Yemen’s newly-formed Presidential Leadership Council was sworn in on Tuesday before parliament in Aden. The southern port city has served as the internationally-recognised government’s interim capital since March 2015, days before the ongoing Saudi-led coalition’s military intervention was launched. Purportedly at the request of the exiled government, this intervention was actually in response to the fall of Sanaa to Houthi and allied military forces several months earlier, in what is also known as the September 21 Revolution.
The council was established on 7 April, following an order from the Saudi-based President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi whereby he transferred his “powers” to the council, headed by a former adviser and interior minister, Rashad Al-Alimi. Al-Alimi has vowed to work alongside seven other board members in bringing an end to the seven-year war which has claimed the lives of over 300,000 people, while Hadi has expressed interest in “negotiating with the Houthis for a permanent ceasefire.” He also dismissed his controversial Vice President Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, known for his links with Al-Qaeda.
Representing an equal distribution of power between the country’s north and south, the council includes the prominent leader of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), Aidarous Al-Zubaidi, who is supported by Saudi Arabia’s coalition partner the UAE, alongside leaders of other Emirati-backed factions.
This latest Saudi initiative is the closest to realising the main objective of the previous effort, the Riyadh Agreement. It was hoped that the power-sharing accord signed in 2019 between the Hadi government and the STC would enable the parties to divert their hostilities towards the mutually-feared threat of the Houthis from the north.
However, as I argued at the time, this would ultimately fail and merely delay the inevitable given that the Houthi-led National Salvation Government (NSG) held more power and legitimacy on the ground than Hadi’s in Riyadh. Throughout the course of the conflict, the UN-recognised government has been referred to mockingly by many Yemenis on social media as the “hotel government”, a reference to the president and his cabinet members who lived in plush Saudi hotels before many of them were expelled in 2020 as the Kingdom was reportedly no longer willing to cover their living expenses. They were relocated to cheaper rented apartments, all the while lacking any legitimacy and authority in the eyes of the people of Yemen.
Among these senior officials was Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik, who attended yesterday’s swearing-in ceremony in Aden. He was joined by other ministers and foreign dignitaries including UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg as well as ambassadors from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the EU. The heavily-guarded event was discreet and not well-publicised for obvious security reasons. The last time Abdulmalik and other “hotel government” officials touched down at Aden Airport in December 2020 they were the target of a deadly coordinated attack, although there were no fatalities among the cabinet members.
Missing yesterday, though, was President Hadi himself. While health issues may have been a plausible explanation for the 76-year-old’s notable absence, reports suggest a more political motive. According to a report on Sunday by the Wall Street Journal citing anonymous Saudi and Yemeni officials, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman forced Hadi to step down, and issued a written decree stipulating his resignation and the transfer of his powers to the unelected council.
“Hadi is effectively under house arrest at his residence in Riyadh without access to phones,” claimed one Saudi official quoted in the report. He is also said to have been threatened with exposure over corruption allegations. It would not be the first time that Hadi has been placed under house arrest by his Saudi hosts. In 2017 it was reported that the Riyadh authorities had prevented him and his sons, ministers and military officials from returning to Yemen.
Hadi’s fall from grace was inevitable, especially as the figurehead of a Saudi-controlled puppet government which was already “fading away into political irrelevance”. The timing was also probably calculated, amid an already-violated ceasefire imposed by the UN coinciding with the start of the holy month of Ramadan and a series of Gulf-sponsored consultations on Yemen in the Saudi capital, which the Houthis were willing neither to attend nor recognise.
Yemen’s track record of presidential councils does not suggest that the latest has a promising future. It is unlikely that the new group of worthies headed by Al-Alimi, who has close ties with the Saudis, “will be able to set aside their different visions for Yemen’s future and unite against a common foe.” Moreover, as an unelected body, the council is arguably in contravention of Yemen’s constitution.
As with the Riyadh Agreement before it, the Presidential Leadership Council is another attempt by the Saudi-led coalition to set aside political differences and infighting on the ground to focus on the anti-Houthi campaign and topple the Sanaa government. However, like the 2019 agreement, it too is likely to fail in bringing about an end to the war with favourable political outcomes for the coalition.
This assumption rests not just on the underestimated popularity of the NSG, at least in the more densely populous north of the country, but also the one constant throughout the war, namely the actual illegitimacy of the “legitimate, internationally-recognised” Hadi government.
Reacting to Hadi’s announcement earlier this month, Houthi chief negotiator and spokesperson Mohammed Abdul-Salam said, “The international community and the UN no longer have an excuse to continue using the term ‘internationally recognised Yemeni government’ to massacre the Yemeni nation and enforce a tight siege on the Arab country.”
It remains to be seen how long what is in effect the remnant of the “hotel government” will stick around in Aden under Al-Alimi’s leadership before checking-out again and returning to Saudi Arabia. If experience is anything to go by, it will probably be a short stay in the southern port city.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.