Yemen, the beautiful country that has been trapped in a multi-sided, multi-dimensional civil war since 2014, is finally receiving some positive news. Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, two of the war’s biggest protagonists, are reportedly weeks away from signing a peace agreement.
According to public reports, Saudi and Houthi officials are in intense discussions on a deal that would pave the way for broader negotiations between the Houthis and their opponents in the internationally backed Yemeni government. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen, Mohamed Al Jabir, flew to Sana’a on April 10 alongside facilitators from neighboring Oman to meet with the chief Houthi negotiator. The terms include a six-month ceasefire, which would freeze the conflict and allow the Yemeni combatants to begin addressing the substantial political disagreements between them. The Saudi-imposed blockade on Houthi-controlled ports would be lifted, accelerating the delivery of humanitarian assistance into the country. The international airport in Sana’a, whose operations have also been curtailed by Riyadh, would be re-opened, and the Houthis would end their years-long siege of Taiz. A buffer zone between Saudi Arabia and northern Yemen, the Houthis’ traditional heartland, is also being discussed, although the exact specifications of how the zone would work and who would enforce it are not yet known.
Diplomacy has progressed to the point where other parties, including the United States and the United Nations, are taking notice and signaling publicly that peace may be on the horizon. U.S. Special Envoy Tim Lenderking will be in the region this week meeting with Yemeni and Saudi officials in what the State Department called an effort “to support ongoing efforts to secure a new agreement on a comprehensive peace process.” U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) about the Yemen peace process and welcomed Riyadh’s “extraordinary efforts” to move the diplomatic endeavor along. It’s safe to say that senior U.S. officials wouldn’t be releasing statements like this if they didn’t think there was a good chance the Saudi-Houthi talks will end successfully.
One certainly hopes that’s the case. Millions of Yemenis have been living in hell over the last eight years, with Saudi airstrikes, indiscriminate Houthi attacks, sieges and embargoes producing what the U.N. referred to as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. “Calamity” may be a better word. The statistics are daunting: Over 23 million Yemenis, almost three-quarters of the population, required humanitarian assistance last year; 17 million are food insecure; over 4 million are internally displaced; and 233,000 have died. There have been so many war crimes violations (some of them conducted using U.S. munitions and U.S.-manufactured warplanes) that the most impeccable human rights organization wouldn’t be able to document them all.
The Saudis, who were once insistent on defeating the Houthis militarily and fully re-instating the Yemeni government, are hopeful of a deal as well. Despite MBS’ unbridled braggadocio (he told U.S. officials at the start of the war that the military operation would be wrapped up in six weeks), Saudi Arabia has been trying for years to extricate itself from a war of its own choosing. The entire affair has been a big, own-goal for the Saudis and has proven more trouble than its worth. Militarily, not a single objective has been accomplished; the Houthis not only remain in control of Sana’a but have constructed a highly repressive state apparatus in the areas under its occupation. Diplomatically, the kingdom has taken a beating in the West for its conduct. Strategically, the war has brought the Houthis and Iran, Saudi Arabia’s chief rival in the Middle East, closer together—the opposite of what the Saudi royal family wanted.
Since at least 2019, the Saudis have held discreet conversations with the Houthis to stop the periodic exchanges of cross-border fire and dismantle the Houthi’s missile capabilities in the border region. Riyadh forced Yemen’s internationally-recognized president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, into retirement last year, viewing the septuagenarian as an obstacle to leaving the war with whatever face the kingdom had left. Hadi’s replacement with an eight-person presidential council was designed to bring multiple Yemeni political and geographical constituencies into the diplomatic process and give them an equal stake in its success. MBS, who originally believed he could resurrect the pre-Houthi status-quo, is doing everything possible, short of a full unilateral withdrawal, to bring Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the war to a close.
Just because the Saudis may be on their way out, however, doesn’t mean the fighting itself will end. The war in Yemen isn’t a classic contest between two sides, but a kaleidoscope of different factions whose conception of what constitutes an acceptable peace depends on their particular regional (and local) circumstances. The Saudi-created presidential council is theoretically on the same side but in reality is composed of separate blocs with a variety of opinions on how to structure Yemen’s political system and build Yemen’s administrative state. To take one example: The Southern Transitional Council wants autonomy, perhaps even independence, for Yemen’s southern regions and isn’t afraid to challenge others on the presidential council who would rather defer the issue indefinitely.
A Saudi-Houthi deal is still up in the air. But if a deal is in fact struck, the conflict will have turned a page. Just don’t expect the conflict to end immediately.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a syndicated foreign affairs columnist at the Chicago Tribune.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.