Yemen’s flicker of hope

Summary: an Omani peace initiative and Saudi eagerness to end the war may possibly start Yemen on the road to peace but Emirati ambitions and Houthi gains complicate further an already intensely complex crisis.

Today’s newsletter is a version, edited for length, of our recent podcast with Helen Lackner. Helen has worked in Yemen since the 1970s, and lived there for close to 15 years. She has written about the country’s political, social and economic issues. Helen is a regular Arab Digest contributor, and the author of ‘Yemen in Crisis, the Road to War’ published by Verso in 2019. It’s a seminal study of the current war and what lies behind it, and we recommend it highly. You can find Helen’s latest podcast here.

Now, since our last podcast in early February, the situation in some ways hasn’t changed. The truce at Hodeida port is at best fragile with continued sporadic fighting. The stalemate in Taiz continues. But in the key governorate of Ma’rib the war is hot. What is going on there? And why is the battle for Ma’rib so crucial?

I think the important thing about the Houthi offensive on Ma’rib is that it actually started in early 2020. And it’s had its ups and downs. Basically, the Houthis are extremely close to the city. Now Ma’rib is important for a number of reasons. One of them is that it is now the last remaining stronghold of the Internationally Recognised Government (IRG) within the country.

And secondly, it is also one of the few areas that has significant resources; it’s where most of the gas is found. And where also one of the remaining and the original oil producing areas is located. So really its importance is from the economic point of view for the Houthis. Its political importance is really due to the fact that once, or if, or when, the Houthis take Ma’rib city and the rest of the governorate because they already have quite a few bits of it, they will really then be able to cut off the main road to Saudi Arabia, and also have direct access to Shabwa, Hadhramaut and other places in the rest of the country which they currently don’t control. So it’s an extremely important position, politically, militarily and economically.

And how close do you reckon the Houthis are to achieving that goal of taking Ma’rib City?

Well, they technically are very close.  The only thing that’s between them and the city is a few kilometres of totally open territory. And that’s why they haven’t got there yet, because the Saudi bombing on their forces is very effective. There are no figures or very few figures available on the death tolls around the Ma’rib offensive, except that everybody says they’re extremely high. So really, it’s this piece of open terrain between the mountains and the city which is preventing them from taking the city and moving further east. They’ve really got the area more or less three quarters surrounded now. But the (Saudi bombing) is why they haven’t taken the city yet.

Martin Griffiths the outgoing UN special envoy in his final briefing 15 June to the Security Council praised the efforts of the Omanis in trying to end the war. What can you tell us about those efforts?

The Omanis have a general policy worldwide of neutrality and trying to be positive and helpful in any opportunity that they’re given. And it’s important to always remember that the Omanis have had good relations with Iran, since the 70s from the days of the Shah until today. So they have that advantage. They also have in the last few years hosted the main senior Houthi negotiator. They have acted in bringing out a few hostages, including some American hostages. And they, of course, have refused to be part of the coalition from day one. In that sense, they remained neutral from the beginning of this struggle. So I think that’s one important factor. What is new and different is that they’ve recently, between the fifth and the 11th of June this year, had a major delegation in Sanaa. Now, this is the first time this has happened. And this delegation stayed for a week, which is really very, very significant. They’re clearly trying to create some kind of possibility or means to have a dialogue to help the Saudis get out of this quagmire. So I think the big change in the Omani position has been that they’ve now gone in for active mediation and interventionism, rather than just passively being friendly and neutral.

As you told us in February, Mohammed bin Salman is and I’m quoting you here “very much ready to get out” yet he is still very much stuck in the quagmire. And as you also said, the Houthis have the upper hand. So what are the odds that MBS can get out of the Yemen quagmire?

Well, I think the issue is really what currently is being discussed. I think they’re trying to figure out a mechanism whereby the Saudis can get out without looking as if they’ve completely lost face. And what is clear is that what the Houthis are saying is we want a complete and immediate end to the blockade of the ports, of Sana’a airport and everything else, and we want an end to the airstrikes. Now, in my view, it would make a lot of sense for the Saudis to accept the first part of that element, ending the blockade and allowing the airports and port to operate openly and freely and without any constraints. Ending the airstrikes at the moment? Almost all Saudi airstrikes are around Ma’rib. So if the Saudis stopped the airstrikes on Ma’rib, as I said earlier, the Houthis will be in the city in a matter of days, maybe even less. And that would be a fatal or an extremely serious blow to the Internationally Recognised Government which the Saudis are, in a way, compelled to continue to support. And again, we have to remember, it’s not just the Saudi military interventions, the Emiratis officially aren’t there, but in fact, they are there, and they’ve increased their role. So I think whether a formulation can be found that will allow the Saudis to get out without losing face, is to me the big question now, and I’m afraid I haven’t got the answer.

You mentioned the Emiratis and quite rightly you’ve said that they’ve claimed to have pulled out of the south but are still very much, I suppose you could say, a shadow presence, and they’ve taken over the key island of Socotra. And among other things, they seem to have turned it into something of a tourist site!

Yes, the Emiratis via the Southern Transitional Council takeover of Socotra is the most blatant and obvious presence that they have, and turning it into a tourist site is just basically sickening, because not only is it allowing the kind of tourism that is really highly undesirable, but it’s also affecting other activities on the island, the islands’ extremely valuable, unique plant life and all the other elements that make Socotra so unique. Of course, they have a number of advantages. One of them is that there are a lot of Socotris who are in the Emirates and particularly in Ajman. And so there are long standing relationships between Socotra and the Emiratis. But the other thing that is happening is that the STC, the Emiratis and also occasionally the Saudi and IRG involvements in Socotra are building up and exacerbating internal social and political divisions within the island and creating a long term, very negative situation.

But I’d like to say on the Emiratis, that while Socotra is the most blatant and obvious, they are still present militarily in two mainland locations in Yemen. One is in Balhaf, which is the gas export terminal. And another one is a base in Shabwa, which is trying to prevent the IRG from moving further south. And another one, which is more recent is the building of a landing strip and possibly other facilities on Perim Island known in Yemen as Mayun, which controls the Bab Al Mandab. And this means that the Emiratis can control anything and everything that goes in and out of the Red Sea, and consequently through the Suez Canal, which is a very important strategic point for the medium to long term. And there, one is led to wonder, and I say wonder because I think there’s been speculation, but to my knowledge there’s no evidence, how much the new great love affair between the Emiratis and the Israelis might impact on who is active and present in Perim. (Helen adds: I think it is also worth mentioning that the Emirati control of the Bab al Mandab, Socotra and other ports around the peninsula, can, in the long-term, be seen as an insurance policy against the day when the UAE-KSA relationship deteriorates even further, well beyond the recent differences on oil production or sites for international companies’ HQs in the region.)

Very interesting point. And certainly one to watch. With all that you have told us do you see any reason for optimism? 

I think the Omani attempt at the moment is the most positive thing I’ve seen since 2016. And I certainly hope that it will have some impact on the situation, and that something will come out of it, (Helen adds: though a month after it ended, the initial hopes are fading.) Whether it will have a fundamental impact on the humanitarian situation I think will depend a lot on other factors. Because one of the main issues with the humanitarian situation has been the funding. Now the funding has actually been comparatively higher than then it would have been a year ago. Towards the end of the first half of the year it’s almost half of what has been requested by the UN. But we also have to remember that COVID is still there and  rampant around Yemen. And so I would say that an immediate relief and improvement in living conditions for the Yemeni people is not around the corner. But even if there is a first step to ending the war, or some aspects of the war, this has to be seen positively. I think it would be difficult to not see it positively. But very much as a first step in a very, very, very long staircase.

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