After days of fighting in Yemen, the government and Houthi rebels reached a tentative deal on Wednesday, ending a standoff that caused Aden air and sea ports to close, and oil production to halt. As of Thursday morning, all ports have reopened. Oil production will likely start after the return of the president’s abducted Chief of Staff, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak.
On 17 January, the Houthi rebels abducted Mubarak as he was enroute to present a draft of the nation’s new constitution. The Houthis had vocally argued that the commission drafting the constitution must ensure greater representation for marginalised groups in Yemen, particularly the Houthis. They said they had become aware of “irregularities” in both the text and how the government was planning to make it law. The new constitution could divide Yemen into a six-region federation. The Houthis oppose such a move and support the country becoming two federal regions.
Upon Mubarak’s abduction, leaders from Southern Yemen gave the Houthis 24 hours to release Mubarak, threatening to cut off oil supplies. They refused, and as a form of protest against the Houthis, oil production in Shabwa, Yemen’s most strategic oil province and home to Mubarak, was halted. Shabwa’s governor, Ahmed Ali Bahaj, ordered all oil companies in the province to halt production before sunset, stopping three oil fields which produce about 50,000 barrels per day. The governor also ordered the closure of all government institutions in the province. In solidarity, Hadramout Tribal Federation sent a memo to the local oil production companies to stop operating in line with the escalating events in the country. Crude production from Yemen’s Masila oilfields in Hadramout province has also stopped. Yemen’s only gas terminal at Balhaf in Shabwa in the Gulf of Aden also halted operations after foreign experts were evacuated from the liquefied natural gas export facility late on Sunday. Total is the biggest investor in Yemen’s gas export industry through its 40% shareholding in Yemen LNG, where its partners are US-based Hunt Oil on 17%, state-run Yemen Gas Co on 17% and Korea Gas Corp (Kogas) on 6%.
Citing security concerns, the local security committee of the city of Aden ordered the airport, sea port and all land crossings closed.
During the clashes that followed Mubarak’s abduction, the Houthis also took control of Yemen’s state news and TV agencies. In a televised address on 20 January, Abdul Malik al-Houthi said that Hadi and those around him failed to implement political deals that could usher in a new era in Yemen. The Houthi leader said, “We … will not hesitate to impose any necessary measures to implement the peace and partnership agreement.” He added, “All the options are open and without exception and the ceiling is very, very high. And this is why, I here advise the president … Implement this deal. It is for your benefit and for the benefit of your people.”
The rebels also seized control of a military aviation college, and massive weapons depot belonging to the government brigade that provides presidential personal security. The depot contains 280 T-80 Russian-made tanks and other heavy artillery. Most of the security forces reportedly fled after a light clash with fighters.
Despite a tentative cease-fire that was put in place on 20 January, by the next day, the rebels stormed the presidential palace complex and shelled the private home of President Hadi. Early on 21 January, Houthi fighters replaced the guards at the president’s residence. “President Hadi is still in his home. There is no problem, he can leave,” said Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthi politburo. Hadi was contacted by US officials and assured them he is “fine.” A Yemeni official said the President does not consider himself a captive, adding that the Houthis were assisting Hadi’s security detail in their protection mission because part of the detail had run away because of the fighting.
The Houthis agreed to release Mubarak and withdraw their militias from key government institutions if officials agree to a re-write part of the country’s constitution. Under the terms of the agreement, the government will accept changes in the draft of the new. Several of the constitutional changes sought by the Houthis would emphasize the characteristics of Yemen as a federal state and push for more inclusion of diverse groups. The Houthis have called for marginalized political groups to have the right to fair representation and partnerships in state institutions. If agreed, the rebels will withdraw their fighters from the capital, where they have held control of the city since September, and would cooperate with the government so that the President and state institutions can return to their duties. A Houthi official said the rebels will abide by the deal if the President follows a timeline specified in the negotiations.
A member of the Houthi political council said, “This deal draws the road map for the political process going forward with the participation of all factions in Yemen. In the past, timelines were not respected, who hope this time will be different.”
While the actions of the Houthis had the appearance of a coup, they stopped short of removing President Hadi. Yemen’s current leader is an ally to the West and to key Sunni majority nations. A government source said: “They know that if they bring about the downfall of the president, they won’t be able to rule the country, because Western and neighbouring countries will gang on up on them, as well as other provinces that are not under their control.”
At the time of this posting, air and sea ports have restored operations in Aden, butthere is no indication that oil has been restarted; it is unclear whether Mubarak has been returned to Sana’a.
The Houthis: Background Information
While the majority of Yemen is Sunni, the Houthis stem from a branch of Shia Islam known as Zaidism (Zaydism). Zaidis comprise approximately a third of Yemen’s population, and ruled north Yemen for nearly a millennia until 1962, when a coup d’état carried out by Abdullah as-Sallal, successfully dethroned Imam Muhammad al-Badr, who was the newly crowned king of Yemen. Sallal and declared Yemen a republic and became its first president.
North and South Yemen unified in 1990 under its first president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Fearing a threat to their religious and cultural traditions, a portion of the Zaidis formed a rebel group known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of God). The group were led by Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a former member of the Yemeni parliament for the Al-Haqq Islamic party between 1993 and 1997. The rebels sought to win greater autonomy for the Saada province. Houthi led the first uprising in June of 2004, but was found and killed by Yemeni security forces in September of that year. After Hussein’s passing, his family took up the mantle, and the Houthis took on the name of their leader. The Houthis conducted five further rebellions until a ceasefire agreement was signed with the Yemeni government in 2010. During the 2011 Arab Spring, the Houthis joined the protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. When Saleh stepped down in 2012, the Houthis quickly used the power vacuum to expand control over the Saadi province, and neighbouring Amran province.
According to the Houthis, the people of Yemen are dissatisfied with their transitional government, led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. They believe that it is dominated by members of the old regime and unlikely to result in positive changes for the poor nation. In August 2014, Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi demanded that President Hadi reverse a decision to remove subsidies that had hit the country’s poor and that he replace the “corrupt” government with one that better represented Yemen’s various factions. A growing number Houthi supporters, including both Shia and Sunnis, protested for weeks, holding sit-ins at government buildings and blocking main roads. On 2 September, Hadi agreed to dismiss his government and cut fuel prices by 30 percent. The Houthis found it insufficient.
A week later, security forces opened fire on Houthi supporters in Sanaa, killing several people. Clashes escalated in Sana’a and by mid-September, battles left more than 300 dead within a month. The rebels occupied government buildings and seized the headquarters of a military division loyal to Brig Gen Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a Sunni Islamist who led the fight against the Houthis between 2004 and 2010. Amidst a rising death toll, a peace deal was reached with the Houthis on 20 September. The Houthis would withdraw from the capital if fuel subsidies were restored, a technocratic government was put in place, including an appointment of presidential advisers representing the Houthis and the secessionist Hiraak al-Janoubi (Southern Movement); and the implementation of policies agreed at the National Dialogue Conferences in February. The Houthis, however, refused an agreement to withdraw from Sana’a and northern cities and surrender their weapons to authorities within 45 days. As a result, the Houthis still control large parts of the capital, demanding oversight of ministries and calling for an end to what they call a corrupt political system. The Houthis have also expanded into central and western parts of Yemen, triggering clashes with extremist militant group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Critics say the Houthis are a proxy for Shia dominated Iran, which the rebels and Iran deny. Former president Saleh has been accused by the US of backing the Houthis’ takeover of Sanaa “to not only delegitimize the central government, but also create enough instability to stage a coup”. In November, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on him and two senior Houthi leaders. The UN said the leaders were threatening Yemen’s peace and stability and obstructing the political process.