The Saudi-Emirati sponsored “Jeddah dialogue” concluded a first round of indirect talks between the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) last week. The sponsors, in a joint statement, welcomed the constructive participation of the Yemeni participants but made no mention of a date of forthcoming direct dialogue or specifics on the substance of the talks. Some media related leaks concerning the general points, such as a ceasefire in Aden and other southern cities in the governorates of Shabwa and Abyan. Many reports confirmed statements from both sides regarding ongoing differences between them over the position of Shabwa, in the framework of negotiations over how to organise the administration of the southern governorates. At the root of their difference are conflicting conceptions for a federal system. The government still subscribes to the vision for a six-region federal system, which was one of the outputs of the Yemeni National Dialogue (2013-2015), while the STC envisions a two-region federation between the south and the north as defined by the pre-1994 borders.
The Saudi-UAE communique stressed the need to sustain the constructive and brotherly climate shown in Jeddah and to shun discord and division. The latter appears to allude to mounting calls in favour of the southern secessionist project which some pro-government circles have claimed are supported by the UAE. The statement further underscored the need to focus on the central challenge to the restoration of the state in Yemen, namely the Houthi militias. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi reaffirmed their support for the legitimate Yemeni government in its efforts to preserve the components of the Yemeni state, to defeat the Iranian project, to rout the Houthi militias and terrorist organisations in Yemen, and to continue to supply humanitarian aid to the Yemeni people. Finally, in a reaffirmation of their commitment to an end to hostilities and a solution to the crisis in the south, the communique stated: “The two countries, in close coordination with all parties, have striven to monitor the ceasefire and restoration of calm, and to smooth the path to the launch of a constructive dialogue that will contribute to ending the dispute and remedying the effects of the crisis.”
According to reports from the ground in southern Yemen, the UAE dispatched a military contingent to Abyan to help Saudi forces there enforce the ceasefire in the framework of a joint UAE-Saudi monitoring committee. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, in their communique, appealed to all parties to work seriously with the joint committee formed by the Saudi-led coalition, “in order to halt hostilities and to monitor military activities and any other activities that disturb the public peace.” They further urged all parties to cease escalatory media tactics “which fuel all forms and means of sedition and discord”.
If the UAE-Saudi communique did not expose any of the difficulties that arose during the indirect talks in Jeddah, some insights could be gleaned from other sources. Yemeni Minister of Transport Ali Al-Jabwani wrote on Twitter: “The Shabwa governorate is freed of its split personality and now falls under the government of the state and its civilian and military institutions... Shabwa will remain under the rule of the government, and anyone who entertains illusion or daydreams to the contrary should wake up. Here, there is the government only.”
The minister’s tweet was a response to some news reports on the subject of the dispute over the administration of Shabwa. A journalist from Aden who has been monitoring developments closely told Al-Ahram Weekly, “Some news coverage of the dialogue gives the impression that an attempt is afoot to divide spheres of influence, as opposed to just administrative functions, whereby the government’s control of certain governorates and the STC’s control of others delineates the division of spheres of influence between the two coalition partners.” According to the source, the climate in Aden is still tense and apprehensive. “The fear of renewed fighting has not been dispelled despite the semblance of calm, especially given military movements in the vicinity of Aden.”
Perhaps remarks by UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash on Monday offer some reassurance on this score. “The joint messages from Saudi Arabia and the UAE regarding the developments in Yemen reaffirm the strategic partnership between the two countries. Saudi’s interests are the Emirati’s interests,” he said, adding that the Saudi-UAE partnership was “forged by common goals and consolidated by sacrifices”.
Meanwhile, the US has been closely following developments in Yemen. On Sunday, Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed met with a bipartisan Senate committee to discuss the latest developments in his country. According to the statement released by the Yemeni government, the meeting addressed the “Yemeni crisis in general, in terms of the Iranian-backed insurrectionist Houthi militia’s continued rejection of all political negotiations and the intensification of the disastrous humanitarian crisis”. On the latest eruption of violence in Aden between government and STC forces, Abdelmalik praised Saudi Arabia for its efforts to “end the insurrection and restore order”. He made no mention of Abu Dhabi’s efforts in this regard.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly reaffirmed the need to safeguard Yemeni unity and integrity and, in this spirit, dispatched Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker to the region to meet with Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Their discussions focused on the Iranian role and its domestic repercussions in the Yemeni crisis.
It should be noted that these moves on the part of Washington are, at least in part, informed by a separate US initiative to resolve the STC-government crisis. Oman is to serve as the venue. Citing informed sources, The Wall Street Journal of 27 August reported that the Trump administration “is preparing to initiate direct talks with Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen in an effort to end the four-year-old war, a conflict that has become a volatile front line in the conflict with Tehran, according to people familiar with the plans”. The article said the US would urge Riyadh to attend secret talks with Houthi leaders in Oman in attempt to work out a ceasefire. It stressed that the proposed talks in Oman were a response to the lack of feasible military options for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. According to WSJ’s sources, the US negotiating team in Oman would be led by Christopher Henzel, a veteran diplomat who became the Trump administration’s first ambassador to Yemen in April.
With regard to UN-sponsored peace-making efforts, a source from the Yemeni government delegation in Stockholm told the Al-Ahram Weekly that the six UN-sponsored meetings on board a UN ship anchored off Hodeida were not productive. Even as the sixth meeting convened, Houthi militias opened fire on government forces, he said. “There is not a single indication that the Stockholm track will be productive,” the source added. “But apparently the parties and forces have an interest in perpetuating these meetings.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Constructive but inconclusive