It was a rare site in the Castle of Rimbo in northern Stockholm in Sweden when the head of rebel Houthis, Muhammad Abdelsalam and the Foreign Minister of internationally-recognized Government of Yemen, Khaled al-Yemeni shook hands in the presence of the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on December 13, 2018. The occasion was the signing of a hard-won peace accord between two warring factions after marathon efforts for almost two years. This success was preceded by many failed efforts to bring the two rivals on the negotiating table and discuss the end of the eight-year old civil war. None of the past peace plans including the UN-led initiatives in Geneva in May 2015, in Biel in December, 2015, and the Kuwait Initiative of 2016 which lasted for 108 days, was able to make any progress. The last effort was made in September 2018 when the talk could not even begin as the Houthis delegation refused to turn up for the dialogue in absence of security assurance for their delegates.
Failure of Saudi-led Operation and New Peace Agreement
The fact that Yemen has been traditionally marked with multi-layered divisions and the involvement of several stakeholders in the future politics of the country has made the achievement of peace in the country a difficult task. In fact, the former President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh had once remarked that “ruling Yemen is like dancing on the head of a snake”.1
The post-Arab Spring turmoil with the air-strikes by the Saudi-led coalition in 2015 against the Iranian aligned Houthis has continued to destroy Yemen. The Houthis control around ten out of the total twenty-three governorates in Yemen. For Saudi Arabia, Yemen not just forms a part of its strategic and geographical imagination, but also considers it as its own backyard for its internal security. The nature of the contemporary relationship between Saudi Arabia and Yemen emanates from the famous dictum of its founder King Abdul Aziz, who in 1953 had remarked that “good and evil to us will come from Yemen and our power resides in humiliation of Yemen and our humiliation in Yemen’s power”.2 On a similar note he had once advised his sons to “keep Yemen weak”.3
Abiding by the above, and also the significance of a stable and peaceful Yemen for the internal security of Saudi Arabia, it launched its military operation along with its close allies in early 2015 after the Houthis captured the capital town of Sanaʽa and emerged as the biggest security threat for the country in general and its border areas in particular. In a span of four years of war and conflict, the Houthis have launched several missile attacks targeting the territories of Saudi Arabia. Major General Ahmad Hassan Mohammad Asiri, the former spokesperson of the Saudi-led operation in Yemen and defense ministry of Saudi Arabia reported that since the inception of the Saudi-led operation, Houthis rebel have targeted Saudi Arabia with 48 ballistic missiles and a total number of 138 missiles have targeted either Saudi territory or its forces.4 In March 2018, the Houthis fired seven ballistic missiles targeting the capital city of Riyadh and Saudi-Yemen border areas of Najran and Jizan apart from a military depot in the town of Khamees Mushait.5
The four-year old operation of the Saudi-led coalition has left around 10,000 Yemeni people dead including large number of civilians and children while non-governmental organizations claim that number might be six times greater.6 For example the date provided by an agency called, Conflict Location and Event Data, mentions that there were 28,182 fatalities in 2018 only with an increase of 68 % if compared to number of casualties in 2017. The same agency reported that 60, 233 people have been killed since January 2016.7 The UN Deputy Relief Emergency Coordinator Mark Lowcock warned in November 2018 that the country was on the brink of a major catastrophe.8 The ongoing conflict among different political groups and tribal warlords in Yemen has caused large-scale epidemic disease and today around 16 million people are in acute food crisis and large numbers are suffering from internal and external displacement.
What has really changed the military equation in Yemen in favor of Houthis after they captured the capital town of Sanaʽa and the Taiz was the control of the western port town of Hodeida, an life line for millions of Yemenis. The Hodeida port at the Red Sea is a major source of supplies to the northern part of Yemen where people in large number are suffering from scarcity of food.
The capture of Hodeida town by the Houthis has not only disrupted the food supply but have also held thousands to hostage by them and reportedly being used as a shield against the military assault.9
This port city has witnessed an eight-fold escalation of violence in 2018. In June 2018, United Arab Emirate and Saudi Arabia launched major airstrikes to re-claim the port as they believe that it is an entry point of supplies of weapons for the Houthis by their adversary Iran. This protracted war of four years between the Saudi-led forces and the Houthi rebels failed to change the status quo on the ground, as the internationally-recognized government of President Hadi is still in exile and Yemen as a state has become a failed entity.
The escalating violence in the Hodeida, deteriorating humanitarian situation and the subsequent pressure of the UN and other humanitarian organizations brought the two sides to the negotiating table. The week-long exercise, known as Stockholm Agreement, began on December 6, 2018 with an indirect consultation between the two parties with the stated objective of building trust and ending the years of deadlock. This time the UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffith was not ready to risk boycott or last moment snub by any party, so he along with Kuwaiti ambassador to Sanaʽa travelled in the same flight for Stockholm which was boarded by the Houthi delegates.
The major issues in the negotiation was the demilitarization around the port of Hodeida, de-escalation of conflict across the country, implementation of permanent ceasefire and the exchange of prisoners by both sides. The representative of Hadi government demanded an immediate withdrawal of the Houthis from the port of Hodeida and other nearby ports and to hand it over to the legitimate authority. An agreement was reached for immediate ceasefire in Hodeida and according to the agreement; all warring sides would leave the port within twenty-one days of ceasefire10 and hand it over to the local authority. There is need for restoration of normal traffic at the port in order to feed around 12 million, i.e., half of the total population of Yemen. The Saudi envoy to Yemen said that the deal would remain a hypothetical exercise until the Houthis did not leave the port of Hodeida and city of Taiz.11 The same sentiment was echoed by Yemeni foreign minister Khaled al-Yemeni after the marathon talks in Stockholm concluded.
There was an agreement to swap a total 16000 prisoners from both asides within next thirty days including women, children and teachers, some high-level ministers and relatives of President Hadi, who are currently hostage to the Houthi rebels.
No headway could be made on the issue of reopening of the Sanaʽa airport which is currently under the Houthi control. An agreement was reached to ease the tension in the town of Taiz, an entry point to the capital city of Sanaʽa. Another contentious issue was the release of the salary to around 1.2 million government employees in the Houthi-held areas. It was agreed that Saudi-led operation across Yemen would be deescalated and the Houthis would restrain from missile attacks in the territories of Saudi Arabia. Finally, with the approval of the United Nations Security Council, a seventy-five member observer group has been appointed to monitor the progress of the implementation of the ceasefire around the port of Hodeida and nearby zones.
Why this Peace Now:
The apparent success of the peace agreement can be attributed to the failure of Saudi-led operation to retake the captured town of Sanaʽa from the control of the Houthis and their realization that the Houthis cannot be subdued in the political sphere of Yemen. There has been a visible change in the strategic and political posturing of Saudi Arabia as a result of regional developments in general and in Syria in particular where it has lost influence. Over the years Saudi Arabia seems to have conceded the ground for Turkey and Iran who are determining the unfolding contour of regional politics.
The four-year long war failed to bring any desirable outcome apart from exhausting both Saudi Arabia and its closest ally, UAE politically, militarily and financially. The growing frustration of UAE on military front is understandable and it was possibly an emerging rift between the UAE and Saudi Arabia on the pursuit of Yemen war and changing dynamics of Yemeni politics that brought Saudi-backed government on the negotiating table.
The changes in Saudi approaches vis-à-vis Yemen can also be related to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist with the Washington Post and a US resident and a bitter critic of the Saudi regime, in October 2018. There were strong allegations of the involvement of the Saudi ruling family in his murder and this subsequently created a global hue and cry. Western powers expressed their anger over the brutal killing of Khashoggi in the premise of Saudi consulate in Istanbul and withdrew its support to the war in Yemen to express their displeasure over his elimination. The US Senate voted in favor of ending the US support to the conflict in Yemen soon after the killing of Khashoggi.
Further, the killing of Khashoggi was highlighted by the Houthis to describe their own suffering at the hands of the Saudi-led coalition forces. One of the Houthi leaders tweeted that the barbarity and cruelty of the Saudi regime against the Houthis was similar to that against Khashoggi.12 Thus, it was not only the war in Yemen that attracted the wrath of international community but also the killing of Khashoggi which put an additional pressure on Saudi Arabia to mend its ties with the regional and global powers by ending the war in Yemen. The growing animosity due to the murder of Khashoggi and media war against the regime in general and Crown Prince , Mohammad Bin Suleiman in particular pushed Saudi Arabia to support the peace process in order to stave off the threat of harsh punishment by some western quarters. Perhaps the Crown Prince has realized that an unending war in Yemen would damage his ability to rule the kingdom where he is already under immense pressure and has been faced with a lot of criticism for his overarching and assertive policies in the region.
India and Crisis in Yemen:
India is concerned about the Yemeni crisis because of its energy requirements, rising sectarian politics and apprehensions about spillover of the terrorism beyond the region. India would not like to see any disruption of oil supply as it has huge energy security consideration in the region. The prolonged conflict across the region has the potential to jeopardize the oil imports, especially amid constant threats from regional actors to disrupt the oil shipment in the Gulf. This would have direct bearing on India. Further the sectarian nature of Yemeni conflict (Shiite-Sunni divide) might have its own ramifications in India as well given the presence of huge number of Muslims in the country.
India has kept away from extra-regional conflicts. Nonetheless, India cannot continue to remain isolated from Yemeni conflict because of huge presence of Indian diaspora in Saudi Arabia. India evacuated 5000 trapped Indian citizens and foreign national in 2015 from Yemen under its Rahat operation. Yemen is important because of its strategic location and a stable Yemen is important for India, for regional stability and in its in fight against piracy in the Red Sea.
Given the complexity of the crisis in Yemen and involvement of various stakeholders, it is difficult to predict the outcome of the agreement but one major achievement has been the recognition of Houthis and the government of President Hadi by each other as legitimate entities and, similarly, the identification of core areas of concern where both sides need to focus. There is still a long way to go to achieve complete peace, as there are reports of ceasefire violations already. There are other issues in the agreement itself which might be difficult to implement like the deployment of the International Force in Hodeida to monitor the ceasefire which has already been disapproved by Hadi government. The resignation of Patrick Cammaert, head of the UN Observer Group, after his convoy was attacked in January 2019 is also indicative of ensuing difficulties. The UN envoy after his visit to Yemen hinted at extending the time for the implementation of Hodeida ceasefire as well as for the swap of the prisoners because of some difficulties on the ground. A fresh date for the next round of talks is yet to be fixed, though the date set earlier was in January 2019.
* The Author, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi..
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
1 Victoria Clark. “Dancing on the head of the snakes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010). p.no.18
2 Synthia Scoch. Yemen and the Word: Beyond Insecurity (London: Hurst and Company, 2018) p. 53
3 Sting Stenslie. “Not too strong, not too weak: Saudi Arabia’s Policy towards Yemen”. Norwegian Peace Building Resource Centre. https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/162439/87736bc4da8b0e482f9492e6e8baacaf.pdf (January 11,2019)
4 Russ Read, Saudi Arabia Warns Iran Is Trying To Turn Yemen into A Missile Base, Daily Caller, (April 17, 2017). accessed at http://dailycaller.com/2017/04/17/saudi-arabia-warns-iran-is-trying-to-turn-yemen-into-a-missile-base/ (August 25, 2017)
5 Rail-Youm , An Arabic Daily, https://www.raialyoum.com/index.php/%D9%85%D8%A7-%D9%87%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B1%D8%B3%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%AF%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%8A-%D8%A3%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D9%88%D8%AB/ ( September 26, 2018
6 Rail Youm, An Arabic Daily https://www.raialyoum.com/index.php/%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%BA%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%81%D9%8A%D8%AB-%D9%8A%D8%B5%D9%84-%D8%B5%D9%86%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%A1-%D8%A8%D8%B9%D8%AF-%D8%A3%D9%8A%D8%A7%D9%85-%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%B2%D9%8A%D8%A7/ ( January 15,2019)
7 Aljazeera, An English Daily , https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/12/november-yemen-deadliest-month-years-acled-report-181211104015986.html ( February 1, 2019
9 Houthis are Using Civilians as Human Shield , says Yemeni Foreign Minister , Arab News, November 28, 2018http://www.arabnews.com/node/1412416/middle-east ( November 30,2018)
11Yemen Peace Talk, Independent https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/yemen-peace-talks-ceasefire-hodeidah-sweden-antonio-guterres-civil-war-famine-a8681541.html ( December 13, 2018)