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 obligations or having abandoned its declared objectives, including secession. The new government also offers a pathway for the STC to partake in UN-sponsored peace talks between the government and the Houthis. In contrast, it is still unclear how the agreement benefits the regime of President Hadi, as the RA has not improved its ability to generate revenues, deliver services, keep order, and govern without obstructions. As things currently stand, the STC shares government power, the Yemeni executive branch has been restructured, the Saudis have increased influence and leverage, and the coalition has removed several officials who oppose Saudi and Emirati ambitions in southern and eastern governorates. As such, the new government seems to harmonize a range of local and regional interests. Ahmed Nagi, a non-resident scholar at The Carnegie Middle East Center, asserted that the Riyadh Agreement sought to “represent the interests of the coalition members, through the appointment of their proxies.”

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 in Abyan signified the successful execution of the Riyadh Agreement’s acceleration mechanism. Brokered in July 2020, the acceleration mechanism sought to revive the stalled implementation of the Agreement through gradual steps. Implementation, however, faced clear setbacks. For example, difficulties arose surrounding the call by the RA’s acceleration mechanism for the appointment of a governor and a security director of Aden. President Hadi appointed Brigadier Gen. Ahmed al-Hamidi of Hadramawt as the Aden Security Director and Ahmed Lamlas as the Governor of Aden. Lamlas was able to assume his duties, but al-Hamidi was prevented fromreturning to Aden due to the STC’s opposition. This is why President Hadi named Maj. Gen. Mutahar al-Shauibi of al-Dale to the post instead, and appointed Maj. Gen. Shalal Shaye'a, the former chief of Aden Security, as a Military Attaché at the Yemen Embassy to the UAE.

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 government excluded cabinet ministers from the governorate of Hodeida and more broadly the Tehama region. This occurred despite the geographical and political considerations taken in distributing ministerial portfolios. The overlooked region of Tehama includes the governorates of Hodeida, Hajjah, Raimah and Mahwait, where nearly 1/5 of Yemenis live. The other five regions of Yemen (Azal, Saba, Janad, Aden and Hadramawt) were each represented by a minimum of two and a maximum of seven ministers. Furthermore, women are not represented for the first time in nearly two decades. These shortcomings reflect the commitments and priorities of parties represented in the cabinet as well as the struggle for power and existential threats some actors face, most notably Islah, in view of the relative unrest in Yemen’s south.

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 signal of discontent and civil expression of views.

Eleven key challenges ahead for the Maeen government

At the most general level, the ROYG must improve revenue collection and public services, regain public trust, and strengthen its bargaining position and leverage. Moving forward, it faces several more specific challenges.

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 what would be the third time: The government needs to re-establish its popular legitimacy and authority. Without control over security and military affairs in Aden, the Maeen government is vulnerable to expulsion. If the STC continues to advance factional interests despite objections from other parties, or other actors fail to prudently manage power sharing, the RA will have legitimized the STC without attaining the Agreement's objectives. Such a scenario could eventually lead to the collapse of the unity government, the subversion of the Yemeni bureaucracy from within, replacement of dissident civil servants with STC-loyal affiliates, consolidation of Iranian influence and Houthi role in the northwest and beyond, accommodation of foreign ambitions, and redeployment of armed non-state formations. The Houthi attack targeting the unity government when it landed in Aden should remind political partners that they all were targets and are all survivors. It is, therefore, in the interest of all, including the STC, to give the government power over security affairs in order to put Aden on a path towards security and stability. Aden should be a model for stability, security, and economic recovery that can be replicated in other governorates.

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 answer the call from the Governor of Shabwa to evict the small contingent of UAE forces and pro-STC militias. If reactivated, Belhaf would sharply increase public revenue, enabling the government to address several issues, such as salary payment, foreign currency circulation, stabilizing the Yemeni Riyal, and pursuing a recovery agenda. The recent UN report concluding that the Houthis collected a minimum revenue of $1.8 billion in 2019 to finance their war effort further unearths how the coalition, intentionally or unintentionally, undermined government’s internal ability to generate and collect revenues.

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: Given the enduring mistrust between the STC, Islah, and the Presidential establishment, it will be difficult to reunify the military effort against the Houthis to reverse Houthi territorial gains made in 2020 and regain large swathes in the northwest. If the parties can form a strong, unified coalition, this would allow for a six-month concerted offensive to break through the Houthis’ frontlines. Such a development would transform the domestic distribution of power, thus reviving the stalled UN-led peace process. It would also recover some of the ROYG’s lost leverage, thus changing international opinion on the unconditional embrace of armed non-state actors’ role in conflict resolution and state-building efforts. As a result, the Houthis could be forced to the negotiating table where they might engage constructively.

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.

Overall, it remains to be seen whether the RA will pave the way for greater stability in the south and east, while also strengthening the newly formed government of PM Maeen. The assassination attempt on cabinet members should be an incentive for local actors and the RA’s sponsor, Saudi Arabia, to double down on efforts to achieve peace, security, stability, and prosperity.

 

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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