The NRF presents two key opportunities for developing a unified Yemen. First, a major military asset that can enhance the ROYG’s capabilities as the internationally recognized government (IRG). Second, as a microcosm of the local, regional, and international ties that complicate a unified Yemen. Developing solutions to integrate the NRF into the ROYG increases the viability of a unified Yemen from a governance perspective; while simultaneously, providing pathways for disparate communities within Yemen to cooperate. Failure to do so leaves empowered, local actors with the justification and capabilities to continue conflict in Yemen after the Houthi threat has subsided.
Key Actors and Interests. There are many counter-Houthi entities in Yemen with their own aspirations for roles in a future Yemen. However, there are four key counter-Houthi actors that by influence and prominence have the biggest roles to play in Yemen. These actors in Yemen are the Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) and the Southern Transition Council (STC); regionally they are the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). These are the most influential actors in the current conflict with the Houthis and in a future unified Yemen.
Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG). Since April 2015, with the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2216, Republic of Yemen Government, under president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has been the internationally recognized government (IRG). President Hadi fled house arrest in Sana’a, which was under Houthi control, to re-establish his presidency in Aden. Prior to these events, President Hadi headed a transitional government that was established to address grievances and make recommendations for a new Yemeni constitution. Complicating the threat to the Hadi transitional government, the Houthi coup was joined by Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh until a divergence from Houthi objectives led to his execution, who President Hadi replaced. The fledgling government was facing an ideological Houthi coup and a resurgence from the previous regime concurrently. Eventually, President Hadi was forced to relocate to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where he appealed for intervention from the international community. Although the ROYG is the IRG and receives huge amounts of humanitarian and developmental aid, it continues to struggle for legitimacy in and out of Houthi controlled areas. Several factors such as; the fragmented nature of the country before the Houthi-Saleh coup, the ongoing humanitarian crisis, the ongoing economic instability, and the ineffectiveness of a remote central government, all decrease the ROYG’s ability to carry out effective governance.
Southern Transition Council (STC). Aidrous Al-Zubaidi formed the STC in May 2017. Al-Zubaidi was a former Aden governor under the ROYG. However, after being removed from his position, and mass demonstrations, he was able to capitalize on general southern grievances and distrust of northern Yemen. Although there was an existing divide between north and south, the disparate southern elements did not present a unified front before the formation of the STC. As a ROYG governor, Al-Zubaidi forged relationships with UAE through counter-terrorism efforts in Aden. These relationships and Aden’s proximity to shipping lanes around the Arabian Peninsula made the STC a natural client of UAE support. Jeremy Sharp a U.S. Congressional Researcher and Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs concludes; UAE support provides the STC with “a degree of local autonomy not seen since before the unification of Yemen in 1990” (Sharp, 2021). The STC has pushed for greater autonomy from the ROYG multiple times, in 2018 these designs led to armed clashes between forces aligned with the STC and forces aligned with the ROYG. These differences were mediated through the Riyadh Agreement in 2019 which outlines STC and ROYG cooperation against the Houthis and secures STC cabinet positions in the ROYG. However, the Riyadh Agreement did not end STC-ROYG disputes. For example, STC declared self-rule from April to July 2020.
United Arab Emirates (UAE). UAE’s main interest in Yemen is securing the sea lanes in the Red Sea, the Bab al Mandeb, and in the Indian Ocean south of Yemen. In 2015, UAE established a base in Eritrea just across the Red Sea from Yemen as a consolidation point for troops and weapons to enter Yemen. Operation Gold Spear, which from 2017- 2018 was focused on securing Yemen west coast cities against the Houthis was heavily supported by UAE. UAE also has increased its presence and improved infrastructure on Mayun and Socotra islands as well as the port towns of Belhaf and Mukalla. These interests, in addition to counter-terrorism efforts, make UAE and STC easy partners. Although, UAE has made statements supporting the ROYG and encouraging the STC to adhere to the Riyadh Agreement, the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen concludes; UAE “support to the Southern Transitional Council undermines the Government of Yemen” (Gunaratne et al, 2021). UAE announced its withdrawal from Yemen in 2019 but continues to support and coordinate operations in Yemen. Houthi attacks on the UAE capital in January 2022 may encourage more UAE participation in Yemen going forward.
iv. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). KSA shares over 800 miles of border with Yemen and relies on shipping through the Bab al-Mendeb and the Red Sea. These factors, combined with Houthi capabilities to launch missiles and weaponized drones deep in to KSA territory, keep KSA invested in the Yemen conflict. In November 2020 the KSA Representative to the UN expressed “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will spare no efforts to protect its territory and citizens from such terrorist attacks in accordance with its obligations under international law” (Al-Mouallimi, 2020). Additionally, KSA is concerned with the Iranian and Hezbollah influence and support of Houthi operations. KSA’s main military involvement in Yemen is through airstrikes, funding forces in Yemen, and controlling access to Yemen ports. Non-militarily, KSA also makes enormous contributions to humanitarian and developmental efforts within Yemen. Included in these contributions are huge massive payments to the Central Bank of Yemen to increase ROYG economic capabilities.
Regional Key Actor Cooperation. Finally, events in December 2021 indicate how regional key actors (UAE and KSA) can influence the NRF beyond the capability of key Yemeni actors (ROYG and STC). Mohammad bin Adio was the governor of Shabwah and opposed to the STC. For almost a year, STC aligned entities organized protests and used media outlets to construct a narrative of inability and secret Houthi alliances. However, none of these narratives or protests were successful in convincing President Hadi of the ROYG to dismiss former-governor Adio. Then on December 22, 2021 KSA General Mutlaq bin Salim al-Azima visited with Emirati Generals and Ministry defense officials in Abu Dhabi to discuss military and humanitarian operations in Yemen. On December 25, President Hadi fired Adio and a new governor; Awadh bin al-Wazir al-Awlaqi, who had been living in UAE, was appointed over Shabwah. Finally, on December 27 the Giants Brigades Command released a statement saying that they were deploying fighters to Shabwah to “participate in the liberation of the directorates which fell to the Houthi Militia” (Sky News Arabic, 2021). This agreement, between KSA and UAE, which allowed NRF forces to move to Shabwah, indicate how much more influential regional key actor alignment is than Yemeni key actor alignment.
In January 2021 a Tihama Resistance commander issued a statement condemning the “exclusion of Tihama from the political scene” (Al-Mahriah Net, 2021). This sentiment is not a simple bureaucratic frustration; it indicates a deep sense of abandonment. From the Tihama perspective, Hodeidah city, port, and surrounding lands are Tihami lands. The Tihama Resistance began organizing and equipping fighters in 2014 when former-president Saleh was still aligned with the Houthis and before UAE began equipping forces in Yemen. In 2018 the Tihama Resistance, with other NRF elements, was fighting to reclaim Hodeidah from the Houthis when the Stockholm Agreement was reached; without their participation. This agreement limited NRF options to advance leaving Hodeidah port under control of Houthi aligned security forces. Later, when NRF and other Yemeni fighters withdrew from positions in Hodeidah, whether as a greater military strategy for Yemen or not, the Tihama Movement and Tihama Resistance was not forewarned and Tihama territory went back under Houthi control. In an official statement, Tihama leadership called this withdrawal a “failure” and warned of the “assassinations” and “chaos” that would result as the humanitarian situation degraded (Statement No. 4, 2021). The Tihama Resistance has made a point of remaining a peaceful organization; however, these grievances make an ideal target for any actor, state or non-state, with an interest in degrading the ROYG’s governance capabilities or increasing their own influence and legitimacy.
ii. On the west coast of Yemen, Tareq Saleh continues to expand his influence by filling governance gaps. In addition to guaranteeing security through his military connections; he created the Political Bureau of the National Resistance, provides financial incentive to local political leaders, and provides humanitarian assistance. “Saleh’s activities,” according to the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen, “have further eroded the authority of the Government of Yemen on the west coast” (Gunaratne, 2022). All of this influence is a result of the UAE patronage cited above. It is worth considering how UAE could merge their interests in sea routes with strengthening the ROYG.
In general terms, UAE is focused on the south and west coasts of Yemen to secure maritime traffic. While KSA is concerned with smuggling and cross border attacks. These two nations pursue their interests by focusing on available actors, networks, and other capabilities to meet their respective exigencies. Although KSA is invested in increasing the ROYG’s governance capacities and they have increased coordination with UAE, it is doubtful that they share a cohesive vision for a unified Yemen. Through candid discussion, institutions such as the Gulf Cooperative Council can help KSA, UAE, and other regional actors align their vision for Yemen to match their own interests and support the ROYG. What will make the difference between ROYG, STC, NRF, KSA, and UAE to Yemenis is which of these organizations can fill the governance gaps. Many actors in Yemen are well aware of past and current governance gaps and use whatever resources available to fill them for increased influence. It is possible they can be integrated into the ROYG apparatus; however, as long as they fill governance gaps without ROYG support, they have no need to integrate. The NRF is uniquely positioned to provide governance support to the ROYG, only if they are brought under ROYG authority. As regional and international actors merge their interests with enabling the ROYG to perform government functions across Yemen, a unified Yemen is more likely to emerge.
Summarize the following for an executive audience (Amb, GO/FO, CEO) // (1000 for each summary)