Seven years ago, Houthi rebels advanced on the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, taking over the government, and sparking what has become a multidimensional war in Yemen. The conflict has led to the deaths of over 230,000 people (most from indirect causes), and there is no clear end to the crisis in sight.
On September 10, the new United Nations special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, said that “the peace process has stalled for too long,” in his first briefing to the U.N. Security Council since he assumed his position. He added, “The conflict parties have not discussed a comprehensive settlement since 2016. This has left Yemenis stuck in an indefinite state of war, with no clear way forward. It is therefore long overdue for the conflict parties to engage in peaceful dialogue with one another,” he continued, with the facilitation of the U.N. and on the “terms of an overarching settlement, in good faith and without preconditions.” With the peace process stalled, Grundberg will need to revise the framework currently in place for ending the conflict. Doing this will be crucial to avoid the collapse of the peace process.
Opportunities Amid Continued Challenges
After Jamal Benomar, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, and Martin Griffiths, Grundberg is the fourth U.N. special envoy to Yemen. While the war in Yemen grows increasingly complex, which Grundberg acknowledged in his briefing, the Swedish diplomat assumes his new role presented with opportunities amid enduring obstacles.
First, the United States has intensified its diplomatic efforts in Yemen since February. The U.N. told journalists, “We welcome the decision of the United States to strengthen its diplomatic engagement in support of the UN-led efforts to find a negotiated, comprehensive political solution to end the conflict in Yemen.” Among what Washington has achieved thus far is convincing Saudi Arabia to announce a cease-fire proposal in March. Riyadh may well have been motivated by a strategic desire to end its intervention in Yemen, but the United States still deserves credit for encouraging the Saudis to announce this proposal. On September 14, the State Department announced, “U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking is in Saudi Arabia today where he will meet with senior officials from the Governments of the Republic of Yemen and Saudi Arabia.” The press release continued that he would travel to Oman to meet with senior Omani officials and additionally meet with the new U.N. special envoy. Indeed, Lenderking is likely to work closely with Grundberg as he did with Griffiths. Nevertheless, Washington still has little influence in Yemen and seemingly does not have the capability to bring the country’s warring parties to conclusive peace talks. The same certainly applies to the U.N. – none of the three previous U.N. envoys were able to stop the local warring parties and their external backers from prolonging the crisis.
Second, direct Saudi-Houthi talks have shown signs of progress. This news emerged soon after an Omani delegation visited Sanaa in June, suggesting Muscat is intensifying its diplomatic efforts. The Houthis’ leader, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, reportedly told the Omani delegation that he would participate in cease-fire talks as soon as the Saudi blockade of Yemeni ports ends. Gary Grappo, a former U.S. ambassador to Oman, said in an email interview, “My suspicion is that the Omanis are not taking this initiative unless there has been some coordination with various other parties, e.g., Saudi Arabia, UAE, US, UN, etc., and perhaps even their tacit support. So their support for the outcome will depend on the extent to which they were part of the process at the start. It would be hard for me to imagine that the Omanis strayed down this road without maintaining close contact with many of these parties, especially the Saudis. If they have been a part, then we should be encouraged.”
In a recent interview with Al Arabiya, Omani Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr bin Hamad Al Busaidi said that Muscat was close to advancing the political process, noting that the Houthis have not rejected Oman’s mediation efforts so far. Saudi-Omani relations have recently shown signs they are strengthening, and Riyadh has seemingly been increasing its support for Muscat’s diplomatic efforts regarding the Yemen conflict. The Saudis, however, have tied lifting the blockade to the Houthis accepting a countrywide cease-fire and halting their offensive on oil-rich Marib. Meanwhile, the Houthis have continued their assault – as they control most of the northern territories, they seem to perceive they will benefit more from military gains than joining a genuine political discussion.
Nonetheless, a Saudi-Houthi deal could have positive implications for the peace process, although it would be insufficient in and of itself to end the 7-year war. It could contribute to easing tensions, but there are also other complications, particularly the multiple warring parties, such as the Southern Transitional Council and Islah Party, and their international backers. If these parties are not included in negotiations, a Saudi-Houthi deal will not address their grievances nor will they be bound by a cease-fire agreement.
In a statement on September 11, the STC expressed its support for Grundberg and interest in being involved in the U.N.-led peace process. Additionally, it highlighted the opportunity presented by the Riyadh Agreement, which the STC signed with the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in November 2019. However, the STC is still insisting on establishing an independent state in the South. This has remained a main source of tension between the STC and U.N.-recognized government.
Moreover, the United Arab Emirates may take issue with any political deal in which the Islamist Islah Party gains influence. Abu Dhabi has been concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist parties’ influence in the region. While in 2019 the UAE announced a drawdown from Yemen, it still has notable sway in the country, mainly through the STC.
On September 15, the STC declared a state of emergency in southern areas after days of protests over poor living conditions and a deteriorating economy. For Grundberg, it is important to pay attention to such grievances and tensions. Understanding and addressing them could increase the chances of succeeding in his diplomatic moves.
There may also be opportunity in a potential Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. In April, Saudi Arabia initiated talks with Iran in Baghdad, with the conversation focused primarily on the war in Yemen. Iran has reportedly asked Saudi Arabia to support the negotiations for a new nuclear deal between Iran and world powers in exchange for using its influence to halt the Houthis’ attacks on Saudi territory. Indeed, the Saudi leadership sees the Houthis as an Iranian proxy group. However, the extent to which Tehran can influence the Houthis remains questionable. While Iran has stepped up its support for the Houthis over the course of the conflict, that support does not necessarily mean that they are fully controlled by Tehran. Thus, it remains to be seen the extent to which any Saudi-Iranian agreement will have an impact on the Yemeni political process. Certainly, any reduction in Iranian support to the Houthis should increase the likelihood that the Houthis could make some concessions, something that they do not appear to be doing today.
A New Approach is Needed
If the new U.N. envoy can build on what has been achieved so far, he has a chance to meaningfully affect the peace process. His main challenge lies in bringing the local actors, particularly the Houthis, to the political discussion. None of these military actors appear eager to pursue a political settlement of their differences, seemingly convinced there are greater incentives to continuing the military route.
For Grundberg, meaningful action would require a change in the U.N.’s current approach to the crisis. Undoubtedly, finding an alternative to U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216, which in 2015 recognized the legitimacy of Hadi’s presidency and cast blame on the Houthi rebels, would be an important step. The resolution has various limitations, including portraying the conflict as two sided between the U.N.-recognized Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels, even though this is no longer the case. The resolution also calls on the Houthis to retreat from the areas they captured and give back the arms they seized. The Houthis have not been willing to yield to this demand so far and are highly unlikely to now from their current position of strength.
The failure of political negotiations, however, is not completely tied to the restrictions of the U.N. resolution. While updating the resolution is long overdue to recognize the current status quo, other steps are needed to engage local actors, too.
“The new special envoy can make a difference if he can influence the calculations of the various parties so that they would see that peace is more profitable for them than war. That would involve influencing the various incentives that are created both by UN Security Council resolutions and the incentives provided by regional actors and the incentives created by the war economy,” Abdulghani al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, said in an interview. “There is no other alternative.”
Certainly, the same approach applies to the Houthis. “You need to change their calculus. As it stands now, the calculus of the Houthis with UN council resolutions condemning them and demanding that they must surrender before they go into any serious peace negotiations has made it impossible for them to consider peace negotiations as an option,” stressed Iryani. “So, we need to level the playing field for peace negotiations by replacing the existing UN Security Council resolutions with resolutions that are equally supportive of peace negotiations and equally punitive of the violations that are committed by all sides. Unless we change the legal framework that would make the Houthis see serious peace negotiations as an option, then we’d be wasting our time.”
It is also important to consider the role of local mediations in the peace dialogue. Local tribes and women can play more constructive roles in the peace process if given greater support. Tribes have proved to be effective mediators in easing tensions. However, the conflict may have significantly reduced the influence of local tribes, because the Houthis have sought to control them and undermine their political leverage. Yet, they have still succeeded in resolving various issues, including the release of prisoners.
Moreover, the 2011 uprising that ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh briefly brought women to “the political table.” They played an important role in the protests, which shored up their societal status. The current war, however, has diminished their voices by focusing predominantly on the mostly men who are fighting, and women are struggling to achieve greater participation in the peace process. Nevertheless, they have still played a central role in peacebuilding attempts, notably negotiating a major prisoner exchange. In his briefing, Grundberg pledged to do his best “to ensure the meaningful participation of women in all aspects of our engagement and to integrate gender perspectives across all issues.” Yemen expert Helen Lackner noted in an email interview, “Tribes form 70% of the population, and women 50% so clearly both need to be included in any negotiations taking into consideration the multiple political, economic and social issues faced by the overwhelming majority of Yemenis. Any attempt at a ‘solution’ ignoring them will not be sustainable and will fail to address the long-term political, economic and environmental issues which are crucial to the country’s future viability.”
Grundberg also needs to support local governance. Indeed, foreign intervention in Yemen has played a counterproductive role in extending the conflict. Yet this conflict is not only about external players backing local actors. It is essentially a domestic one, and empowering local leaders can reduce instability.
Grundberg assumes his new position at a delicate time. While the crisis is increasingly threatening Yemen’s political and social fabric, some opportunities for constructive work continue to present themselves. While negotiations should take into account the multifaceted nature of the conflict, Grundberg should look outside the warring parties and engage various groups of society. The desires and demands of the majority of Yemenis continue to go unheeded. These voices will be essential elements of Grundberg’s diplomatic efforts. The question looming overall is whether the warring parties see it in their interest to engage seriously in negotiations. While external parties do not exercise decisive influence on the ground in Yemen, concerted efforts by all the key foreign supporters to reduce or cut off support could decisively affect warring parties’ calculations regarding the value of a negotiated settlement.