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Yemenis are observing the efforts to bring peace, but the ongoing crisis in Yemen remains a complex internal conflict rooted in history.
Abu Bakr Batheeb
After nine years of war, recent developments in Yemen may lead towards peace. Extensive mediation efforts by Oman have led to rapid developments to move the conflict between the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), backed by Saudi Arabia, and the Houthis, supported by Iran, to some form of settlement.
The efforts culminated in the visit of Mohamed Al-Jaber, the Saudi ambassador to Yemen, to the capital Sanaa with the Omani delegation. It is the first time a senior Saudi official has visited Yemen since the war started in 2015. The delegation met with Houthi leaders to discuss the final draft of an agreement to end the war in Yemen.
The Beijing Agreement signed in March 2023 between Saudi Arabia and Iran cemented settlement efforts and pushed towards actionable steps. Subsequently, Tehran used its influence on the Houthis, pushing them to give up on their initial demands and accept settlements through the Omani mediator more willingly.
According to several sources, Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi defence minister, met with the chairman of Yemen’s PLC, Dr Rashad al-Alimi, and all council members. During the meeting, the Saudi minister informed the Houthis of the draft agreement, which is now in its semi-final form, a truce agreement and a transitional phase for the Yemeni crisis.
The plan is divided into three phases, the first of which lasts six months. This phase should encompass a ceasefire, the merger of the central banks, the payment of government sector employees’ salaries and a prisoner exchange on an all-for-all basis. The first phase will also focus on building trust between the parties and the resumption of oil exports.
During the second phase, which will last three months, direct negotiations will help to decide how to shape the Yemeni state. The third and final phase will last two years, during which the UN will facilitate negotiations for a comprehensive solution.
The same sources, however, hinted that the arrangements are still under discussion and may be adjusted in favour of ending the conflict.
The plan also includes lifting restrictions on all ports and border crossings. Moreover, it provides for the implementation of a comprehensive economic reform process supported by Saudi Arabia.
Despite the positives of the draft agreement, there are worries regarding the lack of guarantors forcing the Houthis to implement the agreement. This is concerning given the Houthis’ lack of compliance with previous agreements and their tendency to use such agreements to strengthen their foothold.
As a result, the PLC has demanded guarantees preventing history from repeating itself. Government sources called on the UN to ensure the Houthis’ commitment, stressing that manipulation or circumvention by the Houthis will exempt the PLC from any and all obligations of the agreement.
The Unknown on the Horizon
Yemenis are observing the efforts to bring peace. Large segments of Yemeni society have expressed frustration over the fact that a political settlement will legitimise the Houthis. Questions have also arisen about the extent of the PLC’s on-the-ground presence and whether or not this presence will be effective.
Mustafa Naji, a Yemeni socio-political expert, tweeted, “Preparations for a truce in Yemen are in motion,” with regard to the path towards a political settlement. According to Naji, the process has confused Yemenis because “on the one hand, the government did not restore the country or eradicate the Houthis; on the other hand, the Houthis did not fulfil their promise to take control of the entirety of Yemen and become independent of Saudi Arabia.”
He added, “The only tangible outcome the Yemenis have experienced is the destruction of the economy, while the state of the government’s administrative and institutional competencies has been thrown back 70 years.”
Naji believes that bringing the Houthis to the negotiation table benefits only Saudi Arabia. The kingdom’s image has transformed from a partner in the Yemeni military operation to a sponsor of the peace agreement.
According to Naji, Saudi Arabia sought to communicate with Yemen through Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president, or the Houthis. These efforts, however, did not amount to anything until the kingdom’s rapprochement with Iran and, by proxy, the Houthis. Naji, therefore, believes the Houthis have “lost their independent position, and their subservience to Iran has become unquestionable.”
According to the UN, the situation in Yemen constitutes one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world, and the situation has exceeded Yemenis’ coping capacities. Yemenis see the settlement as an indicator of hope, stability, peace and an opportunity to heal the country and overcome their differences.
Arguably, the settlement could represent the last chance at peace, without which the county would plunge into civil war, subjecting the Yemenis to regional and sectarian interests for decades to come.
Saudi Arabia appears keen to end the Yemeni crisis and overcome its threat to its national security. Riyadh’s focus on more pressing and essential economic and international matters in the coming period is clear. The Beijing Agreement and recent developments with Tehran have allowed the kingdom to focus on overcoming the threat on its southern border.
Experts believe China’s new role as a sponsor could lead to a genuine settlement in many regional crises. It will also provide Riyadh with greater stability, influence and different alliances, especially as it has grown convinced that military action cannot resolve the Yemeni crisis. Moreover, all parties involved are eager to reach a political solution.
Yemeni researcher Mohammed Abdusalam told Fanack that the Houthis have been negotiating with Saudi Arabia in Dhahran al-Janub since 2017. These negotiations only bore fruit after the Riyadh-Tehran agreement. According to Abdusalam, the latest agreement rebuts the Houthis’ claims of agency and signals the Iranian influence over their decisions.
Abdusalam believes the peace agreement will not be implemented unless the Houthis gain control over the entirety of Yemen. This means that anti-Houthi Yemenis must renavigate their options.
“Saudi Arabia has the right to value its own interests above the crisis of Yemenis. Yemenis, in turn, also have the right to choose how to restore their country,” Abdusalam adds.
He indicates that the road to peace in Yemen is long and riddled with obstacles. Over the past years, the Houthis have recruited thousands of supporters inside the government’s administrative, military and security bodies.
They have also passed hundreds of unconstitutional laws and decisions. The most important of these decisions is the Code of Conduct, a document that all public employees must sign and implicitly recognises the Houthis’ religious and ideological authority.
Alongside these laws and decisions, there have been major changes to the state’s economic and financial frameworks. New laws benefit the Houthis and their associates, not the Yemeni people. At the same time, educational curricula have been modified, essentially brainwashing younger generations with ideological and sectarian indoctrination.
On the obstacles to peace in Yemen, Naji said, “Peace cannot be achieved with the stroke of a pen. The war imposed a reality too complex to be bridged by good intentions. Therefore, it must be comprehensively addressed, and time must be taken to build and engineer peace. The negotiators must be mindful of tricks employed to evade commitments.”
There are positive signs of a move towards a complete ceasefire and steps towards a lengthy negotiating process. However, not all parties involved have sincere intentions. The current dynamic has been imposed by the regional settlement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which may produce obligations unbeneficial to a sustainable solution to Yemen’s crisis and could potentially put its resolution on a fruitless political track.
The truth is that Yemen and Yemenis can no longer decide between war and peace. They are subject to agreements between major and regional powers managing their interests.
This fact has prompted some observers to discuss the need for profound change in the structure of Yemen’s political system. The country is experiencing catastrophic political terrorism unlike anything else in its modern history. Internal parties are dependent on external players for whom national interests are not a priority.
Maged al-Madhaji, head of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, told Fanack, “In the current dysfunctional situation, any rapprochement between Riyadh and the Houthis will be at the expense of other local parties. This possibility has prompted the Houthi group to not respond to international efforts to extend the truce during the past period.” According to al-Madhaji, this dynamic “will undermine any future chances for peace”.
The Houthi coup in September 2014, followed by the Saudi-led military intervention, brought the impoverished country, which had already been struggling with a fragile economy and stagnant development, to its knees.
Failure to Achieve Peace
Despite signed agreements, Yemen has grown accustomed to failures at establishing peace or a truce between the conflicting parties, most prominently illustrated by the failure of several rounds of UN-sponsored dialogue in Switzerland and Kuwait between 2015 and 2016.
The latest of these agreements was the Stockholm Agreement, signed in December 2018 after local, regional and international pressure on the PLC and the Houthis. At the time, it was believed that this agreement was the beginning of a genuine peace process that would end the conflict in Yemen.
However, peace was not achieved, and accusations regarding responsibility ensued.
Observers and politicians agree that resolving the Yemeni crisis will depend on the political and economic complexities associated with external interventions. The country is part of a proxy war between multiple regional players.
Amid this problematic situation, all across Yemen, political and military forces intersect and conflict in an increasingly chaotic way.
The ongoing crisis remains a complex internal conflict rooted in history. It will continue to be governed by regional interventions and violate Yemen’s sovereignty, in line with the political and strategic priorities of the external powers involved.