Why a political solution in Yemen remains elusive
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) last Friday organized a conference in New York on the challenges to finding a political solution in Yemen. The failure to reach an agreement can be easily blamed on Houthi intransigence, but some responsibility also lies with the UN, which has failed to press the militia into living up to its commitments, therefore unwittingly enabling its stonewalling.
The high-level gathering, held on the fourth anniversary of the Houthi seizure of Sanaa on Sept. 21, 2014, also explored how the slow pace of recovery and stabilization in areas under government control has hindered the political process.
Yemen represents that rare conflict where there is in fact a national, regional and international consensus on the shape of a political solution. That consensus is found in the GCC Initiative of 2011 and its implementation mechanism, the outcomes of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference of 2013-2014, and UN Security Council Resolution 2216 of 2015. Despite that consensus, a political solution has so far proved elusive.
In August 2016, after five months of UN-led negotiations in Kuwait, Houthi and government negotiators agreed on a detailed framework regarding the main ingredients of that political solution. However, the Houthi leadership later rejected the deal, disagreeing over the sequencing of steps. The talks were deadlocked and the UN was unable to follow through.
So today, despite the efforts of three UN special envoys, we are no closer to a political solution than we were four years ago. We can identify at least five reasons why.
Yemen represents that rare conflict where there is in fact a national, regional and international consensus on the shape of a political solution
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
First, mediators have been rewarding bad behavior. As UN envoys tried in vain to bridge the gap between the government and the rebels, alternative channels were pursued by other well-intentioned mediators. New proposals were put on the table, making the Houthis believe that their intransigence was paying off.
In other cases, UN mediators themselves blinked and offered the rebels new, unauthorized concessions. The most recent fiasco in Geneva is a case in point. The consultations never materialized because the Houthi representatives did not show up. Representatives of the international community and the internationally recognized government of Yemen waited in vain, as the Houthis kept raising new preconditions or else they would not leave Sanaa. It should have been clear from the record of the past four years that appeasing the Houthis has only made them more, not less, intransigent. The UN should have been firmer in Geneva, as Yemen’s Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Yamani demanded. Instead, it offered to go to Sanaa again to meet with the Houthis and discuss their new preconditions.
Second, going back to square one, the UN repeatedly acquiesced to the rebels’ desire to reset the negotiations every time there was an impasse, instead of building on previous agreements. There have been several examples of this. I already mentioned the outcome of the Kuwait talks, where Houthi negotiators accepted the UN-proposed framework. Because Houthis now reject that framework, there are fears that current mediation has underutilized or bypassed it altogether. In the security arrangements, the rebels at first agreed to the setting up of a De-escalation and Coordination Committee (DCC) and signed seven local cease-fire agreements. But, when they failed to honor them, the UN did nothing.
The third reason why peace has been elusive is Iran, which is using the Houthis as a proxy in its efforts to expand its influence in the region. Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy, sees the Houthis as a kindred movement that it can nurture to replicate its example in Lebanon. With the adoption of a more robust US strategy to counter Iran’s activities, Tehran has increased its support for the Houthi militia and discouraged a compromise.
The fourth reason why a peace deal is not forthcoming any time soon is a lack of clear peace dividends. In order to energize the Yemeni people to support a political solution, they need to see its benefits to their daily lives. Unfortunately, a man with a gun never goes hungry; so, to persuade young people with guns to opt for peace, they need to see that it is going to improve their livelihoods significantly.
The humanitarian situation is much better today than it was last year, but the stabilization, recovery and reconstruction are moving slowly even in areas where the militias have been pushed out, which is about 80 percent of Yemen’s territory. GCC states have pledged about $22 billion in aid for Yemen, half of which is for stabilization, recovery and development, but there are no comparable contributions from the international community. There is no doubt that significant improvements in the daily lives of people in liberated areas would energize more Yemenis under rebel control to join forces with the government.
Finally, a lack of real knowledge in the West about the Houthis’ sectarian vision for Yemen has led some Western groups to support the rebels as the underdog in their fight with the internationally recognized government. That support has, at times, also led to UN mediators appeasing the Houthis.
In fact the Houthi project is a recipe for disaster for Yemen, not to mention that it runs against UN principles because it is based on dismantling the country’s constitutional order and replacing it with a theocracy-based caste system. The Houthis want to re-establish the system that prevailed in Yemen for centuries, whereby a small caste of noble families ruled by divine right over the rest. In 1962, Yemenis overthrew that system forever.
- Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1