A ray of hope for Yemen finally appeared on Apr. 17 when Martin Griffiths, the new U.N. special envoy to Yemen, announced that he will put in place a framework for new talks within two months. However, a string of resignations and revelations in the Yemeni government raises questions about Hadi’s leadership of the anti-Houthi forces.
President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s absence from Aden and the Saudi-led coalition’s lack of progress against the Houthis has led to high-level resignations from his government and public criticism of the government’s Saudi and Emirati backers. Yemeni Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdulmalik al-Mekhlafi recently told the reporters that the government’s differences with the United Arab Emirates had prevented Hadi from returning from his exile in Saudi Arabia. Hadi’s interior minister, Ahmed al-Maysari, remarked that Hadi is not an ambassador who should stay in Riyadh, but a head of state who should return to his capital. Minister of Transportation Salah al-Sayyadi resigned, saying that Yemeni sovereignty had been stolen and that Hadi’s government was a mere appendage of the Saudi coalition. Minister of Civil Service and Assistant Prime Minister Abdulaziz al-Jubari also resigned, questioning whether the coalition really wanted to win the war.
A Yemeni government official noted that, “We are the ones who were mistaken from the beginning when we left the coalition to its own devices without supervision or accountability. We thought that they understood the complexities of the Yemeni scene, but it became clear to us that they didn’t.” Declining to be identified, the official added, “We now do not understand exactly what our brothers in the coalition want…or what their own agendas are in Yemen during and after the liberation campaign.”
The UAE has an agenda in Yemen. In contrast to the Saudis, who support the regular Yemeni military in Marib led by commanders Ali Mohsin and Hashem al-Ahmar, the UAE has organized new security forces in the south. These forces proved effective in pushing al-Qaeda back and advancing the front against the Houthis in the district of Bayhan and up the Red Sea coast toward Hodeida.
But Emirati backing forces allied with the secessionist Southern Transitional Council in battles against forces loyal to the Hadi government in Aden in January seems to reveal a fundamental tension between the Emirati leadership and the Hadi government. And the coalition’s lack of progress in Taiz, just north of Aden, has led many to question the UAE’s motives.
Two major factions, one backed by the Emirates and the other supported by the Islamist Islah party, are competing for leadership of the resistance in Taiz. Fighting often appears more intense between these two factions than against the Houthis, and some argue that the UAE would rather leave Taiz under Houthi control than see it liberated by forces that it sees as friendly to Qatar. Furthermore, in the south, the division of the security forces into small local groups instead of a united Yemeni force has led others to ask whether the UAE is creating small fiefdoms within its control.
There is no doubt that the Emirates has a grand plan to secure and dominate the waterways and ports around the Arabian Peninsula and to eliminate political Islamic groups. In Yemen, the UAE has built bases in Socotra and Perim Island in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, and elsewhere the Emirates have built military bases in Somaliland and Eritrea.
However, while the UAE may have designs for the southern Yemeni coast, its support for the resistance in the south may not provide it with the leverage that it seeks. The divisions seen in Aden and Taiz are the result of fractures in Yemeni politics, and not ones created by the UAE. The STC is composed principally of leaders Hadi appointed and then fired. The UAE may disagree with Hadi over certain issues, but it is not the master of southern Yemeni politics.
Indeed, the Hadi government’s complaints about the Emirates masks its own struggle for coherence. In December 2014, Hadi appointed Abdel-Aziz Ben Habtour governor of Aden, who later resurfaced in 2016 as the prime minister of the Houthis’ so-called National Salvation Government. During the height of the battle for Aden in April 2015, Hadi appointed the popular Nayef al-Bakri governor of Aden because of his instrumental role in rallying the resistance and key Salafi leaders such as Abd al-Wahhab Muhammad Abd al-Rahman al-Humayqani to the Hadi government. Then Hadi turned toward the Hirak to rally political support and provide some stability in the south. Governors Jaafer Saad and Aidarus al-Zoubaidi and Aden security chief Shalal al-Shaya drew from their deep roots in Hirak to build new political foundations for the south.
But Hirak is opposed to the Yemeni unity that Hadi strongly supports, and Hadi grew fearful of the southern movement’s popularity and strength. He eventually deposed the governors of Aden, Shabwa, Lahj and Hadramawt. The move backfired and strengthened the hand of the deposed governors, who created the independent STC. Hadi’s replacement for governor, Abdulaziz al-Muflehi, a southern businessman who spent southern Yemen’s socialist years in Saudi Arabia, later resigned and accused Hadi’s prime minister, Ahmed Obaid bin Daghr, of corruption. Today, there is no governor in Aden—the son of former socialist President Salmeen is acting governor.
Hadi’s own struggle for political legitimacy stems from the same complexities of Yemeni politics that some Yemeni officials claim its coalition partners fail to comprehend. While the Hadi government may better understand the complexity of Yemeni politics, its performance shows that it is no more able to negotiate those complexities than its foreign backers. Neither Hadi’s people nor Emirati officials have been able to patch together the disparate forces arrayed against the Houthi. The political chaos may hamper negotiations with the Houthi.
Photo credit: AHMAD AL-BASHA/AFP/Getty Images