Every few hours, rockets shake the dusty streets. Refugees are fleeing from the outskirts of town. The sounds of skirmishes and troop movements can be heard from the camps that cover the city—the Houthis are coming, and this is not a fight the Yemeni government can afford to lose.
In Ma’rib, the clock is ticking. Just a few months ago, the nearly two million internally displaced people inhabiting this eastern city were sure they had fled from violence, but the same looming eeriness that once gripped other parts of Yemen has arrived here.
The Houthis, an Islamist armed movement originating in northern Yemen, have been trying to take the internationally-recognized Yemeni government (IRG) stronghold of Ma’rib since 2018 and haven’t gotten the right opportunity until now. Its strategic position would make it a critical military gain, and it also sits on the start of the most important oil pipeline in the country.
With the death count increasing rapidly, Raiman al-Hamdani, a leading researcher on security and development in Yemen, emphasized in a conversation with The Politic that the situation has become a bloody “stalemate on all fronts.”
Yemen’s war is in its sixth year, and it has pushed the country to starvation for the second time.
The conflict—and the accompanying Saudi blockade around the country—has led to the steady depreciation of the Yemeni Rial and a corresponding spike in food import prices, on which Yemen is reliant for 90 percent of its food supply. Humanitarian aid has stalled, foreign investments have dried up, and economic crises worldwide due to COVID-19 means Yemeni expats are sending less remittance money home.
Hunger is expected to be even worse for at least the next six months—55 percent of the population will face crisis levels of food insecurity, a 20 percent increase from this past fall.
Having experienced devastating outbreaks of cholera, diphtheria, dengue fever, measles, and malaria, the World Health Organization is preparing for a second wave of COVID-19 in Yemen. The Houthis’ lack of transparency and discriminatory treatment of patients for the virus as well as a severe shortage of staff could further cripple the country.
Shortages and continuing war have made it nearly impossible to work. Half a million doctors, teachers, and other public servants haven’t received a salary in four years. Al-Hamdani adds, “It’s quite difficult to see friends of mine, people [who] were wealthy, who are now begging on the street, completely unable to find jobs.”
Fatima Abo Alasrar, a prominent Yemeni-American journalist and scholar, observed with grief that since the Arab Spring, “the culture [of Yemen] has changed from a culture that was accepting. There was space for freedom, and civil society organizations thrived. There was hope that things would get better after the Arab Spring. People were asking for more…and now they’re just content with less.”
Alasrar added that “to go from wanting representation, from wanting equal rights, from wanting respect, from wanting peace, to just wanting your salary…. The ceiling of demands has been significantly lowered.”
She continued: “All of those dreams and ambitions have evaporated. People are able to get by in Yemen—I still have friends in Yemen—but their spirit is broken. There is fear, there is unpredictability, and that is the chief destabilizer in the country.”
Al-Hamdani shared a similar feeling of sorrow: “the fact that the human rights and the achievements and gains that were made in the past have all been lost now…. I think decades have been lost in terms of human development.”
While Yemen seems strangled, could there be hope in the new administration? Tawakkol Karman, the only Nobel Peace Prize Laureate from Yemen, has been enthusiastic about the “promises of Joe Biden and his administration,” saying that they will “collaborate and ally with people and with human rights defenders and democratic people around the world.”
In some of his first moves in the Middle East, President Biden announced the “ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arm sales” and paused all arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Just a few days later, he lifted former President Trump’s last-minute designation of the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Biden also appointed Timothy Lenderking—a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Gulf Affairs—as the first Yemen envoy since the start of the conflict, who has begun multi-channel talks to discuss humanitarian aid and peace negotiations.
Yemen’s current crisis stems from the Arab Spring, when protests ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi took power. Protests again erupted after Hadi lifted fuel subsidies, and Saleh’s army allied with Houthi forces, seized the capital in September 2014, set up their own government, and advanced farther south.
This prompted Saudi Arabia to begin airstrikes against the Houthis and help Hadi’s government (known as the Internationally Recognized Government, or IRG) take back control of Aden and the eastern city of Ma’rib.
But it also caused a massive counter response; with their message of defense of national sovereignty, the Houthis managed to consolidate control over the populated western and northern highlands while also drawing closer to Iran.
Al-Hamdani clarified that “foreign interference in itself is exactly what’s complicated the Yemen quagmire.” One of the biggest factors drawing foreign actors beyond national security is the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a critical oil shipping channel between Yemen and Djibouti with direct access to the Arabian Sea.
The United States has also gotten involved, providing mid-air refueling for Saudi warplanes, aiding in intelligence and reconnaissance, training Saudis to improve targeting, and selling them billions of dollars worth of weapons. Trump vetoed Congress’s bipartisan invocation of the 1973 War Powers Resolution to continue support of Saudi offensives.
But the Saudis have spent exorbitant amounts of money and handled the war disastrously. Despite a no-strike list and training from the U.S. government to minimize civilian deaths, various watchdogs have published damning reports of indiscriminate civilian targeting and bombings. Growing consensus in the U.S. over the last few years highlights the inhumane and likely illegal actions our government has supported—both sides have been accused of war crimes.
Even Yemenis allegedly supported by the Saudis don’t trust them: IRG Interior Minister Ahmed al-Maysari suggested that the Saudi-Emirati coalition could be responsible for the killing of 116 of the IRG’s Presidential Guards in early 2020.
Cracks in the anti-Houthi coalition are widespread. The south is incredibly fractured by factional infighting and separatist movements, the most prominent of which became the Southern Transition Council (STC) and staged a successful coup against the IRG in Aden in 2018. The UAE sided with and continues to support the STC despite official withdrawal from the conflict, and multiple clashes have kept the STC and IRG entangled in skirmishes.
Violence has continued to increase—an attack on Aden’s airport killed at least 22 people in December, and an average of seven civilians are killed or maimed every day. Ma’rib’s outskirts are the latest bloodbath, and people in the city are horrified.
“I personally know child soldiers who have been living in Ma’rib with their families escaping the Houthis’ forced recruitment,” Alasrar said. She underscored the current terror: “there are people who are being called inside Ma’rib, including women, where they’re saying “we’re coming, and we’re going to come after you.”
One of the women Abo Alasrar speaks with regularly left everything behind and fled to Cairo to escape terror threats.
“Territory is a zero-sum game, and Ma’rib seems to be a zero-sum game,” Alasrar noted. “So if they have it, it’s game over for the government of Yemen and an embarrassment for Saudi. It’s going to have very devastating consequences.”
Ma’rib is part of the Houthis’ bid to consolidate more power and leverage for upcoming negotiations, and as Alasrar describes it, an opportunity to test the new American administration.
Lifting the FTO designation unties the hands of humanitarian groups who need to access the vast majority of the Yemeni population who live under Houthi control, and Lenderking’s appointment signals the administration is looking for sustainable peace. The calculation appeared to be that alleviating human suffering would bring Yemeni parties to dialogue, and Hadi vowed to support the administration’s efforts.
But the Houthis could have been emboldened by their delisting. Alasrar mentioned that “when you pull the plug on a terrorist designation, it inadvertently legitimizes the group.”
She was particularly disturbed by the language used in the delisting, saying that “calling the Houthis ‘Ansar Allah’ gives them a bit of legitimacy, and it’s something that the Houthis always desired…they’re generally known as Houthis and generally known by their adversaries as such; no one calls them Ansar Allah but themselves, so to see the administration accept that…may be based on respect, but they’re not giving respect to a lot of Yemeni people. You’re letting millions of Yemenis down who have really suffered at the hands of this group.”
Soon after the Biden administration’s announcement, the Houthis attacked Saudi Arabia’s Abha Airport. At the same time, Houthi leaders have apparently indicated to Lenderking that they are willing to work for peace. It seems as though the group will continue to advance their interests regardless of international or local regulations.
Biden’s withdrawal of support for the Saudis isn’t surprising; he expressed his perception of “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia” throughout his 2020 campaign. Given the fact that the U.S. had already reduced its support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE substantially before Biden took office, the effects will likely be minimal.
Saudi Arabia’s response was muted, likely because recent failures have caused them to shift towards defense, which the U.S. will still be aiding. The Kingdom’s long game is to build influence in the region, and it continues to have back-channel negotiations with the Houthis despite fighting alongside the IRG. If talks are successful, Saudi may halt its funding of the IRG, making it even weaker than it is currently.
“At the heart of it, nothing has changed,” Alasrar suggested.
The Houthis will remain under significant pressure, but non-military warnings are easy to ignore.
Al-Hamdani notes that “for the Houthis, taking out Ma’rib is potentially a battle that gives them a military victory over the whole conflict and completely delegitimizes the Internationally Recognized Government and the Saudi intervention.” They have intimate knowledge of military operations, and he adds that they’re “quite determined right now to go towards Ma’rib, because why wouldn’t they [be]?”
“Everybody is pushing for peace, but [the Houthis] are pushing for strategic tactical military operations on the ground,” Alasrar stated.
Alasrar is in contact with a Houthi loyalist in Ma’rib who, like others who are ideologically aligned with the Houthis, sees no problem with their takeover. Meanwhile, the internally displaced people (IDPs) are frightened.
Past attempts at negotiations offer shaky prospects for politically negotiated peace.
The 2018 Stockholm Agreement that aimed to resolve fighting in Hodeidah collapsed within two years. The 2019 Riyadh Agreement, which gave political legitimacy to the STC in exchange for allowing the IRG back into Aden to establish a power-sharing agreement, appears to be followed by both sides, but the vast majority of work still remains.
American-led negotiations in Yemen must therefore be well-constructed, backed with significant knowledge of the situation, and bring all parties together. If a ceasefire and end to the Saudi blockade can be negotiated, nutrition and sanitation can reach multiple parts of the country, which can avert impending disaster, ease tensions, stabilize the Rial, and support the economy. It could also bring groups to the bargaining table. Once there, experts argue negotiations should focus on social and economic development issues, equitable and socially-based division of natural resource and territorial control, and agreements on constitutionalism, rule of law, and equal rights.
“Bit by bit, the human capital is leaving…and there is a brain drain in the country. All of these are now replaced by people who are forced to stay,” Alasrar said.
An anonymous source who will be referred to as Hussein, who has lived in the U.S. for 25 years and has a big family in Ibb, said, “I only hear that those who are middle-class people are becoming poor, and the poor people are increasing, and the rich people have left the country.”
To bring those who have left back to the country, there must be investment in structuring a good government based on anti-corruption as well as a non-aggression pact with Saudi Arabia.
Hussein emphasized that Yemenis, like most people, care most about providing for their families. Returning peoples’ livelihoods and economic hope can defend against factions that splinter and exploit society.
In the short-term, it’s unequivocal: the Houthis are winning. They have made too many inroads to be defeated militarily or to agree to an equal power-sharing agreement, much less being kicked out of Sana’a as their adversaries want. They will demand a major role in any future government.
“Now they control the strongest parts of Yemen and where the central state was most powerful historically…their propaganda machine is wild, and their ability to recruit is insane. If they’re not dealt with now and recognized…you risk having generations of indoctrinated hard-line people that just want forever war,” al-Hamdani warned.
Al-Hamdani is pessimistic about the prospect of serious immediate negotiations: “I’m afraid to say that I don’t think we have any leverage over the Houthis. They’re in charge of the battle right now, and the negotiating table has to change for that to happen.”
Alasrar added that “the U.S. doesn’t have any good faith with the Houthis,” and “even if there is an olive branch extended to the Houthis, they’re likely not to accept it because the idea is that the more stubborn they are, the more they will gain.”
A U.S. return to the JCPOA may put pressure on Iran to ask its agents in Yemen to negotiate. Alasrar stressed that “a push on Iran is probably the only leverage that there is, and other things would be terrorist financing. The Houthis receive a tremendous amount of support from their backers in the United States and in Europe…. There are a lot of people who are advocating for the Houthis’ interests disguised as human rights [defenders].”
How do Yemenis see the encroaching Houthi power?
Diverging movements and violence have further torn the south apart, but the Houthis in the north and central parts of Yemen have run a tightly-organized government with the strength and centralized control that some people are desperately seeking, even if they hate the ideology.
However, disputes and localized resistance still rise up in Houthi-controlled territory, and relationships with tribes have worsened since Saleh was killed in 2017.
The Houthis are an isolationist organization that represses citizens across the country, including with property destructions, confiscating food shipments, and violence against unarmed civilians. They have been accused of deliberately killing or injuring 450 children in the city of Taiz, and Alasrar said they have forced hundreds of thousands into “modern-day slavery through forced recruitment.”
The only chance the U.S. and other foreign powers have to counter the Houthis’ power is to support a new government that citizens view as just as legitimate as the Houthis.
Ma’rib is a big test, but besides IRG forces rushing to the battle from the west coast, the STC will not step in due to their hatred of the al-Islah party, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a strong presence in the governorate.
It’s unclear if the IRG forces will be enough, and the chief concern is that IDPs will be stuck, reluctant to flee south because of tensions with the north.
As Saudi Arabia and the U.S. slowly exit the war and shift towards diplomacy, the southern factions will be left to reconcile differences among each other and with the Houthis. Hussein lamented the power and money the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have, yearning for Yemeni sovereignty without intervention.
Al-Hamdani said that “any effort to weaken Yemen infrastructurally at this point…will just cause more generations of violence and more problems, more mentally ill people, more displaced people, more grievances, less resources.” Instead, international powers should focus on building trust with local communities and strengthening the role of civil society; if everyone is “just giving humanitarian aid, Yemen becomes reliant on that and Yemen will be a security concern for a long time.”
Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, president of the STC, remarked that if Ma’rib is taken, the country can split into a north-south division as it has been in the past. Al-Hamdani said that a federation “gives all these groups a chance to govern within their territories,” while also allowing Yemenis to live together in peace, making it the most legitimate long-term solution.
The STC and Houthis are extremely hostile towards one another, however, and anti-aggression will be difficult. The STC is a secessionist movement that will avoid conflict if possible, while the Houthis are firmly expansionist. But at least in the near future, Alasrar says that being the sole government in Yemen is not something they’d desire: “it would mean that they would need to be held accountable for what they’re doing, and I don’t think that they’re ready for that yet.”
For now, Ma’rib trembles as time to negotiate runs out. Al-Hamdani mentioned his particular pain at seeing all of Yemen’s historical sites decay; he believes it has “the richest heritage in the Arabian peninsula.” Ma’rib is home to a flourishing ancient city whose ruins are some of the most impressive in the country, and we can only hope that the modern city doesn’t also crumble to ruin.