Recently, the ongoing war in Yemen has taken another turn. This time the issue is the control of north Yemen’s support lifeline, the Port of Hodeidah. Hodeidah (or Al-Hudeydah), located in western Yemen, hosts a population of over 400,000 and is the entry point for almost 70 percent of Yemen’s humanitarian aid. In early June 2018, pro-government Yemeni forces, backed by a coalition fromUnited Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, stormed the western and southern part of the Hodeidah airport in an attempt to seize it. They were met with fierce resistance from the Houthis, a Zaydi militia group, who deployed landmines and snipers around the airport. Eventually, the Houthis’ defense collapsed, and the UAE-Saudi coalition captured the airport. But even though this victory seems a strategic gain, a long battle still lies ahead and the war is far from being over. If the war stretches into the city of Hodeidah itself, casualties will rise, more people will be displaced, and Yemen’s humanitarian disaster will deepen. On July 1st, a UAE-based newspaper, The National, reported that the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, “publicly acknowledged” the UAE will pause its offensive at the Port of Hodeidah to give a UN negotiation process the chance to achieve the “unconditional” withdrawal of the Houthis.
The battle of Hodeidah will cause a shift in the balance of power in favor of the UAE-Saudi coalition, especially if they recapture the Port of Hodeida, and it may compel the Houthis to make major concessions. But all warring parties have one thing in common: no clear strategy for Yemen’s peace and stability. Below I address the following questions. What do the current developments in Hodeidah mean for the Houthis, Yemen’s legitimate government, the Saudi-UAE coalition, and the people of Yemen? And what roles are the United Nations and the United States playing to mitigate tensions?
A New Front
The Houthis captured the Port of Hodeidah in 2015 with the help of their former enemy Ali Abdallah Saleh, Yemen’s former president. Saleh’s loyalists within Yemen’s elite Republican Guard joined the Houthi militia in an attempt to restore a moribund patronage state that had served Saleh during his 30-year rule of Yemen. With the help of Saleh’s forces, the Houthis finally took control of the majority of Yemen’s northern and western regions. Saudi Arabia and the UAE led a coalition which intervened in March 2015 to fight the Houthi militia and restore Yemen’s legitimate government.
Even though their intervention strengthened Saleh’s alliance with the Houthis at first, the Saleh-Houthi marriage of convenience eventually collapsed. Saleh waged six wars against the Houthis and killed their founder, Hussein Bedreddin Al-Houthi, in September 2004. The Houthis were certain that at some point in the future a breakup with Saleh was inevitable. On December 4th, 2017, the chickens came home to roost: Saleh was assassinated by the Houthis. From their perspective, they were exacting tribal justice and vengeance, “a right they had reserved for themselves.” The alliance between Saleh’s forces and the Houthis began to fall apart.
Saleh’s forces then formed a new coalition with their former enemy, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In northeast Yemen specifically, they united with the tribes of Ma’arib. It didn’t take long until they recaptured the entire region of Shabwa, in southeastern Yemen, from the Houthis. In southern Yemen, the Houthis lost major territories, and in the east, they lost the strategic port of Makha. When the Houthis lost Makha, Hodeidah became their only supply line from the Red Sea all the way to Sana’a.
For the Houthi militia, Hodeidah is crucial strategically as it represents their only port of entry to and exit from the Red Sea. If they lose control of the port, they will be at the mercy of the coalition for imported goods and commodities, and they will lose thousands of dollars in customs revenue. The Houthis are militia who have nothing to lose and their fighters are ideologically disoriented. The Houthi leaders propagate that their battle in Yemen is a precursor to a greater war to liberate Palestine from Israel. In a video posted on social media, Houthi militia’s spokesman, Mohamed Al-Bukhaiti, claimed that they are under assault by the coalition because they have placed the Palestinian cause on the top of their list. Their leader, Abdel Malek Al-Houthi, echoed this sentiment on numerous occasions. This says a lot about how far the Houthi leaders are willing to go to manipulate their younger and inexperienced fighters, even though they are well aware that their bluff to liberate Palestine by usurping power in Yemen is unrealistic.
If the Houthis succeed in holding Hodeida by defeating the pro-government forces and their coalition, they get to keep open their supply lines to both Sana’a and Sa’ada and provide a huge morale boost to their militia. But their victory is unlikely to go beyond Hodeidah, which means Yemen will remain divided. The Houthis have neither the power nor the capacity to govern Yemen. Yemen is a complex country, engulfed in tribal, social, economic, and sometimes sectarian turmoil. An ideologically-driven militia like the Houthis does not have the patience or tolerance required to consolidate it.
The UAE-Saudi coalition is not any better off than the Houthis. The UAE has its own strategic ambitions in the region. In recent years, it has been working to appropriate ports in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, either by influence or coercion. In Yemen, it has already cemented its grip on Mukalla, Makha, and the Port of Aden. Experts in strategic studies have given different interpretations of the UAE’s port appropriation strategy. The most compelling one argues that the UAE plans to position itself for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a gigantic Chinese strategy which aims to achieve shared progress and develop a worldwide interconnected economy. For the Chinese, Yemen and other east African countries –such as Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Kenya – are considered crucial gateways to the greater African continent.
Although there is no evidence that China conspires against the UAE, in recent years, Beijing skillfully managed to take advantage of UAE’s toxic relationship with some African and Asian countries. For example, last February, Djibouti terminated a concession contract it had previously given to the state-owned UAE port-management company—DP World—to manage the Doraleh Container Terminal (DCT), one of Djibouti’s main ports. On July 5th, China inaugurated alongside the government of Djibouti the biggest Free Zone Trading Area in Africa, as part of its Belt and Road strategy.
Long before the UAE took control of the Port of Aden, China was in the middle of a negotiation with Yemen’s legitimate government to take control of the management of the Port of Aden. (The negotiations faltered after UAE-backed forces clashed with forces of Yemen’s legitimate government. There are no signs of reinitializing it.)Thus, by appropriating ports across the Red Sea that present vital transshipment focal points for China’s project, the UAE plans to negotiate with Beijing on terms favorable to its interests in the future. As a result, it is fair to argue that such a strategy has nothing to do with a stable and peaceful Yemen and only serves the UAE’s long-term strategic ambitions.
Saudi Arabia’s strategy has been even more flawed than its partner’s. It has not settled on a single strategic interpretation of its intervention in Yemen yet. It has shifted from checking on Iranian intrusion in Yemen, to restoring Yemen’s legitimate government, to safeguarding Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity, to humanitarian intervention. Ironically, since the beginning of the war in March 2015, its warplanes have targeted hospitals, schools, and public buildings, killing thousands of civilians and causing a widespread cholera outbreak. Saudi Arabia has blocked almost every attempt by the UN to appoint an independent commission to investigate any deliberate targeting of civilians—an investigation which could lead to accusations of crimes against humanity. In 2017, the UN issued a report describing the war in Yemen as the “worst humanitarian crisis.” Having felt the burden of these accusations, it appears as though the Saudis have let the UAE take the lead in Yemen in recent months. For example, the battle of Hodeidah is spearheaded by UAE forces stationed in Eritrea and UAE-trained pro-government militia led by Tareq Saleh, Ali Abdallah Saleh’s nephew.
Naturally, since Hodeidah is so important to the Houthis, it is also critical for the pro-government forces to reclaim the port in order to suffocate the militia group. The Houthis have a history of gaining military wins on the ground and then coming to the table to negotiate peace deals on their own terms. Accordingly, Yemen’s legitimate government has been negotiating from a position of weakness since they have been unable to pressure the Houthis on the battlefield. But losing Hodeidah would force the Houthis to make major concessions in future negotiations. This is a big incentive for the pro-government forces. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also been accusing the Houthis of using the port to smuggle in Iranian ammunition and ballistic missiles. If these allegations are true, this is but one more reason why recapturing Hodeidah is so important for the pro-government forces.
But one thing the pro-government forces and their backers need to keep in mind, if and when they recapture the Port of Hodeidah from the Houthis, is that they must avoid setting their expectations too high and demanding unrealistic concessions from the Houthis. Demands such as the complete disarmament of the Houthis and the unconditional withdrawal from the capital Sana’a are outdated. The Houthis have taken advantage of Yemen’s political vacuum and transformed into a major military player in Yemen; so, such unrealistic demands would only make the war last longer and result in more civilian casualties.
The UN and the US
There is a UN negotiation process underway that aims to hand the Port of Hodeidah to a neutral third party. In a briefing to the UN Security Council on June 18th, special envoy of the UN to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, spoke optimistically about these negotiations. And according to Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen, the Houthis may agree to let a third party take control of the port. If successfully implemented, this process will mitigate human casualties in Hodeidah and save the city from falling into another quagmire.
While these UN negotiations may provide a glimmer of hope, the US seems to be fueling the tension rather than offering any meaningful assistance in resolving it. While the US government continues to provide the Saudis with military, logistics, and intelligence support, its officials are bluntly denying any involvement. Democrats and Republicans alike in the US Congress will issue the occasional politically expedient tweet about the human casualties in Yemen or about how their political opponents are obstructing a law they sponsored that could potentially alleviate the humanitarian calamity. Nonetheless, a tangible and meaningful explanation of US involvement in the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II is not yet in order. I believe that as long as arms industries are making top dollar from selling smart guided missiles to the Saudis and the UAE, and their politicians are reaping the benefit, Yemen will remain a non-issue.
The author is an academic based in Colorado, USA. He is the former CEO of the American Institute in Djibouti, East Africa. He lived in Yemen for an extended period of time. Mr. Darar’s research and studies focus on Middle East and East Africa.