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On 10 March news broke of a Chinese-brokered agreement to restore relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which had cut ties in 2016. Some suggest the deal could become a pillar of a new security and diplomatic order in the Middle East that could reduce tensions in the region and have positive ramifications for the civil wars and domestic upheavals in Yemen, Lebanon, and even Iraq and Syria.
The Iranian–Saudi détente could certainly contribute to overall de-escalation of violence in the region because in each of the abovementioned countries, Iran and Saudi Arabia provide political, financial and military support to opposing groups. However, it would be naïve to believe that it will be enough to resolve the long-standing domestic tensions and grievances that lie at the heart of the insecurity in these four countries. That can only be done from within, albeit with international support.
The Yemeni civil war
The seizure of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, by the Houthi movement (also known as Ansar Allah) in 2014 opened a new chapter in civil strife that had been brewing since a protest movement marked by periodic outbreaks of violence started in 2004. The ensuing war—which pits the Iran-backed Houthis against the internationally recognized Yemeni government, supported by various domestic factions and a regional coalition led by Saudi Arabia—has had grave humanitarian, socio-economic and environmental consequences.
Today, Yemen is deeply divided. Around 70 per cent of the population lives in areas controlled by the Houthis. The internationally recognized government operates from a temporary capital in Aden and retains a degree of authority over parts of the country. However, a host of other tribal, ideological, religious and separatist groups vie for control and influence across Yemen’s regions. Each of these has its own views and ambitions concerning Yemen’s governance and its future.
The United Nations was able to broker a truce between the Yemeni government and the Houthis in April last year. Despite the truce’s subsequent breakdown six months later, the warring factions have not resumed major fighting. However, the conflict has now taken on a new character, with both sides targeting and disrupting local economic resources and revenue streams. The economy has been split between Houthi and government-held areas, underlining the warring parties’ quest for control over the country’s natural and financial resources.
Following a series of cross-border attacks claimed by the Houthis, including on Saudi oil installations in 2019, and the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) 2019 withdrawal from coalition operations, Saudi Arabia has been looking for a way out of the costly conflict, albeit one that would still allow it to maintain some influence over its southern neighbour. This has included engineering the resignation of Yemeni president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in 2022 and replacing him by a new executive body, the Presidential Leadership Council, and—in December last year—starting negotiations with the Houthis.
Iran claims to view the conflict in Yemen as a domestic affair and has long denied holding sway over the Houthis, who have in turn stressed that they are not Iran’s puppets. However, Iran has been accused repeatedly of supplying arms to the militia group. As part of the deal with Saudi Arabia, Iran has reportedly agreed to stop arming the Houthis and the Iranian mission to the UN is quoted as saying the deal ‘will help bring a political settlement to Yemen’.
Regional and international negotiations
The UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, has been working to renew the 2022 truce. However, it has been argued that the original truce materialized not due to genuine political will on the part of the conflict parties to resolve their differences but rather due to conflict fatigue, military stalemate and dwindling economic resources.
Although the conflict parties have refrained from all-out war since the breakdown of the truce, and the Houthis are in talks with the Saudis, there is no evidence yet that domestic actors are close to negotiating peace among themselves. Notably, the Houthis in February publicly stated they had no interest in signing a deal with the Yemeni government.
The Houthi–Saudi negotiations are independent of the UN process. They are aimed at achieving a prolonged ceasefire, including a Houthi pledge not to launch cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia. The Houthi–Saudi process saw its biggest breakthrough on 8 April, when a Saudi delegation visited Sana’a for talks with the Houthis, suggesting that a renewed truce could be around the corner, particularly as last week the two sides implemented an exchange of prisoners.
The Houthi–Saudi talks have not been widely welcomed by other Yemeni factions and have highlighted tensions between them. The separatist (and UAE-supported) Southern Transitional Council (STC), which fears being sidelined, has been particularly critical. The STC is concerned that a deal between the Saudis and the Houthis would derail its long-standing ambitions for autonomy in southern Yemen.
Local grievances need better local governance
While the civil war has brought a new degree of insecurity, Yemen, and its pre-unification forerunners North and South Yemen, have suffered periodic waves of political and economic turmoil since the 1960s. This has often involved foreign meddling that complicated rather than eased the problems. The solutions put forward have generally advocated ‘decentralization and enhanced local autonomy, equal geographic representation in national government, federalism, and an equitable distribution of the country’s natural resources’. Despite this, Yemen’s leaders have failed to create a functioning federal system. The most recent attempt, centred on a National Dialogue Conference in 2013–14, broke down mainly because consensus could not be reached on the distribution of resources.
After the fragmentation caused by the civil war, the heavily centralized governing systems of the past are unlikely to come back. Increasing local autonomy and governance is more than ever the only likely path to sustained peace. A bottom-up and localized social covenant approach might offer the best chance to build trust among the diverse population and create an inclusive system.
In this regard, developments in the governorate of Hadhramaut have been highlighted as a possible blueprint. Since 2017, the Hadhramaut Inclusive Conference (HIC), a large tribal alliance, has advocated for and implemented increased local governance over economic resources and security, while at the same time coordinating with the Yemeni government. Nonetheless, the HIC faces several challenges due to the competing visions among southern Yemeni movements, including the STC, for the south’s political future as well as to the difficulties of managing the expectations and meeting the needs of local people.
While some question whether achieving sustainable, inclusive and empowered local rule is possible without strong central institutions, the Hadhramaut experience suggests that it may be. However, the challenges the HIC has met also illustrate the difficulties that lie ahead in achieving a decentralized system that can sustain peace. The economy and control over natural resources remain key drivers of conflict in Yemen, and a main concern for ordinary Yemenis, who suffer squeezed livelihoods, increased food insecurity and insufficient, underfunded humanitarian aid. Indeed, the war itself has created a new shadow economy and profiteers of its own.
Empowered local governance therefore needs to be underpinned by a national political and economic system that ensures fairer distribution of resources. This system does not have to be centralized but should rather accommodate the realities of today’s divided Yemen. Nevertheless, it will be a mammoth task in a country with protracted local grievances and distrust, limited natural resources, a rapidly growing population and aggravated environmental conditions.
Even if the Saudis succeed in negotiating a truce with the Houthis and can pressure the Presidential Leadership Council and other domestic actors to acquiesce, it is unlikely to bring substantial change on the ground. In fact, there is ample evidence that elite bargains do not hold without bottom-up support. These deals eventually crack—leading to renewed violence or at best acute political and economic difficulties. What is needed is a Yemeni-owned process—as Grundberg has argued, many local issues can ‘only be sustainably resolved through an inclusive, intra-Yemeni dialogue’.
The Iranian–Saudi rapprochement and Houthi–Saudi talks are positive steps for continued de-escalation in Yemen, but they will not be enough to resolve the local political and economic grievances that drive the conflict, or the structural inequalities that underly them. Until that can be done, a new flare-up of conflict will be an ever-present risk. If international and regional parties want to see lasting peace in Yemen, incentivizing and supporting locally negotiated solutions offers the best way forward.
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