Yemen: the nightmare continues, with no end in sight

The war in Yemen is complicated and it can be difficult to keep track of what's happening on the ground, not to mention the related peace efforts. A new report from the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies is a useful starting point for anyone wanting a quick catch-up – well, relatively quick, since the report runs to more than 150 pages.

It's a review of developments during 2019, militarily and politically, and none of the parties involved escapes criticism. Among other things, it notes the contradiction at the heart of Yemen's humanitarian crisis: "that the largest contributors to the aid pot are those states that are prolonging the suffering of the population through their military intervention".

Below is the executive summary. The full report can be read online or in downloadable PDF format.

Coalition Collapse and Rebirth

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates led a regional military intervention into Yemen in March 2015 on behalf of the internationally recognized Yemeni government, which had fled the capital, Sana’a, following a takeover by the armed Houthi movement and its allies. At the time, Riyadh claimed that the coalition it headed would need only weeks to drive Houthi forces back and restore the Yemeni government to power – fast forward five years and the war is still raging. What 2019 made clear is that the conflict is an unwinnable quagmire, while the means to end it remain elusive.

Major new complications emerged in 2019 when disunity within the anti-Houthi ranks burst to the fore, with the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and forces loyal to Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi turning their guns on each other in August. The STC – which harbors deep-seated grievances against the central government and seeks to revive an independent state in south Yemen – pushed pro-Hadi forces out of the interim capital of Aden in what amounted to a coup d’etat, and fighting quickly spread to other southern governorates. Similar violence had also broken out in Aden between the two sides in January 2018, but then the STC was reined in by its primary backer, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). However, 2019 saw the UAE reassess its involvement in the conflict and eventually withdraw most of its forces from the country. Abu Dhabi’s decision to pull out of most of Yemen allowed it to distance itself from the STC’s actions and set the stage for Saudi Arabia to eventually assume sole leadership of the anti-Houthi coalition.

With fighting threatening to irrevocably split the coalition and open up a new front in a civil war, Saudi Arabia called for an urgent dialogue in Jeddah between the Hadi government and the STC. After gaining Abu Dhabi’s buy-in for the talks, Saudi Arabia was able to broker a deal between the Yemeni parties that, on paper, would unite them under Riyadh’s ultimate authority. The accord signed in November, which became known as the Riyadh Agreement, laid out an overly optimistic timeline for the STC to be absorbed militarily and politically into the Yemeni government. On the military front, all security forces would come under overall Saudi command, enshrining the UAE’s pullout from Yemen by making previously Emirati-backed groups, such as the STC, now dependent on Riyadh for support and financing. On the political front, all major government decisions would be subordinated to Saudi Arabia. However, since the signing ceremony, every implementation benchmark has been missed, save for the return of some government ministers to Aden. Thus, it remains to be seen whether Saudi Arabia can truly force two groups who harbor deep distrust and enmity toward one another to implement a deal that seeks to reconstitute a more effective and accountable Yemeni government and stabilize southern Yemen.

Saudis, Houthis Enter Talks as Drone Warfare Ups the Ante

The armed Houthi movement increasingly demonstrated its lethal capabilities with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – otherwise known as drones – and guided missiles in 2019. The group escalated targeted strikes both in Yemen and across the northern border into Saudi Arabia, with two game-changing attacks last year being claimed by the Houthis. 

An August 1 attack in Aden killed influential Security Belt forces commander Muneer al-Mashali, better known as Abu al-Yamama, and 35 other soldiers, setting flame to simmering tension in the interim capital and the stage for the STC’s coup against the Yemeni government that month. Houthi forces claimed they had used a drone and medium-range ballistic missile to strike the camp. 

The next month, the Houthis claimed credit for the September 14 strikes on a Saudi Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia. This temporarily sent global oil prices skyrocketing and cast a pall in the lead-up to an initial public offering for shares in Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil producer and most profitable company in the world, with an estimated worth of well over a trillion dollars. Riyadh, Washington and European allies blamed Iran for the attacks, though the immediate result was that Saudi Arabia began exploring behind-the-scenes deescalation talks with both Iran and Houthis, with the preservation of the Saudi economy being Riyadh’s primary motivation. 

Life Under the Houthis: A Descent into the Dark Ages

When the armed Houthi movement and forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh took over Sana’a and much of northern Yemen in 2014, maintaining the alliance between them demanded compromises on both sides. Though positions of political, security and economic clout in their governing apparatus were hotly contested, their common enemies – the Yemeni government and the Saudi- and UAE-led coalition – created the impetus to make deals and parse appointments. This process limited each’s ability to pursue their respective agendas, with Saleh’s secular-minded General People’s Congress party generally checking the Houthis’ ability to institutionalize their hardline religious ideology through the mechanisms of state. 

In late 2017, the Houthi-Saleh alliance dissolved in spectacular violence, ending – after days of street battles – with Houthi fighters parading the former president’s bullet-ridden corpse before the cameras. In the two years since, Houthi authorities have used their uncontested rule behind the frontlines to increasingly build a mafia statelet in their own theocratic, totalitarian image. In 2019, this process continued to accelerate and involved further remaking school curriculums to disempower free-thought, facilitate child conscription into Houthi forces and inculcate the Zaidi Shia doctrine. The movement mandated public servants’ attendance at regular indoctrination classes and at a swathe of new official religious celebrations – the latter of which were financed through ‘donations’ solicited from businesses and individuals that often amounted to officially-sanctioned extortion and protection rackets. 

The iron grip with which Houthi security and intelligence forces control northern Yemen – home to the country’s largest population centers – has allowed them to impose new taxes and fees at will, bully businesses and manipulate markets to fund their war effort; extreme examples of the latter being the manufactured fuel shortages in the spring and autumn that created massive cash windfalls for Houthi-affiliated black market fuel vendors.

Houthi security forces have eradicated dissent in the public sphere, having shut down all independent media outlets and continued the imprisonment of journalists and political activists, while the persecution of religious minorities also persisted through 2019 in northern Yemen. New regulations the Houthi authorities brought in also further choked the independence of international NGOs and their ability to operate, with aid groups already facing widespread harassment, theft, threats and restrictions on their operations before the year began.      

Political Developments: Fragmentation and the Struggle for Legitimacy  

While frontlines shifted little, territorial and political fragmentation continued in Yemen throughout 2019. Houthi-held areas were relatively stable, though life under the “iron fist” was suffocating for many as the armed Houthi movement tightened its grip over Yemen’s largest population centers in the country’s north. On the other hand, several areas controlled by anti-Houthi forces suffered from instability and local infighting, with different groups competing for power. The internationally recognized government, nominally controlling these areas, largely remained in exile throughout 2019.

Continuing a trend from the previous year, the government of President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi retained limited leverage on the ground and its authority was increasingly challenged. In an attempt to reaffirm some legitimacy in 2019, Hadi’s backer Saudi Arabia put considerable effort into holding a parliamentary session in territory nominally held by the government. It was the first session held by the government since the beginning of the war. Houthi authorities had repeatedly held parliamentary sessions in their areas in the past, and did so again in 2019. However, both failed to garner a legal quorum of MPs in the House of Representatives, which has been split due to the war.

The legislative session of MPs loyal to the Hadi government took place in Sayoun, northern Hadramawt governorate. Challenges posed by the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) prevented the session from being held in the government’s temporary capital, Aden. Despite the lack of a legal quorum, it was the first time that a Yemeni legislative body had endorsed the Saudi-led military intervention. Divisions within the anti-Houthi alliance were one factor preventing a quorum on the government side, with STC-aligned MPs not attending the session. 

Greater unity appeared to be on the horizon after the signing of the Riyadh Agreement, crafted to unite anti-Houthi forces under a Saudi umbrella. However, as of January 2020, the implementation appeared to be indefinitely delayed, and the fragmentation of the country was becoming ever more entrenched.

Local power struggles in Yemen often have been reinforced by foreign powers, with Taiz a case in point. While the city continued to suffer from a partial siege imposed by the armed Houthi movement, competition among anti-Houthi forces, namely the Islah party and its opponents, led to further instability in the governorate and increased the risk of a new advance by Houthi forces. The conflict within the anti-Houthi camp was reinforced by regional rivalries, with Qatar funding a new military camp established by Islah-affiliated forces – a move clearly intended to antagonize the Saudi- and UAE-led coalition.

In other areas, de facto federalism continued with local actors pushing for more autonomy from any outside authorities. Marib remained relatively stable under the rule of its powerful governor in an alliance with tribes and the Islah party. Yemen’s largest governorate in terms of area, Hadramawt, also became more vocal in articulating a Hadrami identity and expressing its desire for local autonomy. This Hadrami particularism has proven to be stronger than divisions within the governorate. The south of Hadramawt around the port city of Mukalla is controlled by UAE-backed forces, while Saudi-backed forces, including Islah-affiliated troops, dominate the north. Hadramawt stayed neutral vis-à-vis the conflict in the south between the UAE-backed STC and Saudi-backed government forces in 2019. 

Likewise, the separatist STC was unable to garner significant support in Al-Mahra and Socotra during its attempted takeover of southern Yemen in the fall of 2019. The desire for local autonomy is historically stronger than for southern secession, as Yemen’s easternmost governorate once formed a sultanate together with the Socotra archipelago. Meanwhile, both Al-Mahra and Socotra witnessed protests against the presence of coalition powers. In Socotra, an Emirati attempt to install a local proxy force was met with local opposition. In Al-Mahra, a protest movement against Saudi military expansion has, since 2018, increasingly gained the support of neighboring Oman, an unusual development given Muscat’s traditional politics of non-interference.

Matters seemed to take an even more complicated turn in southern Yemen with the establishment of the National Salvation Council, a collective of southern factions opposing the Saudi- and UAE-led military coalition. Among the southern opposition figures to call for the council in September was a prominent representative of the anti-Saudi movement in Al-Mahra. However, its relevance on the ground has yet to be demonstrated. 

As southern Yemen was riven by power struggles and the north was suffocating under the tightening Houthi grip, a new actor quietly began establishing his own statelet on Yemen’s Red Sea Coast. Tariq Saleh had emerged in 2018 as the leader of the battle for the Houthi-controlled port city of Hudaydah. After the offensive was halted with the signing of the Stockholm Agreement in late 2018, the nephew of the late ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh began to consolidate his power along the western coastline. Enjoying unequivocal support both from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Tariq Saleh has become a sort of gatekeeper in the area in terms of both military and financial support. 

Frontlines and Security

Frontlines nationwide shifted little in 2019, but the armed Houthi movement ended the year with an upper hand militarily, primarily by maintaining its cohesion while factions within the anti-Houthi coalition turned on each other. Houthi forces continue to control most of Yemen’s largest population centers, including the capital, Sana’a, and its fighters also managed to reverse 2018 gains by coalition forces in northern Yemen near the border with Saudi Arabia. It was a significant change of fortune from the year before, when the anti-Houthi coalition was exerting pressure on several fronts, most notably along the Red Sea Coast in an offensive toward the port city of Hudaydah. 

Apart from the northern front, the only other significant shifting of primary frontlines centered around Al-Dhalea governorate. In Hudaydah, the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement that froze frontlines around the port city held throughout the year. Zones of control on other fronts, most notably in Taiz and Marib governorates, also remained unchanged, despite occasional bouts of heavy fighting.

Throughout the war, the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition’s modern air force has dominated from the sky, and its forces on the ground are better armed and trained, but the Houthis were able to maintain countervailing pressure by stepping up their use of drones and missile strikes in 2019 inside Yemen and across the border into Saudi Arabia. It was an effective use of an asymmetric warfare tactic, and it ultimately contributed to Riyadh accepting a partial cease-fire offer by the Houthis in September. That, in turn, was a catalyst for direct talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi movement.

On the counterterrorism front, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula found itself weaker than ever in 2019, focused on a four-front war against various Yemeni foes. One of these enemies was the Yemeni affiliate of the Islamic State group, with the two rival jihadi groups carrying out more operations against one another than any other entity in 2019. Simultaneously, while the United States under the Trump administration has become more opaque about reporting its counterterrorism operations in Yemen, data suggests that American drone and air strikes in the country continued to decline dramatically from their 2017 peak. 

The most dramatic military advances and retreats of 2019 occurred when anti-Houthi forces turned their weapons against each other in southern Yemen in August and September. Though Saudi Arabia ultimately patched over the factions’ differences with the Riyadh Agreement, it remained unclear at the end of the year whether troops aligned with the Yemeni government and other anti-Houthi forces would be capable of overcoming their mutual distrust and eventually mount coordinated offensives against Houthi-controlled areas. The prospect of an all-out military victory against the armed Houthi movement – a daunting task even when the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition entered the war in 2015 – appeared as remote as ever as 2020 began.

Economic Warfare: Government and Houthi Struggle for Control Deepens

The confrontation between the Yemeni government and Houthi authorities’ for regulatory control over fuel imports, monetary policy, commercial banks, money exchangers and other aspects of the economy continued to escalate in 2019. Each side sought to exploit its specific leverage points in this struggle: the Yemeni government, its Economic Committee and the Aden-based Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) hold international legitimacy and the accompanying connections to international financial markets, while Houthi authorities and the Sana’a-based CBY branch have remit over the country’s largest financial hubs and commercial markets. Meanwhile, ordinary Yemenis continued paying the price of this economic warfare through commodity shortages, inflation, a fragmenting national currency system, unemployment and lost earnings.  

For instance, Yemeni government attempts to impose regulations and tariffs on fuel imports to Houthi-held Hudaydah port, and Houthi attempts to thwart such measures and protect their business interests, led to widespread fuel shortages in the spring and autumn as fuel tankers idled offshore waiting to unload. UN intervention in the fall led to a tacit, if tenuous, cease-fire in this battle: both parties agreed to deposit fuel import tariffs at the Hudaydah central bank branch and use the funds to pay public servants in the governorate; none were paid by year’s end, however, over a dispute whether to include those hired after the Houthi takeover in 2014.   

Yemeni banks and money exchange companies were another battleground. The Aden central bank has attempted to stabilize the Yemeni rial exchange rate and restart formal financial cycles through providing traders import financing for basic commodities at preferential rates. Simultaneously, however, requirements that letters of credit be paid for in cash through commercial banks threatened to draw liquidity out of Houthi-held areas and undermine Houthi-linked importers; the Sana’a-based authorities thus prohibited compliance with the government’s decrees and deployed strongarm tactics against bankers and traders. 

Economic brinkmanship hit a dangerous new precipice by year’s end when the Houthi authorities in Sana’a banned the use of currency notes printed by the Aden central bank since 2016. Black market currency trading and currency smuggling flourished as exchange rates began to diverge dramatically between Sana’a and Aden. This domestic currency destabilization comes as yet another threat looms; the US$2 billion deposit Saudi Arabia provided the Aden central bank in 2018 to finance imports is expected to be exhausted before the end of the first quarter of 2020. Without new foreign currency reserves the Yemeni rial will almost certainly plummet in value, which would leave vast swathes of the population unable to purchase basic necessities and at risk of famine. 

Efforts to reunify the CBY – which is fragmented not just between Sana’a and Aden, but also divided within Yemeni government-held areas as well – largely floundered in 2019; government efforts to combat corruption appeared on a collision course with big business interests; and the disused FSO SAFER oil terminal offshore of Hudaydah governorate continued to threaten environmental disaster as the warring parties bickered about what to do with the million-plus barrels of crude oil aboard. The ongoing financial crisis in Lebanon and the resultant restriction on withdrawals also left many Yemeni banks and businesses unable to access their correspondent accounts with Lebanese banks. 

Humanitarian and Human Rights

War-exhausted Yemenis found little respite in 2019 as they coped with broken education and health systems, water and fuel shortages prompted by warring parties’ strategy of weaponizing the economy, and insecurity that permeated all aspects of home and community life. Actions on the ground exacerbated the dire humanitarian situation, including Arab coalition airstrikes and Houthi-planted landmines, and the number of people displaced by the war kept growing. Warring parties continued to violate international humanitarian law by attacking schools, hospitals, and water and sanitation systems, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in December. Cholera remained widespread at the close of 2019, and only half of all health facilities were fully functional. Humanitarian aid agencies — frustrated by restricted access to people in need, harassment and deadbeat donors — struggled to keep up, but found themselves scaling back instead. 

Salary suspensions continued to plague public-sector employees in Houthi-controlled areas. As the war dragged on, even the most skillful juggling of family finances could stretch the devalued rial only so far, and parents’ struggle to pay for food, water and petrol turned other necessities — bus fares, school and university fees, school uniforms and supplies — into luxuries no longer in reach. Some students, as well as parents and teachers, also feared schools were simply too unsafe to attend, according to key studies and NGO reports in 2019 that highlighted the damage to Yemeni youths’ future caused by boys dropping out of school to work odd jobs or join fighting forces, and girls being kept home or married off early. In Houthi areas, teachers reported being pressed to indoctrinate students into Houthi ideology and cooperate in conscripting children. 

The Houthi authority’s crackdown on dissent and differing viewpoints continued in areas under its control in 2019, visible in its detentions and trials of journalists, activists and religious minorities. The Yemeni Journalists Syndicate noted serious press freedom violations by all parties, including arbitrary detentions, assaults, threats and work bans, and said Houthi authorities opened a trial in December for 10 journalists allegedly tortured and detained since 2015. The Syndicate, however, noted a significant drop in the number of reported violations committed by all sides in 2019 compared to 2018, and in the number of journalists killed. The decline, however, appeared to be more related to the repressive and hostile work environment having pushed journalists out of the field than any security improvements.

In September 2019, the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen (GEE), a UN-appointed investigative panel, reported on an array of violations by the Houthis, the internationally backed Yemeni government, Arab coalition member states and various fighting forces on the ground. It found, for the second year running, that parties to the conflict may have committed war crimes amid an environment defined by lack of accountability. It also turned over a confidential list of names to consider for future prosecution. Among acts the GEE said may amount to war crimes were murder, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, sexual violence including rape, torture and child recruitment. It noted the security of women and girls had deteriorated since the outbreak of the war, and said there were grounds to believe all parties to the conflict had committed gender-based violence in acts that may amount to war crimes. The report also highlighted the precarious position of refugees, migrants and minorities, and it said economic policies of both the Houthi authorities and the internationally recognized Yemeni government – particularly those impacting the value of the Yemeni rial – had exacerbated the crisis. The experts reported that all warring parties had impeded humanitarian access, an increasing frustration throughout the conflict for aid agencies.

During 2019, these access challenges were brought into sharp focus in Houthi-held areas, with restrictions on aid organizations soaring over the course of the year. In tandem, the Houthis’ tight grip on government ministries and institutions has raised questions about accountability in the use of aid funds, while the movement has sought to control humanitarian response in the north through its own aid coordination body. The UN World Food Programme (WFP), frustrated by aid diversion in Houthi-controlled areas, announced a partial suspension of operations in June 2019. While the suspension has since been lifted, talks between the WFP and Houthi authorities regarding mechanisms to ensure aid reaches those in need remain ongoing. Toward the close of the year, humanitarian actors sought to exert pressure on the Houthi authorities to improve the operating environment – the implicit threat being cuts to funding that millions of Yemenis rely upon.

Humanitarian actors also have found themselves under greater scrutiny. A Yemeni social media campaign probed the fate of billions of dollars in humanitarian aid since the outbreak of the war, while the UN found evidence supporting allegations of corruption at one of its own agencies in Sana’a. Underpinning these myriad challenges is a contradiction at the heart of the humanitarian response in Yemen: that the largest contributors to the aid pot are those states that are prolonging the suffering of the population through their military intervention in the Yemen conflict. Saudi Arabia and the UAE continue to restrict commercial and humanitarian access to the country and destroy infrastructure and agricultural land through airstrikes while bankrolling politicians and armed actors who perpetuate violence. After pledging more than a billion dollars at the beginning of 2019, the UN has spent much of the year hounding the coalition partners to pay up while shutting down programs due to underfunding. In its planning for 2020, OCHA spoke of narrowing its priorities to target far fewer people in need.

Humanitarian actors will face new obstacles in 2020, including increased fees because of a strict Houthi ban that took effect in December 2019 on the use of currency issued by the government-run Aden central bank. Aid agencies deliver much of their direct aid relief as cash transfers using currency issued by the Aden central bank, which is no longer permitted in Houthi-controlled northern areas where the majority of aid recipients are located. These same restrictions will also make it more expensive for Yemenis who left the north for work in government-controlled areas to send remittances to family back home. Combined with continued salary suspensions, the economic impact on families will almost certainly worsen as agencies cut back their programs.

Yemen and the Region

Against the backdrop of escalating animosity between Washington and Tehran in 2019, the Yemen conflict caught international attention as part of the regional calculus around Iran. At the same time, Iran and the armed Houthi movement continued to strengthen their ties, a process that had gained pace over the course of the war. In 2019, Iran was the first country to officially accredit an ambassador representing the Houthi leadership in its capital, Tehran. While this enforced the reductionist view of the Houthis being a proxy of Iran in some circles, importantly the administration of US President Donald Trump had actually walked back from this narrative by the end of the year, saying that Tehran does not speak for the Houthi movement. 

The Houthi-claimed attack against Saudi Aramco oil facilities in August could, indeed, be seen in the context of increasing tension between Iran and the US. According to a Sana’a Center source in contact with parts of the Houthi leadership, it was coordinated between Tehran and Sana’a. The Houthis claimed the attack while Tehran denied any role, yet the message to Riyadh — and by extension the US and Western allies — was apparent from both: if escalation continued, Saudi Arabia could be hit where it hurts. The strike also demonstrated the Houthis’ relevance as an actor to be considered in any efforts to achieve regional security. The armed Houthi movement in 2019 also continued to maintain ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, another party in the “resistance” camp backed by Iran. 

As 2019 progressed, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) increasingly looked for diplomatic paths to reduce imminent threats posed by Iran and its allies. The UAE, which previously had pushed for an aggressive policy confronting Iran, in July 2019 signed a document with Tehran on joint maritime security. This came shortly after the announced withdrawal of Emirati troops from Yemen and other indications of the UAE reassessing its relationship with Iran. In the wake of the Aramco attack and restrained response from the US, the Saudi faith in Washington as a guardian was shown wanting. Without it, and after more than four years of warfare against what Abu Dhabi and Riyadh had seen as Iranian encroachment on Yemen, the military path increasingly seemed exhausted. At the same time,  other countries in the region such as Oman and Pakistan assumed intermediary roles in Riyadh’s secret talks with Houthi representatives and efforts to ratchet down tensions with Tehran.

By hosting Saudi-Houthi talks in 2019, Oman continued to play its traditional role as a mediator even though Muscat and Riyadh differed sharply on developments in Yemen’s Al-Mahra governorate. Muscat continued its support for a protest movement against Saudi military encroachment in the eastern governorate bordering Oman. There was also anecdotal evidence of a collaboration between Oman and Qatar, and possibly Iran, in supporting Yemeni groups and movements that acted against the interests of the Saudi- and UAE-led military coalition. Since being expelled from that coalition in 2017, Qatar has taken a different stance on the Yemen war, most visibly so in its media empire, as Qatari-funded TV channels shifted from supporting the military intervention to becoming a platform for its most outspoken critics. 

In addition to the UAE, other minor partners also pulled back their involvement in the Yemen War in 2019. Sudan began to withdraw some of its troops from the anti-Houthi coalition, though the gradual pullout indicated that the move was happening with the consent of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the most important financial supporters of Sudan’s ailing economy. Morocco, meanwhile, suspended its participation in the coalition, which had been marginal to begin with, at the start of 2019. 

In 2020, the potential for open conflict between Iran and the US, and its respective allies, continues to loom over the Middle East. This was demonstrated just two days into the new decade with the US assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, who was responsible for organizing Iran’s military operations across the region, including with allied groups such as the armed Houthi movement.

Yemen and the United Nations

The UN’s diplomatic achievements in Yemen were notable in 2019 for their absence; breakthroughs during the year took place outside the UN framework. While 2019 began with guarded optimism over the UN-brokered Stockholm Agreement, reached in December 2018 between the internationally recognized government and the armed Houthi movement. The accord contained three points: an immediate cease-fire in Hudaydah and mutual withdrawal of forces from the city and the nearby ports of Hudaydah, Saleef and Ras Issa; prisoner exchanges; and a statement of understanding on the city of Taiz. By year’s end none of the promises had been fully delivered. 

Events on the ground in Yemen during the second half of 2019 pushed the already stalling UN efforts to implement the Stockholm Agreement further to the margins. Fighting in August between the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) diverted attention to the need to prevent a new front opening in Yemen’s civil war. Deescalation efforts there were led by Saudi Arabia, culminating in the signing of the Riyadh Agreement in November.

The talks in Riyadh were driven by Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman, the younger brother of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths welcomed the Saudi initiative, characterizing it as complementary to the UN-led efforts. Meanwhile, in late September, a backchannel opened for direct talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis to negotiate confidence-building measures outside any formal framework. These discussions remained ongoing at the end of the year and have already resulted in multiple prisoner releases. These conciliatory moves were characterized by both sides as attempts to fulfill the prisoner exchange aspect of the Stockholm Agreement, but they were negotiated outside the UN framework after multiple UN-led efforts to facilitate prisoner exchanges through the year had stalled. 

There were various reasons for the lack of progress on the Stockholm Agreement. The text of the accord was left purposely vague to ensure buy-in from the warring parties, with the consequence that it was open to different interpretations. Also, it lacked a realistic timetable for implementation. The cease-fire in Hudaydah was implemented immediately – the agreement’s only clear success – but UN efforts on the redeployment of forces and what to do with port revenues repeatedly hit impasses as the year progressed. UN-led negotiations for a prisoner exchange ended in the spring without success, and there was little discernible effort to even begin talks for a deescalation in Taiz. 

UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths spent much of 2019 engaged in shuttle diplomacy, between Sana’a and Riyadh in particular, along with visits to other regional and world capitals to meet with stakeholders in the Yemen conflict. But diplomacy veered off in a new direction after the STC ousted the Yemeni government from Aden in August in a violent coup. The two parties reconciled in November, signing the Riyadh Agreement and agreeing to form a blended government, with the STC also gaining a seat in peace negotiations. Such a government has yet to be formed, and at the end of 2019 the Yemeni government had no negotiating team to send to peace talks. In 2020, progress will be necessary on this aspect of the Riyadh Agreement for a formal peace process to begin. Going into 2020, the UN envoy’s office envisioned this could be achieved and peace negotiations could begin in March 2020. 

The UN envoy remains committed to a framework that seeks the most reductive agreement possible to stop the war — an “end the war agreement” rather than a “peace agreement”. This approach seeks a swift agreement — without extraneous negotiations — on basic security and political arrangements, with major decisions on post-conflict Yemen deferred to the transitional period. Under this roadmap, wartime leaders would not be relied on to make decisions for peacetime. However, Griffiths’ detractors have criticized the limited scope of his vision and the deferral of complex details, and argue that critical issues such as the economy, which has been weaponized by both sides in the conflict, must be addressed in any peace agreement if it is to have any hope of success. 

Yemen and the United States

Away from tension in the Gulf and back in Washington, domestic legislative pressure on issues related to Yemen became less visible in 2019 following the escalation that began in late 2018 with the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A bipartisan resolution to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition came to the end of the road in April with a presidential veto, yet arguably fulfilled its symbolic rather than legal aims. Other standalone bills taking aim at US involvement in Yemen and weapons sales to coalition member states saw little progress over the course of the year. Meanwhile, the US State Department said in late 2019 that it, along with the Pentagon, was investigating allegations made in CNN investigations that the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition had passed on, sold or abandoned US-made weapons in Yemen. Such actions, CNN reported, may have violated arms export agreements.

Yemen and the European Union

European domestic debates about Yemen in 2019 largely focused on arms exports to the Saudi- and Emirati-led military coalition. Aside from attention in the media, among NGOs and in parliaments, European arms exports also triggered legal cases and diplomatic quarrels. By the end of the year, however, the uproar over arms sales to Saudi Arabia that was prompted by the Khashoggi affair had died down. Despite some individual countries still curtailing exports — by choice or legal challenge — broader European defense projects appeared back on track. 

On the European diplomatic front, the first half of 2019 saw frequent visits by European officials to Yemen and the region to discuss the UN-led peace process, with Britain taking its usual front-running role in Yemen-related diplomacy. Besides Britain’s significant military-economic interests in the region generally, the former colonial power in southern Yemen is penholder of the Yemen file at the UN Security Council. A former British diplomat, Martin Griffiths, also leads the UN’s diplomatic efforts as the UN’s special envoy to Yemen. However, Boris Johnson’s assumption of the prime minister’s office in July came with an overriding focus on British domestic affairs. Britain’s new government, including its newly appointed foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, did not appear to share its predecessor’s interest or even knowledge in the Yemen file. Diplomatic rotation swept aside another diplomat, EU Ambassador Antonia Calvo-Puerta, who had developed a reputation for engaging with and hearing out all sides. 

The second half of the year was overshadowed by broader regional tension with Iran, and the Europeans, especially Britain and France, focused on trying to ease the escalating Iran-US crisis in the wake of a series of security incidents. The slow-going international mediation efforts led by the UN in Yemen since 2015 and supported by European powers were essentially overtaken by initiatives from Riyadh, which abruptly changed course after its anti-Houthi military coalition imploded in August and its oil facilities came under attack in September.