Peace talks in Kuwait: will they solve Yemen’s crisis?

There is no doubt that the military stalemate is a major reason leading to the Kuwait negotiations. After 14 months of full-scale war, the military situation is largely unchanged.

Thirteen months into the full scale war which has encompassed the country, negotiations started in Kuwait on 21 April between the Saleh-Huthi alliance who control the Yemeni northern highlands and the capital Sana’a and the internationally recognised government of president Hadi who was elected in 2012, and has been in exile in Riyadh for most of the last year. 

A month into the talks, their main achievement is that they have not definitively broken down. Insofar as any negotiations are taking place, it is thanks to the systematic interventions from the Shaikh of Kuwait or other senior figures from different countries to bring one or the other side back to the table after their routine almost daily walk outs. Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the UN special adviser and his team do their best and this time, at least, have real support from the international community.

While naïve observers might think that the ongoing and worsening suffering of 25 million Yemenis might have brought the warring parties to their senses to seek a solution without imposing further starvation, thirst, destitution and death, it would seem they consider this irrelevant. 

Ensconced in their luxury hotels in Riyadh or their protected environments in Sana’a, living conditions of the population appear to be the least of their concerns. Instead, their petty rivalries, long-standing feuds and greed for power and control determine their tactics. Any planning they may be doing for the future may well focus more on how they will appropriate future external humanitarian and development funding.

So, why are these negotiations taking place? Answering this question may also help to understand their likely outcome. In addition to the military stalemate, and the collapsed economy, the role of external actors is as relevant today as it was to reach the Gulf Cooperation Council Agreement of 2011 and the transitional regime which followed it.

Saudi Arabia’s changed policies

First Saudi Arabia: to many people’s surprise, the regime installed in January 2015 under king Salman, is behaving differently from its predecessors, in Yemen and beyond. Although only Deputy Crown prince, young Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s favourite son, has taken a leading role and clearly wants to demonstrate his capacity as an effective ruler, anticipating his own rise to the highest position. 

Initially, in the face of the takeover of Yemen by a Zaydi group allied with former president Saleh which could, with some exaggeration, be described as a Shi’a faction aligned with Iran, he most probably thought that a short military intervention would do the trick, with an unarguable victory. So he rapidly put together the coalition [1] which started aerial bombing of Yemen on 26 March 2015. By now, 14 months later, the quick win he had anticipated is further than ever, despite spending millions, sending ground troops, arousing considerable anti-Saudi public opinion throughout the world, not to mention the killing and destruction in Yemen and some in Saudi Arabia itself. 

He wants to move on: financial constraints, pressure from the US and others, disagreements with Saudi Arabia’s main ally, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the solution, and the loss of popularity of the war at home are incentives to end the adventure. 

Saudi Arabia has been less than happy about the western media coverage of the destruction and killings of civilians caused by its coalition air strikes, let alone the votes in the European and Dutch parliaments opposing continued arms sales. From a public relations point of view, regardless of international humanitarian law, bombing Médecins sans Frontières hospitals was not a great move.

The regime needs success at home to mute opposition to Mohammed bin Salman’s innovative policies within the ruling clique. His priority are younger Saudis and domestic policy: this month he issued Saudi Arabia Vision 2030, a strategy straight off the books of a US PR company, more reminiscent of Dubai than of conservative Saudi Arabia. 

So for Saudi Arabia, a solution to the Yemeni problem which must look like a victory is now a priority. Recent direct talks and negotiations with the Huthis have led to agreements which suggest a possible solution between these two elements of the complex political picture.

Other external pressures

The UAE is the other main GCC player in the coalition and its divergence from Saudi Arabia’s strategy relates to the role of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islah party in Yemen has a strong Muslim Brotherhood component including Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, recently appointed Vice President in Hadi’s government, who is considered to subscribe to its extremist wing. While Saudi Arabia has restored cooperation with Islah, anything remotely associated with Muslim Brothers is totally unacceptable for the UAE who probably consider that organisation a far bigger threat than Iran. Oman, which has been active for the past year in trying to bring about a solution, continues its efforts through an active presence in Kuwait.

The USA make regular statements in support of a solution. Torn between wanting to keep Saudi Arabia as happy as possible given disagreement over the Iran nuclear deal and its belief that Al Qaeda and Daesh are expanding their control and influence in Yemen, it is supporting the UN’s role in the talks. Britain’s active involvement in supporting the negotiations also prioritises the same counter-terrorism agenda. Other ambassadors support the talks, with the EU Delegate leading as she has the longest sustained connection and knowledge of the individuals involved in the talks. The United Nations Security Council Permanent Five states are still united about Yemen.

The situation on the ground

There is no doubt that the military stalemate is a major reason leading to the Kuwait negotiations. After 14 months of full-scale war on the ground and massive aerial bombings, the military situation is largely unchanged. Without going into details, overall, the northern Zaydi highlands are under the control of the Saleh Huthi alliance, bordered by a number of hot fronts, Nehm about 60km east of Sana’a, Jawf and Mareb beyond it, on the Red Sea coast along the Saudi border, south in Taiz governorate, extending to the Bab al Mandab strait, south east around al Baidha, with intermittent fighting in various other locations. 

For the past 9 months, the people remaining in Taiz city are suffering more than any others, as parts of the city are controlled by each side and it is besieged by Huthi-Saleh forces who maintain a firm blockade of all goods along its main access roads; there are only very occasional air drops of supplies, food and medical supplies to the zones under resistance control. Its situation can be compared with Aleppo in Syria. What are officially described as ‘pro-Hadi’ forces are really ‘anti-Saleh-Huthi’ ones. While some may be fighting to retain Yemen as a unified state under an improved regime (this can mean a more Islamist one or a more democratic regime focused on addressing the socio-economic needs of the population). Either way none of them can be said to be supporting Hadi’s presidency. 

Aden was named the temporary capital when Hadi spent a few weeks there between escaping from Sana’a and its occupation by Saleh Huthi forces driving him out to Riyadh. Four months of fighting ensued. This combined ground fighting between the efficient and organised Saleh Huthi military forces of the Republican Guards on the one hand, and on the other, coalition airstrikes supporting resistance forces of local separatists without a jihadist agenda, popular committee members from neighbouring governorates, and jihadists from al Qaeda and other Salafis. 

It was only the intervention of coalition ground forces, under Emirati command, which finally ‘liberated’ Aden in late July. I use quotation marks because Aden is, since that time, a city whose daily routine includes assassinations, kidnappings, suicide attacks, demonstrations of government employees demanding payment, demonstrations by southern separatists with occasional electricity and water supplies. Aden airport has been open and operating for a few days throughout that period but is most of the time closed due to the threat of missiles or artillery. Since its ‘liberation’, President Hadi and his government have only spent a few weeks there, each time driven out by an attack.

Further east, namely in the other governorates of the former PDRY, local authorities manage some areas. Dhala’ and Lahej are southern separatist strongholds while others places have been described as being under the control of al Qaeda. In recent weeks, the coalition has focused military action on the latter, coastal Hadramaut and its capital Mukalla and the smaller towns on the coast of Abyan governorate. Although these successes have been trumpeted as major victories, with fanciful figures of the number of AQAP killed, reality is somewhat different: AQAP’s control was over-stated, there is evidence to suggest that its forces were allowed to leave with heavy weapons, presumably dispersing elsewhere. Their departure from towns in Abyan and Shabwa was negotiated by local leaders who wanted to avoid coalition strikes. Finally AQAP is a wide umbrella which includes genuine aggressive armed fundamentalists but also men who work directly or indirectly to orders from Saleh and other senior politicians.

How about the people?

The cease fire which started on 10 April initially considerably reduced air strikes, with some days when none occurred, but these, as well as fighting on the ground have returned to their earlier level as the Kuwait talks stalled. When talks show some signs of progress, however small, air strikes and fighting reduce: they increase as the talks are interrupted. Reduced fighting has allowed for some improvements in the delivery of basic foodstuffs and aid, despite the fact that the amounts landing in the ports have been way below requirements. 

Fourteen months of intensive air strikes failed to destroy the military capacity of the Saleh-Huthi factions, but successfully killed thousands [air strikes are responsible for over half of the 6,400 dead], destroyed and damaged most of the country’s road and other infrastructure, more than 27,000 homes and other buildings, 600 medical facilities, and 1170 schools by mid-April this year. Of the 700,000 people needing emergency livelihoods assistance, ie unable to earn an income, UN organisations were able to assist 108,000 in April, while it helped none of the half million needing ‘livelihoods restoration assistance’. The situation of the country’s finances is subject to debate but, according to PM bin Daghr, ‘the CBY’s foreign reserves reached an all-time low last month of $1.3 billion, which is 28% of the prewar level of reserves of $4.6 billion.’ The exchange rate of the US dollar has reached unprecedented heights, and traders are no longer selling basic staples, in anticipation of shortages, purchase price rises and Ramadan. An indicator of Sana’a rulers’ desperation, is the creation of an emergency economic committee on 18 May.

The disastrous humanitarian situation continues to worsen. More than 21 million Yemenis [out of 26 million] need basic assistance and 2.8 million are displaced. In April, the World Food Programme reached 3.6 million of the 7.6 million people on the verge of starvation. The blockade preventing the arrival of foodstuffs and fuel continues, despite an agreement for inspection with the UN. Unlike people in many countries most Yemenis, faced with the shame of being unable to feed their families, are more likely to lock the doors of their houses and wait to die inside with their families, rather than beg and travel in search of help. How many have already done this? No one knows. In the words of the senior UN humanitarian official, its humanitarian appeal is “only asking for the minimum that is required to keep people alive in these awful circumstances," and only targets 65% of those in need, but has only received 16% of the funds required.

What next?

Faced with two stubborn and self-serving negotiating teams, can the Kuwait talks bring about peace, stability and development to Yemen’s 26 million people? Based on nothing other than a debatable legitimacy, the internationally recognised government is totally dependent on external forces: without coalition air strikes and ground troops, it would have become irrelevant long ago. It depends on the GCC states for everything. The Saleh-Huthi alliance is ‘contre nature’: open disagreements and clashes have become increasingly frequent in recent months, certainly something the coalition encourages. Recent border agreements between the Huthis and Saudi Arabia, excluding Saleh and his allies, are an indication of future trends. However exclusion of Saleh and his forces depends on a decisive shift in favour of the Huthis in the military balance within this alliance, something which is not yet clear. Though militarily weakened, they still control the central and northern highlands, which represent about 25% of the country’s surface but closer to 50% of its population. Other than military pressure, their main constraint is financial, something which is becoming more serious by the day. Increasing unpopularity is not a decisive factor for either side.

It is clear to all that the military stalemate is unlikely to be broken and therefore some kind of political solution is essential. Both teams are sticking to untenable positions in the talks and refusing to compromise. However, given the external pressures from Saudi Arabia, other GCC states, the US, UK, EU and indeed everyone else, it is likely that some kind of deal will eventually be made. What this might be is difficult to imagine. It may well exclude both Saleh and Hadi. It will most likely include the Huthi and Islah, as well as some sections of the General People’s Congress [currently split between Saleh and Hadi supporters] as well as some of the smaller parties. Its form is likely to involve returning to most of what the transition achieved by 2014, and here it might be helpful to revisit its lessons[2] to avoid some of the mistakes made earlier.

Unfortunately, whatever agreement is reached in Kuwait is unlikely to transform Yemen into a stable well-governed state in full control of the country and focused on the welfare of its people. The kleptocratic elites are too powerful to be excluded, and such measures are not on the agenda of the international community. Fragmentation and bitterness have increased exponentially in the past year, not only in the southern governorates, but throughout the country. There is no doubt that an end to air strikes and to full-scale war on the ground would be a major improvement. 

Much more needs to be done to establish a politically viable system but, more than anything, to restore the population’s basic living standards to their pre-war status, which would leave them as the poorest in the Arab world by a long stretch. Regardless of politics, financial and economic support for development, particularly in rural areas will be essential for the coming decades. Of all the country’s fundamental problems, this article has not even mentioned the main long term one, namely the absolute shortage of water.

  • This article was first published by Open Democracy on 22 May 2016.


[1] In addition to the GCC states (except Oman) the coalition includes Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, and Sénégal, all of whom have little choice unless willing to forego the considerable financial support they get from the GCC.

[2] See my detailed analysis of the transition process and its outcomes published earlier this year by International IDEA: Yemen's 'Peaceful' Transition from Autocracy: Could it have succeeded?

About the author

Helen Lackner has worked in all parts of Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for close to 15 years. She has written about the country’s political economy as well as social and economic issues. She works as a freelance rural development consultant in Yemen and elsewhere and is currently also engaged in research on hydro politics in Yemen. Her latest book as editor:  Why Yemen Matters, Saqi books 2014

Posted on Monday, 23 May 2016