Early April 7, Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi made two surprising moves from Riyadh. First, he unceremoniously fired his vice president, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. Second, he announced that he was transferring the power of the presidency to an eight-man presidential council, effectively removing himself from office.
Although it is unclear whether Hadi actually had the constitutional authority to transfer the presidency – Yemen’s Constitution calls for the president to be “elected” – few in the international community are likely to mourn his departure. In February 2012, Hadi was selected in a referendum, in which “no” votes were discounted, to replace long-serving Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who resigned in the wake of protests during the Arab Spring.
Hadi, who was supposed to serve a 2-year transitional term, was never particularly popular. In early 2015, Hadi’s term was extended by a year, but before that year was out, the Houthis had taken control of Sanaa and placed Hadi under house arrest. Within days, Hadi had resigned the presidency and then managed to escape Houthi custody in Sanaa. He subsequently revoked his resignation, called on Yemen’s neighbors to intervene militarily to push the Houthis out of Sanaa, and fled into exile in Saudi Arabia.
Over the past seven years, Hadi has widely been seen as both an ineffective executive and a barrier to peace. He sabotaged peace talks in Kuwait in 2016 before they could even start by naming Ali Mohsen his vice president. Ali Mohsen, who was unpopular in the West due to his ties to jihadis and a nonstarter with the Houthis for his conduct against the group during the Saada wars from 2004-10, was a hedge against Hadi being removed from power. Also in 2016, Hadi split Yemen’s central bank, cutting off the Houthi-controlled branch in Sanaa and establishing a new one in Aden. The move effectively divided Yemen’s economy in two and is one reason that the Yemeni rial trades at widely disparate rates in Sanaa and Aden.
Why exactly Hadi chose this moment to step down and transfer power is unclear, although it likely involved significant Saudi pressure and incentives. Hadi’s announcement came in the midst of a Gulf Cooperation Council-sponsored Yemen conference, which was held in Riyadh, and less than a week into an announced countrywide 2-month cease-fire in Yemen.
The question now is: How effective can the new presidential council be?
Yemen does not have a great history with presidential councils, which are often desperate attempts to paper over deep differences. They tend to be unwieldy creations at best, and this one looks more like Frankenstein’s monster than most.
In 1990, in the immediate aftermath of unification, Yemen formed a five-man presidential council. But that quickly devolved into clandestine warfare and eventually, four years later, a civil war. The Houthis and Saleh tried something similar in 2016, forming the Supreme Political Council, only to have that break down a year later, and the Houthis killed Saleh.
This latest attempt is clearly an effort to reconstitute something resembling unity within the anti-Houthi alliance, which has collapsed into infighting in recent years. The problem is that it is unclear if these various individuals, many of whom have diametrically opposing views, can work together.
The head of the council is Rashad al-Alimi, a former interior minister under Saleh who maintains close relations with Saudi Arabia. The other seven members are a mishmash of competing power centers within the anti-Houthi coalition. For example, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, the president of the Southern Transitional Council, which advocates for an independent Southern state, is a member of the council, as is Abdullah al-Alimi (no relation to Rashad al-Alimi), the director of Hadi’s presidential office and a member of the Islamist Islah Party. Islah and the STC have clashed numerous times in recent years. Making things even more complicated, the United Arab Emirates, which backs Zubaidi’s STC, views Islah as a terrorist group due to its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The UAE backs three other individuals on the council, although none of them exactly see eye-to-eye on Yemen’s future. First is Tariq Saleh, the nephew of the former president. Tariq was once aligned with the Houthis but is now fighting against them. The problem for Saleh is that he is a Northerner, who is now based in the South, where he is deeply unpopular for actions that he and his uncle took over the past two decades. Second is Faraj al-Bahsani, the governor of Hadramout and head of the Hadrami Elite Forces. Bahsani has distanced himself from the STC over the past two years, as the group has stoked popular protests in Hadramout over collapsing infrastructure, rolling blackouts, and a collapsing currency. Third is Abd al-Rahman Abu Zaraa, a commander in the Giants Brigades, who was instrumental in pushing the Houthis out of Shabwa earlier this year.
The other two members of the council are: Sultan al-Arada, the governor of Marib and a tribal figure who has worked closely with Islah in recent years, and Othman Mujali, a tribal sheikh from Saada who is close to Saudi Arabia and was likely included on the council to balance out the geographical representation.
In theory, the council is supposed to bring all the various military units and armed groups under one giant umbrella to either negotiate with the Houthis or, if that fails, present a unified military front. In practice, however, it is unlikely that these actors, some of whom have been fighting one another, will be able to set aside their different visions for Yemen’s future and unite against a common foe. How far, for instance, will military units affiliated with the STC push into the North to combat the Houthis, when the group has previously said it is only interested in an independent Southern state?
Many of these actors view the conflict in Yemen as a zero-sum game, in which their loss is someone else’s gain. Overcoming this challenge to cooperate will be incredibly difficult, as in recent years Yemen’s economic pie has shrunk while the number of armed groups has increased.
The fact that it required eight different individuals, representing eight different groups, to form a presidential council is a sign of just how deeply divided the anti-Houthi coalition is at the moment. Even with eight representatives on the council, there were still a number of groups that were left out in the cold, including all Southern groups outside of the STC. This council was made in Saudi Arabia and backed by the UAE, which means it may struggle to find legitimacy on the ground. Many Yemenis will welcome Hadi’s departure even as they worry about what is to come.