Towards a breakthrough in Yemen?

Ahmed Eleiba , Friday 10 Mar 2023

A breakthrough may be in sight in the truce negotiations in Yemen as talks between Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni Houthi Movement continue.

Towards a breakthrough in Yemen
Yemeni displaced families at a camp near Amran province, Yemen. According to the Yemeni executive unit for managing camps


Omani-brokered truce negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni Ansarullah (Houthi) Movement were still in progress this week, meaning that a breakthrough may be in sight in the negotiations between the Houthis and the internationally recognised government of Yemen.

The Saudi-Houthi truce concluded in spring last year expired in October and has not been renewed, and this has led to the new round of negotiations building on efforts made by UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg and US Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking.

According to Yemeni sources, there is a possibility of a return to the Geneva-sponsored political process. Although the upcoming talks on 10 March in Geneva are expected to cover POW swaps, the sources believe that other issues will be added to the agenda in order to prepare the ground for a convergence of the Saudi Arabia-Houthi and Yemeni government-Houthi tracks.

The chances for a return to the political process seem greater now than ever before. The belligerents have come to realise that military victory is impossible and tacitly acknowledge what most observers recognise, which is that both sides will have to accept the realities on the ground.

The Yemeni government and the Saudi-led Arab Coalition that backs it understand that it is no longer possible to defeat the Houthi Movement and eliminate it from domestic politics in Yemen, while the Houthis no longer have the ability to expand their area of military control. The parties have essentially reached a stalemate and have exhausted themselves after eight years of civil and proxy warfare.

Important political developments might also enhance the prospects for peace, among them recent steps taken by Russia. In late February, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov travelled to Muscat to discuss bilateral cooperation as well as the question of Ukraine with his Omani counterpart.

He also took the opportunity to meet with the head of the Houthi negotiating delegation, Mohamed Abdel-Salam, and to discuss mediating efforts between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis with Omani officials. Moscow is close to Iran, which backs the Houthis, but it also has good relations with other Yemeni parties as well as with Riyadh.

Shortly after Bogdanov’s trip to Oman, a high-ranking Saudi delegation headed by Saudi Ambassador to Yemen Mohamed Al-Jaber flew to Moscow to meet with Bogdanov and tour a number of Russian think tanks. In the course of these visits, he and the members of the delegation discussed the Saudi vision for a peaceful settlement to the Yemeni crisis and the development efforts that Riyadh has undertaken in Yemen.

Yemeni observers believe that the Saudi-Russian talks could help to facilitate the UN Security Council’s management of the Yemeni crisis and avert a Russian veto.   

With the Russian-US rivalry projecting itself onto the Yemeni crisis, as it has in Syria, Libya and other ongoing crises in the Middle East, Washington could soon pick up the pace of its mediating efforts in Yemen. Meanwhile, the US, together with Britain and France, have stepped up their clampdown on weapons smuggling in the region.

US Central Command (CENTCOM) has intensified its manned and unmanned aerial and maritime surveillance network and intercepted at least eight smuggling operations in the Gulf of Oman. The French and British navies have contributed to intelligence-gathering and surveillance operations and have also intercepted some smuggling operations.

According to statements from all three parties, the seized shipments contained advanced weaponry including missiles, missile fuel components, anti-tank artillery, and individual weapons. Iran has denied responsibility for the smuggled weapons, and the Houthis this week denied having received weapons from Iran. This contradicts a report by UN experts in Yemen that found evidence that the weapons came from Iran and were destined for Yemen.

In Yemen itself, two main challenges now intersect with the revival of the Yemeni government-Houthi political process. One is the rivalry between the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which originated as an umbrella body in the framework of the secessionist Southern Movement, and the Saudi-backed Presidential Council headed by Rashad Al-Alami.

In recent remarks, Al-Alami has suggested that a settlement of the southern question in Yemen could not be addressed until after the government had re-established control over the capital Sanaa. The remarks infuriated the STC, which saw them as a deliberate ploy to procrastinate on having to deal with the Southern demands.

It is commonly accepted that all tracks of the Yemeni crisis, whether related to the Houthis in the north or the Southern Movement in the south, should be dealt with simultaneously in a single comprehensive process. Among the frames of reference for this are the outputs of the Riyadh Agreements, the last of which was the April agreement to restructure the Yemeni government so as to include the STC as a key partner.

However, the relationship between the STC and the Al-Alami faction remains fraught, and if that friction escalates it could rupture the Presidential Council.

The second challenge centres around the Yemeni city of Taiz, which has been under Houthi siege for years in defiance of the provisions of the Stockholm Agreement of 2019. Last week, Tarek Saleh, a nephew of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, visited Taiz and declared his intention to liberate it from the Houthis.   

While the new headquarters he set up for the new West Coast Resistance group was then shuttered by the Houthis, his action still adds a new dimension to the already complicated question of Taiz, long a base for the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood and its political facade the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, commonly called the Islah Party.

In fact, some believe that the Houthis have surrounded the city not so much to take it over as to contain the Muslim Brotherhood influence. Tarek Saleh is the adversary of both the Houthis and the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood. The latter was the dominant political force in the revolution that overthrew the Saleh regime in 2011. The Houthis, who had briefly allied with Ali Saleh after taking control of Sanaa, assassinated him in December 2017.

Another important challenge resides in the approach of the belligerents to the political process in Yemen itself. The Houthis see this as a gateway to an “economic peace” with the promise of material advantages, formal recognition, and political empowerment. To the government, it is a way to turn the clock back to the period before the Houthi putsch in September 2014 when the government at the time proposed a power-sharing formula that would have included the Houthis.

But these perspectives are both influenced by the regional dimension of the Yemeni conflict as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This in turn interweaves with the question of the Iranian nuclear programme, US and international sanctions against Iran, and the negotiations over a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement.

In other words, any Iranian willingness to help advance the Yemeni political process will hinge on both Tehran’s regional agenda and its stance towards the Western powers. Ultimately, the main challenge to the peacemaking efforts now is the complex, multifaceted, and multitiered nature of the Yemeni crisis itself.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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