This week saw the signing of the much-delayed Riyadh Agreement between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government of exiled President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and the UAE-supported Southern Transitional Council (STC). The Saudis hope that this power-sharing initiative will quell the dispute between the rival factions so that their coalition can focus on pushing back the Houthis in the north of Yemen to re-instate Hadi in the capital Sanaa. The problem with this is that it remains to be seen whether the agreement can be realised in full on the ground, because it merely delays the inevitable, which is the looming failure to defeat the Houthis. This is partly because they are arguably legitimate and, practically speaking, they have the real power, which is what politics is all about in the end.
Adding to the challenge of understanding the complex situation in Yemen, is the language often used to portray the Houthis as "rebels" in the north and the STC as "separatists" in the south; even MEMO is guilty of this. Thus we get a false image of the Saudi-backed Yemeni government in exile as being legitimate and authoritative, while the Houthis are a militia acting as "Iranian proxies". The reality is much more nuanced.
Contrary to the simplistic portrayal of the Zaydi Houthi movement, who refer to themselves as AnsarAllah, they have been in an alliance with some 60 per cent of the Yemeni army loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh who was killed in 2017 by his erstwhile Houthis allies after seeking to defect to the Saudis. The 2014 Houthi takeover of Sanaa simply could not have happened without the support of the Yemeni army and Saleh's intelligence networks, nor could it be maintained without the experience in government of Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC), as corrupt as it was.
It is worth reminding ourselves that Hadi was brought to "power" after Saleh was ousted, by winning an "election" where he was the only candidate. He was supposed to be there for a transitional period and to "relinquish his office after the vote". If these are the standards of the international community for legitimacy and authority, then they are very low indeed.
By 2015, the elite Yemen Republican Guard (YRG) had been co-opted into the Houthi chain of command as a formidable YRG-Houthi hybrid, consisting of "ideologically motivated foot soldiers on the one hand and trained operators of heavy weaponry and advanced equipment on the other hand." They not only proved to be highly resilient to the ensuing Saudi-led military intervention in the country, but also intensified their bold cross-border raids into Saudi territory.
Descriptions of "the Houthis" may well be for the benefit of the ordinary reader; or it could be a deliberate attempt to mislead us about who actually has power and authority in Yemen. Little attention is paid by Western and Gulf news sources to the existence of a rival government to Hadi's, namely the National Salvation Government, which came out of the GPC-Houthi alliance and enjoys partial power. Arguably, though, the real power lies in the "Revolutionary Committee", with Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi at its helm; it's an authoritative body founded solely by the Houthis. Hence, in "Houthi-aligned" media, a distinction is made between the joint forces of the Yemeni army and "popular committees" against the acts of aggression by the foreign coalition and puppet government. Suffice to say, despite ruling the most densely populated regions of Yemen and holding power in the rawest sense of the word, neither has been recognised by the UN.
Instead, we are expected by the mainstream media in the West to believe that the Riyadh-based Hadi leads the legitimate government of Yemen, even though it has no army of its own on the ground, relies heavily on the Saudi-armed Islamist Islah Party militia and Sudanese mercenaries, and has been ousted from not one, but two capital cities. Hadi has not only had a difficult time in trying to push back the Houthis with the help of foreign air support and a naval blockade, but also suffered setbacks from the clash of interests between Saudi Arabia and the UAE that had the potential to open another front in the already complex Yemeni conflict, splitting the country in two as it once was during the height of the Cold War until unification in 1990.
In the south, there are frequent skirmishes between the Islah militia aligned with Hadi and the Emirati-trained Security Belt and Elite Forces who are affiliated with the STC. This culminated with the southern secessionists taking over the port city of Aden, their envisioned future capital, as it once was for the state of South Yemen, and expelling the Hadi government from its interim seat of power in August.
Not too long before the steady withdrawal of UAE troops from the south, and the handover of Aden to Saudi forces during weeks of negotiations in Jeddah, the Hadi government announced that Ataq, the capital of the oil-producing Yemeni province of Shabwa, would serve as its next de facto national capital. Essentially, it became capital city number three. For an apparently "legitimate" and UN-recognised government, it becomes increasingly difficult to see what sort of authority or power Hadi's administration actually has. Adding further doubts to its credibility, last week two ministers in Hadi's team survived an assassination attempt in the city.
In an attempt to better understand the Riyadh Agreement, I met up with the UK spokesperson for the STC, Saleh Al-Noud, at his London office one day after it was signed. "This is not a solution to the Southern issue," he insisted.
Al-Noud contended that the STC only accepted the agreement on the basis that it was for a transitional period only — "the Saudis are very keen to get everybody together to continue with the fight against the Houthis" — and then to revisit the other issues thereafter. He agreed with me about the alleged legitimacy of Hadi's government, maintaining that it was always fragile and would cease to exist if the Saudis were not hosting and propping it up.
The Hadi government lacks power and a physical base in Yemen, and is not really popular among the people. Moreover, the leadership lacks charisma. The foremost social theorist of the twentieth century, Max Weber, said that power is the ability to exercise one's will over others; for this reason, whether coercive or with consent, I am of the view that the National Salvation Government government has the real power in Yemen, and not the government held together by Riyadh.
It must be noted that although the STC has popular support in the south, it is not spread across all provinces. The Southern National Salvation Council, for example, has openly rejected the Riyadh Agreement, which "does not demand the departure of foreign troops and preserve our independence and sovereign decisions", whilst a southern Yemeni journalist, Saleh Al-Hanashi reportedly criticised the agreement, suggesting that the STC will be the "biggest losers" from the deal. As far as Saleh Al-Noud is concerned, though, as long as the people in the south demand independence, the STC will stand for those aspirations as it was formed from the Hirak independence movement. However, should the agreement fall flat, there is no guarantee that Aden will fall back into STC hands, thus ending any chance for the puppet government in Riyadh to return; the capital Sanaa will remain firmly in the hands of the Houthi and Yemeni armed forces.
Perhaps as a prelude to almost certain defeat, the Saudis have recently acknowledged that they have opened up channels of communication with the Houthis. This makes it obvious that the Houthis have the power in Yemen, and Hadi has no authority. The future of the country may well be becoming a little clearer.
Read the terms of the Yemeni peace deal here
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.