On December 18, Yemeni President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi announced a new cabinet as part of his efforts to implement the political annex of the Riyadh Agreement (RA) signed on November 5, 2019 between the Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC). The agreement included several political, security and economic provisions such as: the formation of a new government that includes the STC; the disarmament and integration of militias and military formations under the auspices of the ministries of defense and interior; support of the Yemeni economy; and the demilitarization of Aden.
Although the formation of the power-sharing government comes more than a year after the month-long timeline proposed by the Agreement, the international community perceived this step as an important breakthrough. The formation of the government is a positive development amid multiple factors that have slowed tangible progress: Year-long disagreements on the sequence of implementing the RA’s provisions; the STC’s reluctance to carry out military and security measures; the exchange of hostile rhetoric on social media; the renewal of sporadic firefights in the governorate of Abyan; and the extension of rebellion in Socotra against the ROYG (with tacit Saudi approval).
With the formation of the power-sharing government, the STC has gained political recognition without having fulfilled its military and security
In the run-up to the announcement of the new cabinet in December, the Saudi monitoring committee supervised the symbolic redeployment of several units of the Yemeni Armed Forces and STC-aligned forces from the frontlines in Abyan. This move was meant to signal progress on military and security issues to the ROYG, which prioritizes laborious security arrangements. The Saudi Ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed al-Jaber, suggested that the formation of the power-sharing government and redeployment of forces
Ripe conditions for a quick overturn
Most importantly, the lion’s share of laborious military and security arrangements remains unrealized. There has been a clear lack of progress in several aspects: the demilitarization of Aden; reintegration of STC-aligned forces under the command of the defense and interior ministries of the ROYG; and disarmament and withdrawal of militias. The range of outstanding issues indicates the limits of the Riyadh Agreement and enduring mistrust between stakeholders, especially in view of the new political appointments at the Shura Council and the STC’s announcement of the “Aden Belt Force” in January 2021.
The status quo that paved the way for the government ouster in January 2018 and August 2019 remains largely unchanged. This means that the government of Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed may be forced to rely on STC-aligned forces, not Interior Ministry forces, for security provision in Aden, although the 1st Presidential Protection Brigade led by Brig. Gen. Sanad al-Rahwa is expected to secure the presidential palace (Ma’ashiq) and its vicinity. STC-aligned forces had previously expelled the Maeen-led government from Aden in August 2019 and blocked Maeen’s return amid a COVID-19 outbreak in April 2020. Considering that the Governor of Aden – who sits on the STC’s leadership – commands the Security Committee in Aden, disputed security arrangements similar to those of 2017-2019 will likely be a recipe for instability. The terrorist attack targeting members of the ROYG upon their arrival at the Aden Airport on December 30, 2020 reveals how contested security provisions in Aden led to confusion, and ultimately to security failures. The incident underscores the importance of implementing the security and military terms of the RA. Aden deserves stability and economic recovery, and this can only happen if security provisions are provided by one actor or combined forces under unified state command and control.
It is clear that the RA still has not come to full fruition. A key declared goal of the RA is to turn the ROYG into a viable state. According to a classical definition of the state popularized by sociologist Max Weber, the state is the entity that holds the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force. The Yemeni state possesses no such monopoly. Similarly, structures of command and control remain contested. Under current conditions, the new government is fragile, lacks control over security and military tools in the interim capital of Aden, and has limited autonomy and maneuvering ability. Unless all sides negotiate and implement the RAl in good faith, the situation can deteriorate further, dashing hopes for significant stabilization and recovery.
Power sharing but with exclusions
The newly formed government, headed by Maeen, consists of 24 ministers, 13 of whom are from the south. The composition of this government is less skewed in favor of southerners, who made up nearly 70 percent of the previous one. More importantly, representation has been granted to the Hadramawt Conference, a Hadhrami movement seeking to address grievances in the region. On the other hand, several ministers lack the prerequisite experience and the exclusion of important regions and marginalized groups sets a dangerous precedent. Overall, the Maeen government ministerial line-up has significant shortcomings.
For the first time in over three decades
The allocation of seats contradicts the progressive agenda desired by many Yemenis in the past decade. For example, the Outcomes of the 2013-2014 National Dialogue Conference sought to address grievances, equitably distribute power and resources, and engage women and youth in decision-making. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the marginalization of Hodeida, the Tehama region and women has provoked a public outcry, with over a dozen MPs vowing to deny the Maeen government confidence until these issues are resolved. However, this is unlikely to happen given the fact that this is a unity government formed on the basis of exceptional arrangements and circumstances. Their declaration, however, remains an important
Eleven key challenges ahead for the Maeen government
At the most general level, the ROYG must
1. Coordinating a “team of rivals”: Maeen’s government is not an ordinary coalition government but a power-sharing establishment that includes ministers who have publicly vowed to work against the principles of the oath of office. Cabinet ministers with divergent ideologies, political intentions, and personal loyalties will have to work as a team. Finally, it will be crucial to prevent the intra-bureaucratic rivalries that led to the failure of the 2012-2014 reconciliation government formed in Sanaa on the basis of the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative.
2. Avoiding expulsion from Aden for
3. Limited revenues: To regain a monopoly over the effective collection of state revenues the government must prevent the STC (or other entities) from reasserting control over revenues in Aden, as occurred between April and July after the STC’s announcement of self-administration. Improving the state’s fiscal situation would also require pressuring local authorities in Marib, Shabwa, Hadramawt and al-Mahra to deposit revenues at the Central Bank.
4. Inactive sources of revenue: Equally important is the reactivation of inactive revenue sources, including ports and oil and gas facilities. Since 2015, the Emirati forces have been using the Belhaf Gas Facility in Shabwa as a military site, blocking the government’s access to this important revenue-generating facility. This infrastructure project, Yemen’s largest, had previously contributed an estimated $1 billion annually to the public budget before 2015. As such, the Maeen government has a responsibility to
5. Ensuring functioning and effective state institutions: The new government must rehabilitate state institutions so that they can adequately deliver public goods and services. This requires the reactivation of anti-corruption and monitoring agencies over all state institutions as well as holding all high-level officials accountable, given that corruption has only increased during wartime. Accountability is especially important as the functions and duties of the integrated ministries remain unclear. The new cabinet merged several ministries, thus reducing the number of ministerial portfolios from above 30 to 24. It remains unclear what bottom-up institutional changes will be made to adapt to the ministerial reshuffle.
6. Divided military efforts:
7. Addressing the unprecedented marginalization of the Tehama region, especially the Hodeida governorate: Each of the important governorates and six proposed federal regions should have representation in the cabinet that is proportionate to its population size, contribution to the economy and overall state-building efforts. Currently the Hodeida governorate and the Tehama region are underrepresented across political, diplomatic, military and security institutions; they are not represented in the Maeen government. The marginalization of such important regions not only violates the principles of equitable power-sharing and inclusion, but also deepens grievances and excludes capable technocrats who could make a positive contribution. Underrepresentation of other regions should also be addressed across state institutions for similar reasons.
8. Ensuring the inclusion of women and youth: It is also vital to achieve demographic diversity, which means empowering skilled women and youth at junior, mid-level, and senior roles to prepare the next generation of capable and experienced leaders. The Yemeni government must make a greater effort to include women in the cabinet, at a time when many discuss boosting the representation of women across civil and military institutions.
9. Insecurities in the East: The Maeen government has an obligation to stretch its authority and address ongoing security challenges in the eastern region. In doing so, it must increase efforts to contain the fluid landscape in al-Mahra, where geopolitical competition is on the rise, and re-establish control of Socotra archipelago and Yemeni ports, including Nashtun.
10. Mobilizing regional and international support: Following up on stalled regional and international aid packages, as well as securing another Saudi deposit at the Central Bank, are also priorities for currency stabilization efforts. The government should also ensure the reactivation of year-long Saudi fuel grants, because currently they are only for three months. More broadly, the government must continue to mobilize external support to address the array of economic and recovery challenges.
11. Strengthening the ROYG’s weak bargaining position ahead of UN-sponsored Track I: In an interview with Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Yemeni Foreign Minister Ahmed Awadh Bin Mubarak mentioned that this is a priority. To this end, the ROYG should reorganize its ranks, improve service delivery, garner public support, boost popular trust, and enhance its territorial control. A multi-sector strategy would put the ROYG in a stronger negotiating position, if the Joe Biden administration decides to ramp up efforts to end the war in Yemen through a politically negotiated settlement.
Ibrahim Jalal is a Yemeni security, conflict, and defense researcher based in the UK and a co-founding member of the Security Distillery Think Tank. Among his research interests are the UN-led peace process in Yemen, U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Yemen, and the rise of the Houthi insurgency. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
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