Yemen: Amid worsening humanitarian disaster, a hint of political progress?

Summary: war weariness and growing Saudi frustration may finally drive Yemen’s many warring factions onto a path toward peace.

Once again we thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for close to 15 years, and has written about the country’s political, social and economic issues.  She works as a freelance rural development consultant. Her book Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State, published by Saqi Books, is a seminal study of the current war and what lies behind it.

As if war, blockade, dramatically reduced humanitarian aid, famine, a plague of locusts, cholera, malaria, dengue and Covid-19 were not enough, Yemen now has cases of polio, and  the country has been struck by a series of major destructive floods in recent months. Unlike the ‘normal’ situation, the floods have hit most parts of the country, rural and urban. They have killed hundreds, made thousands homeless [I automatically initially typed hopeless, which is probably also true], destroyed infrastructure, caused massive landslides blocking roads and tracks, further isolating people and reducing their access to food and other basic necessities and caused untold damage to the country’s architectural heritage. Moreover, within weeks, the resulting increase in stagnant water will also worsen the above-mentioned water-borne diseases and provide ideal breeding conditions for the next generation of locusts, destroying crops from East Africa to India, thus prefacing yet more horrors for the population.

Many of these disasters result from the combined impact of war and climate change, while another environmental disaster is looming for the entire Red Sea region as, after two years of delaying tactics, the abandoned oil tanker FSO Safer (see our posting of July) remains out of reach to expert technical teams. The Houthis and the UN continue bickering both about the composition and responsibilities of a UN inspection and repair mission and the fate of the 1.1 million barrels of oil which experts state must be urgently transferred.  At this point, the only question is whether or not the two will compromise before the forecast catastrophe of a massive leak into the Red Sea occurs. (Houthi demands to control the sale of the oil ignore the fact that it may have lost most of its value after 5 years in storage.)

At the same time, the humanitarian situation shows no sign of improvement, rather the contrary, given the worsening situation resulting from floods and locusts. Overall funding of the UN’s Humanitarian plan for 2020 stood at a mere 24% on 31 August. As predicted, by mid-August “12 of the UN’s 38 major programmes have shut or scaled down, and between August and September 20 programmes face further reductions or closure.”  Specific funding for Covid-19 is at an even lower level, just under 20% of the increased US$ 386.7 million required. However, OCHA’s weekly Covid-19 Preparedness datasheet indicates some progress in the past three months: an increase of 13 operational isolation units, 113 Intensive Care Unit beds, and more than 400 000 PPE items. Despite that, medical staff and citizens are continuing to die from the virus.

Extract from OCHA’s weekly Covid-19 Preparedness datasheet (29 August 2020)

Hints of political progress?

Now a full four years after the Kuwait negotiations under UN auspices, which almost succeeded, and close to two years after the very limited Stockholm Agreement, there are some infinitesimal hints of progress in talks between senior officials of the multiple warring parties. The draft ‘Joint Declaration’ [details in our 20 July posting] which UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths has been promoting for months presents little that is new, but he persists.  It may be that war weariness and the extreme humanitarian circumstances prevailing in the country combined with the increasing military disarray of the numerous factions commonly described as the internationally recognised government (IRG) will force the combatants on a path to peace. In addition to intensified clashes on the ground in Yemen, increased airstrikes (215 in July, mostly in Mareb) as well as Houthi missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, recent weeks have seen a renewal of efforts to promote the draft declaration with, on the one hand, formal public backing from UNSG Guterres via Saudi media and on the other a meeting in Geneva between Special Envoy Griffiths and senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials. All of this adds to the ongoing pressure of the UN team on the official ‘parties’ to the conflict. Predictably, the IRG has responded with anxiety to these talks, while observers are left to hope that the Special Envoy does not assume that Iran has much influence on Houthi decision making.

While also constrained by EU Council decisions, which explicitly state EU official support for the UN ‘peace process’ both the EU as an institution and some of its member states, particularly Sweden and Germany, have a little more flexibility to engage in stronger dialogue with all the parties concerned, including entities ignored by UNSC 2216. They can also deal with both the Houthis and the IRG with greater realism as to their actual relevance on the ground.

A Saudi-Houthi deal may be in the offing

At this juncture, it may be appropriate to consider the current relative positions of the different parties involved. There is little doubt there is increasing logic to a Saudi-Houthi deal that ignores all the other factions and, while they systematically deny direct negotiations, it is clear that discussions are proceeding with their usual discretion. Rumours of such a deal are emerging and there are many reasons why it would be a rational move for the Saudis at least, though there is more doubt as to Houthi willingness to end the war. The following factors are relevant: the Houthi offensive in Mareb Governorate and on the capital, Mareb city – which they now surround almost completely – continues despite significant losses, and they may take over the only major Yemeni city still under the control of the IRG. For the Houthis, taking control of Mareb has both drawbacks and advantages, given its population (probably close to 2 million today, pre-war 239,000), and complex social structure and politico-military rivalries.  The Saudi regime has other concerns (low oil prices, Covid-19, Saudisation, grandiose plans to reduce its dependence on hydro-carbons) and wants to put an end to its involvement in Yemen; its original hubris is long gone and it is concerned at the deterioration of its relationship with the UAE over Yemen. Finally the worsening weakness and fragmentation of the IRG, and the inability to achieve implementation of the Riyadh agreement are gradually undermining Saudi commitment to its increasingly embarrassing ally. In this context, it would not come as a surprise for such a deal to take place in the coming months, particularly as the trends that could drive such a deal forward are intensifying. ‘this week’s sacking of Saudi Joint Forces Commander Fahad bin Turki bin Abdulaziz may provide Mohammed bin Salman with a scapegoat for the failure of the Yemeni campaign, and might facilitate exchanges with the Houthis.

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