Saudi-Houthi Peace Talk: Will It End the Decade-long Civil War in Yemen?

Once an emblem of prosperity and cultural richness, Yemen now stands as a cautionary tale of a nation entangled in a decade-long civil war. The Arab Spring of 2011 brought a wave of mass uprisings, a clear sign that Yemen’s long-held status quo had been violated. But the roots of this conflict stretch back to a critical decision by President Abdullah Abu Saleh, who opted to side with the US-led coalition forces during the Iraq invasion. It was his ill-fated decision that opened the door for one of the most notorious rebel groups to emerge in the Arabian Peninsula—the Houthi Rebels. The Houthis are the marginalized Shia Muslims in Sunni-majority Yemen who came out to the spotlight, raising their voices against the corruption of Saleh’s government and especially the fateful situation he created in northern Yemen, where the Shia minority had been considered a disregarded community.

As time passed, various other actors joined the conflict, causing it to deteriorate even further.  In 2014, the Houthi rebels seized control of Sana, the Yemeni capital, and established a de facto rule paralleling the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi-backed by Saudi Arabia and its allies. This was the final straw for Saudi Arabia, which had thus far employed a soft-handed approach toward the conflict. The following year, reasoning from this very event, Riyad launched a brutal military campaign against the Houthis, believing that a swift assault would be sufficient to dislodge them from Sana. However, the Houthis fiercely resisted, with the assistance of Iran, the largest Shia-majority country in the Middle East. And thus began the proxy war, which eventually caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people (the majority of whom were civilians) and left 80 percent of Yemen’s population dependent on humanitarian aid.

After a devastating humanitarian catastrophe, the international community, along with the United Nations, responded by urging both sides to take the approach of an immediate ceasefire. Through the adoption of Resolution- 2216, the UN demanded that the Houthi rebels withdraw from the capital subsuming all the territories they had seized to date. With surprise, this act of mediation by the top international organization ended up being less efficient in ending the conflict.

Recently, on March 10, 2023, a historic shift in global politics occurred with China serving as the sole broker as Saudi Arabia and Iran, who were arch-rivals in the Peninsula, decided to resume ties after years of being at a stalemate. Many experts believe this is the primary reason behind the ongoing peace talks between Saudi officials and the Houthi rebels.

This week on Sunday, representatives from Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels gathered in Sana with the mediator Oman to negotiate an end to the conflict. The Houthi side has presented several demands, including a complete cessation of aggression, lifting the land and air blockade, paying salaries to Yemenis in the northern region from oil revenue, and the complete exit of foreign troops from Yemen. In contrast, Saudi Arabia’s primary insistence was to ensure its security, given the thousands of missile and drone strikes on their oil and strategic facilities by Houthi rebels amidst eight years of war. Besides, these attacks have also made Riyadh realize the necessity of ending the war through peaceful talks rather than air raids.

Will the peace talks be sustainable?

To understand how sustainable the peace talks would be, it is essential to examine the negotiation process. The initial phase will involve signing a draft agreement between the parties for six months to establish trust and build confidence. Following this, a period of negotiation will ensue for three months on managing the transitional phase, which is expected to last two years. During this time, the parties will negotiate a final solution that will lead to a feasible and long-lasting peace. 

While many view the recent talk as a significant breakthrough that could potentially reduce armed conflict, some are still skeptical about its sustainability and credibility. One concern is that Saudi Arabia, which is not a mediator but rather an axis in the war, is involved in the deal. On the other hand, Houthi rebels have no legitimate ground in the eyes of international organizations. Hence, these facts create a sense of ambiguity that points to the vulnerability of any possible agreement. As such, there are concerns that the parties involved may return to war if the already tenuous relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia falter.

It is comprehensible that the success of the peace process in Yemen hinges on the diplomatic efforts between Tehran and Riyadh. Any further friction between these two regional players may affect the talks and jeopardize the future of Yemen. 

And these recent events have had another impact that has caused the United States to lose its footing in leveraging the Shia-Sunni rivalry, calling into question its credibility as a global guardian. By arming the Saudi-led coalition, the US has created a Guardian vacuum in the region that China has capitalized on with perfection. Though China has an economic ambition in the process since it has a huge and growing investment in Saudi Arabia’s energy sectors, that indicates any hostility in the region could threaten its prospective goals.

Though the process seems to be moving swiftly with the help of both internal and external pushes, a shred of doubt remains as to whether these talks led to the power transition with the Houthis, which may potentially undermine the demands of other rebels fighting against them. Notably, the Southern Transitional Council Forces (STCF) funded by the United Arab Emirates could be a threat to the stability of the whole spectrum if they are not given the desired consideration during the transitional process. Meanwhile, since the negotiators are at the table to meet their particular interests, the decades-long assertion of all the Yemenis seems to be denied.

Indeed, Yemeni citizens are the most affected by this ongoing conflict. Hence, it is essential to listen to their voices and necessary to prioritize their demands while addressing their concerns during the peace talks. However, the possibility of holding peace talks that emphasize the demands of civilians seems unlikely, which raises questions as to the durability of the agreement for achieving long-lasting peace.

Yet, upon all this, achieving the goal of peace will require more than just the participation of the conflicting parties. It will as well require the support and encouragement from the entire Middle East to help rebuild already shattered relationships. And despite the challenges, the reflection of hope exists as the ice has just begun to melt, strengthening the idea that a better future for the Yemenis is feasible.

[Photo by Navy Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kathryn E. Holm, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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