Saudi Arabia has said that it intends to pull out of the war in Yemen yet remain involved in it politically. However, the fate of the UN-sponsored truce between Riyadh and the Houthi rebels in Yemen depends as much on internal dynamics as it does on regional powers, particularly Iran, which has facilitated it.
Nevertheless, the central conflict between the Houthis and the new Yemeni government appears likely to drag on.
The Yemeni National Dialogue sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and held in Riyadh from 29 March to 7 April produced three major outputs. First, the participants resolved to relinquish military solutions to the Yemeni crisis and prioritise political means, especially the UN-sponsored negotiating track with the Houthis.
Second, they stressed the need to accelerate the implementation of the provisions in the Riyadh Agreement between the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in the framework of efforts to address the “Southern Cause” in Yemen and to combat corruption in the government.
Third, and most importantly, the conference resulted in an overhaul of the government in Yemen and a transfer of power from President Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi to an eight-member presidential council representing the north and south equally and headed by Rashad Al-Alimi.
The Dialogue participants also formed six follow-up committees on political, security, military, economic, humanitarian and media affairs. A participant in Riyadh speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity said that the political committee had not made arrangements for the transfer of power from Hadi to the presidential council, as these had been worked out in secret consultations among parties on the sidelines of the activities.
He confirmed that those involved in forming the presidential council, a process overseen by Hadi, had taken the decision to bring on board representatives of the country’s political forces as an alternative to a vice-president, a post previously held by Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar.
Another purpose of the council was to curtail the influence of the Al-Islah Party on government decision-making processes. It was because of this powerful influence that the formation of the council came as a surprise to many participants at the dialogue, the source said.
The transfer of power brings to a close a decade of the Hadi presidency of the internationally recognised Yemeni government. But rather than establishing a new system of government or institutionalised political order, Hadi merely entrenched a system of patronage formed by an alliance between some members of the old regime and the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood, as embodied in Al-Islah Party, as it is also known.
Since this had been a major source of discontent among affiliates of the Southern Movement, it had been taken for granted that the influence of Al-Islah had to be reined in, but without excluding it entirely.
Perhaps a more important aspect of the new authority is how it reflects a gradual reversion to the rules of power in Yemen. These were clearly articulated under the former regime of president Ali Abdullah Saleh, but they were later modified to suit developments.
The Saleh era’s tribal alliances have given way to an alliance of political forces. Even if this is still more in form than in substance, given the tribalisation of politics in Yemen, the transformation reflects how some political quarters have learned the lessons of the Yemeni conflict.
But it is still too soon to judge the durability of the alliance and Rashad Al-Alimi’s ability to manage it.
The second major factor at this crucial turning point in the Yemeni conflict is Saudi Arabia’s determination to disengage from the crisis militarily seven years after it launched the war to reinstate the government in Yemen on 25 March 2015. The Yemeni National Dialogue in Riyadh coincided with the UN-sponsored Muscat Process, which has succeeded in concluding a truce between the Houthi Movement and Saudi Arabia.
Whether or not this leads to a durable ceasefire agreement, it should be borne in mind that this is not a sign that an end to the war in Yemen is in sight. Instead, it signals an end to the Saudi involvement in that war. All the parties are aware of this, as is clear from developments on the battlefield.
The truce has gone into effect between the Houthis and Riyadh while the fighting continues on the ground in Yemen. But the blockade of the Hodeida Port has been lifted to allow in fuel supplies, and arrangements are under way to resume operations at Sanaa Airport in accordance with conditions established in the truce.
These steps are in keeping with the Houthi initiative that led to the Muscat Process, although it might be termed the “Iranian initiative” because officials from Tehran and the Houthi leadership have used similar terms. Both have spoken of the need to “lift the restrictions” on the Houthis, to which Riyadh responded with an agreement to “alleviate the restrictions” as a gesture of good faith.
Saudi Arabia stands to benefit strategically from its disengagement from the conflict. In repositioning itself, it will no longer give the impression that it is a main belligerent in the war and will thus be able to perform other functions, such as acting as a political broker.
From its long experience in the conflict, Saudi Arabia has concluded that the Yemeni war is interminable and that its only option is to set an end point for its involvement. But as its discourse in GCC-sponsored meetings has made clear, this is only militarily, and it will continue to play a key role in other ways.
In addition to serving as mediator, it could also work to contain the crisis, strengthening its own defence infrastructure to intercept missile strikes in Saudi Arabia and working with regional and international partners to counter any spillover from the Yemeni war that might threaten strategic maritime routes or other regional and international interests outside Yemen.
The transition to a new governing authority and other outcomes of the National Dialogue have not ushered in a “roadmap” or inclusive process to end the Yemeni conflict, however. The Houthis were not present at the talks in Riyadh, which means that other chapters lie ahead in this protracted conflict that some predict may last another seven years. Given the composition of the new governing authority and its attitudes towards the Houthis, it is premature to speak of a genuine peacemaking project in Yemen.
The negotiating tracks that led to the current turning point reveal that a “deal-making” mindset continues to prevail over a “comprehensive solution” mentality among all the key stakeholders. In striking the deal with Riyadh, the Houthi leaders sought to save themselves from a popular uprising or “revolt of the hungry” that seemed imminent in the light of the deterioration in living standards and public services in the areas under Houthi control.
The movement may also take advantage of the respite from its confrontation with Riyadh to redirect its energies towards the domestic front and use its advantages to delineate spheres of influence between itself and the new government.
The same applies to the new presidential council. It may not be in its interests to reach a political settlement with the Houthis under the current balance of power, which generally favours the Houthis. However, if the council resolved to pursue a military course to alter that balance, it would have to contend with the problem of how to do that without a major part being played by the Saudi-led Coalition that has backed the government militarily until now.
It is to the council’s advantage that most of its members serve in political or military capacities on the ground in Yemen, conferring on it a legitimacy that the Hadi government lacked. But perhaps it is best to view the new council more as a kind of coalition than an alliance, since its various members represent different political currents or projects. One trend may try to produce a new edition of the former regime.
This camp, headed by Saleh’s nephew Tarek Saleh, would be especially hostile to the Houthi project, which has supplanted the old regime on its home ground in Sanaa. The STC, whose president, Aidarous Al-Zubaidi, is also a member of the new council, will leverage its position to advance the aims of the Southern Movement, which had once sought autonomy, if not independence, from the north.
The STC will also be able to capitalise on the weaker position of the Al-Islah Party, though this will not exempt it from its obligations under the Riyadh Agreement, which in part aims to redirect the movement’s energies into the project of the unified state.
The Houthi-Saudi truce reflects positive developments in the talks between Riyadh and Tehran, as Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Abdollahian suggested recently. The truce itself would not have occurred without Iran’s support.
But the truce also reflects the Iranian-US priority of reaching an understanding on a return to the Iranian nuclear deal with the West and the US-Saudi priority of reversing the escalatory trend in Yemen. What happens next will depend to a large extent on external variables and the relations between the regional powers and Washington.
If the Yemeni question has embarked on a new phase after having been significantly restructured, it is impossible to say whether this turning point can be translated into breakthroughs that will lead to a countrywide ceasefire and a comprehensive roadmap steering the country to stability and peace.
Perhaps what can be hoped for in the short to medium term is a partial breakthrough as a result of Riyadh’s ability to reposition itself in a way that enables it to help contain the conflict and subsidiary crises such as the Southern question.
That said, even the limited de-escalation made possible by the truce should not be underestimated as a critical turning point for a country that has been ravaged by seven years of war.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.