With the Houthis making gains in their offensive on Marib, and anti-Houthi alliance fragmenting, the United States is out of options on Yemen.
On March 16, hundreds of Yemeni protesters, including soldiers from the Yemeni army and fighters from militias allied with the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, stormed the government headquarters in Aden demanding unpaid salaries. Similar protests occurred on the Yemeni-Saudi border in April 2020, when soldiers demanded the payment of delayed salaries from Saudi Arabia, and November 2019, when unpaid military and police personnel organized a sit-in in Aden.
The salary problem further undermines the capacity and motivation of pro-Hadi government forces, while often favoring recruitment by local forces mostly tied to foreign players. This has two main implications for the armed conflict. First, the salary asymmetry among fighting groups fuels prolonged hostilities. Second, this reduces prospects for durable conflict resolution and a viable disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process, as economic ties with competitive foreign actors persist.
At the beginning of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, the coalition promised each recruit a minimum salary of about $270 per month. However, the Saudis were reportedly slow and inconsistent in issuing payments. Meanwhile, soldiers in areas held by the United Arab Emirates reported regular payments that were often higher than those received by soldiers working with the Saudis. On the other side of the conflict, fighters allied with the Houthi rebels in some instances reported receiving a regular payment of $200 to $300 each month, while some military officers in Sanaa said that the Houthis paid fighters a salary of 25,000 Yemeni rials (about $31) per month. The Houthis are generally able to pay salaries that are higher and more regular compared to the Hadi government, as they use port revenue, widespread smuggling networks, collected taxes, and, in some cases, funds diversion to finance their war effort, thus keeping cohesion among ranks.
Widespread delays and failures in the payment of soldiers have long been an issue in Yemen, in part due to persisting political and institutional fragmentation. For instance, Yemen’s central bank was relocated from Sanaa to Aden in 2016, but the Houthi-controlled central bank is still active in the capital and regional banks act largely autonomously. The steep decline in Yemen’s economy since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 has made matters worse. The Hadi government lacks revenue due to the fall of international oil prices, declining domestic energy resources, and limited oil exports from fields in Hadramout and Marib. The Hadi government also sends 20% of oil revenue back to local governments in Hadramout, Marib, and Shabwa. The global impact of the pandemic also provoked a decline in remittances. Additionally, the Yemeni rial lost 25% of its value in 2020, reaching a 70% loss compared to its pre-war value: This means that the government’s standard salaries, when paid, cannot keep up with the rise of inflation in daily life.
Inconsistent Funding for Yemen’s Army
During the 33-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the military was deeply politicized and acted as a powerful political tool of the regime. Having fractured and dramatically changed in the past decade, the army is now a symbol of the weakness of the Hadi government’s capacity and its meagre financial resources. Soldiers deployed and fighting in government-held areas are only intermittently paid by the Hadi government. According to the 2021 Final Report of the U.N. Panel of Experts on Yemen, military officials in Aden, Abyan, and Taiz said they “did not receive their salaries for five months in 2020,” and forces based in Hadramout said in October 2020 that “they had only received two months of salaries.” The Hadi government has stated it prioritizes payments to soldiers deployed on active battlelines, and that payrolls inflated with ghost soldiers are still a source of financial mismanagement.
In Yemen’s oil-rich southern governorates, governors have pressured the Hadi government when military salaries have not been paid, using their oil resources as leverage. For instance, in September 2019, the governor of Hadramout, Major General Faraj al-Bahsani, who is also the commander of the second military zone of the army, suspended oil exports from regional ports until military salaries were paid, threatening the same in September 2020. In Shabwa, the governor suspended the transfer of the Hadi government’s share of oil revenue in June 2019 because salaries had not been paid.
Implications for Accountability and Reintegration
The deep hybridization between formal and informal security forces in Yemen affects also their financing structure. These financial relationships are often intertangled, adding more complexity to accountability, chains of command, and reintegration prospects. For instance, the U.N. Panel of Experts in 2020 reported that the Salafi Abu al-Abbas Brigade (whose leader has been designated a terrorist by the United States and Saudi Arabia) in Taiz has received salaries from Hadi’s U.N.-recognized government, but has been equipped by the UAE. The salaries of the Salafi Amajid Brigade operating in Abyan governorate are funded by Saudi Arabia, in part, as well as the Hadi government. The United Arab Emirates has provided “some payments” to brigades within the West Coast forces, which “also receive salaries from the Government of Yemen,” according to the U.N. Panel of Experts.
Reintegration of fighters from various groups into the regular army is another major problem. In August 2019, after clashes between Hadi government and Southern Transitional Council forces, the government collected the names of fighters from the UAE-backed Shabwani Elite Forces to integrate them into the army. But it was unable to provide combatants with salaries higher than the Shabwani Elite Forces: Although formally disbanded, the fighters were slated to continue to receive 1,500 Saudi riyals per month (nearly $400), after the partial implementation of the Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement. The government also has not succeeded in integrating UAE-backed forces into its own ranks, in part because it is unable to compete with the salaries paid to these forces, though there is also a resistance from many of these forces to come under Hadi’s control.
The nonpayment of salaries by the Hadi government is boosting recruitment for the composite West Coast forces headed by Tareq Salih, nephew of the former president. His militia forces, especially the Republican Guards based in Mokha – where he established a political bureau, the National Resistance, in March – are financially supported by the UAE. Soldiers from the Yemeni army around Mokha (Taiz governorate) are joining Saleh’s forces since they have not been paid by the Hadi government.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Salary Payments
But differences regarding Yemen’s fighting groups exist also between foreign supporters: Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In the Saudi case, Riyadh adopts a case-by-case approach regarding Yemeni soldiers’ salaries. In many cases, it does not pay salaries directly to Yemeni soldiers, as payments are commonly made through the Hadi government, which has been funded by the kingdom. However, things are likely different with regard to the Yemeni-Saudi border, with Riyadh prioritizing direct national security threats.
Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has moved hundreds of Yemeni pro-government soldiers who previously fought in Yemen’s internal battlefields (such as Marib, Jawf, Bayda, and Nihm) to the Saudi-Yemeni border when salaries from Yemen’s military stopped. Soldiers deployed to the border receive higher salaries than those fighting internally in Yemen. Conversely, since the battle started in 2020 in Marib, many fighters there associated with the Islah party (which has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood) have not received a salary from the Saudis, who primarily consider them “allies of military convenience” against the Houthis, preferring to lean on Salafis and pro-Saudi tribal commanders. Pro-government tribal fighters also haven’t received sufficient monetary incentives.
Between 2015 and 2019, the UAE directly paid the Yemeni militias in the south that it helped to organize, train, and equip. These included the Security Belt Forces, Hadrami Elite Forces, and Shabwani Elite Forces. Payments from the UAE continued even though the Security Belt Forces were later formally incorporated into the Yemeni Ministry of Interior and the Hadrami Elite Forces and Shabwani Elite Forces were integrated into the army in 2016 (the latter fractured and were dismantled in 2020). The Emirati financial support for southern military forces has declined since the UAE’s military drawdown from Yemen in late 2019 but has continued for the Security Belt Forces and Hadrami Elite Forces; the UAE also still supports the Counter Terrorism Unit that reports directly to Yemen’s president.
An Incentive for Small Wars and Foreign Influence
Yemen’s military has a salary problem: This is likely to play a role in the future power balance in the country. Lacking and intermittent payments to soldiers risk incentivizing local small wars that could persist regardless of whether a national conflict resolution deal is achieved. Financial instability triggers shifting allegiances on the ground, and this can be easily exploited by external players still actively involved in Yemen. Yet, for all of Yemen’s economic issues, joining an armed group is still seen as the one avenue to viable employment in the country.
is an associate research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies and a teaching assistant at the Catholic University of Milan.
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