Yemen: New presidential council aims to show it represents change

When Yemen’s new presidential council, led by Rashad al-Alimi, left for Saudi Arabia on April 27, only a week after being sworn in, it was perhaps not surprising that questions were asked over whether the country’s leadership intended to stay in the country they were supposed to be governing.

The man they had replaced, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, had practically abandoned Yemen since Iran-allied Houthis forced him out of the country in March 2015, and along with many of his officials, based himself in Riyadh, earning the derogatory label “the hotel government”.

But al-Alimi and his deputies soon returned, and he even addressed the nation on television, another rare event under Hadi.

The new presidential council is clearly trying to show it is different from Hadi’s, and a truce announced a month ago, which has largely held despite some fighting, has allowed the council to present itself as a unifier of Yemen’s anti-Houthi factions, working towards a diplomatic solution.

Following more than seven years of warfare that have shattered the Yemeni state and left millions suffering from one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, some believe there are grounds for being cautiously optimistic about the war winding down.

The presidential council consists of members from northern and southern Yemen, an important balance considering the country’s regional divisions, and support for secession, even from within the council itself.

Some of its members are close to Saudi Arabia while others are backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which helps explain why the new body has received support from both Gulf powerhouses.

Given the clashes between various groups which dogged the council in the recent past, a more inclusive composition of the body could be highly significant.

Al-Alimi is a former government official from the era of ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and is currently close to Riyadh.

He is joined by seven other council members, including Aidarous al-Zubaidi, the head of the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC); Abdullah al-Alimi, a member of the Islah Party who served as the director of Hadi’s presidential office; Tariq Saleh, the nephew of Yemen’s former strongman leader who controls forces on Yemen’s Red Sea coast; Faraj al-Bahsani, the governor of Hadramout who heads the Hadrami Elite Forces; Abd al-Rahman Abu Zaraa, a Giants Brigade commander; Sultan al-Aradah, the governor of Marib; and Othman Mujali, a tribal leader from Saada governorate who maintains ties to Riyadh.

Experts say that if Hadi had continued in power, it would have made it difficult to unify anti-Houthi forces in the country.

Elisabeth Kendall, a leading Yemen expert and senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic studies at Pembroke College at the University of Oxford, believes that the presidential council has more potential to succeed than past attempts, precisely because it has sidelined Hadi and removed some of those around him.

“Under Hadi, anti-Houthi did not mean pro-government. The Hadi government has been weak, incompetent and lacking in legitimacy,” said Kendall. “Although Hadi did win the 2012 election, he was the sole candidate, his term ran out in 2014, and as former President Saleh’s deputy, he did not represent the fresh start that Yemenis had hoped for post-Arab Spring.”

Other experts have made similar assessments.

“The new presidential council presents a long-overdue opportunity to reorganise the anti-Houthi camp, given the fact that all members of the council wield strong influence on the ground in contrast with the fragile authority of former President Hadi,” Abobakr Alfaqeeh, a freelance Yemeni journalist, told Al Jazeera.

“If the new council succeeds in uniting the anti-Houthi camp, it may succeed in achieving new gains on the ground, or at least this may help convince the Houthis that they cannot control all the country or northern Yemen. This might force the group to accept the realities and negotiate over the future of Yemen,” added Alfaqeeh.

Concerns about the council

But the presidential council faces major challenges that worry analysts.

By design, the council includes members from varying geographic, political, and tribal backgrounds.

While this is meant to unify the anti-Houthi camp, it also means that the council’s members have competing visions for Yemen that could make it difficult for them to remain united against the Houthis.

“Because these factions also have diverging interests, the council may not be enough glue to keep them together,” explained Alexandra Stark, a senior researcher at the New America think-tank.

Given that the STC is committed to southern independence, experts have questioned how much blood and sacrifice the Abu Dhabi-backed forces are willing to devote to “liberating” northern land from the Houthis.

Additionally, given the STC’s accusations that Islah was a “terrorist” organisation that sought to subjugate the south, problems between the groups represented by the various members of the council might not be easy to move past, raising doubts about the prospects for the body to successfully form an effective anti-Houthi front.

Regardless of these open questions, observers believe that ending Hadi’s presidency was necessary for moving Yemen forward in a positive direction, and that his leadership was a barrier to peace.

Observers are watching keenly to see how the Houthis choose to engage.

The group quickly rejected the new council because of the role that Hadi – whom the rebels saw as illegitimate – played in bringing the body into power.

However, the Houthis have, for the most part, honoured the truce which includes the council. But the situation in the oil-rich province of Marib, where the Houthis have reportedly broken the truce in certain instances, remains a concern.

“The Marib front is the main front that the Houthis want to make progress in,” said Alfaqeeh. “It is true that the Houthis have failed for two years to make any strategic progress in controlling this key government stronghold, but they believe that this was due to the air advantage that was in favour of the defenders of the city.”

“Now, the Houthis are likely trying to take advantage of the absence of Saudi air strikes to remobilise their military efforts and reposition well before launching a major offensive to take over the city which, if it happens, would deliver the biggest blow to their opponents.”

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