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Yemen: Arabia's Game of Thrones Why a Blanket Solution Will Never Work to Bring Sustainable Peace to Yemen

Yemen: Arabia's Game of Thrones Why a Blanket Solution Will Never Work to Bring Sustainable Peace to Yemen
 Nadia Al-Sakkaf
Director of Research at Arabia Brain Trust

Eight years in and the Yemeni conflict is more vicious than ever. Despite ongoing peace talks, the conflict within the country continues with consequences on local communities that are sending ordinary Yemenis into an unprecedented status of despair. Dr. Nadia Al-Sakkaf, Arabia Brain Trust's Director of Research, argues that a reframing of the conflict is urgently needed - one whose solution takes into account geopolitical and demographic factors at the local level rather than political interests and nostalgia for what Yemen used to be. Her article is the second segment of Unresolved Crises, Institut Montaigne's series on overlooked conflicts.

The conflict in Yemen is a complex and multi-dimensional game of chess. Walk us through ongoing conflict dynamics and recent developments in 2022, eight years in.

In the last two decades, Yemen has undergone several internal conflicts. The most prominent ones were the Sa'ada wars between 2004 and 2010, the 2011 uprising, and the current conflict resulting from the Houthi/Saleh insurgents' coup d'état of 2014. The latter is the longest armed conflict the country ever witnessed in modern history because of its complex nature and the multitude of players involved.

The Houthis, who were originally Zaydi Shiites, a religious minority based in Sa'ada in northwestern Yemen, were not only victimized by former President Saleh's regime of three decades through the aforementioned battles but also faced discrimination in terms of development projects and opportunities (as was frequently the case for Yemenis who do not belong to the ruling party's clan). 

In 2011, the uprising against Saleh's regime was in fact a reaction initially led by youth against the extremely central state and corrupt regime that led to harsh economic circumstances and unemployment for most of Yemen's 30 million people. The Houthis took part in the 2011 uprising against Saleh alongside opposition parties such as the Islah; Yemen's version of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Yemeni Socialist Party, and the Nasserite Party. The uprising lasted around ten months, cost the lives of more than 2000 Yemenis, and injured more than 22,000 (mostly civilian protestors). It ended with a power-transfer agreement in November 2011 under the patronage of the United Nations and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). President Saleh and his aides were granted immunity in return for surrendering power to Saleh's deputy, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who then became president. However, even though Saleh technically stepped down from his leadership function, he remained as head of his political party, the General People's Congress (GPC) which shared power with the opposition based on the power-transfer agreement, and allied with the Houthis - this despite the fact that his regime victimized them and that they protested against him. With the Houthis as a front, he successfully took over the capital Sanaa in the coup of 2014. Saleh’s triumph was short-lived as he was killed by the Houthis in 2017, and since then, they have taken absolute control of a majority of the country’s assets and population.

The Houthis lay claim to power in Yemen under the pretext that they are descendants of the Prophet Muhammed and are on a mission to instate an Islamic Imamate in the country.

The Houthis lay claim to power in Yemen under the pretext that they are descendants of the Prophet Muhammed and are on a mission to instate an Islamic Imamate in the country, and even beyond Yemeni borders, as their mottos describe a nation that includes Mecca and reach Jerusalem. Their slogan reads: "Allah is Greater, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam". Houthis are said to be the Yemeni version of Lebanon's Hezbollah through their origin and structure. Both are military-based movements, supported by Iran, and both follow a religious ideology. There is evidence of Hezbollah training Houthi militia and political and religious cooperation with both Iran and Hezbollah.

When the Houthis occupied the capital of Sanaa, Hadi and his government were placed under house arrest and some officials were detained. The international community condemned this coup and the UN Security Council issued several resolutions such as Resolution 2140 (which reaffirmed the GCC political transition and established a sanctions regime under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter), and Resolution 2201 (which deplored the unilateral actions taken by the Houthis to dissolve parliament and take over Yemen's government institutions). But most importantly, Resolution 2216, demanding all Yemeni parties fully implement resolution 2201 and impose an arms embargo on Saleh, his son and Houthi leaders. In February 2015, Hadi managed to escape from Sanaa to Aden, and the following month to Riyadh, where he has been staying since. When he managed to flee, Hadi asked Saudi Arabia to help restore the Yemeni state. He justified this claim by stating that Houthis are not only a threat to Yemen's democracy but also to the security of the broader region, especially since they already declared Saudi Arabia to be a threat to Yemen’s stability and have taken over the country’s army and airforce, including long-distance missiles. As a result, the Saudi Ambassador to the US announced the launch of a military offensive against the Houthis, Operation Decisive Storm, in March 2015. 

While the Houthis are supported by Iran, the legitimate government living in exile is mainly supported by the Saudis, and to a lesser extent by the UAE. The UAE has other interests in Yemen than supporting the internationally recognized government; it has created the secessionist-minded Southern Transitional Council (STC), an offshoot of the Southern Movement (Al-Hirak), a movement whose sole objective is to revert to the southern Yemen borders of 1990. The STC is currently controlling most of south Yemen and through its armed militia has launched several offenses against the Saudi-backed legitimate government.

Now eight years in, and despite several rounds of peace talks and three tracks of consultations, Yemen today is furthest from a real and sustainable peace deal than ever. The UN-brokered truce that started in April this year ended on October 2nd without much scope for further renewal because the Houthis didn’t deliver on their end of the truce deal. 

In your opinion, how does the world view Yemen and why has the plight of Yemeni people not generated much interest, compared to similar contexts in the region?

Today, Yemen is considered the worst humanitarian crisis of the century, with around 23.7 million people in need of assistance, including almost 13 million children. Peace processes have faltered and peace talks are currently being mediated by Hans Grundberg, the fourth Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General without much progress. The conflict in Yemen is perceived internationally as a regional proxy war between Saudi, Iran, and other Western players. While this is partially true given these players' political and commercial interests, the roots of the conflict are very much Yemeni. That being said, even among Yemenis, stakeholders in the conflict vary and constantly change. The alliance between Saleh and the Houthis - before they turned on him in 2017 - is a clear illustration of the national dimension of the conflict. Another example is the "love-hate relationship" between the legitimate government and the Southern Transitional Council - for while they are supposedly on the same team against the Houthis, they are also rivals and are parties to intensive armed conflicts, as the recent events in the Shabwa governorate demonstrate.

Before surrendering his powers as president earlier this year, former President Hadi was not able to unite the Yemeni non-Houthi leaders under his wing. If anything, his lack of leadership contributed to the divisions and mushrooming of new militia and warlords each seeking a piece of the cake. In April of 2022, Saudi Arabia took it upon itself - albeit undemocratically - to create a change in the Yemeni leadership and bring the most prominent non-Houthi factions together in what is known as the Presidential Leadership Council. This eight-man council, headed by former Interior Minister and a known political figure Rashad Al-Alimi, is finding it challenging to agree on a unified action plan or even a strategy to move forward. Despite the fact that this Council was created during the UN-brokered truce between the Yemeni government and the Houthis, which expired on October 2nd, the Council has not benefited from it. The reopening of Sanaa airport as part of the truce deal helped thousands of Yemenis who needed to travel in and out of the country, and definitely created a sense of security and relief for Yemenis in the Houthi-controlled areas who fear the consequences of the Saudi-led air strikes. The latest was the airstrike in January on Sa'ada north of Yemen as a response to Houthis carrying out a drone and missile attack on the UAE. 

However, the truce has not advanced the interests of non-Houthi demographics, especially in putting an end to the siege on Taiz, the country's third largest populated city which has been under siege by Houthis since 2015, and releasing public servants' salaries, despite the fact that these were specifically stipulated in the truce agreement.

The complexity of the internal Yemeni dynamics and the lack of visible leadership among Yemenis are the two main reasons why the international community is not engaging sincerely in Yemen. This disinterest is even affecting the main advocate for the legitimate government, Saudi Arabia, which has been suffering from the whims of Yemeni leaders and their internal plotting on the legitimate government’s side. The UN Secretary-General’s envoy’s office is also seemingly flustered and has been unable to extract any compromises or signs of good intentions from the Houthis.

The complexity of the internal Yemeni dynamics and the lack of visible leadership among Yemenis are the two main reasons why the international community is not engaging sincerely in Yemen. 

Yemen's complexity stems from the fact that it is composed of diverse communities each having its own particularities and interests. In that regard, as Yemenis, our sense of national identity is missing. Even in times of relative peace, the community is plagued by classism and discrimination based on geographic and tribal affiliations, such as North vs. South or Sa'ada vs. Sanaa. As such, Yemen as a country was never a truly united nation even during the unification in 1990 when the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in the north, and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in the south, were united into a single state: the Republic of Yemen. This unity was perceived as being forced and was challenged heavily since the 1994 civil war. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's authoritarian regime of three decades (between 1978 and 2011) entrenched these differences and used a divide-and-conquer tactic to remain in power. This tactic eventually led to his own demise in the hands of his allies. In this sense, Yemen's history is full of unrest and civil wars, many times between factions of the same geographical region, such as the siege of Sanaa in the north in 1967 between royalists and republicans, and the 1986 war between southern political factions.

This diversity and the geographic terrain with a scattered population has also made it ideal for militias and extremists such as Alqaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) branch to set up camp in 2009 in Yemen, especially in the sparsely populated southern regions. AQAP exploits Yemen's instability but it is also exploited by Yemeni leaders who use its existence to claim anti-terrorism support whether in the form of military support or funding for so-called anti-terrorism operations. The way terrorism is fought in Yemen is mainly the reason why it continues to exist; terrorist groups are Yemeni warlords' cash cows and undercover mercenaries to take out rivals. The Western agenda against terrorism in Yemen contributes to allowing it to thrive because it is based on hard security that supports the global arms industry instead of employing socio-development strategies that could successfully eliminate terrorism for good.

The way terrorism is fought in Yemen is mainly the reason why it continues to exist; terrorist groups are Yemeni warlords' cash cows and undercover mercenaries to take out rivals. 

In the same sense, the power the leaders of the conflict accumulated, including the Houthis, is a direct result of the miscalculations, if not intentional actions, of the regional and international players. Saudi Arabia has continuously invested in tribal sheiks, supplying them with money and arms with very little accountability. Even the United States and the United Kingdom used the terrorism card to indirectly support and allow militia - including that of the Houthis - to freely operate in the country in the hopes of creating an internal struggle that would eventually wipe all out. 

The problem with this logic is that violence breeds violence: a situation of instability means fertile ground for warlords and arms dealers to thrive, who were created because of the conflict, and the vicious cycle continues. Consequently, they will do everything they can so that peace in Yemen never happens. 

Finally, a reason why this conflict is not of great interest to the world is oil, or rather the lack thereof. While Yemen has oil and gas, the known quantity is not large enough, at nearly 22 thousand barrels per day, to attract a stronger intervention such as that seen in Libya and Iraq, producing more than 48 billion, and 143 billion barrels per day respectively. In any case, interest in the entire region is dramatically fading in light of more pressing concerns closer to home such as rising fuel prices, the war in Ukraine, and a looming global recession.

How would you assess prospects of ending the conflict today given the groups' positioning and the UN-brokered truce? What more can be done by the international community? Finally, how do we ensure recovery efforts are owned by the Yemenis and for the Yemenis?

The story of Yemen is like that of any conflict in the world, easy to start but very difficult to end.

Keeping in mind all of what has been mentioned above, the solution to Yemen is twofold. First, interest has to move from the capitals and the conflict zones to the many towns in the peripheries, parts where relative stability exists and that enjoy a relative power balance. Yemen was never one entity, and the solution to Yemen will never be a blanket solution. During the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) in 2013, hundreds of Yemenis representing all types of political factions - including Houthis and the Southern Movement as well as women and independent young activists - came together and worked on a vision for the future of Yemen: one built on equal citizenship, democracy, and national reconciliation. The NDC concluded in a document with remarkable outcomes from which the draft of a new constitution was created in 2015. One of the outcomes was the 30% quota for women in elected and non-elected positions, which was the result of intensive advocacy by women leaders in the NDC and beyond. 

This draft constitution stipulated that the new Yemen will be a federal state, and the regions will have large authorities so that the people can take ownership of their fate while being part of the national country. In order to come out of the bottleneck, we need to create similar initiatives that build on the local communities' advantages and collective knowledge. To rebuild the economy from the ground up, by investing in sustainable innovation and digitized solutions at the local level to enable the local communities to embrace the advantages of information technology and expand development opportunities.

In order to come out of the bottleneck, we need to create similar initiatives that build on the local communities' advantages and collective knowledge.

The draft constitution was supposed to go through a national referendum and a new democratic phase of the country was to begin if not for the Saleh-Houthis coup. Today we have an all-men presidential council and two governments, one internationally recognized and the other of the Houthis and both are male-only governments. Even the political delegations from all sides supposedly engaged by the UN and the US envoys are all men.

And this brings us to the second part of the solution for peace in Yemen. In addition to a decentralized local approach, the political process has to include other stakeholders, especially women, as equal partners in the peacebuilding decision process. Research and experience have repeatedly proven that when women are part of the peace-building process, the peace agreements are more likely to succeed and will last longer.

We keep going around in circles in terms of Yemen's peace negotiations and keep repeating methods already employed. A new framing of the Yemeni problem is urgently needed. One that recognizes that there are many stakeholders to the issue, other than those with the guns, and one that considers the solution to Yemen through a decentralized lens rather than a "one-size-fits-all" approach. Yemen's civil society has been working on producing alternative roadmaps such as the Peace Track Initiative, which created a Feminist Roadmap for Peace. This map is a live document and is created through a consultative process, utilizing the expertise of both female and male Yemeni leaders.

The international community should step away from the humanitarian-based blanket solution that engrains aid dependency to one that empowers the youth, men and women.

The solution to Yemen's conflict has to come piece by piece and has to emerge from the ground up by empowering the local communities, especially women and youth, giving them something to care about rather than engage in the armed conflict in search of a source of income or empty ideology. So far the world has spent over USD $20 billion in humanitarian aid, yet Yemenis are now more desperate than ever. This approach has repeatedly proven to be ineffective. The international community should step away from the humanitarian-based blanket solution that engrains aid dependency to one that empowers the youth, men and women, and enables them to build their own futures.

This is the only way to pull away the rug from underneath the warlords' and political leaders' feet, take away their power and give it to the communities, who are the ones suffering the most.


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