Regional rapprochement for Yemen

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 6 Jul 2023

Any settlement of the crisis in Yemen will have to be part of a broader regional solution.

Regional rapprochement for Yemen


Ever since it began eight years ago, the Yemeni crisis has been viewed as a manifestation of a larger regional conflict, meaning that any settlement to the crisis will have to be part of a regional solution.

A major breakthrough of this sort appeared to have presented itself with the Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iranian agreement to restore diplomatic relations between the two countries. However, while the rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran has continued to advance, the same thing cannot be said of the Omani-assisted rapprochement between Riyadh and the Ansarullah (Houthi) Movement in Yemen.

Efforts on that front appear to have run aground, despite the presumed correlation between the Riyadh-Tehran and Riyadh-Houthi tracks. It seems that Iran plans to apply a different calculus to its management of the Yemeni crisis, one that showcases its ability to influence Houthi decision-makers, but that will probably also encourage Houthi maximalism at the negotiating table.

Bringing peace to Yemen will require work at many levels of the conflict. Regionally, the Tehran-Riyadh dynamic is only one part of the regional rapprochement needed to resolve this and other conflicts, in view of the threat Iran’s policies pose to the region as a whole.

At the local level, the conflict involves multiple players in addition to the Houthis and Saudis. However, for the Houthis the conflict is almost exclusively about their claim to occupy the seat of power in the Yemeni capital Sanaa by dint of their ostensible victory and assumed right to dictate terms.   

The Houthis see no need to involve the internationally recognised government of Yemen as a party to negotiate with or to accept the agreed frames-of-reference for the negotiating process.

However, it is impossible for any Yemeni party to impose its wishes by force, and the Houthis do not have the ability to perpetuate their state within a state in the areas of Yemen in which they predominate, let alone to seize more territories currently under the control of the recognised government, among them those with energy resources like Mareb, Jawf and Shabwa.

At the same time, the Aden-based Southern Transitional Council (STC) cannot unilaterally go ahead with its secessionist project that seeks to resurrect South Yemen as it stood before unification in 1994.

It is not possible to resolve the Yemeni conflict by setting the clock back to before the Houthi coup in September 2014. None of the stakeholders support the federal project formulated at the time of the Yemeni National Dialogue, and to attempt to push for a federal solution to the crisis would only aggravate the crisis of the Yemeni state.

Various observations can be made.

First, the idea that the Houthi-Saudi relationship holds the solution to the crisis in Yemen is incompatible with the complex nature of the crisis as a whole and with the conflicting nature of the relationship. The conditions on the ground and the balance of power as it currently stands do not hold out hopes of victory or defeat.

The Houthis have managed to hold on to the areas they control in the north of the country, but this does not mean that the overall balance is in their favour. Not only have they failed to seize the oil-producing areas of Mareb and Shabwa, but the combined forces of the recognised government, the STC, and the western coastal phalanx have succeeded in taking back many areas formerly under Houthi control.

Second, the Houthis’ insistence on parity between them and Riyadh defies logic. The Houthi Movement is an Iranian proxy in the Yemeni conflict and only part of Iran’s regional network of proxies. Now that Saudi Arabia and Iran have initiated a regional settlement, logic dictates that the Houthis should be seen as one of the stakeholders in the Yemeni conflict as opposed to the dominant player that can dictate to others. Third, Riyadh presumably knows how it wants to reorder the situation in Yemen in a manner conducive to peace and stability. According to reports, the recognised Yemeni government does not see eye-to-eye with some of the actions Riyadh has recently taken to advance its wishes.

Riyadh is also uncomfortable with some of the STC’s recent actions and with the strengthening of the Hadramawt Inclusive Conference (HIC), developments that are apparently inconsistent with its plans for Yemen in general and for its management of the political forces that make up the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council (PLC).

The Houthis stand to benefit from the tensions among the various groups and factions, not to mention the ongoing failure of the different militias to come together under the umbrella of the Yemeni Armed Forces.

Fourth, the future of the Saudi-led Coalition to Support the Legitimate Yemeni government is unclear. Does Riyadh’s peace-making initiative with the Houthis mean that the coalition no longer exists? And should the Houthis decide to resume military activities against Saudi Arabia, would the coalition members join it in fighting back?

Whereas the coalition has been overseeing military operations since the conflict began, it was the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that oversaw the political process after the Yemeni Revolution and the overthrow of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The GCC launched the so-called Gulf Initiative on Yemen in 2012, and more recently it launched the initiative that resulted in the creation of the PLC, something that is incomplete given the Iranian role as a major regional player.

The question may be asked about the significance of the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement for the GCC role. Does it mean that it will now be possible to return to the Geneva Process, this time bringing Tehran on board with Oman and Riyadh as mediators in the negotiations to hammer out a new roadmap for Yemen?

Fifth, there are ways of putting pressure on the Houthis to make them offer significant concessions in the negotiations. But Iran has little interest in pressuring the Houthis towards this end, and probably instead of supporting the Houthis in the conflict it will choose to help them leverage their gains at the negotiating table.

Sixth, any comprehensive settlement in Yemen must address issues relevant to the nature of the Yemeni state and government. Many of these overlap with concerns related to the Houthi Movement, not least the form of government, the control and recourse to arms, and the southern question and its relation to South and North Yemen.

Seventh, the recognised government of Yemen is still relatively weak, despite the improvements ushered in by the GCC initiative. Tensions continue to seethe between the constituent groups of the PLC, which also explains why the various military forces remain unable to come together under the government umbrella, all of which works to the Houthis’ advantage.

It will be impossible to launch a political settlement in the absence of a national consensus. The government may still see an opportunity to strengthen its hand by improving conditions in the liberated territories and reconstructing areas that have suffered during the conflict. It might even consider putting forward a model for development that will contrast with that of the Houthi Movement, which seeks to drag Yemen back into the past.

Yemen does not yet appear to be on course towards a political settlement, even if there have been movements in that direction. Instead, it is undergoing a kind of reordering process that may succeed in resolving some issues, while leaving others unaddressed or even aggravated.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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