Prospects for a ceasefire in Yemen

Summary: Yemen remains a country where tragedy in the form of a deadly stampede and hope in the shape of a prison release ahead of a potential peace deal stand side by side.

We thank our regular contributor 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 on Foreign Relations. SAQI has published the paperback edition, with additional material, of her Yemen In Crisis, now subtitled Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope, a seminal study of the war and what lies behind it. In July 2022 Routledge published her new study Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. Helen’s most recent Arab Digest podcast is available here.

Recent Yemeni events have made the headlines, so its war is not entirely forgotten!  First the important and welcome news of the release of close to 900 prisoners, including 16 Saudis, 3 Sudanese (who, in the current situation are presumably not in a hurry to get home) and most of the high profile famous men held by the Houthis (Ansar Allah), in particular former President Hadi’s brother, former Minister of Defence Mahmoud al Subayhi, and close relatives of both Ali Mohsen [ex-Vice President] and Tareq Saleh (nephew of President Saleh.) This has taken more than two and a half years  to achieve following the last significant release under UN and ICRC auspices of more than 1000 prisoners in October 2020. It is great news for those released and not so good for the thousands still held.

Then, on the eve of Eid, at least 85 men and children were crushed to death in Sana’a when chaos broke out at a charitable distribution of Yemen Riyals 5000 (less than US$ 10.) Financed by a merchant known to have problems with the Houthis, the distributions was targeted at the poor marginalised muhamasheen community. Exactly what happened is unclear though photos show that the site is unsuitable for a crowd event. Houthi forces trying to control the crowd caused an explosion, panic and a  stampede which the Houthis, after apologizing and promising compensation, were quick to blame on the coalition.

Yemen prisoner exchange
A major prisoner swap between warring sides in Yemen has been under way in the past few days as part of stepped-up efforts to end the devastating eight-year conflict

In previous weeks, Saudi-Houthi negotiations had made progress. Started long before the 10 March Chinese sponsored agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore relations, progress was unrelated to this important development. As we pointed out in our 25 January posting these negotiations have been ongoing since late last year. Their momentum increased in recent weeks but failed to reach agreement by the end of Ramadan, despite a visit by a Saudi delegation to Sana’a between 8 and 13 April, led by the Saudi Ambassador to Yemen Mohammed al Jaber, whom many consider to be the real decider for the Yemeni government.

In anticipation of a deal, the official Yemeni government leadership, the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) had been summoned to Riyadh. Saudi Minister of Defence Khaled bin Salman, full brother of Crown Prince MbS, informed them of the progress of negotiations; they were not consulted. Regardless of the different positions of its diverse membership, the PLC has little option but to accept whatever deal is made and the role allocated to them. Similarly, the UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg has visited Riyadh many times recently, trying to strengthen the UN’s role in the future proposed Yemeni to Yemeni negotiation process.

What has emerged of the Saudi-Houthi agreement appears to include a ceasefire for an initial six months, during which time preparations will be made for negotiations to take place over three months. A two-year transition would then be used to reach a final settlement. While not a carbon copy of the 2011 Gulf Cooperation Council Agreement, the similarities are striking and therefore not encouraging. Although this description is still speculative, the vagueness of the reported proposal and the major concessions made to the Houthis reflect Saudi determination to end its involvement in the war, rather than a serious commitment to a sustainable solution to the Yemeni crisis.

Important issues await resolution and were presumably behind the delay. They include:

  • the source of funds for the payment of government staff salaries: the Houthis insist that all salaries, including those of their military and security forces, should be paid either directly by the Saudis or from oil exports income. Unsurprisingly, both the IRG and the Saudis baulk at financing fighters who have confronted them for the past eight years.
  • the reunification of the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) is a major bone of contention. This includes the legitimacy of the currency. The Houthis demand the cancellation of banknotes printed under IRG authority since 2017
  • Concerning additional destinations for civil flights from Sana’a airport, Egypt and India have expressed ‘security’ concerns. Although this may not be under the control of either the KSA or the IRG, the Houthis act as if it is.
  • Medium and long-term financing. The Houthis demand that the Saudis directly and immediately pay them millions as ‘compensation’ for war damage. The Saudis see their future contribution as ‘reconstruction’ funding to be offered at an international funding conference and reject the concept of ‘compensation’
  • The status of the signatories to any deal. The Houthi leadership insists that any agreement is between itself and the Saudis who should both sign as a party whereas the Saudis want it to be an agreement between the Houthis and the PLC, with the Saudis signing as ‘mediators’, not as a party.

There has been significant progress on some issues: the blockade on Red Sea ports appears to have ended. Ships are no longer required to transit via Jeddah. Since February, trucks coming from Aden and Mukalla ports are no longer allowed to cross into Houthi-controlled areas to ensure that the port revenues come to Ansar Allah, thus depriving the IRG from one of its few remaining income streams.

The Houthi news agency also reported that UAE military have withdrawn from different southern locations (including Riyan airport and another base in Hadhramaut.) Some internal roads within Taiz are also reported to have been re-opened by the Houthis. So, Ansar Allah control over the overall situation is increasing.

As pointed out by PLC President Alimi, the Saudis have made major concessions, which will have a significant impact on Yemen’s future. At the same time there  is not much evidence of the PLC being more united. Certainly, while in Riyadh, the separatist leader of the STC, Aydaroos al Zubaydi downplayed his separatist agenda, supporting the Saudi and Emirati “road map for a comprehensive political solution in Yemen [and] that the peace process and negotiations… will deal with the nation’s problems, mainly the cause of the southerners.” However, he rejected a UN proposal for a referendum on southern independence, thus publicising the weakness and unpopularity of his movement. Both Alimi and Zubaydi returned to Aden for Eid, but the former only stayed three days, while other members of the PLC are nowhere near the ‘temporary capital’ at the time of writing.

Saudi-Houthi talks are due to resume in coming weeks.  Whether they will overcome the remaining significant differences remains to be seen. There is no doubt that the Saudis want to, but do the Houthis?

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