The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has cost over 300,000 lives with an overwhelming majority of them being children and women. The Saudi-led coalition, supported by the United States, and the Houthis, backed by Iran, has arguably turned Yemen into a proxy war for establishing regional hegemony. However, for the first time in six years, a two-month ceasefire brokered by the UN in early April halted military operations in Yemen and across its borders (Saudi Arabia and the UAE). This also includes the lift of the Saudi blockade of fuel imports and the reopening of the Sanaa airport, which will provide relief for civilians. The formation of the presidential council where Hadi, Yemen’s former president, ceded his executive powers could stimulate talks with the Houthis, but there is a concern on what will happen next. The Houthis strongly believe that they have won the war while the Saudis refuse to make a political settlement without having their conditions met. Some argue that the ceasefire should be extended, though there is no guarantee that the Houthis or the Saudis will comply with the current one. Others argue that Yemen needs an economic ceasefire as much as a military one. Although this seems promising for Yeminis, it asks the Saudis to give up maximum demands and may empower the Houthis. Based on the current reality in Yemen, there needs to be a new UN Security Council Resolution that guides peace efforts and halts all foreign interference.
The UN-mediated truce and the council’s appointment reflects how both sides are exhausted and can gain from a temporary pause. The Houthi takeover of Marib which would have given them access to Yemen’s main oil fields and the advantage of desert bordering Saudi Arabia never came into fruition. In January, “UAE-aligned forces made the first significant military gains against the Huthis in almost four years, greatly complicating Huthi efforts to seize Marib city and governorate.” Meanwhile, “the economy in both government- and Huthi-held areas has been badly affected by the price spikes in global commodity markets set off by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions that provoked.” In other words, the ceasefire brought the conflict into a situation where “there is no single pressure point that would disproportionally favour one side or the other.” The Houthis control Sanaa and most of northern Yemen, the rest of the country is divided into ministates, and Iran has secured a position on the Arabian Peninsula. Neither side has achieved a significant political or military victory, and Riyadh, under pressure from the U.S., stated that it wants a solution to end the war. The presidential council should be able to push for negotiations with the Houthis however, the Saudis must move fast and keep in mind that the council is internally divided. On top of the temporary halt in fighting, letting fuel ships into Hodeida, and the reopening of the Sanaa airport, Saudi Arabia and the UAE agreed to give $3 billion in aid to repair Yemen’s failed economy. Regardless of where things stand, the aftermath of the ceasefire should be considered like if it ends without any progress and the fighting resumes.
The war in Yemen and the current truce are important for multiple reasons, especially with how internationalized it has become. The war is costly from a humanitarian standpoint and although the ceasefire will speed up the delivery of food and medicine to the Yemeni people, the Saudi blockade, the violence, and the struggling economy has caused extreme suffering. For the Houthis, the ceasefire left them “in possession of the missiles and drones they have used to bombard Saudi and Emirati cities and energy infrastructure.” They argue that the war is a “battle by their “nationalist” forces against Saudi “aggression” and they have won it, especially with the freeze in coalition airstrikes. In addition, Marib is highly contested because it is “the government’s last stronghold in the north and the country’s largest oil and gas extraction facilities are located in its environs.” If the Houthis invade Marib, the Saudis have more reasons to negotiate. In regards to Iran, they are established on the Arabian Peninsula and the Houthis are close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, using their technical expertise with missiles and drones. The two share geopolitical interests because “Tehran seeks to challenge Saudi and U.S. dominance in the region, and the Houthis oppose the U.S.- and Saudi- backed government.” Saudi Arabia’s justification for military intervention is the “perception that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy rather than an indigenous movement.” The United States’ interests, which recently suspended support for Saudis, are “security of Saudi borders, free passage in the Bab al-Mandeb strait, the chokepoint between the Arabian and Red Seas and a vital artery for the global transport of oil, and a government in Sanaa that will cooperate with U.S. counterterrorism programs.” These motivations from different actors for involvement in Yemen combined with the ceasefire leaves stakes high as to what will happen next. The Saudi-led coalition needs to consider Iran’s presence in the Arabian Peninsula and if the Houthis will agree to make concessions despite their perceptions about Saudi Arabia and self-interest to continue the war.
With the ceasefire in place, some have argued to extend it because it is fragile and could collapse with little or no warning. After all, several actors in Yemen like Al-Qaeda and independent warlords want the war to last. There is also the “challenge of converting the truce to a formal political process,” so it would be better to concentrate on shorter steps like allowing more flights from Sanaa for medical evacuations. The extension will continue the halt in military fighting and ease the humanitarian crisis, but it is only a temporary solution because the status quo would be maintained. It does not ensure an end to the war because there will not be peace until there is balance. Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, may carry on with their economic and security self-interests for their competition towards regional hegemony. Marib, a significant concern for the Saudis, is crucial in determining if the current truce will not fall apart because if the Houthis occupy it, then they can exercise independent autonomy and ignore the central government.
The second option that others are pushing for is an economic ceasefire. The conflict parties would “pledge to stop working to damage each other economically and to cooperate in the interest of the ordinary Yemenis who desperately need both economic opportunity and better services.” Like in Libya, the most important step “would be to establish a formal economic consultation and mediation. This track would…identify solutions for economic issues that are bound up with the most sensitive political issues driving the conflict and have thus far proven intractable.” This policy option aids humanitarian efforts however, once there is economic relief, it is extremely difficult to go back to war. The Saudis would be weakened and giving up a lot like their ability to negotiate if they lifted the blockade because they fear that it could consolidate the Houthis’ power. The presidential leadership council is another area the Saudis need to consider like if they will negotiate on their behalf or the council will do it themselves. Again, peace may not be endured because it may be in the Houthis’ self-interest to expand (they have to realize their limits).
Given these policy options, the best course of action for Yemen is to have a new UN Security Resolution supported by the United States and not tilted towards Saudi interests. There must be an adjusted international approach and expansion of talks because of the high degree of foreign intervention in Yemen. This would include the official end of the Saudi blockade and airstrikes in Yemen, and all military support to the Hadi government halted. For Iran and its allies, assistance to the Houthis should be frozen, but “commercial air flights between Sanaa and Tehran should be allowed as well as Iranian development projects including in the port of Hodeida.” By doing this, it brings assistance into Yemen and balances Saudi Arabia and Iran because both countries would stop fighting. Additionally, the United States is in a good position to bring other countries to work together because “U.S. sanctions against Houthi economic networks…demonstrate that Washington is capable of targeted measures that focus on elite players within the movement.” The U.S. ushering international actors to negotiate would make clear to the Houthis the consequences they will face like if invading Marib is still of interest. The UN can control funds to ensure Yemen gets help by having the Saudis, Emiratis, the U.S., and other Gulf states “pledge billions to rebuild Yemen’s shattered infrastructure.” Although Iran would not be included in these talks and it seems implausible, a new UN Security Resolution is better for the long term. It will increase aid into Yemen, meet Saudi Arabia’s demands, and reflect the current balance of power in the Middle East.