Last Friday, 22 May, was Unity Day in Yemen, a national holiday marking the unification of the North and South which took place on that date in 1990. The 30th anniversary of this event was a milestone overlooked — understandably — by the international community and Yemen itself because the country is divided like never before. Moreover, the future of the UN-recognised Yemeni government is also more uncertain than ever.
This fact, though, did not deter Yemen’s Saudi-based President in exile, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who delivered a televised address for the occasion. Hadi vowed to maintain the country’s unity against all attempts to divide it.
“We are making every effort to restore the state and end the coup and rebellion in the north and south of the country,” he said in reference to the Houthi-led National Salvation Government (NSG) in the state capital Sanaa and the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) currently in control of the de facto capital Aden. He also reiterated that the Riyadh Agreement, a power sharing deal with the UAE-backed STC that applies in name only, is still an available option.
However, Hadi’s internationally-recognised government, as I have previously argued, lacks legitimacy, and clearly serves as a puppet of Saudi Arabia which is determined, but failing, to maintain the status-quo of its poorer neighbour. Yemen has been reduced to the status of a subservient client state, as it was under Hadi’s predecessor, the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The problem for Hadi and his Saudi backers is that the war in Yemen, which has been raging for over five years, has yielded minimal results in terms of toppling the NSG in Sanaa; it has, though, caused widespread death and destruction among the civilian population. If anything, the NSG, which enjoys the support of allied Yemeni armed forces and those belonging to the Houthi movement, is currently reasserting control and dominance in the country’s north; only Marib is standing in the way of complete control. The Saudi-backed Islah militia currently holds the city as its stronghold, yet its inevitable fall will be a hugely significant game changer in the Saudi-led coalition’s ground war against the NSG.
— MapAddict (@AddictMap) April 21, 2020
Yemen Military Situation 14-05-2020 pic.twitter.com/Rv2tkWyXjL
— خرائط اليمن 𐩭𐩧𐩱𐩺𐩷 𐩱𐩡𐩺𐩣𐩬 (@YemenMaps) May 14, 2020
It is easy to be misled into thinking that the Saudi-backed forces control most of Yemen, especially when one considers the vast arid terrain which forms much pro-Hadi territory. The reality is that they control the less-densely populated, albeit larger, territories in the country, some of which have Al-Qaeda and Daesh elements within them. Moreover, there has been an increase in open clashes between the militias supported by coalition partners Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the south, which has diverted attention and resources from the overall objective of reinstalling the Hadi government.
A comparison of maps showing Yemen’s population density with current conflict maps puts into context just how much of the Yemeni state is actually in the hands of the “Houthi government”, a bloc that includes members of Saleh’s General People’s Congress political party. The National Salvation Government is, therefore, a credible contender for international-recognition as the legitimate government of Yemen.
Crucially, the Saudis are running out of patience and money in hosting the Yemeni government in exile. Many of its officials, including Hadi, stay in apartments or hotels in Riyadh and Jeddah, at the expense of the Saudi government. Early indications that they have overstayed their welcome were seen in February when it was suggested by one Saudi newspaper that Riyadh needs to replace Hadi and his officials because they have become a “burden” and are conspiring against allies from the confines of luxury hotels.
Saudi Arabia’s growing budget deficit, and reduced revenue due to the dramatic fall in oil prices, as well as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the global economy, may now be prompting Riyadh to take action. A document circulated recently on social media allegedly served notice on Hadi’s administration that the Saudi authorities are no longer able to support its stay in the Kingdom financially; living expenses are apparently being covered until the end of this month, after which the Yemeni officials will need to cover their own costs.
— Tony Toh (@tonytohcy) May 19, 2020
The uncharismatic Yemeni President was undoubtedly hand-picked as vice president by his wily predecessor Saleh, because he did not pose a threat to his position. Similarly, he is simply a figurehead of the Saudi-based Yemeni government; he is also ailing. There were unconfirmed reports earlier this month that Hadi was hospitalised following a heart attack. His deteriorating health is well-known, with five visits to the US for cardiovascular treatment in as many years.
The fate of the Yemeni government in exile will face further uncertainty if he should die, as his own vice president is the notorious Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, who has well-established ties to Al-Qaeda. He will have an even harder time trying to unite the fractured country, and will complicate the cooperation with the Saudis and the US over his extremist links, not that this sort of thing has ever dissuaded either Riyadh or Washington from supporting known terrorist groups, directly or indirectly, in the past.
The Saudis may also even find themselves no longer willing to provide support for the Islah militia which is an important group of pro-Hadi fighters in Yemen. It has been ineffectual against the Houthi-led forces and is more focussed on taking up arms against the STC in the southern oil-producing provinces to such an extent that it has been accused by the STC of covertly aiding the Houthis.
Governing Yemen from five star luxury in Riyadh was never practical to begin with, and has become even more challenging due to Covid-19. The so-called legitimate government is unable to offer protection to its own citizens against the virus, which has spread in those areas of Yemen nominally under Hadi’s government and STC control in the southern provinces. Already faced with the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the number of coronavirus cases is rising in Aden.
It is unclear how long the Saudis can continue to wage war in Yemen and prop up the puppet administration led by Hadi, especially when he is supposedly holding the legitimacy of the Yemeni government intact. As the Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Al-Bukhati stated a couple weeks ago, Hadi’s “legitimacy” is nothing more than a cover for rival anti-Houthi militias controlled by foreign countries. What is abundantly clear is that Hadi’s government is increasingly fading away into political irrelevance. It is hanging by a thread; a puppet government in every sense.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.