Two full years after the failure of the peace negotiations in Kuwait, in early August, Martin Griffiths, the recently appointed new UN Special Envoy to Yemen announced that the two main protagonists in the war would hold talks in Geneva on 6 September, asserting that “our engagement with women’s group as well as the southern stakeholders are crucial for the success of future consultations for Yemen. As set out in UN Security Council Resolution 2216 I would aim for an as inclusive process as possible.”1 Low when announced, expectations dropped further as the date approached. Among the elements thrown out of the window was the involvement of southern stakeholders and others, while that of women was reduced to the presence in Geneva of a few activists who travelled in great discomfort to find that they were not included in planned discussions with the official parties. Not that it really mattered, as said “consultations” never happened anyway.
Having made his position clear a week earlier by simply refusing to meet Griffiths in Riyadh, internationally recognised president Hadi sent a large and expensive official delegation supported by dozens of hangers on, who used the opportunity to blame the Huthis for their absence, rather than deplore the missed opportunity. Failure to bring the Houthi delegation to Geneva demonstrated that the special Envoy and/or his team had not adequately addressed the crucial issue of its travel to and from the talks. Given Huthi experience after the Kuwait talks two years ago when they were stuck in Muscat for three months, they had good reason to doubt the UN’s ability to ensure their safe travel. The main outcomes of this non-event are a serious loss of credibility among the millions of suffering Yemenis and the now widespread perception that he is not independent, but rather aligned with the coalition. This affects his likelihood of succeeding in future.
Regardless of the failure of Geneva 2018, what are the prospects for peace in Yemen? The short answer is that they are very slim. First and foremost, peace is achieved between mutually hostile parties through a process of compromises which result in each side achieving some aims and not others. Such a process can only succeed when both sides believe that they have more to gain from peace than from fighting. The Yemeni conflicting parties have not yet reached this stage: both sides believe that they have more to gain by continuing the fight than by ending it. Let us start with them.
The Resistible Rise of the Houthists
When it first fought the Saleh regime in 2004, the Huthi movement was a small group of dissidents in the far north of the country, who didn’t even actually win that particular battle. By the cease fire in the 6th war in early 2010, their military skills had grown alongside their political influence and they controlled significant parts of their home area in Sa’ada governorate. In 2011, they joined the anti-Saleh popular uprisings and formally participated in the transition of 2012-14 while consolidating their control at home and slowly expanding it to neighbouring areas. During that period, they also developed an alliance with their former enemy Saleh, so that by September 2014, with Saleh’s active and Hadi’s2 passive support, they took over Sana’a. They then took over all government institutions in January 2015, sending Hadi into exile in March of that year. Their alliance with Saleh became public a few months later. In the first two years of the internationalised war, they grew in strength both militarily and politically although the alliance was under increasing stress. Its ending last December with Saleh’s assassination demonstrated Huthi dominance over both political and military establishments.
However, the killing of Saleh marked the peak of their power. Killing Saleh has deprived them both of the military skills and manpower of his well-trained elite forces and the political strength of the General People’s Congress (GPC) the only political party with grass roots national implantation. Acknowledgement of the importance of the GPC was shown in their recent release of Saleh’s sons, whom they had imprisoned since last December, clearly a move aimed at reducing discontent among GPC supporters. Other political prisoners have not benefited from such compassion: these include Hadi’s brother, defence Minister Mahmoud al Subeihi and other members of Saleh’s family.
Militarily, the past three years have seen limited losses for the Huthis on the “borders” of their area and they are likely to lose Hodeida and the Red Sea coast in coming months, but they are far from being defeated. Control in the core Zaydi densely populated highlands is unlikely to be eroded for years to come. Their military skills are improving, and the war economy is ensuring a steady supply of weapons and ammunition, supplemented by small items of imported advanced technology, most likely from Iran. At this stage, however, further expansion is out of the question and the best they can achieve is to maintain their position.
Hence, for the Huthis, now is a good time to talk, before a war of attrition seriously weakens them. Some Huthi leaders appear to share this view and have in recent months shown signs of flexibility manifested, among others, in direct discussions between Huthi leader Abdul Malik al Huthi and Special Envoy Griffiths. However, the assassination of Saleh Al-Sammad, president of the Sana’a based government, in April 2018 suggests that this view may not be shared by all Huthi leaders.
Little Reason to Want Peace
The position of Hadi’s “internationally recognised government” (IRG) is extremely different. Lacking any control or governance structures anywhere in the country, it is entirely dependent on Saudi and Emirati support. Supposedly responsible for more than 70% of the country’s territory, officially described as “liberated,” this represents at best 30% of its population. Most significantly, none of this area is actually administered by Hadi’s government, including the temporary capital Aden. The IRG’s only negotiating asset is its international recognition; for Hadi personally, he is named in UN Security Council Resolution 2216 as the “legitimate president.”
Although corruption is by no means their exclusive prerogative, members of his government and entourage are said to be accumulating wealth and receiving large hard currency salaries while failing to administer anything and standing by as the Yemeni riyal collapses, it fell by 30% in a few days last month at a time when 1.2 million government staff have now remained without their modest salaries for more than two years. These are among the reasons why this “government” is universally despised by Yemenis. Peace would almost certainly put an end to Hadi’s position as president and to the income streams of many of his associates. Hence this group is not particularly interested in a peace agreement.
The various forces which provide security in the ’liberated’ areas range from groups of Salafis in most southern governorates (“security belt” or “elite forces” depending on the location). Fully supported with equipment, training and salaries by the United Arab Emirates, they also have little incentive to want peace which would most likely end their financing streams and return them to semi-unemployment as agriculturalists or full unemployment in the towns, let alone the loss of the “machismo” status and influence intrinsic to their current positions.
Ambitions and the Failure of the Coalition
The other direct participants, relevant for a peace agreement are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who lead the coalition. Both have long-term ambitions in Yemen, discussed further below, ambitions which are increasingly in competition and have reached the point of conflict in some areas, adding a further complication to the overall situation. The UAE has more than once expressed its wish to see the war end, the current Saudi regime has done no such thing. Surprisingly, after three and a half years of expensive military involvement (estimated to cost Saudi Arabia USD 3–4 billion a month) and when the regime is trying to introduce large scale expensive reforms internally, it would be logical for Saudi Arabia to want to end this war which affects its international reputation as well as raising questions about the regime’s competence.
Instead, based on “fake news” of ongoing victories, the regime acts as if it can win despite reality: first and foremost this war, which was supposed to be a walkover completed in a matter of a few weeks, is now into its 44th month, with significant daily Huthis incursions into 3 border Saudi provinces, let alone the occasional upgraded Scud missiles reaching Saudi cities, even causing a few casualties. Some Saudis should “speak truth to power” and inform Minister of Defence (and current Crown Prince) Mohammed bin Salman of the real situation; admittedly, given his recent impulsive reactions, it certainly is a risky undertaking, best taken from abroad and without visits to the local Saudi Consulate!
It is also worth wondering to what extent UAE and Saudi leaders believe their propaganda’s vastly overstated importance of Iranian involvement on the side of the Huthis. Accusing Iran of active involvement certainly helps to explain coalition failure to defeat a small group of ill-equipped mountain tribesmen who, unlike their forces, have not benefited from decades of western training, let alone the most expensive and sophisticated weaponry in the world.
A Conflict that Pays Off Greatly
Beyond the official protagonists other forces have no interest in peace, namely the profiteers of the war economy, smugglers across borders, military fronts and sea routes. They range from senior leaders/wholesalers who collect large amounts to small operators manning checkpoints who simply want to feed their families, and everything in between. These types are found throughout the country and may be officially “aligned” with one political side or the other. They smuggle/trade everything from basic necessities, including fuel and food, consumer goods as well as weapons.
Weapons dealers are found nationally and internationally and clearly the most direct beneficiaries of the war. The main arms dealing countries bear a significant responsibility for keeping the protagonists in weapons of all sorts, and they are obviously led by the US, UK and France. Smaller scale arms smugglers and traders include Yemenis on all sides.
The failure of the new UN Special Envoy to bring together the warring parties in Geneva last month has been discussed. However, it is worth noting that the main constraint to UN successful intervention is UNSC 2216 which, as mentioned above, both endorses Hadi’s position as president and effectively demands Huthi surrender. With the UK as “pen holder” on the Yemeni file at the Security Council, prospects for its replacement are remote, as long as UK foreign policy is dominated by its prioritisation of retaining the goodwill of the Gulf Cooperation Council states. The desperate humanitarian situation3 demands that others take the initiative to introduce a realistic resolution which could form the basis for real negotiations thus allowing the UN to play a meaningful role.
The USA, the UK, France and other western states policy in Yemen have in the past been primarily concerned with the sale of expensive weapons and counterterrorism. It is worth noting that AQAP has been significantly weakened in recent years thanks to US airborne interventions, and that it no longer presents any major threat.4. In addition, France, in particular, has a major economic interest in Yemen in the form of Total’s involvement in Yemen LNG, the country’s largest foreign direct investment whose operations ceased in early 2015.
A “Reconstruction” Undermined In Advance
Eventually, a peace agreement will end some aspects of the war, and hopefully the directly war related suffering of millions of Yemenis. However there are serious concerns for Yemen’s post-war future as the war has created facts on the ground which jeopardise the country’s long-term prospects. Yemen must address basic problems regardless of the war: water scarcity, limited natural resources and rapid population growth. During the war, the rival interventions of Saudi Arabia and the UAE have intensified and deepened social and political fragmentation, particularly in the south.
First, the southern separatist movement is not a united entity, but a multiplicity of groups from different areas which have built up internal conflicts over decades. The UAE’s strategy of creating local military/security units is contributing to further fragmentation. In addition, the rivalry (which some already call conflict) between the UAE and Saudi Arabia in al-Mahra governorate is likely to seriously disrupt post-war Yemen; this is exacerbated by misguided western efforts which encourage the emergence of conflicts in a governorate which was previously the least conflicted. Its fate is also likely to have an impact on Oman whose own future is uncertain. Overall, while separatists may end up declaring independence, such a state is likely to disintegrate in acrimony and conflict without delay.
Second the political divisions between an increasingly Salafi dominated south and an Islah dominated north-east under Vice President Ali Mohsen are likely to develop into much deeper conflict in the future, conflicts which are likely to also involve some, at least, of the areas currently under Huthi control. Other divisions are likely to separate the Tihama coast with a long history of resentments against Sanaani power as well as the central areas of Taiz and Ibb with the largest populations, whose citizens have often proclaimed cultural “superiority” over other Yemenis. Possible divisions and fragmentations are multiple. Moreover, four main forms of Islamic fundamentalism are likely to dominate: huthi, salafi, jihadi, islahi. With religious allegiances becoming dominant, what will there be for the millions who demonstrated for a “civil” state in 2011?
Widespread expectation of future involvement in “reconstruction” by GCC states and neoliberal economic institutions such as the IMF and World Bank spells deep risks for Yemeni culture and livelihoods. Financial and economic dependence of a largely destroyed and bankrupt country, likely to be ruled by a pro-GCC regime, will almost certainly lead to the revival of the 2010 “Friends of Yemen” formula (does anyone remember them?). It can be summarised as: GCC states pay, western companies implement, policies designed by the Bretton Woods institutions. This formula is the one which bears considerable responsibility for bringing about Yemen’s current crisis.5 Although somewhat remote in the face of the current disastrous situation, with millions likely to die from starvation, these issues are relevant. It is never too early to strive for better alternatives.
1OSE_Yemen tweet on 2 August 2018.
2As part of the Gulf Cooperation Council Agreement, ex-Vice President Hadi was elected President for two years in February 2010.
3Most of the 28 million Yemenis are impoverished and almost 12 million on the verge of famine, many of them already dying from malnutrition related diseases.
4See Elizabeth Kendall, Contemporary Jihadi Militancy in Yemen, How is the threat evolving, Middle East Institute July 2018.
5See detailed analysis of this in my book Yemen in Crisis: autocracy, neo-liberalism and the disintegration of a state, Saqi, 2007.