With his recent visit to Saudi Arabia 25 August, the US secretary of state stirred some controversy over the so-called “Kerry plan”for resolving the crisis in Yemen. Was it a “plan”or was it an “initiative”or just “ideas”? How did the Gulf countries and Riyadh in particular respond? Such questions lay at the centre of the initial debate. But setting formalistic matters aside, the upshot is that the US placed a new proposal on the table for restructuring the Yemeni settlement process.
What is new in Kerry’s proposal? Can it succeed where the Geneva and Kuwait rounds failed? To answer these questions, it is useful to analyse the substance of the joint press conference held by the US secretary of state and his Saudi counterpart, Adel Al-Jubeir, at the conclusion of Kerry’s bilateral and multilateral talks with Gulf officials along with the Russian deputy foreign minister.
While Kerry mentioned the word “plan”in his remarks, he did not clearly enumerate its points. However, a close inspection of his remarks makes it possible to deduce four general points.
Firstly, there are certain broad outlines on which all parties agree. All seek a return to the negotiating table in order to bring a halt the war for which all parties are paying dearly. All agree that the military option will not settle the war or resolve the crisis. They also agree that there is a dire humanitarian crisis in Yemen, with 80 per cent of the population in need of humanitarian assistance due to the conditions created by the warfare, and that the longer this situation continues the more Yemen risks becoming a failed state, increasingly vulnerable to violent extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda.
The second point concerns procedural steps that essentially entail preparatory consultations for the resumption of negotiations overseen by UN Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. The chief purpose would be to obtain clear responses to the new US vision before returning to the negotiation table, thereby formulating of a new draft political process within a few months after the return to Kuwait. It appears that Kerry sought to strike a certain neutrality between the concerned parties. In the press conference he made no explicit references to the “legitimate”government supported by Riyadh or to the government of the “insurgents”, or even to the Presidential Council recently formed by the Saleh-Houthi alliance in Sanaa.
In this regard, Ahmed Rafiq, a member of the General People’s Congress who is close to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, told Al-Ahram Weekly, “The US Secretary of State is trying to rescue the negotiations before the current US administration’s term ends. He tried to convince Saudi Arabia that the ‘legitimacy’that Riyadh used as an excuse for war no longer exists. Some anticipated that Russia was in the process of preparing an initiative, which is why the Russian deputy prime minister was in Riyadh at the same time.”
Rafiq denied that Saleh played a part in the formulation of the Kerry plan. He said that Saleh had presented his ideas regarding the negotiating process in a letter to the Emir of Kuwait during talks in Riyadh. Rafiq anticipates that preparations to resume negotiations could take up to three months.
Kerry’s third point involved a “transitional working plan”. Any forthcoming negotiations will take as their starting point the need to address the problems that caused the previous round of talks to collapse. Essentially these revolved around the prioritisation of the political or security tracks in the process. Kerry proposed that the two tracks proceed simultaneously. He also called for the participation of all concerned parties in the political process in accordance with their respective political weight. He took the opportunity to state that while the Houthis should have an opportunity to be a part of a future government, they should bear in mind that they are a minority in Yemen. He also called for “the swift formation of a new national unity government, with power shared among the parties; the withdrawal of forces from Sanaa and other key areas; the transfer of all heavy weapons, including ballistic missiles and launchers, from the Houthis and forces allied with them, to a third party.”
We could label the fourth point of the Kerry plan as the “final working plan”. The aim is to realise political stability through general countrywide elections. In this regard, it is important to note that Kerry did not allude to any political or administrative subdivisions but rather treated Yemen as an indivisible whole. In addition, he stressed that he and his counterparts were “also committed to providing future support –economic and stabilisation support –to help meet urgent humanitarian needs, to stabilise the economy, and to assist in the development and reconstruction.”
Commenting on the Kerry plan as a whole, Yemeni political analyst Abdel-Aziz Al-Majidi said, “Clearly, Kerry wants to give the country over to the Houthis. The US has a vision for reinstating Ali Abdullah Saleh or delivering the reins of power to the Houthi-Saleh alliance.”
On the Saudi viewpoint, it appears that there is a considerable gap between Riyadh and Washington on a number of issues. One might be termed the inversion between the minority and majority in Yemen. As Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir put it, “Keep in mind that the Houthis, in a country of 26 million people, are less than 50,000. That’s their number, 10 per cent of the population of Saada …So we’re saying that the Houthis have every right to be part of the political process in Yemen like every other citizen, but they cannot have a privileged position where they have veto rights over a country of 26 million in which they represent less than 50,000.”
But Kerry, while noting that the Houthis were a minority, “and a very small minority”, raised the subject of “power sharing”again. This concept was subsequently translated into a three-part formula that triggered considerable controversy: the legitimate government, the Houthis, former president Saleh. Under such a formula, the Houthi minority allied with the Saleh camp would constitute a two-thirds majority while the government of President Hadi would be reduced to a one-third minority.
A number of Yemeni sources contacted by the Weekly anticipate that communications will be made with Iran with regard to the resumption of negotiations. They also believe that an Iranian role may be formalised in the agreement on the grounds that Iran is part of the solution in the regional framework of the Yemeni crisis. In the Saudi opinion, while there is no denying the large role that Iran plays in Yemen, its position as a potential partner in the solution to that crisis has been exaggerated. While Kerry did not hesitate to reproach Iran for threatening its neighbours, he made it clear that he believed that Iran could play a constructive role in the settlement process and that, perhaps in so doing, it would have a better chance of getting what it wants through negotiations than through war. As for Washington, it would inevitably become a party of any war in one way or another, which would ruin the US’s strategies for dealing with this region at present.
A political solution does not necessarily eliminate the need for military action, from the Saudi perspective. This is not just because of the civil war but also because of the cross border threat to Saudi Arabia due to Houthi missile fire. Riyadh asserts that it is fighting on two fronts: Houthi insurgents against legitimacy, on the one hand, and extremists epitomised by Al-Qaeda, on the other, although Al-Qaeda has not engaged in a single confrontation but rather withdraws from one threatened position in order to reassert itself in another.
In official Saudi rhetoric, the Houthis are a “militia”and not just a demographic majority. “We were facing a radical militia, a virtual Hizbullah that was in possession of the government …with ballistic missiles and with an air force. This represented a clear and present danger to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,”Al-Jubeir said in the joint press conference.
The Kerry plan includes no provisions for penalties in the event of non-fulfilment of obligations. This is another area where US and Saudi opinions diverge, the latter believing that the secretary of state is too trusting of the Houthis. In fact, Kerry himself brought up the case of Houthi actions in Kuwait that “led to where we are today”. What if the Houthis showed commitment during the talks but failed to follow through on implementation?
In an exclusive interview with the Weekly, Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed Bin Daghr said, referring to Abdel-Malek Al-Houthi, “The country will not be handed to a child for him to drag it more than half a century backwards. We have fixed principles, which are to safeguard the republic, to regain control of government, to ensure that weapons —heavy weapons —are possessed exclusively by the state, and to safeguard the territorial unity of Yemen.”He added that any negotiating process not based on three frames —the Gulf initiative, UN Resolution 2216 and the outputs of the national dialogue —would never be acceptable.
While there are divergences between the US and the Gulf countries in general, it is clear that some differences emanate from a bilateral level, between Washington and Riyadh in particular. Both parties have different priorities and different perceptions of threat. Therefore, for example, while Washington has reiterated its commitment to Riyadh as an ally, and to safeguarding Saudi security, it sees Al-Qaeda as a graver threat that is poised to move into areas. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has prioritised the Houthi threat.
It appears that Riyadh is still bent on compelling the other parties in the Yemeni conflict —the Houthi-Saleh camp —to negotiate on the basis of frames of reference that oblige them to recognise the “legitimate”government of President Hadi. At the same time, it continues to withhold equal recognition to other opposition parties. Perhaps in this context it is possible to understand why former president Saleh declared that there was a plot to assassinate him in the same manner and in the same way as the previous assassination attempt against him. Observers have suggested that his intent was to insinuate that Riyadh was scheming against his life.
The US, for its part, is searching for a last opportunity, one that thinks outside the box of Saudi-Hadi stipulated frames-of-reference. The problem is that the Kerry plan not only faces obstacles from the divergences between key players, but also the pressure of the clock. Any new plan requires time to win consensus and be put into effect. For Kerry, time is not in abundance.
*This story was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly.