Building Peace on Shifting Sands: Shaping a Stable Yemen
As Yemen enters its seventh year of protracted conflict, diplomatic efforts to reach some form of peace agreement are finally beginning to bear fruit.
Helen Lackner (author of Yemen in Crisis) details why there has been a turnaround in the prospects for peace in Yemen, and what these negotiations might mean for the Yemeni population.
In 2015, a Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen after the Houthis ousted the internationally recognised government. The conflict has since devolved into a microcosm of Middle Eastern rivalries across a multiplicity of devastating wars, with local Yemenis paying the price. This includes endemic poverty, chronic malnutrition and crippled health and water infrastructure, in what the UN has called the worst humanitarian crisis of the decade. However, a recent shift in US policy, the increased involvement of Omani diplomats, and the coalescing interests of key parties means that peace in Yemen is more likely than it has been in years.
"Yemen has devolved into a microcosm of Middle Eastern rivalries across a multiplicity of devastating wars"
Since taking office in January, U.S. President Joe Biden has prioritised ending the calamitous war in Yemen. During his first foreign policy speech as President, Biden appointed Timothy Lenderking as the United States Special Envoy to Yemen, and reversed the Trump administration designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organisation
Biden subsequently announced his administration would suspend all support to Saudi-led offensive operations. While many outstanding questions remain, such as what exactly constitutes 'offensive support', this move nonetheless sends a strong message to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and is a vital first vital step towards ending Yemen’s quagmire.
Recent months have seen Omani diplomats playing a heightened role in communication between parties, indicating a strong interest between regional heavyweights in negotiating some form of peace. Although Oman has long pursued a policy of neutrality over the situation in Yemen due to its history as a trusted intermediary between conflicting parties in the Middle East, facilitating lasting peace in Yemen is also a critical foreign policy goal for Oman due to their 294km shared border. Oman is therefore uniquely positioned to act as a “diplomatic bridge” for communication between Saudi Arabia, the Houthis, Iran, and other Yemeni and international stakeholders. Most recently, an Omani delegation accompanied by high-level Houthi representatives arrived in Sanaa in early June for the first time since the internationalisation of the conflict in 2015, demonstrating a “real push for action” towards peace negotiations according to Lackner.
While there is much left to negotiate, not all barriers to peace are steadfast as they may appear. As Lackner notes, Houthi spokesmen during these peace-talks have maintained that an end to Saudi Arabia’s air and sea blockade on their imports, and a reopening of the Sanaa airport and Hudaydah ports is a necessary precondition to any ceasefire agreement. In response, Saudi Arabia has offered several concessions, including partially reopening the airport, and allowing monitored food and fuel imports into Hudaydah. As the humanitarian crisis continues to worsen, finding a middle ground on this issue will become more critical and more likely.
"If (the Houthis) get Ma'rib, they will be able to move all the way to the Omani border"
Meanwhile, Houthi incursions into southern Saudi Arabia have continued, and the resource-rich Ma’rib Governorate has been the target of a renewed Houthi offensive. A map of Yemen reveals the strategic importance of Ma’rib: Seizing it would enable the Houthis to push further south into oil-rich Shabwah and east to Hadramaut. The Houthis would also control the Marib Al-Wadi’a road, a key route for the movement of people from Yemen to Saudi Arabia and thereby a strategically invaluable target. Lackner believes however that the offensive does not indicate the failing of peace-talks, but instead anticipation of negotiations. She argues that from the Houthi perspective, military action serves as an “incentive to push the other side to make concessions”, signalling their strong interest in reaching an agreement.
The Saudis for their part have notably held back in aggressively halting this offensive, indicating their interest in keeping the conflict at a level where peace can be negotiated. As Lackner details, the battle for Ma’rib is “not dependent on the fighters” because the Saudi-backed forces of the internationally recognised government (IRG) in the province do not have the material military capabilities to push back against the Houthi advances. Thus far the Saudis have avoided equipping them with the means to decisively end the conflict, instead engaging in air strike campaigns to keep the Houthis at bay. Although it has extensively supported the IRG, Saudi Arabia’s wider regional security priority is to ensure Yemen’s strength remains limited. Confining their response to airstrikes indicates that the Saudis are not interested in escalating the conflict, and are prepared to work towards a deal. In the process, the Saudis will be looking for assurances from both Oman, the primary mediator, and Iran, a supporter of the Houthis, that the offensive in Ma’rib will cease. It remains unclear however what assurances Oman or Iran can give, because although the Houthis are connected to Iran, as Lackner outlines, “it’s important to not over-stress the Iranian role in Yemen”.
The Houthis strong military position and leverage is not the only conundrum facing Saudi Arabia’s exit strategy in Yemen. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), a partner to the Saudi-led coalition, is now undermining the Saudi’s position in Yemen through its military engagement in the country’s south and its client relations with the secessionist Southern Transition Council (STC) alongside other armed groups. The UAE’s forces in Balhaf port in Shabwa, its air base on the island of Perim, and its forces on the island of Socotra further highlight the rivalry between these two supposed allies. The UAE are also reportedly operating flights and tours from Israel to Socotra which has been the site of conflict between the STC and the IRG, further inflaming tensions. These secessionists appear to be receptive to cooperation with Israel, while the Houthis and the IRG condemn such relations. If left unaddressed, the UAE’s presence in Socotra jeopardises conflict resolution efforts in Yemen.
Finally, although confirming the accuracy of the widely reported lack of confidence in a U.S.-led peace negotiation, Lackner stresses that the ravaged economy, frequent electricity blackouts across the country, widespread fuel shortages and alarming health insecurities have made powerful actors in Yemen desperate for peace. Increased involvement from Israel, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Iran threatens to permanently focus peace efforts on regional power competition instead of domestic Yemeni issues. While the significant trust deficit between Yemenis and the international community is well-founded, securing the participation of key international actors will nonetheless be necessary to de-escalate the conflict. The United States has a key role to play in reigning in these states in order to preserve the potential for peace.
To take a deeper look into the present-day situation in Yemen, Episode 4 of the Red Line analysed the origins of the conflict with Helen Lackner, Laura Kasinof, and Thomas Small.
To delve further into UAE’s foreign policy in Yemen, Episode 46 of the Red Line Podcast examined the UAE’s Red Sea strategy with Hilal Khashan, Helen Lackner, and Bilal Saab.
Written by Daniela Žuvela
Edited by Owen Swift