Summary: with the expiration of the truce in war-torn Yemen, full-scale fighting has thankfully not resumed but the Houthis remain very much in a dominant position as the UN Special Envoy struggles to keep the peace initiative moving forward.
We thank our regular contributor Helen Lackner for today’s article. She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for nearly 15 years, and writes about the country’s political, social and economic issues. 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 revised edition with additional material is coming out shortly. In July Routledge published her new study Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. Here’s how to purchase the book and secure a 20% publisher discount. Helen’s most recent Arab Digest podcast ‘Yemen, a ceasefire and reason to hope’ is available here.
On 2 October, Hans Grundberg, the UN Special Envoy to Yemen announced with regret that the truce which had been effective for six months was not renewed or extended. He thanked ‘the constructive engagement at the leadership level from both sides over the past weeks’ but implicitly blamed the Houthis for the failure to extend the truce even for the two months agreed by the IRG. He explicitly and publicly outlined his proposals for the extension which, as in the previous period, respond mostly to Houthi demands. In his statement to the UNSC on 13 October he candidly noted “I regret that Ansar Allah (Houthis) came up with additional demands that could not be met.” These were that, alongside the salaries of civil servants, those of its military and security personnel should also be paid from oil revenues accruing to the Internationally Recognised Government (IRG), a demand which was unsurprisingly rejected by the IRG.
Grundberg is continuing his efforts and discussions to reach a solution. However, although full-scale fighting has not resumed, three weeks later the situation remains shaky. The considerable international pressure from governments, UN agencies and civil society of late September is weakening in the face of the multiplicity of other world and local crises. Why was the truce not renewed and what are the prospects for progress towards an end to the war?
To start with the IRG, its reluctance to extend the truce for more than two months was due to the lack of past achievements. Its main demand focused on the opening of roads primarily around Taiz and was a basic element of the original truce which made very little progress during the six months it lasted. This left the IRG with little to show for its agreement. Other than the vastly reduced military casualties, and “the longest period of calm,” Grundberg’s list of achievements of the truce provided more benefits for the population living under Houthi control and for the Houthis themselves. That’s not surprising as most of the country’s 30 million people are under Houthi rule. Grundberg’s list included “no major military operations and a 60 per cent decrease in casualties; the reopening of Sana’a airport with 56 commercial roundtrip flights to date, transporting more than 29 000 passengers …; over 1.4 million metric tonnes of fuel products delivered to Hudaydah ports, more than three times the amount of fuel products entering in 2021; and face-to-face meetings of the parties under UN auspices on military de-escalation and road openings in Taiz and other governorates.”
In addition to the limited political achievements of the truce for the IRG, its new leadership format, the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) formed in April in Riyadh is riven by dissention and ineffective, not even meeting in person, leading the Saudis to summon its members to Riyadh in September. Not only have neither its governance nor its cohesion improved but the Saudis and Emiratis are still delaying their promised US$ 2 billion financial support to the central bank, essential to establishing PLC authority. As a result, the overall humanitarian situation has continued to deteriorate, funded at a mere 49% of the annual requirement on 20 October. Politically, the PLC started unravelling with internal fighting between its factions focused in recent months on control of Shabwa and Abyan governorates, with threats to Hadhramaut and al Mahra. This internal strife encourages Houthi intransigence, as it reduces the likelihood of an effective assault on their forces in Marib and elsewhere.
From the point of view of the two states most deeply involved in the Yemeni conflict, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the ending of the truce would only become an urgent problem if Houthi drone and missile cross-border attacks were to resume. For the Saudis, refraining from airstrikes on Yemen serves a double purpose: it proves to its citizens that for them, the war is over. It is also a minor concession to the US when, on other fronts, the Saudis are not merely ignoring US pressure but actively acting against US interests, as in the case of recent OPEC + reduced oil output announcements.
Similarly, while the Saudis have been remarkably passive in the face of STC [Southern Transitional Council] attacks against the elements they support in the PLC, a bilateral Saudi-Houthi agreement could well lead them to leave the Yemeni quagmire and mess to their Emirati allies [or is it rivals?] This is by no means as far-fetched as it might seem: recent weeks have witnessed what could be very significant progress for the Houthis who often claim that the war is between Yemen and Saudi Arabia: in mid-October, mutual delegations of Saudis and Houthis visited each other’s countries, purportedly to verify lists of prisoners due to be released under the 2018 Stockholm Agreement. However, the size and identity of the delegations indicate that discussions were far broader. This demonstrates two points: possible long-awaited progress in the saga of the release of prisoners [see our posting of 23 August] but, politically, it is the first open and public acknowledgement of direct Saudi-Houthi negotiations. While no immediate final peace agreement between the Houthis and the Kingdom should be expected, something of the sort is clearly on the cards in the foreseeable future.
It is not in their interest for the Houthis to relaunch strikes against the KSA or UAE, though they have made a point of displaying their improved weaponry at a number of military parades on recent historical anniversaries. While, incidentally, the multiplicity of parades suggests rivalries within the Houthi movement, the most important factor is that they openly displayed advanced weaponry clearly identifiable as close, if not identical, to Iranian materiel. They have also threatened oil companies to desist from exporting oil from Yemen, something which is clearly related to their demand that salaries of their personnel should be paid from oil revenues; this has caused serious concern internationally and for the IRG. As often demonstrated, Houthi threats should be taken seriously. On 21 October they carried out an aerial ‘warning’ attack on a ship waiting to lead fuel at the main southern oil export port.
As long as full-scale fighting and cross-border attacks are not renewed, the negotiating processes can proceed and may eventually lead to some agreements. Progress on the release of prisoners would be a very welcome step forward for all sides and might be an incentive for other concessions. But for the population at large, the worsening humanitarian situation shows no sign of relief and the lack of funding for the UN’s humanitarian plan by the Saudis and the Emiratis are the main cause of this year’s low funding, a mechanism these states are using to put pressure on Yemeni politicians though, in practice, as in all similar cases, those who suffer are the citizens, not the war-mongering elites.