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Yemen's fragile path to peace amid Iran-Saudi thaw

Yemen's path to peace: Challenges persist amid Iran-Saudi thaw
6 min read
12 September, 2023
The renewal of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia raised hopes of an end to Yemen's war, but disputes between parties to the conflict over future political and economic arrangements have hindered progress.

Despite the promising potential of the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement to address Yemen’s crisis, the path to peace remains fraught with complexities.

Ongoing negotiations, facilitated by Oman, between the Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia aimed at ending the prolonged conflict have yet to yield a definitive breakthrough.

Opinions diverge when it comes to assessing the willingness of the Houthis to make concessions in order to bring an end to the ongoing war in Yemen.

Some analysts suggest that the recent improvement in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia might lead to a decrease in Iranian support for the Houthis.

Consequently, they believe that this shift could encourage the Houthis to take a more constructive approach, indicating their readiness to seek common ground and make concessions on critical issues.

Conversely, sceptics question the Houthis' true commitment to ending the war, citing their unwavering positions on numerous contentious matters and their reluctance to make substantial concessions.

These sceptics argue that achieving a lasting peace will require the participation of all Yemeni parties in governance and the organisation of elections. They contend that given the Houthis' minority status and lack of popularity, they are likely to face significant challenges in any election, which could jeopardise their current dominance.

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The absence of concrete concessions from the Houthis raises doubts about their genuine intentions in achieving a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Despite the internationally recognised Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia’s efforts to promote peace, such as allowing the unimpeded flow of commercial ships to the Hodeida port and permitting multiple flights from Sana'a airport, the Houthis continue to resist lifting the blockade of Taiz and reopening closed roads.

This ongoing behaviour further underscores concerns about their commitment to a peaceful resolution.

In April 2023, high-ranking delegations from Saudi Arabia and Oman concluded a six-day visit to Sana'a, where they held productive talks with Houthi leaders. Throughout the discussions, all parties involved emphasised their unwavering dedication to upholding a "de-escalation atmosphere" and fostering ongoing communication channels.

Ongoing negotiations between the Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia aimed at ending the prolonged conflict have yet to yield a definitive breakthrough. [Getty]

This positive atmosphere led observers to express optimism, as it appeared that an agreement was within reach. However, despite the progress made, certain obstacles emerged that ultimately hindered the finalisation of an agreement.

In a recent development, the Houthis have intensified their verbal attacks on Saudi Arabia, issuing threats to reignite hostilities and target critical Saudi economic installations such Aramco and Neom, asserting that their willingness for peaceful engagement has limits.

As the situation continues to evolve, a crucial query arises: Will Saudi Arabia and its regional allies concede to the Houthis' demands to prevent a potential resurgence of conflict?

The Houthi's stringent conditions and demands for ending the war and achieving a resolution present significant challenges. These demands include a firm insistence on the complete withdrawal of Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s forces from Yemen before the Houthis engage in dialogue with other Yemeni parties.

Evidently, if the coalition forces were to depart, the Houthis would emerge as the dominant force, potentially enabling them to enforce their terms on other Yemeni factions. This aspiration to monopolise power introduces complexities and potential obstacles to achieving a comprehensive and inclusive resolution in Yemen.

Furthermore, one of the major complexities in negotiating with the Houthis is the issue of unpaid salaries for employees since the end of 2016. Disputes arise over which party will control and allocate the income generated from oil and gas and other resources to civilian and military personnel.

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Each party vies for control of these funds, as it grants them power and the loyalty of personnel. Besides, areas under the internationally recognised government's control have experienced a sharp decline in currency value, while the Houthis have managed to maintain a relatively stable currency rate within their territories.

These discrepancies pose significant challenges in reaching an agreement on salary payments, further exacerbating the suffering of Yemeni civilians who have been severely impacted by the disruption of their income.

Additionally, substantial disagreements persist regarding the eligibility criteria for receiving salaries, underscoring a fundamental issue between the internationally recognised government and the Houthis.

The key point of contention lies in whether salaries should be solely based on the old 2014 payroll statements or if they should also encompass employees who joined after that date.

A significant challenge lies in the Houthis' refusal to engage in negotiations with the internationally recognised government. [Getty]

Troublingly, the Houthis have been known to employ and recruit a considerable number of individuals affiliated with sectarian groups in various civil and military sectors. Their insistence on including all these employees in salary payments further complicates the process of resolving the Yemeni crisis.

These disputes present significant challenges and impede progress towards achieving a comprehensive resolution in Yemen. Addressing these contentious issues is of utmost importance to ensure equitable and inclusive solutions that benefit all Yemeni individuals affected by the conflict.

An additional noteworthy obstacle to the distribution of salaries stems from the intricate currency situation, characterised by the coexistence of two distinct currencies within the country.

The older currency, valued at a higher rate, finds usage in the areas under Houthi control, while the newly printed currency, bearing a lower value, is utilised within territories recognised by the government. This dual-currency dilemma introduces a layer of complexity that must be navigated when addressing the equitable distribution of salaries.

A significant challenge also lies in the Houthis' refusal to engage in negotiations with the internationally recognised government, as they insist on exclusive talks solely with Saudi Arabia. The Houthis assert that Saudi Arabia is the primary party in the conflict, while Saudi Arabia perceives itself as a mediator and guarantor of any agreement between the legitimate government and the Houthis.

This fundamental disagreement profoundly affects the negotiation process and creates obstacles to achieving lasting peace in Yemen. To resolve this impasse, the intervention of international mediators is imperative to facilitate an appropriate approach that enables meaningful dialogue and inclusive negotiations among all relevant parties.

The involvement of global superpowers, such as China, which successfully played a role in ending the rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran, may become necessary in the future to bridge this gap and advance the prospects for peace in Yemen.

Yasser Ezzi is a Yemeni writer and senior editor for Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language edition