Ahmed Nagi is a nonresident scholar at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where his research centers on Yemen. Most recently, he published an article at Carnegie, titled “The Barriers to Southern Yemeni Political Aspirations Are Mainly in the South,” on the Southern Movement and the prospects for secession in the south. Diwan interviewed Nagi in the aftermath of the agreement over a two-month truce in the country and the decision last week by Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to step down and hand over power to a Presidential Council. What do these steps mean and might they signal the beginning of the end of the Yemen conflict?
Michael Young: What was the reason for President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s resignation on April 8 and the formation of a Presidential Council?
Ahmed Nagi: There were several reasons. The Saudi-led coalition that opposes Ansar Allah, better known as the Houthis, had become convinced that there was a need for a different approach to the Yemen conflict, one more focused on finding political solutions than relying on a military-first strategy. This conviction was strengthened by recent Houthi attacks against the territories of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which showed how the dynamics of the conflict were spreading beyond Yemen’s borders and becoming a real threat for both countries. Deescalating the conflict has become a priority for the coalition, at least for now.
Another reason was that Hadi was very weak in managing Yemen’s multiple disasters during the war. He has been in exile since the military campaign of the Saudi-led coalition began in March 2015 and showed little capability in assuming his responsibilities. In recent years and because of health problems, Hadi was unable to fulfill his duties. His sons, instead, filled the vacuum. Hadi’s weakness was not a problem for the Saudis at the beginning of the war. It allowed them to push their agenda forward and shape the situation in Yemen as they wanted. But the coalition’s recent change in strategy meant that Hadi was no longer the right person, as this required a new Yemeni leadership.
On the local level, the war produced several military groups. Many are not under Hadi’s control but have direct ties with the coalition. There was an effort to merge these forces under the supervision of presidential institutions. We first saw such an attempt through the Riyadh Agreement of November 2019, which aimed to place one such group, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), in a unified government. However, the move stalled due to major differences over military and security arrangements. So, last week the coalition formed a new institution, the Presidential Council, which would accommodate state and nonstate actors in one body. The council has eight members, each of whom represents military or paramilitary forces on the ground. It also includes pro-United Arab Emirates and pro-Saudi figures.
In addition, the Presidential Council and its subsidiary committees and bodies were formed in a flexible way to absorb more members in the future, if a political compromise is achieved with the Houthis. In other words, the council’s structure prepares the ground for any possible understanding among the actors in the Yemeni conflict. It should be pointed out that after the Houthis carried out their military coup and dissolved parliament in February 2015, they suggested forming a five-member presidential council. Therefore, the new council can be seen as a positive signal to the Houthis, as there is a place for them if they decide to join.
MY: Is the formation of the Presidential Council an outcome of the inter-Yemeni talks that took place in Riyadh last week?
AN: Although the Houthis refused to attend, the inter-Yemeni talks were held under the sponsorship of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This aimed to revive the role of the GCC as a mediator in Yemen, especially after it was announced that these talks would continue in the future. Despite discussions about the consistency of such a move with the Yemeni constitution, the GCC umbrella was an important step to legalize the Presidential Council, knowing that Hadi became president based on a GCC initiative brokered between former president Ali Abdullah Salah and opposition parties in 2011. Therefore, the GCC, which orchestrated the transfer of power from Saleh to Hadi, is now transferring power from Hadi to a new leadership.
MY: The new Presidential Council includes pro-Saudi and pro-Emirati figures. What brought this about, given the past differences between the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen?
AN: It is clear that there were understandings between the UAE and Saudi Arabia over the steps needed to unify their agendas in Yemen. Without these understandings, the Presidential Council would not have seen the light. The council aimed to bring all the actors backed by the two countries into a partnership that would cover presidential decisionmaking and ensure that no one actor alone could dominate decisions.
The crossborder attacks by the Houthis against Saudi Arabia and the UAE forced both countries to realize that having conflicting agendas in Yemen would serve neither country. It would only bring more insecurity. This conviction was not only visible through the formation of the Presidential Council. It was also reflected in other events in recent months, such as the military operations against the Houthis in Shabwa, where the UAE-backed Giants Brigades was the main military force in the battle. In addition, the Saudis have increased their connections with UAE-sponsored groups and integrated their demands into Saudi policy toward Yemen.
MY: What are the key challenges the Presidential Council will face?
AN: So far, there is a consensus among all the anti-Houthi parties to support the Presidential Council. Each party feels represented in the body. However, the council’s success or failure will depend on how the situation develops on the ground and how it will address three key issues. First, it will have to take on the relations among council members. The council contains different figures with different political agendas. We have the STC, which seeks secession for southern Yemen, the Islah Party, whose relations with the UAE are problematic, and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s nephew, who carries the legacy of his late uncle, against whom Yemenis revolted in 2011. So, managing all these differences smoothly will be complicated, and will be the first practical test for the council.
A second challenge will be addressing the relationship between the Presidential Council and the Saudi-led coalition. There was considerable mistrust at one point between the Saudis and the UAE on one hand and the Hadi government on the other. Today, the council brings together all the nonstate actors with which the coalition dealt as trusted allies. So, will the ties be different this time and will the council receive more support than Hadi did, and will it be dealt with as a sovereign entity? This will determine whether the Saudis and the UAE are serious about looking at Yemeni issues through a Yemeni lens, not through their own lens.
And third, the biggest challenge remains how the council is going to deal with the Houthis. How it will manage a new round of war if the Houthis decide to further escalate their military operations? And if there are political talks, how will the council engage in compromises? If the Presidential Council successfully manages all these challenges, Yemen could begin to find a way out of its predicament. But if it fails, the country will enter a new phase of failure.
MY: There have been suggestions that we are nearing the possibility of an overall settlement in Yemen. What signs indicate this?
AN: Recently, there were intensive diplomatic efforts led by the United Nations, and in which Oman played a major role, to achieve a two-month truce among the conflicting parties. Although several violations have been reported along the Ma’rib, Taiz, and western coastal fronts, the truce has given Yemenis some hope that there may be the possibility of a solution. The question today is whether the truce leads to more political outcomes, or is merely a prelude to a new wave of fighting. We are now seeing both taking place. There are some efforts to maintain the truce and resolve some humanitarian issues. But the Houthis are also taking advantage of the cessation of airstrikes to reinforce their forces on many fronts. We’ll soon get a better sense of the level of commitment that all sides have for transforming the truce into the foundation of a more durable agreement.