, Abyan, Al-Jawf, and the other military fronts.

Abdul Karim Ghanem

 

Executive Synopsis:

Nearly two years after the signing of the Riyadh Agreement between the internationally recognized government of Yemen and the Southern Transitional Council, the agreement has not resulted in lasting peace. Although Saudi Arabia tried to push it forward, it collided with the two parties’ tendency to use force to resolve conflicts, away from agreement terms. This conflict has contributed to the weakening of the two anti-Houthi parties and led to a military and economic imbalance in favor of the Houthi forces, which have continued the war and expanded their control over Marib, Al-Bayda, Shabwa, Abyan, Al-Jawf, Taiz and, other Yemeni governorates. Beyond this, it has led to human loss and humanitarian consequences along with unprecedented economic repercussions. This includes a rise exceeding 100% in the price of the dollar and foreign currencies against the local currency in the areas under the control of the internationally recognized government, compared to those controlled by the Houthi group. The political crisis between the loyalists of President Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council has caused wasting more economic resources and decreased the opportunities for a political settlement. This situation prompted the Houthi group to commit more strongly to war, demonstrated by its rejection of international peace efforts and negatively affecting the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement, a necessary prelude to a comprehensive peace in Yemen. Hence, the importance of this paper lies in evaluating the impact of the local repercussions—military, economic, and security—on the completion of the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement.

Among the recommendations proposed by this paper are the following:

  • Calling for an international conference by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to support the internationally recognized Yemeni government with the necessary funds to meet basic expenses, giving it popular support, limiting the level of protests, and enabling it to face the economic and security challenges.
  • Commitment to the consensus approach among political partners affiliated with the internationally recognized government when making appointments to important positions in the country.
  • Supporting and activating state institutions, including the army and security institutions, and ending the tasks of armed groups that are not associated with the state or those in conflict with them.
An Introduction:

After local forces that support the internationally recognized Yemeni government managed to defeat the Houthis in the southern governorates, with the help of the Arab Coalition, the disputes within this entity began to emerge. The most prominent and complex file for the coalition to address was the relationship of the internationally recognized Yemeni government with the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which has been supported by the UAE since its establishment in 2017, and whose forces took control of Aden, the interim capital, in August 2019, as well as the city of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan Governorate, and the central governorates of Al-Dhalea and Lahj. Disputes escalated between the internationally recognized government, which has adopted a federal project for Yemen and enjoys international recognition, and the STC, which seeks independence from northern Yemen. The negotiations to unify the local forces supporting the government have turned into an armed struggle for influence and control. This armed conflict began to threaten the Arab Coalition and prompted Saudi Arabia to try to mend the rift by bringing the two sides to the negotiating table, leading to the formulation of the Riyadh Agreement, which was signed by the two parties on November 5, 2019.

The essence of the Riyadh Agreement is to unify the political groups that support the Yemeni government to confront the Houthi group. The agreement is based on a number of principles, most notably the commitment to full citizenship rights, the rejection of sectarian and regional discrimination, and the cessation of abusive media campaigns [1]. However, the hopes that emerged after the formation of the government of parity between the north and the south soon receded following the appointment decisions taken by President Hadi, and the subsequent direct intervention of the leadership of the STC— Aidarous Al-Zubaidi—in the work of state institutions, such as issuing direct decisions to the leaders of the state in Aden, military mobilization, organizing protests in Shabwa [2], and preventing the government from returning to Aden. This was accompanied by security repercussions, a collapse in the value of the currency, and a disintegration of the anti-Houthi front. The matter worsened with the military escalation carried out by the Houthi group on the fronts of Marib, Al-Bayda, Shabwa, Abyan, and Al-Jawf.

This paper seeks to uncover the impact of these conflicts on the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement, in light of the continued divergence of goals adopted by the two anti-Houthi parties. Among the findings of this paper are the following:

  • Houthi control of parts of the (southern) Shabwa governorate and the arrival of their missiles and drones to some southern governorates reduced the conflict between the STC and the internationally recognized government and united efforts to confront the Houthi threat. The continued progress of the Houthi forces also accelerated the return of the Yemeni government to the interim capital, Aden.
  • The economic repercussions and protests in the governorates under the control of the internationally recognized Yemeni government reduced the tensions between the two anti-Houthi parties and achieved rapprochement between them. However, it did not put an end to the economic problems, such as the salary crisis and the deterioration of the local currency, and did not put an end to divisions between the military and security components.

Historical background:

To understand the nature of this conflict, it is necessary to go back to January 1986, when the competing factions within the Yemeni Socialist Party—which was then ruling southern Yemen—fought a civil war in Aden that led to the deaths of more than 10,000 people within two weeks. The fighting took place between two main factions: the Yafa’, Al-Dhalea and Radfan faction, popularly called Altoghma (the junta), consisting of tribes living in the mountainous region in central and southern Yemen who currently support the STC; and the Abyan/Shabwa) axis, popularly called the Zumra (the clique), most of which is currently loyal to President Hadi. The conflict ended with the defeat of the Abyan/Shabwa faction, and the expulsion of tens of thousands of its members,including President Hadi, to northern Yemen and beyond [3].

When the south of Yemen—under the rule of the Altoghma—merged with the north, one of its conditions was to transfer the leaders of the Zumra from Sana’a out of Yemen, as the leader of the Zumra—Ali Nasser Muhammad the previous president of South Yemen—left with his companions. Hadi was not a prominent leader at the time, so he was temporarily displaced to Hajjah Governorate and returned weeks later, rising in military positions until he reached the position of Minister of Defense.

And when the conflict broke out between the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Altoghma, which declared secession, Hadi was the one who led the battles in the south, along with the Yemeni armed forces, Islah Party fighters, and the tribes of the north. After the defeat of the southern forces, their leaders were stripped of public positions. Since Hadi came to power, he has adopted—along with his loyalists from the Zumra, the Islah Party, and the dominant northern groups—the option of the federal system, in contrast to the project adopted by the “Yafa’a Al-Dhalea Radfan Alliance,” which calls for secession from the north.

After the liberation of the southern governorates from the Houthi grip, the STC was formed from tribal fighting forces affiliated with Yafa’, Al-Dhalea, and Radfan, with their armed formations that appeared during the 2015 war. After the defeat of Hadi’s forces and the bloody events between the two sides in August 2019, the Yemeni government left the temporary capital, Aden.

On November 5, 2019, the Riyadh Agreement was signed with Saudi mediation. The internationally recognized government accepted the agreement because it needed to return to the temporary capital, Aden, to carry out its duties. The STC also approved the agreement because it allows its members to participate in the government and gives it legitimacy. “The Southern Transitional Council has gained political recognition without fulfilling its security and military obligations or abandoning its declared goals” [4], namely secession, in addition to the “racist practices attributed to it, especially against the citizens of the north of the country residing in the south” [5]. Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of the agreement boosted its hopes of ending the almost continuous conflict within the anti-Houthi camp, integrating the forces of the STC into the state apparatus, and consolidating the federal Yemen project [6].

Saudi Arabia tried to push things forward, but was confronted with the expected problem: What should be addressed first, the security problem or the political problem? [7]. When the STC declared a state of emergency and the self-administration of southern Yemen in April 2020, these developments prompted Saudi Arabia to expedite the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement so the joint government was formed on December 18, 2020. However, the “acceleration mechanism” did not achieve its goals [8].

To avoid the impasse of the priority of the security component over the political one, a conciliatory method was followed, combining the two factors at the same time. However, the tensions remained, and the partial implementation of the agreement—represented by the separation of some of the fighting forces in Abyan—did not prevent military confrontations from erupting, which in August 2021 extended to the vicinity of the Balhaf port in Shabwa, used for the export of liquefied gas, “so Saudi Arabia was unable to turn the deal of cease-fire into a permanent peace between Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council. The implementation of the Riyadh Agreement was thwarted due to the disagreement about the sequence of implementation” [9]. The two parties continued to fuel the conflict between them, with the desire to acquire and dominate by force instead of the principle of partnership contained in the Riyadh Agreement.

This escalation tempted the Houthis to advance and control more areas, in Marib and Al-Bayda, all the way to Shabwa, Abyan, and Al-Jawf. For the Houthis, this is the best opportunity to achieve new progress in the field, and it is not expected that these circumstances will push them to enter into any peace process, particularly in light of the inability of their opponents to defeat them militarily. The interests and orientations of regional powers are to achieve a political settlement based on the de-facto authority between local armed groups, which encourages the use of force and coercion as a political tool.

Military consequences and their impact on the implementation of the agreement:

The Houthi’s insistence on seizing Ma’rib Governorate stems from its large oil field, containing an estimated three billion barrels of oil, as well as its oil refinery [10]. In addition, Ma’rib is the main stronghold of the internationally recognized government, and “presence of the Yemeni government in Marib is an integral part, not only of its regional and international legitimacy, but also to dispel the discourse about the immunity of the Houthis” [11].

After the Houthis fought fierce battles in Marib Governorate, from February to early July 2021, “the Yemeni army forces, backed by popular resistance and armed tribal groups, turned to opening new fighting fronts against the Houthis, starting with the central province of Al-Bayda, according to a comprehensive plan to reopen multiple fronts in more than one governorate, with the aim of dispersing the capabilities of the Houthis, and relieving their military pressure on the oil-rich governorate of Ma’rib” [12].

However, reopening many fronts—in Al-Bayda, Taiz, and other northern governorates—did not fully succeed because “the bets of the anti-Houthi parties varied. The government is betting on the steadfastness of Marib, and it sees in this steadfastness a victory—albeit limited—that maintains its presence and prestige locally and internationally, and breaks the stereotyped image of the capabilities of the Houthi group. While the Southern Transitional Council- supported by the Emirates- represented by its president, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, awaits the results of the battle, and sees the Houthi group’s control of Marib as an opportunity to accelerate negotiations between the north and south, specifically between the Transitional Council and the Houthi group, given that they will be the two parties in control of the land. This bet may explain the reason for impeding the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement” [13], as the STC seeks “to separate the south from the north, and- in its estimation—if the Houthis overthrow Marib, the legitimate government will fall, which is the main obstacle to secession projects” [14].

In the midst of this division between the anti-Houthi parties, the Houthi forces were able to achieve quick victories in Al-Bayda, exposing the south of Ma’rib Governorate as “they took control of the Al-Rahba district, the center of Mudghal District, Mahelia District, south of Marib, and parts of Hareeb District, adjacent to the southern governorate of Shabwa” [15]. The Houthi forces also managed to control the center of the district of al-Abdiyyah and continued to target Al-Jawbah District, south of Ma’rib Governorate.

Although the tribal and government forces—backed by Saudi airstrikes—continue to confront the Houthi militias, the balance of military forces on the Marib fronts indicates that the Houthis are likely to control this governorate, and if this happens, they will come close to controlling northern Yemen almost completely, including the oil and gas fields and the Safer oil refinery.

That is why the Houthis no longer have anything to prevent them from disclosing their intentions in the following combat operations. On September 2, the leader of the Houthi movement, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, said in a speech broadcasted on Al Masirah TV that his group had made the decision to control the entirety of Yemen [16]. The possibility of Houthi control of northern Yemen boosted their confidence in the possibility of controlling all of Yemen, indications of which appeared on the ground last September 2021, when Houthi forces took control of the districts of Asilan and Ain Baihan in Shabwa Governorate, where the Jannah oil field is located.

On the other hand, the government army and tribal fighters fought “violent battles to regain these districts, and they were able to retake several locations in Usaylan and Ain Bayhan” [17], but the Houthi group still controls parts of Bayhan, and their attacks toward the south confirm that they will not stop at the borders that prevailed before 1990.

However, the arrival of the Houthi forces to Shabwa and their clash with the southern forces made the anti-Houthi forces reconsider their internal differences. In this context, “the President of the Transitional Council announced raising the combat readiness of the ‘southern armed forces’ to confront the Houthis” [18]. Although this unilateral announcement is not consistent with the content of the Riyadh Agreement, it is consistent with its objectives—the field military confrontations in Shabwa made the STC seem more flexible toward adhering to the Riyadh Agreement.

The continued progress of the Houthis also contributed in the response of the STC and the Yemeni presidency to the call of the International Quartet (the UK, the US, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) for the return of the Yemeni government from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, to the temporary capital of Aden, which occurred on September 29, 2021.

Economic consequences and their impact on the implementation of the agreement:

In mid-September, massive popular rallies took place in Aden, “denouncing the deteriorating economic and living conditions, the collapse of basic services, and the deterioration of the value of the local currency, in light of the almost complete absence of the supposed government role, in addition to the ongoing dispute with the Southern Transitional Council, which controls the land” [19]. In response to these protests, the President of the STC ordered his forces to “strike with an iron fist those who he accused of destabilizing security and stability” [20], and declared “a state of emergency in all governorates of southern Yemen” [21] in violation of the terms of the agreement as this is the prerogative solely of the internationally recognized government.

The economic repercussions, and the resulting protests in most of the liberated governorates, reduced the tensions between the two anti-Houthi parties and achieved a measure of cautious formal rapprochement. However, it did not put an end to the economic problems, as the government remained unable to pay salaries and financial dues to employees of the military, security, and civil sectors of the state [22]. The Transitional Council announced a reward of 100,000 riyals for each member of its forces [23], nevertheless, this unilateral measure does not help in the integration of security and military units into the relevant ministries, instead only establishing loyalty to political groups.

The truce between the loyalists of President Hadi and the STC allowed the prime minister to return to Aden, but the practices of the two parties on the ground indicate the depth of the division between them, not to mention the failure to implement most of the economic and military aspects of the Riyadh Agreement.

The future of peace in light of the current repercussions:

The Houthis’ success in capturing Marib would mean that they would control the wide and strategic governorate as a starting point for progress toward southern Yemen [24]. At that time, it is expected that all tools of the military and regional conflict will move to the southern governorates, in light of the increasing conflict over the south after losing the north to the Houthis [25]. The complexity of the conflict in the southern governorates will exacerbate the already deteriorating economic and health crises. There is an absence of transparency in the government’s work and financial activities, which lack monitoring and auditing, and a low flow of official revenues—especially of oil and gas—to its budget. Also, the “ports and airports are not subject to the authority of the legitimate government” [26], which threatens the government’s ability to fulfill its basic obligations, including paying the salaries for the employees of the state and providing basic services.

If the Houthis succeed in seizing Marib, it is expected that hundreds of thousands of displaced people and residents will be forced to migrate again toward the southern governorates, which adds new economic and security burdens and military repercussions that complicate the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement.

The progress made by the Houthis in Marib and other governorates makes it difficult for them to accept negotiations or make political concessions. The Houthi forces will likely continue to escalate the war, regardless of the scale of the humanitarian crisis. “The Houthis have always prioritized field gains over humanitarian concerns, especially in Marib, where the economic and military advantages of controlling this city may change the balance of power in the conflict” [27].

These potentially disastrous consequences require unity against the Houthi project, which seeks to bring Yemen under its control by force of arms, but “given the continuing mistrust between the Southern Transitional Council, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform party, and the presidency, it will be difficult to unify the military efforts against the Houthis, and restore areas that the legitimate government has lost during the years 2020 and 2021 and now controlled by the Houthis” [28].

Such a possibility requires serious regional pressure exerted by the UAE on the STC, and by Saudi Arabia on President Hadi and his loyalists. “If the anti-Houthi parties are able to form a strong and united coalition, then a coordinated attack will allow to penetrate the Houthi front lines and changing the local distribution of force, thus reviving the currently stalled peace process led by the United Nations” [29].

Saudi Arabia has the influence—through its economic and military power on the ground—to push both sides to implement the Riyadh Agreement. For example: In June 2020, Saudi Arabia pressured the STC to retract its declaration of self-administration, and persuaded President Hadi and his allies to stop military operations in Abyan. Saudi Arabia has proven its influence at the regional level, by using a policy of intimidation and enticement to keep its allies under control, as it provides funds for reconstruction projects to improve infrastructure, and threatens to use its army to deter any future clashes [30], but this policy has not succeeded on the ground. Without the seriousness of Saudi Arabia to use its tools to pressure the STC and those loyal to President Hadi, it will be difficult to achieve progress in implementing the Riyadh Agreement and stopping the internal military and economic repercussions.

Despite the seriousness of the scenarios resulting from these repercussions, the Arab Coalition led by Saudi Arabia can take them as an opportunity to pressure the STC and enable the internationally recognized Yemeni government to regain control over resources that are still hampered by military, security, and political obstacles, “in a manner that guarantees the collection and deposit of all state revenues to the Central Bank in Aden, and disbursed it according to the budget approved in accordance with Yemeni law” [31].

For “the legitimate government to actually control the state’s revenues, the government needs to reassert its control over revenues in Aden. Improving the state’s financial situation requires pressure on the Southern Transitional Council and the local authorities in Marib, Shabwa, Hadramawt and Al-Mahra to deposit the revenues to the Central Bank” [32].

To overcome these dilemmas, it is important to consider the following recommendations:

  • Complete the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement, and unify the forces affiliated with the internationally recognized government so that it can address the current military challenges.
  • Holding an international conference to support the Yemeni government with the necessary funds to face the economic and military repercussions and supply basic expenses, thus giving the government popular support.
  • Removing military groups that are not under the authority of the legitimate government from the temporary capital of Aden and the ports that are not controlled by the Houthis, and investing in the ports and oil resources to reduce dependence on foreign aid.
  • Implementation of a campaign of support and advocacy calling for a comprehensive national reconciliation between the anti-Houthi forces.
  • Developing the Riyadh Agreement, based on the developments and facts on the ground, to include the following:
  • Adding a clause that guarantees the right to self-determination for the governorates of southern Yemen—if most of its residents support independence—through a popular referendum, to be held after the end of the armed control of the Houthi group over all Yemeni governorates.
  • That the President of the Republic and the Yemeni political forces allied with him commit themselves to consultation and consensus when making appointments to important state positions.
  • Signing a binding timetable for integrating the armed groups affiliated with the anti-Houthi groups into the army and security institutions, and handing over their heavy weapons to the state.

 

Notes:

[1] “Riyadh Agreement: The full text of the agreement between the internationally recognized Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council”, (unofficial translation by Al-Masdar Online), November 6, 2019, https://al-masdaronline.net/national/58

[2] The Yemeni government: The Transitional Council retracted the Riyadh Agreement and increased the escalation, https://arabic.sputniknews.com/arab_world/202107131049566935-

[3] Abdulghani Al-Iryani, The Riyadh Agreement Dilemma, https://sanaacenter.org/publications/analysis/10311

[4] Ibrahim Jalal, “The Riyadh Agreement: Yemen’s new cabinet and what remains to be done”, https://www.mei.edu/publications/riyadh-agreement-yemens-new-cabinet-and-what-remains-be-done

[5] Report about the war in Yemen:

https://www.bbc.com/arabic/world-55354141

[6] Hussam Radman,

https://sanaacenter.org/publications/analysis/11905

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Abdulghani Al-Iryani, The Riyadh Agreement Dilemma, https://sanaacenter.org/publications/analysis/10311

[10] Clashes intensify in Yemeni government’s last stronghold, Sep 26, 2021, https://www.thenationalnews.com/gulf-news/2021/09/26/over-50-killed-in-yemens-marib-military-sources-say/

[11] The Battle for Ma’rib: Insights and Outlook, https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/84588

[12] To ease the pressure on Marib.. the Yemeni army opens new fronts against Al-Houthi, July 3, 2021

https://www.alroeya.com/60-63/2228327

[13] MUTAHAR ALSOFARI, The Battle for Ma’rib: Insights and Outlook, May 21, 2021, https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/84588

[14]The Battle of Marib, Unfortunate Priorities, 2/5/2021

https://www.alaraby.co.uk/opinion

[15] A military source in Marib spoke to the researcher by phone on October 8, 2021 AD.

[16] Grundberg is on a complex mission…military and political escalation in Yemen, 9/8/2021

https://www.aa.com.tr

[17] Yemeni source: 100 Houthis were killed in battles in Shabwa and Marib, September 25, 2021,

https://www.shorouknews.com/news/view.aspx?cdate=25092021&id=594875c8-08ba-4ffc-8140-552c71c0e6bb

[18] Tawfiq Ali, “The Transitional” declares a state of emergency after hours of the Aden protests, September 15, 2021,

https://www.independentarabia.com/node/259351

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid

[22] The full text of the “Riyadh Agreement” between the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council, 4/11/2019,

https://mubasher.aljazeera.net/news/politics/2019/11/4

[23] The Transitional Council leadership announced the disbursement of a financial bonus to each member of the council’s forces, at the rate of 100,000 riyals for each member of these forces, October 10, 2021,

https://adengad.net/search?search

[24] Yemen: Clashes between Al-Houthi rebels and pro-government forces likely in Ma’rib Governorate through at least early October, https://www.garda.com/crisis24/news-alerts/528366/yemen-clashes-between-al-houthi-rebels-and-pro-government-forces-likely-in-marib-governorate-through-at-least-early-october

[25]Quoting from the Emirati newspaper Al-Arab: The Crater events indicate that the regional powers are seeking to transfer the conflict to southern Yemen, October 4, 2021,

https://adengad.net/public/posts/570793?utm_campaign=nabdapp.com&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=nabdapp.com&ocid=Nabd_App

[26] Interview with Afrah Al-Zoba, Adviser to the Prime Minister, the legitimate government, Hadi’s party.

[27] The Battle for Ma’rib: Insights and Outlook

https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/84588

[28] Ibrahim Jalal, The Riyadh Agreement: Yemen’s new cabinet and what remains to be done

https://www.mei.edu/publications/riyadh-agreement-yemens-new-cabinet-and-what-remains-be-done

[29] Ibid

[30] Abdulghani Al-Iryani, The Riyadh Agreement Dilemma, https://sanaacenter.org/publications/analysis/10311

[31] The full text of the “Riyadh Agreement” between the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council, 4/11/2019,

https://mubasher.aljazeera.net/news/politics/2019/11/4

[32] Ibrahim Jalal, The Riyadh Agreement: Yemen’s new cabinet and what remains to be done, February 1, 2021, https://www.mei.edu/publications/riyadh-agreement-yemens-new-cabinet-and-what-remains-be-done

 

This paper is part of the “Riyadh Agreement Project,” implemented by the Arabia Felix Center for Studies (AFC), with the support of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES). The aim is to understand the factors that prevent the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement and provide realistic recommendations to the concerned parties. This project will include studies and other policy papers that will be published successively.

Abdulkareem Ghanem

Dr Ghanem is a senior researcher at the Arabia Felix Center for Studies with research focusing on political and social transformations in Yemen. He is a member of the Arab Society for Sociology, obtaining a Ph.D. in political sociology in 2020. He is the author of the book “Political Awareness in Yemeni Society”. He has published many scientific research papers, and has participated in several conferences, including the Sixteenth Conference of the Generations of Arab Sociologists, Beirut (2006), and has many social and political activities. He is the head of the youth lobbying group, Sana'a, since 2014. He is a member of the Yemeni Writers Union and has published several literary publications, including a short story collection entitled “When the sidewalk ate the backside of his shoe” and a poetry collection entitled “the Fragments of waiting”.

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