Yemeni minister sees a way forward in conflict

A recent report by a UN panel of experts painted a grim picture of the situation in Yemen. "Yemen, as a state, has all but ceased to exist," it said. "Instead of a single state there are warring statelets, and no one side has either the political support or the military strength to reunite the country or to achieve victory on the battlefield."

Saudi-led military intervention has so far failed to restore the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi which was driven out of the capital, Sana'a, in 2014.  

Although the Hadi government has international recognition its ability to rule over non-Houthi parts of the country has often been questioned and, in the view of the UN experts, its authority "has now eroded to the point that it is doubtful whether it will ever be able to reunite Yemen as a single country".

During a visit to London last week, however, Moammar al-Eryani, information minister in the Hadi government, sounded a bit more hopeful.

He acknowledged there are "enormous challenges" but said: "In terms of the Hadi government's control eroding as mentioned in the UN report, I disagree."

The Hadi government, which had been in exile, is now carrying out duties from inside Yemen, he continued. 

"The government has resumed payments for the civil servants, the education sector is functioning, and it is slowly trying to return the rest of the services to the people, despite very limited resources ...

"There are big demands while there is limited capacity for the government to respond to all these demands."

Revenue has been hit by reduced oil production, he said. Foreign oil companies are still unwilling to return and only limited quantities are being exported. The main pipeline from the Marib oilfields (in non-Houthi territory) remains shut down because its outlet point in Hodeidah province on the Red Sea coast is controlled by the Houthis.

Less-centralised government

Responding to doubts about how much control the Hadi government really has in the "liberated" areas, Eryani said the aim was to devolve responsibilities: "Local authorities should be in charge and should take a lead in government. We don't want to replicate the previous experience of a very centralised form of goverment."

Less-centralised and more inclusive government was a key objective of the National Dialogue conference of 2013-2014 that followed the toppling of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Its proposals included 30% representation for women in parliament and government positions, 20% representation for Yemeni youth and more participation and inclusion for civil society, plus a shift to a federal form of government.

Information minister Eryani: "We were keen that blood should not spilled."

The Houthi takeover

The plans were awaiting approval through a referendum when, in September 2104, the Houthi militias entered Sana'a.

"We were keen that blood should not spilled," Eryani said. "We were even keen,  despite all their actions, that they participate with us in government... So a new government was formed and the Houthis were given 30%.

"Just two months after that I was shocked when I saw the Houthis in front of my house and raising their weapons. I asked what was happening and I suddenly saw on the news that the Houthis had placed the government under house arrest."

Eryani was minister for youth and sports at the time. He continued:

"I still remember those moments when my little son Amjad was looking through the window and seeing heavy weaponry pointed at our house. 

"I was placed under house arrest for two months. In the last few days they came to my house and asked me to go and conduct my duties. I told them I couldn't go to the ministry, to my work, while armed Houthis were accompanying me.

"They told me if I didn't go to work I would be accused of treason. Then we decided to leave the country. The journey by car took 36 hours to arrive to Saudi Arabia. My wife was pregnant at that time. Unfortunately she had a miscarriage."

During subsequent negotiations in Switzerland and Kuwait the government had "made a lot of compromises and we are still ready to make even more compromises," he said.

They had come very close to a solution during the second round of talks in Kuwait: "The agreement was ready and the representative of the Yemeni government signed. At that moment a call came to the Houthis from Iran not to sign."

A further setback came last December, according to Eryani, when the Houthis killed their former ally, ex-president Saleh. "We were looking at Saleh as a politician. The Houthis don't do politics," he said.

Port city is key

Nevertheless, Eryani thinks there could still be a political way forward. The first step, he said, would be resumption of the process set out in 2011 by the GCC's transition plan, followed by a referendum on the National Dialogue outcomes, and elections. The Houthis would also be required to "transform from a militia into a political party". 

So far, though, the Houthis have shown little inclination to agree to that – so the big question is what might make them change their minds.

Eryani said the key lies in Hodeidah, the Red Sea port held by the Houthis and partially blockaded by the Saudi-led coalition. The aim, he said, should not be to capture Hodeidah but to surround it – thus cutting off an important source of revenue for the Houthis.

One complication, though, is that Hodeidah is also important for supplies of humanitarian aid. A solution, Eryani suggested, would be to hand over the port's administration to the United Nations.