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Yemeni Leader Hands Power to New Body as His Saudi Backers Seek to End War

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Yemen’s exiled president stepped down on Thursday and passed power to a presidential council, a sweeping reshuffle supported by his backers in Saudi Arabia aimed at jump-starting efforts to end the seven-year war that has roiled the Arabian Peninsula.

The president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, announced his abdication days after a two-month cease-fire took effect, another sign that Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf allies may be looking for a path out of the years of bloodshed. Mr. Hadi delegated the new presidential council to run the government and lead peace talks with the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who control Sana, Yemen’s capital, and the country’s northwest.

The move was the most significant effort to reorganize the anti-Houthi forces in Yemen since the war began. But analysts raised questions about how effective it would be at pushing the peace process forward given the divergent positions of the council’s eight members.

“Quite clearly this is an attempt, perhaps a last ditch effort, to reconstitute something resembling unity within the anti-Houthi alliance,” Gregory Johnsen, a former member of United Nations Panel of Experts for Yemen, wrote on Twitter. “The problem is that it is unclear how these various individuals, many of whom have diametrically opposing views, can work together.”

The new push to end the war follows seven years of grinding combat that have shattered the Yemeni state, spawned one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and undermined the security of rich, oil-producing Persian Gulf monarchies allied with the United States.

Yemen’s war began in 2014 when the Houthis seized Sana and the northwest of the country, sending the government, and Mr. Hadi, into exile. Months later, an Arab military coalition led by Saudi Arabia began a vast bombing campaign intended to push the Houthis back and restore the government.

But the conflict settled into a stalemate and grew into an increasingly vicious proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its allies and Iran, which has helped the Houthis develop sophisticated drones and missiles that have struck deep inside Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, another gulf member of the coalition. Those strikes have damaged oil infrastructure in both countries.

The United States is one of the main suppliers of jets, bombs and other military equipment used by Saudi Arabia and its allies, who have killed large numbers of civilians in Yemen and destroyed critical infrastructure. The United States also helps Saudi Arabia defend its border from Houthi attacks and intervened to help protect the United Arab Emirates from a Houthi missile attack in January.

Initially, Saudi Arabia told the United States that the coalition could swiftly defeat the Houthis. But that did not come to pass and Saudi officials have been looking more recently for ways to end the war, which has tarred the kingdom’s reputation and taxed its finances.

Mr. Hadi’s abdication appeared to have been brokered by Saudi Arabia, which has been hosting hundreds of Yemenis representing different political groups in its capital, Riyadh, since last week for talks expected to end on Thursday.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates welcomed the transition with a promise of $3 billion in aid for the Yemeni government, including $1 billion to shore up the country’s central bank, which has failed to keep the value of the national currency from plummeting.

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, met with the new presidential council’s members on Thursday. Images distributed by the Saudi state-run news service showed him shaking their hands and exchanging cheek kisses.

A senior Houthi official, Mohammed Al-Bukaiti, used Twitter to criticize the formation of the council, calling it illegitimate.

The Houthis refused to participate in the talks in Riyadh, saying that any discussions on the future of Yemen should be hosted by a neutral country, not one of the combatants. They have accused Yemen’s internationally recognized government and its ministers of spending more time in lavish hotels in the Saudi capital than in Yemen.

“The Yemeni people rejected the government of the hotels because it had become a guest in a Riyadh hotel, so how can they accept a council born of the hotel itself?” Mr. Al-Bukaiti tweeted.

The presidential council faces substantial obstacles.

It is led by Rashad al-Alimi, a former interior minister who advised Mr. Hadi and is seen as close to the Saudis.

Its other members include a powerful governor from the oil-rich Yemeni province of Marib; a nephew of Yemen’s former strongman who was allied with the Houthis until they killed his uncle, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in 2017; and the head of a U.A.E.-backed force that seeks the independence of southern Yemen.

Mr. Johnsen, the former member of the U.N. experts panel, compared the council with “a Frankenstein” and questioned how effective it would be.

“In theory, I can see how this is supposed to work: bring all the various military units under one giant umbrella to take on the Houthis,” he tweeted. “But in practice I don’t think these actors will be able to set aside their many, many differences to unite against a common foe.”

Another gnarly question is whether the Houthis actually want peace.

The past seven years have seen them grow from a scrappy, provincial rebel movement into a de facto government that controls the capital, finances itself from a vast war economy and regularly launches ballistic missiles at its enemies.

Seven years of war have failed to dislodge the group, and its leaders are unlikely to surrender any of their power without receiving significant concessions.

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut.

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