August 3, 2017

Yemen’s President Invites Closer Ties with Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks to Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi during their meeting in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, April 2, 2013. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Presidential Press Service)

On July 13, Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi swore in veteran diplomat Ahmed Salem al-Wahishi as Yemen’s ambassador to Russia, a post that has been vacant since 2011. The Hadi government tried to fill the position over a year ago, but failed. Discussions with Yemeni sources reveal a complex tale about what happened then, as well as of the state of Yemeni-Russian relations.

In June 2016, the Hadi government nominated Wahishi as its ambassador, not to Russia, but to Qatar. At the same time, it also nominated another veteran Yemeni diplomat, Marwan Noman, as ambassador to Russia. But agrément, the diplomatic term for approval for these appointments, was not received either from Doha or from Moscow. No reason was given by either, but since there was no movement on the nominations, the Hadi government decided to switch them by naming Wahishi to Russia and Noman to Qatar. Wahishi’s nomination was formally made in March, and Moscow issued its agrément in June. Noman’s nomination to Doha, by contrast, was only made in June, just two days before Yemen (along with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt) formally broke relations with Qatar. Unable to fill this post while relations are suspended, Noman was named an advisor to the Yemeni foreign minister.

While Yemeni sources did not know why Qatar failed to accept Wahishi’s nomination as ambassador in 2016, they believe they do know why Russia never acted on Noman’s. By 2015, many of Yemen’s ambassadors appointed by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh had been withdrawn but not replaced. In 2015, the Hadi government appointed new ambassadors to the United States and United Kingdom, but not to Russia, or many other countries. Yemeni sources believe that Moscow was offended by this, and so retaliated by not moving on Noman’s nomination after it was made in 2016. Moscow’s approval of Wahishi’s nomination (albeit after a three-month wait) is seen as reflecting a sense that Moscow now believes that its point has been made to, and understood by, the Hadi government. Russia’s ambassador to Yemen, Vladimir Dedushkin, now resident in Riyadh, is also believed to have played an important role in lobbying Moscow to accept Wahishi’s nomination as part of a greater Russian effort to try to achieve a Yemeni cease-fire.

The Hadi government is well aware that Moscow has maintained close relations with Saleh, Hadi’s rival, as it has since Saleh became president of North Yemen in 1978. While Moscow backed Marxist South Yemen at this time, Saleh still succeeded in getting Moscow to sell him weapons shortly after the brief 1979 war between North and South as well as during the 1980s. Aid from Moscow to Yemen (which united in 1990), though, ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Later, Moscow supported the Gulf Cooperation Council-sponsored transition in 2011-12 from the then highly unpopular Saleh to his longtime vice president, Hadi. But Saleh was able to remain a powerful force in Yemen and restore his ties with Moscow through his many contacts there.

Giving Moscow an incentive not to become even more pro-Saleh is said to be part of Hadi’s motive for seeking improved relations with Russia. Another is the belief that Hadi is going to need some sort of compromise with Saleh in order to craft a solution to the Yemeni conflict, since compromise between Hadi on the one hand and either the Houthis in the north or the secessionists in the south appears highly unlikely. Although the UAE had previously been a strong supporter of Hadi, its increased closeness to his secessionist opponents is also motivating him to seek Russian assistance – partly to plead his case in Abu Dhabi, with which Moscow has developed very good relations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly wants to establish a naval base in Aden. This, of course, is not something new, but rather the restoration of the Soviet naval facilities in Aden that Moscow made use of when South Yemen was still independent. (Putin, it seems, wants to reacquire all allies and bases abroad that the Soviet Union had back then but lost at the end of the Cold War.) Hadi might be motivated to accommodate Putin in this instance. Hadi has seen how preserving a Russian naval base in Syria may have been one of Putin’s goals in protecting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and its presence has certainly helped enable Putin to do so. Hadi may believe that allowing the Russians to re-establish their naval base in Aden might have a similar result in his case. Hadi, of course, has been receiving support from Saudi Arabia, but Riyadh’s efforts are focused on the north where the Houthis and Saleh are strongest and not the south, where secessionists and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are more immediate threats. Nor can Hadi be certain that the Americans would intervene to protect him.

Hadi may calculate that the greater investment Putin has in Yemen (i.e., a naval base in Aden), the greater the likelihood Russia will intervene to preserve the government that made the deal possible. A greater Russian stake in the Hadi government might also result in Moscow seeking to persuade the UAE to support Hadi and not his secessionist opponents. And maybe more Russian involvement in Yemen will prod Washington to pay closer attention as well. Whatever Hadi’s calculations, the swearing in of a new Yemeni ambassador to Russia may be less a sign of increased Russian attention to Yemen and more evidence of increased Yemeni government hope to secure external assistance.

Mark N. Katz, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, is currently a visiting senior fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.