The first Gulf initiative on Yemen in 2011 aimed to facilitate the transfer of government from the regime of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh to a newly elected authority. Some 25 political parties and numerous political figures, including Saleh, took part in the initiative, which resulted in the election of President Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi in February 2012.
The initiative also aimed to produce a new constitution for Yemen, but it did not live long enough to produce a new political order. Instead, the new government was obliged to engage in crisis management since after his return from a hospital stay in the US Saleh withdrew his support for the transition and allied himself with the Ansarullah (Houthi) Movement.
As the tensions escalated, the newly elected president fled to Saudi Arabia and the Houthis marched into the capital Sanaa. Following the assassination of Saleh in December 2017, the Houthis embarked on a full-scale effort to take over the rest of the northern provinces, especially Mareb, a goal that still eludes them.
It is important to bear this background in mind in the light of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) call for a new initiative to end the war in Yemen. It has invited all the Yemeni parties to take part, including the Houthis, but not only have they turned the invitation down, but they have also escalated strikes against vital economic and civilian targets in Riyadh.
Their message is clear: they are not interested in a project that would end the war and lay the foundations for peace. They have also made it clear that if talks are to take place, certain conditions have to be met first. The Saudi-led Coalition would have to lift the restrictions it has imposed on the Houthis and the venue would have to be moved to any other Gulf capital but Riyadh.
The GCC has affirmed that the initiative will proceed on schedule from 29 March to 7 April. Turki Al-Maliki, spokesman for the Saudi-led Coalition to support the internationally recognised Yemeni government, said that the coalition reserved the right to respond to the strikes, adding that Saudi Arabia wanted the initiative to succeed while the Houthis were working to undermine it.
A Houthi boycott will not keep the new Gulf initiative from proceeding, something which may draw on the precedent of the first initiative. Six months after this began, Saleh was forced to come to terms with it in order to resolve the Yemeni crisis.
Just as this process rallied a consensus and offered a way out of the crisis, the new GCC initiative could also show the Yemenis a way out from the gruelling war that has entered its eighth year and driven three-quarters of the population to the brink of starvation.
One Yemeni source speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly from Riyadh said that certain political forces dominate decision-making within the internationally recognised government, above all the Al-Islah (Reform) Party. By giving all the participating parties a say, the GCC initiative would breathe new life into the legitimacy of the government, he said.
The Yemeni armed forces also need to be restructured in order to contend with the Houthis. This will enable the coalition to oversee any military efforts and back them politically after it unilaterally withdraws from the war, strengthening its members’ own defences.
Another main facet of the war involves the Southern Movement with its secessionist ambitions. Efforts made in the framework of the GCC initiative will focus on bringing the Southern Transitional Council (STC) on board, the dominant faction in the movement.
It is hoped that the failure to implement the Riyadh Agreement signed by the STC and the government in November 2019 will be addressed, since according to some the longer this failure continues and the more the mistrust between the STC and the government is allowed to fester, the greater the momentum the Southern Movement will acquire and the greater will be the chances that the South will secede in the long term.
The UN is also working to promote the new Gulf initiative. UN Special Envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg has met extensively with the country’s political forces in recent weeks and has proposed a humanitarian truce for Ramadan and the relaunch of relief efforts that had ground to a halt due to the war and the lack of international funding, scaled down against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.
According to UN emergency relief coordinator Martin Griffiths, 23.4 million Yemenis now need assistance. Of these 19 million will go hungry in the coming months, an increase of almost 20 per cent from 2021, while more than 160,000 will face famine-like conditions. Only a third of the $4.3 billion that aid agencies seek this year for Yemen has been collected so far.
International support is crucial to ending the war in Yemen, and the US ambassador to the UN stressed this dimension in her remarks to the UN in mid-March, saying that her country welcomed Grundberg’s launch of a consultative process and urging unified support for his efforts.
The GCC/UN efforts may also be part of a broader international drive to end other Middle Eastern wars. In Libya, the US along with other international and regional powers involved in that crisis are working to forestall a slide back into armed conflict. In Syria, there are international efforts to persuade the regime to accommodate the opposition. The common denominator in all these conflicts is foreign involvement, especially on the part of non-Arab parties such as Iran and Turkey.
Tehran appears to be unwilling to abandon its proxy-war strategy for expanding its regional influence, and it refuses any linkage between its policies in the negotiations to renew the 2015 nuclear agreement. But there may be other ways of countering the Iranian influence in Syria. An Arab rapprochement with Damascus could go a long way to reducing Syrian reliance on Iran, and the recent Emirati initiative to invite the Syrian president to the UAE, as well as the efforts of other Arab governments to promote Syria’s return to the Arab League, could work towards this end.
International developments related to the Ukraine crisis combined with international pressures to salvage the political process in Libya might compel Turkey to relinquish its militarising of the Libyan crisis. Guarantees of its economic interests in the country might offer Ankara further incentives.
While it is assumed that boycotting the GCC initiative would severely weaken the Houthis, the initiative could also throw them a lifeline. Demonstrations have begun to increase in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, with the protests driven by economic difficulties, tax hikes, deteriorating public services, and shortages of fuel and gas. Civil-service salaries have not been paid for years, while Houthi elites amass fortunes.
If the main impulse behind an impending “march of the hungry” against Houthi rule is economic, there are also signs that it could acquire political and ideological dimensions.
A number of Zaidi imams have reportedly distanced themselves from the Houthi project, which suggests that this movement could gradually lose its religious base. It is also difficult to imagine that the Houthi leaders will be able to hold out against the combination of economic and popular pressures and simultaneously continue to cling to their military option out of the belief that this will force their adversaries to give in to their demands.
The new GCC initiative may be the last chance they have to survive, but this time as one party in a larger political project for Yemen and not as one that wants to impose itself on the country as a whole.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly