Thursday, 7th March 2019

Progress in Hodeidah but warnings of trouble elsewhere in Yemen

In United Nations-backed talks in Hodeidah in mid-February, a detailed programme of action was agreed to implement a Houthi withdrawal from the port city – the first of the three areas of agreement at the Stockholm peace conference in December (GSN 1,072/8). The plan should allow a resumption of humanitarian operations at the port under UN supervision – a critical step if the famine sweeping Yemen is to be tackled – but progress remains painfully slow and Hodeidah remains just one part of a complex arena.

The fact that a Yemeni government delegation was willing and able to cross the frontline into Houthi-controlled territory to attend the two-day conference, chaired by the head of the UN Mission in support of the Hodeidah Agreement Lieutenant General Michael Anker Lollesgaard, was itself a positive sign and perhaps a marker that distrust between the parties may have bottomed out. Nonetheless, minor ceasefire violations continue in and around Hodeidah and major clashes have been taking place further down the coast at Al-Tuhaiyta, where the Houthis have been shelling areas over which they recently lost control. In Hajjah province, to the northeast of Hodeidah, fighting is also going on between Houthis and tribesmen who rebelled against them – the Saudi Arabia-led coalition has been supporting the tribal rebels in the hope it will disrupt Houthi communications between Hodeidah and Sanaa.

Although billed as redeployment by both sides, the bulk of actions stemming from the Hodeidah agreement fall to the Houthis to implement. They agreed to first pull out of two small ports to the north of the city and then from the main Hodeidah port, clearing minefields they had laid which hinder access to the port. Houthi forces will then be deployed to the north and government forces to the south, leaving a swathe of territory in between controlled by the UN, including the Red Sea Mills grain silos. The UN gained access to the silos in late February – the first time since September it has been able to reach the site, where the World Food Programme stores around 25% of its food aid to Yemen. However, the Houthis are behind schedule in implementing their pull-back, and are likely to face technical challenges when clearing the minefields. Standard military practice is to record exactly where mines are laid but the Houthis may have defied conventional wisdom and the UN may be called on to help.

UN Special Representative Martin Griffiths, speaking on Al Arabiya TV with his favourite interlocutor Tala Al-Haj, is clearly pleased that progress, however limited, is being made, but he acknowledged there is a long road ahead if the remaining Stockholm targets of exchanging prisoners and creating humanitarian access to Taiz are to move ahead. Progress with the situation in Taiz could open the way to further peace talks to expand on the Stockholm deal.

Beyond Yemen itself, the UK has offered the most prominent response to Griffith’s plea for an intensification of political support for the process. While the United States has been preoccupied by North Korean diplomacy, Chinese trade talks and its own domestic concerns, British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt went on a tour of the region, meeting Oman’s Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al-Said, as well as Houthi and Yemeni government leaders and senior figures in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. At his meeting with Houthi spokesman Mohamed Abdul Salem in Muscat, Hunt urged the group to speed up the withdrawal from Hodeidah, warning such action was vital to the whole peace process. Even so, the Yemen government took exception to Hunt’s remarks that a lack of trust in the process had caused the Houthis to delay their withdrawal, saying it was “surprised” by his remarks.

Meanwhile, there have also been warning signs that success at Hodeidah might lead to renewed tension in the south of the country. The breakaway Southern Transitional Council (STC) recently made its presence felt by holding a third meeting of its National Assembly on 16-17 February in the port city of Mukalla. Analysts at the International Crisis Group have warned that peace in Hodeidah will lead to fighters returning to their homes in the south, which is likely to stoke tensions between separatists and those allied to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Aid pledges

International donors offered a further round of aid to support Yemen at a pledging conference in Geneva on 26 February, organised by the UN. A total of $2.6bn was promised, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE with $750m each, followed by the UK ($266m), Kuwait ($250m) and the European Union ($185m). In a sign of its relative disengagement, the US was not even in the top ten donors, having promised $23.9m. A total of 38 donors made pledges. While the total was large, it fell short of the $4.2bn the UN had been hoping to raise.

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