How a Houthi-Saudi bilateral deal could impact the outcome of the Yemeni war

Summary: with the Saudis and the Houthis continuing to negotiate directly on a peace deal, little thought has been given to the negative implications of such a bilateral agreement for the people of Yemen.

We thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. A Yemen expert, Helen works as a freelance rural development consultant and is a visiting fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations. She is the author of Yemen in Crisis, the Road to War published by Verso, a seminal study of the current war and what lies behind it; a second edition with additional material, subtitled Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope has just been published by Saqi at the very accessible price of £12.99. In July 2022 Routledge published her new study Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. Helen’s most recent Arab Digest podcast is available here.

Since the non-renewal of the truce in Yemen in October 2022, some developments are likely to impact the ultimate conclusion of the conflict. Although moderate levels of fighting have continued on the main fronts (Marib, Dhala’, Tihama, al Baydha, Taiz), nowhere has there been a major breakthrough on either side, nor has the fighting escalated. There have been no Houthi cross-border attacks nor Saudi airstrikes. The anti-Houthi Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) established last April by the Saudis and Emiratis has, as predicted (see our 24 October newsletter), been far more active in internecine fighting than in addressing either the country’s main socio-economic problems or even its own long-forgotten mandate to “negotiate with (Ansar Allah) the Houthis for a permanent ceasefire throughout the republic and sitting at the negotiating table to reach a final and comprehensive political solution that includes a transitional phase that will move Yemen from a state of war to a state of peace.”

The importance of the economy in the war was emphasised by two factors: the Houthis had demanded that salary payments for their military and security staff should come from the country’s oil revenues; they responded to the rejection of this demand by drone attacks on southern ports as ships were trying to load oil, thus preventing all oil exports. The second element is the reduced humanitarian support to the country through the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP); the 2022 US$ 4.3 billion plan was financed at a mere 54.6% by the end of the year. This has meant worse hunger for the millions dependent on this aid, but also affected the direct and indirect income stream of the Houthi movement through taxation, customs and payments for ‘services’ from humanitarian sector organisations.

In this context a major political development portending possible future trends is the intensification of direct negotiations between the Houthi movement and the Saudi regime. Following earlier secret meetings, recent ones have been made public and are at a high level. Going well beyond their official subject of details concerning the long-awaited prisoner exchange, these negotiations address issues to enable Saudi Arabia’s formal exit from the Yemeni war and are said to include Saudi agreement to pay directly government staff in Sana’a and in a demilitarized buffer zone on the Yemeni side of the border.

Ansar Allah parade Sept 21 2022
An Ansar Allah Houthi military parade on September 21, 2022, marking the eighth anniversary of the revolution and the allied forces takeover of the capital Sanaa. Around 35,000 people participated in what Yemen’s Saba News Agency called the largest military and security parade in the region. [photo credit: Ansar Allah]
A bilateral Saudi-Houthi agreement has serious negative implications for Yemenis living under Houthi rule; that’s roughly two thirds of the country’s population of 30 million, few of whom genuinely support Ansar Allah. Ansar Allah reaching an agreement with the external ‘aggressor’ would not go down well in the area they control, including the main northern tribes, for whom resentment at Saudi Arabia has justified compliance with Houthi rule. But it also threatens the cohesion of the Houthi movement which is largely held together by the war and the common enemy: some of its leaders would be reluctant to give up their maximalist aims while others may fear increased resistance and challenges to their rule within the area they control. Other opponents of Houthi rule include women whose daily life has worsened because of Ansar Allah restrictions, as well as men and women threatened with imprisonment and torture for expressing views diverging from the Ansar Allah credo (see our 24 May 2021 newsletter.) Although inflation and the cost of living are worse elsewhere in the country, they also affect Yemenis living under Houthi rule.

A Houthi-Saudi agreement would undermine the debatable viability of the internationally recognised government (IRG) itself: having failed to act as a united entity under the previous president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, it is even more deeply divided politically, regionally and militarily since the formation of the PLC in April last year. In an attempt to force it to improve its performance, the Saudi and Emirati ambassadors met some of its members to supposedly brief them on the talks. Such a deal would weaken the elements of the IRG who are not aligned with the UAE. IRG financial and military dependence on Saudi Arabia increased over the years in the absence of normal income from hydrocarbons, taxation, customs, development financing etc. Whether it would be able to resist Houthi military advances without active Saudi support is a big question. So for most Yemenis the prospect of a Houthi-Saudi deal is a serious threat as it could serve as a prelude to the expansion of Houthi rule.

The main beneficiary of such a deal would be the Saudi leadership and more particularly de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman. A bilateral settlement would achieve a number of aims: first and foremost extraction from the Yemeni quagmire, something the regime has been trying to do for some years. A deal would secure its borders and end the threat of missile and drone strikes on Saudi territory and oil related facilities. It would save considerable amounts of cash: even if the Saudis agreed to finance much of the reconstruction and compensation demanded by the Houthis, as well as other calls from Yemenis and the international community, this would be cheaper than the huge amounts it is spending on the war.

MbS and the kingdom’s international image, both of which have been tarnished by the Yemeni war and by the assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other scandals, would be much improved. A settlement would enable MbS to focus on his grandiose internal economic and social projects and the kingdom’s longer-term ambition to achieve a significant position in international politics. (In that regard, the Saudi role in recent mediation for the release of prisoners in the Ukraine-Russia war compares with the complete standstill on prisoner exchange in Yemen despite the 2018 Stockholm agreement.)

Finally, a bilateral deal would strengthen the Saudi position in the deepening rivalry with the UAE. Leaving the IRG, the PLC and issues of separatism together with the question of ultimate overall control of Yemen to the UAE would compensate for the situation in 2019. Then the Emiratis, without advance warning ‘withdrew’ from Yemen, leaving the Saudis in the lurch to deal with worsening tensions which promptly exploded as the Southern Transitional Council, trained and armed by the UAE, expelled the IRG from the temporary capital Aden, an issue which was not solved by the Riyadh agreement later that year.

The efforts of the UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg to mediate a peace agreement continue, and his recent presentation at the UNSC expressed some hope, strengthened by the fact that he spoke from Sana’a. Given possible progress in bilateral Saudi-Houthi talks and the risks such a deal would imply for an overall agreement, Grundberg will need to deploy all his negotiation and mediation skills to achieve the kind of peace which would bring benefits to millions of suffering Yemenis.

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