Yemen continues to see dramatic escalations in its now six-year conflict, and the path to a political settlement seems ever more elusive. Over the last few weeks, the battle to control Marib has intensified at an unprecedented rate with 160 Houthi fighters allegedly killed by the pro-governement forces on October 16. The mounting hostility poses one of the deadliest faceoffs with the Houthis, rendering the viability of diplomatic efforts that much more uncertain.
In the middle of the rising violence, the Houthi group has demanded specific conditions that must be met if peace is to be attained. “Steps for peace include stopping the aggression, lifting the blockade, the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country, addressing the effects of the aggression, and paying compensation,” Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam said on September 30. Houthi opponents, however, see such conditions as unrealistic and non-negotiable.
While the Houthis have grown more powerful since 2015, the UN-recognized Yemen government’s control has become more fragile and less stable. Recent events, including the loss of territory to the Houthis, the mass protests in Taiz, Aden, and Hadramout, and the falling value of the national currency in government-controlled provinces have all made its position even more precarious. The Yemeni people’s hopes that the government can achieve military wins or reform the economy have been shattered.
Marib is the last province in Yemen’s north where the government still has a presence.
Recent territorial losses indicate the government’s fragility. Marib is the last province in Yemen’s north where the government still has a presence. As the Houthis fight to advance, the government’s military forces must constantly regroup to repel the Houthi incursions.
On September 22, the Houthis seized the Harib district in Marib. Since then they have intensified their attacks on the Abeeda district as well. Houthi operations in Marib have sparked fears that the city may fall, which would result in another tragic humanitarian disaster. Indeed, while the Houthis would bear responsibility for such a tragedy, the government has no choice but to foil the Houthi expansion into Marib since losing it would mean the complete collapse of the government in northern Yemen.
Another swift recent Houthi gain was the takeover of two districts in southern Shabwa province, a region that was cleared of the militant group many years ago. And it will be a great challenge for the government to regain what it has lost in recent weeks, though that does not look likely any time soon.
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Besides its military failure, the UN-backed government has also misfired with respect to the economy. Late last month, protesters took to the streets in the provinces of Aden and Taiz, demanding better government policies to deal with the deteriorating economy, particularly the slipping currency and the soaring prices of essential commodities. Civilian casualties were reported as security forces attempted to disperse the rallies.
Yemen’s economic downfall began in 2015 when the war flared up with the military intervention of a coalition of nine other Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The government has been in exile since and the lack of central governance has had an adverse impact on the living conditions of Yemenis all across the country.
In March, Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik and other ministers left Aden after angry separatist protestors stormed the Presidential Palace. On September 27, Abdulmalik came back from Riyadh to Yemen. His return is part of the peace efforts led by Saudi Arabia to end the tensions between government forces and secessionist forces in the country.
The UAE funds and directs anti-government militant separatist groups in the south of Yemen.
While Abdulmalik’s return to Aden is seen as a good move, it is not clear if he will be able to stay without genuine support from Saudi Arabia and a solemn commitment from the UAE which funds and directs anti-government militant separatist groups in the south of Yemen.
Although the government now says it is keen to implement specific steps to tackle the economic plight, its clout on the ground is not powerful enough to allow it to carry out the needed reforms. In a meeting in Aden on September 29, the Prime Minister directed the government, the Central Bank, and the local authorities to work collectively to accomplish economic stability that citizens can see and feel.
“The economic situation we are witnessing is painful and affects our citizens. The reasons have to do with the economic war by the Houthi militia and the political instability,” Abdulmalik said.
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Since late 2019, the Houthi group has banned the use of banknotes that the UN-recognized government had printed. While the country has been divided politically and militarily, it is also divided economically. Currenlty, US$1 is equivalent to 600 Yemeni rials (YER) in Houthi-controlled areas, whereas US$1 trades at 1200 Yemeni rials in the government-run areas.
This economic divergence has been a backbreaking burden on civilians who have been enduring the ordeal of the military conflict and economic war. It is also an enormous setback for the Yemeni government, even as it has raised questions about how the Houthi militant group has managed to prevent further collapse of the Yemeni currency in areas it controls while the UN-backed government has failed to do so.
The United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE issued a collective statement, upholding the return of the government to Aden.
Despite the government’s striking frailty, a recent development indicates a possiblity that the government may soon function better. Last month, the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE issued a collective statement, upholding the return of the government to Aden.
In a joint statement issued September 16, the Quad nations “stressed the need for the Yemeni government to return to Aden, noting its effective role in overseeing future international support for economic recovery, and [affirmed] their commitment to a comprehensive political solution to the conflict in Yemen.”
The presence of the government in Aden could possibly lead to a positive change, particularly in the economic sphere, as long as the southern separatists abstain from any military escalation or engage in any activities to obstruct its rule.
Another positive development for the UN-backed government was the visit to Aden of the new UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg on October 5, where he met separately with both the Prime Minister and the head of the Southern Transitional Council (STC).
In his meeting with the Prime Minister, Grundberg said,“There is an urgent need to change course and work toward an inclusive political settlement that comprehensively ends the conflict and allows Yemen to recover and develop.”
In the final analysis, the internationally recognized government in Yemen cannot subdue all its opponents in the country. If it is to remain a viable authority, solid UN support is needed. Such support would revitalize the role of the government and presumably enable state officials to execute their functions without intentional obstructive actions by local groups or regional interference.
Should the territorial losses persist at the same time as its continuing plummeting popularity, the government may well be eclipsed by darker forces.