Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is accompanied by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan before signing an agreement in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in November 2019.
Abu Dhabi, UAE CNN  — 

Yemen’s exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi ceded power to a presidential council on Thursday in a shock move supported by Hadi’s main backer Saudi Arabia.

Both the president, who had been in power for a decade, and his vice president, who was also removed, were fiercely opposed by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels that the Saudi-led coalition is fighting in Yemen.

The move came just days after the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi movement agreed to a two-month truce brokered by the United Nations, the first of its kind since 2016. Observers saw this as newfound momentum to end the seven-year war.

Why then did the Houthis reject the new presidential council? Analysts say the council signals an attempt to unify the ranks of disparate anti-Houthi groups in anticipation of a period of increased confrontation.

Soon after Hadi’s announcement, Saudi Arabia’s state-run press agency SPA published a video of de factor ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman embracing the new Yemeni council and its head, Rashad al-Alimi, in the capital Riyadh. The move took place on Saudi soil with Saudi blessing.

Then, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pledged $3 billion to Yemen, SPA reported on Thursday. The kingdom also announced it is giving $300 million to the UN humanitarian relief fund to Yemen and called for an aid-donor conference to support the war-torn country.

Houthi chief negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam criticized the move as a farce and a “desperate attempt to restructure the ranks of mercenaries to push them towards further escalation.”

“This is a council that was basically made in Saudi Arabia,” said Gregory Johnsen, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former member of United Nations’ Panel of Experts on Yemen.

The eight-member council is mixed bag of personalities with starkly opposing views on Yemen, with many having “clashed or fought with one another in recent years,” Johnsen told CNN. One common ground unites them, however: a distaste for the Houthis.

Peter Salisbury, senior Yemen analyst at International Crisis Group, called the council’s formation the “most consequential shift in the inner workings of the anti-Houthi bloc since war began.”

“How this will actually work in practice will be … complicated to say the least,” he tweeted.

Yemen has been torn by conflict for the past seven years, reducing it to what the UN called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. More than 80% of its population is in need of aid, and hunger is now exacerbated by food supply disruptions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“They [Saudi Arabia] recognized that they need to make a very big move to really unify the anti-Houthi coalition,” said Cinzia Bianco, a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “So, this is certainly a gesture toward the Houthis, to show that the anti-Houthi front which has long been very, very divided and fragmented is sort of seeking a new, second life.”

The ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council met on Thursday and expressed their support for the presidential council, as well as starting negotiations with Iran-aligned Houthis under UN supervision “to reach a final and comprehensive political solution.”

Johnsen was skeptical of Saudi Arabia’s ability to unify the council members however. Many hold diametrically opposed views on Yemen, he said.

“The Saudis are basically trying to get everybody back on the same page,” Johnsen added. “But I think that genie is out of the bottle and I don’t think Saudi Arabia is going to be able to really impose any sort of unified action or unity of purpose on these groups.”

While there has lately been talk of a renewed appetite to end the conflict, Bianco believes this move bodes the opposite.

The Yemeni shakeup occurred as renewed nuclear talks between Iran and the West reach an advanced stage. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors have harbored anxieties about a potential deal, anticipating that a return to the 2015 nuclear agreement will embolden Iran to expand activities in the Middle East.

“We have to acknowledge that Saudi Arabia expects an escalation in Yemen after the nuclear deal is signed,” said Bianco. “Saudi Arabia is trying to do anything they can … to be more ready to confront an escalation on several regional fronts led by an emboldened Iran.”

Johnsen said it’s hard to say if the shakeup was “a step forward or a step backward” in the quest for peace in Yemen. “It’s hard to imagine Yemen being put back together again as one single state,” he said.

Other top Middle East news

Turkey’s foreign minister says Blinken invited him for first talks in three years

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday that his US counterpart Antony Blinken invited him for talks on May 18, the first in three years.

  • Background: Turkey and the United States have recently taken steps to mend their strained relations, this week launching a joint mechanism to boost cooperation after years of tension over a number of issues, including relations with Russia and policies in Syria and Libya. The US previously sanctioned Turkey’s defense industry after Ankara bought weapons from Russia, and later expelled it from its F-35 fighter jet program.
  • Why it matters: Turkey is now frontstage as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine grows increasingly violent. The NATO member shares a border with both countries in the Black Sea, and has been acting as a mediator between Russia and the West as global powers attempt to deescalate the conflict. In a letter to Congress, the US State Department said on Wednesday that the Biden administration believes a potential sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey would be in line with US and NATO interests.

Three Arab envoys to return to Beirut, signaling improved relations

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Yemen said on Thursday they are bringing back their ambassadors to Lebanon, signaling improved ties after relations deteriorated between Beirut and some Gulf states.

  • Background: The links between Lebanon and some Arab states have been strained for years due to the growing influence of the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement. Last year, relations hit rock bottom after a former Lebanese minister bluntly criticized Saudi Arabia and the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and spoke in support of the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia and its allies later recalled their envoys from Beirut.
  • Why it matters: Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors were once key donors for Lebanon, which over the last two years has been hit by its worst financial crisis and what the World Bank described as one of the sharpest depressions ever recorded. As Lebanon works to pick itself back up, improved relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf might also bring back their support.

Palestinian gunman killed after two fatalities, and many injured, in Tel Aviv shooting

The gunman who carried out an attack at a bar in Tel Aviv, which killed two people and wounded many, has died after an exchange of fire with Israeli police, officials say.

  • Background: Two Israeli men were killed in the Thursday attack in the center of Tel Aviv. Several more people were seriously wounded. The shooting was claimed by the Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, and praised by Hamas. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas expressed his condemnation.
  • Why it matters: The attack is the latest in a series of violent incidents that have put Israel and the Palestinian territories on edge. In just one week in March, 11 people were killed in three attacks in Israeli towns and cities. It was the deadliest week Israel had seen in years and follows weeks of rising tensions that saw Israelis targeted in stabbing attacks and several Palestinians shot dead by Israeli forces in the West Bank. The latest attack coincides with the month of Ramadan and the upcoming Jewish holiday of Passover.

What to watch

As the war in Ukraine hits Lebanon’s food reserves, its minister of economy Amin Salam tells CNN’s Becky Anderson that the country is “struggling” to find commodity alternatives.

“Lebanon, in addition to the crisis itself, has not recovered yet from all the global inflation on food, commodities and food products after Covid-19,” said Salam. “Now we have this issue that adds another layer of difficulty.”

Watch the interview here.

Around the region

Lubna Olayan, Chief Executive Officer and Deputy Chairperson of Olayan Financing, Company attends the investment conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in October 2018.

A first-ever television interview with one of Saudi Arabia’s most famous women this week gave viewers a rare glimpse into the mysterious life of a symbol of Arab women’s empowerment.

The interview with billionaire businesswoman Lubna Olayan, 66, had people praising her modesty and candor on social media.

Olayan, who has been labeled as one of the world’s most powerful women, sat down with Saudi journalist Abdullah Al Mudaifer to shed light on her personal life, her family and its vast business empire, the Olayan group.

Asked by the interviewer why she lives in a modest house, she said: “Do I need more? I have everything I need in this house. For my husband and I, this is enough … any more is a headache.” She refused to say how much the company, which is privately held, is worth.

As the matriarch of one of Saudi Arabia’s richest families, she has kept a low profile but managed to push boundaries and break glass ceilings. She has been an advocate of women’s freedoms and would appear at public events without a head covering long before Saudi Arabia eased its strict dress codes for women. In 2019, she became the first woman to head a Saudi bank.

She also told stories about her formative years at university in Beirut and the US, her family’s mingling with the world’s business elite and her taboo-breaking marriage to an American man in 1981. Her father was easy to convince, she said, but it took her four years to convince her mother. “He’s my best friend,” she said of her husband John Xefos.

By Abbas Al Lawati

Photo of the day

Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of murdered Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi, answers journalists' questions outside an Istanbul courthouse on April 7. The court confirmed a halt of the trial in absentia of 26 suspects linked to Khashoggi's killing and the transfer of the trial to Saudi Arabia. Cengiz said she would appeal the Turkish court's decision. Khashoggi, a 59-year-old journalist, was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 in a gruesome murder that shocked the world.