Yemen’s Emerging Political Coalitions: A First Step Toward De-escalation?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 6


Politics in Yemen are best described as kaleidoscopic. Loyalties, alliances, and linkages within and between factions and parties shift with every rotation of the cell. Most of Yemen’s ever-increasing number of factions and armed groups defy easy categorization. As with all political and armed groups, cost-benefit calculations are ongoing.

Yemen’s interlocking wars have, in many respects, fundamentally altered the country’s political landscape. Yet some aspects of politics in Yemen are consistent. Yemen’s tribes, the north-south division, and networks of patronage remain drivers of both instability and stability—often at the same time. These wars have also spawned new and emergent elites while sidelining many members of the ancien regime. Yet, just as there is a constancy with drivers of instability and stability, many of those elites who have long been a part of Yemen’s political scene remain active and potentially important for de-escalation efforts.

In what may be a hopeful sign, some indications show that Yemen’s established and emergent elites are more willing than they have been for years to set aside old grievances. Old enemies are talking with renewed seriousness about coming together to help stabilize the country—or at least parts of it. The driving force behind these moves to reinvigorate political processes is the recognition that the Houthis (a.k.a. Ansar Allah) are not going to be defeated militarily. Thus, the Houthis’ influence and grip on northwest Yemen must be dealt with politically, if it is to be dealt with at all.

The Return of Yemeni Politics

Since 2015, many of Yemen’s political elites have viewed kinetic military action as more expedient than politics. In light of the Houthi takeover of northwest Yemen, many had little choice but to fight. At the same time, outside powers, like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, have armed and funded proxies in their battle against the Houthis and other groups that they deem to be a threat. The flow of funds and weapons from foreign powers have helped sustain a war economy and fed the growth of armed factions in Yemen.

In June 2019, the UAE began withdrawing most of its forces from Yemen (al-Araby, February 11, 2020). Tensions with Saudi Arabia, international fallout from the UAE’s involvement in Yemen, and changing regional dynamics all contributed to the UAE decision. While the UAE remains involved in Yemen as a key supporter of the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), the country’s leadership has adopted a lower profile role in the war and reduced the amount of money and materiel that it provides.

Saudi Arabia is keener than ever to extricate itself from its costly involvement in Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen has cost the Kingdom several hundred billion dollars (at one point the Saudis were spending five billion dollars per month on their war in Yemen). [1] The war, along with the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, has also done serious damage to international perceptions of Saudi Arabia.

Most critically, the Kingdom’s intervention has achieved none of its aims. The Houthis are now, more than ever, the preeminent military power in Yemen and their once limited relationship with Iran has deepened. At the same time, the Houthis, who absorbed many of the Yemeni Army’s most capable officers and engineers, have further developed their ability to build and launch a range of missiles, rockets, and drones. Iran, which initially invested little in the Houthis, has increased its support over the last two years in particular. This support includes technical help, the provision of specific components for missiles, rockets, and drones, and money (Arab News, June 30, 2020). The return on Iran’s investment in the Houthis has been exponential. At most, the Iranians invested two hundred million dollars in the Houthis over the last six years. [2] In exchange, Iran’s chief regional foe, Saudi Arabia, allowed itself to be drawn into a financially draining war it cannot win.

The Kingdom’s slow realization that it must end its direct involvement in the war along with unfavorable shifts in U.S. foreign policy, are driving it to taper support to its proxies in Yemen. While the Houthis’ most recent offensive on the city of Marib, which is the de-facto capital of Yemen’s internationally recognized government (IRG), has slowed this diminishment of support, the trend remains (Terrorism Monitor, February 26).

Yemen’s elites, including those emergent and established, sense that the country is moving toward a new transitional phase where politics rather than war-making predominate. This is not to say that armed conflict will cease. At least at a low-level, conflict will persist for years to come. However, the possibility of amassing political and material gains through the reliance on armed conflict alone will be more limited.

Instead, those elites who form durable coalitions, compromise, and deliver security, stability, and economic opportunity will be the chief beneficiaries during this transitional phase. A re-emergence of politics, coalition building, and Yemeni-style deal making are the only viable way of whittling away the Houthis’ influence and control of northwest Yemen. A re-emergence of some kind of incipient nationalism—one seated within federalism—will also contribute to undermining Iranian influence.

The Rise of Regional Political Coalitions

The formation of the Southern National Salvation Council (SNSC) was announced in September 2019 in Yemen’s easternmost governorate, al-Mahrah (Middle East Monitor, September 4, 2019). The SNSC brings together tribal and political elites from a number of southern governorates, with a predominance of Mahri elites. The SNSC members have coalesced around the belief that Yemen must be free from foreign intervention, specifically intervention by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Saudi Arabia is particularly active in al-Mahrah where it has stationed soldiers and set up a military base. The Saudis argue that they are in al-Mahrah to combat cross-border smuggling via Yemen’s border with Oman.

In reality, Saudi Arabia’s interest in al-Mahrah goes well beyond countering smuggling (Terrorism Monitor, November 5, 2020). [3] Mahris have demonstrated against the continued Saudi presence in their governorate and against Saudi efforts to encourage Salafists to settle in the area. Beyond demanding the restoration of Yemen’s sovereignty, the SNSC, which has the backing of members of Yemen’s internationally recognized government, supports the resumption of a national dialogue. The SNSC is calling for a unified Yemen that safeguards regional and southern rights and identities under a revised federal system (al-Masdar, April 27, 2019).

On the west coast of Yemen, the National Resistance, an armed umbrella group, announced the launch of a political wing (Yemen Press Network, March 24; Yemen Details, March 25). [4] Brigadier General Tariq Saleh, who is the nephew of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, is the driving force behind this new political wing. Tariq Saleh’s forces, known as the Guardians of the Republic, are backed by the UAE and are vehemently anti-Houthi. What is most notable about the announcement from the National Resistance is that it intends to pursue political solutions in conjunction with its military actions.

Launching a National Salvation Front

Moves are also underway to launch a new national level political movement called the National Salvation Front. The groundwork for the front has been laid over the course of the last year by a diverse mix of political actors from the General People’s Congress (GPC), Yemen’s former ruling party, Islah (“Yemeni Congregation for Reform” and also Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood), Hirak (The Southern Movement). More groups are also expected to join. [5]

The chief organizers of the National Salvation Front are Hamid al-Ahmar, Ahmed Saleh al-Essi, and Ahmed al-Maisari. Hamid al-Ahmar, who resides in Istanbul, is the brother of Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, the head of the al-Ahmar family and leader of the Hashid tribal confederation. Following the Houthi takeover of Sana’a in September 2014, the al-Ahmar family lost much of its influence within the confederation. Hamid al-Ahmar, who also oversees a multi-billion-dollar business empire, was forced to flee Yemen in 2014. In addition to being a businessman, Hamid al-Ahmar was a member of parliament and played significant roles in Yemen’s opposition parties: Islah and the Joint Meeting Party (JMP), a coalition of opposition parties.

Ahmed Saleh al-Essi is a longtime senior adviser to IRG President Abd Raboo Mansur Hadi and deputy head of the Presidential Office. Al-Essi is also chairman of the Alessi Group, a conglomerate that includes companies focused on shipping and logistics. In May 2018, al-Essi, who is from Abyan, helped launch the Southern National Coalition (SNC). The SNC was formed as an alternative and counterbalance to the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which is dedicated to the re-creation of an independent south Yemen. In contrast to the STC, the SNC, much like the proposed National Salvation Front, draws on a broad political base that includes members of a nascent southern GPC, Islah, Hirak, and Nasserists, all of whom support a unified Yemen.

Ahmed al-Maisari is the IRG’s Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister. Al-Maisari, who is from Abyan, has been a prominent critic of the UAE’s involvement in Yemen. In 2018, al-Maisari demanded that the UAE turnover control of Beir Ahmed prison in Aden after an Associate Press report claimed that detainees were being tortured. Al-Maisari, who survived an assassination attempt in October 2019, has acted as a key intermediary between the IRG and the STC during negotiations leading up to the 2019 Riyadh Agreement (Middle East Monitor, October 28, 2019).

While the three chief architects of the National Salvation Front are politically prominent, the front itself will be composed of a wide-range of emergent elites drawn from across Yemen, especially southern Yemen. They are also from historically under-represented governorates like al-Mahrah. The front will further include a number of elites who were once enemies. [6]

The front has yet to publicly release its political platform, but it will be dedicated to the restoration of a unified and sovereign Yemen. [7] The front’s primary backers have all been vocal in their criticism of Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s ongoing involvement in Yemen. Antipathy toward foreign interference in Yemen—be it from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other countries—is growing and crosses all political lines. The other core tenet of the front will be the restoration of state institutions within a federal framework.

Federalism will be a critical component of national level dialogues in Yemen. A return to the kind of centralized control that late President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his government exercised from Sana’a is not going to happen. Six years of war have permanently altered Yemen’s governorates and their relationship with former centers of power.

Outlook: Fighting the Houthis Through Politics and Peace

Recognition that military action will not defeat the Houthis is driving the formation of Yemen’s new political coalitions. If the Houthis cannot be defeated, they have to have a role, and likely a prominent one, in national dialogues or any future national government. While the soon to be announced National Salvation Front and other groups will be—and are—anti-Houthi, they will have to adopt a long-term political approach to dealing with the Houthis if they want to counter the Houthis’ influence.

The leadership of the Houthis is not without internal divisions. Dissatisfaction with Houthi rule and abuses in many parts of northwest Yemen increases every month. [8] If the fighting stops, the Houthis no longer have an excuse for serious shortcomings like non-functioning state institutions and little or no economic opportunities for Yemenis. They will have to show that they cannot only fight but are also able to govern and provide for Yemenis living under their control. If the Houthis fail to do this, their authority will erode, albeit gradually. To begin rebuilding, the Houthis have to cooperate with national level political parties and regional and international powers. In turn, this cooperation will slowly loosen the Houthis’ grip on power in northwest Yemen.

Yemen’s transition from a nation at war with itself to one that is relatively stable will be protracted. The process will take years to work out and will be subject to periodic returns to fighting. However, if Yemen’s internal political processes—both informal and formal—can begin functioning again, the country could emerge from its current crisis intact. The alternative is a divided Yemen that will never be stable or sovereign.


[1] See: “Saudi Arabia eyes the exit in Yemen, but Saudi-Houthi talks alone won’t resolve the conflict,” Middle East Institute, April 15, 2020.

[2] Interview with Yemen based analyst, March 2021; see: “Could the Houthis be the Next Hizballah? Iranian Proxy Development in Yemen and the Future of the Houthi Movement,” Rand, 2020.

[3] Saudi Arabia views al-Mahra as a possible outlet to the Gulf of Aden that would allow it to bypass the Strait of Hormuz. Speculation about a possible pipeline from the Saudi border to the Gulf of Aden via either al-Mahra or the neighboring governorate of Hadramawt has existed for years.

[4] The armed wing of the National Resistance includes the Giant Brigades, the Guardians of the Republic, and the Tihama Resistance Forces.

[5] Author interview with a former Yemeni official, March 2021.

[6] Interview with a senior member of the GPC, March 2021.

[7] Author interview with a former Yemeni official, March 2021.

[8] Tribal discontent in the areas that the Houthis control is simmering. To consolidate their control over many of northwestern Yemen’s tribes, clans, and families, the Houthis removed established sheikhs and elders who would not support them. The Houthis replaced many of these sheikhs with others who would be loyal to them. The forced alteration of power structures is a major grievance that will, at some point, come to the fore.