Eight years in, Yemen faces a new chapter in its bloody civil war. In one of the most significant political moves since Yemen’s war began in 2014, President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, elected to power in 2012 as a lone candidate, ceded power last week to a new Presidential Leadership Council.
After a ten-day dialogue brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, various Yemeni rivals and other stakeholders agreed to form the eight-member Presidential Leadership Council. This breakthrough came just days after the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis agreed to a two-month truce. President Hadi is no longer at the helm.
The formation of the new council has drawn commendation and approval from numerous countries.
The formation of the new council has drawn commendation and approval from numerous countries, including the United States and the European Union. “The United States welcomes the announcement of the formation of a Presidential Leadership Council in Yemen,” said US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in a statement.“We support the aspirations of the Yemeni people for an effective, democratic, and transparent government that includes diverse political and civil society voices, including women and other marginalized groups.”
The Presidential Leadership Council will shoulder wide-ranging military, security, and political responsibilities to bring peace and help mitigate people’s suffering in Yemen. Although this power shakeup is positive, significant, and encouraging, formidable challenges lie ahead for Yemen to attain a lasting and comprehensive political resolution.
The first daunting mission facing the council will be negotiating with the Yemeni Houthi group. The difficulty of this task should not be underestimated: it will be hard to convince the Houthis that this new Presidental Leadership Council is a legitimate representative of the Yemeni people, given that the Houthi leaders view all Saudi-allied Yemeni officials as mercenaries, and they have disdained any talks with them. Even if the Houthis were to agree to meet with the new council for talks, their conflicting ideas and priorities would likely impede any rapprochement.
The Houthis rejected the Presidential Leadership Council immediately.
Indeed, immediately after the announcement of the Presidential Leadership Council, the Houthis rejected it. Though the GCC had invited the group to join the talks, it turned down the invitation, saying the Houthis would not attend any discussions hosted by an enemy country.
Houthi spokesperson and chief negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam said, “The future and present of Yemen are decided inside Yemen, and any activity outside Yemen’s border is a skit and entertainment games played by the countries of aggression.”
With the Houthis’ persistent view that their opponents are illegitimate, it is unlikely that the Presidential Leadership Council will bring peace and stability to Yemen through a political approach.
The second salient challenge is the Houthi’s inherent ideology, which runs counter to the principles and rules of democracy and power-sharing. As per the group’s school of thought, a leader should be a descendant of the Prophet Mohamed’s (PBUH) family. This is a core belief of the Shi’ite sect of Islam, and as such it will be tough to convince the Houthi group otherwise.
To the Houthis, asking them to end their forceful takeover of Yemen’s northern provinces in return for participating in a consensus government is both anti-Islamic and illogical. Peacemakers must always bear this in mind when they work on ending the war in Yemen. Certainly political and economic issues are major factors in the conflict, but the sectarian grounds for the conflict have also played a key role in prolonging the civil war.
“This council is for peace, but it is also a council of defence, force, and unity of ranks.”
Amidst the Houthis’ continuing defiance and adherence to their ideologies, the new head of the Presidential Leadership Council, Rashad Al-Alimi, delivered a televised speech addressing the Yemeni people on March 8. He expressed the Presidental Leadership Council’s intention to reach a peaceful solution, but he did not rule out the possibility of using force. “This council is for peace,” he asserted, “but it is also a council of defence, force, and unity of ranks, tasked with defending the nation’s sovereignty and protecting civilians.”
The new council’s third challenge is the potential in-fighting between the anti-Houthi Yemeni factions. Presently, three players are hostile to the Houthi group: forces loyal to the former UN-recognized government, the southern separatists, and military units commanded by Tareq Saleh, the nephew of former president Ali Saleh whom the Houthis killed in 2017. All these players are represented in the Presidential Leadership Council, but their agendas are not entirely aligned.
The success of the council is contingent upon strong cohesion and unity among its eight members. Aidrous Al-Zubaidi, the head of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), one ofthe eight members nominated to lead the country in this difficult time, ironically, has been spearheading extensive efforts since 2017 in a bid to secede from northern Yemen. Today, the separatists under his command control four southern provinces – Aden, Lahj, Abyan, and Dhale. However, Zubaidi has limited popularity in other southern Yemeni provinces.
The success of the council is contingent upon strong cohesion and unity among its eight members.
Separatists aspire to regain the independence of southern Yemen, which merged with the north in 1990. Thus, it is undeniably challenging for the new Presidential Leadership Council to convince the separatists to abandon the idea of parting from Yemen’s north, hand over their weapons, and obey the government authority. For the new leadership to succeed in dealing with the separatists in the southern Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition – particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – should pressure the separatist movement to work in harmony with the Presidential Leadership Council. Moreover, the secessionist leaders need to abandon any rhetoric that encourages the separatist momentum.
In essence, challenges abound in the face of any leader seeking to stabilize Yemen. The humanitarian situation is dire, and the economy is in tatters. Insecurity is prevalent, and peace remains distant. If, however, the Yemeni rivals should manage to come to terms and work together to end the tragedy, these challenges can be overcome.
The establishment of the Presidential Leadership Council is an opportunity to quicken the pace toward peace, and its failure will mean the continuation of the years-long deadly war. The days to come will reveal if Yemen has begun a new chapter of conflict and is making strides towards stability.