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Can the plan for a neutral Hodeidah save Yemen?

The serious tensions between former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s loyalists and the Houthi militias, which over the last few days both sides have unconvincingly tried to downplay, threaten to add yet more pressure to the tragic humanitarian situation in north Yemen. But a plan to place Hodeidah under the supervision of a neutral body has some promise, and could eventually be applied as a model to other areas across the country.
Compounding one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises is not only the rivalry for influence and power in the north, but the Houthi leadership’s appalling unwillingness and lack of capacity to provide basic services. The militias depleted the central bank’s reserves to fund the war effort, forcing its transfer to Aden.
They have also repeatedly prevented food and medical aid from reaching disputed areas, and have levied taxes and tariffs on imported commodities, a key source of funding to continue the fighting.
On top of this, there is the naval and aerial blockade imposed by the Arab coalition to prevent Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah from supplying the Houthis with weapons and other military equipment.
A few months back, and after Houthi-Saleh forces lost control of Mokha in January, an assault on Hodeidah by pro-government units, supported by the Arab coalition, looked imminent. An intense debate ensued about the consequences of a military offensive to retake Yemen’s most important port and point of entrance for about three-quarters of the country’s commercial cargo and humanitarian assistance.
As military experts noted at the time, the port itself is a vulnerable target for an amphibious operation, with the additional advantage of being relatively isolated from the city’s major residential areas.
UN bodies, aid groups, diplomats and experts warned that the operation would worsen the situation for millions of civilians, and would not resolve Yemen’s food-aid delivery crisis. UN special envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said at the time that an assault on Hodeidah “is very likely to happen, and it could have disastrous consequences for the population.”

All previous diplomatic initiatives to resolve the conflict may have ended in failure, but at least the increasing war fatigue offers the Hodeidah initiative some hope of success.

Manuel Almeida

One of the arguments most commonly heard to oppose the intervention was that it would only push the fighting from the port to surrounding areas, thus having the same negative effects on aid delivery that the operation was aiming to resolve.
Taking heed of these concerns, and following a tragic accident involving a boat carrying Somali refugees, Saudi Arabia advanced in March a proposal for the UN to take over administration of the port. This “would facilitate the flow of humanitarian supplies to the Yemeni people, while at the same time ending the use of the port for weapons smuggling and people trafficking,” read a coalition statement.
Initially, the UN rejected the idea. But the proposal of placing Hodeidah under the supervision of a neutral party has since been garnering support, and recent months have seen progress toward that end. In April, the Yemeni government addressed the same request to the UN, and in June the organization submitted a plan to the government, details of which were revealed in July by the UN envoy.
Quite ambitious, the plan aims to transform the whole governorate of Hodeidah into a “safe zone, free from armed conflict.” Among its demands are the halting of all military action by the coalition, and the withdrawal of all Houthi militias, revolutionary committees and insurgent factions that are not part of the government.
A Supreme Council, with one representative from each of Yemen’s major political factions (including the government, the General People’s Congress, Islah and the Houthis), would run the governorate. It would be backed by the international community via a team of experts in various areas.
Last month, the head of the EU delegation to Yemen, Antonio Calvo Puerta, was in Sanaa to discuss the plan with the Houthi leadership. Three weeks ago, Saudi Arabia’s permanent ambassador to the UN, Abdullah Al-Moallimi, told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that there were indications that the Houthis were more receptive to the idea.
Hodeidah has played a central role in the road to the current conflict. Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference delivered a political roadmap that included a six-region federation. Various groups expressed reservations about an imperfect process, but the Houthis were the only group in Yemen not to have signed it off.
There are various reasons for this, including the Houthis’ strategic, operational and especially ideological ties to Iran and Hezbollah, which are generally underestimated by analysts. But access to the sea and distribution of natural resources were singled out by the Houthi leadership as major issues.
They saw governorates adjacent to their home turf of Saada, such as Hajja and Al-Jawf, as strategically key for their expansionist plans. No surprise, then, that only a few weeks after invading the capital Sanaa, the Houthis took over Hodeidah.
All previous diplomatic initiatives to resolve the conflict may have ended in failure, but at least the increasing war fatigue offers the Hodeidah initiative some hope of success.

• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a consultant and political analyst focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He can be reached on Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida.