Dr. Saeed Noman
The former head of the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP ), now serving as President Hadi’s ambassador in London, has undoubtedly fallen from grace. As Secretary-General of the YSP, Dr. Noman was not only the Yemen Times Person of the Year in 2013, but he was also the steward of the 2009 Dialogue held under the auspices of the JMP. Soon after conclusion of the political dialogue process in 2010 he was a frontrunner to become Prime Minister as a consensus candidate. Of southern origin, Lahj province, Dr. Noman has a long history of political activism that goes farther than his rise as YSP chief following the assassination of Jarallah Omar in 2002. His political career might be said to have peaked during the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) where he served as co-Vice President and an active proponent of Southern rights and the idea of a Federal system for Yemen.
Dr. Noman came to lead the YSP through challenging times following ustadh Jarallah’s assassination. From 2002 to 2006 the YSP held its place as Yemen’s third party in Parliament with 8 seats (GPC had 238, Islah with 46 since 2003), a troubling condition behind al-Islah and Saleh’s GPC. No longer part of the Unity equation since 1994, the YSP persisted at the margins of Yemen’s political scene, powerless, a marginalized and co-opted popular base, and lacking a patronage network. In order to survive, the party agreed to form a coalition as a junior partner with the Sunni Islamist party al-Islah, under the banner of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP ). The opposition alliance had been a project of the late Jarallah Omar, with the YSP leading rather than being a junior partner. The presidential election of 2006, where former PDRY Minister Faisal Bin Shamlan became the JMP candidate under shaykh Hamid al-Ahmar’s patronage, was not necessarily helpful to the YSP, but Bin Shamlan’s defeat served to propel Dr. Noman to the forefront within the JMP as an instrument of balance serving the interests of a number of major regime actors. Yaseen Noman was viewed by many as a promising figure, able to bridge the gap between Saleh and his rivals, and between people’s ambitions (desperation) and the regime elite. Saleh capitalized on Noman’s need for a patron, a protector, in order to marginalize him and discredit him through media attacks as the Socialist leader gravitated to Hamid al-Ahmar at the start of the Dialogue conference in 2009.
When Noman declined the offer to become Prime Minister in May 2010 he became just another political figure with a bulls-eye. Noman believed Saleh offered him the PM job in order to make him the fall-guy for a number of unpopular policies in the making, one was the elimination of fuel subsidies, part of demands made by the World Bank and other international institutions working on economic plans to help the Yemeni regime. Saleh saw this as the last opportunity granted to the opposition in order to move forward on discussion for Parliamentary elections set for April 2011. Noman maintained a low profile, even taking a back seat during the 2011 uprising that was monopolized by Hamid al-Ahmar and his allies. Noman participated in all meetings with the G10 in 2011 dealing with the transition agreement, but was not a major figure.
As the NDC began in March 2013, many expected Dr. Noman to surface as a major figure, particularly within discussions on the Southern issue and the State Building committee. He was again marginalized, by Mohammed Ali Ahmed leader the southern issue committee and then by a Hadi ally and Islah within the State Building committee. His work in 2013 focused on relations with the G10, attempting to rescue a number of his policies, to no avail. Finally, in late 2014 he was again marginalized as a ‘protest figure’ by Nassarist leaders within the JMP. Nassarists organized a number of protests against Houthis following the take over of Sanaa in late September, and then as leading figures of dissent during negotiations with then-UN Special Envoy Jamal BenOmar. The period of the ‘civil war’ has seen Dr. Noman relegated to a role as commentator, a prolific writer on all things Yemen today.
Yaseen Noman will not go down in history as an obstacle to peace, but rather as a major loss of a potential figure of compromise, a potential stabilizer. It was clear by November 2014 that Noman would be passed on by Houthis as a candidate to be Prime Minister, post was given to Khaled Bahah, sealing his fall from grace. Even though he’s been relegated to the sphere of web commentary, it would not be far fetched for someone to put forth his name as a front runner for interim Vice President under the present transition proposal introduced by UN Special Envoy and supported by US Secretary of State John Kerry. He may not have been a fit during peace time politics, but more than any other figure Dr. Noman could bridge the gap between Yemeni actors and possibly between KSA and UAE. Under the new agreement the VP would not hold any power, simply oversee the process, administer and ‘safeguard’, not influence. Yet, it is doubtful Dr. Noman would agree to leave the comfort of London for the battlefield.
For thirty-three years Gen. Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar was at the side of President Saleh, part of the ruling triumvirate charged with safeguarding north Yemen (YAR ) since 1978. The general became one of three pillars of stability following the assassination of two presidents within a year. His place next to shaykh Abdullah b. Hussein al-Ahmar and Saleh was part of an agreement consecrated by Saudi Arabia in 1978, they became the glue that maintained northern Yemen together. Ali Muhsin has always believed he would be next in line for the presidency, or at least as king maker.
The general, who as leader of the Northwestern Command and the First Armored Division/Firqa took part in the six wars against Houthi rebels, became embroiled in a number of political conflicts beyond his rivalry with Saleh and wars fought against Houthis. Ali Muhsin, originally from the same village as Ali Abdullah Saleh and of Zaydi origins, became a close ally of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen and a patron of (Islah affiliated) Salafi factions since the 1980s, he was never truly close to Salafis from Dammaj. A long history of relations with Salafis, from the Afghan war in the 1980s to Yemen’s Civil War in 1994, eventually made Ali Muhsin a natural enemy of Zaydis, which Houthi rebels claim to represent. Ali Muhsin’s conflict with Zaydis went beyond the battle field as a consequence of the role played by sayyids (descendants of the Prophet), who remained a pillar of Sana’a’s bureaucracy since the end of the Imamate (1967). Sayyids allied with Saleh assured Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood elements remained at the margins within government institutions. Sayyids maintained a hold on power and prevented real growth in influence by al-Islah, Hashid’s al-Ahmar and Ali Muhsin himself. Even as Saleh was pushed out of the presidency in February 2012, sayyids remained pillars of State institutions beyond the military, which naturally stood to obstruct any power-grab by al-Islah, Hamid al-Ahmar or Ali Muhsin. The G10 were focused on instruments of real power, the military and intelligence agencies, ignoring the fact bureaucrats (not just the GPC) were Saleh’s front line within the State obstructing any real transition of power to Hadi, or any other party. It was the same obstacles faced by Mursi in Egypt until the Sisi-led coup.
Even though Ali Muhsin is considered among the founders of the GPC (1982), his military posts prevented him from serving in the party since 1990. As a military man he was prevented from serving as a party member, a primary reason why Muhsin was unable to help Hadi take over the GPC in 2012. He was a pillar of Yemen’s military from the YAR era through unification until Sunday 21 September 2014, when Houthis entered Sana’a through Shamlan district and marched onto Firqa’s headquarters, located between Sana’a University and al-Iman University. By mid-day on 21 September Ali Muhsin had escaped capture and boarded a helicopter transporting him to Saudi territory (allegedly). He escaped the wrath of Houthis while leaving behind the core of al-Islah’s party leadership, adding to animosity among Islah foot-soldiers who already resented Ali Muhsin for failing to provide support to Gen. Hamid al-Qushayby, commander of the 310 Brigade in Amran July 2014. While many Islah leaders managed to escape from Sana’a during the Houthi/Saleh take over, others like Mohammed Qahtan and Mohammed Hassan Damaj, members of the Supreme Committee, and Minister of Education Abdul Razzaq al-Ashwal were imprisoned. Most Islah figures have been released through prisoner exchange agreements, while Qahtan remains imprisoned.
Without a doubt, Ali Muhsin’s actions have primarily secured his own position, not sacrificing an inch for any ally along the way. He survived the uprising of 2011 by not only abandoning Saleh, but also by becoming the ‘protector of the revolution’. The general created a narrative, and Islah loyal militants gravitated to him, in an attempt to consolidate his position as legitimate successor to Saleh, marginalizing a weakened Hamid al-Ahmar. His own position was eventually weakened by both the rise, politically and militarily, of Houthi rebels and growing tensions between him, Islah and shaykh Hamid. While his image in the north has suffered, Ali Muhsin remains a much hated figure throughout South Yemen. No southern faction has accepted his role as vice president, and he is yet to set foot in a southern province since the civil war began.
Islah has definitely suffered the consequences from a number of defeats and the exile of its top leaders. The party’s weakened position has given rise to Salafist elements who are often in conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, but allied with Ali Muhsin. As Vice-President, Ali Muhsin is not only back in the political game, he now maintains access to treasury again, regained his role as military leader by holding a faction or two of fighters he can mobilize in support or opposition of a rival or political maneuver. He now holds multiple tools in his hands to resist any attempts to remove him, and his return to Saudi patronage assures political survival even through a new UN sponsored deal.
Ali Muhsin has dug a trench buffered by Saudi financial and political support, tribes in Mareb and Salafi elements in Baydha/ Mareb/Shebwa/Taiz. His position also grants him tentative support from Islah, who have no other powerful ally to rely upon militarily, as even shaykh Hamoud al-Makhlafi has left the battlefield and handed over military responsibilities in Taiz to Abu al-Sedduq and other Salafis. In recent months, the general has been more of a field marshal than a Vice President since April 2016, guarding Saudi interests rather than his President’s priorities. Not very successful on the battle field as the amphibious landin gin Midi, Hajja failed to move troops into Sana’a, as did the advance into Nehm, Sana’a failed to open a front to take Sana’aa from Houthis and Saleh.
Ali Muhsin was betrayed by his ‘pupil’, Hadi, when Houthis entered Sana’a in 2014, his loyalties do not lie with a southerner, but rather himself. Even in a scenario were Saudis agree he should step down as VP, Ali Muhsin will remain a major source of disruption on the ground for years to come. There is no scenario where the general appears as a major figure of reconciliation in the north or south of Yemen. Ali Muhsin, as Saleh, have lost their position as center of gravity, as actors shaping the direction of the country, they merely exist as competitors among many.
The Sunni Islamist party, at-Tajammu’u al-Yamanī lil-Iṣlāḥ/Yemeni Congregation for Reform, confronts a very precarious situation. Al-Islah faces multiple challenges to its cohesiveness as a political party, its existence as an alliance of Sunni conservatives, tribal centers of power and merchants. We can argue the uprising of 2011 weakened the party internally, as its tribal, military and economic pillars fractured. Its role as senior party within the JMP also diminished, as junior members from the YSP to Nasserists, Unionists and Baathists went their own separate way during the 18 month long NDC. The fragmentation of the JMP was assured by a Baathist official in mid-2013 during a conversation in Sana’a. He confirmed animosity toward al-Islah was growing since the Sunni Islamists, Ali Muhsin and shaykh Hamid hijacked the ‘youth revolution’ and then attempted to monopolize the transition and make Hadi their puppet.
Beyond the internal fracturing of Islah, there is the major challenge posed by Yemen’s neighbors KSA and UAE who have listed the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. As an unintended consequence of the post-Arab Spring rebalancing in the Middle East, Yemen’s Islah, who incontestably grew out of the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, the party’s fundamental component faced persecution throughout the region. Some of its leaders have actually attempted to distance the party from the MB label in order to gain the favor of Saudi patronage as they face a number of challenges. But their rivals in Yemen insist on maintaining Islah’s identity in order to demonize party members as ‘terrorists’. Saleh’s own demonization of Islah as terrorists predates Saudi and Emirati listings. He escalated his attacks on Islah in early April 2011 during his Friday speeches at Sebaeen park, where he would call Islah clerics and party leaders members of al-Qaeda, as well as protesters camping around Sana’a University.
Disagreements over the NDC outcomes made divisions within the JMP public. Each party expressed opposition to various points, as the JMP failed to present a united front on any of the final nine committee reports. As Islah fractured from within at the end of 2013, when tribes and Salafi elements under shyakh Hamid were defeated, and then as Gen. al-Qushayby was defeated in Amran July 2014, JMP member parties distanced themselves from Islah as it crumbled September 2014. Negotiations over the new government from October to early November 2014 also gave us a glimpse into the fractures in the coalition. December 2014 presented observers with clear evidence the JMP was doomed as Nasserists led protests against UN Special Envoy BenOmar. Islah was then seen as no longer representing junior members under intense Houthi persecution of Islah leaders.
On 22 November 2016 Saba News Agency reported members of the Houthi Politburo, not the Supreme Revolutionary Committee or the Governing Council under Saleh al-Samad, met with leaders of JMP member parties (Ba’ath, Unionist, al-Haq) in Sana’a. Lack of contact with the YSP is due to tension between Houthis and Dr. Noman, while participation by Nasserist party leaders in the conflict in Taiz on the side of the Saudi-backed Resistance forces obviously prevents any rapprochement between Houthis and the former members of the JMP.
Islah can only obstruct any political deal to leverage their own weak position. Mareb and Taiz are their last hopes, as Islah influence on the ground fades. Islah is having to share financial resources with tribes in Mareb and Salafi elements in Taiz, it has lost its position as patron within Yemen as it grows increasingly dependent on Saudi money to sustain loyalists in northern provinces, including al-Jawf. It has lost its position in southern Yemen as the UAE props-up Salafis like Hani Bin Briek and his allies in Aden and junior level Hirak figures in Mukalla. By no longer having a share in state institutions, Islah lacks access to financial resources and political favors. Whiel secessionists and Salafis publicly attack Islah, often linking Islah leaders to terrorist cells in Abyan and Aden.
We could also argue that for Islah, Taiz is the center of the struggle to remain relevant, and for this reason they match Houthi and Saleh provocations in the central region to challenge any proposed ceasefire. Islah cannot afford for Taiz to fall to the Houthi/Saleh alliance or completely in hands of Salafis under al-Sadduq or Abu al-Abbas. It is the same game played in Mareb, which includes a struggle with Ali Muhsin, who cannot be allowed a final victory that excludes Islah as part of the elements marching into Sana’a against Hotuhis and Saleh. Islah is also concerned over the nature of a future power sharing’ equation in Yemen. Under Saleh and Abdullah al-Ahmar, Islah had a preferential position, gone under Hadi. Islah also received the bulk of Ministries from December 2011 to November 2014 as the senior JMP member, that field has widened and the JMP weakened, so Islah’s share will be minimal in any post-conflict Cabinet.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not been the only ones joining Saleh and Secessionists in calling al-Islah/Muslim Brotherhood extremists or terrorists. In 2004 the US Department of the Treasury added shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, member of Islah’s Majlis al-Shura, to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists. Zindani studied in Cairo (a branch of pharmacy studies, some claim chemistry) in the 1960s, where he encountered the Muslim Brotherhood, a group which helped the Free Yemenis during the revolt against Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din in 1948. Just like one of his close mentors, Mohammed Mahmoud al-Zubairy, Zindani gravitated to the MB for support. He is identified more as a Salafist, often Wahhabi, by his critics. Various US-based groups and some officials also regard Gen. Ali Muhsin as a supporter of terrorist elements. Shaykh Abdullah Sattar, a prominent Islah cleric that often presided over Friday prayers at Change Square in 2011, has also been accused of close ties with terrorists elements. Many tribes close to Islah in Mareb’s Serwah and Abeeda districts have also been linked to AQAP. Rhetoric against Islah has indeed escalated during the ongoing conflict, now directly identified as an ally of/or an element of terrorist organizations bent on taking advantage of the power vacuum and obstructing the political process.
Observers can also argue that Islah’s retreat, since January 2015, has been a genius strategy. Their refusal to join the fight within Sana’a, increase their risk threshold in Taiz, failure to participate in Aden’s liberation, and weak performance in al-Jawf and Mareb, has preserved their manpower while still expanding their coffers. Minimal participation in al-Jawf, Mareb and Taiz has still led to millions of KSA rials as patronage. Merely remaining at the side of Hadi as the legitimate President has paid off, somewhat. Problem is, many of Islah’s foot-soldiers are gravitating to other parties, receiving patronage from other actors, and deeply disillusioned by Islah’s own actions, or lack there of.
A major component of Houthi obstructionism is the fact the rebels persist under a Revolutionary narrative. In order to begin understanding Houthi actions, if possible, we must keep in mind that Houthis are still fighting the 2011 revolution, even as they ally with Saleh against Hadi, the Saudi-led Coalition and secessionists. Their popular base depends on the narrative of rebellion, not on narrative of state building (which has yet to surface), and as long as the blame for disaster lies with others, the rebels will continue to leverage popular discontent until they advance their interests beyond previous limits of compromise.
The fragile peace agreement of 2010 between Houthis and the Central Government (under Saleh) eventually marginalized the Houthi revolutionary narrative as conflict between Saleh and Islah reignited. By February 2011 Houthis received a new opportunity to engage that revolutionary narrative once again, not from Sadah, but within Change Square in Sana’a. The revolutionary fervor picked up steam once Houthis were in full control of Sadah province as both Republican Guard troops and Ali Muhsin’s Firqa retreated in March 2011. Once Houthis and their foot-soldiers set up tents inside Change Square, the revolutionary narrative came to dominate as a pillar of Houthi raison d’être. Houthis were not signatories to the 23 November 2011 GCC Initiative, and therefore held their ground as opposition to the regime, not just Saleh. This is the vital issue with Houthis, the Zaydi Shia rebels maintain their stance in opposition to the entire ruling structure in Yemen, which threatens the Zaydi sect and its leaders, the sayyid class in particular.
President Hadi and the UN might have thought they outsmarted Houthi rebels, but they handed their revolutionary fervor a breath of much needed fresh air instead. When Hadi finally pressured BaSundwa’s Cabinet (composed of 50% from the GPC and 50% from the JMP ) to accept IMF recommendation to eliminate fuel subsidies Houthis seized the opportunity and again reignited the call for revolution (including foreign interference) that still resonates today. One can see how the Houthi leadership extended their own shelf life as result of prolonged conflict in Yemen beyond the expected outcome of the six wars, and the unprecedented degree of unpredictability. It should also be noted that while Gulf monarchies view Houthis as expansionist aggressors, both Iran and Hezbollah refer to Houthis as ‘resistance’ (muqawma), adding extra character to the Zaydi movement as part of a regional Shia resistance to Gulf hegemony. The relationship between Houthis and the Iran/Hezbollah alliance is far more complex than sharing a common rival.
From a broader perspective, we must also see Houthis as representative of something larger than a mere ‘anti-regime’ rebellion, as it’s pillars are deeply rooted in the State structure. Sayyid families have been a vital pillar of the Yemeni republics (YAR and RoY), as dependable, experienced bureaucrats carried over from the Imamic regime. Nearly every state institution depends on educated sayyids for continuity, from department heads to diplomats and accountants. Courts, which operate under Sharia principles, also depend on the traditional Zaydi scholars, of sayyid or Qadhi origins. This is a major issue driving the Houthi movement since its rise in the 1990s. The group aims largely to secure decades of influence wielded by sayyids, and the fracturing of the state and/or the country directly threatens their status and access to resources granted by their positions in state institutions. It is not wealth itself, but the maintenance of relevance for an entire social class.
Since the 1980s Islah represented a major threat as a partner in government, which slowly made gains within the state structure, not just the power structure. Then came Salafis, who partnered with Islah (MB) to marginalize Zaydis in the education system. Houthis knew Saleh would never allow Islah or Salafis to infiltrate state institutions, but between February 2012 and January 2015 Hadi did. Saleh’s position on the role of sayyids is what allows Houthis to maintain an alliance with Saleh today, keeping in mind sayyid families throughout the northern and central regions continue to exert pressure on both parties. This pressure, to restore the structure of the state, as well as the semblance of order, was behind the not-so unexpected announcement of a new government under President Saleh al-Samad and Prime Minister Abdulaziz Bin Habtour, as prospects for a peace agreement grew more distant.
A third component of the Houthi call to revolutionary action involves the presence of existential threats posed by multiple enemies, such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), Salafis (also read Wahhabis) and al-Qaeda. This conflict feeds the sectarian narrative constructed primarily through Takfiri attacks between Iran and GCC Monarchies. The Muslim Brotherhood, as part of al-Islah, primarily threaten Zaydi education, in government schools and autonomous religious institutes. As junior partners in government with Saleh since 1994, al-Islah has exerted efforts when ever possible to marginalize Zaydi education, through the Ministries of Education and Higher Education. In 2000 al-Islah moved to force all religious institutes to register under the Ministry of Education in order to better oversee ‘the quality of education’. Zaydis refused because they primarily feared the government would be more flexible with Salafi institutes, such as Dar al-Hadith in Sadah, and others run by Islah-affiliates in areas like Dhamar, Sana’a and Taiz. Zaydi scholars had already experienced persecution since the 1990s in areas like book publications, which forced many individuals and organizations to seek printing services in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. This naturally fed Sunni views on relations between Zaydis and Shia political movements in the region of the Middle East.
Since the 1970s the growth of Salafism, often referred to as Wahhabism by Yemenis, has presented a major challenge to Zaydis in Upper Yemen (northern Yemen). The first major Salafi shaykh, Moqbil al-Wada’i, set up his institute in Dammaj, Sadah, near Zaydiyya’s traditional center of learning. Moqbil’s institute eventually expanded throughout Upper and Lower Yemen (Yemen Arab Republic) to include about 17 institutes. The network has spread beyond Taiz, to areas in al-Baydha, Lahj and Shebwa, as his students returned to their areas of origin. Links between Dar al-Hadith and jihadist movements go beyond local accusations of extremism, as Western governments grew increasingly suspicious after tracing the road to Afghanistan for people like John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban. For Yemenis such institutes fueled the growth of recruits in Yemen for the Afghan war in the 1980s, produced the mujahedeen fighting Southern secessionists in 1994, and filled the ranks of AQ since the late 1990s. Al-Iman University, founded by Shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani in Sana’a, also represents a major threat to Zaydis who see the growth of Salafism as an existential threat.
After nearly two years at the helm of politics and security at the Center, Houthis face near insurmountable challenges as they venture into the sphere of governance. Some pose a threat to their popular support. Since the round-up of Bahah’s Cabinet members in January 2015, Houthis became responsible for the day to day governing of Yemen, at first, then constrained to northern Yemen. The establishment of the Supreme Revolutionary Committee (SRC), under president Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, was not only the continuation of the revolutionary movement, but it was a step toward shouldering the responsibility of governing. Houthis took on the role as source of authority, the instrument of control and the guarantors of order. As they took on these roles, Houthis not only clashed with the JMP but also with their ally of convenience, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Since their take-over of Sanaa September 2014, Houthis began to move into vital state institutions, under the pretext of prosecuting corruption. Having removed ministers and heads of departments, mostly Islah/JMP officials as GPC-run institutions were left alone, Houthis placed their surrogates in charge with no specific titles given. These Houthi officials remained under the SRC, not a government entity. Now, with the new National Salvation Government under President Saleh al-Samad and PM Abd al-Aziz bin Habtour, there are major challenges Houthis must confront, such as the deepening economic crisis, exacerbated by the official relocation of Yemen’s Central Bank by president Hadi to Aden. This incident has not only obstructed Houthi distribution of currency in northern provinces, but also decapitated Sana’a’s ability to import/export any goods in the absence of partner banks to oversee wire transfers in and out of Yemen. Another growing challenge for Houthis every month concerns unpaid salaries of government employees, including the military. Even though Hadi’s government is primarily responsible for those salaries, Houthis and the GPC/Saleh bare a growing share of responsibility among all government employees in northern provinces and the capital Sana’a. As the Saudi-led coalition maintains an embargo against all ports in northern Yemen, and no state institution delivers any type of income, Houthis have so far relied on continuous calls for donations from the public and excessive taxation of private industries to sustain the war effort, but insufficient to fund state institutions for salaries.
As desperations deepens in Sana’a, tensions will escalate and Houthis could face a new round of protesters. This scenario will challenge the Houthi narrative as a revolutionary movement when mobs begin to protest their own inefficiency in government, and fail to provide for ordinary people at a time of continuous conflict. Victories against Hadi’s forces in Mareb or Taiz, reports of sustained incursions into Asir and Najran inside Saudi territory will not suffice for ordinary people to rally around Houthi/Saleh forces when famine expands and more people search for shelter following indiscriminate air strikes by Saudi forces. So far people in Sana’a report the economy is holding, many people from Taiz have also moved to Sana’a with their families as the capital seems more secure and able to provide better services. Houthis and Saleh appear not to capitalize on this particular phenomenon, where people who inherently oppose both actors prefer to live under their watchful eye then suffer at home amid intense armed clashes. On the other hand, GPC contacts in Sana’a don’t seem very optimistic following the establishment of the new government, and fear the country has fractured beyond anyone’s ability to keep Yemen together. They don’t believe Houthis or Saleh missed an opportunity during the last round of talks, or under the new UN draft proposal, but don’t see a clear way out of the conflict under the current circumstances. It is also clear, as an observer points out, that Houthis agreed to the new government as result of growing pressure among their own junior level supporters than as result of any popular demands.
The former president of Yemen, ruled the YAR for nearly 12 years and the Republic of Yemen from 1990 to November 2011, is regarded as the biggest obstacle to the transition, and peace as a whole. Ali Abdullah Saleh, infamous for ‘Dancing on the Heads of Snakes’, has not only been a stubborn autocrat, he has been a resilient, astute political actor following his ‘overthrow’. The role he has adopted since February 2012 should be to no one’s surprise, as he made it abundantly clear before and after stepping down that he would ‘show the opposition parties how to be a real opposition’.
A handful of Saleh’s close confidants once indicated he had stepped down only to fight again under his own terms, this was early 2012. His first moves were within the GPC in order to obstruct Hadi’s potential power grab within the ruling party. As president of the Republic, Saleh also served as president of his own party, the GPC, while Hadi had served as both the First Vice President and Secretary-General until November 2014. Under the rules of the GPC, Hadi was to take the reins of the party as president of the Republic, but Saleh had other plans, instrumental to his survival as a center of power, as the image of the legitimate ruler of Yemen, and as an instrument of legitimacy for his role as ‘an ordinary citizen’, as he put it. Saleh aimed at making the most out of the immunity granted to him by the GCC initiative of 2011. His plan was not drafted as time passed, it was not something he improvised, as opposed to much of the reactionary tactics often used during his rule, he signed the agreement to replace him (2011) with a plan in hand.
Having survived the turbulence of the late 1970s, the uncertainty of the 1980s, the southern rebellion and then the rise of ‘democratic’ processes, Saleh came to see himself as the true ‘savior of Yemen’, as Laura Kasinof has noted (p162). Today, it is no longer the case where Saleh can shape the environment around him, he is not on the driver seat today. Where he once fed off chaos to advance his interest, he is now engulfed by chaos directed by other actors. He is not outright reacting to events, but it is clear he is not directing them any longer.
While he has outmaneuvered Yemeni actors, regional and international powers for nearly thirty-eight years, observers may agree he is a bit outside his environment today. Even as he appears to outwit his rivals and Saudi airstrikes, surviving a direct hit on his home in 2015, Saleh’s survival during the civil war has much to do with luck as with his value to both the GPC and Houthis. Saleh may no longer be the glue in Yemen unity, but undoubtedly he holds the GPC together and assures the convenient alliance with Houthis. In his latest interview, Saleh appeared defiant, direct as usual but definitely not presidential. His new role is yet to take full shape, as his party plays a unique role in parliament, formation of the current National Salvation Government and talks with UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. Saleh’s most valuable instruments to date remain his extensive network among tribal elements and his popular appeal beyond Sana’a through northern Yemen.
Saleh’s obstructionism has evolved. In 2012 he focused on preventing the rise of Islah, Ali Muhsin and Hamid al-Ahmar, while containing Hadi, some say isolating him, within the GPC and state institutions. Saleh made sure government institutions remained beyond Hadi’s reach, specially the armed forces and security apparatus. Members of the GPC holding ministerial posts also contributed to the strategy by making sure Islah/JMP ministers did not consolidate their position within their institutions, or with the international community and their power base. The third pillar was composed of a number of very astute and well placed delegates at the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). All the meanwhile Saleh was cultivating his grassroots support, which was activated at various times during the NDC through protests and demonizing media campaigns against both president Hadi and then-UN Special Envoy Jamal BenOmar. Saleh and the GPC began to escalate their show of force in early July 2014 when party militants organized a number of protests against fuel prices, blocking major streets throughout the Capital. His supporters finally proved their loyalty to Saleh and disdain for Hadi and the transition in early August following the lifting of fuel subsidies by BaSundwa’s Cabinet, later joined by Houthi supporters that led to a number of tent camps set up in Sana’a to protest the new policy under Hadi.
From February 2011 to March 2015 Saleh was in his zone, in familiar territory allowing him to maneuver through various challenges. But we can claim this is no longer the case today, specially as he is constrained by the alliance with Houthis, with whom he doesn’t see eye to eye and is always cautious of the day Houthis turn their back on him, as in July 2015 when a backroom deal with Saudi Arabia for a withdrawal from Aden was anticipated by pro-Saleh forces that withdrew prematurely, leading to the liberation of Aden. Saleh walks a tight rope in an alliance with Houthis, he (the GPC) is unable to exert real authority, as the expired parliament (where GPC hold a majority) is contained to a role as the rubber stamp on all SRC or NSG Decrees as a semblance of constitutional legitimacy. Current form of ‘governing’ is still a power sharing-based equation, a cautious managing of the alliance, his party, his network of supporters and the masses. Saleh also lacks the force multipliers that allowed him to simultaneously manage multiple actors, as he lost Ali Muhsin, al-Ahmar, his son Ahmed, his nephews Yahya and Ammar, his half brother Mohammed, as well as major tribal figures. Sayyids within the GPC and inside state institutions may surface as Saleh’s strongest force multiplier, not only sustaining his influence among bureaucrats, but also as a force of balance vis-à-vis the Houthi leadership and the Ansar Allah structure.
Saleh is under tremendous pressure from his base, many fear Yemen’s unity is a thing of the past, they fear capitulation may be the only path to peace, as well they fear the rising influence of Salafi elements along Sana’a’s near periphery. Even as Saleh’s base join Houthi supporters in attacking the US and the west, Saleh’s more secular, modernist supporters fear deeper isolation as any Sana’a based government becomes a new pariah State in the eyes of the international community. The game is far from the original focus on the legitimacy or lack there of for actors on either side of the conflict. Saleh insists the priority for a peace deal is direct talks between him (the GPC) and Saudi Arabia, not under a UN plan to gather all Yemeni actors (except Hirak). It is not simply because Saleh doesn’t accept Hadi’s legitimacy (as his mandate expired in 2014), but as result of Saleh’s views on the new Saudi regime’s hostility extending from a lack of predictability, and sees Saudi aggression as primarily targeting him personally, not an attempt to restore Hadi as the legitimate Head of State serving their own interests. Potentially betraying the people of Yemen, Saleh has basically told Saudi Arabia, let’s talk, we can work on what ever fears you have!
Saleh, in his alliance with Houthis, now carries the burden of establishing order in the north. The majority of officials in the new National Salvation Government are from his party, and people indicate he has secured Houthi concessions in order to re-establish institutions vital to his control over the State, such as Central Security Forces and other agencies that will restore patronage among his old supporters sent home by president Hadi. Saleh is fortunate that Houthi militia are composed of tribal elements from Confederations already loyal to him, and that eventually Houthis will need the majority of their forces to secure their center in Sadah. While Houthis demand integration of their militias within the armed forces and security agencies, Saleh knows tribal shaykhs can eventually bring those elements back to his sphere of influence. Houthis are more than aware of this reality.
It is simple, to Saleh, as continued obstruction prioritizes his own survival as king-maker. Just as Hadi aims to prevent Ali Muhsin, Hamid al-Ahmar and Islah from taking control after him, Saleh indeed aims to make sure none of those who ‘betrayed’ him inherit the Throne. His legacy is at stake, he needs to chose his true successor in order to preserve it, and believes he will live longer and wants to shape the country’s future, as one country or a fractured nation. No foreign actor is able to intervene under such circumstances. His demands aim to put him on the driver’s seat, not the UN Envoy, not the US or Russia, not Saudi Arabia. After nearly two years of armed conflict, it is also a reality that no foreign actor has been able to co-opt those around Saleh in order to marginalize him. Prime Minister Bin Dagher is the most senior among those figures who defected from the GPC, and he has failed to accomplish much of what Saudi Arabia expected. None of Saleh’s supporters are willing to serve under Hadi as head of the GPC, and none have the ability/capacity to take over the GPC. The view of this reality is what feeds the view of Saleh as Yemen’s (north Yemen) savior once again, and his resilience (luck) nearly makes him a deity. The military campaign maintains his strength among his followers and rivals, as much as it maintains the alliance with Houthis. But at some point, that will not be enough for ordinary people looking for the return of a degree of normalcy to daily life.
The International Dimension
It is simplistic for observers to merely focus on Houthis and Saleh as primary obstacles to peace in Yemen today. They do in fact bare a huge share of the responsibility, but unlike their main critics claim, the armed conflict was neither their making nor merely their responsibility to extinguish. The transition has been a balancing act involving various Yemeni actors and a number of foreign governments bent on exerting their influence over the direction of Yemen’s future. Foreign intervention, in a country very few understand, exacerbated tension between centers of power, and armed conflict became the primary instrument to advance individual/group interests when dialogue failed to deliver an environment of reconciliation.
Many issues are driving the armed conflict. Regional power balance, increasing unpredictability, a new generation of inexperienced rulers, ideological shifts, historical rivalries, new interests, economic instability, and this are just the issues driving foreign governments. In Yemen, the southern issue itself is a tremendous obstacle to peace, a driver of conflict. Hadi’s government remains in direct conflict with elements governing southern provinces today, GCC governments remain divided over the future of Yemen’s territorial integrity, and others remain adamantly opposed to divisions even under the proposed federal plan. The autocratic regime in Yemen safeguarded the country’s unity with a heavy hand, in order to secure economic interests some will say. Others will say the Republic of Yemen was an abstract without precedent, an unnatural project of nation building that was bound to fail.
Foreign interests in Yemen also play a major role in fueling the conflict. Saudi Arabia, shares a long border with Yemen, does fear a strong economic base in Yemen, the most populous country in the Arabian Peninsula. Oman, also sharing a border with eastern Yemen, fears the impact of growing extremism among Yemen’s Islamists, a direct threat to Oman’s own economic stability and relations with its other neighbor, Iran. The UAE, has extensive ties to Mareb and Yafa’, and aims to establish itself as a sub-regional hegemon. If the monopoly over the southern issue today is not sufficient to illustrate Emirati ambitions, then may be the new agreement with Eritrea for a military base can shed light on its expansion beyond the Peninsula. The UAE shares no borders with Yemen, but it now has a near permanent footprint in the south and across the Bab al-Mandab.
Undoubtedly, the gravity of the ongoing civil war could not have reached this point without Saudi Arabia’s role. Not only does Saudi Arabia’s support for president Hadi’s government expand the frame of the political conflict in Yemen, but it also serves to open opportunities for other GCC monarchies to expand their own regional ambitions. What ever may be at the core of Saudi Arabia’s aims in Yemen, its claims over the war at the southern flank are no monopoly, as it now concerns the entire GCC.
The war is also a strain on Western powers, not just the US but major European powers, China and Russia alike. The US has not only the Iran nuclear agreement to secure, but also its footprint in the Arab Middle East. The Iran agreement has been constantly challenged by Saudi Arabia, as if the US had signed an agreement to replaced the alliance with the Kingdom, where the opposite has been vital to the Obama administration as it sacrifices its moral obligations in support of a failed Saudi military strategy costing hundreds of innocent lives as result of indiscriminate air strikes on heavily populated areas and civilian facilities. European powers like Britain, France and Germany have also been affected at home as result of their weapons’ sales to the Saudi coalition and the pass on civilian casualties.
As Saleh has often indicated, it is clear the only party that can end the conflict is Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom is the only party that can negotiate with Houthis, who are a permanent actor along Saudi Arabia’s southern border. Only the Kingdom can negotiate with Saleh, who counts with the strongest popular support in northern Yemen. Saudi is the only actor that can sustain the legitimacy of president Hadi and his government, as well as force a compromise solution. Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia also exerts influence over the future of southern Yemen, which shares the largest portion of the border with the Kingdom.
As we can see, every party shares in obstructing the path to peace that has extended the civil war and devastated the country’s economy. The price of compromise is high for all parties, especially the newly empowered actors. The reality of the conflict today prevents identifying the actor with the most to lose, complicating negotiations where every party holds a major card, and no group of actors can afford to appease any one actor or any other group of actors without threatening the shelf life of their own particular interests. Compromise is a highly risky game here, no party wants to appear weak by giving an inch, and no one wants to see a single party come out victorious.