Is there a path to peace in Yemen?

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Editors’ Note: The conflict in Yemen has become a mutually hurting stalemate, writes Sultan Barakat. Constructing a truly all-inclusive decision-making process to pick up where the National Dialogue Conference left off will be key to reaching any power-sharing agreement. This post originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

After a year of the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen, parties to the conflict have been meeting in Kuwait this week, in the latest effort to resolve the conflict. Despite sporadic violations, a fragile truce brokered by United Nations envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed that went into effect on April 10 seems to be holding.

This is good news for Yemenis and the region, as it seems there is a growing appreciation that maintaining violence as the means to achieve political goals in Yemen is simply not feasible. 

Despite the lack of progress, the fact that talks are taking place outside Riyadh is in itself a positive compromise and an important step by the Saudis. For the talks to be effective, Saudi Arabia needs to revisit its overall strategy now that its year-long military campaign has not solved Yemen’s protracted crisis.

Furthermore, to improve upon the failed ceasefires of July and December 2015, the delegations should consider the following factors, which may provide a degree of common ground on which to build a lasting peace in Yemen.

Mutually hurting stalemate

First, the conflict has become a mutually hurting stalemate. Yemen is facing a humanitarian catastrophe that will haunt the region for years to come.

In addition to the 6,000 people killed and 30,000 wounded, more than 2.5 million people remain internally displaced and 14.4 million are affected by food insecurity, with many of the country’s governorates on the verge of famine.

Most Yemenis lack access to clean water and proper sanitation. Meanwhile, with the military campaign costing an estimated $200 million a day, the coalition supporting President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi against the Houthis will find it increasingly difficult to afford as a result of the falling price of oil. 

Furthermore, having announced its developmental Vision 2030, it is in Saudi Arabia’s interest to put an end to its war in Yemen as soon as possible.

Second, it will be almost impossible to advance a peace agreement in Yemen without an innovative form of inclusive local power sharing that addresses the concerns of all parties.

Mistakenly viewed by many observers as a two-sided conflict between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels, Yemen’s war is actually a multifaceted predicament.

Mistakenly viewed by many observers as a two-sided conflict between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels, Yemen’s war is actually a multifaceted predicament involving a volatile combination of local, regional, and international actors, all of them armed and having major and competing interests in the country’s future.

The political transition process set out by the Gulf Cooperation Council back in 2011 failed to incorporate key sections of Yemeni society into the decision-making process, such as the southern separatist Hirak movement, the Houthis, and Yemeni youth and women.

As a result, Hadi’s transitional government was increasingly viewed as illegitimate and unrepresentative of the demands and concerns of the Yemeni people.

Power-sharing agreement

Constructing a truly all-inclusive decision-making process to pick up where the National Dialogue Conference left off will be key to reaching any power-sharing agreement.

Relatedly, the Houthis continue to harbor grievances against the Hadi government. They associate Hadi with the corrupt Saleh regime that exacerbated political problems in Yemen for decades. They protested the exclusive way in which he oversaw Yemen’s transition process, leading to unilateral decisions on major national issues and the drafting and implementation of a new constitution.

It seems that the Saudis too, do not have full confidence in Hadi and his cabinet. According to a private conversation with a senior member of Hadi’s government, the Saudis have yet to approve his proposed operational budget for governing in Aden and elsewhere.

As a compromise, the Saudis should consider working with the Houthis in order to reach an understanding on how to cease hostilities and resolve political disagreements with an open mind as to who should be in the leading seat. This may be another point of convergence that is rising fast.

Fourth, the six-region federalism plan endorsed by Hadi must be re-examined and evaluated more thoroughly if an effective power-sharing agreement is to be reached. Without proper consensus from factions such as Hirak and the Houthis, these divisions will put at risk any prospect of lasting peace in Yemen.

One of the major concerns is that federalism may exacerbate calls for secession in the future.

Among Hirak supporters, certain factions say they will accept nothing less than complete secession of the South, while others have hailed the six-federation outline as a step towards possible secession in the near future.

Access to sea

Apprehension over access to the sea and possession of natural resources has dominated debates over the regional boundaries. Ironically, this is an issue that may unite Houthis and Southern Yemenis as they both reject the federal system as currently structured.

Finally, Yemen’s war has already strengthened the presence of al-Qaida and other extremist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). Today, al-Qaida controls large swaths of territory and has penetrated the very structure of the Yemeni state, becoming a recognized partner in raising taxes locally, allocating central expenditures, and paying local salaries.

Since the enemies of al-Qaida and ISIL—the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition—are busy fighting each other, extremist organizations can now operate with impunity. It is in the interest of all parties heading to Kuwait to ensure that this situation does not continue.

The peace talks in Kuwait will provide the Saudis with an opportunity to present a strategy for ceasing hostilities in Yemen without necessarily sacrificing their political goals.

Yemen and its people deserve to have their humanitarian issues improved and find a peace settlement that encourages the formation of an inclusive political system.

Failure to do so would perpetuate moral insolvency on the part of the Saudis and their coalition partners, threaten to further destabilize Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula, and enable al-Qaida and ISIL to continue to flourish.