Analysis: Fighting recedes, but peace in Yemen remains distant

Despite relative quiet on the front lines and negotiations between the Saudis and the Houthis, peace isn’t a given.

Houthi supporters at rally
Houthi supporters rally in Sanaa, Yemen, against US support for the Saudi-led coalition [File: Hani Mohammed/AP Photo]

For the past year, Yemen has been in a state of no war and no peace. While preferable to all-out warfare, it is also a status that is not sustainable.

There has been a heavy focus on diplomatic efforts to seal an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels. But any deal between those two parties is unlikely to solve the Yemeni civil war. Instead, experts say, that outcome would require reconciliation between a host of various Yemeni groups.

Saudi Arabia and Iran signed a Chinese-brokered agreement on March 10 to renormalise diplomatic ties. This détente has also helped cool tensions between the Saudis and Houthis.

Riyadh appears determined to find a dignified exit to the conflict in Yemen, so it can focus more on its internal development. This de-escalation with Tehran has advanced its interests in preventing the Saudi-Houthi conflict from returning to all-out war in the aftermath of the expiration of a ceasefire in October.

Yemenis walk past the ruins of buildings destroyed in an air-strike by the Saudi-led coalition
Yemenis walk past the ruins of buildings destroyed in an air strike by the Saudi-led coalition in the capital, Sanaa [File: Mohammed Huwais/AFP Photo]

“The thawing of Saudi relations with Iran has had a cooling effect on Saudi-Houthi tensions,” Nabeel Khoury, the former United States deputy chief of mission in Yemen, told Al Jazeera.

“On the positive side, reduced tensions have led to a prolonged ceasefire, at least in northern Yemen. The loosening of the blockade around the north has led to increased movement of Yemenis in and out of Sanaa and hence a good breathing spell for the majority of Yemenis who live under Houthi control,” Khoury said.

Although an improved relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran may be seen as opening the door to a lasting peace with the Houthis, the Yemeni rebels are not Iran’s proxy. Therefore, even if Iranian officials sincerely want to rein in the Houthis, the extent to which Tehran could successfully do so is unclear.

“There may be people in Saudi who think that this [Saudi-Iranian diplomatic deal] might have a significant impact on the Houthis, but I suspect that those who are better informed and closer do realise that the Iranian influence on the Houthis is very limited,” Helen Lackner, the author of books that include Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State, told Al Jazeera. “When the Houthis and the Iranians want the same thing, then they both do it. When the Houthis want something that the Iranians don’t like, they simply ignore whatever the Iranians are saying. It’s not as if the Iranians can say to the Houthis do this, do that, and they do it. It just isn’t that way.”

Since the Saudi-Iranian diplomatic agreement was signed, representatives of the Houthis have stressed that the renormalisation deal between Tehran and Riyadh could not supplement a deal between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia.

“This point was proven during the Saudi ambassador [to] Yemen’s trip to Sanaa in April, where he met with his Houthi and Omani counterparts,” Veena Ali-Khan, a Yemen researcher at the International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera. “To [Ambassador Mohammed bin Saeed Al-Jaber’s] surprise, the Houthis were unwilling to make any concessions, and he left empty-handed. If anything, the Houthis capitalised on Saudi and Iran’s new diplomatic relations to prove their independence from Tehran, something which they’ve long repeated to Riyadh.”

Contending with Houthi strength

It will be challenging for Riyadh to obtain leverage over the Houthis, who perceive Saudi Arabia as wanting to end its involvement in the now almost nine-year Yemeni conflict. The Houthis sense that they have an upper hand, giving them little reason to compromise much with Riyadh and other actors.

The head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, Mahdi al-Mashat, shakes hands with Saudi ambassador to Yemen Mohammed Al-Jaber at the Republican Palace in Sanaa, Yemen April 9, 2023.
The head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, Mahdi al-Mashat, left, meets Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed Al-Jaber, at the Republican Palace in Sanaa, Yemen, in April [File: Saba News Agency/Handout via Reuters]

“Saudi is now keen to exit the war, but for the Houthis, war has become a way of life,” Elisabeth Kendall, a Yemen expert at Girton College, Cambridge, said in an interview with Al Jazeera. “After nearly two decades of on-off wars, the Houthis are unlikely to agree to peace without extracting major concessions in the form of power, territory and resources.”

Within this context, it will be critical to keep an eye on Marib and possible Houthi aggression towards the government-controlled, resource-rich city. “If you look at the discourse from the Houthis, it’s getting more aggressive,” Lackner said.

She added that an important question to consider was whether a renewed Houthi offensive against Marib, which the group has failed to take during several previous offensives, would result in Saudi air strikes being renewed.

“The only thing in my view that prevented the Houthis from taking Marib was the Saudi air strikes, so should the Houthis start attacking Marib again, would the Saudis and the Emiratis intervene with their air strikes starting again? I don’t know.”

Saudi and Houthi negotiators have been discussing a deal consisting of three phases: humanitarian issues, military arrangements and talks between Yemeni factions. According to Ali-Khan, the two sides have thus far failed to move beyond the first phase.

“The Houthis want an agreement that sees a slice of the government’s oil wealth go to their central bank. They do not want a deal that leaves them financially beholden to Riyadh, which explains their hard line on a wealth-sharing agreement before they will entertain intra-Yemeni talks. The Houthis also want the Saudis to stop supporting their Yemeni rivals and to foot the bill for reconstruction payments on their side,” Ali-Khan said.

“Despite the political deadlock, there is evidence on the ground that a ‘silent agreement’ could be in the making,” Ali-Khan explained. “In the run-up to the Eid holiday, Sanaa airport opened for more destinations and flights. This could be an attempt by Riyadh to maintain diplomatic momentum as it buys time for ongoing discussions with the Houthis.”

Yet believing a Saudi-Houthi pact by itself could bring peace and stability to Yemen is naïve. Many other divisive issues would not be automatically resolved just because Riyadh and the de facto government in Sanaa reach a deal.

“A long-term peace deal between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis would permanently end Saudi-led air strikes, but it would not end the conflict. There are many factions and militias invested in the Yemen war beyond just Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, whose aims and ambitions would all need to be addressed for peace to become a reality in Yemen,” Kendall explained.

As Khoury said, overcoming the “tough challenge” of reaching a “Yemeni-Yemeni rapprochement” is necessary for a broader peace to take shape across Yemen.

“For that to happen, a new sense of realism has to set in among Yemenis on such issues as southern independence, sharing of natural resources and central bank assets, and an agreement on freedom of navigation for north and south in and out of all Yemeni ports,” the former US diplomat told Al Jazeera.

Tensions in southern Yemen

The role of the United Arab Emirates, which backs the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), cannot be overlooked.

Abu Dhabi has been notably absent from the Saudi-Houthi talks, and some experts question its commitment to promoting nationwide peace across Yemen.

“Beyond a cessation of hostilities with the north, the Emiratis have no interest in promoting a general peace inside Yemen that allows the expansion of Houthi influence in the south,” Khoury said. “Of particular importance for the UAE is their close relations with [the separatist] southern leadership that allows Emiratis control of southern seaports and sea lanes around the entrance to the Red Sea.”

The dysfunctionality and fragility of Yemen’s UN-recognised government, currently represented by the Presidential Leadership Council and officially backed by Saudi Arabia, all weaken the anti-Houthi coalition. The council’s nature and the way it was set up in 2022 – a sudden announcement made in Riyadh – have significantly contributed to the entity’s inability to gain any foothold in Yemen. As Lackner explained, the Houthis and the STC are “actively trying to undermine” the Presidential Leadership Council.

Against this backdrop, there is every reason to be concerned about further fragmentation in Yemen, especially with the establishment of more rival power bases in southern Yemen.

“The STC has increased its diplomatic offensive as alternative political structures like the Hadramawt National Council emerge in the southeast,” Kendall told Al Jazeera. “It would be wrong to think of a peace deal between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia as the end of the war or even the beginning of the end. Unless power is shared judiciously, it could just be the end of the beginning.”

Source: Al Jazeera