The agreement ending the rift with Qatar seems to have helped mitigate some regional tensions, but will the spirit of cooperation continue?
The April 25 announcement by the secessionist-minded Southern Transitional Council that it would institute self-rule across southern Yemen suggests that Saudi Arabia’s determination to withdraw from that country’s war is prompting parties to the conflict to shore up their positions – be they military, political, or territorial. Seemingly, they expect the end of Saudi involvement to dramatically reshape the contours of the conflict and, in all likelihood, remove the last significant obstacle to victory by Ansar Allah, the armed militia commonly referred to as the Houthis.
Serious Saudi efforts to extricate the kingdom from Yemen began in the wake of the September 2019 attack on prominent Aramco facilities, not because Riyadh believes the Houthis were responsible, but because the war in Yemen provided a pretext for that attack, as well as the ballistic missile attacks that the Houthis do, in fact, conduct against Saudi cities and civilian infrastructure on a regular basis.
The United Arab Emirates, the other principal partner in the Saudi-led military coalition that intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015, seemingly came to the same conclusion in the summer of 2019 regarding potential vulnerabilities flowing from its involvement in the conflict. To almost everyone’s surprise, including Riyadh’s, it announced it was withdrawing the bulk of its forces because the Stockholm agreement of December 2018 had set the country on a path to peace by creating a framework for the disengagement of forces and United Nations oversight of the Red Sea port of Hodeidah. The UAE left some counterterrorism forces in Yemen but, most importantly, it left behind a reinvigorated and substantially empowered STC, which has demonstrated a distinct hostility toward the internationally-recognized Yemeni government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Things got so bad in 2019 that Saudi Arabia felt obliged to step in and broker the Riyadh Agreement, which was supposed to end the hostilities between the two parties. Hastily drawn up and subject to multiple interpretations, the Riyadh Agreement never achieved its objectives, and the STC’s weekend announcement suggests it has lost all relevance.
Meanwhile, the Stockholm agreement, welcomed at the time as demonstrating that the Houthi rebels and Hadi government could conduct successful negotiations, also teeters on the brink of collapse. After a Houthi sniper killed a Yemeni liaison officer on March 11, the Hadi government announced it would no longer participate in the committees established by the UN to oversee the agreement’s implementation. A Yemeni government spokesman described the agreement as an illusion, asserting it “has not achieved anything.”
As the landscape in Yemen shifts, the Houthi rebels remain firmly in control of the country’s strategic highlands, including the capital, Sanaa. Recent gains made into areas to the east of the capital, long thought to be out of their reach, suggest that they, too, are looking to strengthen their bargaining position for whenever negotiations to end Yemen’s war resume. At the moment, negotiations don’t appear likely, despite the best efforts of U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, who has been conducting indirect talks with the warring parties on a nationwide ceasefire, economic and humanitarian measures, and a resumption of political talks. As recently as April 16, Griffiths told the U.N. Security Council that “we expect them to agree on and formally adopt these agreements in the immediate future.”
Griffiths’ latest efforts have been fueled by an April 8 announcement by Saudi Arabia that it would begin a two-week unilateral ceasefire in response to a call by the U.N. secretary-general for hostilities in Yemen and elsewhere to cease so that scarce resources can be devoted to prepare for a potentially disastrous outbreak of the coronavirus. In the spirit of this call, Griffiths is encouraging the parties to Yemen’s conflict to put aside their grievances and support the creation of a coronavirus joint operations center to prepare the country’s beleaguered public health system for an anticipated outbreak of the pandemic.
The initial, two-week ceasefire announced by Riyadh existed largely in name only; violence continued as the Houthis issued a roadmap for a cessation of hostilities. On the eve of the holy month of Ramadan, Riyadh tried again, announcing an extension of the ceasefire for another 30 days. Two days later, the STC announced its self-rule of the south, a move that the Hadi government claimed: “blew up all the efforts made months ago to implement the Riyadh Agreement.”
Signed under the watchful eyes of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the Riyadh Agreement was meant to defuse southern separatist sentiment by offering the STC legitimacy and a voice in any future political negotiations. In return, the STC agreed to place its armed militias, which had been trained and outfitted by the UAE, under Saudi command, along with forces loyal to President Hadi. The goal was to unify the coalition’s Yemeni partners, whose hostility toward each other seemed to reflect a wide divergence of views between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as to what Yemen might look like moving forward. The statement issued by the Hadi government made clear reference to this concern, stating: “We renew our call to the brothers in the Alliance to Support Legitimacy (sic) to shoulder their historical responsibilities towards the territorial integrity and unity of the Republic of Yemen.”
For its part, Riyadh issued a statement through the Saudi Press Agency calling for “an end to any escalatory actions and … return to the (Riyadh) Agreement.” The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, Abu Dhabi’s point man on Yemen policy, echoed the call for no escalatory actions and the Emirates News Agency issued a bulletin that quoted heavily from the Saudi statement although, notably, without offering any comments of support from Emirati leadership.
With the STC’s abrogation of the Riyadh Agreement and the Hadi government’s rejection of the Stockholm Agreement, the two documents that have frequently been described as the pillars underpinning the efforts of the U.N. special envoy have both been dealt seemingly fatal blows. Griffiths’ efforts continue, and he welcomed Riyadh’s announcement that it would extend its unilateral ceasefire. But there is a limit to what the U.N. envoy can do without pressure being brought to bear on all parties to the conflict from as many corners of the international community as possible. If the Gulf Cooperation Council wasn’t embroiled in an internecine dispute of its own, it might be able to respond more coherently to this crisis. If the Trump administration wasn’t so determined to bring Iran to its knees through “maximum pressure,” the regime in Tehran might be more inclined to use whatever influence it has with the Houthis to persuade the rebels to drop maximalist demands. Yemen’s war has dragged on for so long mainly because it has been waged out of sight, eclipsed by other global crises and conflicts. At a real inflection point in the conflict, Yemen now seems poised to suffer the same fate at the hands of a global pandemic that preoccupies the attention of the international community even as it threatens to add mass contagion to the litany of woes that have befallen the Yemeni people.
is the former executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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