On June 8, Yemen’s (self-)exiled president, ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, conveyed his ideas about UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, due to start on June 15, and downplayed their scope. The conversations are to take place mainly between politicians handpicked by him and his Saudi hosts, on the one hand, and Ansar Allah (or the Houthi movement) and members of the formerly ruling General Party Congress (GPC) who do not support Hadi, on the other. These two sides roughly correspond to the alliances that have been fighting in Yemen since March.
On al-Arabiyya television, however, Hadi explained, “These are not talks. It is only a discussion about how to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2216 on the ground.” UNSC 2216, passed in mid-April, endorsed Hadi as the “legitimate” elected leader of Yemen and invoked past resolutions backing the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative and the National Dialogue Conference it prescribed for ending Yemen’s internal conflicts. The April resolution also imposed an arms embargo on the Houthis and their allies.
Hadi was adamant in his television appearance that the Geneva parleys are not aimed at reconciliation between the warring parties. In his keynote address at a conference sponsored by the German government in Berlin on June 11, former prime minister ‘Abd al-Karim al-‘Iryani said, “We cannot [afford to] fail in Geneva.” Al-‘Iryani thus stressed the urgency of an agreement requiring the good faith and sincerity of the negotiators. Hadi and his sponsors, however, seem intent on defining the terms of Ansar Allah’s surrender rather than achieving a political settlement that leads to equal representation of all the country’s factions in a future government.
Yemen’s ambassador to the United Nations, Khalid al-Yamani, announced that the government-in-exile is sending seven representatives to Geneva, with two each for the anti-Hadi portion of the GPC and the Houthis, and three for the remaining parties, such as the Yemeni Socialist Party.
Hadi’s choice of delegates offers clues as to the Saudi agenda in Yemen. At last supporting “revolutionary” change, the Saudis seem to favor two new political parties that are to be prominently represented at the meeting. Perhaps the most revealing representative is ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Humayqani, secretary-general of the salafi al-Rashad Union, founded in 2012 in the wake of the previous year’s nationwide uprising against former President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih. He is one of just two party leaders slated to participate in the talks. Neither man has played an important role in previous governments. The selection of al-Humayqani may indicate the Saudis’ hope that Rashad can be propped up like the Egyptian al-Nour party to compete with the Muslim Brothers (now almost eliminated in Egypt and marginal in Yemen). Doubtless the founders of Rashad were inspired by al-Nour’s stunning success in the Egyptian legislative elections in 2011-2012, in which the salafi group garnered 25 percent of the vote. Al-Humayqani aspires to be a “clear Islamic voice.” At the National Dialogue Conference, Rashad was represented by five members who stressed the party’s commitment to peaceful negotiation.
In Yemen, the Muslim Brothers are the main component of the Islah coalition. Islah fell out with the late King ‘Abdallah of Saudi Arabia, who would not tolerate the party’s criticism of the Saudis for backing the ouster of President Muhammad Mursi in Egypt. Khalid al-Anisi, an Islah leader, stated that Hadi was incapable of solving Yemen’s problems. In the wake of the Houthi advance on areas west and south of Sanaa, ‘Abdallah’s successor King Salman appears to have partially rehabilitated the Muslim Brothers. No Islah leaders are to be present in Geneva, however. In their place will be Fahad Kafayan, the little-known pro-Islah minister of fisheries. He will be joined by his colleague Riyad Yasin, foreign minister in Hadi’s government-in-exile. A doctor whose forebears came to southern Yemen from India during the period of British rule, Yasin left Aden before Hadi (who came to Sanaa in 1986), and recently struck up a friendship with his son Jalal. At the National Dialogue Conference he spoke for the moderate southern independence faction headed by ‘Abdallah al-Asnaj, the only southern force that took part. In Hadi’s government he replaced the much more competent ‘Abdallah al-Sa‘idi, who was favored by al-‘Iryani. Many Yemenis are bewildered by Yasin’s presence in the Geneva delegation because he lacks experience in negotiations.
Another representative, ‘Izz al-Din al-Asbahi, who is Hadi’s minister of human rights, hails from the Hujariyya, a region south of Sanaa. He worked for NGOs for several years before joining government. Ahmad al-Maysari, who served as governor of Aden under Salih, is to attend as representative of the GPC faction that does support Hadi. The other party leader who was named is ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Jubari, secretary-general of the newly established Justice and Development Party. Jubari is a staunch opponent of Ansar Allah who has blamed Iran for the chaos in Yemen in interviews with Saudi newspapers. He went to Riyadh soon after Hadi arrived there about three months ago.
‘Uthman Mujalli, a shaykh from Sa‘da province (the Houthis’ geographic base and key constituency), once sat in Parliament as one of Salih’s most loyal henchmen. His family gained influence after being given land expropriated from Hashemite families in the aftermath of the civil war in the 1960s. When the Houthis took over Sa‘da in 2011, Salih ordered Mujalli to blow up his house and depart for Saudi Arabia. After returning to Yemen, Mujalli fled to Saudi Arabia once again when the Huthis took over Sanaa in September 2014. He is attributed salafi leanings and considered a Saudi protégé. It should not be a surprise to anyone if he is appointed governor of Sa‘da should that province become administered by a government hostile to the Houthis.
As for Ansar Allah, those who have been designated as representatives at the talks are Mahdi al-Mashat, Hamza al-Houthi, who negotiated with the UN envoy on behalf of his cousin ‘Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, Ansar Allah’s leader, and Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam and Salih al-Samad, both of whom took part in recent negotiations in Muscat, Oman. Former foreign minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi is to represent the anti-Hadi GPC faction. According to the Iranian Fars news agency, GPC secretary-general ‘Arif al-Zouka and his deputy Yasir al-‘Awadi have already gone to Geneva.
Though Ansar Allah had agreed to join the UN-led talks, they appeared to have second thoughts after Hadi’s statements. They did not board the plane that was to take them to Switzerland. One of their representatives told the Associated Press that they objected to the idea of two delegations—“one representing the embattled government, and one seen as representing a ‘coup.’” Rather than being pressured to withdraw from Sanaa, as Hadi seems to intend, the Houthis are keen to continue broader multi-party discussions.
It would seem that in recent weeks Saudi Arabia has accelerated its air strikes in order to be able to declare an end to its combat mission before the start of Ramadan. Thus far the kingdom and its allies have not even achieved a pyrrhic victory.