It has been over a year since the Riyadh Agreement – a peace deal between parties within the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen – was reached in November 2019. Yet the accord was quickly muddled by clashes of interests, and Yemen’s stability has hardly improved. Now, in the wake of a recently announced unity government and an alarming missile attack which reportedly targeted its members, the country’s future still appears bleak.
Already blighted by an overwhelming humanitarian crisis, Yemen’s conditions have worsened due to the coronavirus pandemic. On November 20, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that Yemen was on the brink of the “worst famine the world has seen in decades,” and that “millions of lives may be lost” without urgent action.
Meanwhile two factions within the Saudi-led coalition, Yemen’s internationally-recognized government – headed by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi – and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), have failed to see eye-to-eye, despite the Riyadh Agreement, which was designed to resolve their differences and reunify the coalition.
The agreement was rather a fragile truce between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as Riyadh backed Hadi’s government while Abu Dhabi supported the STC. It aimed to salvage their diverging alliance, after both countries supported these rival factions to secure their own geopolitical stakes in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia and Hadi wanted to reconcile the coalition to fight the Houthi rebels, whom Saudi Arabia led the military intervention against in 2015, while the STC saw the agreement as an opportunity to gain southern independence through non-violent means.
Though the deal’s progress remained stagnant for most of 2020, due to these conflicting aims, new attempts to advance it occurred in December, after the Hadi government and the STC finally agreed to form a unity government.
The Saudi Ambassador to Yemen, Mohammad al-Jaber, announced a new cabinet on December 18, with members of Hadi’s administration and the STC joining a 24-member government.
The Saudi Ambassador to Yemen, Mohammad al-Jaber, announced a new cabinet on December 18, with members of Hadi’s administration and the STC joining a 24-member government. Representatives of Yemen’s soft Islamist Al Islah (Reform) party will also join the cabinet, despite the STC and Al Islah’s rivalry. Hadi appointed Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed as prime minister, General Mohammed Al Maqdashi as minister of defense, and Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak as foreign minister.
President Hadi swore in the new government in Riyadh on December 26 and called on its members to prioritize bringing stability to Yemen while putting aside their past differences.
“You are coming from different blocs and geographical areas, but let your main concern be first and foremost the country and its citizens,” said Hadi.
“We are in a new stage and depend on you to act as one team,” he added.
This followed a month of negotiations over the redeployment of forces across Yemen’s south, including key disputed areas such as Aden and Abyan. The STC spokesperson Nizar Haitham tweeted on December 10, “For the sake of peace, let us postpone the differences, and for the sake of stopping the bloodshed, we will concede, reconcile and converge.”
An explosion at Yemen’s Aden airport on December 30, shortly after a flight carrying the newly appointed cabinet members landed, has raised concerns.
Though the developments appeared promising, an explosion at Yemen’s Aden airport on December 30, shortly after a flight carrying the newly appointed cabinet members landed, has raised concerns. The blast killed at least 25 people and injured 110.
While none of the arriving government members were hurt and no party has taken responsibility for the strike, state officials have accused the Iran-backed Houthi militia, alleging they fired four ballistic missiles at the airport. “It’s a major terrorist attack that was meant to eliminate the government,” Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed told the Associated Press. “It was a message against peace and stability in Yemen.”
As the new cabinet assesses the implications of the deadly attack, past friction between the Hadi government and the STC could also jeopardize a long-term settlement. In April 2020, the STC announced “self-rule” from the governing capital of Aden in violation of the Riyadh Agreement. The separatist faction later renounced its self-rule aspirations, but in June 2020 it seized the disputed island of Socotra with Emirati backing, and in August it pulled out of the Riyadh Agreement. Moreover, the STC previously stated its refusal to cooperate with the Hadi government while it retained ties with Al Islah, sharing its Emirati backers’ hostility towards Islamist political parties.
Despite the STC’s surprising backtracking on its opposition towards working with Hadi, some Yemeni ministers have also raised concerns over the STC’s role in seizing Socotra, suggesting ongoing divisions within a new government.
Adding to these obstacles, Biden’s US presidential victory could be a catalyst behind the latest government formation. As he may end the impunity that the Trump administration gave Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, both countries could therefore be rushing towards an agreement over Yemen, to create the impression that they are supporting peace.
Saudi Arabia has attracted criticism from Biden over its war on Yemen, while the US Senate and Congress has pressured Washington over its support for Riyadh’s war. Thus, it is conceivable that Riyadh could reduce its bombing campaign in response to Biden’s threats of an arms embargo.
Even if Riyadh does permanently scale back its overt military operations, it could still have freedom to manipulate Yemen’s politics through supporting various actors.
However, even if Riyadh does permanently scale back its overt military operations, it could still have freedom to manipulate Yemen’s politics through supporting various actors, which Biden may overlook.
“The Saudi ambassador has just finished announcing the formation of his secretariat, which will help him complete the Saudi scheme, tampering with Yemen, guardianship and domination, and dividing it into parts,” Yemeni Nobel Prize winner Tawakkol Karman tweeted about the new government formation.
The agreement brought hope that it could temporarily prevent violence in parts of Yemen — excluding Houthi-controlled areas — but the recent airport attack has cast doubt on this assumption; and, continued external interference could hinder efforts to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, reinvigorate its collapsed healthcare system, and stabilize its devastated currency.
Meanwhile, some analysts have perceived the UAE’s drawdown in Yemen since late 2019 as a sign it has abandoned its geopolitical interests in the south. However, its actions since then suggest otherwise. After all, the STC’s seizure of Socotra and its resisting of Hadi’s efforts to reassert control over the south could not have occurred without renewed Emirati patronage. Moreover, Emirati weapons shipments to STC-aligned militias in Abyan were observed in November 2020, indicating Abu Dhabi is still covertly backing the separatist faction.
The STC’s presence in the new government could enable Abu Dhabi to gradually weaken Hadi’s influence, as the Yemeni President has previously restricted the UAE’s aims of controlling south Yemen’s ports. And should renewed tensions occur within the government, it may lead to another split which the UAE could look to exploit.
Recent revelations from Al Jazeera, which Middle East Eye reviewed, alleged Emirati use of commercial aircraft for arms transfers to Yemen, employing charities such as the Emirati Red Crescent which actually carried out intelligence and political operations. While the UAE has long sought to control south Yemen’s port of Aden, it also reportedly sought to use al-Mokha’s port as a military base.
Biden’s approach will be crucial for the success of any peace process.
Biden’s approach will therefore be crucial for the success of any peace process. Should he aggressively commit to pressuring Riyadh, this may somewhat curb Abu Dhabi’s actions too. It would at least make the UAE less willing to carry out the bellicose moves it did under Trump’s administration, such as its airstrikes against Yemen’s government forces in August 2019.
Yet given Abu Dhabi’s more favorable image within the Democratic Party and Biden’s reticence to condemn its actions, compared with Riyadh, this may still guarantee a degree of impunity from Washington.
This latest agreement to solidify a government, backed by two countries which have waged war on Yemen, could trigger more violent pushback from domestic factions even as it yet again fails to address the country’s needs. Saudi Arabia and the UAE still have the freedom to manipulate the fragile nation’s politics, and any arrangement under their auspices will not succeed in improving Yemen’s stability nor prevent its looming famine.