The war in Yemen is poised to end by year’s end, or so many Gulf and Western analysts are saying.
Some would even go further and anticipate that the end of the war in Yemen could pave the way to negotiations with Iran to conclude a comprehensive deal that includes its Gulf neighbours.
Such hopes are not only based on the Saudi-brokered peace agreement signed last week in Riyadh between the internationally recognised government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council (STC). There are other signs coming from the two main countries in the Coalition to Support Legitimacy in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, about a possible reconciliation with the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the country.
Though it is not the first time that covert contacts with the Houthi rebels to reach a negotiated solution in Yemen have been reported, this might be the first official acknowledgement by the Saudis that they are already happening. Media reports have quoted an unnamed Saudi official confirming that the talks with the Houthi rebels, probably in the Omani capital Muscat, are ongoing.
A year after the coalition started its military operation in Yemen to reinstate the legitimate government ousted by the Houthis, there were failed attempts to negotiate with the rebels. But now, after four and half years of war, it looks as if the current attempts are more serious for many reasons.
One of the main reasons is the earlier UAE decision to redeploy the Emirati forces in Yemen, though in coordination with the Saudi-led Coalition. Emirati troops were fundamental in achieving coalition victories in South Yemen, driving the Houthi rebels north and uprooting the militant terrorist groups there. They also helped train the southern resistance forces that fought the Houthis alongside the coalition forces.
In a speech at the Abu Dhabi Strategic Forum in the UAE this week, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gergash said that the Houthi militias “are a part of Yemeni society, and they will have a role in its future.” That position is not new, since the UAE has always maintained that the intervention started in 2015 was not a goal in itself, but a means to reach a political settlement incorporating all the parties in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia shares the same position, though as the leader of the coalition and host of the exiled legitimate government it has been more in favour of inflicting a defeat on the Houthi rebels, securing its southern borders on one side and curbing the Iranian influence in Yemen on the other.
After years of a devastating war in Yemen that has left hundreds of thousands of causalities and millions of displaced and starving, all the parties seem to be coming to the conclusion that a military solution is not achievable.
Allies of the coalition countries in the West are also becoming more wary of the situation and its humanitarian and moral toll. Some Yemeni sources have talked about an American request to the parties involved in the Yemeni crisis to end the war and engage in a dialogue to end it before the end of the year.
Such rumours have surfaced before in 2016 and last year, yet they look more substantial today. In his speech in the UAE, Gergash was also upbeat about the prospects of the Riyadh deal between the Yemen government and the STC as an opening to a comprehensive deal between all the Yemeni factions including the Houthis.
However, the UAE will not easily tolerate the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, represented by the Islah Party allied with the government. But for the sake of ending the war, the Emirati position on this might also change.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE may also see the time as ripe for a deal with Iran, given the latter’s weak negotiating position now that its proxy groups in Lebanon and Iraq are facing popular revolts. Meanwhile, the Americans are keeping up their “maximum pressure” approach on Iran, and the Europeans seem to be on the brink of abandoning attempts to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
For these reasons, Gergash was cautiously hopeful about prospects for peace when he said this week that “I believe there could be a path to a deal with Iran that all the parties might soon be ready to embark on. It will be long, and patience and courage will be required, however.”
He reiterated that Iran should come to the negotiating table with the world powers and the Gulf countries to seek a deal that would de-escalate regional tensions and revive its economy. “Further escalation at this point serves no one, and we strongly believe that there is room for collective diplomacy to succeed,” he said.
The UAE minister adhered to the line shared with his Saudi ally that any talks with Iran should not just deal with the nuclear issue but also address concerns over Iran’s ballistic missile programme and regional interventions through proxy groups.
“Given how we have seen Iran use its ballistic missiles, it will be difficult for any meaningful talks not to address this. And this time the Gulf States will need to be at the negotiating table,” Gergash said.
However, some Western diplomats in the region do not subscribe to this optimism about the deal in Yemen and suspect that its implementation in the south of the country might face obstacles that derail the process towards a political solution.
Previous deals, some UN-brokered, have failed to materialise. And there are doubts about Iran softening on an important card in the regional game.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.