The art of listening in Yemen's war

A deal between two warring factions, a result of each side heeding the other’s interests, hints at a path toward peace in what is the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

A supporter of Yemen's southern separatists with his face painted with the colors of the former South Yemen, makes the V sign during a rally in Aden Sept. 5.

The tiny Gulf nation of Yemen may be suffering the world’s worst humanitarian disaster – a result of a four-year war – and may feel trapped as the Arab world’s poorest country. Yet it still has one resource to draw on: the ability of its factions to listen to each other. On Tuesday, the country’s internationally recognized government and a coalition seeking autonomy in the south signed an agreement to share power, blend their forces, and work jointly for talks with the other big armed group, the Houthi rebels.

The agreement, which still needs careful implementation, brought some hope to Martin Griffiths, the United Nations’ special envoy for Yemen. He has long labored to end a conflict that has resulted in more than 100,000 fatalities. “Listening to southern stakeholders is important to the political efforts to achieve peace in the country,” he said.

The roots of Yemen’s war go back to the 2011 Arab Spring when a pro-democracy rebellion opened up old political fractures. An attempt at a national dialogue in 2014 resulted in a recommendation to transform Yemen into a six-region federal system. The proposal, which was a result of careful listening and also raised expectations, was scuttled by powerful leaders. This pushed the Houthis to take over the capital, drawing in regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.

While the tragic war is often portrayed as a clash between two branches of Islam and regional rivals, “the roots of this conflict are much more local, and they have a lot more to do with the political economy, struggles, and frustrated regionalism,” says Jane Kinninmont, a Middle East specialist.

The main route out of the conflict lies in listening and then deliberation among all Yemenis. The Saudis now say they have an “open channel” for negotiating with the Iran-backed rebels. And the U.N. hopes to revive all-party talks soon. Mr. Griffiths told the U.N. Security Council in October that there was “cause for optimism” in ending the complex civil war.

The task of defining the bonds of statehood for Yemen will rely on all sides to listen to the grievances of others. “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen,” said Winston Churchill. In Yemen, it was the latter – actually more humility than courage – that helped seal the latest peace deal.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial referred to Jane Kinninmont as currently working at Chatham House in London. She is now with The Elders Foundation.)

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