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Evaluating Yemen’s New Presidential Council

April 2022 has proven an eventful month for Yemen. All sides to the conflict accepted a truce announced by UN special envoy Hans Grundberg, including both Saudi Arabia and the Ansar Allah movement commonly known as the “Houthis.” With a few notable exceptions, the truce has held for the entire month of Ramadan and is currently in its second month. The truce was followed by a large gathering in Riyadh under the auspices of the GCC and yielded a major change in Yemen’s leadership: a handover of all political and military responsibilities from President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and vice president Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar to a new presidential council led by Dr. Rashad al-Allimi and including most of Yemen’s warlords, minus the Houthis. This shift marks one of the most dramatic developments in Yemen’s seven-year war, but the truce could be a mere diplomatic interlude in the conflict, foreshadowing a much larger war to come if the grounds for peace are not carefully prepared. As in all diplomatic and legal agreements, the devil lies in the details.

First, it must be understood that much of what happens in Yemen following the Riyadh conference will depend on what the Saudi and Emirati intentions were in forcing the change in leadership in the first place. If the new presidential council was the product of the Arab coalition’s initiative, it is logical to assume that the new leadership’s strategy (to the extent that it has one) must originate from the same source. Given the country’s limited press freedom and therefore the dearth of critical reporting in the Kingdom, the Saudi decision-making process is understandably opaque. If the Saudi and Emirati decisions in Riyadh intended to help bring about a sustainable peace in Yemen, one would have expected a direct outreach to the Houthis by either the Saudis or by the new presidential council directly upon its formation. In fact, diplomatic feelers were apparently sent, but the Houthis refused to join the conference in Riyadh, claiming that they considered the choice of venue to be hostile. The council’s inauguration in the southern city of Aden began with a speech laying the blame for the war on the Houthis and Iran, and its leaders reiterated the Hadi government’s insistence on “ending the 2014 coup and […] full adherence to UNSC 2216”—  a diplomatic non-starter the Houthis have previously rejected, given its demand for what is in effect a Houthi  surrender. The lack of a new peace plan, or even a way forward for the new government, does not portend an easy transition to peace.

A Unity Government?

Yemen’s newly-created presidential council is essentially a roundtable of the chiefs of the country’s warring factions. This concept has much to recommend it. A negotiated end to Yemen’s war can only come about if those conducting the negotiations can agree on the terms for doing so. A roundtable, even if it does not include the Houthis, can still move the process a step forward if it presents both a politically unified front and a realistic peace proposal that can be presented to the Houthis. So far, the presidential council seems to have neither.

Indeed, the eight members of the new presidential council, Rashad al-Allimi (Taiz), Abdallah Bawazeer (Shabwa), Faraj al-Bahsni (Hadramawt), Sultan al-Arada (Ma’rib), Tareq Saleh (Sanaa), Othman Megally (Saada region), Aidarous al-Zubaidi (Dhalea), and Abdulrahman Abu Zara’a (Yafe’a), is geographically representative but politically discordant. Before any peace plan can be presented to the Houthis as a basis for negotiation, the plan needs the agreement of the council members. For that to happen, the peace plan needs first to clearly define what the council members hope the postwar status of the Yemeni state that Council proposes to negotiate with the Houthis.

Divisions between anti-Houthi leaders in Yemen’s north and south are foremost among the council’s unresolved issues. Aidarous al-Zubaidi leads the breakaway Southern Transitional Council (STC). He is based in Aden and does not speak for the entire south, let alone Ma’rib and the Hadramawt region. The question of southern independence will have to be debated among the various southern leaders; the optimal outcome would be a referendum organized after the war ends to choose between independence, a centralized federal state or a loosely bound confederation of the regions of Yemen (this time with an agreement on the number and borders of the regions). A unified plan on such issues would be a logical prerequisite before a diplomatic approach could be made to the Houthis, who naturally have ideas of their own on the subject.

A unified command of the Yemen government military and security forces is a second challenge, given the failure of the Riyadh agreement to settle the question—particularly in Aden, Ma’rib, and Hadramawt. Before one asks the Houthis to put down their arms, the multiplicity of militias and separate commands in the south would have to be settled. The first and second Riyadh agreements established a unified command as a goal under joint political leadership. A government that includes both northerners and southerners was put together, but the two sides remained at odds as to who would control the disparate armed forces on the ground, with Hadi’s republican forces remaining in Abyan and northern Hadramawt and STC forces entrenched in Aden. In the Hadramawt region, Hadrami Elite Forces (al-Nukhba) and Security Belt Forces (al-Hizam al-Amni) were established by the UAE early on in the war to minimize Emirati forces’ direct involvement. These militias are totally funded, trained, and equipped by the UAE and do not owe allegiance either to Yemen’s official army or to the STC. Under the direct command of Emirati officers, these militias have also in the past received training by U.S. special forces, ostensibly to conduct raids against al-Qaeda in the south. They have also been implicated in human rights abuses against civilians, said to be detained in secret prisons extending from Mukalla and into the Hadramawt. Given the continued UAE military presence in Mukalla and on the island of Socotra, the future disposition of these forces remains an open question.

Unfinished Business

Thus far, the major achievement of the Riyadh conference was to buttress the truce with a commitment to the relaxation of travel and movement restrictions, including the reopening of Sana’a airport to commercial flights and the port of Hodeidah to fuel shipments. However, Riyadh never worked out the details of this arrangement, namely who would control the flights, who would be eligible to board, and where they would go.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates how these details could derail a peace agreement as the issue of passports—one of the reasons behind the delay in reopening the Sana’a airport. Yemen’s government has insisted that any passports used by passengers boarding flights from Sanaa must be issued by the “legitimate authorities” of the state, excluding Yemeni travel documents issued by the Houthis. Not surprisingly, the Houthis have rejected this arrangement, refusing to give up control over travel through their capital. Since the flights currently allowed are limited with destinations only to Cairo and Amman, a logical solution to this dilemma could be UN-issued travel documents which would presumably be acceptable in Egypt and Jordan, but UN intervention in this matter has thus far been rejected.

The reopening of roads in and out of Ta’iz, and to and from Sanaa to the south has also been partial at best. Ta’iz is still a contested city, and the warring parties there have thus far refused to grant open access, despite the overwhelming hardships to civilians inside the city.

Ma’rib remains a flashpoint in the conflict, and the failure to bring calm to that front in spite of the ceasefire threatens to derail it in other regions. Houthis and Saudis have exchanged complaints over truce violations, and the Yemeni government, now under the presidential council, has warned that it could initiate a major new military campaign if the Houthis do not halt their violations of the truce. A return to war at this juncture threatens a much wider conflagration, perhaps even leading to direct military involvement by the United States. The U.S. Navy has deployed a new task force to patrol the Red Sea in light of Houthi attacks on Arab coalition ships in the past year. A maritime dimension of an already complex war could bring in other regional actors, further complicating the conflict. Further escalation of the conflict is in no party’s interests, least of all the interests of the new presidential council’s.

The new council’s president, Dr. Rashad al-Alimi, a non-ideological civil servant with extensive experience in both military/security and political matters, is perhaps uniquely qualified under present conditions to lead the presidential council. His first priority, however, must be a diplomatic one, both inside the presidential council and outside it, extending an olive branch to all parties. He must also fill in the missing details of a plan for the relief of Yemen’s civilian population around which all of Yemen’s warring parties can coalesce. UN and U.S. envoys must also put their efforts behind assisting Allimi in the development of a detailed and sustainable peace plan for Yemen. Hopefully, May will show us if the April events can bring relief to the troubled people of Yemen.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Dr. Nabeel Khoury is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at Gulf International Forum and previously was a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center for the Middle East. His commentaries appear on the Atlantic Council’s MENA Resource, The Hill, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs and on his own blog, Middle East Corner. After 25 years in the Foreign Service, Dr. Khoury retired from the U.S. Department of State in 2013 with the rank of Minister-Counselor. He taught Middle East and US strategy courses at the National Defense University and Northwestern University. In his last overseas posting, Khoury served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Yemen (2004-2007). In 2003, during the Iraq war, he served as Department spokesperson at US Central Command in Doha and in Baghdad. Khoury earned his BA in political science from the American University of Beirut and his MA and PhD in political science from the State University of New York at Albany. Before his Foreign Service career, Khoury was an assistant professor of political science at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY, and earlier, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Jordan in Amman. Dr. Khoury has published articles on issues of leadership and development in the Arab world in The Middle East Journal, Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, and The International Journal of Middle East Studies. Articles on the regional impact of the Arab uprising and on U.S. policy in Yemen appear in the summer 2013 and summer 2014 issues of Middle East Policy. In 2019 Dr. Khoury published his book “Bunker Diplomacy: An Arab-American in the U.S. Foreign Service: Personal Reflections on 25 Years of U.S. Policy in the Middle East.”

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