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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

Opportunities for resolving Yemen crisis at UN General Assembly

UN General Assembly 2018: Yemen's government seeking ongoing support in the face of the Houthi stand-off

United Nations envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, after arrival in Sanaa, Yemen, September 16, 2018. Reuters
United Nations envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, after arrival in Sanaa, Yemen, September 16, 2018. Reuters

Martin Griffiths, the UN Secretary General’s special envoy on Yemen, enjoys a good rapport with Khaled Al Yamani, the country’s foreign minister.

At the abortive peace talks between Yemen’s warring factions in Geneva, the two men were ensconced in minute-by-minute diplomacy as the Houthi delegation scuppered the effort by not turning up. On the sidelines, Mr Al Yamani was relaxed enough to discuss the advice he was offering to “Martin”.

There is a formal meeting between the Yemen stakeholders scheduled for next week. There is also a series of humanitarian focused events to address the shortages and disease threats plaguing the country of 30 million.

Mr Griffiths spent last week travelling to Sanaa and Riyadh in an effort to recover lost ground. He is said to be optimistic all the parties will agree to confidence building measures on prisoner swaps, flights to Sanaa and the central bank operations in the near future. When he meets again with Mr Al Yamani in New York, the two men will have a hefty agenda to plough through.

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Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, last week acknowledged to The National that the “tireless efforts” of Mr Griffiths were in trouble. A dispute with the government of Yemen over a World Health Organisation-brokered deal to fly out injured civilians has soured the atmosphere around the mediator’s mission.

Mr Guterres was forced to say that such contacts did not constitute “the recognition of a Houthi camp” in an acknowledgement of the fine line that mediation must tread.

With the Houthi leadership demanding guarantees to re-engage with the process, Mr Al Yamani has said he asked the UN envoy to be clear that he will not cross the line in promises to the group.

An important aspect of the diplomacy in New York will be to ensure that the Arab Coalition’s international partners and others remain supportive of the government in the face of the Houthi stand-off.

In a paper for the International Crisis Group, Peter Salisbury said the shift in tone ahead of the UN meeting was stark. “Although not unexpected, the swift collapse of peace efforts is deeply disappointing,” Mr Salisbury said.

Explaining the breakdown, he examined the Houthi refusal to turn up.

“At the last minute, they demanded to be transported out of the capital Sanaa using an Omani aircraft rather than a UN one and to take wounded fighters out with them,” Mr Salisbury said. “The UN sought a compromise – saying it would certify the passenger manifest of an Omani flight – but the Houthis in turn declined to allow any inspection. With the coalition and the Houthis exchanging mutual recriminations, Griffiths had to postpone the consultations."

Mr Salisbury says the blame game will have implications for the renewal of fighting around the port of Hodeidah. In the absence of talks, the Arab Coalition has said the liberation is key to stepping up the pressure for compromise from the Iran-backed faction.

“The Houthis, who like to play victim and argue that they are willing to engage in a peace process if the terms are fair, sent a clear message that they are not serious,” he says. “In doing so, they confirmed the suspicions of the coalition, which had argued it needed to take Hodeidah to force concessions from the Houthis, and considers criticism of its intransigence unfair.

Slowing the offensive around Hodeidah in the summer was a gesture of support for Mr Griffiths. But the pause allowed the group to reinforce its units in the port.

Without full-scale peace talks – the UN Security Council repeated its position at a meeting last week that a political solution was needed to the conflict – Mr Al Yamani said on Friday the government was prioritising efforts to improve conditions for all Yemenis, including those living in areas controlled from Sanaa.

As the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to Yemen, the UAE will be a powerful voice in meetings focused on raising the level of support available to citizens.