An opportunity to end the illegitimate rule of the Houthis in Sanaa cannot be squandered again
The impetus to end the war in Yemen and relieve the suffering of millions must be seized
Few words can do justice to the suffering of the people of Yemen. With half the population facing possible famine and millions of children suffering from malnutrition, no effort can be spared in ending the suffering of all Yemenis. Last week saw a significant development, with the Americans pushing for "substantive consultations" to begin promptly, overseen by the United Nations, coupled with a halting of hostilities by the end of this month. There is now renewed impetus to end the war and the illegitimate Houthi rule in Sanaa, an opportunity that cannot be squandered again. Too many lives are at stake.
There were hopes last summer that a political process, via the office of UN special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths, would bring about a path to peace. Mr Griffiths started his term as envoy in February and, by the summer, felt confident about starting a political process before the end of the year. The Arab coalition, and in particular Saudi Arabia and the UAE, welcomed Mr Griffiths’ appointment and repeatedly called for a political solution to end the war and reinstate the internationally recognised government of Yemen. The coalition also welcomed Mr Griffiths’ invitation to key Yemeni parties to join in peace talks and urged the government of Yemeni President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi to attend them in Geneva in September. Mr Hadi and his team had their reservations about the negotiations but they were encouraged by their allies to take the necessary steps to kickstart a vital political process. Sensing the urgency with which the world was moving to press for talks, the Houthi rebels tried to take maximum advantage of the situation and laid out a series of demands without ever making it to Geneva. Their stalling tactics led to the collapse of talks before they had even begun.
While Mr Griffiths has been working tirelessly to get the talks off the ground, the involvement of the US has now brought momentum to the political track. US Secretary of Defence James Mattis spelled out in Manama the next urgent steps to start a peace process: demilitarising borders, bringing heavy weapons under international control (rather than under the Houthis) and setting up confidence-building measures. These are steps that the Yemeni government and Arab coalition have been calling for.
If these measures are set in place – and include the release of detainees and facilitating the delivery of aid – political talks should follow. The primary issues will not be that different from the talks that began several years ago, prior to the Houthi coup: power-sharing, control of arms and the need for a national consensus on governance.
January 2014 feels like a long time ago in Yemen. The National Dialogue conference concluded that month with an agreement on decentralisation and government-sharing, a key moment in a political transition that first began in Yemen in November 2011, when Ali Abdullah Saleh handed over power to Mr Hadi. Saudi Arabia led that largely peaceful political process, within the framework of the Gulf Cooperation Council and with the agreement of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. However, all was lost with the Houthi coup. Today, with millions of lives destroyed as a result of that action and the ensuing war, going back to the negotiating table is a pressing necessity.
The threats from terrorism, piracy and militias are compounded by the many developmental challenges facing Yemen. Whether it is water scarcity or the lack of basic infrastructure in many of the villages and towns of Yemen, stabilising the country and allowing it to prosper will be a great feat. As Ahmed Aboul Gheit, secretary general of the Arab League, said in an interview with The National, "ideologies won’t help the people of Yemen" to meet the many humanitarian and developmental issues facing the country.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are respectively the two largest donors to Yemen. In addition to their unilateral contributions, together they have provided more than 50 per cent of the funding for the UN's Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan this year. More than a quarter of the funding for the $2.9bn plan came from the UAE while Saudi Arabia contributed 28 per cent. Support from other donor countries, in addition to rebuilding Yemen’s incredibly fragile systems, will be vital in the coming weeks and months.
Much of this rests on both Yemeni sides coming to the negotiating table. Iranian-backed elements will be trying to push the Arab-led coalition, supported by the UN, US and European countries, to war. Increased pressure on Tehran, with renewed sanctions, will lead it to push its proxies to more battles. There is a real danger here. While the coalition-backed forces hold back their military advances, they also cannot allow the Houthis to manipulate the situation to gain ground.
The end of the Yemen war cannot come soon enough. However, winning the peace and laying the groundwork to stop further conflict must come now. Yemen has suffered too many false starts over the past decade and its people deserve commitment from all sides to give peace a real chance.