Can the Riyadh Reshuffle Bring Peace to Yemen?
After years of relative inertia, events have moved quickly in the Yemeni Civil War over the past several weeks. With a new government in place and a ceasefire holding on the ground, this could be Yemen’s best chance for peace since 2014.
At the beginning of April, the U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen announced that both the Saudi-led coalition and internationally recognized government of Yemen on one side and the Houthis on the other had agreed to a two-month truce to mark the holy month of Ramadan. In addition to pausing military operations across the country, the truce brings several concrete agreements: It allows two commercial flights into Sana’a airport each week, opens Hodeidah port to 18 fuel ships, and begins discussions on opening blocked roads in Taiz, a city in southwest Yemen that has been under siege for years.
Less than a week after the truce was signed, intra-Yemeni talks in Riyadh resulted in the longtime president of Yemen’s internationally recognized government, Abed Rabbo Mansour, stepping down, reportedly under Saudi coercion. He handed power to an eight-man Presidential Leadership Council, which was formally sworn in on April 19 in Aden.
These events represent a more significant political shift than the war in Yemen has seen in several years. The truce is the first nationwide ceasefire since 2016, and despite reports of Houthi-initiated fighting around Marib, it appears to be holding in the rest of the country. President Hadi, although only the head of the government of Yemen in name only, nonetheless remained an obstacle to peace. His replacement with a council of political and military figures who have significant influence on the ground indicates that the Saudi-led coalition is serious about changing the direction of the conflict.
Whether these events put Yemen on the path towards peace, though, remains an open question. If the truce does not last, the presidential council could become a war council, reinvigorating the military efforts of the anti-Houthi coalition. U.S. diplomats and the international community have an important role to play in preventing this. They should push for a more inclusive negotiating process that brings in women and Yemeni civil society actors while also putting pressure on U.S. partners to follow through in implementing the current truce.
After so many negotiations with so little to show for them, the truce and government shuffle took even longtime Yemen analysts by surprise. Why now, after more than seven years of fighting?
On the Saudi-led coalition’s side, both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have increasingly recognized in recent years that they will not be able to secure anything resembling a military victory. Houthi missile and drone strikes on Saudi and Emirati territory have also increased in frequency over the past year, exposing these Gulf states’ economies to greater risk and damaging their international reputations as stable places to conduct business and host international events. The March Houthi attack on an Aramco oil facility, sending plumes of fire and smoke into the air near an international Formula One race event, underscored those risks.
The shift in U.S. policy towards the Saudi-led coalition when President Biden came into office has also had an impact on pushing the coalition to negotiate an end to the war. While he may not have fulfilled his campaign promise to treat Saudi Arabia as an international “pariah,” Biden announced in the early months of his presidency that the United States would end “offensive” support to the Saudi-led coalition and support the U.N.-led negotiation track. This combination of pressure and diplomatic engagement has helped convince Saudi and Emirati leadership that they needed to find a way to end their involvement in the war. U.S. support, and the appointment of a new U.N. Special Envoy, have in turn reinvigorated the U.N. process, which had essentially stalled out by 2021.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may also see wrapping up their involvement in Yemen as part of a broader effort to find a more “functional” working relationship with Iran as nuclear deal talks slowly progress. For its part, Iran welcomed the truce announcement: An Iranian spokesperson “expressed hope that the move could be a prelude to a complete lifting of a blockade and a permanent establishment of a ceasefire in order to find a political solution to the Yemen crisis.”
The Houthis seemed poised to make significant strategic gains a year ago. Victory in their offensive on Marib, the last major government-held city in Yemen’s north, would have yielded the Houthis access to critical oil and gas infrastructure and given them an advantage going into negotiations. Instead, as their battlefield momentum has stalled, the benefits of continuing to fight instead of coming to the negotiating table have diminished. That said, some observers have argued that the Houthis are taking advantage of the truce to regroup and redeploy their forces. As Yemen analyst Nadwa al Dawsari recently tweeted: “Truce or not, Houthis won’t give up their plans to take Marib or ambition to control” the entire country.
Why Does the Truce Matter?
The terms of the truce show that both sides are willing to make compromises as part of the U.N.-led process — a willingness that has, until now, been in short supply. Since at least early 2020, the fundamental disagreement that prevented a ceasefire have been clear: The Houthis demanded that the Saudi-led coalition completely open the Sana’a airport and Hodeidah port before a ceasefire could be discussed, while the coalition offered to partially open both ports only as part of a broader agreement. Thus limited access to both Sana’a and Hodeidah represents a significant compromise for both sides, and especially for the Houthis, who have prior to this shown little willingness to make concessions under the U.N.-brokered process.
Even more surprisingly, the terms of the truce are actually being implemented. The coalition has allowed fuel ships into Hodeidah. Hodeidah and nearby ports account for about 70 percent of Yemen’s commercial and humanitarian imports, even at their reduced capacity, and the coalition had blocked ships with fuel and other vital commodities from docking. On the other hand, though, implementation of the agreement could still be foiled by disagreements. While Yemenia Airlines announced that the first commercial flight into Sana’a airport since 2016 would land last weekend, the flight was postponed indefinitely, with each side accusing the other of non-compliance. The resumption of some commercial flights could mean that more Yemenis will be able to move in and out of the country to access health services and visit family. Disputes over how the agreement ought to be implemented were ultimately the demise of the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement, so whether ships continue to dock and commercial flights can land is an important indicator of whether both sides are truly interested in following through on their promises.
Diplomats are hopeful that the truce will provide space for the parties to negotiate a more comprehensive peace agreement. This will be a much heavier lift than the truce itself, since it introduces a number of bigger issues, beginning with how the country will be governed and by whom. Still, the truce could be a first step in that direction.
Perhaps most importantly, the truce represents a reprieve for the Yemeni people. The war has killed almost 400,000 Yemenis. Three-quarters of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance. The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that more than 10,000 children have been killed or wounded during the fighting, and thousands have been recruited as child soldiers. In addition to the opening of Sana’a airport and Hodeidah, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates announced an economic support package and a $2 billion deposit into Yemen’s Central Bank in Aden (one of two rival central banks). Prices for basic goods in Yemen have soared in recent years in part because Yemen’s currency has plunged to historic lows. The Yemeni rial recovered 25 percent of its value soon after the deposit was announced, helping to make food and other vital goods more affordable.
Why the Presidential Council Matters
The government reshuffle is also potentially very significant for the peace process. President Hadi has long been an obstacle to negotiations. Hadi sabotaged peace talks in 2016 by appointing Ali Mohsen al Ahmar as his vice president. Ali Mohsen was seen as a non-viable replacement for Hadi by the United States and other Western countries due to his ties to extremist organizations. By selecting him as his vice president, Hadi ensured that the international community would not try to force Hadi out of office. Thus, despite Hadi’s illegitimacy and efforts to block peace deals, he remained in office.
Hadi has spent his post-2015 tenure in Riyadh, not in Yemen. His government had few connections and little legitimacy on the ground. As analyst Maged al Madhaji writes, Hadi “had lost the support of virtually every party” in the anti-Houthi coalition. Instead, it served as a vehicle for international legitimacy. Hadi was the last democratically elected president of Yemen, having run unopposed in 2012 elections. He was supposed to serve as a caretaker for Yemen’s post-Arab Spring transitional government. Instead, after he was forced to flee Sana’a and later Aden by the Houthi advance, “his term as president became indefinite and unaccountable to the Yemeni people,” according to an editorial from the Sana’a Center, an independent think tank. Hadi was useful to the coalition because he provided a veneer of international legitimacy: The coalition intervention was initiated by Hadi’s invitation, and his presence allowed the coalition to say they were supporting the internationally recognized government of Yemen.
But as his government’s corruption deepened and members of the anti-Houthi coalition ostensibly organized under the Yemeni government came to blows with each other, Hadi’s usefulness waned. While there is no clear constitutional mechanism for the transfer of power to a presidential council, Hadi’s departure has still been greeted with relief by many Yemenis.
The membership of the new presidential council is also significant, as it balances Saudi and U.A.E. loyalists and represents competing factions within the anti-Houthi alliance. These consist of leaders of military groups that are backed by the United Arab Emirates, including the head of the Southern Transition Council, a U.A.E.-backed entity that supports southern secession; leading tribal figures; and members of Islah, a major political party that is opposed by the United Arab Emirates due to its Muslim Brotherhood ties. The council is headed by Rashad al Alimi, a former government official who has close ties to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi and Emirati leaders clearly hope that these leaders will be able to more effectively represent what’s happening on the ground than Hadi and enable the various factions to become more closely aligned. In his first televised speech, al Alimi promised that the council would “end the war and achieve peace through a comprehensive peace process that guarantees the Yemeni people all its aspirations.” But precisely because of these contentious relationships, it is possible that the council will not be able to stay unified for long. Indeed, relations between rival leaders were reportedly so contentious that some came “to blows in private sessions” of the intra-Yemeni dialogues in Riyadh. Another risk is that if the truce does not last, or is not renewed when the two-month period ends, the presidential council could become a war council: As al Alimi said, “it is also a council of defence, power and unity whose mission is to protect the sovereignty of the nation and citizens.”
What Should the United States Do?
The truce offers the United States and the international community a critical opportunity to double down on diplomacy in Yemen. The United States will need to continue to support the U.N.-led process to help ensure that the tenuous truce will not only continue to hold but will be renewed at the end of the two months. Negotiations towards a comprehensive peace in Yemen will have to tackle a wide range of issues, including providing justice and accountability, demobilizing or reintegrating armed groups, and agreeing on the structure of a potential federal government. The United States and the rest of the international community can play an important supporting role by pushing their partners to stay at the table and supporting more inclusive talks.
Inclusion in peace talks is not just nice to have. Experience from conflict settings around the world tells us that inclusive negotiations lead to a more sustainable peace. The United States and the international community can push for gender quotas to ensure that women, who have developed their own frameworks for peace, are included in talks. The truce also represents an opportunity to broaden the peace talks beyond political elites and military leaders to civil society organizations and local community leaders. Tribal leaders, for example, have already taken steps to mitigate violence and build resilience on the ground. U.S. diplomats should work to support a U.N. peace process that is genuinely representative of Yemeni society, not just the warring parties.
The United States can also provide guarantees to its security partners that will help a longer-term agreement stick. For example, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are likely to insist on protection against Houthi missile and drone attacks, which the United States can provide through missile defense systems and intelligence. U.S. diplomats can also continue to support the U.N. Special Envoy’s efforts to ensure that these countries actually implement the terms of the current truce. Because past agreements have come unraveled due to disputes between the parties about how to implement their terms, finding solutions to problems — like the delays in the first commercial flight to Sana’a — will be critical to ensuring that negotiations stay on track.
U.N. Special Envoy Hans Grundberg told the U.N. Security Council last week that the truce represents a “rare opportunity to pivot toward a peaceful future.” But if the ceasefire is not renewed and fighting continues, this opportunity could quickly disappear.
Alexandra Stark is a senior researcher at New America and holds a Ph.D. from Georgetown University. She is currently writing a book manuscript, Forgotten Wars: What intervention in Yemen’s civil war tells us about Middle East politics and the failures of US policy.