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Yemen’s Troubled Presidential Leadership Council

Researcher, Yemen

The war in Yemen has reached an inflection point. Back-channel talks between two of the main belligerents – the Huthi rebels and Saudi Arabia, the chief external patron of the internationally recognised government – are proceeding amid a shaky informal truce. The front lines have stayed mostly quiet since April 2022, when the parties concluded a formal truce, despite that agreement’s expiry six months later. The pause in hostilities has helped the Huthi-Saudi parley along, and a deal appears to be on the horizon.

In and of themselves, however, these negotiations cannot bring the war to a close, because they exclude the Huthis’ Yemeni foes, as represented by the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) now at the government’s helm. Huthi and PLC emissaries have been talking separately, with UN mediation, and to some positive effect: between 14 and 16 April, the two sides carried out a prisoner exchange that saw 887 detainees released. But these discussions have not addressed larger disagreements between the Huthis and their Yemeni adversaries. Should a Saudi-Huthi deal emerge that bypasses the other parties’ interests, it would risk renewing the Yemeni civil war. Absent a more inclusive settlement, it is unlikely that the Saudi kingdom’s borders will be safe, either. Ending the war requires an expanded intra-Yemeni dialogue, ideally also under UN auspices.

At the moment the [Presidential Leadership Council] is too weak to be the Huthis’ interlocutor in [a intra-Yemeni] dialogue.

Yet at the moment the PLC is too weak to be the Huthis’ interlocutor in such a dialogue. The eight-member body, which was formed on 7 April 2022, shortly after the formal truce was signed, has been fragmented from the outset. It does not govern as a single entity, and it lacks a clear strategy for getting to UN-led peace talks, much less a coherent agenda for those discussions if and when they arrive. The main problem is that PLC members themselves disagree about how to share power in areas under their control; whether Yemen should remain a unified state, split into two states or become a federation (and in the last case, with how many federal regions); and whether these knotty questions should be resolved before, as part of or after political talks with the Huthis. Making matters worse, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the PLC’s main regional backers, are engaging in conflicting military tactics, bolstering the position of only those council members who they believe represent their interests, thus deepening the council’s divides. Meanwhile, Western powers that might be able to influence the government during negotiations want a united PLC but lack a clear policy as to what should be done to bring its members together.

With the Saudi-Huthi track moving, and the prisoner exchange having generated a measure of good-will, now is the time to fix the PLC’s problems. PLC members should hash out a unified negotiating position in preparation for an intra-Yemeni dialogue, or they risk walking away from such talks empty-handed, leading to further instability in the country. Saudi Arabia and the UAE should reconcile their divergent agendas toward the PLC and Yemen as a whole. If they fail to do so, their competition will continue to manifest itself in Yemen, sowing discord within the council and maybe also fuelling fighting on the ground. Western and regional diplomats should work together to make resources available to the PLC in preparation for an intra-Yemeni dialogue. They could, for example, offer mediation expertise to help the council plan a negotiating position for technical discussions.

The PLC’s Formation

The PLC was formed due to shifts in conflict dynamics between 2019 and 2022, which exposed divergent Saudi and Emirati strategies in Yemen. Riyadh, with Abu Dhabi’s support, had launched its military intervention in 2015, bent on restoring Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s internationally recognised president at the time, whom the Huthis had driven from the capital Sanaa, and on destroying the rebels, whom it regarded as surrogates of its nemesis Tehran. But the UAE came to see its interests differently as the war went on. It began withdrawing its forces from Yemen in mid-2019, realising that the anti-Huthi Yemeni groups it was supporting could not expel the Huthis from important areas they had captured along the Red Sea coast, let alone from their bastion in the northern highlands. Abu Dhabi was increasingly wary of Hadi, sensing that he was beholden to Riyadh and indifferent to Emirati interests. The UAE also viewed Hadi as too close to Islah, an amalgam of political forces including Sunni Islamists that it equates with the Muslim Brotherhood, which it has long seen as a threat in the region. Abu Dhabi brought its troops home believing it had achieved its primary objectives of securing Yemen’s south and containing Islamism.

But conflict soon broke out among anti-Huthi Yemeni factions, underscoring significant differences within the bloc that derive primarily from their competing visions for the country’s political future. In late 2019, one of the most powerful factions, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), took over the government’s temporary capital of Aden, dislodging Hadi once again. The STC, which continues to administer the city and its environs, is openly secessionist: it wants South Yemen to regain the independence it enjoyed from 1967 to 1990. Hadi and his Saudi-linked allies, including Islah, strongly support a unified Yemen. So, too, does another major player: Tareq Saleh, the nephew of Hadi’s predecessor as Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the commander of army units that remained loyal to his uncle after his downfall in 2011. There are other fault lines as well. One of the strongest forces on the battlefield today is the Giants Brigades, aligned with the UAE, which, unlike other parts of the anti-Huthi coalition, is largely Salafist in outlook, though it has shied away from presenting a political program.

Setbacks for the anti-Huthi forces in 2021 again put their internal quarrels on display. In that year, the Huthis gained territory in the government strongholds of al-Bayda, Shebwa and Marib, foiling counteroffensives by units loyal to Hadi. At the beginning of 2022, the Giants Brigades intervened to retake the majority of the lost areas. These events signalled to Riyadh that its own Yemeni proxies – the pro-Hadi forces – were no longer a match for the Huthis on the battlefield. It was as a wake-up call that reunified Riyadh and Abu Dhabi behind a political goal: shaking up the Yemeni government so that it reflected the new realities on the ground.

Yemenis were cut out of the deliberations leading to Hadi’s ouster and the council’s formation, robbing the [PLC] of political agency from its inception.

On 7 April 2022, at the Saudis’ and Emiratis’ behest, Hadi transferred his presidential powers to the PLC. The decision to create the eight-member council was taken in Riyadh, under the guise of negotiations among all the Gulf Arab states. Yemenis were cut out of the deliberations leading to Hadi’s ouster and the council’s formation, robbing the body of political agency from its inception. To this day, council members tread cautiously, fearing that Riyadh may replace them at any time.

The PLC, while more representative of various factions than Hadi and his entourage were, is riven by the same fissures that run through the anti-Huthi bloc as a whole. It includes figures from UAE-backed groups that previously were outsiders, such as the STC and the Giants Brigades, as well as people closer to the Saudis. The council head, Rashad al-Alimi, who in his previous capacity as a government minister worked with Riyadh on security matters, has the greatest influence in decision-making, along with Abdul Rahman Abu Zaraa, the Giants Brigades’ Salafist leader. Alimi’s ascendancy is his prize for fealty to Riyadh, whereas Abu Zaraa proved himself through the armed forces he commands. Other council members who control territory or armed forces are second in line: Aydrous al-Zubaidi, the separatist STC leader running Aden; Saleh, whose troops are nestled in Mokha on the Red Sea coast; and Sultan al-Arada, governor of the oil-rich governorate of Marib, who is close to Riyadh, yet retains good relations with Abu Dhabi as well. Another prominent member is al-Alimi Bawazeer of Islah, who lacks his own military brigade but has ties to Riyadh.

A Struggling PLC

A year after the PLC’s formation, the infighting has become worse. During the formal truce, rival factions represented on the council fought one another for control of vital supply lines and revenue-generating areas throughout the south. They sought to secure these areas in order to gain the upper hand in the political talks that they envision will end the war. Former Hadi loyalists lost Shebwa, another oil-producing governorate, to the Giants Brigades, suffering an additional defeat when STC-aligned forces moved into Abyan, a coastal province east of Aden. Today, the STC is threatening to take over Wadi Hadramawt, lands farther east now administered by the First Military Region, a group linked to Islah. Alimi also has a new Saudi-backed army, the Nation’s Shield Forces, which are deployed in several STC-run areas in the south. The shifts in territorial control have exacerbated the very problem – competition among the anti-Huthi factions – that prompted the PLC’s formation.

The PLC is rife with discord. Its members lack a common vision for the country’s post-conflict future. The STC, for example, wants the council to agree on southern secession before talking to the Huthis, because they believe an eventual political settlement is likely to disregard the southern issue. Factions from Hadramawt, Shebwa and Marib represented in the council demand economic autonomy, but the STC opposes this idea, because access to revenue-generating governorates would be crucial for sustaining an independent southern state of which these governorates would be a part. The PLC’s components also compete for ministerial posts that would provide them with more political and economic capital. The council has been unable to move past these disagreements, harming its capacity to govern. As a result, it has forfeited public trust.

Meanwhile, all the PLC’s factions are excluded from the major diplomatic initiative presently under way: the Omani-facilitated talks between the Huthis and Riyadh, which kicked off in October, when the formal truce ran out, and accelerated in November.

[The Omani-facilitated talks] are part of a whirlwind of regional diplomatic progress in 2023 that underscores Riyadh’s eagerness to get out of Yemen’s war.

These talks are part of a whirlwind of regional diplomatic progress in 2023 that underscores Riyadh’s eagerness to get out of Yemen’s war. On 10 March, Saudi Arabia agreed to restore diplomatic ties with Iran, in a deal brokered by China. In Riyadh’s thinking, a friendlier Tehran could nudge the Huthis into accepting a deal with the Saudis and stop weapons transfers to the rebels. In early April, close to a year after forming the PLC, the Saudis invited council members to Riyadh to discuss a roadmap for ending the conflict, which they reportedly had presented to the Huthis beforehand. According to Crisis Group sources, the roadmap accedes to many Huthi demands. One is that the Saudi-led coalition lift further restrictions on flights to and from Sanaa and fully open the Huthi-held Red Sea port of Hodeida to trade. Another is that the Saudis pay six months’ worth of civil service and military salaries throughout Yemen, including in Huthi-administered regions. This idea is a temporary workaround: the Huthis have long been insisting that the Yemeni government pay these salaries out of the country’s oil revenues. The Saudis propose that the Huthis and PLC (with UN facilitation) use what would be, in effect, a six-month grace period to negotiate a revenue-sharing agreement that spells out how salaries will be paid afterward.

PLC members say they feel betrayed. They increasingly believe that Saudi Arabia is seeking a face-saving exit from Yemen, in which they will have little to no say. They fear that the Saudis’ departure will lay the groundwork for the Huthis to launch a new offensive, in an attempt to take over the whole country. They also suspect that the Huthis are dragging out the negotiations, exploiting the Saudis’ impatience to extricate themselves from Yemen to make ever greater demands and threatening to restart hostilities if unsatisfied. The anti-Huthi bloc believes that the rebels aim to dominate their Yemeni rivals, not to bargain with them in good faith, and worries that ending the kingdom’s involvement in the war will help the Huthis achieve that goal.

Council members also complain that the Saudis tell them little about how the discussions with the rebels are proceeding. Riyadh consults the PLC about the negotiations irregularly, and generally after a round of talks rather than throughout. The aforementioned roadmap is a prime example. PLC members must wait for information about the Huthi-Saudi talks to trickle down to them, usually through Alimi, whom the Saudis contact most frequently. They do not have any input into the talks themselves. As a Western diplomat explained to Crisis Group, “Messages from regional actors percolate down to PLC members, but feedback from the PLC does not flow in the opposite direction. … We never know whether Riyadh takes into account the red lines of the different PLC factions”. In effect, PLC members say, they are hostage to whatever course of action Riyadh decides to take – even when it impinges on their own prerogatives, such as the salary payments the Huthis would presumably continue to demand even if they signed on to the Saudis’ roadmap. “It does not make sense for Saudi Arabia to negotiate our oil revenues on our behalf”, a government official told Crisis Group.

[Saudi Arabia] wishes to look like a mediator, not a conflict party.

In the same vein, the Saudis are insisting that the PLC sign on to the roadmap, along with the Huthis, even though Riyadh has been the rebels’ main counterpart in talks to date. The kingdom wishes to look like a mediator, not a conflict party, giving the false impression that the PLC was involved in the negotiations. The PLC will probably sign the roadmap, but reluctantly, as its members would be accepting terms they did not negotiate. The Huthis, for their part, do not want to agree to a deal with the PLC, since they regard the Yemeni factions represented on the council as mere puppets of the Saudi-led coalition. In their view, the war simply pits them against Riyadh, and they can deal with the other Yemeni parties once the coalition leaves.

To make matters worse, the government over which the PLC presides is in fiscal crisis. Upon creating the PLC, Saudi Arabia pledged to give it $3 billion to help stabilise the economy. As of yet, the kingdom has only agreed to disburse $1 billion, and out of that amount only several hundred million have actually arrived in government coffers. The reason for the delay is unclear. Yemeni officials say the government has largely met Riyadh’s condition of reforming the central bank. Meanwhile, oil production ground to a halt toward the end of 2022, due to Huthi drone strikes on export terminals. The Huthis are doubling down on their strategy of strangling the government financially, in part by staging such attacks and in part by diverting commercial imports from Aden to Hodeida. The government is running out of money to pay salaries in the areas it controls, increasing its dependence on Saudi financial assistance and decreasing its bargaining power with the Huthis in putative future talks. As long as the rebels can imperil the government’s main source of revenue through threats to oil facilities, the PLC cannot push them into making concessions, such as giving up the demand that the government pay salaries to Huthi forces.

In the face of all these difficulties, PLC members have yet to demonstrate that they can set their own differences aside. They are loath to take responsibility for the body’s failures: “They criticise it as [if it is] a third party”, said a Western diplomat. Members will need to make concessions, even at the expense of their influence on the ground. For instance, the PLC has yet to fulfil its long-time promise to merge the various anti-Huthi fighting forces under the ministries of defence and interior. True, doing so would be a gamble for factions that have such forces amid so much uncertainty about the future. Still, it would show that council members are more serious about unity, and merging forces under the government ministries would not necessarily entail completely breaking the existing command-and-control structures.

The Role of Outside Powers

It does not help that regional and Western powers have no coordinated approach to facilitating PLC unity.

Riyadh sees the council as a means of reaching its goal of exiting the conflict as soon as possible. The PLC is a way to keep the anti-Huthi groups roughly in line while it focuses on reaching an agreement with the Huthis. Riyadh succeeded in creating a representative authority, but by excluding the PLC from talks with the Huthis and failing to provide all the promised economic assistance, it has impeded the council’s ability to govern.

For Riyadh to weaken the PLC would be short-sighted. Merely resolving the kingdom’s own issues with the Huthis – primarily the safety of its borders – will not end the conflict, which if it continues will always threaten to spill over into Saudi Arabia. To disengage securely from Yemen, Riyadh needs an intra-Yemeni dialogue and a settlement that returns stability to the country. For that, a reasonably coherent PLC is a prerequisite.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE do publicly claim to support PLC unity, yet their proxies’ actions on the ground seem to indicate that they would rather embolden the council’s individual components over which they have particular influence. The UAE-aligned Giants Brigades’ takeover of Shebwa was to the detriment of former Hadi loyalists with close ties to Saudi Arabia. Riyadh’s decision to deploy Alimi’s Nation’s Shield Forces along key front lines in Hadramawt and elsewhere intensified the frictions between Islah and the STC. These military movements have led most in the anti-Huthi camp to doubt that either Saudi Arabia or the UAE were ever truly committed to PLC unity. “The [Gulf Arab] coalition supports the council as individuals, not as an entity. … They replaced Hadi for a scattered group”, said a government official.

Western countries have few options for strengthening the PLC.

Western countries have few options for strengthening the PLC. To date, diplomats have tried to bolster its legitimacy on the world stage by meeting with council members inside and outside the country and hosting them at international forums. Officially, these meetings promote PLC unity, but they have had no real effect.

Western officials are also caught between a rock and a hard place in dealing with the Huthi-Saudi talks, from which they are also locked out. These officials want Riyadh to include the PLC in its negotiations with the Huthis and to put the UN in charge. They and the PLC fear that Saudi Arabia will disregard council factions’ interests in striking a deal with the Huthis, leaving the agreement open to being derailed by these same groups. But they hold no sway over the Huthi-Saudi talks’ direction. As a Western diplomat told Crisis Group, “The Saudis are running the show, and we are the silent spectators”.

Still Yemen’s Best Bet

Yemen’s prospects for peace hinge on at least some degree of PLC unity. Despite its problems, the council is the most inclusive body in the fractured anti-Huthi political landscape. There is no better alternative on offer as a counterpart for the Huthis in intra-Yemeni talks, which are essential to ending the conflict sustainably. The roadmap reportedly envisaged by the Saudis entails initial intra-Yemeni talks on technical issues, including the salary payments. For this stage of talks, a divided PLC would be of little use; the likeliest outcome would see the Huthis get everything they want, leaving the council factions with nothing. The war would likely drag on, as the factions would chafe at Huthi domination, with potential implications for Saudi Arabia’s security, whatever agreement Riyadh has with the Huthis.

The PLC should thus strive to unify its disparate factions.

The PLC should thus strive to unify its disparate factions. The government’s negotiating team, which includes representatives of the PLC’s various factions, should prepare a realistic bargaining position in anticipation that intra-Yemeni talks may begin soon, rather than acting as eight different entities, as they do right now. Granted, key differences among PLC members over Yemen’s state structure and governance will not be resolved now and will likely be the subject of subsequent discussions, which may well pit council members against one another. For now, though, the government needs to formulate a negotiating strategy on those issues on which the PLC can achieve consensus. Moreover, PLC members should seek to spend more time inside Yemen and not operate mainly from outside capitals, as their repeated absences have created a political vacuum.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE can aid the cause of PLC unity by reconciling their conflicting strategies toward the PLC. They should speak to the council collectively, be transparent with each other in their communications with the PLC and coordinate their messaging. They would thus reassure the council that they are unified in their vision for the PLC and for Yemen more broadly. They would also dispel fears that they want to embolden some factions at the expense of others. As a first step, Riyadh could keep the council continuously apprised of the content of its dialogue with the Huthis. Saudi Arabia and the UAE could also jointly mediate between council factions to resolve disputes. At the moment, the PLC meets in Riyadh on an irregular basis, and the UAE is normally not involved.

The Saudis should also ensure that any bargain they strike with the Huthis paves the way for intra-Yemeni talks by making any benefits in the deal conditional on the Huthis agreeing to negotiate directly with the PLC in eventual UN-sponsored talks. Riyadh should work closely with other Middle Eastern capitals, including Abu Dhabi and Tehran, in applying pressure upon the various Yemeni parties to convene these talks as soon as possible. Western and regional diplomats should work together to formulate a clearly coordinated policy toward the PLC and agree to a political and economic agenda for the council, with specific, visible and achievable benchmarks. It would be a tragedy if an opportunity for intra-Yemeni talks – and eventually peace – were to open, only to close due to disarray among the Huthis’ rivals.

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