An end in sight? Yemen in 2019
The Middle East is a key strategic region for many Strategy International members, with our dedicated Middle East Access Group meeting monthly to discuss developments in the area. The conflict in the Yemen, now into its fourth year, is having serious ramifications for the region as a whole, with considerable consequences for the UK’s relationships with the various involved parties.
Three months on from talks in Stockholm between the government of President Hadi and the Houthi rebels, a fragile ceasefire continues to hold around the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen's fourth-largest city. In recent weeks, UN Special Envoy Mark Griffiths has announced an agreement between the two sides to withdraw troops from the city, a crucial site for importing aid to battle the famine that threatens an estimated 17m Yemenis, and has already left 85,000 children dead. Hope has been hard to come by in this part of the world, but there is a sense that with these developments there may at last be the opportunity to end the four-year conflict in the country.
A number of coalescing factors encourage such tentative optimism. Critically, in the case of the Yemen the global powers are largely aligned in their objectives, making it easier for the UN to act. Russia's lack of direct involvement in the conflict, which sets it apart from similar regional wars such as those in Libya or Syria, has undeniably helped a great deal, with the result that the UN Security Council could unanimously adopt resolution 2451 in the aftermath of the Stockholm summit.
Furthermore, hardening of Western attitudes to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the murder of Washington Post correspondent Jamal Khashoggi, has changed the balance of the region. Germany and Norway, for example, have both ceased the sale of arms to the Saudi government, which has played an integral role in supporting the Sunni Hadi government against the rebels. Likewise, in the United States, the Senate last week voted to end support for the Saudi aerial campaign, despite the threat of a veto from the Trump White House. This shift is typified by the UK, the Security Council penholder for the crisis; in the early years of the war, it was heavily criticised for its role in drafting resolution 2216, which was perceived as prioritising the UK's economic and security relationship with Saudi Arabia over the plight of Yemeni citizens, but it has now taken up a position of far greater neutrality under Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
This international unity, coupled with a growing realisation by Saudi Arabia and the UAE that there can be no military solution for the crisis, provided the impetus for the initial Hodeidah ceasefire, the first step towards a wider political settlement. The nature of this deal is widely understood by the various Yemeni factions, regional actors and international players alike. Central to it will be guarantees of increased religious freedom and political autonomy for the Zaidi Houthis, as well as the exchange and repatriation of prisoners and changes to the security environment.
Of course, substantial complications remain, which have the potential to derail this process. Foremost amongst these is the fragility of the state. The war is not a clear-cut fight between two sides, but instead a multi-polar conflict involving regional, national and local component, arranged in a number of loose alliances. The anti-Houthi bloc is a prime example of this, comprising the pro-Hadi security forces, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Al-Islah party, the Southern Transitional Council and various tribal actors. Each of these has separate motivations: the STC, for example, is pursuing its long-time separatist goal of independence for the South Yemen, pressures which will persist even if the current conflict is brought to an end.
Secondly, the collapse of Yemen's economy and the absence of a functional central bank in particular, if left unresolved, could further worsen all of the country's underlying problems and cripple any chance of post-conflict reconstruction. Prior to the conflict, the Central Bank had reserves of three to four billion US dollars; these have long since run dry, with the knock on effect of driving up the prices and affordability of food. This, combined with the Hadi government’s decision not to pay civil servants in Houthi-controlled areas – which account for some 80% of the country – has likewise crippled incomes for a vast majority of Yemenis.
Finally, and perhaps decisively, the region remains fundamentally divided on the issue. Saudi Arabia and Iran are deeply entrenched in the conflict, and will prove hard to disrupt. For Iran, supporting the Houthi faction is a low-cost, low-risk means of protecting the interests of the wider Shi’ite presence across the Middle East: since the conflict began there have been consistent reports that the Iranian Al-Quds force have been operating alongside the Houthi, with some holding them responsible for ballistic missile strikes against Saudi Arabia. Similarly, while the Hadi-backing coalition retains the support of the Saudi government, the chance of a regional-led solution seems slim at best at this stage.
To move from the Hodeidah ceasefire to decisive political deal will undeniably be a sizeable challenge for the UN. History complicates things further: the current civil war is in reality the latest in a long line of disputes stemming ultimately from the extreme marginalisation of the Houthi tribes during the Saleh administration, which led to a six-year insurgency during the 2000s. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Houthi Supreme Political Council refuse to recognise the current government as legitimate, and have demanded direct talks with the United States if any solution is to be found.
If the ceasefire is to hold and grow into a more lasting settlement, the UN must walk a fine line, balancing the multiple players. A more strategic solution on regional level between Saudi Arabia and Iran must be complemented by an effective on-the-ground process, backed up a unified international community. The Stockholm agreement was a start, and its ongoing success is imperative not only for the progress of the agreement but also to combat the extensive humanitarian crisis that has engulfed the region. The next few months will be critical, but for the millions of Yemenis caught up in the war, time is running out faster than the political situation may allow.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of Strategy International.