Yemen: Behind the Saudi ‘peace offer,’ a US sales pitch

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
Houthi soldiers march during a funeral procession for Houthi fighters killed in a battle with government forces in Marib province, in Sanaa, Yemen, Feb. 17, 2021.

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Under pressure from the United States, Saudi Arabia is proposing a cease-fire agreement in Yemen that offers concessions to the Houthis while failing to secure a single one of its war objectives. Yet the agreement is not without benefit for the Saudis: a chance to repair their tattered global reputation.

Now pressure is intensifying on the Houthis and others to reach a cease-fire, enabling relief for a country that has seen more than 200,000 lives lost in a six-year war.

Why We Wrote This

If the path to progress on Yemen’s horrific war ends up running through Riyadh, it may be because U.S. diplomats sold the Saudis on the value of changing their own narrative.

Diplomats are trying to convince the Shiite group to cement its military gains and enter an eventual power-sharing arrangement. The question remains what to offer the group, which has grown into the dominant force in Yemen.

“The Houthis are now behaving as a state. How can you convince them to become part of a state?” says Maysaa Shuja Al-Deen at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies. “What is their incentive for sharing power?”

If a cease-fire can be achieved, and as humanitarian crises ease, diplomats hope rival factions will have the confidence to move toward a political dialogue. Until then, they’re racing to capitalize on something that has been in short supply in Yemen: hope.

After six years, billions of dollars, and more than 200,000 lives lost, a rare diplomatic breakthrough in Yemen’s war has emerged in an unlikely guise: a Saudi peace initiative.

Under pressure from the United States, Riyadh is proposing a cease-fire agreement that offers concessions while failing to secure a single objective of its six-year war.

Yet the agreement is not without benefit for the Saudis: a chance to repair their tattered global reputation.

Why We Wrote This

If the path to progress on Yemen’s horrific war ends up running through Riyadh, it may be because U.S. diplomats sold the Saudis on the value of changing their own narrative.

With diplomacy having successfully shifted one major player in the conflict, pressure is intensifying on the Shiite Houthis and other actors to close in on an elusive cease-fire, enabling relief for a country wracked by war, famine, poverty, cholera, and COVID-19.

Last week’s progress is owed in part to renewed U.S. engagement led by U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking, and the yearlong intense shuttle diplomacy by United Nations envoy Martin Griffiths.

Washington convinced Saudi Arabia to agree to a cease-fire arrangement – based on a framework crafted by the U.N. through months of intense diplomacy – that addresses the concerns of both the Iran-backed Houthis and Saudi-backed Yemeni government.

Key to the breakthrough: having the Saudis “own” the initiative and offer the agreement themselves. Riyadh announced the initiative last week, shortly after a phone call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Billed as a “peace initiative,” the Saudi offer calls for a nationwide cease-fire under the supervision of the U.N., lifting the naval blockade, depositing taxes and customs fees into a joint account in the Yemen central bank accessible by both the government and the Houthis, and reopening the Sanaa airport – core Houthi demands.

“This courageous decision came as part of the political efforts by Saudi Arabia, coalition countries, and the international community to achieve security, stability, and peace in Yemen,” says a senior Saudi official, who confirmed close cooperation with the U.S. prior to launching the cease-fire offer.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
People carry foodstuffs they received from the local charity Mona Relief at a camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Sanaa, Yemen, March 1, 2021.

“The Saudi initiative underlines the kingdom’s seriousness in ending the crisis,” the official says. “We hope the Houthis will respond by sitting at the negotiation table with the Yemeni government and parties to arrive at a political settlement.”

To prove its good faith, the Saudi-led coalition allowed four oil tankers to dock at the Houthi-controlled Hodeidah port – providing fuel needed to distribute food and medicine across the country.

The Saudi intervention

Pressure from the Biden administration, including the suspension of arms sales, was a motivator. But the agreement was no easy concession for Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia launched its costly military intervention in 2015 to support the Yemeni interim government after the Houthis forced it out from Sanaa. Riyadh feared the Houthis becoming a permanent Iranian proxy on its borders staging constant attacks on Saudi soil.

Six years later, the Houthi movement has become more powerful and gained more territory, while becoming more reliant on Iran.

Reportedly bolstered by Iranian arms shipments and technology transfers, the Houthis have gone from targeting Saudi border regions to regularly striking critical oil infrastructure and airports in the heart of the kingdom, even hitting residential areas in Riyadh.

Hours after the Saudi cease-fire offer, the Houthis struck the airport in Abha, in southern Saudi Arabia, with a drone. Three days later, the movement launched ballistic missiles and drones into Saudi oil facilities and military bases across the kingdom.

Those attacks notwithstanding, by offering concessions and the cease-fire, observers say Saudi Arabia secured two things it badly needed: an exit from a costly conflict, and a partial rehabilitation of its image.

After years of being broadly seen as the aggressor in Yemen, Saudi Arabia can claim to be a peace broker acting in good faith. By offering concessions, it placed the ball in the Houthis’ court.

The move prompted praise in Washington and the West, a marked change from when candidate Joe Biden described Saudi Arabia as a “pariah state” last year.

Shifting narrative

Diplomats working on the Yemen file agree that Saudi Arabia’s shift, along with renewed U.S. involvement, may encourage other actors in the complex conflict to narrow the gaps in their positions to reach an elusive cease-fire agreement.

“We are hopeful this momentum, together with all the mediation work undertaken in the last year, will propel us towards an agreement that paves the way for alleviating the suffering of Yemenis and putting Yemen back on a path towards sustainable peace,” says the U.N. envoy, Mr. Griffiths, in an interview.

In the meantime, the U.S. has been ramping up pressure on the Houthis, who for the first time in the conflict are losing control of a narrative depicting themselves as defenders of Yemeni sovereignty against a foreign aggressor.

In an interview, a State Department spokesperson says the U.S. welcomes the Saudi and Yemen governments’ “commitment to a cease-fire and political process in Yemen under the U.N. framework,” while reprimanding the Houthis.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
Ahmadiya Juaidi, 13, waits to receive a supplemental nutrition shake at the malnutrition treatment ward of al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, Feb. 24, 2021.

“We have a sound, fair proposal for a nationwide cease-fire, with elements that would immediately address Yemen’s dire humanitarian situation,” says the spokesperson.

“The Houthis are continuing a military campaign to take Marib – home to nearly a million [displaced people] – over suspending the war and providing relief to the Yemeni people. The United States and the U.N. urge the Houthis to respond.”

Incentives for Houthis?

Publicly, the Houthis dismissed the cease-fire offer as “not serious” and “nothing new,” criticizing the linking of easing the humanitarian crisis with cease-fire talks.

They are demanding that the blockade be lifted, the Sanaa airport reopened, and humanitarian relief allowed into Yemen before, and independent of, any cease-fire arrangement so that Riyadh can no longer hold the blockade as leverage. They also demand sole control over the ports and the airport.

Meanwhile, the Houthis are embroiled in an offensive in the central region of Marib, a strategic area rich in natural gas, in the most intensive fighting in years. Observers are calling the fighting, reportedly involving tens of thousands of Houthi and government-aligned fighters, “a bloodbath.”

Still, talks are ongoing. U.S. and Omani representatives are trying to use the momentum of the Saudi offer to convince the Houthis to cement their current military gains in a cease-fire and an eventual, favorable power-sharing arrangement, diplomatic sources say.  

The question remains what incentives can be offered to the group, which over the course of the war has grown from a fierce northern faction into the dominant force in Yemen, analysts say.

It has captured the capital, assumed control of state institutions, and installed a Houthi patronage network along with technocrats to run a central bank, ministries, and diplomatic missions.

“The Houthis are now behaving as a state. How can you convince them to become part of a state?” says Maysaa Shuja Al-Deen, nonresident fellow at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies. “What is their incentive for sharing power?”

Competing agendas

Observers warn that Iran may also play the role of spoiler, prolonging the conflict to use the Houthis’ agreement as a bargaining chip in any nuclear talks with the U.S.

“The Houthis dismissing these [Saudi] gestures and an opportunity to translate their military successes into permanent political gain tells me they are either misreading the international community or serving Iran’s interests rather than their own,” says Abdulghani Al-Iryani, senior researcher at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies.

There is another hard truth facing the diplomatic push for a cease-fire: the Houthis and the Saudi-backed government are but two sides in a multifaceted war that includes UAE-backed separatists, an Islamist movement linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, and several other factions with competing agendas.

“The cease-fire can stop the Saudi war, but the local aspects to the conflict remain unresolved and proxy groups remain,” says Ms. Shuja Al-Deen. “I fear this may just mark the end of one war and will mark the start of a civil war.”

Aware of the challenges, diplomats say they are working to incorporate the UAE-backed separatists into the cease-fire.

As the major battlefronts quiet, and humanitarian crises ease, diplomats believe the cease-fire will build confidence among rival factions to move toward a political dialogue to reach a final settlement.  

Until then, diplomats say they are racing to capitalize on something that has been in short supply in Yemen: momentum and hope.

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