Published: 12:15, March 29, 2021 | Updated: 21:08, June 4, 2023
Peace for Yemen hangs in the balance
By Jan Yumul in Hong Kong

Conflict-riddled Yemen could see the prospects of peace delayed further unless a detailed comprehensive agreement amenable to all involved parties is thrashed out, experts said.

On March 22, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan announced an initiative to end the fighting between the Houthi rebels and the Riyadh-backed government under the supervision of the United Nations. The proposal, which involved partially opening the airport in the Yemeni capital Sana’a and reviving a revenue-sharing mechanism between the Houthis and the government, was rejected by the rebels.

Asif Shuja, an Iran expert and senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute at National University of Singapore, said the peace proposal “appears to be a result of the United States’ diplomacy”, spearheaded by its special envoy Tim Lenderking in consultation with UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths. 

“It is unlikely the Houthis will agree to any deal presented by the Saudis as that would weaken Iran’s position in any future negotiations with the US at a time when Iran-supported militias have an upper hand in Yemen over those of Saudi backed,” Shuja said.

On March 23, Houthi forces launched a drone attack on an airport in southern Saudi Arabia, saying that the Saudi proposal fell short of their demand for a complete lifting of the air and sea blockade, but that the group remained open to talks in pursuit of a peace deal, according to an agency report.

In a Twitter post, Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sare’e said that their operations “will continue for as long as aggression and blockade continue”.

Shuja said the blockade that Houthis have been asking to be removed “is not recognized by the Saudis”. And for it to be removed, Saudi Arabia must “first accept that it (the blockade) is in existence”, Shuja noted, adding that the blockade was not like one that was imposed on Qatar.

“Probably the only difference is that the presenter of this peace plan is at a much weaker position now ... Naturally the Houthis would reject it (the Saudi peace plan) instantly to raise their stakes,” said Shuja.

The expert noted that ending the war in Yemen has been the first foreign policy priority of US President Joe Biden after assuming office, by curtailing the support for offensive military armament of Saudi Arabia, striking the Houthis from the US terror list and embarking on an active diplomacy to resolve the Yemen issue. 

“The US is supporting the UN peace plan and Saudi Arabia finds itself on the backfoot,” said Shuja. 

Clemens Chay, a Gulf expert and research fellow at the Middle East Institute at National University of Singapore, said the Saudi-led initiative to end the crisis is a rehash of previous efforts aimed at de-escalation of tensions.

What the latest move encapsulates is an execution of previously discussed drafts by the UN, in addition to the supportive role of the US, he said. 

“Ultimately a ceasefire cannot be realized without integrating all armed groups, nor can it be operational without a detailed plan, where thus far there has been constant quibbling,” Chay said.

Should peace negotiations advance, Chay said the next focus should be thrashing out the details of a comprehensive agreement to end the crisis.

But a number of hurdles remain along the way, he added, with “the most glaring one” being the possible takeover of the oil-rich and “strategically significant” Marib city by the Houthi militia.

“Further Houthi advances in this regard would most certainly change the nature, if not, the scope of negotiations,” Chay said. 

Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a non-resident senior research fellow at the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg, said there is, in fact, “a new dynamic in the conflict”, as the Biden administration has called for an end to the Yemen war and has put Saudi Arabia on the spot. 

“This is why the Houthis sense that they are in a favorable position now,” Fathollah-Nejad said.

Yemen’s civil war began in 2014 when Houthi Shiite rebels took control of the capital Sana’a, forcing the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi out.

In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition, with support from the US, intervened to support Hadi and restore his government and launched a campaign of economic isolation and air strikes against the Houthis.

The UN Refugee Agency said more than four million people have been driven from their homes and that some 20 million are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, including more than 12 million children.

The UN World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley on March 11 warned the Security Council that Yemen is heading toward the biggest famine in modern history.

“Around 400,000 children may die in Yemen this year without urgent intervention. That is roughly one child every 75 seconds,” the WFP chief told the Security Council open debate via videoconference on conflict and food security.

Beasley stressed that these looming famines have two things in common: they are primarily driven by conflict, and they are entirely preventable.

“The cycle of violence, hunger and despair pulls in more and more individuals and families as the weeks and months pass. But the potential consequences are truly global: Economic deterioration, destabilization, mass migration and starvation,” he explained.

“Beyond the immediate crisis, we also need to invest in peace, so that in the future, desperate families are not forced to the brink of survival by the bullet and the bomb,” said Beasley.