A fragile alliance between Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Zaydi Houthi movement appears to be in danger of collapsing after accusations were traded in television and on social media platforms between the two “allies”. The tensions were due to Saleh’s organization of a demonstration marking 35 years since the establishment of his party the General People’s Congress (GPC). Few days before the scheduled demonstration, Abdel Malek al-Houthi, the leader of the Houthi movement, accused Saleh for conspiring with the Saudis and stabbing the Zaydi movement in the back. Clashes erupted between the allies in the suburbs of Sanaa after the demonstration. What are the main causes for the latest developments in the Northern Yemen and especially in Sanaa? What will be the consequences of these developments on the future of the conflict and on the political process for peace settlement?
Houthis and Saleh: A marriage of Convenience
Despite of the historical rivalry between the Houthis and Saleh that lead to 6 consecutive wars between the two parties, an alliance of convenience joining them was built to get rid of their common enemies. The Saudi-led military intervention has helped this alliance to last long though the two parties never trusted each other. Since Mohammad Bin Salman’s ascend as a crown prince and his improved relations with the Mohammad Bin Zayed (MBZ), information was revealed about negotiations between Riyadh and former Yemeni President seeking to normalize relations which may result in the return of Saleh into power and the end of the Yemeni war with the blessing of the Emirati leadership. According to some reports, a grand bargain is developing in secret. The deal would create a restored government coalition between the GPC and Islah (Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood) with pre-coup prime minister, Khaled Bahah, as Yemen’s president, and Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, as defense minister. It is very clear that Houthis are worried that Saleh may sacrifice them for a deal that guarantees a role for his party and his family in the future of the country. The split in the alliance seems to point towards Saleh positioning himself ahead of a political settlement .Moreover, Saleh is taking advantage of Houthis oppressive actions and corruption which made people unhappy from the Houthi militia’s dominance.
The internal tensions between the two groups enhanced the diplomatic efforts made by the Saudi-led alliance (mainly by UAE) to break the political deadlock in Yemen. Leaked emails of the UAE’s ambassador in USA Youssef El Otaiba showed Bin Salman’s need to get out of the Yemeni conflict as soon as possible after his failure in reaching a decisive victory. Furthermore, Dr. Anwar Gargash, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs said that a fallout between Yemen’s former president and the Houthis rebel leader represents the first chance to break the political deadlock in Yemen that has been caused by the Houthis. The Emirati position may complement a Saudi assessment of Ali Abdullah Saleh. There was consensus in Riyadh that Saleh is at his weakest point yet in this conflict, and some asserted that army units once loyal to him have defected to the Houthis. The Saudi evaluation may enhance a political deal with Saleh against the Iranian backed militia.
The Business of War: Preventing a Future Peace Deal!
It is clear that many of the Yemeni military and political factions are getting used to this war and are benefiting from the status-quo for their future projects. However, most of the Yemenis are suffering from this tremendous war with cholera epidemic raging in the midst of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. A New York Times article reported that Yemen is moving toward a slow death as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. On the other side, most of the political players are profiting from prolonging the conflict especially the Houthis militia. According to a Chatham House research, despite the humanitarian crisis, the set-up seems to suit most parties, who appear to be quietly cooperating with each other. The research added that while money made in such ways is not enough to prevent Yemen’s poor from inching towards famine, it does provide the resources needed to keep the different militias and political leaders in power. That is problematic because the UN-mediated peace process calls for the Houthi-Saleh alliance to cut a deal with President Hadi’s faction and form a ‘unity’ government, which would almost certainly demand to control the revenues from taxation and oil and gas sales. Moreover, with low hopes in remaining as the President of Yemen after any future peaceful settlement, the Hadi administration is said to be happier living in the Saudi-funded comfort of Riyadh than in Aden, where the situation is instable. Hadi’s allies are said to be profiting from monopolies on fuel supply into Aden, one of the few cities they nominally control. Hadi and his top officials appointed hundreds of their relatives with extravagant salaries to ministries and embassies. The oil “mafia” and Hadi’s relatives in Yemen can be indicated as the main advantageous of this war. In this regard, information revealed that Hadi’s nephew signed an agreement with Al-Eisi, a big oil business in Yemen without bidding.
It is very clear that the Houthis are enjoying their excessive power and not willing to make any concessions with the Saudi supported groups as long as they are enjoying the support of their Iranian allies. However, Saleh may be the most eager to change the status-quo in order to prevent a future Houthi domination of Sanaa and Northern Yemen.
The demonstrations led by Saleh in Sanaa may have different political messages internally and externally. On one hand, Saleh wishes to prove his presence to the Saudi-led coalition and potential to lead Yemen in the future or at least be part of any future solution. On the other hand, Saleh wishes to show the Houthis his remaining popularity warning them from any possible plan to dissolve his party. Saleh’s move and the recent developments may lead us to some conclusions and expectations in Yemen and the region.
First, the Houthis appointment of Abu Ali Al Hakem as head of intelligence can be traced is an introduction to a set of arrests and assassinations of Saleh’s close circle. The Zaydi militias will most probably wait a suitable chance to contain Saleh’s power.
Second, the Saudi-Emirati alliance’s support for Ali Abdullah Saleh may be one of the solutions to diminish the Houthis power in Yemen. However, Saleh will probably need to build an alliance with Al Islah party in the near future, which may not be in the interest of Abu Dhabi’s leadership willing to diminish political Islam groups in the region.
Finally, it is important to monitor the positive developments Saudi-Iranian relations and its potential results on the Yemeni file.
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