Yemen's Deputy PM confident Riyadh Agreement will bear fruit

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - The Saudi-brokered peace agreement between the Yemeni government and the pro-independence Southern Transitional Council will hold and will lead to institutional reforms in the government, Yemen’s Deputy Prime Minister Salem Al Khanbashi said.

In an interview with The National at his home in Mukalla, capital of the south-eastern province of Hadramawt, Mr Al Khanbashi said delays in applying some terms of the agreement and recent brief skirmishes in the south would not torpedo the pact.

“The Riyadh Agreement is a historical document that addresses major problems that have accumulated over the last 30 years," Mr Al Khanbashi said. “The agreement is a road map for structural reforms in the state’s system. It will also bring together the southerners ahead of a comprehensive settlement in the country and against our common enemy, the Houthis.”

Mr Al Khanbashi signed the agreement on behalf of the government. A senior member of the General People’s Congress, the party that has ruled Yemen for decades, he was appointed deputy PM by President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi in October last year. Born in Hadramawt in 1952, Mr Al Khanbashi is also an associate professor of philosophy at Hadramawt University and served as governor of the province.

The November 5 agreement restored the southern city of Aden to government control after it was seized by STC-allied forces in August and provided for the formation of a new government with equal representation for the STC within 30 days. Although Prime Minister Maeen Abdul Malik returned to Aden two weeks later with members of his Cabinet, the formation of a new 24-member government and the replacing of governors and security chiefs in several southern provinces has not yet taken place.

Yemeni Southern Transitional Council member and former Aden Governor Nasser Al Khabji and Yemen's Deputy Prime Minister Salem Al Khanbashi after signing the power-sharing agreement in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. They were watched by Sheikh , Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Yemeni President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi AFP

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Mr Hadi watch as Mr Al Khabji and Mr Al Khanbashi sign the power-sharing agreement. AFP

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Mr Hadi at the agreement-signing ceremony. AFP

Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Mr Hadi at the ceremony. AFP

Yemen's internationally recognised government signed a power-sharing deal with southern secessionists in a Saudi-brokered initiative. AFP

Yemen's internationally recognised government signed a power-sharing deal with southern secessionists in a Saudi-brokered initiative. AFP

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed walks with Mr Hadi and Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the ceremony. AFP

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Mr Hadi and Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the ceremony. AFP

Mr Al Khanbashi attributed the delay to the long-standing problems of infighting among southerners and and north-south rivalry, as well as objections raised by some parties to the agreement. “Let me admit that we pressured ourselves in terms of deadlines. I think deep-rooted social problems cannot be solved in one or two weeks. There will be objections here and there. But by the end of the day, the deal will be implemented. It is alive and renewable.”

Saudi Arabia's mediation effort faced a challenge in overcoming tensions between the government and STC after the August clashes. Mr Al Khanbashi said negotiations behind the scenes were long and tough as the government and the STC refused to engage in direct talks.

“A Saudi committee made up of the Saudi ambassador to Yemen and other Saudi figures held almost 15 meetings with the government. They listened to our ideas and suggestions and put them in three drafts. The final draft was approved by us and members of the Transitional Council,” he said.

Unlike some cabinet ministers who continue to speak against the STC, Mr Al Khanbashi struck a conciliatory tone, praising the group’s role in battling the Houthi rebels.

“Some military formations loyal to the council are battling Houthis in Karesh [in Lahj province], Dhalea and the western coast.”

After more than four years of civil war, the Iran-backed rebels continue to hold Yemen's capital, Sanaa, and much of the north. Supported by a Saudi-led Arab military coalition, in which the UAE has played a leading role, the government has regained control of south.

Mr Al Khanbashi said Yemenis were appreciative of the UAE's quick response to the President Hadi's appeal for help when the Houthis forced his government to flee Sanaa for Aden in early 2015. “In Aden, the first to provide military assistance to the popular resistance was the UAE. The UAE also militarily supported the west coast battlefield and Marib,” he said.

“The UAE Red Crescent has given out food baskets, treated injured people, renovated schools, police stations and Riyan airport [in Hadramawt] and is offering assistance till now.”

Mr Al Khanbashi said the government's efforts to defeat the Houthis were made more difficult by Iran's support of the rebels with arms and financing. “The Iranians might not be in the picture, but they are involved in international smuggling on the seas and are exploiting any loophole to smuggle arms into the country,” he said.

The deputy prime minister said one of the government's priorities in the coming year will be depriving the Houthis of revenues from local telecom companies. “The Houthis collect billions of riyals from mobile companies annually. The government will be asking mobile companies to relocate offices to Aden,” he said.

At the same time the government will work to improve it finances by fighting corruption, increasing production of oil, tightening control over revenue-generating border crossings and efficiently collecting taxes and customs.

“When we prepared the 2019 budget, we found out that contribution of taxes and customs in the budget was very modest. There is huge corruption in this sector. The government will make sure all revenues from border crossings are deposited in the Central Bank,” he said.

Also, the Central Organisation for Control and Auditing will be asked to monitor the performance of government bodies and report corruption to the government. “The Saudis also agreed to send a committee of financial experts to help us oversee implementation of the plans and collection of revenues,” he said.

Mr Al Khanbashi said that despite stealing more than 750 billion riyals (Dh11bn) from the government’s account for pension payments at the central bank in Sanaa, and earning billions more by taxing businesses and merchants, the rebels refused to pay government employees in areas under their control.

“We pay all pensioners from Mahra to Saada [provinces]," he said. "We are committed to paying salaries of government bodies in Houthi-controlled area such as health, education, higher education, judiciary,"

Updated: December 11, 2019 08:01 PM

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