A settlement in Yemen: Reviving the Kuwait track

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 2 Aug 2018

The UN’s special envoy to Yemen is trying to revive prospects of a comprehensive settlement, but the increasingly complex weave of regional entanglements threatens his efforts

Griffiths, Al-Otaibi
File Photo: UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths (L) meets with Kuwaiti Ambassador Mansour Al-Otaibi who reaffirms Kuwait's support to UN efforts for the peaceful settlement of the conflict in Yemen (Photo: Courtesy of Kuwait Mission to the UN Twitter account)

UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths visited Kuwait on Sunday, 29 July, to meet with Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah as part of his renewed drive to promote a settlement to the Yemeni conflict.

In a press conference following the meeting, Griffiths noted that the Kuwaiti emir and government had hosted Yemeni parties for about 100 days of talks two years ago and that, although those talks failed to produce peace, they did define “the narrative for the peace that we hope to bring to Yemen in the course of the next month”.

Griffiths’ visit to Kuwait followed repeated visits to Sanaa where he met with Houthi leaders. It appears that these meetings have so far failed to produce positive results on the envoy’s Hodeida initiative, which he hoped would serve as a platform on which to build towards the realisation of a comprehensive settlement.

His predecessor as UN special envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, had espoused a similar approach that Ahmed explained in detail in an interview last year with Al-Ahram Weekly. Griffiths’ proposal may also be encountering resistance among other parties, in spite of the fact that the Arab coalition’s “Operation Golden Victory”, which is being led by the UAE, has been put on hold in order to clear the way for Griffiths’ mediating efforts.

Griffiths’ attempt to revive the Kuwait venue, which is to say the comprehensive track, may have been inspired by the failure, so far, to advance the Hodeida initiative.

Former minister of Yemeni national dialogue affairs Mohamed Al-Makhlafi does not hold out much hope, however. In an interview with the Weekly, he said that the Houthis seemed to lack the necessary political will, because otherwise they would have agreed to the interim settlement proposal in Hodeida.

He added: “There is nothing to compel the Houthis to return to the Kuwait track, because the government has already agreed to the earlier outputs and, also, perhaps because they are not under pressure militarily.” He explained that despite the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s progress on the fronts in Saada, Bayda and elsewhere, the Houthis have retained their strategic positions.

Also, the Houthis are not under pressure in Hodieda, probably due to international opposition to military hostilities there for fear of civilian lives and the mounting humanitarian crisis.

On the other hand, Griffiths may be contemplating another alternative, which is to combine the subsidiary Hodeida track with the comprehensive Kuwait track. This is the opinion of Yemeni political analyst Abdel-Aziz Al-Majidi who told the Weekly by phone that he believes that Griffiths is trying to get the parties to budge.

“Perhaps the Houthis gave some signs of a willingness to return to the negotiating table, but on conditions that were too difficult to meet. Perhaps they included understandings related to Hodeida as a starting point. If so, the government might not agree for various reasons, among which is its determination that the Houthis must surrender Hodeida first as a means to ensure that they are not recognised as a party of equal status to the legitimate government.”

In Al-Madjidi’s opinion, the Houthis are playing along with the mediating efforts, but being evasive at the same time, their objectives being to prolong the conflict, gain time and confuse the issues. He is not optimistic about any of the proposed negotiating tracks.

If the official communications released by the Arab coalition boast continued progress on the fronts at Saada and Bayda, Houthi reports are indicative of a considerable degree of resilience, whether through the use of unconventional responses to the coalition’s advances or by shifting the pressure points on the members of the coalition.

The Houthis’ recent targeting of Saudi oil tankers is an example of the latter strategy. In connection with that incident, coalition spokesman Turki Al-Maliki accused Iran of threatening navigation in the Bab Al-Mandeb and Red Sea.

Speaking at a press conference in Riyadh, he said that the coalition would continue its efforts to secure maritime traffic in the Red Sea.

He stressed that the purpose of the coalition’s operations was to “restore legitimacy” in Yemen. He also lashed out at the UN for ignoring violations committed by Houthi militias in Yemen, pointing to a water station that he claimed they had bombed in Al-Tahita directorate south of Hodeida.

The coalition is “taking all measures in accordance with international and humanitarian law,” Al-Maliki said, adding: “The [Houthi] militias are using civilian areas as military sites.” He also claimed that Saada had become “a launching pad for Iranian ballistic missiles”.

On the other hand, he said, pro-government forces have regained control over the mountain range on the Taiz front and they have kept 22 air, sea and land portals in Yemen open in spite of the continued attempts of Houthi militias to obstruct the arrival of ships carrying humanitarian aid.

He added that more than five million Yemenis benefit from the aid supplied by the King Salman Relief Centre.

Last week, in a response to Trump’s recently tweeted threat against Iran, Major General Qassem Suleimani said the Red Sea was no longer safe due to the presence of US forces in the area.

Speaking from a military base in the suburbs of Hamdan city, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force said: “A mere organisation [the Houthi movement] is standing against you [the US] in Yemen, but it has emerged victorious in the face of the most advanced of your military equipment. What have you achieved over the past four years? You stripped the Red Sea — which used to be a safe sea — of security. You brought under fire Saudi Arabia and [its capital] Riyadh — which had not seen a single rocket fired at them for 100 years.”

Yemeni political analysts interviewed by the Weekly agree that the level of regional engagement in Yemen has generated a complex web of interrelations with other regional questions, such as the Iranian nuclear deal and the Syrian crisis, but that Yemen’s geopolitical location at the mouth to the Red Sea and across the Horn of Africa adds a dimension of complexity of a different magnitude because of its relation to security arrangements that are taking shape in the vicinity of the Horn of Africa.

The confusing intricacy of that weave seems to put hopes for a solution to the Yemeni crisis even more out of reach.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Yemen: Reviving the Kuwait track

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