A potential resolution to the Yemeni political crisis, which sparked the civil war, will not deliver long-term stability or end local conflicts. Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia may have made progress in reaching a political settlement to the Yemeni civil war. The elite-brokered deal is almost certainly occurring independent of the UN-led process, which has largely collapsed.
Rumors of an elite-brokered peace deal persist, though the solutions discussed do not include addressing underlying grievances in Yemen. President Hadi replaced three governors associated with the Emirati-backed Transitional Political Council for the South following the return of rumors of a deal. Hadi seeks to consolidate power and made similar replacements the last time serious rumors of negotiations between the UAE and Saleh surfaced. The Hadi government deployed several brigades from Aden to multiple fronts of the civil war, including units originally tasked with a counterterrorism and security mission. The former fourth regional military commander, who has jurisdiction over these troops, claimed this order came from civilian leadership. These deployments may be an attempt to accelerate military gains ahead of a potential political settlement that would likely exclude President Hadi. Former Yemeni Prime Minister Khaled Bahah, a likely candidate to replace President Hadi, is reemerging as a public figure in Yemen and has held high-level meetings with Saudi and Emirati officials. Former president Saleh is also reactivating his patronage network likely to position his son, Ahmed Saleh, for a senior leadership role in a future Yemeni government. The Saudi-led coalition loosened its air blockade on Sana’a International Airport to allow humanitarian aid to enter the country in what may be a confidence-building measure in ongoing negotiations.
UN-led efforts to negotiate a ceasefire collapsed. The al Houthi-Saleh government designated UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed persona non grata in early June. The UN process collapsed due to distrust within the al Houthi-Saleh block over Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s partiality and because his mission was to deliver a ceasefire, not a political resolution. The al Houthi-Saleh faction believes that Saudi Arabia has coopted the UN in this process. The collapse of the UN-led process increases the possibility that Russia will position itself as a peace broker in order to secure naval basing on Yemen’s coast. It is unclear whether Russian diplomats have been involved in current talks.
The burgeoning humanitarian crisis created by the protracted civil war will weaken state institutions and the Yemeni population for the years to come. Yemen is experiencing the worst cholera outbreak in the world. Cholera has infected over 200,000 people and has caused over 1,300 associated deaths in a two-month period. Yemen’s 18 million food–insecure people are especially at risk of contracting cholera. Both the Hadi and al Houthi-Saleh governments are failing to pay government salaries fully, which prevents many Yemenis from being able to purchase basic necessities such as food. Yemen’s failing governmental institutions and growing humanitarian crisis are driving state fracturing.
Hadi government forces are struggling to hold territory seized in early 2017 beyond the pre-1990 North-South Yemeni border. Al Houthi-Saleh forces conducted attacks against vessels in the Red Sea from western Taiz governorate, territory Hadi government-aligned forces seized in spring 2017. Al Houthi-Saleh forces struck a Saudi-led coalition warship with a surface-to-ship guided missile in the Red Sea in mid-June and claimed a second unconfirmed attack in the same location on a coalition ship in late June. An Emirati commander reported in May 2017 that it was difficult to find troops willing to fight beyond the pre-1990 North-South Yemeni border, which places Taiz in the north. It is unlikely that the Hadi government’s troop deployments from Aden to the frontline will significantly advance the civil war because of the natural frontline in the human terrain.
Saudi King Salman’s decision to appoint his son, Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince affects the Yemeni civil war. Mohammed bin Salman manages the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and is likely behind the ongoing Gulf rift with Qatar. The sidelining of former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayaf, who ran the Yemeni portfolio, will bring Saudi objectives and actions in Yemen more closely in line with those of the UAE because bin Salman is close to Emirati Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces Mohammed bin Zayed. This alignment increases the prospect of an elite-brokered political settlement, but also of a stronger anti-Iranian position from both the Emiratis and the Saudis. Such a posture could push the al Houthi faction closer to Iran and ultimately exacerbate the Yemeni conflict. The alignment between Saudi Arabia and the UAE now on Islamist activity may also generate effects in Yemen. Tribal militias temporarily withdrew from the frontline in al Bayda governorate in protest of Gulf countries designating a Qatari-backed tribal leader, Abdulwahhab Muhammad Abdulrahman al Humayqani, as a terrorist facilitator.
The participation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the civil war allows the group to insinuate itself further in Sunni communities. AQAP militants participated in a Hadi government offensive against al Houthi-Saleh-held areas of eastern AQAP also increased its rate of propaganda production aimed at emphasizing its relationship with the Yemeni population. President Hadi’s impending increased pace of military operations will present AQAP with more opportunities to insinuate itself in the anti-al Houthi-Saleh fight, especially in al Bayda governorate where the al Houthi-Saleh faction and the Hadi government are surging troops. (Translations of AQAP statements obtained through SITE.)city, central Yemen, in early June. AQAP likely highlighted its participation in the offensive to promote its narrative that it is liberating Sunni populations from Shia control.
AQAP’s leadership continues to comprise senior leadership in the al Qaeda network. AQAP religious scholar and former Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader Ibrahim al Banna called on the umma, the Muslim community, to undertake jihad and criticized Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the West as anti-Islamic in an Eid al Fitr speech. AQAP has a history of providing spiritual guidance to the global Salafi-jihadi movement through scholars like Ibrahim al Rubaish, Abu Zubayr al Ababa, and Anwar al Awlaki. (Translations of AQAP statements obtained through SITE.)
An elite-brokered deal that does not address underlying grievances or include key power brokers will not end the local conflict in Yemen. The persistence of popular grievances and the mobilization of Sunni populations in Yemen facilitates AQAP’s expansion. The failure of the UN-process may have allowed Russia to position itself as a mediator in ongoing negotiations between former President Saleh, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia.
Tyler Parker and Coy Ozias contributed significant research to this situation report.