"Direct military involvement of the Saudi-led coalition has only exacerbated and prolonged the Yemeni crisis"

Olga Aymerich

International relations analyst

INTERVIEW. International relations analyst Olga Aymerich says chances of reaching an agreement in the short term are at odds in Yemen as alliances in the field are new and artificial, with high levels of mistrust · In South Yemen, pro-independence supporters would be in a weak position in an end-of-the-conflict scenario, Aymerich argues

Yemen has found itself in a state of open civil war since March. Shiite Islamist armed group Ansar Allah -more commonly known as the Houthis- has come into an alliance with former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and forces loyal to him, and is fighting for control over the country against units loyal to internationally recognized president Mansour Hadi Abd Rabbuh, now exiled in Saudi Arabia. Hadi is backed by several local militias, by some South Yemen pro-independence sectors, and by a Saudi-led military coalition which has been conducting airstrikes against Houthi positions since 25 March. The Houthis are blamed by the Saudis for receiving military support from Iran, which Tehran denies.

Only over the three last months of open warfare -albeit less intensely, the conflict was already going on through 2014- more than 2,500 people have been killed, more than one million have been displaced, and 21 million people are in need of humanitarian aid, according to UNHCR data. Yemen has a total population of some 24 million people. Aden, the main city in South Yemen, is suffering enormous destruction because of weeks-long infighting between warring sides. Meanwhile, other parts of the country have come under the control of AQAP- or IS-affiliated groups.

Yemen is located at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula together with another country, Oman. Unlike its western neighbour, Oman has enjoyed remarkable stability since the 1970s, coinciding with the end of the rebellion in Dhofar and the ascent to the throne of Sultan Qaboos bin Said. The sultan, however, has been suffering from bad health condition, and this raises doubts over the country's future.

International relations analyst Olga Aymerich specialises in Yemeni -she lived in the country from 2012 to 2014- and Omani politics -she currently resides in Oman's capital Muscat. Nationalia interviewed her via email.

Nationalia: UN-sponsored talks over the future of Yemen were launched last week. The Houthis, Hadi's government and Saleh's entourage took part in them. As expected, the talks showed the many difficulties existing in order to strike a deal. Which are the prospects for reaching a solution?

Olga Aymerich: What we are witnessing in the Geneva talks is the first international attempt to bring the different actors in the same negotiation table. However, until now parties have not sat together and they have conflicting agendas. The fact that the alliances in the field are new and artificial -Houthis and Saleh fought six wars during the period Saleh was president; similarly, Hadi fought against the southerners during the unification war- increases the level of mistrust and makes it even more complicated to reach a solution. To put it simple, they are old enemies converted into new allies, each one with different agendas.

The international community had hoped to reach a two-week humanitarian truce coinciding the beginning of Ramadan, but the continuous airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition and the last blasts in the capital Sanaa last week have hampered this effort. Thus, the chances of reaching an agreement are unfortunately at odds.

The direct military involvement of the Saudi-led coalition has only exacerbated and prolonged the crisis, giving leverage to actors with minimum support in Yemen, as the ousted president Hadi, and adding a new level of punishment to the civil population never witnessed before in Yemen.

N: The United Nations now say 21 million people -the majority of the country's population- are in need of humanitarian aid in Yemen. Within the war context, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) argues that traditional safety nets continue to deteriorate. Which are those nets, and which sectors could be the most badly hit if they lose them?

O. A.: Family and tribe are the traditional safety nets in Yemen. Thus, the nearly one million IDPs in the country are one of the most affected sectors in this sense. However, it wouldn't be fair to forget that 80% of Yemen's population is in current need of food, water and medical supplies. Hospitals and health facilities are on the brink to collapse due to the shortage of fuel to run the generators and the lack of medicines. Approximately 80% of the food consumed in Yemen is imported and with the current naval blockade the shipments have stopped which has caused a sharp increase in food prices. This has brought nearly half of Yemen's population to be food insecure in what it was already a highly impoverished country.

N: South Yemen's secessionist movement, or Al-Hirak, has been for years demanding independence, mostly through massive demonstrations. Al-Hirak's leadership is very fragmented, and on the other side the pro-independence partisans now have arms and are fighting the Houthi-Saleh presence in the south, which many southerners believe to be illegitimate. At the same time, those pro-independence militias have entered an alliance of convenience with president Hadi's forces. Are there any chances that the pro-independence movement can take advantage of this situation to move towards a de facto South Yemeni state?

O. A.: At the beginning of the conflict, when the Houthis first reached Sana'a, the possibility of seeing Yemen dividing in different areas with more or less degree of self-autonomy existed. Saada for Houthis, the rest of North Yemen for Saleh, and the South divided between Hadhramaut and Aden area (the area traditionally supporting South Yemen independence). This could have been a potential scenario. However this equation changed with the Saudi aggression, which caused a fast deterioration of the situation. Old grudges between opposed South Yemeni leaders supporting independence reemerged, and the Houthi advance continued. With the absence of a clear leadership, the southern militias became an "anti-Houthi" group more than a "pro-independence" one.

Currently as it is, in any plausible end-of-the-conflict scenario the supporters of South Yemen independence would be in a very weak position to push for their claim.

N: Are those "old grudges" between South Yemeni leaders based on issues linked to ideology and different strategies on independence, or should we rather see them mostly as personal quarrels?

O. A.: It was personal, but now what we see in the front has nothing to do with the cadres. Among the southern resistance you can find former PDRY army members, long term Saleh opposition, people fighting for religious purposes on what they see a Shiite advance, or even AQAP members. It is a very heterogeneous group, and their common goal is to regain control of the territory and stop the Houthi advance, not to fight for the independence of South Yemen.

N: War in Yemen follows a series of patterns that can also be found in another three MENA countries, namely Syria, Iraq and Libya. These include the disappearance of state administration from a significant part of the territory, the confrontation between various warring coalitions, direct or indirect involvement of regional and global powers, and the emergence of semi-state or para-state political entities -such as the Kurdish cantons in Rojava or the Islamic State. Is there some reason that helps explain such similar developments?

O. A.: Actually, I wouldn't agree with Yemen following the same pattern as other Middle Eastern countries.

First of all, we do not see new entities emerging in Yemen. Except from the blasts claimed by ISIL last week in Sanaa which might stay as an isolated episode or not, what we have until now are the same old wolves which have been orchestrating Yemen affairs for the past twenty years aligned in new and fragile alliances. Moreover, the regional involvement in Yemen, which is basically the Saudi-led coalition, is also triggered by the old game of patronage and local alliances in place since the 90s. Actually, it could be labelled as a big-scale punishment for Saleh by Saudi Arabia rather than an attempt to stop a Shiite advance by a Sunni coalition. Finally, the state administration was not strong in Yemen even before the conflict: for example, the judiciary system in Yemen has always worked in parallel with tribal arbitrage. Thus, I think the comparison doesn't apply in Yemen's case.

N: Meanwhile, Yemen's eastern neighbour Oman is the only Arab monarchy not to be involved in the Saudi-led coalition. From a regional geopolitical standpoint, Oman plays a bridge role between Iran and the Gulf's Sunni monarchies. In the case of the Yemeni crisis, Oman says the solution should come through a national agreement between the country's political and military players. What is Oman's interest to play this role? Does it fear internal destabilization?

O. A.: Oman rejected to join the Saudi-led coalition and adopted a humanitarian role in it for several reasons. From the geostrategic point of view, it is located in the border with Yemen, and even though the country is as big as Yemen, Yemen's population is seven times bigger than Oman's. Moreover, most of Oman's population is located in the north of Oman. This leads to empty quarters of land just at the border with Yemen, which in case of a direct conflict between Oman and Yemen could place Oman in a very risky situation on the ground.

Moreover, Oman had also a regional interest on not joining the Saudi-led coalition. More than because of its geographical position between Iran and Gulf countries, Oman questions the influence Saudi Arabia is exerting in the other GCC countries. Not joining the almost imposed coalition, Oman wanted to demonstrate it has and independent voice.

Also, the internal situation in Oman played a share in the decision. The Dhofar rebellion, which was supported by South Yemen, is still alive in the memory of Omanis, and despite the fact that the situation in Dhofar area in South Oman is now stable, there are still identity claims with Dhofari population seeking to differentiate themselves from North Omanis.

N: What does explain those claims from the Dhofar region? Is it only because of a different identity, or rather perceived social, political and economic discriminations do also play a role?

O. A.: It is a mixture of both. The fact that other regions of Oman have developed much faster make them feel left aside, which sharpens the identity claims. However, there are continuous governmental initiatives to palliate that. For example, a new airport just opened in Salalah. Thus, the government's approach is more preventive than palliative.

An interview by David Forniès