Recent Political Developments and Risks in Yemen
6 Dec 2017
Yemen’s former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed on 04 December 2017 as he attempted to flee the city of Sanaa. Saleh was killed by Houthi rebels at a checkpoint south of Sanaa; the Houthis had previously formed an alliance with Saleh in opposition to Yemen government and the Saudi-led coalition in the country’s civil war. Saleh had been attempting to leave Sanaa for his home town of Sanhan. His compound in Sanaa had been under siege for more than 48 hours by Houthi forces.On 02 December, Saleh had called for relations with the Saudi-led coalition to “turn a page”. His death sees the end of the Houthi-Saleh alliance of convenience.
- Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed trying to flee Houthi forces in Sanaa on 04 December 2017, marking the end of their alliance.
- Saleh had made peace overtures to Saudi Arabia and coalition forces a few days prior.
- This fragmented environment is expected to increase risks further in Yemen.
Political: Yemen’s former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed on 04 December 2017 as he attempted to flee the city of Sanaa. Saleh was killed by Houthi rebels at a checkpoint south of Sanaa; the Houthis had previously formed an alliance with Saleh in opposition to Yemen government and the Saudi-led coalition in the country’s civil war. Saleh had been attempting to leave Sanaa for his home town of Sanhan. His compound in Sanaa had been under siege for more than 48 hours by Houthi forces.
On 02 December, Saleh had called for relations with the Saudi-led coalition to “turn a page”. His death sees the end of the Houthi-Saleh alliance of convenience.
Solace Global Comment
Houthi-Saleh Alliance Explained
Ali Abdullah Saleh rose to power as part of a military coup. He became president of North Yemen in 1978 and subsequently President of the unified Yemen in 1990, only stepping down in 2012, largely thanks to an Arab Spring uprising. Throughout his time as president he was known as a shrewd politician, taking part in a number of alliances of convenience with tribesmen, Islamists, technocrats, and jihadists; his alliance with, and subsequent manoeuvring against the Houthis, appears to be one political move too far.
Saleh allied with Houthi rebels in their fight against the Saudi-led coalition, eventually ousting the pro-Saudi government led by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in 2015. Cracks have been appearing in the relationship since its foundation. Notably, in August 2017, clashes between Houthi and pro-Saleh groups led to the death of a prominent ally of Saleh.
Saleh, and his supporters, soon became viewed by the Houthis not as allies of convenience but as a significant problem. Eventually Saleh met his downfall after days of some of the deadliest recent fighting in Sanaa, Yemen’s pre-war capital. More than 200 deaths were reported and hundreds more were wounded according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Initially, Saleh allies gained control of southern Sanaa, receiving Saudi praise for what they described as a ‘revolution’ against Houthi rebel forces. This area has now returned to Houthi control.
Saleh’s overtures to Saudi Arabia, while a surprise, had raised hopes that peace would be found in Yemen’s continuing civil war, which has raged in the country since March 2015. Reports suggest that Saleh had been working on a deal with the Saudi-led alliance to reinstate himself or his son as president. Indeed, some commentators suggest an agreement was on the table, relying upon Yemen’s former leader to renounce and categorically split from his Houthi allies. Media in Riyadh began describing Saleh as “former president” rather than “deposed dictator” as they had previously.
It had been hoped that Saleh’s peace movement towards Saudi Arabia would give the kingdom an inroad into a peace deal in the embattled country on its southern border. Instead, the Saudi government now has a decision to make: continue its costly (in economic, political, and humanitarian terms) and unsuccessful involvement in Yemen, or attempt to find peace in a climate of little trust.
The opportunities for peace are now slim. Commentators have suggested that for all of Saleh’s faults and divisiveness, he was the only figure likely to help bring an end to the country’s civil war. Indeed, his death is likely to lead to a deepening of divisions between all sides of the conflict in Yemen. Saleh’s son has vowed to lead a campaign against the Houthi movement (though the position of pro-Saleh militia has been strongly hampered by their leader’s death). The Saudis will hope that this will weaken the Houthi’s hold on Sanaa, perhaps allowing it to become militarily victorious in the longer run, but this does not seem a likely eventuality at this time; the stalemate is expected to continue.
The death of the former president is likely to inflame tensions in Yemen and across the Middle East; Yemen has become just one of the locations of the ongoing proxy war and regional battle of influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Dependent on the reactions of the Houthis, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, this conflict has the potential to escalate, further destabilising the region.
The recent developments have already led to protests on the streets of Sanaa; other protests in Houthi-held territory are highly likely. All protests should be avoided due to the potential for violence. The opportunities for peace in the short-term have diminished significantly. The death of Saleh is likely to embolden the Iran-backed Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition and further entrench their positions. The civil war remains the greatest threat to travel in Yemen.
Travellers are advised that extensive risks related to terrorism, armed conflict, and civil unrest remain. In many ways, Yemen maintains the image of a failed state. Basic medical supplies and food is sparse; foreign aid agencies have continually advised of an ongoing humanitarian crisis. The war has significantly damaged infrastructure maintenance, further hampering travel in the country. Al Qaeda retain significant presence in Yemen controlling swathes of land, particularly near Yemenâs Gulf of Aden shore and in central western areas. They had been able to gain a significant foothold due to the power vacuum in the country brought about by fighting between Houthi fighters and the Saudi-led coalition; the death of Saleh may allow Al Qaeda to increase their controlled territory.
Frequent travellers to the region are advised to follow media sources closely to understand developments in the ongoing conflict and battle for dominance between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Travel to Yemen should only be undertaken in business-critical circumstances; all non-essential travel should be avoided. Solace Global would strongly advise clients to only travel to Yemen with pre-arranged security in place. The minimum level of security in the country involves an armoured vehicle, close protection teams, and a secondary convoy vehicle in case of an attack or vehicle breakdown. It is also advisable that travellers use a safe house or compound with 24-hour security. Visitors to Yemen are recommended to receive Yemen-specific hostile environment travel safety training prior to arriving in country. Travellers are also advised to use travel-tracking technology with an intelligence feed as well as regularly scheduled check-ins with a 24-hour operations centre. This should enable a traveller to be aware of any security updates within their vicinity, and to update others of their movements in case of an emergency.
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