In early October, a United Nations-brokered truce in Yemen that had held for six months, having been extended twice, collapsed when the two main warring sides, the Houthis and the Yemeni government, failed to agree on conditions for another extension. Diwan interviewed Ahmed Nagi, whose research as a nonresident scholar at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut focuses on Yemen, about the reasons for the truce’s demise and the possible ramifications for the war-torn country and its neighbors.
Michael Young: Why did the parties to the truce fail to renew it?
Ahmed Nagi: We should ask the question the other way around. Why did the parties to the conflict, following seven years of fighting, accept the truce in the first place? To answer this question is to unpack the real incentives of the warring groups. Basically, the truce came about not because they suddenly felt a pang of conscience, decided to stop fighting, and turned their attention to tackling Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe. They had an entirely different reason to agree to the truce: fatigue.
This fatigue stemmed from the longstanding stalemate in both Ma’rib and Shabwa between the Iran-backed Ansar Allah (commonly known as the Houthis) on one side and, on the other, various forces loyal to the Yemeni government and supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Additionally, Saudi Arabia and the UAE felt threatened by the Houthis’ increasing attacks on oil facilities in Saudi and Emirati territory. This made them amenable to a truce.
During the truce, the Houthis regrouped, recruited more fighters, and reinforced their positions on all frontlines. They came to feel that they had significantly enhanced their military preparedness, and even held a series of military parades to demonstrate their increased power. On the other side, however, the situation was different. Saudi Arabia and the UAE managed to bring together several anti-Houthi factions under a newly formed Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) that they hoped would govern Yemen. With time, however, some of these groups began fighting each other. In Shabwa, heavy clashes took place between PLC factions backed by Saudi Arabia and those supported by the UAE.
Aware of all this, the Houthis raised their ceiling during negotiations over the truce’s renewal, setting new conditions. These conditions included the PLC committing to pay the salaries of military personnel and civil servants living in areas under Houthi control, the full reopening of Sanaa airport, which is currently operating in a limited capacity, and the lifting of restrictions over shipments entering Hodeida. (The Saudi-led Arab military coalition, which intervened in Yemen in 2015, has imposed a blockade on the country, meaning that even though Sanaa airport and Hodeida seaport are under Houthi control, their operations have been severely affected.) At the same time, the Houthis continued to refuse to open roads into and out of Taiz, something they were supposed to do following the very first signing of the truce in April. The Houthis’ negotiation strategy had become to demand more and cede less.
MY: What does the collapse of the truce mean for the role of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen?
AN: The truce was highly important to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. For six months, the Houthis halted cross-border attacks against the two countries. The end of the truce will bring back a state of insecurity to the region. But this does not necessarily mean a return to all-out armed conflict.
For one thing, the Houthis do not seem interested in a significant escalation, only in continuing to pressure the other side to accept their demands, if necessary through small-scale military operations here and there. Secondly, both Saudi Arabia and UAE are changing their strategy—disengaging from Yemeni politics and counting more on the local proxies they have built up over the past seven years. Even if the conflict erupts again, it is unlikely that the Saudis and the Emiratis will engage with the Houthis directly, as they are keen to avoid any cross-border military response from the group.
MY: How would you describe the position of the PLC in light of its internal and external challenges?
AN: The PLC was meant to end fighting between anti-Houthi groups in Yemen. As an umbrella organization, it brought together the major anti-Houthi factions and, for a while, created a sort of balance of power between them. Increasingly, however, we have seen tensions, divisions, and military confrontations between some of these PLC factions. Moreover, the PLC’s inability to improve public services and ameliorate the humanitarian crisis has disillusioned thousands of Yemenis. Now, the PLC may face a new test. If armed conflict, however limited in scope, begins anew, the military performance of PLC factions, and the extent to which they are able to coordinate their efforts, will determine the PLC’s political future.
MY: Are we nearing a stage where the Yemen war is chronic, with little international interest in resolving it?
AN: In recent months, we saw the international community pay greater attention to the conflict in Yemen. It became obvious that many regional and international actors, including the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, wanted to calm the situation in the country. Perhaps this played in the truce’s favor. However, the big issue with such international interest is that it views Yemen through a specific lens. The pressing need for stable energy production as a result of the Ukraine crisis galvanized several countries to try to ensure that the conflict in Yemen did not continue to spill over into Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both of which are major oil producers. Such an approach, even as it seems to focus on Yemen, is far from tailored to suitthe needs of Yemen itself.
Indeed, if and when Yemen recedes in international significance, the attention paid to its humanitarian crisis might well diminish. And that would be tragic, for although armed conflict may not fully reignite, the humanitarian crisis will persist and possibly worsen. The danger is that, in such a scenario, people will come to treat Yemen much as they do nearby Somalia, as a failed state beyond salvation.