Yemen’s sitting government and the separatist Southern Transitional Council signed an agreement in November seeking to unify the conflicting factions, thus raising hopes for peace. Fighting had erupted in the south following the STC’s August coup against Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government. Now the deal aims to restore Hadi’s control over the temporary capital of Aden (which the STC formerly controlled), while merging the separatists into a new government.
Yet the deal thus far not has included the Houthis, the Yemeni rebel group that has sought to overthrow the Hadi internationally recognized government (also known as Ansar Allah). They now control the north after withstanding over four years of a brutal Riyadh-led coalition intervention involving airstrikes and an air, land, and sea blockade that has devastated both Yemen’s population and infrastructure.
The present agreement reflects the failures of past peace efforts which have ignored the root causes of the conflict, and it does not represent or take into account all of the warring factions. The December 2018 UN-led Stockholm peace talks ultimately failed because they ignored the southern issue, later giving rise to the STC’s forceful expansion. The current power-sharing agreement could replicate such a scenario with the Houthis.
The agreement mostly enables Saudi Arabia and the UAE to make peace among the factions they have supported in the country, while not addressing the Yemen conflict’s underlying causes. In fact, both states aim to mitigate their own divisions over Yemen, while reuniting the factions against the Houthis. Ultimately, the deal aims to shore up Saudi and Emirati influence—for which the Houthis are an obstacle.
Yet while rapprochement between Hadi and the STC is holding for now, it could still have destabilizing implications for Yemen. The Houthis may view the peace agreement as a tool against its own control in Yemen.
Yet while rapprochement between Hadi and the STC is holding for now, it could still have destabilizing implications for Yemen. The Houthis may view the peace agreement as a tool against its own control in Yemen—particularly as it was brokered in Riyadh, while reimposing Hadi, giving Saudi Arabia the upper hand in influencing Yemen’s politics.
The deal comes after Saudi-Houthi tensions were critical, following the latter reporting a devastating attack on Saudi forces in late September. As Saudi Arabia initially went to war with the Houthis to crush the faction, undoubtedly it will continue to try to undermine Houthi influence as much as possible. Riyadh evidently seeks to marginalize the Houthis, seeing them as a threat to its own hegemonic interests in Yemen.
Though Ansur Allah did not release a statement condemning the deal, on November 6 coalition military sources blamed an attack on the city of al-Mokha on the Houthis. While the faction did not claim responsibility, the story is indicative of ongoing Yemeni government-Saudi tensions with the Houthis.
Since its foreign policy in Yemen backfired, Saudi Arabia has reduced its aggression against the Houthis. In October it claimed it was receptive towards pursuing talks with them. With Riyadh increasingly aware that it cannot defeat the Houthis militarily, it is apparently seeking to address the faction’s presence through non-military means.
“If the Houthis [are] serious to de-escalate and agree to come to the table, Saudi Arabia will support their demand and support all political parties to reach a political solution,” a Saudi official said.
Saudi Arabia meanwhile wants the Houthis to abandon their heavy weapons, something that the faction will be unwilling to do. Pushing for this could add further provocative pressure on the group.
Not only is Saudi Arabia trying to pressure the Houthis into removing its influence, something that could be fruitless, it is using Hadi and ongoing development projects to increase its long-term presence in the country. Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen (SDRY) operations have increased during the negotiations, with dozens more expected. The presence of Hadi gives Saudi Arabia legitimacy to pursue these projects. Successful competition of the projects would increase Saudi links to Yemeni society and politics, maximizing its influence in the country.
Should the Houthis feel unsettled by the deal and this latest Saudi encroachment, another attack from the faction on government forces or Saudi territory may lead to unravelling the unification efforts further. It would disrupt any fragile trust between the Houthis and other parties in Yemen. Moreover, the Houthis could still resort to forceful measures to consolidate their control over the north. Just as they did in September 2014, launching an insurgency and capturing much of the country including Sanaa, claiming that the transitional post-Arab Spring deal was unfair. The hardliners in the Houthi movement could push for such a stance, particularly as they have become empowered since the 2014 insurgency.
The lack of genuine international support for the deal allows Saudi Arabia and the UAE to continue to pursue their own interests which threaten Yemen’s long-term peace.
The lack of genuine international support for the deal allows Saudi Arabia and the UAE to continue to pursue their own interests which threaten Yemen’s long-term peace. CNN reported that US-made weapons had arrive through Aden in early November. Washington is therefore facilitating the war’s continuation, while ignoring an opportunity for peace. Meanwhile, the European Union has praised Saudi Arabia as a peacemaker, ignoring its true motives in Yemen.
While both the Houthis and Hadi, along with his Saudi backers, retain their desires for increased influence in Yemen, it will lead to a breakdown in the peace process. Without any trust building measures, there could be a disruption in this fragile step for Yemeni peace.
Saudi Arabia would need to support genuine peace efforts in Yemen, as a means of building trust, rather than imposing its own influence. The Houthis had already reportedly released hundreds of prisoners in late September, showing that the faction would negotiate if the terms are acceptable.
Accepting the Houthis’ presence would be essential for a proactive state-building measure. However, if the Houthis themselves abide by this too, and support peace, it will lead to more significant breakthroughs.
Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said the UAE sees the Houthis having a future in Yemen’s politics. Clearly Abu Dhabi is being more pragmatic towards accepting the Houthis presence, as it merely seeks influence in the south. Yet as the balance of power is back in Saudi Arabia’s hands, Riyadh’s influence could act as a disrupting force vis-a-vis the Houthis support for this.
Indeed, there should be more proactive action from the international community, rather than just a Saudi-Emirati led agreement, which gives a voice to Yemenis, to increase genuine stability in the country. Such external influence, which has already caused the conflict to worsen, will only further sabotage Yemen’s peace prospects.