A new roadmap for Yemen?

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 24 Feb 2022

Optimism over UN Special Envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg’s announcement of a new roadmap to resolve the Yemen conflict has been contradicted on the ground.

Yemeni pro-government forces  during fighting with Houthi rebels on the south frontline of Marib. (P
Yemeni pro-government forces during fighting with Houthi rebels on the south frontline of Marib. (Photo: AFP)

Despite the escalation in the Yemen conflict on several fronts at home and overseas, UN Special Envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg issued an optimistic statement about the situation in the country to the UN Security Council last week, pointing to a multi-track roadmap covering political, economic, and humanitarian issues that would end the crisis in the country this spring.

However, there has been no substantial response from the various stakeholders in the Yemen conflict to Grundberg’s declaration.

While there has been much movement on the situation in Yemen, including the participation of the foreign minister of the legitimate government at the Munich Security Conference last week, that same government is as adamant as ever about listing the Houthi rebel movement in the country as a terrorist organisation and does not seem willing to return to the negotiating table.

The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, whose country is spearheading the Arab Coalition in Yemen, met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Munich to discuss developments in Yemen. More meetings also took place on the sidelines of the Munich Conference, including one between the UN secretary-general and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Abdollahian in which Yemen featured on the agenda.

The outcome of these talks did not go beyond closed doors.

There have also been visits by Brett McGurk, coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the US National Security Council, to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, during which he stressed Washington’s commitment to supporting both allies.

It is likely that Grundberg briefed Blinken about his roadmap for Yemen, who in turn discussed it with his Saudi counterpart. The latter said in Munich that there was a desire to reach a settlement to the crisis in the country, a policy that Riyadh has consistently supported.

Riyadh has said that the Houthis, Saudi Arabia’s opponents in the Yemen conflict, do not react to such Saudi-US initiatives, as several Houthi leaders have shown.

When the UAE-backed Giants Brigades began liberating Yemen’s Shabwah Province from Houthi control, the Houthi Ambassador to Iran Ibrahim Eldelmy said his group could accept an initiative proposed by Tehran in 2015 when the Arab Coalition’s Operation Decisive Storm for the liberation of Yemen began.

The initiative consists of a set of conditions aimed at bringing the Houthis to power as a fait accompli by first lifting restrictions imposed by the coalition on Yemen’s airspace.

Diplomatic efforts, in which the US has played a pivotal role, indicate that the demand of the legitimate government of Yemeni, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, to list the Houthis as a terrorist organisation has largely receded and that Washington believes there is still potential to return to negotiations despite recent developments.

However, Yemeni political sources in Riyadh described ongoing efforts as “spinning wheels” without substantial progress.

The sources said that Tehran’s priorities, as presented by Abdollahian, focused on the ongoing talks in Vienna on the Iran nuclear agreement, especially since there are rumours that a deal is at hand. Yemen may have been mentioned in discussions, the sources said, but the UN remains embroiled in the Yemen problem, which is not likely to end soon.

They added that Grundberg’s proposed roadmap seemed to start where his predecessor former UN special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths had begun and not where he had ended. It was simply a matter of making progress on the 2019 Stockholm Agreement, which the Houthis have ignored since day one, they said.

An informed Yemeni source in Cairo said it was too early to anticipate action any time soon when all the parties are in stalemate.

Meanwhile, the Houthis are trying to regain control of the Marib and Shabwah Provinces, earlier lost to the Giants Brigades. Similar forces on the western coast in Haradh are facing unprecedented escalation after they seized some territory.

Politically, the stalemate in the country is getting worse, the Yemeni source said, adding that there was talk behind the scenes in Riyadh that Saudi Arabia is becoming irritated with the legitimate government in Yemen, whose positions are becoming “burdensome.”

There had been hints of a “need for change,” but these have subsided due to concerns about the repercussions of such changes on the status quo. There have also been proposals for Saudi Arabia to launch a Riyadh-2 track on Yemen that would see the formation of a presidential council including a Yemeni vice-president but not strongman Vice-President Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar.

The source added that Saudi Arabia had changed its mind because there had not been a consensus on candidates for the council, indicating a crisis in the Yemeni elite. Other players involved in the issue, such as the UAE, also expressed uncertainty about the move.

As for reaching a settlement to the Yemen conflict, sources in Riyadh and Cairo agree that the legitimate government is responsible for some of the obstacles on the road to progress, but that it is not responsible for the failure to return to the negotiating table.

The “major concessions” proposed by Grundberg cannot be made to facilitate a peace plan since they will involve all the parties making concessions with the exception of the Houthis. The Yemeni sources did not elaborate on the nature of the concessions, except for what had been mentioned in the Iranian initiative, or the type of gains the Houthis would reap.

This implies there is still no political or conceptual consensus on how to end the Yemen conflict, bringing the crisis back to square one.

The Houthi movement is currently catching its breath after the Giants Brigades suspended the liberation of territories on the eastern front and western coast. With fewer attacks now taking place by the UAE in Yemen, the Houthis have also halted attacks on the country.

Last week, the Saudi front also calmed down to some extent, indicating a return to the traditional rules of engagement in the seven-year Yemen conflict.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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