October 2, 2023

IntelBrief: New Violence Jeopardizes Yemen Peace Deal

Saudi government via AP

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Recent attacks by the Iran-backed Houthi movement and the Gulf state-backed Republic of Yemen Government forces have eroded a tacit ceasefire and clouded the prospects for a political solution.
  • The expectations of international diplomats that a March rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran would yield an end to the Yemen war have been frustrated.
  • The Houthis appear to have resumed at least some limited armed drone strikes on infrastructure targets in Saudi Arabia, despite Iran’s pledges to restrain the Houthis’ attacks.
  • Saudi Arabia seeks an end to the Yemen conflict in order to focus on the Kingdom’s ambitious economic goals, but its key ally, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), wants to ensure that it can continue to use bases in Yemen to project power in the region.

The March Iran-Saudi restoration of relations augured hopes among regional and international diplomats that a political solution for the long-running conflict in Yemen was at hand. The two Gulf powers back rival sides: Iran arms and helps fund the Zaidi Shia Houthi movement (Ansar Allah) that has controlled Yemen’s capital, and much of northern and central Yemen since 2014. Saudi Arabia, along with its main partner, the UAE, and several other Gulf and Arab states intervened militarily in 2015 to try to restore the Republic of Yemen Government control over the country and thereby set back Iranian regional influence. The Arab coalition became bogged down in an unwinnable struggle that killed 150,000 fighters and civilians, brought about the outbreak of a cholera epidemic, and left 80 percent of the population dependent on aid. The Iran-Saudi rapprochement included reported Iranian pledges to stop equipping the Houthis with armed drones and ballistic missiles, such as the Qods-3 cruise missile, suggesting that Iran might welcome an end to the fighting. In easing tensions with Iran, Saudi Arabia sought – and for six months achieved – an end to Houthi missile and drone strikes on its infrastructure targets. Saudi de-facto leader Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) also appears to believe that the Yemen war is continuing to feed international criticism of his leadership and detracts from his ambitious Vision 2030 economic diversification program.

The mid-2023 start of direct talks between Saudi officials and Houthi representatives added to hopes for a Yemen political solution. The most recent such engagement took place during a five-day visit by Houthi negotiators to the Kingdom from September 15-20, and included a meeting with MBS’ brother, Saudi Defense Minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman - the highest-level meeting held by the two sides thus far. Following the talks, the Saudi Foreign Ministry stated that it “welcomed the positive results of the serious discussions regarding reaching a road map to support the peace path in Yemen.” However, there were no announcements by either side of any tangible breakthroughs on the key outstanding issues: a full reopening of Houthi-controlled ports and Sanaa airport, payment of wages for public servants (in Houthi-controlled areas, and including Houthi military forces) from Yemen’s oil and gas revenues, rebuilding efforts, and a timeline for foreign forces to leave. The issue of salary payments has touched off significant tension between public servants and leaders in the Houthi-led areas; payments have been suspended for years by the Saudi-led Arab coalition.

Yet, as of late September, there are signs of backsliding into all-out conflict, jeopardizing global aspirations to bring the fighting to an end. In late August, according to Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdulsalam, the Saudi-led Arab coalition killed 12 of the group's soldiers along the Saudi border. He called the attack a “violation” of the informal truce in place since October 22 (after the expiration of a formal ceasefire that began in April 2022) and stressed the “importance of entering into a phase of serious peace." That attack prompted a September 10 warning by a senior Houthi leader, President of the Supreme Political Council in Yemen, Mahdi Al-Mashat, who said that the arsenal of missiles held by the Houthis is “capable of striking any target in any city within the countries of the aggression [Saudi-led] coalition from [any point] in Yemen.” On September 25, five days after Houthi negotiators concluded their visit to the Kingdom, the Houthis implemented Al-Mashat’s threat by conducting an armed drone attack on Arab coalition forces along the Yemen-Saudi border, initially killing two Bahraini military personnel. Two more succumbed to their wounds by October 1. Bahrain is a close ally of Saudi Arabia as well as the UAE – the three constitute a hardline grouping of Gulf states that are the most critical of Iranian regional influence.  The Saudi-led alliance condemned the drone attack and said it followed other Houthi attacks on a power distribution unit and a police station near the Saudi-Yemen border. Arab coalition spokesperson General Turki al-Malki stated that: "Such repeated hostile and provocative actions are not consistent with the positive efforts that are being made to seek an end to the crisis." The Houthi attacks nonetheless signal that the movement is willing to use its main point of leverage – attacks on Kingdom targets – to exert pressure on MBS and his allies. And, Houthi leaders appear willing to demonstrate that Iranian promises to restrain the movement, even if implemented by Tehran, are not necessarily binding on them. Representing a further potential setback to Yemen peace talks, it was reported on September 30 that Yemen's national airline would suspend the only international commercial flight from Yemen's capital, Sanaa, in response to the Houthi administration blocking the carrier from withdrawing its funds in Sanaa banks, according to four company executives. Yemenia has been conducting six weekly flights to Jordan in accordance with agreements related to the April 2022 Yemen ceasefire.

Further complicating the prospects for peace are accusations and divisions among Yemeni factions fighting to push Houthi influence back into the far north of the country. In his address to the U.N. General Assembly in late September, Rashad al-Alimi, the head of the Saudi-backed Presidential Leadership Council (the Republic of Yemen’s highest governing body), said that the PLC seeks to end the war, create a Yemen based on rule of law and equal citizenship, rebuild Yemeni unity, preserve state institutions, and meet the needs of the Yemeni people. He claimed that Houthi rule would turn Yemen into a base from which regional terrorist groups can operate, including by laundering funds through Houthi-controlled financial institutions that are on the margins of the global banking system. However, another part of the anti-Houthi coalition, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which is trained and advised by UAE forces in Yemen, appears to oppose “unity” of Yemen. In interviews during the week of the U.N. General Assembly meetings, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, the head of the STC, told journalists that he would prioritize the creation of a separate country of South Yemen in negotiations with the Houthis. The STC position is in direct conflict with the position of regional and international mediators that a unified Yemen should be one outcome of any final peace settlement. As one point of expanding contention with his erstwhile ally, MBS, UAE leader Mohammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan (MBZ) backs the STC and its position on the future of Yemen to ensure that any overall Yemen settlement leaves the UAE in essential control of bases in southern Yemen, for example, the island of Socotra. From southern Yemen, the UAE projects power into Sudan, Libya, the Horn of Africa, and other key locations in the region. By contrast, according to experts, Saudi Arabia sees a Yemen that is once again divided along north-south lines as producing Houthis control in the north and, therefore, a continuing threat to its border and to southern Saudi Arabia more broadly.