AL MUKALLA, Yemen — Maj. Mortada al-Youssefi has more to worry about as commander of a government military unit in Yemen than the enemy. He has also had to figure out how to stop hundreds of his own men from walking off the battlefield over not being paid.
He is one of the many Yemeni officials who have been struggling to contain the growing anger of pro-government fighters over payment delays from the Saudi-led Arab coalition that has been propping up the divided country’s president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and for the past 18 months fighting his main opponents, the Houthi militias that rule much of the country.
The Saudis may be well financed in their campaign against the Houthis, who come from the north of Yemen, but they are very slow to pay, according to the Yemenis.
Speaking by telephone from the embattled city of Taiz, Major Youssefi recalled how he had calmed down his fighters. “We told them it would negatively impact our image,” he said. “And we agreed to give the married soldiers a week or two off to go work to feed their children.” The soldiers immediately accepted the deal and took turns leaving their posts in small groups to find temporary employment elsewhere, he said.
The soldiers’ protest, one of many recently in government-held cities, and Major Youssefi’s concession to his men underscore the Yemeni desperation to mitigate the crisis, which officials say is lowering the morale and efficiency of their troops, prolonging the war. The violence in Yemen has claimed more than 10,000 casualties and displaced about three million people, according to the United Nations.
“There is growing resentment among the soldiers,” Major Youssefi said. “They have no power to influence the government or the coalition to pay them.”
The Yemenis who make up the bulk of the government forces are young men in their late teens and early 20s, many of whom dropped out of school to join the coalition when war broke out. Most were working on fishing boats, farms and construction sites to support their families, officials said.
“Many signed up to fight for their country, but many did join to make a living, especially since there are no salaries in other sectors,” Ezzaldin al-Asbahi, the country’s human rights minister, said in an interview. “We really understand their suffering because it is truly affecting their lives and they are making a lot sacrifices.”
The coalition had promised each recruit a minimum of about $270 a month — the prewar salary of a university professor with a master’s degree. But once on the front lines, according to several officers, most of the young men found themselves penniless for months on end.
That is a stark contrast with circumstances in the Houthi-held cities, where most fighters contentedly receive $200 to $300 at the end of each month with little delay, Houthi fighters and leaders said.
Maj. Gen. Ahmed Asseri, a spokesman for the coalition, declined to respond to the complaints of the Yemeni troops. “We gave the needed funds to the Yemeni government,” General Asseri said. “Distribution is their business, not ours.”
Many Yemeni officials disagree.
“Yes, there have been administrative issues, but there was also a funding problem relating to our regional partnerships,” said Maj. Gen. Mohsen Khosrouf, the Yemeni military’s director of morale. “We had a problem distributing and getting the funds we were meant to distribute.”
“But the problem is solved now, and everyone gets paid regularly,” General Khosrouf added, despite common claims to the contrary among troops.
Saudi Arabia is still grappling with the global drop in oil prices, though that factor was dismissed by many of the aggrieved Yemeni soldiers, who interpret the payment delays as exploitation.
Not all Yemeni soldiers, however, are unhappy.
“There hasn’t been a problem in the Emirati-controlled areas,” said Nasser al-Aziri, an aide to the Yemeni military’s chief of staff, Mohamed al-Maqdashi, referring to the military units that fall under the command of the United Arab Emirates, another member of the coalition.
The payments in those areas are not only regular, officers say; they are twice and sometimes even three times as high as those of the Saudis. The United Arab Emirates division even offers one-year sabbaticals. That benefit, however, also suggests that the Emiratis expect the war to continue for some time.
“Many are getting married and building homes there,” said Mr. Aziri, the chief of staff’s aide. “Their lives have improved since they have joined the army, especially since things there are quiet. So they can enjoy this stable salary, which they would not have been able to get elsewhere. These young men, who don’t come from rich, merchant families, couldn’t have done any of these things without the military.”
Saeed Al-Batati reported from Al Mukalla, and Nour Youssef from Cairo.
Shuaib Almosawa contributed reporting from Sanaa, Yemen.