The Gaza war: an opportunity for peace in Yemen?

Summary: the Gaza war has provoked widespread support in war-torn Yemen for Palestine at a time when the Saudis are ever more anxious to secure a peace deal with the Huthis.

We thank our regular contributor Helen Lackner for today’s article. A Yemen expert, Helen also works as a freelance rural development consultant with a particular interest in water among other environmental issues. Saqi Books has published the paperback edition with new material of her Yemen In Crisis, now subtitled Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope. It is a seminal study of the war, what lies behind it and what can happen for it to end. In July 2022 Routledge published her latest book Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. Helen’s most recent Arab Digest podcast is available here.

Alongside millions in the world, Yemenis are reacting to the awful massacres taking place in Gaza. For once, when the Huthis call for popular demonstrations, it can safely be assumed that Yemeni crowds are responding with genuine commitment to the cause, being as horrified as others at the vengeful strikes on Gaza killing thousands of Palestinian children, women and men, leaving those alive to ‘survive’ without water, electricity or food, let alone medical supplies and other necessities to treat the wounded. Demonstrations in the areas under Huthi control are frequent and large.

A vast crowd of Yemenis marched in support of Palestine in the capital Sana'a , Oct 18, 2023 [photo credit: Ansar Allah]
A vast crowd of Yemenis marched in support of Palestine in the capital Sana’a , Oct 18, 2023 [photo credit: Ansar Allah]
Regardless of the unpopularity of Huthi rule, most Yemenis probably support its leader, Abdul Malik al Huthi’s threat to take action against Israel, should the US intervene directly in the fighting. President of the internationally recognised government (IRG) Rashad al Alimi has also expressed support for the Palestinians, though his government has done little more than pay lip service to the issue: mass demonstrations following the 17 October massacre at the Al Ahli hospital have taken place in many towns and cities under IRG control though, noticeably, in Southern Transitional Council (STC) strongholds, Aden in particular, they have been remarkably muted, possibly reflecting UAE influence.

At the official level, on the other hand, Saudi fear of Huthi active support for Hamas has led to an intensified effort to achieve a formal ‘agreement’ to end the war before its expansion makes such a deal impossible. Whether this succeeds remains to be seen as, on 19 October, the Huthis launched missiles heading north: according to the Pentagon spokesman “We cannot say for certain what these missiles and drones were targeting, but they were launched from Yemen heading north along the Red Sea, potentially towards targets in Israel”.

A day earlier most members of the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) who were present in Riyadh, led by President al Alimi were summoned by Saudi Defence Minister Khaled bin Salman ‘under the directive’ of Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Salman according to the Saudi Press Agency. They were informed of the draft agreement and apparently given little option to indicate their concerns. This agreement would include the Saudis paying government salaries for six months, the deposit of oil and gas revenues in a special account, followed by another six months to prepare for a two-year transitional period of negotiations between the PLC and the Huthis. Previous history of two-year transitional phases does not inspire confidence in a positive lasting peace responding to the aspirations of the Yemeni people.

Following this meeting, Al Alimi met the UN and US special envoys, presumably to confirm their support for the implementation of any agreement. Tareq Saleh, member of the PLC, predicted a prompt ending to the war. At the same time various Yemeni media expressed deep concern about a ‘suspicious agreement’ which ignores the worries of many of the factions involved.

On 27 September, the Huthis had dismissed the government which has functioned in Sana’a since 2016 but, almost a month later, have not appointed a new one, with discussions ongoing for the formation of another ‘national’ government. Are they waiting for a deal with the Saudis to include individuals possibly aligned with the IRG?

In Aden on 14 October, the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the armed struggle in the south, the STC threatened ‘disengagement’ on 30 November, the anniversary of independence in 1967. This is happening in the context of rumours about the UAE shifting its primary support away from the southern separatist STC in favour of another faction it has supported throughout, that of former president Saleh’s nephew Tareq whose forces control the Bab al-Mandab and the southern part of the Red Sea coast and who is committed to keeping Yemen as a single state. Should these rumours prove to be true this would also bring the UAE back in line with the Saudi position.

UN Special Envoy Grundberg’s continues to work towards a sustainable peace. In anticipation of whatever agreement is reached, he remains in touch with all the parties. His focus is on preparing a range of essential institutional and structural mechanisms to implement a cease fire: military monitoring committees, the re-establishment of a single Central Bank, and re-opening of roads particularly in and around Taiz. He also actively interacts with UNSC members and other concerned states to ensure their support for a solution. None of this distracts from the reality that a bilateral Saudi-Huthi deal presents serious risks to an overall lasting and sustainable peace settlement. [see our postings of 25 January and 28 April 2023]. It would leave a multiplicity of major issues to be dealt with in the ensuring ‘transitional’ period.

Doubts about Huthi willingness to end the war are justified. Throughout the year since the expiry of the UN-negotiated truce, fighting remained at a low level despite some escalation in recent months. But following the official visit of Huthi leaders to Riyadh in mid-September, Huthi frustration was demonstrated by a cross-border drone attack, which killed four Bahraini soldiers in Saudi Arabia. Intended as a warning to the Saudis, its context also reflects divisions within the Huthi leadership. On 21 September, the 9th anniversary of their takeover of Sana’a they held an exceptionally impressive three-hour military parade displaying advanced weaponry, including drones and missiles. Such a performance isn’t organised overnight and was not designed to celebrate a potential ‘peace’ agreement. Despite increasing Saudi compromises Huthi demands seem unending: they have already obtained the practical end of the blockade on Hodeida ports, the re-opening of Sana’a airport and, effectively, recognition by Saudi Arabia through the official meeting with Khaled bin Salman.

Regardless of other frightening developments in the region, Yemenis continue to suffer from grave humanitarian and environmental crises which continue to develop apace. But there is no doubt that the Gaza mass killings are strengthening Yemeni people’s distaste for Western states and their governments’ uncritical and active support for Israel’s actions against Palestinians. The injustice and double standards are blatant as any comparison between the Middle East and Ukraine demonstrates so vividly.

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