Will the New Peace Deal Finally End the Conflict in Yemen?

For anyone following the conflict in Yemen, the news about a new peace being made will sound like a broken record, but there is genuine optimism about the truce that has been hashed out over the last month in Yemen. At the end of December last year, I wrote an article about an Omani delegation landing in Sanaa that engaged in direct negotiations with the Houthis. The Houthis had previously withdrawn from a peace deal that was brokered in April 2022 and lasted half a year. The Houthis claim to have withdrawn from the peace deal because the GGC-led coalition didn’t fulfill their promise to open the Hodeida port, Sanaa Airport, or reinstate payments to Yemen’s civil servants who have not been paid since 2014.

Roots of the conflict

A brief backstory for context because many assume the unrest in Yemen started when the Houthis emerged from their northern enclave, as mainstream media likes to claim, and sacked Sanaa in late 2014. The true essence of this conflict goes back to Operation Scorched Earth in 2009. Operation Scorched Earth was launched as a joint operation between Saudi Arabia and Yemen to quell a so-called rebellion in northern Yemen. The military campaign lasted months, killed over 8,000, and displace over 50,000, mostly Shia Yemenis, from their homes. Shortly after Operation Scorched Earth concluded, Yemen’s fragile political ecosystems had fractured because tribal communities were upset that the government worked with Saudi Arabia against their own people. The Southern Movement also condemned the government of Yemen and vowed to support the Houthis. The Yemen Revolution of dignity then gripped the country as the Arab Spring rippled throughout the Middle East, and Yemen slowly became a failed state laying the foundation for the humanitarian crisis we see in Yemen today.

The US went from earning tens of billions yearly selling weapons and logistical support to Saudi Arabia and the UAE from 2015 to 2020 to just over a billion in 2021. Shortly after the United States slowed the supply of weapons and logistical support, Saudi Arabia looked for an exit ramp out of the quagmire in Yemen. The formation of the Presidential Leadership Council to replace Hadi in Yemen was Saudi Arabia’s first chess move to remove itself from the conflict. The Yemeni people never accepted Hadi because he had been the vice president since 1994 and was seen as a continuation of Saleh’s corrupt regime. Hadi is also a Sunni Muslim whom Saudi Arabia handpicked to replace Saleh in a GCC-UN-US brokered power transfer agreement in 2012.

The Social Welfare Fund disperses paychecks to civil servants and gives income to millions of chronically impoverished families in Yemen. The SWF ran out of money in 2014 and failed to set up social programs to protect the most vulnerable populations. The UN and the European Commission funded the SwF through loans granted by the World Bank. In 2014 Yemen could not pay the minimum fee on the loans from the World Bank and sought a loan of 560 million from the IMF to pay the loan fees owed to the World Bank. The IMF asked Mansour Hadi to cut fuel subsidies and raise fuel prices in Yemen to generate revenue and offset Yemen’s looming debt. Hadi raising fuel prices and cutting fuel subsidies led hundreds of thousands of people to protest in the streets of Sanaa in 2014, just before armed clashes erupted between the Houthis and Yemen’s Republican Guard. Civil servants’ salaries have always been the crux of the conflict in Yemen, not just for the Houthis but all Yemenis.

Diplomacy is Buzzing in Sanaa

The news from officials in Sanaa that civil workers’ salaries will be reinstated is a pivotal turning point in this conflict, even though it may not seem that way from the outside looking in. It is vital to Yemen’s rebuilding process that civil servants are paid because they are the backbone of Yemen. They are everything from teachers, doctors, and social workers, to construction workers, engineers, and police. The fact that the Saudis and the Houthis agreed on an issue that has plagued Yemen since before the war is enormous for the peace process. It proves that the Houthis have more power in Yemen than the SLC, mainly because the SLC has been plagued with infighting since its formation. That is not to say the Houthis and the Saudis are friends. The relationship between the Saudis and the Houthis is like walking a tightrope over thin ice in shackles with swarming great whites waiting for someone to slip.

A week after the Oman delegation landed in Sanaa in December of last year, the International Crisis Group published a report stating that the Houthis and the Saudis were in direct meetings in Sanaa that did not involve the SLC or the UN. The Saudis know that without their support or support from the US, the Houthis are way better prepared to take over Yemen militarily than the SLC-backed forces, who are having trouble not fighting each other. The SLC voiced displeasure with the Saudis meeting directly with the Houthis and excluding them from peace talks by threatening to instigate fighting to disrupt the peace talks between Riyadh and Sanaa. The Saudis responded to the SLC’s threats by telling them that if they resumed fighting, the GCC would not come to their aid. The peace deal officially ended in October last year, but large-scale fighting has not resumed in Yemen. The International Crisis Group dubbed this Yemen’s truce-without-a-truce period, and the UN claimed the lull in fighting was a prime opportunity to seek peace in Yemen.

On January 16th, the UN Security Council held its first meeting (PDF) on Yemen for the new year. Kimihiro Ishikane, President of the UN Security Council, was the first to address the gathering and invoke rule number 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure to allow Saudi Arabia and Yemen to attend the meeting. UN Special Envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg spoke to the security council remotely from Sanaa, stating that he had just finished meetings with a top official from the Houthis, Mahdi Al-Masha. Grundberg went on to tell the Security Council that he had positive discussions with the head of the Presidential Leadership Council, Rashad Al-Alimi, and officials in Muscat and Riyadh. He also confirmed that there have been no significant escalations in the conflict, and Yemen has seen its most peaceful time since the truce was first signed in April last year. Hans Grundberg does caution the security council on how fragile Yemen’s peace is.

“Military activity combined with negative rhetoric and escalatory political and economic measures create a situation where simple miscalculation could reignite a cycle of violence that would be difficult to reverse.”

According to an article published by the SABA news agency in Yemen, when Oman met with leading figures of the Houthi movement in December of last year, the Houthis showed the Omani delegation maps of missile launch positions the Houthis have set up all over northern Yemen. The Houthis showed they could hit targets deep inside Saudi Arabia, specifically Riyadh International Airport, and told the Omani delegation to present this information to officials in Riyadh. After the Omani delegation showed Saudi Arabia maps of targets the Houthis could hit, this persuaded the Saudis to return to the negotiation table. The SABA news agency claims the source of this information comes from a Houthi official who spoke off the record.

What Makes This Peace Deal Different?

The significant difference between this truce and the peace deals made in the past is that the Saudis and the Houthis had direct talks without the UN or SLC. Saudi Arabia and the Houthis have been the primary aggressors in this conflict, and the SLC in southern Yemen controls areas of Yemen that are sparsely populated. In contrast, the Houthis control the densely populated provinces in eastern and northern Yemen. In early January, protests rocked Yemen as hundreds of thousands flooded the streets of Sanaa, but they weren’t protesting against the Houthis or the SLC. They were protesting against the GCC and the blockade of Yemen. The hashtag #BlockadeIsWar was trending on Twitter during the protest, with dramatic videos of a sea of people marching through the streets of Sanaa chanting, “blockade is war!”

The demonstrations in Sanaa signify that the people of Yemen know that the GCC-led blockade has killed over 200,000 and has left their country isolated from the world for eight years. I have been screaming from the rooftops for three years to anyone who will listen that there cannot be peace in Yemen until the blockade is lifted. According to government sources in Sanaa, the Hodeida port, where Yemen gets over 80% of its imported goods, will be fully reopened for the first time since 2014. The Sanaa Airport will be opened to more international flights to Egypt, Qatar, Jordan, India, and Malaysia. Vital roads in Taiz and Ibb will be reopened, which will significantly ease the nightmare logistics of delivering aid to the people of Yemen. The Saudis and the Houthis have agreed to refrain from conducting attacks against each other, and the Saudis have warned forces loyal to the SLC that they will not come to their aid if they resume fighting. The SLC is not in a position to return to the battlefield, and all the power they have is external, not from within Yemen. Their power comes from being deemed the Internationally Recognized Government by the UN.

The leader of the Houthis, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, met with the Saudi Ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed Al Jaber, in mid-January. The Houthis presented the Saudi delegation with a map showing they could hit targets deep inside Saudi Arabia with their rockets. Abdul Malik al-Houthi reportedly told Mohammed Al Jaber during this meeting that the Riyadh International Airport would not be able to remain open if the Sanaa Airport continues to be closed. Al-Houthi also reiterated that any attempt to export oil from southern Yemen would be met with rocket fire. The Houthis demonstrated an ability to strike targets accurately with their rockets as they struck the docking moor of an oil export facility in south Yemen three months ago, cutting off a major revenue source for the SLC. The people of Yemen put their ideologies aside to unify and shook Sanaa with protests last month; now, it is time for the leading powers in Yemen to prove that they can govern, end this conflict, and stop giving the international community an excuse to allow the blockade of Yemen to continue.

Joziah Thayer is a researcher, writer, and antiwar activist from New England. He founded wedacoalition.org, an unmonetized research based information site to combat mainstream narratives that often mislead the public and the #OpYemen an online campaign to inform the world of the ongoing atrocities in Yemen.