It’s Time for a Serious Saudi-Houthi Back Channel
Hopes remain high for the peace process currently underway between the Yemeni government and the Houthis, in no small part because U.N.-appointed Special Envoy Martin Griffiths has set such low expectations to begin with. Griffiths notably termed the meetings launched in December confidence-building “consultations” rather than peace talks. His pragmatic calibration has produced slow progress plagued by fits and starts, but has also led to the first successful effort to bring the parties together since the collapse of U.N.-led negotiations in August 2016.
Yet his goal — eventual peace negotiations that lay the foundation for a durable political settlement of Yemen’s catastrophic four-year civil war — are unlikely to meet the paramount objective that fueled the intervention by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the first place: ending Iranian influence in Yemen. Resolving that issue requires a peace settlement that reorients the Houthis toward an altogether different arrangement with their Saudi neighbor. The Houthi-Iranian relationship has steadily deepened over the course of the war, but it is vulnerable to reversal — as episodic Houthi signaling to Riyadh demonstrates. Riyadh has leverage to undermine Tehran’s project in Yemen.
We come to this set of conclusions from a period of deep experience in the region. One of us was U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 2014 to 2018 and deputy assistant secretary of state for the Arabian Peninsula prior to that, with considerable policy time on Yemen. The other has followed Yemen for a dozen years as a political analyst, including seven years in the Middle East and four years in the New York City Police Department Counterterrorism Bureau. Our experience inside government working with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, on the one hand, and speaking with people who know the Houthis well, on the other, reinforces our belief that the time is ripe for Saudi Arabia to deepen back-channel talks with the Houthis in parallel and in support of, but separate from, the U.N.-led talks.
What the Saudis Want
While the Saudi decision to intervene in Yemen in 2015 ostensibly came in response to a plea from Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Riyadh made clear from the outset that its overriding aim was to scupper the burgeoning relationship between the Houthis and Tehran. The singularity of that issue for Saudi Arabia has only been reinforced by the Iranian transfer of advanced missile technology and training to the Houthis, enabling the rebel group to strike deep into Saudi territory and threaten international shipping in the Bab al-Mandeb. Four years on, Saudi Arabia’s ultimate strategic aim remains unchanged: ending Iran’s proxy-building aspirations in Yemen and thereby reducing the threat to the Saudi homeland. Serious, direct talks with the Houthis are the best means for achieving that goal.
What the Houthis Want
The Houthis’ ultimate strategic goals remain murky. One northern Yemeni with a deep understanding of the group told us, “Sometimes I don’t know if the Houthis themselves know.” Yet the Houthis have long privately signaled an interest in direct talks with the Saudis, more so than they have in interaction with the Hadi government, which they know has a limited political half-life. Such Saudi-Houthi contacts have been attempted on and off throughout the conflict, albeit without lasting results.
In assessing what the Houthis want, it is important to note the “Houthis” are not a monolith — many groups in Yemen that are deemed pro-Houthi and/or pro-Ansar Allah (the Houthi family’s political entity) are more accurately defined as anti-Saudi at this stage in the conflict. Even at its ideological core, members of the al-Houthi family itself as well as Ansar Allah fall on a spectrum between more moderate and more hardcore camps. A Yemen scholar who knows the Houthis well told us that the moderates are in favor of dropping the Houthi sarkha (or slogan) — “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews, Victory to Islam.” The most militant are said to see the sarkha as an effective rallying cry and to be increasingly under the sway of Iranian revolutionary ideology. A serious and sustained effort at Saudi-Houthi talks might offer an opportunity to marginalize the hardcore elements. Diplomacy has a way of marginalizing the fringes in the same way that war emboldens them.
This same factionalism renders the task of coming up with a comprehensive list of Houthi demands difficult — but not impossible. A close reading of Houthi rhetoric and history, familiarity with their prior demands as laid out in several political documents, including the National Dialogue outcomes and the Peace and National Partnership Agreement, as well as private conversations over the course of months with a range of people who have close contact with the group and family has allowed us to elaborate on the Houthis’ likely core concerns in any Saudi-Houthi talks.
The Houthis want recognition that they are and will remain a marked part of Yemen’s political and religious universe. In U.N.-led peace talks, the Houthis are likely to present Ansar Allah as a national, non-sectarian movement with demands harking back to the National Dialogue outcomes, specifically for senior-level representation in a post-conflict transitional government and freedom of religion. In talks with Riyadh, they may also seek, at the minimum, an end to Saudi-funded Salafism in north Yemen, which began in the 1970s and became a source of mounting friction and eventual armed conflict in the 2000s. As a prominent family with a long history of religious scholarship that claims lineage tracing back to the Prophet Muhammad, the al-Houthi family actively participated in the Zaydi revivalist movement that developed in response to this Salafi incursion. Zaydis are a small Shi’a sect of Islam — notably different from the Shi’ism followed in Iran — who are predominantly located in Yemen’s northern highlands. The Houthi family’s most outspoken son, Hussein al-Houthi, conveyed fear of Zaydi eradication and railed against U.S. and other foreign interventionism before he was killed by the Yemeni military in 2004. Nowadays, the once Zaydi revivalist family markets itself as a national movement and avoids language that might ostracize its non-Zaydi allies. Calls for political recognition will thus dominate, and any call for religious recognition would likely be couched in the language of religious freedom and non-intervention for all.
Territorial Integrity and Security Assurances
Six wars in Sa’ada against the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government between 2004 and 2010 — with Riyadh joining in 2009 — has deepened a Houthi fixation on territorial security and integrity. The Saudis and Houthis are likely worlds apart on what they consider the Houthi domain. Regardless, Riyadh is likely to insist the Houthis disarm entirely, while the Houthis will almost certainly insist on retaining weapons for their own defense. Revenge, after all, will be a powerful post-conflict motivator in Yemen’s tribal society, and the Houthis have much to answer for in the eyes of Saleh loyalists, among others. They will also remain a target of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. As part of their call for “national partnership,” the Houthis will also petition for integration of their forces into the national army. Perhaps most importantly, the Houthis will want security assurances that — when the world turns its attention away from Yemen — Saudi Arabia’s forces will not roll over the border and reengage militarily.
While northern Yemen has been especially hard-hit by coalition airstrikes, the issue of Saudi reconstruction aid will be a sensitive one. As one Yemen specialist suggested to us, “Some people in the region will not ‘eat meat’ from Saudi hands however desperate they are.” Getting critical reconstruction assistance — even from third parties — as part of a larger settlement, however, will moot Tehran otherwise moving in to exploit the need. The Houthis require an economic lifeline for their northern region post-conflict, a need that could be partly addressed by increased border trade with Saudi Arabia. Both parties also have an interest in stemming smuggling, trafficking, and other ills that have long plagued the Houthi home province of Saada. As one scholar on north Yemen told us: “The [northern] tribes are exhausted, but they need something to do.”
Guarantees of Foreign Non-Interference
Antipathy to foreign interference runs deep in the Yemeni body politic, and the Houthis are no exception. Importantly, this animosity applies in equal measure to Iran as well as the Gulf coalition members. In the Houthi view, they did not spend years fighting Salafism only to become the proxy of yet another school of Islam that fails to recognize the founder of Zaydi Islam and seeks to control them. One source who advises Ansar Allah told us that the Houthis “will not be puppets of Iran.” Saudi management of its security needs in Yemen, including the northern border regions, for decades ran via manipulation of Yemen’s tribes. Riyadh turned increasingly towards Saleh’s Sana’a in the last decade, neglecting tribal largesse as a tool and creating a vacuum into which instability in the north flowed. Saudi Arabia is likely to aim to keep a more hands-on approach to Yemen post-conflict than the Houthis might find acceptable, but this too is an area ripe for creative direct diplomacy that intertwines economic support, security arrangements in the border areas, and political/religious recognition.
What Iran Wants and Has to Offer
As in other turbulent parts of the Arab Middle East, Iran identified an opportunity early on in Yemen — well before the current war — and boldly capitalized on it, creating a national security nightmare in the backyard of its regional arch foe, Saudi Arabia — and all for a pittance.
While Iran’s interest in Yemen (never a tier-one national security priority like Iraq or Syria) has grown, what Tehran has to offer the Houthis remains limited — if potent — when measured against core Houthi interests. Tehran’s ability to substantially increase its non-military assistance is limited by Iran’s own economic travails under U.S. sanctions. Tehran cannot address the issue of Houthi quests for recognition, security, or equanimous border relations and trade with Saudi Arabia.
Those who know the Houthis have told us the Ansar Allah leadership might well consider curbing ties with Iran for an alternative arrangement, in part because they have a highly transactional perspective towards assistance. Iran also does not appear to control Houthi decision-making. Close observers we spoke to note that Abdul Malik al-Houthi and his military commanders often ignore Iran’s advice. For example, the Houthis moved to take Sana’a in September 2014 against Tehran’s counsel. The Houthis’ antipathy to foreign intervention limits the depth of any external relationships as well. The Houthi leadership has occasionally lobbed criticism when Tehran appeared to exceed its brief, harshly condemning an Iranian military official’s statement in 2016 suggesting Iran might acquire a naval base in Yemen and a comment by an Iranian Majlis member in 2014 that Sana’a had become “the fourth” regional capital under Iranian influence. In the latter case, the Houthis termed the comment “as provocative to us as it was for the Gulf [states]” in a 2016 interview. In short, the relationship, although indisputably deepened as a result of Iran’s military assistance and the sheer length of the conflict, remains an alliance of convenience for the Houthis.
The Strategy and the Pitfalls
The radical worldview of the Houthis — who see Israel, Jews, and the United States as regional destabilizers, enemies of Islam, and the ultimate puppeteers of Arab regimes — is unlikely to change anytime soon. It is also this political ideology that creates a political — rather than religious — affinity for them with Iran. However, part of the movement and likely its leadership understands that a political accommodation with the great neighbor across the border is far more beneficial for the community’s ultimate survival than a relationship with a partner of convenience, physically distant and with few non-military resources to offer. Just as radicalization experts draw a sharp distinction between deradicalizing (change of worldview) and disengaging (change of behavior), changing Houthi behavior through a robust mix of incentives is a more viable aim than changing the Houthi worldview.
Substantive direct talks with well-defined parameters is possible, however. Indeed, such a diplomatic gambit worked in 2016 when Saudi intelligence officials and the Houthis talked directly and agreed to a de-escalation. The Houthis even went so far as to issue a condemnation of Iran to seal the deal. This effort was effective but short-lived. Two lessons from this earlier venture remain germane for another go: First, Hadi acted as a spoiler then, learning of the Saudi-Houthi talks only after they had taken place and perceiving them as a threat to his position. Second, the Saudi-Houthi agreement was linked at the time to U.N.-led intra-Yemeni talks; the collapse of those talks soured the Saudi-Houthi channel. Anticipating such potential pitfalls will be key to avoiding a replay. A U.N. contact told us the de-escalation committees established in 2016 still exist and could be re-operationalized in short order. That would be a good start.
Riyadh should have learned already from previous short-lived efforts not to underestimate Houthi negotiating prowess. Foreign observers often note the group’s lack of international exposure, diplomatic inexperience, and its youthful leaders — but the House of Saud was underestimated in much the same way by outsiders in the early days of the modern Saudi state. The common refrain that the Houthis are politically unsophisticated also fails to take into account the movement’s very hard-nosed understanding of how power in Yemen works (as well as any tutoring Iran is providing). As sada, or descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, the Houthis come from a long line of arbitrators in north Yemen. They thus have at their disposal — if they choose — the honed tools of northern Yemeni diplomacy: mediation, dialogue, and compromise.
The Urgency of a Direct and Focused Back Channel
Martin Griffith’s success in December in gaining the commitment of the Houthis, the Hadi government, and the Saudi-led coalition to a set of preliminary confidence-building measures was avidly welcomed by the international community. The fragility of such carefully and deliberately crafted works of opacity is becoming clear on the ground, however. The U.N. special envoy’s work is a start, but a different kind of confidence-building measure is critically important at this juncture: a direct and high-level Saudi-Houthi back channel to reinforce the United Nations’ work. A Saudi-led diplomatic maneuver to coopt the Houthis would offer a much-needed, face-saving way to end this disastrous war at a time when strategic thinking is at an all-time low in the region. Only Riyadh is in a position to undertake such a venture, and with ample leverage to wield. And the incentive? A different kind of victory — one that has proven altogether elusive on the battlefield: reorienting the Houthis away from their current ally, Tehran.
A Saudi leader who launched an intervention to check Iran’s inroads on the Arabian Peninsula, but ironically has seen that influence deepen in the course of the conflict, has a far better chance of achieving that goal via a direct channel with the Houthi leadership. Such talks can both offer traction to and levy the pressures of U.N.-led, internationally supported peace negotiations, cutting the Houthis down to size politically to just another (albeit noisy) political actor in a collection of such actors deliberating over the shape of Yemen’s post-conflict governance.
Barbara A. Leaf is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 2014-2018. Elana DeLozier is a research fellow in the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a specialist on Yemen.