On April 7, Saudi Arabia engineered what was essentially a bloodless coup in Yemen, pushing President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi out and replacing him with an eight-man Presidential Leadership Council.
Hadi, who came to power in 2012 as part of a post-Arab Spring referendum, was originally supposed to be a place holder – a transitional president with a two-year term. But in 2014, with Yemen’s transition still in flux, his term was extended for a year without a vote. Seven months later, the Houthis were in Sanaa and Hadi was on his way into exile.
By the time Saudi Arabia pressured him to resign in April, Hadi was widely viewed as incompetent, out of touch, and corrupt. Almost no one, in Yemen or the international community, was sad see to him go. There was a sense of “good riddance,” even though there were questions about the legality of Hadi moving beyond the constitution to name his own successors.
In his place, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates established an eight-man Presidential Leadership Council that was designed to be both representative and compliant. Four of the members were from the South and four were from the North. Four were tied to Saudi Arabia and four were tied to the UAE.
In many ways, the Saudi decision to push Hadi out was a sign of just how poorly the war in Yemen has gone for the kingdom. When Saudi Arabia entered the war in 2015, it was a bifurcated conflict between Hadi’s government and the Houthis. Seven years on, the war has spawned a number of new armed groups – including the Southern Transitional Council, Tariq Saleh’s forces, and UAE-backed proxy groups – as battle lines have fractured and fragmented, making the conflict much more challenging to resolve.
The Presidential Leadership Council was supposed to reunite the various anti-Houthi groups – some of which had fought one another – into a broad alliance capable of either presenting a unified military front to combat the Houthis or negotiating with one voice.
Not surprisingly, that has not turned out to be the case. Presidential councils are notoriously unwieldy and the one in Yemen looks more like Frankenstein’s monster than most. None of the eight members or the groups they represent have given up their own narrow interests in favor of broader national goals. The STC still wants to secede and create an independent Southern state. The Islamist Islah Party still wants to call the shots in a unified Yemen, and Tariq Saleh still wants the control his uncle (former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was killed by the Houthis) once enjoyed.
Perhaps nowhere have the cracks in the council’s leadership been more apparent than in recent fighting in Shabwa between units affiliated with the STC and backed by the UAE and those linked to Islah, which the UAE considers to be part of the Muslim Brotherhood and therefore a terrorist group.
The clashes started in mid-July between the Special Security Forces, which are affiliated with and largely staffed by Islah, and the Shabwani Defense Forces and Giants Brigades, both of which are backed by the UAE and the former is directly tied to the STC.
On July 19, a few days after the clashes began, a Special Security Force commander, Brigadier General Abd Rabbo Laakab, escaped what he said was a UAE-sponsored assassination attempt. Worried that the clashes could quickly spiral out of control and distract from the countrywide truce between the government and the Houthis, Rashad al-Alimi, the head of the Presidential Leadership Council, instructed Shabwa’s governor, Awad bin al-Wazir al-Awlaki, to defuse the situation. (Awlaki, a relatively new governor, was appointed by Hadi in December 2021 to replace the former governor, Mohammed Saleh bin Adio, who was decidedly anti-UAE and claimed that the UAE had attempted to assassinate him on multiple occasions.)
On August 6, Awlaki removed Laakab from his position as commander of the Special Security Forces, sparking an outcry by Islah, which claimed that the governor was weakening Islah at the expense of the STC and the UAE. The next day, Yemen’s interior minister, Ibrahim Haydan, overruled the governor and reinstated Laakab, angering the UAE-backed units in Shabwa.
By this point, the fighting was inevitable, and both sides began shelling one another in hopes of doing militarily what they had been unable to do politically. The clashes in Shabwa’s capital of Ataq began August 7, lasted four days, and included reports of UAE-drone strikes on Islah and Yemeni government-affiliated units.
In the end, the Shabwa Defense Forces and the Giants Brigades managed to take control of Ataq, pushing the Islah-affiliated units out of the city, and raising the flag of the independent South. Islah’s one representative on the Presidential Leadership Council responded by resigning his position before being “persuaded to rescind his decision.” Islah later called for the removal of Shabwa’s governor.
Although there continue to be sporadic reports of clashes around Ataq, the fighting is largely over, at least for the moment. Islah has lost Shabwa.
More broadly, however, it is the Presidential Leadership Council that has lost. If the eight-man council is unable to speak with a single voice or present a common front against the Houthis, the war is all but over. The Houthis can sit back, enjoy the benefits of the current truce, and wait for the council to tear itself apart. Then, when the dust settles, the Houthis can move in and pick up the pieces, including Marib and perhaps even Shabwa, which would destroy any STC hopes of an independent Southern state.