Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Visiting Yemen last week provided a stark reminder of the combustive volatility of the truce between the government of Yemen and the Houthi rebels. While the truce has been informally maintained since April 2022, it is on shaky ground, as the Houthi side has so far failed to deliver on the commitments it made to the UN last year. Violence is escalating with no perceptible move toward a formal ceasefire or a political solution, while the economy is crumbling and the humanitarian crisis is deepening.
The informal armistice has not translated into a formal ceasefire, let alone a peace agreement, with no sign that the Houthis will sit at the negotiating table any time soon. The government of Yemen has delivered on the promises it made at the start of the truce to open Sanaa’s airport for direct international flights and increase the flow of goods, including fuel, through the port of Hodeidah. However, the Houthis have failed to live up to their commitments. The Houthi siege of Taiz is now in its ninth year with no end in sight, while the rebels continue to increase military pressure on other provinces.
Earlier hopes that the Saudi-Iranian diplomatic breakthrough would lead to positive movement in Yemen have been dashed so far, according to the Yemenis I met during this visit, as the Houthis have escalated their attacks on several fronts in recent weeks. In his July briefing to the UN Security Council, Special Envoy Hans Grundberg said that although the overall fighting had decreased since the start of the truce, the front lines are not silent. Armed clashes have taken place in Dhale, Taiz, Hodeidah, Marib and Shabwa provinces. He expressed his fear that “these continued sparks of violence, alongside public threats to return to large-scale fighting, increase fears and tensions.”
Since Grundberg’s July briefing, there have been further attacks by the Houthis against several areas under government control. In the last few weeks, the Houthis have again attacked Marib, Lahij, Dhale and Taiz provinces, targeting civilians, homes and camps for the internally displaced, including three simultaneous missile attacks on such camps in Marib on Aug. 30. Houthi snipers have also resumed their attacks along disengagement lines.
The large-scale siege strangling Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, is one of the most pressing humanitarian concerns for the Yemeni government and relief agencies. The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor recently reported that 3 million residents there are suffering from a lack of basic necessities, including food and medication, while being in constant danger of being killed or injured by shelling and sniper fire. It described the siege as a “form of collective punishment against civilians that may amount to a war crime” under international law.
Instead of implementing their side of the truce bargain, the Houthis have upped their demands and used force to put pressure on the government to pay public employee salaries in Houthi-controlled areas. They have also asked for a share of the oil revenues collected by the government, without sharing the revenues they collect in the areas under their control.
The Houthis do not provide information on the different levies they collect, including personal and corporate taxes, customs, port fees and surcharges on public utilities and telecom companies. The government has offered to pool revenues and remit them to the central bank, which the Houthis have so far rejected.
To force the government’s hand, the Houthis last October shelled ports under government control, including oil-exporting terminals, thus shutting down oil export capabilities. Without oil revenue, the government has been unable to balance its books. If it were not for Saudi Arabia’s emergency funding of $1.2 billion announced last month, the government would not have been able to meet its basic commitments. This is of course temporary and cannot be sustained for the long run, making it imperative to resume oil exports.
There have also been severe fuel shortages as a result of Houthi shelling, prompting Saudi Arabia to send emergency fuel supplies to power stations to keep homes lit and hospitals and schools running. The government’s reduced capacity has limited its ability to provide Yemenis with basic necessities. Millions of Yemenis are facing a growing humanitarian crisis, especially vulnerable communities such as the internally displaced, who are estimated to be at least 2 million in Marib alone. The humanitarian crisis has been made worse by international aid cuts, including by the World Food Programme.
Economic development has almost come to a standstill. The government’s ability to fund development projects has been critically curtailed and the lack of progress toward a political solution has discouraged many donors, who have decided to wait out the conflict instead of continuing development assistance in the face of political and security uncertainties. Most traditional donors to Yemen have either frozen their development aid or drastically scaled it down, focusing instead on immediate relief or diverting aid to other parts of the world, something many Yemenis are bitter about. The Houthis appear to be cynically using military pressure on government-controlled areas and the worsening humanitarian crisis to force the government and the international community to cave in.
During last week’s visit, very few expressed hope that the situation would improve any time soon without pressure to compel the Houthis to deescalate, live up to their commitments and move toward a negotiated settlement.
Yemenis are counting on the UN to move faster on the political track, but count on donors, including those in the Gulf Cooperation Council, to help them weather this crisis. Reduced international aid is coming at exactly the wrong time.
Movement toward peace in Yemen will need a concerted effort on at least four fronts. First, the UN needs to deliver quickly on the political track and not get bogged down in the Houthis’ growing demands. Second, Yemen and its partners need to find a way to resume oil exports to help fill the government’s funding gap. Third, international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, need to up their efforts to help reform and augment government finances. Fourth, aid agencies need to scale up aid to Yemen to meet the needs of the rapidly growing numbers of people in need. But to achieve these goals, Yemen needs unity within government factions and closer coordination among donors and friends. Without that unity and coordination, the Houthi rebels will continue to block any movement toward an effective solution to Yemen’s agony.