Yemen Is Sinking Into the Red Sea, but Can It Be Saved?

With 80 percent of its citizens living under the poverty line, a unity government was formed last week, but its prospects of surviving are uncertain

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A Saudi officer walking with an army officer of Yemen's separatist Southern Transitional Council during the redeployment of Council forces from the southern Yemeni province of Abyan, December 14, 2020.
A Saudi officer walking with an army officer of Yemen's separatist Southern Transitional Council during the redeployment of Council forces from the southern Yemeni province of Abyan, Dec. 14, 2020.Credit: Adam Muhammad/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

It’s difficult to describe Yemen as a state. Its official borders may be recognized by the international community and from a distance you can detect a president, a prime minister, an army, a parliament and even a budget there. But when you zoom in on its streets, alleys, market places, schools and so-called clinics or hospitals, Yemen seems to consist of spare parts that don’t add up to a state.

Some 80 percent of its 29 million citizens live below the $2-a-day poverty line. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, millions have lost their homes and tens of thousands of others have died of starvation and diseases during six years of war. UN Secretary General António Guterres has called the situation in Yemen “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.”

Yemen is ostensibly governed by two main bodies, the recognized government headed by President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and the Houthis, who have conquered most of the state’s territories, including the capital Sana’a in 2014.

But while the Houthi leadership appears united and is supported by Iran, the recognized administration is divided into rival parties and militias, not all of which are loyal to the government. President Hadi has been living for the past six years in Saudi Arabia, and it is difficult to provide humanitarian aid to the south. In the Houthi controlled north, it is hard to ascertain the population’s condition.

The government’s partial control was severely shaken three years ago when the Southern Transitional Council seceded from the government. The council’s leader, Major General Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, and his forces took over the city of Aden and a few southern districts, which al-Zubaidi declared an autonomous region under his rule in April.

Security forces loyal to the separatist Southern Transitional Council riding a vehicle as they are deployed in the southern port city of Aden, Yemen December 20, 2020. Credit: Fawaz Salman/Reuters

This isn’t a local tribal power struggle. Al-Zubaidi and his forces come from the traditional south, which has suffered discrimination and maltreatment since Yemen’s union in 1990 under the leadership of Abdallah Salah. The south’s leadership was pushed out of the government and the state’s budget was given mainly to the tribes loyal to Salah.

The self-rule declaration in the south jeopardized the government and military structure set up by Saudi Arabia and the UAE as part of their war against the Houthi rebels and their desire to block Iran’s influence. Even worse, the UAE withdrew its forces from Yemen half a year earlier, shattering the grand Arab coalition consisting of Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan, Bahrain and the UAE. In fact, only the Saudi and Emirati troops, as well as UAE-mobilized South American mercenaries, took part in the war.

But the UAE’s withdrawal didn’t cut it off entirely from Yemen. It continued to support, finance and train the Southern Transitional Council forces, with the apparent intention of redividing Yemen into north and south and ensuring its influence on southern Yemen, which controls the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the port city of Aden.

Strategic withdrawal

In exchange for the UAE’s withdrawal from Yemen, the Houthis stopped attacking the UAE’s ships and the UAE signed a cooperation agreement with Iran to protect the Persian Gulf shipping lanes. The move basically rid the UAE of the U.S. Congress’ threat to impose sanctions against it for its involvement in the war in Yemen and using American weapons against civilians.

The move also paved the UAE’s path to purchasing the F-35 airplanes, which served as the Israeli-American dowry for normalizating relations with Israel. Meanwhile, the UAE has temporarily suspended its aspiration to establish a south Yemeni state under its auspices. Its forces, together with the Southern Transitional Council’s combatants, have taken over the Yemeni island Socotra, located between the Guardafui Channel and the Arabian Sea south of Yemen and overlooking major shipping lanes to the Red Sea.

The council and the UAE have closed the island off to non-resident Yemeni citizens and are imposing stiff restrictions for issuing work permits, according to reports in Yemen. UAE officials are governing civilian life and the UAE presumably plans to build a military base on the island, which Israel will be able to use, too.

In contrast, Saudi Arabia is still entangled in Yemen. President Trump sidestepped Congressional legislation banning arms sales to Saudi Arabia by stating the deal was a matter of national security. But Saudi Arabia fears that Joe Biden, who had once led the opposition to the war in Yemen and supported legislation to prevent arms sale to Saudi Arabia, will revoke Trump’s veto and implement Congress’s decision.

Trump streamrolled Saudi Arabia to open negotiations with the Houthis in a bid to reach a cease fire and advance the arms sales. Saudi and Houthi envoys held a few meetings that yielded no results. When the council took over Yemen’s southern districts and clashed with the Yemenite army, Trump demanded Saudi Arabia and the UAE mend the damage, solve the internal conflict and reach a truce followed by a peace agreement with the separatists’ full cooperation.

Honor guards carrying coffins of Houthi fighters killed in recent fighting against forces of the internationally-recognized government, during a funeral in Sana'a, Yemen, November 25, 2020.Credit: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

Indeed, the sides signed in November 2019 the Riyadh Agreement, stipulating that the separatists withdraw from the territories they had occupied and resume their previous positions. The agreement also stipulated that the council and the recognized Yemeni government would set up a parity government with 24 ministers. The separatists and Yemeni forces would merge to fight against the Houthis. “Honest and decent” professionals, together with a supreme economic council would supervise budget allocations from The the central bank, where all state revenue would be deposited.

But the celebrations and congratulations hailing the agreement were premature. A year went by with discussions and bickering over which ministers would be appointed. Last Friday, President Hadi announced the establishment of a unity government headed by Moein Abdel Malek. The ministers of defense, economy, foreign and interior affairs are Hadi loyalists. The remaining portfolios were distributed as agreed among the supreme council members and the recognized government.

The new government was showered with congratulations, although it is unclear whether and for how long it will last, for while the separatist forces withdrew to their previous positions, they are still clashing violently with Muslim Brotherhood loyalists whose Reform Party is a government coalition partner.

Meanwhile, millions of Yemenis are in need of massive humanitarian aid at an estimated cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. The government’s coffers are empty and no budget has been drafted since 2014. The state’s expenses in 2019 were some $320 million alone, with 60 percent of it from oil. But some of these returns are given to Saudi Arabia in payment for its expenses in Yemen. The rest is earmarked for wages and welfare.

Saudi soldiers during the withdrawal of fighters loyal to Yemen's separatist Southern Transitional Council in Yemen's southern Abyan province on December 13, 2020.Credit: - - AFP

Some 600,000 civil servants have lost their jobs. Most of the remaining ones cannot rely on being paid monthly; their wages, sometimes incomplete, are regularly paid weeks and even months late. One problem is that civil servants are charging commission for every public service in order to make a living.

In 2018, the government stopped paying wages to employees working in areas occupied by the Houthis. At the same time the Houthis charged the residents a war tax to finance their expenses.

There are now two central banks, one in Aden under government and the other in Sana’a under Houthi rule. All attempts to put together a uniform monetary policy have failed. A number of local and international banks operate in Yemen, but it is impossible to get a loan or credit, mainly because borrowers cannot provide the banks with any guarantees. Most financial transactions are held outside the banking system by means of some 2,000 money changers, who also set the local currency rate relative to the dollar.

The courts are in name only. Judges are appointed by whichever power happens to be in charge. Political expediency dictates the verdicts, and the customary method is to solve problems outside the court with payoffs.

There is no other way than mobilizing the international community to put together a plan to end the war, if Yemen is to be rehabilitated. For the time being, the international community is making do with sending humanitarian aid.

This community’s incompetence is demonstrated by the rusting oil storage vessel Safer, which was abandoned off Hodeida Port due to technical problems five years ago with 1.1 million crude oil barrels on board. The decaying ship is beginning to crack and risks springing an oil leak that could cause an environmental catastrophe four times greater than the damage caused by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Not only is the Red Sea water near Yemen in danger of irrevocable contamination, but the pollution could spread to the northern Red Sea and even to the Suez Canal.

The Yemeni government says it doesn’t have the economic and technical wherewithal to fix the tanker. The UN tried several times to obtain Houthi clearance to inspect the ship and have it repaired and only received permission this month. But despite the urgency, the ship’s inspection will be put off for another few weeks “to get organized.”

In this, as in other acute matters in the Middle East, all eyes are upon Joe Biden’s entry into the White House. The question is if Yemen is a high priority for him. Presumably not.

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