Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page 27
The president asked us to go to Saada. We had arranged a meeting with Husein al-Huthi to discuss ways of resolving the conflict. A helicopter was ready to take us. Just as we were about to leave, army forces close to where we were located started bombing Huthi positions, so it had to be cancelled. I think their real objective was to undermine mediation attempts, to show that the only effective response to the Huthis was a military one.151
The committees’ work was further hampered by the arrest of a number of Zaydi intellectuals, journalists and former committee members, including Abd-al-Karim al-Khaywani (in 2005 and 2008), Yahya al-Daylami (2005), Muhammad Luqman (2005) and Muhammad Muftah (2005). They were either detained without trial or sentenced to lengthy prison terms by a special criminal court in proceedings deemed unfair by Amnesty International.152 Purported repressive actions by security forces in Saada also are said to have played a negative role.153 The arrest and imprisonment of important mediators such as Abdallah Husein al-Muayyad, a Saada cleric, and Salih al-Wajaman, a tribal sheikh also from Saada, validated the view among many that the army, if not the government as a whole, was intent on disrupting conciliation efforts.154
B. Qatar’s Mediation
Several regional governments were involved in efforts to end fighting, at times in response to the Yemeni government’s request. During the third round, it reportedly asked Libya for help, though relations gradually soured as the government accused Tripoli of supporting the rebels.155 Saudi Arabia also is said to have discreetly intervened to settle conflicts between various tribes with which it was allied and which were fighting one another in the context of the
151 Crisis Group interview, opposition party mediation committee member, Sanaa, 8 January 2009.
152 “Yemen”, Amnesty International, report for 2006, published May 2007.
153 Crisis Group interview, Zaydi scholar, Sanaa, January 2009.
154 Crisis Group interview, human rights activist, Sanaa, 20 January 2009. “Disappearances and Arbitrary Arrests in the Armed Conflict with Huthi Rebels in Yemen”, Human Rights Watch report, October 2008.
155 In May 2007, Yemen recalled its ambassadors to Iran and Libya for consultation. Yemen Times, 14 May 2007; however, it has yet to produce evidence of Libyan meddling. An apparent cause of irritation was Yahya al-Huthi’s intermittent presence in Libya and Tripoli’s refusal to extradite him. Almotamar.net, 16 February 2007.
The most significant mediation initiative came from Qatar, part of its broader conflict resolution strategy that has included Lebanon, Palestine and Sudan.157 The effort apparently began during a May 2007 visit to Yemen by Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. According to reports, he sent a foreign ministry team to Saada along with government-appointed Yemeni mediators to meet the rebel leadership. Yahya al-Huthi also travelled to Qatar to convey the rebels’ demands. The result was the 16 June 2007 joint ceasefire announcement, based on a list of general principles that remained secret until the rebels released it almost a year later.158 These included, inter alia, an agreement by the rebels to relinquish their positions and lay down heavy arms and government commitment to declare an amnesty and launch Qatari-supported reconstruction projects in Saada. The government also was to set up another committee comprising Yemenis from both sides as well as Qataris who would seek to reach a peace agreement.
On 1 February 2008, the two sides met in Doha to sign a peace accord.159 Although violence never ceased, even after the ceasefire agreement,160 expectations soared, particularly in terms of Qatari funding and, in the subsequent period, both sides took
156 Crisis Group interview, tribal sheikh from Saada, Sanaa, 9 January 2009.
157 The New York Times, 9 July 2008.
158 The rebels revealed the text in late March 2008, when tensions in the war zone threatened to undermine the accord. Al-Sharea, 22 March 2008.
159 The rebels were represented by Yahya al-Huthi and their spokesman Salih Habra; the government sent Abd-al-Karim al-Iryani, a former prime minister and political adviser to President Salih, and Gen. Ali Muhsin. Hamad Bin Jasim Al Thani, Qatar’s prime minister, signed for his government. Terms of the accord included a halt in effect to all military operations, release of all prisoners within a month from February 2008, exile to Qatar of Abd-al-Malik al-Huthi, Abd-al-Karim al-Huthi (another of Husein’s brothers and a rebel leader) and Abdallah al-Ruzami (who refused to leave Yemen, alleging tensions on the ground) and establishment of reconstruction and compensation committees. Al-Sharea, 22 March 2008.
160 On 15 July, a convoy carrying three Qatari mediators and Yemeni parliament and consultative council members came under rebel fire near the town of al-Talh in Sahar district. Abd-al-Malik al-Huthi condemned the attack and denied any involvement; the government claimed it had been planned and carried out by al-Huthi supporters. News Yemen, 16 July 2007. Four days before signing the Doha agreement, Abd-al-Malik al-Huthi accused government forces of shelling his positions in Haydan district, threatening the peace accord. Al-Nida, 30 January 2008.