By Talmiz Ahmad
24 January 2018
The prospects of peace in Yemen have receded, as the death of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh has not significantly changed the balance of power between the contending forces in the country. The Yemeni people have suffered as a result of years of instability caused by widespread civil conflict, the violence of extremist elements and the secessionist movement in the south of the country.
The Saudi-led coalition has announced an aid package of $1.5 billion to alleviate the people’s suffering and help them cope with the economic burdens they are currently facing. The aid will be distributed through UN agencies and international relief organizations.
Saleh, Yemen’s ruler for 33 years, was killed in street fighting in Sanaa on Dec. 4. Modest of appearance, he is now recognized as the master of cunning manoeuvres, moving from one slippery arrangement to another, always ensuring he came out on top. From 1990, after the unification of Yemen, he was for several years an ally of Saudi Arabia, entering into a comprehensive border agreement with the kingdom in 2000. Saleh also associated himself with the Al-Islah party — made up of a variety of tribal and political groups — and fiercely fought the Houthis in a series of battles between 2004 and 2010.
His downward trajectory began in 2011, when his subjects demanded his removal, after which he reluctantly handed over the presidency to his deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Then, in 2014, in a major turnaround, he allied himself, along with the sections of the national army still loyal to him, with the rebel Houthi forces when they ousted the Hadi government.
The alliance with Saleh greatly boosted the Houthis’ arsenal and firepower. This facilitated their southward march to Aden, the departure of Hadi to Riyadh, and the commencement of a bloody conflict that from 2015 pulled in a Saudi-led regional coalition seeking to restore Hadi as president. This coalition now controls the south and large parts of the country, but Taiz, Sanaa, the port city of Hodeidah and the northern areas are still under Houthi control.
Saleh’s ties with the Houthis were always uneasy, since both sides were intent on using the other for their own interests. Saleh wanted to maintain political authority in the country and possibly replace Hadi with his son, Ahmad; while the Houthis were anxious to establish their own influence in the country, believing they had been marginalized in national affairs by Saleh and Al-Islah.
Obviously, given the self-centeredness and short-sightedness of the two sides, clashes regularly erupted between them. As the fighting ground into a stalemate late last year, Saleh sought to extricate himself by reaching out to the Saudi-led coalition. Learning of his “betrayal,” Houthi militants fought Saleh’s forces on the streets of Sanaa. Soon, the latter were outnumbered and outgunned and Saleh was killed in the fighting.
The Houthis have now begun a crackdown on Saleh’s supporters, many of whom have sought refuge in the south. However, the separatist movement there has threatened to overthrow the Hadi government centred at Aden, thus further complicating the political scenario.
The Houthis continue to attack Saudi cities with their ballistic missiles, while there have been complaints they have blocked humanitarian assistance from reaching the needy and have committed “laws of war” violations by firing indiscriminately into cities. They have also threatened to disrupt shipping in the Red Sea. Organization of Islamic Cooperation ministers have now warned that failure to bring peace to Yemen could make it a haven for terrorists, who would endanger the entire region.
The depreciation of the national currency has exacerbated local living conditions, although the Saudi government last week deposited $2 billion with the central bank in Aden to stabilize the Yemeni Rial. Over the last year, the currency’s value has gone from around 250 Rials to the dollar to around 500, which has deprived the population of purchasing power and pushed it into dire straits.
In a recent Chatham House report, Peter Salisbury described Yemen as a “chaos state” and painted a grim scenario of the situation on the ground. He said that the country has been divided into multiple “areas of control and influence,” in which local tribal and political groups have their own narrow agendas.
The Houthis are under military pressure and are expected to lose some territory and considerable local popularity due to their harsh rule, but any attempt to oust them from Sanaa or Hodeidah would cause large-scale civilian casualties.
Though the UN special envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, has just announced he will not continue after next month, the revival of the peace process has never been more urgent. ?This will need a national unity government, and the shaping of a federal framework that will maintain national unity while providing space for local aspirations. This will require a high level of statesmanship from national leaders, international political support and huge resources from global sources for immediate relief and the restoration of facilities and infrastructure. Otherwise, the state will collapse into fratricidal war that could endanger stability across the region.
• Talmiz Ahmad, a former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune.