Nearly nine years after the Saudi intervention in Yemen, there remains no clear path to a resolution to the war. Reports have surfaced that Saudi Arabia and the Iranian-backed Houthis are in backchannel talks aimed at forging a permanent cease-fire. Past talks have resulted in little more than tactical gains for the warring parties. And these recent efforts are unlikely to provide a lasting solution without a comprehensive political settlement, which currently seems out of reach.
The recent round of Saudi-Houthi talks is unpredictable, taking place without direct consultation with the United Nations-recognized government of Yemen and bypassing established diplomatic channels. Alongside Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic efforts, Omani and U.N. delegations have intensified their meetings with the Houthi leadership to break the current deadlock in the political process. These disparate approaches, which have been a common feature with foreign parties involved in Yemen’s conflict, could result in further political fragmentation and instability in Yemen, with the Houthis potentially entrenching their power at the expense of other political factions and marginalized groups.
The current push for talks comes amid a political impasse following the expiration of a six-month truce in October 2022. The Houthis refused to extend the truce or honor their commitment to lift the siege of Taiz. Moreover, they introduced last-minute demands for the payment of loyalists and militia members under the guise of funding civil servants. The Houthis escalated their rhetoric against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and conducted three drone attacks on oil terminals in southern Yemen, all to pressure Yemen’s U.N.-recognized government to share revenue with the group.
The U.N. has said that the Saudis and the government have complied with the truce and have continued to uphold it since its expiration. Sanaa airport and the port of Hodeidah have remained open, meeting the Houthis’ main conditions during the truce. Moreover, the backchannel negotiations seem to have allowed for the entry of commercial ships to Hodeidah for the first time since 2016. However, much of this is viewed as a political victory for the Houthis.
Initiatives aimed at reaching a compromise among the warring parties are being launched amid significant domestic opposition to the Houthis and ongoing turmoil in Iran, which has supported the Houthis throughout the conflict and urged them to carry out attacks outside Yemen. Iran’s volatility is increasing pressure on the region, as fear of a geopolitical confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia via the Houthis seems to be, in part, compelling Riyadh to seek a compromise with the Houthis irrespective of their actions in Yemen. Therefore, any deal reached directly between the Saudis and the Houthis could be seen as disconnected from Yemen’s civil war.
Meanwhile, the Houthis are focused on finding sources of revenue. The Houthis have requested the payment of government workers whose salaries were cut during the conflict, including Houthi members, stipulating that the funds go directly to them first, in an apparent attempt to secure control over the financing. Additionally, as the Houthis have already fired many civil servants and replaced them with loyalists, they have effectively subverted the governance system that they now seek to support financially. They also take a significant cut from civil servants and the private sector through illicit taxation. Through such moves, the Houthis are working to consolidate power and exert greater control over the state.
Overall, the cost of an agreement with the Houthis will be high, both economically and politically, as they have demanded a share of the country’s oil reserves, most of which are in historically Southern territory. Given the mounting calls in Aden for secession and the Southern Transitional Council’s quick rise to power, any concessions by Saudi Arabia or the Saudi- and Emirati-backed Presidential Leadership Council that would provide revenue to the Houthis at the expense of Southerners risks stoking a new round of conflict and accelerating the path toward the country’s separation.
Meanwhile, the U.N.-recognized government doesn’t appear ready for reconciliation. It has called on the United States to relist the Houthis as a terrorist organization, a designation President Joseph R. Biden Jr. lifted in January 2021. Furthermore, within Houthi-controlled territories, Yemenis have begun to speak out against the group’s perceived corruption, oppressive tactics, and imposition of ideological strictures. Several prominent influencers have publicly spoken out against the Houthis’ actions, and Houthi authorities held sham trials in January for two activists charged with spreading false information, defamation, and inciting violence. If a negotiated settlement among regional and international parties and the Houthis fails to consider local conditions and demands, it will be difficult to secure countrywide buy-in.
The Houthis have proved to be a disruptive force and have exhausted the military capabilities of the U.N.-backed government. However, this is a difficult reality to accept for the many Yemeni factions that believe the Houthis must be contained. The general concern is that any deal would only settle proxy differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran without addressing the demands of the majority of the Yemeni population for a rollback of the Houthis’ military capabilities and suffocating political control. The Saudi-led coalition’s abrupt departure would have a significant impact on local dynamics and could entrench the Houthis for decades to come. In the short term, any concessions regarding the Houthis’ financial demands could provide a lifeline to the Houthis and their Iranian patrons at the expense of the Yemeni people and Saudi Arabia’s security interests and help the Houthis take the next crucial step toward entrenching themselves for the long term.
The situation in Yemen remains unpredictable. Diplomatic efforts may seem to offer glimmers of hope for a rapprochement between the Saudis and the Houthis, but this is a scenario that would leave Yemenis vulnerable as the Houthis continue to maintain the upper hand from a political and military standpoint. Nonetheless, however much promise they might hold for an extrication from the conflict that limits negative optics for the Saudis, they will not succeed in generating a comprehensive political settlement unless the concerns and grievances of Yemeni factions against the Houthis’ political control and military power are addressed. At present, the prospects for a broader consideration of the issues at stake in Yemen seem dim.