As of the end of spring, the coronavirus crisis has not brought any noticeable easing to the conflict in Yemen. What is more, it would seem that the warring sides decided to take advantage of the confusion that befell the external forces and change the situation on the frontlines. Despite the already worsening humanitarian situation in the country and the UN calls for a ceasefire during the pandemic, offensive operations nevertheless continued. At the same time, the state of affairs in the south of the country has been deteriorating, with those in favour of self-determination again rearing their heads.
We should know by now that an epidemic is not going to stop the hostilities in Yemen. Not even the cholera outbreak that has affected approximately one million people in the country over the past three years is enough to make the warring factions lay down their weapons. In fact, with the cholera epidemic still raging and chronic famine in many parts of the country, the coronavirus, which has taken the lives of relatively few, has gone largely unnoticed. Both the warring parties and the population at large have come to terms with the constant threat of outbreaks of various diseases (cholera, diphtheria, measles, Dengue fever, etc.) due to the lack of basic infrastructure and centralized immunization plans.
What is more, the reality of the situation in Yemen is that those fighting on the front are more likely to survive an epidemic than civilians living in overpopulated cities, where sanitary conditions are truly awful. An estimated 17.8 million Yemenis were without safe water and sanitation in 2019, and 19.7 million did not have access to adequate healthcare. Meanwhile, those on the frontlines generally eat better and, unlike the civilian population, have priority access to medical supplies and personnel. Ansar Allah (Houthi) militants are even using the coronavirus crisis to recruit new soldiers, convincing young people that it is better to die a martyr in battle than to suffer an inglorious death from the virus.
It would thus appear that the Houthis are as determined as ever to win the civil war, or at the very least to inflict a series of humiliating defeats on the forces that are loyal to the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition troops. Even after the coronavirus had hit the country, the Houthis resumed ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, and also launched an offensive in Marib Governorate. Clashes also broke out near the strategically important Al-Hudaydah Port.
The Battle of Marib
Marib Governorate is considered the richest province in northern Yemen, with oil and gas fields, a strategically important oil refinery and the country’s largest power plant. It is also of no small importance that Marib is a stronghold of the moderate Yemeni Congregation for Reform (al-Islah), which Saudi Arabia is backing in the conflict. Losing Marib will deal a serious blow to al-Islah’s positions, as well as to Riyadh’s interests in Yemen.
The pandemic provides the Houthis with an opportunity to carry out offensive actions, as the external sponsors of the Hadi government, and Saudi Arabia at the top of that list, are busy with their own domestic issues and cannot pay much attention to Yemen. There has been a noticeable drop-off in the intensity of airstrikes, for example, which has afforded the Houthis the opportunity to deploy both mobile units with light weapons and various armoured vehicles.
There is no doubt that the Houthi command is intent on capturing Marib, coordinating its campaign on the city on three fronts at once. At the same time, the main defenders of Marib are the militias of local Sunni tribes, who do not want to see a Houthi victory, but would likely be willing to work towards a compromise with Ansar Allah in order to avoid suffering endless losses. All the more so because the official armed forces exist primarily on paper and include the names of many phantom soldiers whose wages are divvied up among the commanding officers. The shortage of experienced higher-ranking personnel – a consequence of the fact that many officers do not want to cooperate with Hadi or al-Islah – has also proved detrimental to the combat capabilities of the government forces.
If the Houthis are able to capture Marib, then they will have control over almost all of northern Yemen, which will seriously weaken the positions of President Hadi. And this will open the door for further offensives in the south of the country, particularly the oil-rich Shabwah and Hadhramaut governorates, further down the line. Given the problems in southern Yemen (which we will expand upon below), the Battle for Marib may be seen as a turning point in the war.
While the coronavirus may not directly affect the military and political situation in Yemen, its economic consequences could be catastrophic for the country. Unemployment and poverty were on the rise even before the pandemic hit. According to the World Bank, between 71 and 78 per cent of the Yemeni population were living below the poverty line in 2019. And the looming global financial crisis only promises to make things worse.
For example, a global drop-off in energy prices and demand will hit government revenues, as the government had planned to increase oil production to 110,000 barrels per day and expand its exports of liquefied natural gas by the end of 2019. And energy exports accounted for approximately one-third of the country’s budget revenues in 2019. At the same time, there is a very real risk that Saudi Arabia could cut subsidies to the Yemeni government, which will greatly affect its ability to purchase food and other essential goods. Overdue wages to government officials and other state employees threaten to collapse the already weak public sector.
One of the most dangerous consequences of the coronavirus crisis has been the disappearance of remittances from abroad, as the lock-down measures introduced in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries have crippled the ability of Yemeni migrant workers to make a living. What makes this situation worse is the fact that remittances are a key source of currency for the country as a whole and a means of survival for many Yemenis. In 2014, money transfers from abroad brought approximately $3.5 billion into the country, which is almost equal to the entire revenue side of the national budget.
Observers have also noted that a kind of conflict economy has emerged in Yemen that has paved the way for certain structures and people involved in the import of fuel and other vital goods to line their pockets, while others make money by redistributing humanitarian aid. The worse the situation is, the more these structures thrive, so they will continue to sabotage any attempts to restore normal economic life in the country.
Yemen is staring not only at a crisis, but at a complete economic collapse, with the paralysis of all public services, a new surge in unemployment, hunger and a fuel crisis brought about by the curtailment of imports.
The Mutinous South Has Risen Again
In addition to the onslaught of the Houthis and the collapse of the economy, the government also has to deal with the increasing fragmentation of the country. Less than six months after the signing of the Riyadh Agreement, which was supposed to put an end to the separatist movement in the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (more commonly known as South Yemen), the Southern Transitional Council (STC) has returned to its secessionist roots. On April 26, 2020, the STC announced it would establish self-rule in the south of the country, which should be understood first and foremost as a refusal to even formally submit to the Hadi government.
Observers see this step as a sign of worsening relations between the STC and Saudi Arabia, which had taken measures in the months prior to weaken former proxies of the United Arab Emirates. After the latter withdrew most of its troops from Yemen, it was the Saudis who were stuck with the task of integrating the STC, a staunch supporter of the UAE, into the state structures and ensuring that the militia forces of the southern regions were receiving money and supplies on a regular basis. Instead, they put the STC on short rations in the hope, it would seem, that the soldiers who were no longer getting paid would defect to units controlled by the government. Evidently, the STC decided not to wait for this to happen and went all-in while it still had control of Aden and serious military capabilities.
Riyadh’s Difficult Position
By early May, Saudi Arabia, as the main sponsor of the Hadi government, was facing a number of challenges. On the one hand, there was increasing military pressure from the Houthis, who were threatening to take Marib Governorate. Because the Republic of Yemen Armed Forces are so weak, the Saudis may have to increase their military activity in Yemen, a move that would be fraught with casualties and cause grave damage to the country’s reputation. At the same time, there is a risk that an armed confrontation with the STC could flare up in the south, most likely in Aden, where there is a small Saudi contingent guarding the Central Bank of Yemen building.
Saudi Arabia is effectively at an impasse. Riyadh can, if it so chooses, continue with a very costly war, thus creating a situation of controlled chaos. But it is a war that Riyadh cannot win in the short or medium term. In light of the coronavirus crisis, which will soon force a number of countries in the region to reassess their priorities and scale back their foreign policy ambitions, it is entirely possible that Saudi Arabia could step away from the war entirely. Admittedly, it may take a few more painful military defeats for this to happen.
Expectations and Reality
By May 2020, the position of the internationally recognized government and its external sponsors had become almost untenable. Nor do the dynamics of the regional cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which in many ways dictate developments in Yemen, inspire optimism. While Riyadh appears jaded by the protracted war, Tehran, despite the coronavirus and despite the economic difficulties it is experiencing, is ready to continue an active policy and support its partners in the region.
Under the circumstances, it is extremely difficult to try and make any forecasts. That said, all of the above circumstances point to two likely scenarios. If Riyadh adopts a pragmatic position, then we can expect a substantive dialogue with the Houthis, which will lead to an honourable peace or a fairly long-term ceasefire. That is the first scenario. Under the second scenario, Saudi Arabia doubles down and fierce battles rage throughout the year, potentially leading to the death of the Hadi government and the ultimate collapse of Yemen.
From our partner RIAC