Exiled Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi announced the formation of a new unity government on Friday, just over a year after the power-sharing agreement was signed with the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) in the Saudi capital Riyadh. I wrote last November that the Saudi-brokered peace deal — the Riyadh Agreement — between the UN-recognised Yemeni government and the UAE-backed STC will merely delay the inevitable, which is that the alternative government based in the capital Sanaa actually holds power in the country.
The National Salvation Government (NSG), which most news sources still refer to by using dated and misleading terminology such as “the Houthi rebels”, has not only been in control of the state capital and most populated city, but also governs most of Yemen’s other densely populated areas. The Houthi movement forms an integral if not leading part of the NSG and is supported by most of the country’s armed forces. Thus the general portrayal of the conflict is often inaccurate at best and, at worst, contributes to the worsening humanitarian crisis gripping Yemen.
By the time the Riyadh Agreement was signed, it had already been postponed following months of negotiations aimed at putting aside differences between the Islah militia fighting on behalf of the Saudi-based Hadi government and those loyal to the STC in an attempt to shift the focus back to the northern-held territories of the joint Houthi and Yemen army forces. However violent clashes in the south, particularly in the interim capital and port city of Aden, which fell under STC control in August last year, persisted between the rival factions in spite of the power-sharing agreement. It was not long after I had speculated that the agreement would fail that things turned sour, especially when it had ambitiously set a 30-day deadline to establish a new inclusive 24-member cabinet based on equal representation.
Relations between Hadi’s government and the STC deteriorated further at the start of this year, leading to the latter announcing that it had withdrawn from the agreement followed by a declaration of self-rule in the south in April. In the midst of this infighting, the Houthi-Yemen army forces seized the provincial capital Al-Hazm in the northern Al-Jawf province as they set their sights on the remaining Saudi-backed stronghold of Marib city, which they have been trying to take since spring.
The STC “coup” on the Yemeni island of Socotra in June, which had avoided conflict for most of the five-year war, was another development which appeared to show that the agreement existed in name only. Interestingly, the issue of Socotra isn’t stipulated explicitly in the Riyadh Agreement, and it could be that an understanding was reached between coalition partners Saudi Arabia and the UAE whereby the STC would scale back its territorial gains on the mainland while maintaining a presence on the island, which is increasingly being seen as an Emirati occupation by proxy.With both sides blaming the other for the failure to fulfil their obligations under the agreement, it is evident that the Sanaa-based de facto government has been gaining the upper hand politically and militarily despite the huge foreign support that the Hadi government and STC receive from their respective patrons. The NSG is resisting the notion that Yemen is Saudi Arabia’s backyard to be exploited continually, which has contributed to it being the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula, and is facing the mammoth task of rebuilding the war-torn country and staving off the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. As an unrecognised government it has little overseas support, with the exception of Iran and Syria, with which it has diplomatic relations. On the military front, the Yemeni army and the “popular committees” continue to carry out daring cross-border attacks on Saudi territory, including some against important oil facilities, while also making slow but steady progress towards Marib, which is protected by both mountainous terrain and coalition air power.
I believe that the NSG has a strong case for being recognised as the legitimate government of Yemen instead of the puppet government under Hadi, who was in fact president on an interim basis before holding unopposed elections and later resigning before fleeing the country. Yet it is Yemen and more accurately the Yemeni people who are paying the price for their independence. On top of the siege imposed on Yemen’s main port and the daily air strikes, the Trump administration in Washington is also intent on designating the Houthi movement as a terrorist organisation in a move which has been criticised by humanitarian rights groups and Yemen’s neighbour Oman as being counter-productive. It is likely to hinder humanitarian efforts in the country, given that most Yemenis live in NSG-controlled territory.
If the international community — states and NGOs alike — is serious about working to end the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen as it approaches its sixth anniversary, the current discourse needs to reflect the reality on the ground. Politicians and the media should abandon the lazy journalism and propaganda of the past five years which has promoted the claim that Yemen is merely a proxy war between the Saudi-supported Yemeni government and the “Iranian-backed Houthi rebels”.
Despite optimistic reports in Gulf news outlets recently about the new government and its prospects for peace, the reality on the ground paints a different picture. There are still clashes between the Islah militia and STC forces according to local sources in the oil-rich Shabwah province. An alliance based on mutual opposition to the NSG will yield neither long-term stability nor peace for Yemen.
The current revival of the Riyadh Agreement, the redeployment of forces to the northern Houthi territories and the apparent fulfilment of a new government formation is a last-ditch attempt by the Saudi-led coalition to achieve what it has been failing to do, namely overthrow the NSG so that it can re-install Hadi. I stand by my argument last year that such an agreement is destined to fail as there is no concrete power or legitimacy at its core. It is a situation whereby a mercenary force is fighting on behalf of an exiled government with no popular support in the homeland. A substantial political and peaceful settlement to the conflict in Yemen and steps to aid humanitarian efforts can only be realised once we better understand Yemen’s state of affairs and its power politics.