SANAA – Yemen’s exiled president stepped aside and transferred his powers to a presidential council Thursday, as international and regional efforts to end the country’s long-running civil war gained momentum with a two-month truce.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, major players in the war, appear to have had a role in President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi's decision, quickly welcoming it with a pledge of $3 billion in aid. The head of the new council has close ties to Riyadh.
It remains to be seen how the development will impact Yemen's grinding conflict. A Saudi-led coalition of which the UAE is a member has for years been fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels to restore Hadi's government to power.
So far, U.N. mediation efforts have yielded little fruit, and fighting, airstrikes and missile attacks had been escalating in the war until the cease-fire took effect.
Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam dismissed any significance of the new council. The rebels have in the past benefited from squabbles among their rivals.
“Our Yemeni people are not concerned with any illegitimate decisions made by illegitimate parties beyond their borders,” Abdul-Salam tweeted.
Peter Salisbury, Yemen expert at the International Crisis Group, described the power transfer as the “most consequential shift in the inner workings of the anti-Houthi bloc since war began.”
Hadi, 76, said the newly established council will run the government and lead negotiations with the Houthis, according to a statement aired on state-run media.
The development, which could unify the anti-Houthi camp after years of infighting and disputes, was almost certainly orchestrated in Riyadh where Yemen's pro-government and pro-Saudi factions have been meeting over the past week to discuss efforts to end the war.
“I irreversibly delegate to the Presidential Leadership Council my full powers,” Hadi declared on Yemen’s state-run TV. He also sacked Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a powerful military figure, and delegated al-Ahmar’s powers to the presidential council.
The council is chaired by Rashad al-Alimi, an advisor to Hadi and former interior minister with the government of late strongman President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Al-Alimi enjoys close ties with Saudi Arabia and the powerful Islah party — Yemen's branch of the transnational Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yemen's civil war started in 2014, when the Houthis seized the capital of Sanaa, forcing Hadi and his government into exile in Saudi Arabia. Months later, the Saudi-led coalition entered the war to try to restore Hadi’s government to power — but the war over the years turned into a stalemated proxy conflict with neither side winning.
Hadi’s exile distanced him from events on the ground, with his Saudi backers preventing him from returning to Yemen and the southern port city of Aden — the new seat of the exiled government — allegedly over safety issues. His administration was accused of gross mismanagement and government employees largely went without salaries.
Separately, Aden became the scene of infighting among the coalition when UAE-backed separatists briefly overtook the city in 2019. A Riyadh-brokered deal later that year attempted to reconcile the separatists and Hadi’s forces but power struggles have persisted.
Hadi's rule was also undermined by the UAE’s influence in the territories nominally under his control. The UAE trained, financed and armed militias in Yemen and set up prisons.
Yemen's war has killed more than 150,000 people, including over 14.500 civilians, and created one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. This month, the warring sides announced a two-month cease-fire — the first nationwide truce in Yemen in six years — starting with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Saudi Arabia welcomed Hadi's move and urged the presidential council to embark upon U.N.-led negotiations with the Houthis to find a “political, final and comprehensive” settlement to the conflict, according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency. Powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has also met with the council head and its members, Saudi state-run TV reported.
The council has seven other members, including Aydarous al-Zubaidi, head of the secessionist Southern Transitional Council — an umbrella group of heavily armed militias propped up by the UAE since 2015. Also in the council are Sheikh Sultan al-Aradah, the powerful governor of energy-rich Marib province, and Tariq Saleh, a militia leader and nephew of the late president with close ties to the UAE.
Another member is Abdel-Rahman Abu Zarah, commander of UAE-backed Giants Brigades, which played a crucial role recently in repelling the Houthi offensive on the central city of Marib.
Hadi was named president of Yemen in 2012 with a mission to oversee a democratic transition following its Arab Spring uprising that ended Saleh’s longtime rule.
Separately, talks hosted by the Saudi-based Gulf Cooperation Council over the Yemeni war entered their final day on Thursday. The Houthis have boycotted the GCC efforts because they were taking place in Saudi Arabia, their adversary’s territory.
A number of countries welcomed the change in Yemen's leadership, with Egypt, Jordan and France expressing support for the presidential council. The Arab League and the European Union both said they hoped it could help the country further towards peace.
At the United Nations, spokesman Stephane Dujarric thanked Saudi Arabia and the UAE for their $3 billion in aid to Yemen and expressed U.N.'s readiness to work with the presidential council, “as well all the Yemeni parties, to reach a lasting truce and a sustainable, inclusive and negotiated settlement to the Yemen conflict."
Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Noha ElHennawy in Cairo and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.