Can This Man Save Yemen?

Vice President Khaled Bahah is trying to push back the Islamic State and make peace with his Houthi rivals. But progress is hard to come by in war-wracked Yemen these days.


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – The Riyadh Conference Center, a building that appears inadvertently caught in the 1970s, serves as a guesthouse for much of Yemen’s exiled government since the takeover of much of the country by Houthi rebels and allied forces within the military. I had come here to speak with a government minister about the various tensions within the anti-Houthi coalition, the increasing power of extremist groups in the south, and the worsening humanitarian crisis. As has been true of many conversations regarding Yemen as of late, it was about as fascinating as it was depressing.

After about an hour, the minister excused himself, and mentioned that Yemen’s current prime minister and vice president, Khaled Bahah, might have time to meet with me. I knew it was far from an off-the-cuff statement, as I had been hinting at my interest in doing so through intermediaries for some time. Ten minutes later, the door slid open. It was the man himself, casually announcing that he’d been able to make some time for me in his schedule.

Bahah has been touted as a key figure in Yemen’s future. Western diplomats have increasingly dropped even the pretense of coyness in private, casting the removal of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi — and Bahah’s ascension to the powers of the presidency — as a key goal. But Bahah doesn’t pull his support only from the West: He has appeared to earn the trust of key Gulf actors, while remaining one of the few generally respected political figures among Yemenis — both among opponents and supporters of the ongoing Saudi military action. Notably, at the start of the conflict, even the Houthis offered him a position as the head of a presidential council under their auspices.

In many regards, this is more about what Bahah isn’t than about what he is. Because he was out of the country when the internationally backed transition that saw Yemen’s Arab Spring devolve into a civil war took place, Bahah wasn’t a party to the bulk of the Hadi-led orders’ failures.

On the day that I met him, he had just arrived from the city of Aden, where the compound he was staying in had been damaged by a deadly attack by the Yemeni branch of the Islamic State. And Bahah was blunt regarding the challenges facing the government — even as he swore to me that the government would be returning to the war-torn port city as soon as possible.

“It was a wakeup call,” the vice president said of the October attack. “We have experienced this before…but for them to expand their operations in Aden in this way is something that we must confront.”

Bahah served as oil minister under then President Ali Abdullah Saleh from 2006 to 2008 and was later appointed ambassador to Canada – because of, rumor has it, official dissatisfaction with his firm stance against the corruption rife in Yemen’s oil and gas industry. He defected from Saleh’s administration during Yemen’s 2011 uprising, and was later appointed ambassador to the United Nations by Saleh’s successor, Hadi. From there, he climbed the ranks of the new government: In October 2014, Bahah was named prime minister as part of a cabinet formed after the seizure of the Yemeni capital by the Houthi rebels, and was appointed Hadi’s vice president earlier this year in an apparent gesture toward an as-yet elusive political solution to Yemen’s conflict.

As Yemen’s government-in-exile tentatively agreed to peace talks this week, Bahah has distanced himself from the maximalist rhetoric of many in his camp toward negotiations with its Houthi rivals. The implementation of Security Council Resolution 2216, which calls on the Houthis and their allies to withdraw from areas they’d seized during the recent conflict, has been at the center of the government’s demands – and Bahah affirmed his belief that it was necessary for a true political settlement to take place. But while hard-line elements in the government have demanded full implementation prior to any negotiations, Bahah personally endorsed unconditional talks with the Houthis, saying that Resolution 2216 could function as a viable roadmap for a solution to the crisis.

“I don’t think things will stop on the ground until we sit around the table,” he said.

Such comments — uncontroversial as they may seem — mark a key difference between Bahah’s views on how to end the conflict and those of President Hadi and his closest aides. While Bahah pushed back against suggestions of any tensions with Hadi, other officials I met from the exiled government — both those close to Bahah and from other factions — frequently slammed the president and his allies as incompetent holdovers from Yemen’s failed post-Saleh transition.

“For the sake of our country, we have to stand with ending this war,” he told me, saying that when the time comes, “We will shake hands with those who would like see their country at peace.”

Bahah also appeared to subtly break with more hard-line elements of the Saudi-led coalition that has launched a six-month-long bombing campaign in the country. He appeared deeply cognizant of the humanitarian crisis the campaign has contributed to, and called for the opening of seaports, airports, and land routes — which, according to international aid groups, remain impeded by the actions of both Houthi and allied fighters and the Saudi-led coalition.

But the question of whether productive change is even possible in Yemen at this point remains an open one. Bahah and his allies remain outside of the country owing to a security vacuum in Aden that has seen violent jihadist groups enjoy a disturbing freedom of movement. Fanned by humanitarian crisis and political deadlock, the conflict continues to burn on, destroying not just Yemen’s buildings and infrastructure but the very fabric of its society.

I left Bahah and thanked him for the fortuitous interview, even as the same questions I had before the interview continued to rifle through my mind.

Can this man bring Yemen back together? Like much in Yemen these days, there is no obvious answer. Perhaps the more important question is: Can anyone?


Adam Baron is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and an International Security Program fellow at New America. He was based in Sanaa, Yemen between 2011 and 2014. @adammbaron.