How a political shakeup in Yemen risks prolonging its war

Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is accompanied by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan before signing an agreement in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in November 2019.

Abu Dhabi, UAE (CNN)Yemen's exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi ceded power to a presidential council on Thursday in a shock move supported by Hadi's main backer Saudi Arabia.

Both the president, who had been in power for a decade, and his vice president, who was also removed, were fiercely opposed by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels that the Saudi-led coalition is fighting in Yemen.
The move came just days after the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi movement agreed to a two-month truce brokered by the United Nations, the first of its kind since 2016. Observers saw this as newfound momentum to end the seven-year war.
    Why then did the Houthis reject the new presidential council? Analysts say the council signals an attempt to unify the ranks of disparate anti-Houthi groups in anticipation of a period of increased confrontation.
      Soon after Hadi's announcement, Saudi Arabia's state-run press agency SPA published a video of de factor ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman embracing the new Yemeni council and its head, Rashad al-Alimi, in the capital Riyadh. The move took place on Saudi soil with Saudi blessing.
        Then, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pledged $3 billion to Yemen, SPA reported on Thursday. The kingdom also announced it is giving $300 million to the UN humanitarian relief fund to Yemen and called for an aid-donor conference to support the war-torn country.
        Houthi chief negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam criticized the move as a farce and a "desperate attempt to restructure the ranks of mercenaries to push them towards further escalation."
          "This is a council that was basically made in Saudi Arabia," said Gregory Johnsen, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former member of United Nations' Panel of Experts on Yemen.
          The eight-member council is mixed bag of personalities with starkly opposing views on Yemen, with many having "clashed or fought with one another in recent years," Johnsen told CNN. One common ground unites them, however: a distaste for the Houthis.
          Peter Salisbury, senior Yemen analyst at International Crisis Group, called the council's formation the "most consequential shift in the inner workings of the anti-Houthi bloc since war began."
          "How this will actually work in practice will be ... complicated to say the least," he tweeted.
          Yemen has been torn by conflict for the past seven years, reducing it to what the UN called the world's worst humanitarian crisis. More than 80% of its population is in need of aid, and hunger is now exacerbated by food supply disruptions following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
          "They [Saudi Arabia] recognized that they need to make a very big move to really unify the anti-Houthi coalition," said Cinzia Bianco, a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "So, this is certainly a gesture toward the Houthis, to show that the anti-Houthi front which has long been very, very divided and fragmented is sort of seeking a new, second life."
          The ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council met on Thursday and expressed their support for the presidential council, as well as starting negotiations with Iran-aligned Houthis under UN supervision "to reach a final and comprehensive political solution."
          Johnsen was skeptical of Saudi Arabia's ability to unify the council members however. Many hold diametrically opposed views on Yemen, he said.
          "The Saudis are basically trying to get everybody back on the same page," Johnsen added. "But I think that genie is out of the bottle and I don't think Saudi Arabia is going to be able to really impose any sort of unified action or unity of purpose on these groups."
          While there has lately been talk of a renewed appetite to end the conflict, Bianco believes this move bodes the opposite.
          The Yemeni shakeup occurred as renewed nuclear talks between Iran and the West reach an advanced stage. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors have harbored anxieties about a potential deal, anticipating that a return to the 2015 nuclear agreement will embolden Iran to expand activities in the Middle East.
          "We have to acknowledge that Saudi Arabia expects an escalation in Yemen after the nuclear deal is signed," said Bianco. "Saudi Arabia is trying to do anything they can ... to be more ready to confront an escalation on several regional fronts led by an emboldened Iran."
          Johnsen said it's hard to say if the shakeup was "a step forward or a step backward" in the quest for peace in Yemen. "It's hard to imagine Yemen being put back together again as one single state," he said.

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