“Ruling Yemen is hard; I always say it’s like dancing on the heads of snakes.”
Ali Abdullah Saleh, North Yemen’s President from 1978 to 1990, and then dictator of the unified country until the Arab Spring in 2012.
Yemen has experienced, since the beginning of the civil war in 2014, an indomitable escalation of violence that is about to enter its ninth year, with no ceasefire offering a glimmer of hope. The conflict has been described as the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” by many NGOs and agencies like the World Food Program and the United Nations Humanitarian Affairs Office.
Data confirms this trend: Yemen stands out negatively from the other countries of the Arab peninsula, ranking 179th out of 189 countries in terms of HDI in 2021 (0.47) and 184th out of 192 countries for nominal GDP per capita, according to the International Monetary Fund ($585). Those trends are intensifying exponentially since the beginning of the war, projecting Yemen even further down.
Despite this, Worldometer estimates national oil reserves at around 3 billion barrels, placing the country in 29th position worldwide, ahead of the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and Germany. The country’s immense economic potential was destroyed by reunification in 1990, after which the dictator and former president of the northern republic, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was unable to reconstruct a politically and economically self-sufficient nation.
His administration’s shortcomings became all too evident during the Arab Spring uprisings, when the former dictator was dismissed and replaced by his Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who failed to gain the loyalty of the national army. The Houthis, a Zaidi Shia military group fighting the unitary government since the early 1990s, took advantage of the situation, conquering most of the north of the nation, forcing Hadi to flee the country in 2015 after the conquest of the capital Sana’a.
Since then, the war became a proxy conflict for the two main powers of the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia, since the former was seen as the main supporter of the rebels (even if the Islamic Republic’s authorities never officially declared that). The Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015 and succeeded in reconquering part of the south, but still, until now, the capital is in the hands of the Houthis.
Between late 2021 and early 2022, the rebels began directly attacking Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with ballistic drones, hitting oil reserves and civilian targets. It seems realistic that their trade with Iran in terms of military equipment has increased and that the countries of the Abraham Accords feared an escalation of the conflict to the entire peninsula. That’s why, under the proposal of the government coalition, a two-month truce has been declared, supported by the U.N., on the occasion of the Ramadan festivities.
Between Political Revolutions and Hazy Optimism
To open the unexpected possibility of peace is not so much the fragile ceasefire, but the political revolution that took place at the top of the state shortly after the truce. Yemen’s form of government has changed, as President Hadi has placed his powers and those of the vice president in the hands of a Presidential Council formed by eight members, many of whom are leaders of military and paramilitary forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition.
The Council replaced a president already excluded from the political dynamics of his own country for some time, unable to obtain credibility neither from his troops, nor the leaders of the allied powers in the Middle East.
Its goals are, to say the least, daunting: to balance the influence of the two main backers of the southern alliance (Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.) in Yemeni politics, to bring together the multiple pro-Saudi armies under a single organ, which have long since been out of the control of government forces and, above all, to plan a future entry of the Houthi representatives in the Council, in case of a peace agreement in these months of ceasefire.
This is why it is so important that the two events took place within a few days of each other.
After the announcement, $2 billion went from Riyadh and a further $1 billion from the U.A.E. to the new government, encouraging the international community to organize a summit for peace in the area. The truce appears to be holding up only with difficulty thus far, with continuous reports of violations on both sides. In addition, the Houthis are stepping up their armaments after the U.S. announced a naval mission to defend free trade in the waters of the Red Sea. The Houthis’ chief negotiator already declared that the American move contradicts their claims of supporting the ceasefire.
Although the objectives of the Saudi-led coalition are not unconditionally peaceful, the effort to change their approach to the crisis (from purely military tactics to at least partially political strategies) opens glimmers of fuzzy optimism and dialogue that must be supported by the international community.
The West, now more than ever, cannot afford more empty peace talks in the country. The only stable strategy that can be implemented to gain hegemony, both politically and economically, over this wasteland in the long run is to pursue the fundamental goal of peace and stability in the region, since fostering tensions and speculating on short-run profits from military instability is an outdated technique long demonstrated to be disastrous.
Balancing Interests, Designing Solutions
Every truce or peace talk in the territory to date has led to new and more violent battles, from which emerges the profile of a country with no winner and 30 million losers. Recent events follow a logical model of de-escalation that, on a practical level, can only work if the incentives of the powers involved in the conflict converge.
Although in many cases they appear to overlap, we can distinguish local interests from those of surrounding nations. When the Houthis took power in Sana’a on January 22, 2015, one of their first statements was to create transitory “Revolutionary Committees” to rule the country for two years, pending new elections.
The governmental body designed by the rebels seven years ago looks very similar to the one currently implemented by the national government, and they share the characteristics to be Councils with members coming from both the political and the military arena.
An example can be seen in the figure of Tareq Saleh, member of the Presidential Council, that had a key role in mediating between the U.A.E. and Hadi’s government, being not only the nephew of the former dictator, but also a military commander during the Houthi-Saleh alliance, before his uncle betrayed them and was killed by the rebels.
Although the two sides are as far apart on the “content” as can be, there appear to be points in common on the “form,” on which organizations such as the U.N. must leverage in the project of international mediation (not by chance have the offices of the Presidential Council been designed to be flexible in changes, such as a possible introduction of Houthi representatives).
As for the broader logistics of the region and foreign countries involved, it is essential to analyze the impact that the international geopolitical situation and the Russo-Ukrainian War could have on alliances in the country and how it could move the peace negotiations in the coming months.
The Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia are historically distant, both religiously and politically. In this context, the Yemeni battleground appears to be an opportunity to establish dominance over a historical enemy and a surrender of the allied parties in the conflict would result in a diplomatic defeat.
However, neither side can now afford to escalate the war outside the state’s borders: the ongoing battle in our continent has revealed the information asymmetry of the parts. The superiority of the Houthis is not so decisive as to prompt Iran to finance their attacks on Saudi Arabia with the threat of a full-scale invasion, since the circumstances have changed drastically from the attack of Abqaiq-Khurais in 2019: the tensions escalating worldwide are reinforcing current dependencies, like the one between Moscow and Tehran, which is finding its isolation in the region accentuated by the Abraham Accords and the recent Negev summit.
A different scenario is unfolding in Saudi Arabia, which has not joined the Abraham Accords yet, but still continues to participate in the O.P.E.C.+ agreements with Russia on oil exports. Riyadh’s political system is more compatible with Putin’s autocracy and, although Washington remains its first partner, this issue has created some distance between the two allies over the last years, as the Khashoggi case amply demonstrates.
If the Kingdom has the political and economic incentives to act as an independent actor rather than represent America’s interests in the region, Yemen could become “less subject” to international pressures, which have been, up to now, a constraint to peace. The institution of the Council by the Saudis appears not only as an opening, as mediator of the economic interests of foreign powers in the area, but also as a strong strategic move towards a peace resolution in which they could have an advantage, having made the first move. As in a chess match, Saudi Arabia has gained, thanks to a political decision, a positional advantage over Iran’s interests in the country. Members of the Council now have time to start conversations with Houthi representatives to reach an agreement, cutting off the Iranians.
Incidents such as the one that happened recently at the F1 track in Jeddah, where a Houthi missile hit a Saudi refinery a few kilometers away, made the world understand how concrete the possibility was, before the new peace talks, of a large-scale expansion of the war to other powers in the broader Middle East.
The United States and Russia cannot afford this scenario, which is why they could force their hand on the success of this new peace initiative. In this optimistic scenario, peace ultimately depends, in large part, on the ability of mediators and the Presidential Council to integrate the Houthis into the local political scene.
The Humanitarian Crisis Yemen’s Future
Without a doubt, the greatest price of this conflict has been paid by Yemen’s civilians.
The greatest problem in the country to date remains malnutrition, with the Food and Agriculture Organization estimating that the share of the undernourished population is around 45%, the fourth highest in the world.
Since the beginning of 2022, the World Food Programme was forced to cut rations for eight of the 13 million people supported by the program to feed the increasing starving share of the population, threatening more cuts if rich countries won’t increase their share of aid.
While the situation is clearly going out of control, the Russo-Ukrainian conflict risks being the last straw for a Yemeni economy approaching collapse. Both the former Hadi administration and Houthi deputy industry minister have declared that they have stocks of wheat sufficient to avoid soaring commodity prices, but this is what is already happening in local markets, due to a shocking rise in demand that the supply cannot sustain.
Yemen’s future is hanging by a thread, with this truce representing a crucial turning point. The ceasefire will lead to at least partial results only through intense mediation activity on the ground premised on an inclusive political structure in the future. The contribution of Western powers will be fundamental to the success of the operation only if their leaders are able to have a broad vision of the future, in the awareness that a commercial partner in the area can only be obtained through the stability, first of all, of its institutions.
In the prospect of a peaceful future and a reorganization of Yemeni politics, it is essential that the process is directed from the outside by the U.N. towards stability. The model of the Venice Commission applied in Tunisia has proven to be, at least partially, the path to follow.
If de-escalation were to work, Yemen could become a model of diplomatic success in an increasingly multipolar future, in which the interests of each pole ultimately depend on the other poles, and it will be in the diplomat’s ability to bring these interests back to afloat in mediation processes.
If short-term interests prevail, i.e. if the Houthi leaders do not perceive at the bargaining table the possibility of becoming an integral part of the politics of a future unitary Yemeni state and if the Saudis and their Western allies don’t accept a step back from their original plans, the destiny of Yemen is going to be very similar to what is happening right now in Somalia, with the key difference that in the Arab nation there are tons of barrels of oil available to religious extremists and local militias that could become immensely rich from their trade.
The path to peace for the Yemeni people is studded with internal and external pitfalls. As world dynamics sharpen, the Arab country, a mirror of the failures of international politics of the past, could represent a model of rebirth. The development of the truce and the activities of the Presidential Council will show us whether it will be possible to talk about a peaceful future, or whether mediation will again fail to bring the sharply conflicting parties closer.