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Indirect talks between Saudi officials and representatives of the Houthi rebels are being hosted in Oman, as each party seeks a political solution to the near five-year long conflict. These negotiations come just 12 days after the signing of the Riyadh Agreement, which formalised a power-sharing arrangement between the internationally recognised government of absentee President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and Aidourous Al-Zubaidi’s Southern Transitional Council (STC).
The recent talks represent a growing acceptance that the Houthis will form a necessary part of any political solution to the conflict, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives (including those of 12,000 civilians) according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED). Last week, the UAE’s minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, stated that he believed the Houthis will have a role to play in the country’s future, a pronouncement which came on the back of the last of his country’s troops being pulled from Yemen a month prior, in accordance with a deal struck with Saudi Arabia. When taken together with the 5 November Riyadh Agreement – endorsed on Twitter by US president Donald Trump – events appear to be pointing towards a de-escalation of tensions which may precipitate a peaceful end to a war described by the UN as inaugurating the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”.
Despite these positive signs, the absence of President Hadi from the ongoing discussions in Oman gives an indication of his awkward position vis-à-vis any political settlement which may be reached. Although Hadi’s rule is endorsed by the international community, he has been largely absent from the country since the Houthis took control of Sana’a in 2014 in the wake of fuel price rises which provoked popular protests. The ensuing conflict simultaneously demonstrated the President’s inability to maintain a hold on any of his country’s territory, as well as the weaknesses of the transitional government over which he had presided. The government’s inability to effectively counter the Houthi insurgency in the north and the subsequent rebellion of the STC in the south was due in large part to Hadi’s failure to implement required reforms to military and security services, who largely remained loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The reforms which were implemented involved the replacement of Saleh’s former cronies with officers from Hadi’s home government of Abyan. In the words of Helen Lackner this “sapped support for the transition regime” by making the new government appear as though it was “operating on the same patronage principles as the previous one”.
Although Hadi must accept responsibility for certain elements which led to the transitional government’s failure to stabilise the country following the Arab Spring risings, in many ways his position was an impossible one. The National Dialogue Conference (NDC), established in accordance with the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) power transfer agreement, was unduly weighted in favour of Southerners, who accounted for 56% of the seats while only representing 30% of the country’s population. This, according to Lackner, did nothing to help resolve the issue of southern secessionist tendencies while simultaneously enabling Southerners to “hold the NDC to ransom”. In addition to this imbalance, rural people were “barely represented” in the NDC, and the 1,800 outcomes it passed to the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) in January 2014 “were not all mutually compatible”. These difficulties, together with a lack of material improvement for regular Yemenis in the three years since the protests which led to the removal of Saleh, were bound to lead to unrest when the draft constitution was delivered by the CDC in 2015.
The legitimation of the STC and the Houthis in the negotiations of the last two weeks makes it difficult to see how Hadi can preside over a united Yemen. One major sticking point during the NDC was the proposal for a federal system of governance with six regions, which Houthi spokesman Mohammed al-Bukhaiti described as “divid[ing] Yemen into poor and wealthy regions”. Not only did this arrangement alienate the Houthis by denying their region access to the Red Sea and to the natural resources of Mareb and al-Jawf, it also disappointed the Southern representatives who desired two regions along the lines of the former division between the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). This suggestion was rejected at the time as it was seen generally as a prelude to the south’s secession from the north. However, whether this will hold in light of the recent legitimation of the STC and the Houthis seems highly unlikely. What role Hadi will play in any political settlement remains to be seen.