Brian Whitaker – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Mon, 11 Apr 2022 04:30:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Yemen: Will Resignation of Saudi-backed Absentee President help End US-Backed War? Mon, 11 Apr 2022 04:06:50 +0000 ( ) – After months of apparent deadlock, the last few days have brought tentative signs of a shift in Yemen’s seven-year conflict.

On Friday Hans Grundberg, the UN’s special envoy, announced that the protagonists had agreed to a two-month ceasefire. The truce, which came into force on Saturday, was the first since 2016 and although it hasn’t stopped the fighting entirely Grundberg says it has has led to a “significant reduction” in violence.

This was followed by a major political development on Wednesday when Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi – internationally recognised as Yemen’s “legitimate” president – stepped aside. Hadi was widely regarded as part of the problem. His grip on power was tenuous and his legitimacy – despite international recognition – had long since evaporated.

Hadi had been vice-president under Ali Abdullah Saleh and was “elected” to replace him after Saleh’s forced resignation in 2012 following the Arab Spring protests. Although the constitution said there must be at least two candidates in presidential elections, Hadi was unopposed. At the time, that didn’t seem to matter much because Hadi was expected to be only a temporary president, steering the country through a two-year “transitional period”. When the transition plan fell apart, however, Hadi remained in office.

Houthi rebels later seized the capital, Sana’a, forcing Hadi and his government to flee south where they declared Aden as the country’s temporary capital (though they actually spent much time in Saudi Arabia). This left Yemen with two rival governments and in 2015 a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia, supported by the UAE and armed by western powers, intervened against the Houthis who in turn were backed by Iran.

Vice-president dismissed

In Wednesday’s announcement relinquishing his presidency Hadi also delivered the welcome news that his vice-president, Brigadier General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, had been dismissed. Ali Muhsin is a kinsman of the late President Saleh and, under Saleh’s rule, became a much-feared figure. In a diplomatic cable in 2005, US ambassador Krajeski described him as “Saleh’s iron fist”.

Krajeski added that Ali Muhsin had been “a major beneficiary of diesel smuggling in recent years” and appeared to have “amassed a fortune in the smuggling of arms, food staples, and consumer products”. The memo also described him as “a close associate” of Faris Manna, Yemen’s most notorious arms dealer. On the religious front, Ali Muhsin had long-standing Salafi/Wahhabi connections which, according to Krajeski, included “questionable dealings with terrorists and extremists”.

OUT: Hadi’s controversial deputy, Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar

With Hadi and his deputy apparently shunted to the sidelines, the plan now is for a presidential council to take over. This power-sharing device has often been used in the past when Yemen faced political problems – with mixed results.

One example was the three-man presidential council created in 1978 following the assassination of President Ahmed al-Ghashmi but it lasted only a month before Saleh emerged as the new strongman. Unification with the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1990 also resulted in a presidential council – though once again Saleh quickly became the dominant figure.

A ‘Frankenstein’ council

Although the latest presidential council only represents anti-Houthi elements, in theory it creates an opportunity for them to put their house in order and might conceivably prepare the way to a political settlement for the whole country. But Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen, is far from optimistic.

“Presidential councils are unwieldy creations at best, and this one is likely more of a Frankenstein than most,” he wrote in a series of posts on Twitter. “Quite clearly this is an attempt, perhaps a last ditch effort, to reconstitute something resembling unity within the anti-Houthi alliance. The problem is that it is unclear how these various individuals, many of whom have diametrically opposing views, can work together.”

The reasons for Johnsen’s scepticism become more apparent from his tweets detailing the composition of the eight-member council (which, as might be expected, is entirely male). The head of the council is Rashad al-Alimi from Ta’izz, a former interior minister under the late President Saleh. Other members are:

● Sultan al-Iradah, the governor of Marib, a tribesman and member of Islah (the Yemeni equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood), whose brother, Khaled, has been sanctioned by the US for alleged ties to al-Qaeda.

● Abdullah al-Alimi, another member of Islah, who was the director of Hadi’s office.

● Aydarus al-Zubaydi, head of the Southern Transitional Council which advocates for an independent southern state. (Johnsen comments: “Zubaydi and the STC have longstanding issues with Islah and have clashed with military units affiliated with Islah multiple times. Plus, and very importantly, Zubaydi’s foreign backer, the UAE, also has issues with Islah.”)

● Tariq Saleh, nephew of the late President Saleh. He was allied with the Houthis until they killed his uncle in December 2017. (Johnsen describes him as “incredibly unpopular” now that he is in the south, and “looking to find a way to claw back some territory in the north”.)

● Faraj al-Bahsani, the governor of Hadramawt, is also on the council. Like Saleh and Zubaydi, he too is backed by the UAE.

● Abd al-Rahman Abu Zara’a is another UAE-affiliated figure and commander of the Amaliqa (“Giants”) Brigade which was instrumental in pushing the Houthis out of Shabwa earlier this year.

● The eighth member hails from Sa’ada – Houthi-controlled territory in the far north, though Johnsen doesn’t name him. Another Twitter user identifies him as Othman Mujali, a sheikh who supported President Saleh and has links to Saudi Arabia.

The chances of these eight working cohesively together look remote to non-existent. Johnsen comments: “In theory, I can see how this is supposed to work: bring all the various military units under one giant umbrella to take on the Houthis. But in practice I don’t think these actors will be able to set aside their many, many differences to unite against a common foe.”


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Covid-19 infections soar to record 570,000 new cases in Middle East in past Week Tue, 18 Jan 2022 05:06:01 +0000

( ) – Record numbers of Covid-19 infections have been reported in the Middle East and North Africa this week. Official figures show more than 570,000 new cases during the last seven days – indicating that the Omicron variant is now spreading rapidly in the region.

Among the 20 countries monitored, nine show week-on-week increases of more than 100%. In Iraq, which reported the biggest percentage rise, new cases more than quadrupled. In Sudan and Israel they more than trebled.

New infections across the region are currently running at more than 81,000 a day, based on a seven-day rolling average. The previous highest point was in August when the daily average briefly topped 73,000. Numbers then fell steadily for 15 consecutive weeks, reaching a low point of just under 12,000 cases a day in mid-December, before starting to rise again towards the end of the month.

The only countries that appear unaffected by this upward trend are Libya, Syria and Yemen, where the official figures have long been considered unreliable.


Yemeni journalist accused of spreading atheism is jailed for 15 years in Saudi Arabia Sun, 05 Dec 2021 05:04:09 +0000 ( – A Yemeni journalist has become the latest victim of Saudi Arabia’s laws against religious disbelief.

Thirty-year-old Ali Muhsin Abu Lahoum worked in Sana’a for the Yemen Times before moving to Saudi Arabia in 2015 and taking up a job with a TV station. More recently he is said to have been working in advertising and design.

Sentenced to 15 years in jail: Ali Muhsin Abu Lahoum

In August, according to friends, he was arrested in front of his home in Najran – supposedly because of a complaint that he owed some work to an employer.

Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based organisation that supports freedom of information and expression, says no lawyer was present for his initial interrogations and it was 10 days before his wife was allowed to visit – and then only for very short visits.

The case took an unexpected turn in October when Abu Lahoum appeared in court charged with spreading “ideas of apostasy, atheism and blasphemy” and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The Saudi authorities accused him of spreading these ideas through a Twitter account, @humanhmmb, which is currently suspended. Abu Lahoum denies owning the account, though the authorities claim to have identified him as its owner through an email address.

It’s unclear whether he is actually a non-believer, and a photo posted on the internet suggests otherwise. It shows him in the white ihram robe worn by Muslims on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Either way, though, the charges are an infringement of his basic rights.

Despite being accused of promoting atheism, Ali Muhsin Abu Lahoum appears to have gone on a pilgrimage to Mecca

Under the kingdom’s Basic Law, the Saudi state has a duty to protect Islam and promote it. Anyone who openly renounces Islam risks charges of apostasy, which is widely interpreted as a capital offence under sharia law. In 2015, Ashraf Fayadh, an artist and poet, was sentenced to death by a Saudi court on multiple charges involving apostasy and blasphemy. These included spreading atheism and promoting it in public places; mocking the verses of God and the prophets; rejecting the Qur’an; denying the day of resurrection; objecting to fate and divine decree; and having an illicit relationship with women and storing their pictures on his phone. His sentence was later commuted to four years in prison and 800 lashes.

The effect of tying the state to religion in this way is that people’s religious views are not just a private matter: rejection of criticism of Islam is seen as a threat to the state. When Saudi Arabia introduced a new anti-terrorism law in 2014 the first item among the acts of “terrorism” that it listed was “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”

Trials for religious “thought crimes” in Muslim countries rarely involve deliberate blasphemy or outright rejection of Islam. More often they are the result of people expressing unorthodox beliefs or attracting the authorities’ attention for other reasons.

One notorious Saudi case, was that of Raif Badawi who ran a website discussing liberal and reformist ideas. He was arrested in 2012 for “insulting Islam through electronic channels” and was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison plus 1,000 lashes and a fine of one million Saudi Riyals ($266,000).


Is the Pandemic finally Subsiding in the Middle East? New Infections at Lowest Level for More than a Year Thu, 28 Oct 2021 04:06:00 +0000 ( – New Covid-19 cases recorded in the Middle East and North Africa averaged 19,075 a day last week. This is the first time since September last year that the daily average among the 20 countries monitored has dropped below 20,000.

New infections peaked in mid-August when the daily average topped 73,000, according to official figures. Since then, though, numbers have fallen every week.

Deaths attributed to Covid-19 are showing a similar decline. The highest weekly death toll – 7,264 – was at the end of August but it has dropped steadily since, with 2,483 recorded during the past week. This is the lowest number since the last week of February.

The reliability of official figures varies from country to country – some do a lot more testing than others – but the overall downward trend over the last 10 weeks has been remarkably consistent.

A large part of this improvement is due to lower numbers from Iran which has been the worst-affected country in the Middle East since the pandemic began. It accounts for more than a third of recorded infections in the region and 45% of related deaths.

However, other countries with smaller outbreaks have seen large reductions in new cases too. Morocco, Tunisia, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Algeria have all reported drops of more than 90% since mid-August.

During the same period Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Sudan, Syria and Yemen have reported increases, though the numbers are relatively low.

See spreadsheet for detailed statistics of cases and deaths in the region since the beginning of the pandemic. Previous reports on how Covid-19 is affecting the region can be found here.

Climate change: Saudi Arabia and OPEC resisting action on fossil fuels Sun, 24 Oct 2021 04:08:30 +0000 ( – Leaked documents show that Saudi Arabia and the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) have been lobbying to water down a crucial scientific report on climate change.

News of the lobbying comes just days before the start of the COP26 conference on international action to slow down global warming. Ahead of the conference, governments and others have submitted comments on a draft report by the IPCC, a UN scientific panel which recommends rapidly phasing out dependence on fossil fuels.

Major oil producers are among those seeking to weaken the report’s conclusions, according to the documents.

A detailed account of the leaks can be found on the Unearthed website, an environmental journalism project funded by Greenpeace supporters.

Reproduced below are two sections from the Unearthed article that describe the lobbying efforts of Saudi Arabia and OPEC …

Saudi Arabia

Chief among those pushing back against the recommendation that fossil fuels be urgently phased out of the energy sector are Saudi Arabia and OPEC, which together produce around 40% of the world’s oil.

Saudi Arabia repeatedly seeks to have the report’s authors delete references to the need to phase out fossil fuels, as well as an IPCC conclusion that there is an “need for urgent and accelerated mitigation actions at all scales”.

In one comment, an advisor to Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources tells the authors to “omit” from the report a statement that the “focus of decarbonisation efforts in the energy systems sector needs to be on rapidly shifting to zero-carbon sources and actively phasing out all fossil fuels.” He claims that this sentence in the draft “undermines all carbon removals technologies such as CCU/CCS and limits the options for decision [sic] makers to carbon neutrality”.

[Note: CCS is “carbon capture and storage”; CCUS is “carbon capture utilisation and storage”]

Saudi Arabia even rejects the use of the word “transformation”, which the IPCC uses throughout the report to describe emissions reduction pathways that meet the goals of the Paris Agreement – the international treaty through which countries agreed to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably to 1.5°C.

For instance, the IPCC states in its draft Summary for Policymakers that scenarios “that limit warming to 2°C and 1.5°C imply energy system transformations over the coming decades. These involve substantial reductions in fossil fuel use, major investments in low-carbon energy forms, switching to low-carbon energy carriers, and energy efficiency and conservation efforts.”

Instead Saudi Arabia argues that urgent action to tackle the climate crisis is not necessarily needed: “The use of ‘transformation’ should be avoided as it has policy implications by requiring immediate policy actions. Transitioning to low-carbon economies can be achieved through planned interventions and by considering various transitioning options.”

In another comment, the Kingdom’s ministry of petroleum advisor claims that “phrases like ‘the need for urgent and accelerated mitigation actions at all scales…’ should be eliminated from the report.”

Saudi Arabia’s preferred approach to tackling climate change involves relying on as-yet unproven technologies which could enable nations to continue burning fossil fuels by sucking the resulting emissions out of the atmosphere – a concept it packages as the “Circular Carbon Economy.”

In line with this strategy it complains that the IPCC does not give sufficient attention to the feasibility of direct air capture (DAC), a technology in the early stages of development that is intended to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to be stored or used in industrial processes.

Relying on the development of technologies like DAC and CCS would allow nations to emit more greenhouse gases now on the optimistic assumption that they could draw them out of the atmosphere later, opening up the possibility of bringing temperatures back to within the limits agreed in the Paris Accord.

The promise of a future technology actually works best for the fossil industry if in practice it’s too expensive to implement

In one comment, responding to a section of the IPCC report discussing the “accelerated decarbonisation of electricity through renewable energy”, Saudi Arabia complains that the IPCC is “excluding natural gas and clean fossil fuel technologies e.g. CCUS and DAC from the decarbonization electricity generation Net Zero models.”

The reviewer also complains that CCUS and DAC technologies are excluded from a list of lower carbon emissions fuels, which includes renewables, bioenergy and “non-fossil” fuels that will be necessary to accelerate climate change mitigation.

But according to Professor Robert Howarth of Cornell University, there is no scientific evidence that humanity can rely on carbon capture or direct air capture in this way.

“There’s no objective information out there which would suggest that this is a well proven, functioning, affordable technology,” he told Unearthed. “All the information is to the contrary.”

“Clearly if a nation has huge reserves of fossil fuels they may feel some national interest to protect that interest and try to encourage the world to use them. But that’s not in the global interest, you’d hope that countries would have a broader perspective than that.”

While the IPCC report does outline how direct air capture and CCS could play a role in the future, it also says there is uncertainty about the feasibility of these technologies.

Saudi Arabia takes issue with this, rejecting analysis that “CCS may be needed to mitigate emissions from the remaining fossil fuels that cannot be decarbonised, but the economic feasibility of deployment is not yet clear”.

The Saudi government reviewer writes: “The CCS technology is now [considered a] viable option and its feasibility should be considered by the authors in all the chapter[s].”

Discussing the risks posed by emissions reduction pathways involving technologies that are not yet fully developed, Siân Bradley of Chatham House told Unearthed: “over-reliance on CCS and negative emissions technologies, should they fail to materialize, would lock-in a high-emissions pathway with no obvious escape route. The risks here cannot be overstated.”

On transport, the Saudi reviewer also appears to suggest a continued role for petrol and diesel vehicles: “claiming that the electrification of transportation, hydrogen, and biofuel are the only way to decarbonize the sector while totally exclude [sic] the ICEs [internal combustion engines] from the scene. Other options should be included.”


The Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) – which represents 13 major oil producing nations including Saudi Arabia – shares the Saudi enthusiasm for removing references to a fossil fuel phase-out from the report.

In the comments reviewed by Unearthed, it tells authors to delete the sentence “More efforts are required to actively phase out all fossil fuels in the energy sector, rather than relying on fuel switching alone”. OPEC claims this “is not a policy-neutral statement considering, for example, that technological advancement could play a key role” in cutting emissions.

Similarly, it asks authors to delete the conclusion: “If warming is to be restricted to 2°C, about 30% of oil, 50% of gas, and 80% of coal reserves will remain unburnable”.

Duncan McClaren, a Research Fellow at Lancaster Environment Centre, told Unearthed: “In resisting a rapid fossil fuel phase out in favour of such technologies of prevarication, these countries are effectively saying humanity can run down the remaining carbon budget more quickly. But this would leave us in a hugely difficult situation in the future, having to deliver on large amounts of carbon removal regardless of the costs and impacts involved.”

“Sadly, this sort of promise of a future technology actually works best for the fossil industry if in practice it’s too expensive to implement”, McClaren continued, “because they can go on making promises, but never actually have to spend money to do it.”

OPEC also asks the authors to strike out a number of references to fossil fuel lobbies impeding action on climate change including the sentence: “Several scholars have traced delay and sluggishness by states to pursue [ambitious] climate mitigation policies to the activities of powerful interest groups who have vested interest in maintaining the current high carbon economic structures”.

OPEC member Iran, meanwhile, separately comments that limiting global warming to 1.5°C is not possible and the world should aim for 2°C: “Given current trends and technologies, a continuous annual reduction in greenhouse emissions of more than 5% between 2021 and 2030 is highly unlikely. Even developed countries have not been able to continuously reduce emissions to this level yet. Therefore, it seems that the goal of limiting the temperature increase to 2 degrees should be pursued instead of the 1.5 degrees goal (as agreed in the Paris Agreement).”


Featured photo via Pipeline construction in Saudi Arabia’s Shaybah field.

Facebook cracks down on propaganda campaign in Jordan Sun, 11 Jul 2021 04:02:34 +0000 ( – Facebook reported this week that it removed 2,784 accounts in June for “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”. Among those, 947 related to countries in the Middle East and North Africa region: Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Algeria and Sudan.

Facebook treats online campaigns as “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” if they seek “to mislead people about who they are and what they are doing while relying on fake accounts”. Accounts, groups and pages “directly involved” in this activity are removed when Facebook detects them.

Orchestrated misuse of social media is very common in the Middle East – often for political or sectarian purposes – though according to the Stanford Internet Observatory this is the first time an “inauthentic” network operating in Jordan has been publicly dismantled.

Suspicious activity spiked in April, coinciding with a rift inside Jordan’s royal family. King Abdullah’s half-brother, Prince Hamza, was placed under house arrest after being accused of plotting to destabilise the country and 18 others were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the alleged plot.

The Jordanian authorities banned local news outlets and social media users from discussing the affair but the ban was accompanied by a flurry of social media activity supporting the king and the military.

A 20-page report from the Stanford Internet Observatory gives details of the campaign which included Twitter, TikTok and Instagram as well as Facebook. A widely-shared video also contained a recording from the Clubhouse audio-chat platform discussing Prince Hamza, and accused foreigners and Jordanians outside the country of using Clubhouse to foment unrest.

The Stanford report identifies several fake personas posting in support of the king and the Jordanian armed forces, and it says videos were shared mainly through two Facebook pages, “Heroes of the Arab Army” and “My Heart Loves the Army”.

These pages merged popular support for the army with support for the monarchy, and particularly the king, the report says. “Although both pages were created in 2015, they seem to have been repurposed to include a wider range of political content in 2020 and early 2021, which coincided with a rise in protests in multiple cities across the country.”

Facebook post showing King Abdullah hugging a child. “Your people love you and your throne,” it said.

Videos circulated online implied that King Abdullah cares more than Prince Hamzah about Palestine and Jerusalem. One of the Jordanian king’s official roles is as “guardian” of the Muslim and Christian religious sites in East Jerusalem, and Arabic hashtags such as “Alquds_in_exchange_for_the_throne” attacked Prince Hamza by claiming he was willing to abandon control over the sites in order to replace Abdullah as king.

“This theme was featured multiple times in different videos … at times juxtaposed against King Abdullah’s determination to protect Jerusalem at all costs,” the report says. According to Facebook, the campaign was also backed with $26,500 spent on advertising.

The Stanford researchers see these efforts as an attempt by the state in the midst of a royal crisis “to control external narratives with its own set of narratives that promote nationalism and support for the king and push conspiracy theories about external interference.” But they add: “It is unclear whether local citizens believe these claims.”

Overall, the campaign doesn’t appear to have secured much engagement from the Jordanian public. Altogether, Facebook removed 89 accounts, plus 35 individual pages, three groups, and 16 Instagram accounts. The Stanford report notes that while the most popular of the deleted pages had 317,068 followers, 14 of them had no followers at all. The largest of the deleted groups had a mere 213 followers and most of the Instagram accounts contained one post or none. The fake personas also had few followers.

“The network was novel in its use of TikTok sockpuppet accounts,” the report says, “though it appears to have made little effort to create original TikTok content or build an audience on the platform.”


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Yemen: a war with no military solution … and perhaps no political solution either Sat, 27 Feb 2021 05:01:10 +0000 ( – The Yemeni city of Marib lies 120 km to the east of the capital, Sana’a, with mountainous territory in between. It was from Marib, in the early stages of the six-year war, that pro-government forces hoped to launch an assault against the Houthi rebels who had seized Sana’a. Since then, though, the tables have turned and Houthi forces are now threatening Marib.

The Houthis have been preparing for a push on Marib since early last year. There have been periodic clashes but fighting has intensified during the last week or so. Dozens of fighters have been reported killed – mostly among the Houthis – and the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis has responded with airstrikes.

Meanwhile there are fears for the safety of tens of thousands of internally displaced people. Reuters reported on Monday that Houthi forces had hit four camps to the east of Marib and that two locations had been evacuated. A UN official warned that an assault on the city itself “would put two million civilians at risk, with hundreds of thousands potentially forced to flee – with unimaginable humanitarian consequences”.

At the same time, the Houthis have also stepped up their drone strikes on Saudi territory.

Intensification of the conflict came after the Biden administration announced that the US will end support for the Saudis’ military campaign in Yemen and is seeking to re-energise the stalled peace process.

As a consequence of that, the Houthis appear to be trying to strengthen their hand ahead of any moves towards a ceasefire. Marib province has oil and gas resources – which the Houthis don’t have – and capturing it would give them some economic leverage.

The Biden administration sees no military solution to the conflict but there’s no sign of a viable political solution either.

Yemen currently has two rival governments – an internationally recognised but largely ineffectual one in the south, and the unrecognised Houthi one in the north. For most practical purposes Yemen is now divided into two states, in line with the military dispositions.

Formalising that division as part of a peace settlement would amount to acceptance of the Houthis’ seizure of territory by force, and the UN Security Council has previously expressed its “strong commitment” to Yemen’s unity and territorial integrity (Resolution 2511).

Avoiding partition would require the Houthis to give up control of Sana’a and work with other political elements in a unified state, but at present there is no obvious reason why they would agree to that (see previous article).

One of those who doubt that Yemen can be reconstituted as a single country is Gregory Johnsen, a former member of the UN’s Panel of Experts. In a Twitter thread last week he predicted the internal conflict will get worse rather than better, at least initially:

“Once the Saudis start heading for the exits the coalition, which has already partially unravelled, will collapse. Different armed groups will scramble to sieze and hold as much territory as their guys with guns allow.

“The result will be a patchwork of warlords and armed groups who hold sway in different parts of the country. No one group will be strong enough to control all of Yemen and force the other armed groups to submit.

“Nor should anyone be under the impression that Yemen will return to the pre-1990 North and South division. There are simply too many different groups pursuing too many different agendas for a nice neat division.

“When Yemen breaks apart it will break into several different pieces. I count at least seven, although the reality will likely be far messier.”


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International Licence.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

BBC News: “Yemen facing world’s “worst famine in decades” – BBC News”

Biden seeks peace in Yemen, but will the warring factions come on board? Wed, 17 Feb 2021 05:04:14 +0000 ( – The US State Department confirmed on Friday that it is revoking a last-minute decision by the Trump administration to designate Yemen’s Houthi movement as a terrorist organisation.

The issue is not whether the Houthis deserve to be designated – their atrocities are well known – but Trump’s action, just days before leaving office, had legal implications for aid agencies, threatening to jeopardise relief efforts in the midst of what many regard as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The incoming Biden administration responded initially by putting the designation on hold for review and has now formally cancelled it, with effect from February 16. Its move has been welcomed by the United Nations.

Friday’s announcement from secretary of state Anthony Blinken said:

“This decision is a recognition of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen. We have listened to warnings from the United Nations, humanitarian groups, and bipartisan members of Congress, among others, that the designations could have a devastating impact on Yemenis’ access to basic commodities like food and fuel.

“The revocations are intended to ensure that relevant US policies do not impede assistance to those already suffering what has been called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

The statement added that sanctions previously imposed on individual Houthi leaders will remain in force and the US is “actively identifying additional targets for designation”.

The Houthi movement, also known as Ansar Allah (“The Supporters of God”), seized control of the capital, Sana’a, in 2014 and currently controls the north-western part of Yemen which holds about 80% of the country’s population.

On the other side of the conflict, airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition opposing the Houthis have killed many civilians and there is evidence that some of those attacks amount to war crimes. Secretary of state Blinken has not held back from criticising that aspect of the military effort against the Houthis. Speaking at the end of January he said: “We’ve seen a campaign led by Saudi Arabia that has also contributed to what is by many estimates the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today, and that’s saying something.”

Arms sales under review

The Biden administration has said it will end US support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen and is currently reviewing American arms sales to the kingdom along with those to the UAE, the Saudis’ chief Arab ally in the anti-Houthi coalition.

Aside from the Yemen war, though, the US has signalled that it wants cooperation in other areas to continue. “We have a partnership with Saudi Arabia,” Blinken told senators at his confirmation hearing. “I believe we should do what we need to help defend Saudi Arabia against aggression directed at it.”

That isn’t as straightforward as it might sound, however, because “defending” Saudi Arabia against “aggression” inevitably links back to the war in Yemen. During the conflict the Houthis have repeatedly used missiles and drones to attack Saudi territory. The most recent example came last week when they hit a civilian Airbus at Abha airport in southern Saudi Arabia, starting a fire.

Seeking to end the conflict

The American moves in relation to the Houthis and the Saudis can be seen as preliminary steps towards a renewed peace effort. The Biden administration sees no military solution to the conflict and is urging “all parties to work towards a lasting political solution”.

Desirable as that would be, the difficulties are not to be underestimated.

The roots of the problem can be traced back to the Arab Spring protests of a decade ago which led to the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh after 34 years in power. In the aftermath of Saleh’s forced departure a political transition plan developed by Yemen’s Gulf neighbours and backed by the UN fell apart, plunging the country into civil war.

That turned into an international conflict in 2015 when the Saudi-led coalition launched a bombing campaign against the Houthis. The over-confident Saudis expected the Houthis to surrender quickly and when that didn’t happen they found themselves without an exit strategy.

A way out for the Saudis?

For that reason the Saudis may not be averse to a peace initiative from Biden. It could provide a way of extricating themselves without too much loss of face but a lot hinges on what the political outcome might be.

Yemen currently has two rival governments – an internationally recognised but largely ineffectual one in the south, and the unrecognised Houthi one in the north. For most practical purposes Yemen is now divided into two states, in line with the military dispositions.

One possible outcome of a peace process would be to formalise the partition – though that would amount to acceptance of the Houthis’ seizure of territory by force. The Saudis, meanwhile, would not want a Houthi state allied to Iran on their southern border.

Houthis unwilling to compromise

If partition is to be avoided the Houthis would have to give up control of Sana’a and work with other political elements in a unified state, but at present there is no obvious reason why they would, at least in the short term.

Taking a longer view, though, the Houthis have a problem. They hold the most heavily populated parts of the country but lack natural resources. More sparsely populated areas to the south and east have oil and gas but are outside their control. In short, the economic prospects for a Houthi state, based on its current boundaries, are dismal.

The Houthis are well aware of that – which is why they have military designs on Marib province and its oil. So long as they retain hopes of capturing Marib they are unlikely to be amenable to compromise.

UN envoy Martin Griffiths recently visited Tehran

Envoy’s talks in Iran

The Yemeni conflict is sometimes characterised as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Houthis have a religious affinity with Iran and receive Iranian support but there is uncertainty about the extent of Iran’s influence or control over the Houthis.

Martin Griffiths, the UN’s special envoy on Yemen had talks in Tehran earlier this month – reportedly the first time he has done so. Iran’s official stance is that it favours intra-Yemeni dialogue and the establishment of a broad-based government, so presumably Griffiths is hoping the Iranians will nudge the Houthis in that direction.

Iran is in a position where it can choose to be either constructive or obstructive and there’s a risk that it might use cooperation on Yemen as a lever in negotiations about the nuclear deal that Biden is seeking to revive after it was sabotaged by Trump. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia, which strongly opposed the nuclear deal, is unlikely to welcome Biden’s effort to reinstate it.

The danger here is that moves towards peace in Yemen could become entangled with disputes about the nuclear issue between two of the Yemen conflict’s opposing players.



Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Al Jazeera English: “Yemen clashes intensify in north”

Ending the crisis in Yemen is a priority for Biden administration Tue, 02 Feb 2021 05:02:06 +0000 ( –

Secretary of State Blinken: “It’s vitally important that we do everything we can to get humanitarian assistance to the people of Yemen.” Photo: State Dept

When Antony Blinken, the newly-appointed US Secretary of State, gave his first press briefing last Wednesday the first topic to come up was the war in Yemen. It’s rare for Yemen to receive much attention in Washington but there are signs that the Biden administration intends to take an active interest.

The immediate reason for this attention was a decision by the Trump administration, in its final days, to designate the Houthi movement as a terrorist organisation. That prompted widespread objections from aid agencies and others – not because designation was undeserved but because the resulting sanctions would have greatly exacerbated the country’s humanitarian crisis.

Although the Biden administration hasn’t actually reversed Trump’s decision, implementation is on hold while it reviews the situation.

“It’s vitally important,” Blinken told reporters, “that we do everything we can to get humanitarian assistance to the people of Yemen who are in desperate need. And what we want to make sure is that any steps we are taking do not get in the way of providing that assistance.”

Blinken noted that about 80% of Yemen’s population live in areas controlled by the Houthis who seized the capital in 2014, forcing the internationally recognised government to flee to the south.

He accused the Houthis of “committing acts of aggression against our partner, Saudi Arabia, committing human rights abuses and other atrocities, [and] creating an environment in which we’ve seen extremist groups fill some of the vacuums”.

But the Saudi-led coalition which has been fighting the Houthis didn’t escape his criticism either. “At the same time,” he continued, “we’ve seen a campaign led by Saudi Arabia that has also contributed to what is by many estimates the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today, and that’s saying something”.

In a separate development which also impinges on Yemen, the new administration is reviewing American arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its chief ally in the anti-Houthi coalition, the United Arab Emirates.

So far, this is being presented as part of a normal process rather than a change of policy. In his remarks on Wednessday, Blinken said: “Generally speaking when it comes to arms sales, it is typical at the start of an administration to review any pending sales, to make sure that what is being considered is something that advances our strategic objectives and advances our foreign policy. So that’s – that’s what we’re doing at this moment.”

However, the new administration has already said it will end US support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen – though it wants to do so while maintaining its broader relationship with the kingdom.

At his confirmation hearing in the Senate, Blinken said: “We have a partnership with Saudi Arabia. I believe we should do what we need to help defend Saudi Arabia against aggression directed at it, including from Yemen and the Houthis. But we have real concerns [about] the policies that our Saudi partners have pursued …”

In that context the administration’s decisions to review designation of the Houthis and the arming of their enemies can be seen as the start of an American re-engagement in the Yemeni crisis which could end the current paralysis in diplomatic efforts towards a ceasefire.

That would certainly be a welcome development, though the shape of a eventual political solution remains as elusive as ever.



Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Reuters: “Aid boost in Yemen after U.S. allows Houthi deals”