The Yemen File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Yemen conflict and the Salafi-jihadi movement in Yemen.
Yemen File: COVID-19 strain expedites Saudi Arabia’s exit from Yemen war
[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]
The al Houthi Movement in Yemen: Saudi Arabia is expediting its preexisting effort to exit the war with the al Houthis amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Yemen: The Islamic State in Yemen claimed its first attack in Dhaleh governorate.
The al Houthi Movement in Yemen
Saudi Arabia is accelerating its preexisting effort to withdraw from the war with the al Houthi movement during the COVID-19 pandemic. Saudi Arabia has *been seeking an exit from this war since at least the fall of 2019 due to mounting economic and security pressures. The Yemen war has cost Saudi Arabia over $100 billion, and the kingdom has been decreasing its military spending in recent years to support major economic reforms.
Saudi Arabia has also shifted its security resources toward a growing threat from Iran and Iranian proxy forces based in Iraq, exemplified by the September 2019 attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil facility conducted from inside Iran. The resources committed to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen have also decreased in the past year. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) completed its troop withdrawal from Yemen in October 2019, and Sudan’s president confirmed reducing its troops by two-thirds in December 2019. Saudi Arabia has also suffered growing reputational damage for its role in Yemen’s war, particularly as relations with the US degraded in the aftermath of the *murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Saudi officials have intensified negotiations with the al Houthis since the fall of 2019 to bring the war to an end. Saudi Arabia, which controls Yemen’s air space, made a concession to the al Houthis in early February by allowing the first UN medical flight since 2017 to leave the al Houthi–held capital Sana’a. A Saudi official reported in late March that the kingdom invited the al Houthis and the internationally recognized Yemeni government to Saudi Arabia for peace negotiations.
Saudi Arabia has intensified efforts to leave Yemen’s war since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has further strained the kingdom’s budget. The pandemic has kept oil prices low following a Saudi-Russian oil price war in early March. The kingdom would need to sell oil at four times its current price to maintain its budget, causing the Ministry of Finance to direct states to cut budgets by at least 20 percent in early March. The looming economic crisis may be pushing Saudi Arabia to expedite a deal with the al Houthis, with the pandemic providing a degree of face-saving.
Saudi Arabia announced a two-week unilateral cease-fire in Yemen, which began on April 9, to support UN peace efforts and prevent the spread of COVID-19; the Saudi ambassador to Yemen also *previewed a future meeting between Yemen’s warring sides to discuss a permanent cease-fire. Saudi Arabia announced a one-month extension on its unilateral cease-fire in Yemen on April 24.
Al Houthi leaders seek to use negotiations with Saudi Arabia to advance overarching objectives: consolidating control of economic resources and outmaneuvering rivals to remain in power and achieve at least partial recognition as a legitimate government in Yemen. Al Houthi leaders sent a list of demands to the UN in early April, addressed from the Yemeni Republic of Sana’a. The demands include the lifting of the Saudi-led coalition’s air, sea, and land blockade. Lifting the blockade would allow air traffic to Sana’a and increase the al Houthi movement’s access to its primary revenue source, the Red Sea port of al Hudaydah, which has generated an estimated monthly revenue of $30 to $40 million. (The al Houthis also waged a recent military campaign in northern Yemen to isolate the internationally recognized Yemeni government’s oil production infrastructure in northern Yemen, furthering the al Houthi effort to deny others’ access to Yemen’s economic resources.) The al Houthis’ demands include a withdrawal of Saudi forces from Yemen and the payment of war compensation by Saudi Arabia, including salary payments for northern Yemeni public servants for a decade.
The al Houthi movement has also resumed some attacks on Saudi targets, likely to further pressure the kingdom to negotiate. The al Houthis had significantly reduced attacks on Saudi soil after Iran’s attack on Abqaiq in September as Saudi-Houthi talks intensified. They have since resumed such attacks, albeit at a slower tempo. Al Houthi militants launched missiles toward Saudi Arabia in late March, targeting two southwestern Saudi cities and the capital Riyadh. Saudi Arabia responded with retaliatory airstrikes on Sana’a but quickly *made clear that the airstrikes were in direct response to the al Houthi attacks and not an escalation attempt.
Secessionist forces’ declaration of self-rule in southern Yemen will likely disrupt Saudi efforts to withdraw from Yemen and may lead to an expansion of Yemen’s civil war. The UAE-backed Transitional Political Council of the South (STC) *declared self-rule in Aden city and other southern governorates on April 26 to displace the internationally recognized Yemeni government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s engagement with southern Yemeni factions has contributed to the country’s fragmentation since 2015. The STC seized control of Aden from Hadi’s government in August 2019, causing Saudi Arabia to broker a cease-fire and later the power-sharing Riyadh Agreement in November 2019. The Riyadh Agreement was intended to prevent the immediate fracturing of the anti–al Houthi coalition, which includes Hadi government and STC forces.
Saudi Arabia *rejected the STC’s declaration of self-rule on April 27, calling both parties to return to the Riyadh Agreement to deescalate tensions. Southern governors also rejected the STC’s announcement, further highlighting divisions in the south. An intra-Yemeni conflict in the south would draw nominally anti–al Houthi forces away from that fight, giving the al Houthis more opportunities to consolidate power and increase their leverage in negotiations with Saudi Arabia. Such a conflict could also prevent Yemeni counterterrorism forces from sustaining pressure on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Yemen
The Islamic State in Yemen claimed its first attack in Dhaleh governorate, indicating that hostilities between the group and the al Houthi movement have spread from a primary area of operations in neighboring al Bayda governorate. The front line of the Yemeni civil war between the al Houthis and anti–al Houthi forces runs through Dhaleh and al Bayda. Islamic State militants detonated two improvised explosive devices targeting an al Houthi vehicle in Juban district in Dhaleh on April 4. Juban district lies along a roadway that connects to the Islamic State’s main area of operations in al Bayda, about 45 miles north. The group maintains four brigades consisting of approximately 60 members each in al Bayda, according to a 2019 UN report.
Al Bayda governorate lies on a seam in Yemen’s civil war between the al Houthi movement and a fractious array of anti–al Houthi groups. The governorate’s security vacuum and longstanding popular grievances have allowed Salafi-jihadi groups, including the Islamic State and AQAP, to establish havens there. These two Salafi-jihadi groups frequently clash with each other and with the al Houthi movement in al Bayda.
Saudi Arabia *executed the allegedly AQAP-linked perpetrator of a November 2019 stabbing at a concert in Riyadh. A Saudi court also convicted a second individual for collaborating with the attacker and sending *funds to AQAP. AQAP has not claimed responsibility for the attack. The group’s late emir Qasim al Raymi condemned the kingdom’s perceived Westernization in a statement two weeks before the stabbing.
AQAP may be redirecting its focus to attacks outside Yemen. The group claimed responsibility for the December 2019 shooting by a Saudi pilot trainee at a US naval station in Pensacola, Florida, though there is not yet evidence that the attacker had prior contact with AQAP. AQAP has historically facilitated high-profile attacks in the West, including the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, the 2009 attempted “underwear bomber” Christmas day airline attack, and the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.
“IS Claims First Attack in Yemen’s Dhale Governorate, Bombing Houthi Vehicle,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 9, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.