What’s behind the Houthis’ repeated attacks in south Yemen?
SANAA, Yemen — Since the UN-brokered truce expired on October 2, the Houthi rebels have launched drone attacks on civilian oil ports in oil-rich provinces outside their territorial control.
The Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for their first drone attack since the truce expired by targeting a Greek oil tanker, the Nissos Kea, as it approached the Ash Shihr oil port in the eastern province of Hadhramout on October 21.
Oslo-listed tanker company Okeanis Eco Tankers said, “there were two drone-driven explosions in close proximity” while the vessel had called for loading, prompting the vessel to leave the port and return to international waters. “Neither explosion impacted the vessel. All crew are safe and unharmed. There was no damage to the vessel and no pollution,” said the company.
According to the UAE National News, Houthi military spokesman, Yahya Saree, said his forces were preventing the “looting and smuggling” of oil through the port by sending “warning messages.”
Ahmed Al-Ozaib, a public servant in Sanaa, explained that the Houthis are attacking oil ports in order to prevent the Presidential Leadership Council from selling oil until the salaries of all public servants are paid from the oil revenues.
“The fact is that the Houthis attempting to escape a revolt of government employees under their control [are] demanding them to pay salaries from revenues of Sanaa airport, Hodeidah port, and Telecommunications and taxes,” Al-Ozaib told Responsible Statecraft.
The two month UN-mediated truce went into force in April and was extended twice. UN efforts to expand and extend the truce for another six months failed, and the deadline to renew it on October 2 passed without agreement after the Houthis demanded payment for both military and civil servants’ salaries and pensions.
The UN’s proposal included the payment of teachers, nurses, and other civil servants in Houthi-held areas but not members of the military, as the Houthis demanded. U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking described the Houthis’ demands as “maximalist and impossible” but said he was confident an agreement could be reached if the group showed flexibility.
The terms of the expired truce are ongoing with Sanaa Airport still open for three commercial flights to Jordan each week and Hodeidah port open for the entry of fuel ships, although other imports remain limited. Talks to expand the truce are also ongoing, with the UN and U.S. envoys to Yemen continuing to meet with warring parties, giving hope that a deal to expand and extend the truce remains possible.
“War can end when both warring parties surrender their narrow interests to the Yemeni people, most of whom are struggling to find daily food,” said Al-Ozaib.
“The leaders of warring parties have become warlords, and it’s hard to convince a warlord to give up his interests. That is the status quo in Yemen. The key to ending the war is for warlords to surrender their interests.”
The Iran-backed Houthi rebels’ attack on the Ash Shihr oil port on October 21 pushed the Saudi-backed government to formally designate the Houthis a “terrorist group” on October 22, after nearly eight years of war.
The decision was made after a meeting of the National Defence Council headed by PLC president Rashad Al-Alimi “in accordance with the Crimes and Penalty Law, the Arab Convention on Combating Terrorism, and international and regional conventions and treaties ratified by the Republic of Yemen,” reported the Saba news agency.
The council also “warned the entities and individuals who provide support and assistance, or facilities any form of cooperation and dealing with this terrorist group, that strict measures and penalties will be taken against them.”
The international community, including the U.S., UK and France, condemned the Houthi attacks but showed no signs of responding to the PLC’s calls to label the Houthis terrorists.
The U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Steven Fagin called on the Houthis “to immediately halt such attacks, which are an affront to navigational rights and freedoms and jeopardize international commerce.”
“We urge all parties to demonstrate restraint during this sensitive time,” read the U.S. ambassador’s statement. “Only through an extension of the truce can we ensure payment of salaries, free movement on Yemen’s roads and through its ports and airports, and an end to the cycle of destructive violence that has plagued Yemen for eight years.”
Saudi-Houthi rapprochement amid calls to end the war
Mohammed Gholais, a political analyst based in Sanaa, said the Houthis’ attacks on oil ports are military escalation but “if the Yemeni people want an end to the war, Parliament should pass a resolution to dissolve all Yemeni warring sides and prevent their leaders and members from taking part in political life.”
“However, the problem is that our Parliament is divided into one with Al-Houthi and another with Al-Alimi,” Gholais told Responsible Statecraft. In addition, Yemen’s parliament meets rarely: it last convened in April to affirm the establishment of the Saudi-backed Presidential Leadership Council, which took over from interim President Hadi.
“I don’t know why the Al-Alimi government has not responded to this escalation militarily given that the Houthis continue to benefit from the terms of the expired truce, with Sanaa airport and Hodeidah port still open,” wondered Gholais.
It appears unlikely the Houthi attacks will trigger a Saudi response. The Houthis stopped targeting Saudi oil facilities after the truce went into effect on April 2, and reports have emerged of Houthi negotiations with Saudi Arabia.
“In the second week of October, the Saudi government made a bold proposal to the Houthis,” said Abdul-Ghani Al-Iryani, a researcher at Sana’a Center For Strategic Studies. “They invited the nominal leader of the de facto authorities in Sana’a, Mahdi al-Mashat, President of the Supreme Political Council and Supreme Commander of the armed forces, to visit Riyadh, meet Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, and discuss a peace deal.”
“This was the breakthrough that the Houthis have been working for since they overthrew the internationally recognized government in 2014,” added Al-Iryani.
The Saudi invitation for the Houthi leader Al-Mashat was also referenced in a report by the pro-Houthi Lebanese newspaper of Al-Akhbar on October 12 that stated, citing unnamed sources, a senior Saudi delegation visited Sanaa to negotiate the truce and conditions of extending it.
“It seems the Houthis are in direct talks with the Saudis now or have reached a deal to prevent the two sides’ cross border attacks. Now the Houthis are attacking Al-Alimi government positions in south Yemen until they reach a deal with it on the payment of salaries,” Gholais told Responsible Statecraft.
“Now the differences are between the Houthis and the legitimate government over paying the salaries,” he added.
“The international community should continue to exert pressure on the Yemeni warring sides, in particular Houthis, to end the war,” noted Gholais. “Ending the war should be in the interest of all sides.”