New Gulf initiative on Yemen

Ahmed Eleiba , Sunday 3 Apr 2022

The Gulf Cooperation Council launched the second Yemeni National Dialogue in the Saudi capital Riyadh earlier this week, initially without the participation of Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

New Gulf initiative on Yemen
Loyalists to Yemen s Houthi chant slogans during a rally marking the seventh anniversary of the Saudi-led coalition s intervention (photo: AFP)

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) launched the second Yemeni National Dialogue on 29 March in Riyadh with a view to promoting a new Gulf initiative to end the conflict in Yemen.

The dialogue conference is expected to last ten days until 7 April, and senior officials from the Yemeni Ansarullah (Houthi) Movement have stipulated a number of preconditions for attending.

Speaking from the Yemeni capital Sanaa, Houthi leader Abdul-Malek Al-Houthi and the movement’s politburo chair Mahdi Al-Mashat said that the Saudi-led Coalition backing the internationally recognised Yemeni government must first lift the blockades on Sanaa Airport and the Hodeida Seaport before it would consider attending the dialogue meeting.

At the time of writing, the coalition has yet to respond officially to these demands.

Meanwhile, last month the Houthis ratcheted up their missile attacks against Saudi Arabia, launching 16 strikes mostly against oil facilities. The strikes took place in two waves, the first coinciding with the announcement of the GCC initiative in mid-March and the second coinciding with the seventh anniversary of Operation Resolute Storm that the coalition launched against the Houthi insurgency in Yemen on 26 March 2015.

After the second wave of strikes, the Houthis declared a three-day unilateral truce, signalling their intention to resume the military offensive when the dialogue begins.

In retaliation against the last rounds of Houthi strikes, which hit an oil storage facility in Jeddah, the coalition has resumed its attacks against the Houthis. Coalition Spokesman Turki Al-Maliki cautioned civilians in Sanaa and Hodeida to stay clear of Houthi weapons depots before strikes were launched against Houthi targets in these cities.

According to a senior Saudi official in remarks to the French news agency AFP, the latest Houthi preconditions constitute their backing down from their initial position. Previously, they had also insisted that the dialogue conference should be held in any other Gulf capital but Riyadh, which they regard as a party to the conflict and therefore unqualified to act as mediator.

The official described the Houthi preconditions as a form of “muscle flexing.”

Some Yemeni government officials believe that a military option may be the only solution. Yemeni Defence Minister Mohamed Al-Maqdashi is of this view, but he has not clarified how a Houthi military defeat might occur. Yemeni government forces are still on the defensive in the Mareb and Taizz regions of Yemen, and they have only made minor advances on the Jouba front.

Houthi militias have laid siege to areas in the northeast of the Al-Bayda governorate to keep government forces from advancing into Mareb from the Shabwa front that was liberated by the Southern Amaliqa (Giants) forces at the end of last year. The Southern Giants, affiliated with the Southern Movement, have been fighting off and on alongside pro-government forces.

Many observers in Yemen doubt that a national dialogue without the Houthis will lead to a peaceful settlement, but they still believe that it could have some positive outcomes. It could produce new political alignments and reform the government coalition, for example.

One participant in the preparations for the National Dialogue in Riyadh agreed that activities at the conference would focus on ways to reform and restructure the Yemeni government and military. However, he also anticipated a UN-sponsored prisoner swap soon, which would be in keeping with the Ramadan ceasefire that UN Special Envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg has been trying to promote in order to facilitate the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian relief.

Given that the Houthis are Iranian proxies, their strikes against Saudi oil facilities have regional ramifications. Tehran is eager to accelerate a deal to renew the agreement on its nuclear programme, thereby enabling the resumption of Iranian oil exports. International circumstances surrounding the Russian war in Ukraine and the consequent rise in global energy prices have also become additional determinants in this context.

Endangering Saudi oil exports would increase the pressure on the US to accept Iranian conditions at a time when the Western powers are desperate for oil. In the aftermath of the Houthi strikes, the director of the Saudi Energy Agency said that his country would not be able to meet its export commitments but refused to take the blame for this.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said that Riyadh had opened a line of communications with Tehran on the Yemeni crisis and the Iranian connection with the Houthis. While he welcomed this development, it is unlikely that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which often does not see eye-to-eye with the Foreign Ministry, will feel the same way.

Both Yemeni and Saudi officials maintain that the IRGC is directly involved in Houthi military actions targeting Saudi Arabia. Analysts argue that this makes it difficult to delink the Yemeni question from other regional crises involving Iran, though this would make it easier to reach a solution to the Yemeni conflict.

A comparison might be drawn with Iraq, another country where Iran is highly influential. Washington and Baghdad earlier struck an agreement in the framework of their strategic dialogue to bring the US combat mission in the country to a close and reduce the functions of the US military presence there to training Iraqi forces and guarding US interests.

But despite the agreement, pro-Iranian Iraqi militias taking their cue from the IRGC continued to target US locations in the country and to obstruct the Iraqi political process that aims to resolve the tensions the country has experienced since general elections last October. The IRGC remains a key factor in many regional crises, and it is difficult to assess how it will behave after the Iranian nuclear agreement goes into effect again.

Given the overlapping nature of these crises, it seems that some form of understanding will be needed between the US, Iran, and Saudi Arabia in order to resolve them, including the Yemeni conflict. Perhaps the renewed nuclear agreement with Iran will reduce the tensions between the US and Iran, but it is unclear whether this will affect progress towards a settlement in any of the regional crises.

Meanwhile, the Saudis are keeping the doors open in case the Houthis decide to return to the negotiating table. Ten years ago, then Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh initially rejected the first national dialogue and then changed his mind and handed over the government to current President Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi.

If the Houthis do not take part in the current National Dialogue, perhaps they will come around to negotiating with the Yemeni government bilaterally. Perhaps Riyadh might also wait for conditions to be more conducive to productive talks. This would be conceivable if the Houthis step back from their preconditions, if a truce goes into effect in Ramadan, and in the event of a prisoner-exchange deal, especially one that includes prominent figures such as Hadi’s brother and former defence minister Mahmoud Al-Subaihi.

A new agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme would also be a game-changer in this context, although given the complexity of the Yemeni conflict, it would still take time to reach a peace agreement.

Another possibility, especially if there are no signs of progress, is that Saudi Arabia, keen to end a war that has entered into its eighth year, might decide to withdraw unilaterally from Yemen, leaving it up to the Yemeni government and its allies to confront the Houthis militarily and politically.

At the same time, the GCC would oversee the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement between the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council, thereby demonstrating Riyadh’s continued support for Yemen. Saudi Arabia would also strengthen its defence posture with the addition of the ballistic-missile defence systems it has recently purchased from the US.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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