Saudi Arabia’s rebalanced alliances within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are producing recalibrated power relations in Yemen, too, as the new United Nations Special Envoy — the Swedish diplomat Hans Grundberg — has been appointed. In fact, three external factors contemporarily affect Yemen’s peace prospects and war dynamics, which could alter the diplomatic stalemate that paralysed negotiations in the last couple of years, though the mediation outlook remains complicated.
First, the new UN Special Envoy — the former European Union Ambassador to Yemen (2019-2021) — can draw upon his previous diplomatic experience to bring in the European consensus on Yemen he contributed to achieve. Doing so, he can also rely on the pro-active stance of the US Special Envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, appointed in February 2021.
Second, the US’ gradually shifting approach to the Houthi movement (Ansar Allah) and Oman’s unusually visible role in the mediation process can help bridge the divide with the Zaydi Shia group with regards to Saudi-Houthi relations, too. Currently, the Sultanate’s pivotal role in Yemen reflects — and also benefits — the Omani-Saudi relationship, whose enhancement is symbolized by Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said’s first-ever state visit abroad (July 11th-12th, 2021)in Saudi Arabia.
Third, rising economic and political disagreements between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia (think about the OPEC’s recent disagreement on oil output quotas) risk, on the contrary, indirectly re-igniting significant rivalry — and clashes — in Aden and other Southern governorates. In fact, the Saudi-supported, internationally recognized government and Emirati-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) still have to implement the security annex of the “Riyadh Agreement” (signed in November 2019). In the meantime, protests against lack of services, widespread militarization, and intermittent violence have turned into a constant in Aden.
Yemen’s conflict resolution is still an open-ended process. In this framework, Saudi Arabia is working to regain the political centrality it had lost in the country, leaning on Omani diplomacy to reach out the Houthis containing, at the same time, the broad Emirati leverage in the South. On the other hand, both the Houthis and Iran want to bide their time before diplomatic talks.
International Diplomacy. Towards a New UN and US Approach to Conflict Resolution and Post-Conflict Management?
On international diplomacy, the new UN Special Envoy isn’t the only novelty with regards to Yemen. At the end of June 2021, Timothy Lenderking — the US Special Envoy to Yemen — seemed to reconsider the diplomatic approach Washington has followed so far: for the first time, he publicly acknowledged, during a webinar, that “the United States recognizes them [the Houthis] as a legitimate actor”. After angered reactions from the Yemeni government and the Saudis, the US Department of State reaffirmed that President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s remains “the only legitimate, internationally recognized government in Yemen”. However, Lenderking’s words concealed the willingness to test a different approach to conflict resolution in light of a renewed diplomatic path. Praising Grundberg’s appointment, some Saudi media outlets advocated for the UN to have a stronger role in Yemen. The GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Negotiations went further, writing on Arab News that “the UN should seriously consider establishing a peace mission in Yemen”, which would begin “with ceasefire observers” and “should extend to peacekeeping and peace building”. This suggestion confirms how much the Yemeni conflict has become an unresolved puzzle for Saudi Arabia, despite its over six-year-old military intervention.
Regional Diplomacy. Oman’s Visible Mediation Reveals a Strengthened Partnership with Saudi Arabia
Oman has intensified its public diplomatic efforts towards Yemen in the framework of a tightened alliance with Saudi Arabia. The Sultanate’s relations with Riyadh have improved compared to recent years under Qaboos, with an eye to budget security. During his state visit, Sultan Haitham met both King Salman and the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman at NEOM: Yemen was at the top of the regional discussions. Leaders also agreed to establish a Saudi-Omani Coordination Council to deepen multi-thematic cooperation between the two countries.
The mood has changed on the Muscat-Riyadh axis, and this should help limit bilateral tensions around Mahra: in fact, the Sultanate’s increased mediation efforts have been endorsed by Saudi Arabia. Not only do the Omanis have good relations with Ansar Allah, their mediation also indirectly supports Yemen’s recognized yet weak government, which aligns with Saudi interests. In June 2021, a Yemeni delegation headed by the Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak visited Muscat for diplomatic talks. With an unusual ‘visible diplomacy’ choice, an Omani delegation also visited Houthi-held Sanaa to meet top Houthi leaders: Ansar Allah’s spokesman, Mohammed Abdul-Salem, who resides in Muscat, accompanied the delegation.
From OPEC to Aden. The Emirati-Saudi Competition Can Re-Open the Yemeni “Pandora Box” in the South
Growing disagreements around oil and the political economy between the UAE and Saudi Arabia can further ignite Aden and the Southern Yemeni regions: for the first time, influential Saudi commentators are publicly criticising the Emirati role in Yemen, stressing that Abu Dhabi would be obstructing the implementation of the “Riyadh Agreement”. In fact, the Saudi-supported recognized government and the Emirati-backed STC still have to implement the security annex of the deal. Meanwhile, in June, the kingdom hosted talks between Yemeni parties again in an attempt to find common ground. But STC-affiliated armed groups still patrol Aden and control many government buildings as intermittent clashes erupt. Since late May 2021, both parties have dispatched troops and armoured vehicles near the coastal town of Shuqra (Abyan governorate). In June, never-ending political and military rifts worsened the local governance outlook: new protests broke out in Aden due to power outages disrupting water distribution, aid supplies, and medical services. As time goes by, territorial and even district divisions in Southern regions and cities have turned into a de facto reality, narrowing the prospects for a durable reconciliation between pro-Saudi and pro-Emirati Yemeni forces.
The Others: Both the Houthis and Iran Want to Bide Their Time Before Negotiations
In this evolving framework, both Ansar Allah and Iran want to bide their time before concrete negotiations, for different reasons. In recent weeks, the Yemeni army, local tribesmen, and auxiliary armed groups (the Giants Brigades) have made some territorial advances vis-à-vis the Houthis in central Bayda’s battlefield towards the South. The army, supported by local tribes, also regained a strategic district of Marib, which links the governorate to the Sanaa governorate.
But Ansar Allah is still fighting to conquer Marib: a victory would represent a game-changer for military balances. Hence why the Houthis are not likely to sign a national ceasefire as long as the battle for Marib is still on the table.
In one of his first statements, the new Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi asked Saudi Arabia to halt the military intervention in Yemen. Regardless of traditional declarations, Iran needs time to prepare for the presidential transition from Hassan Rouhani to Raisi: diplomatic talks to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna are not bound to resume before mid-August. Moreover, Teheran’s leverage over Ansar Allah’s political decisions cannot be overstated, as the Houthis have often demonstrated to be quite autonomous players.
The beginning of a new international diplomatic juncture — combined with recalibrated power relations within the GCC — can help Saudi Arabia carve out a stronger role as regards Yemen. Nonetheless, there’s one point Riyadh can’t miss: at this point, the peace agreement can’t deny the existence of Ansar Allah’s de facto state, something the Saudis will have to learn to deal with.