By Nader Di Michele & Raffaella Colletti
In 2014 a civil war broke out in Yemen when Shia Houthi insurgents took control of Yemen’s capital and largest city, Sanaa. The civil war quickly escalated into a regional conflict when, after the forced resignation of President Hadi, a coalition of Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia launched a campaign of economic isolation and airstrikes against the Houthis, with USA logistical and intelligence support. Since then, the UAE has withdrawn from the Saudi-led coalition, the USA under the new Biden administration has ended its support for the coalition and the Houthis have launched an offensive in Marib, the last city in North Yemen under the government’s control. As the war enters its seventh year of conflict, the country is devastated and is experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis with estimated 100.000 people killed and 4 million displaced since 2015. Against this background, on March 22, Saudi Arabia advanced a peace initiative that would include a nationwide ceasefire under the United Nations’ auspices, the reopening Houthi-controlled Sanaa International Airport, and permission for fuel ships to dock at Houthi-run Hodeida. Nevertheless, so far, the Iran-backed Houthis have refused to give up arms and negotiate.
A number of specific events triggered the announcement of the Saudi peace initiative. Firstly, the Houthis’ campaign of drone and missile attacks targeting the kingdom’s oil sites, briefly shaking global energy prices amid the coronavirus pandemic. Secondly, the raging fighting around the strategic northern city of Marib, and thirdly, Saudi Arabia’s impelling need to rehabilitate its image with the USA under new president Biden after being repeatedly criticised by the international community for air raids killing civilians and embargoes exacerbating hunger. Commenting on the initiative, the kingdom’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said: “it is up to the Houthis now,” stressing his country would continue to “protect” its borders, citizens and infrastructure and face the Houthi “aggression with the necessary response”. He subsequently added, “the Houthis must decide whether to put their interests first or Iran’s interests first”. When engaging in Yemen in 2015, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had hoped to quickly crush the Houthi rebels and obtain a swift victory that would grant him a new legitimacy as the savior and military commander. Never would he have expected that its intervention would turn into a seven years-long protracted war with no end in sight. Far from Salman’s expectations, the Houthis have been steadily gaining ground since the conflict started and by now it has become clear that Saudi Arabia can no longer win the war. Riyadh has put forward its peace initiative within this context, which represents its exit strategy from the Yemen quagmire. For years, the Saudi-led military coalition has been launching air attacks on Sanaa — and had closed air and sea links in an effort to cut off Houthis’ access to supplies. This, however, was not effective in disrupting Houthis’ advancement; indeed, they have seized the capital, Sanaa, and large swaths of northwestern Yemen and in February, they began an offensive to seize the oil-rich city of Marib. The recent halted support from the USA was an additional factor triggering Saudi Arabia’s need to deescalate Yemen’s situation: Salman is now left alone to beg the Houthis to accept his peace proposal.
This weak and lonely Saudi position contrasts with that of the empowered Houthis, no longer designated as a terrorist organization in Washington. The Houthis intensified their drone attacks at the heart of Saudi economic facilities over recent months, targeting oil installations and airports and quickly understanding the weak Saudi position. The initial Saudi offensive strategy in the pursuit of securing its southern borders and pushing out Iranian influence remains thus unfulfilled. Fuelled by this perceived position of strength, the Houthis have dismissed the Saudi peace proposal as ‘nothing new’, stating that it still fell short of their demand for a complete lifting of the blockade on Sanaa airport and Hodeidah port. Indeed, whereas the Houthis want Hodeidah port and Sanaa airport to be completely open to all international traffic, the Saudi proposal envisages a role for the Yemeni government in regulating both – and for a ceasefire to come before any economic or humanitarian assistance. The proposal also suggests the sharing of revenues on trade in oil through Hodeidah. The Saudi-led coalition controls Yemen’s airspace and waters, including off the Hodeidah port on the Red Sea which handles more than 70% of Yemen’s imports. Indeed, the relinquishment of such control is seen as an existential threat in Saudi Arabia: free shipping and daily flights between northern Yemen and Iran would cause real anxiety in Riyadh. Hence, at the moment the prospect of peace seems far-fetched, however, the Houthis made clear that the plan must go further as Chief Houthi negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam told Reuters: “We have discussed all these proposals and offered alternatives. We continue to talk.” Given the relatively weaker position that Saudi Arabia founds itself in, it is likely that Riyadh would have to make concessions thus opening the way for negotiations, still “there is a lot of devil in the details to be worked out, in terms of what a ceasefire looks like and what an easing of restrictions looks like.” Moreover, without serious effort to contribute to the reconstruction of Yemen, the country will be drawn into several decades of upheaval and misery and the Saudi offer fails to detail how peace and economic reconstruction can resume once the airstrikes stop.
Iran’s civil war posture mainly revolves around inflicting political damage to its adversaries and fixing its opponents. By being visibly involved in the conflict and maintaining minimal investment, Iran forced the coalition forces to appear to have achieved military victory before they can withdraw. By fixing the coalition in the conflict, Iran can inflict significant damage on its regional enemies. According to Dr Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa, Iran spends around ten million dollars a year (mainly on assisting the Houthis to build drones and missiles), compared to Saudi Arabia’s significantly more tens of billions. As such, for a relatively low price, Iran has managed to get Saudi Arabia involved in a “costly quagmire”, making it a good return on investment. Moreover, the conflict has also hampered Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Europe and the US, and thus it has reduced the unity of any possible anti-Iranian coalition that may threaten its objectives in the region. However, while the Houthis and Iran have benefitted from their mutual relationship, the Houthis are not controlled by Iran. Firstly, there is limited evidence that Iran has influence over the Houthis’ strategy. For example, The Houthis reportedly ignored Tehran’s advice to not take over the city of Sana’a in 2014 . Moreover, apart from there being theological differences between the two groups, the Houthis’ political mission to resurrect a Zaydi imamate in Yemen is a local effort. The Houthi offensive push to the south in 2014 was a result of the failure of the Yemen’s National dialogue process to guarantee that the group had a sufficient portion of Yemen’s resources. Despite the Houthis not being an Iranian proxy, experts have indicated that Iran could play an important role in persuading the Houthis to negotiate with Riyadh. In fact, the Iranian Foreign Ministry recently voiced support for a diplomatic solution to solve the conflict. However, the Iranian government still expressed “its disgust at the continuation of this big crime against the innocent people of Yemen.” Besides, while Iran initially stated that they welcome the Saudi offer for peace, it urged external players like the Emirates and the Saudi to avoid interference in Yemeni domestic issues. However, Iran has also been accused of being involved and destabilizing the country by arming the Houthi and supporting them through other military and political means. “I think Iran will try to push not necessarily for the initiative to succeed, but they try to be positive, assuming this would be helpful even to the Houthis because it will reduce political pressure on the Houthis” says Mahjoob Zweiri, Professor of Contemporary History at Qatar University. Khalil, a Yemeni academic also believes that Iran will want to have some political gains from the peace process. Certainly, “Iran will support everything that preserves the gains it has achieved through the material and logistical support provided to the group”.
With the Biden Administration coming to office, the new team has made it clear that it will stop its support of the Saudi-led coalition war in the country, with Martin Griffiths, the United Nations’ Special Envoy for Yemen, whose mission is to bring Yemen and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. However, any US involvement in the peace process will still reflect President Biden’s promise to “continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people,” and as such not completing destroying the Saudi-U.S relationship. As such, with Saudi Arabia coming under what US officials have stated as an unacceptable level of violence from Houthi rebel’s drones and rockets, the US has been put on high alert. Observers have identified the US interventions in the negotiations as a rare opportunity for a political solution. “American involvement is bringing new momentum” to end the stalemate, according to a Gulf-based Western official. “The support for Griffiths has never been stronger“. Moreover, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has welcomed “the Republic of Yemen Government’s support for a comprehensive, nationwide ceasefire and UN-led political talks and its continued engagement with UN Special Envoy Griffiths,” according to the State Department. However, despite such optimism, the United States Special Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking received a cool response to his proposal to initiate the peace process, and according to sources close to the UN efforts, the initiative is to remain on hold until the end of the battle being waged outside of the strategic city of Marib is finished. This is because the battle is “holding back the negotiations … because the Huthis want to see how far they can go,” the source familiar with the UN efforts told AFP . Ultimately, the US has made it clear that the Houthi rebels must display a willingness to engage with the diplomatic process if they aim to achieve peace, after weeks of drone and missile assaults on Saudi Arabia. This was evidence by Department of State Spokesman Ned Price who stated that Houthis “need to quite simply stop attacking and start negotiating“.
A definite cut of US support to the Saudi government and a comprehensive ceasefire could inevitably force the fight to a standstill and hopefully solve some of the humanitarian issues Yemenis have been battling with for the past decade. However, although the peace process is a step in the right direction, we must not forget that Saudi Arabia has not achieved its objective of eliminating the Houthi threat. On the other hand, the Houthis have also not accomplished their end goal: to control Yemen by taking over the capital city Sana’a. As such, as long as the Houthis keep on organizing on Saudi Arabia’s southern border, the conflict is likely to endure in the long run. Thus, we must be careful not to be too optimistic about the peace plan, however, we must also recognize the humanitarian benefits of a long-lasting ceasefire.
The Editors: Nader Di Michele & Raffaella Colletti
Nader is a third-year Politics BSc student at King’s College London (KCL). He has significant experience conducting various geopolitical risk analysis, particulalry focusing on Middle Eastern domestic and international politics. His main focus is Iranian and American foreign policy, especially regarding the role of sanctions. Nader also has well-founded knoweldge of the various risks and future opportunities of ESG finance
Raffaella Colletti is an MA student in Middle Eastern studies at SOAS. She holds an MA in Intelligence and International Security from King’s College London and a BA in Political Science. She gained professional experience in research, risk assessment, and political analysis in international environments including Europol and the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism. Her main research interests lie at the nexus of security/conflict issues and human rights with a specific focus on the Middle East area.