Yemen is in the midst of a nine-year civil conflict which has left 80 percent of the population – some 24 million people, including almost 13 million children – in urgent need of aid and protection. Acknowledged by the UN to be “ the largest humanitarian crisis in the world,” more than 14 million people in Yemen are in acute need. Starvation is widespread. UNICEF (the UN’s Children’s Fund) reports that as 2022 ended, around 2 million children under the age of 5 were experiencing starvation-induced wasting, severely in more than 500,000 cases.
On one level, the situation in Yemen is a product of the fault line that runs through Islam – the Sunni-Shia divide. The main protagonists are, on the one hand, the Shia Houthi rebels supported by Shi’ite Iran and, on the other, the UN-recognized Sunni government aided on the ground by Saudi Arabia and its eight-nation Sunni Muslim coalition.
For a fair part of the 20th century there were two Yemens, created by political events – a monarchy in the north and a republic in the south, which for a long time was a communist regime aligned with the old Soviet Union. A succession of conflicts between them resulted in 1970 in a dominant north and a subdued south, the two never fully at peace with each other. In 1978 Ali Abdallah Saleh became president of North Yemen. The collapse of the USSR in 1990 triggered the unification of the two Yemens as the Republic of Yemen with Saleh as president.
Saleh, autocratic and unpopular, was soon facing an ever-growing insurgency from Zaydi Shii’ites calling themselves Houthis after their charismatic leader, Hussein al Houthi. In 2011 Saleh became a victim of the so-called Arab Spring. Mass popular protests forced him to step down in favor of his vice-president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Saleh, hoping to regain power, allied himself with his former enemies, the Houthis. Strengthened by Yemeni forces still loyal to Saleh, and supported with military hardware from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the Houthis overran large tracts of the country, including the capital city, Sana’a.
Saudi Arabia, alarmed at the prospect of Iran extending its footprint into the Arabian peninsula, intervened in March 2015 to beat back the Houthis. Saudi’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), assembled a coalition of Arab states, obtained the diplomatic backing of the US, UK, Turkey and Pakistan, and launched a series of air strikes against the rebels.
The unconventional Saleh-Houthi partnership came to an abrupt end on December 2, 2017, when Saleh went on television to declare that he was ready to enter into dialogue with the Saudi-led coalition. This volte-face was to end in tragedy. On December 4, Saleh’s house in Sana’a was besieged by Houthi fighters. Attempting to escape, he was killed.
The Houthis, emboldened, started firing ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia. The political situation was further complicated in 2017. Aidarus al-Zoubadi, a former army commander and governor of Aden, and the vice-president of the UN-recognized government of Yemen, announced that under his leadership the eight governorates in the south, including Aden, were unilaterally declaring independence. With the strong backing of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Zoubadi established a form of governance which he called the Southern Transitional Council (STC).
Meanwhile UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg had been hard at work. Painstakingly, he put together a truce between the government and the Houthis which came into effect in April 2022. Extended twice, it resulted in the longest period of stability in Yemen since the start of its civil war.
Although it came to an end on October 2, and the Houthis refused to renew it, Grundberg reported in May 2023 that it was continuing to deliver benefits, such as the entry of fuel and other commercial ships via the Hudaydah port, and commercial flights to and from the capital, Sana’a.
Grundberg said that his diplomatic efforts with representatives of the government, the Houthi rebels and other players were continuing, and that he was encouraged by the positive and detailed discussions.
“There is clear determination on all sides,” he said, “to make progress towards a deal on humanitarian and economic measures, a permanent ceasefire and the resumption of a Yemeni-led political process under UN auspices.”
Although sporadic military incidents continue to occur, said Grundberg, hostility levels were significantly lower than before the truce.
“But the fragility of the military situation, the dire state of the economy and the daily challenges facing the Yemeni people, provide us with constant reminders of why a more comprehensive agreement between the parties is so vital.”
He was adamant that Yemen’s myriad challenges required an inclusive Yemeni-led political process under UN auspices.
The ambitions of the strongman in the south, Zoubadi, accord only loosely with Grundberg’s hopes. In an interview with the UK’s Guardian newspaper in June Zoubadi maintained that the west has to accept a new reality in which Yemen’s north is controlled by the Houthis, and the south is run by his separatist STC. The planned talks on the country’s future, he said, had to be reconfigured to meet that new reality – including placing the issue of a separate southern state at the foreground of the discussions.
In short, he is attempting to cut the UN-recognized government out of the picture.
The STC, he said, would like to revert to the period between 1967 and 1990 when Yemen was divided in two with a separate socialist state in the south. Zoubadi visited the UK recently and attempted to convince Britain’s Middle East minister, Tariq Ahmad, that he and a separate southern Yemen state were the key to unlocking peace.
In fact what Yemen needs is a return to a unified structure, democratic elections, and an inclusive government. The future of Yemen largely depends on the Houthis. Do they wish to remain an outlawed militia permanently, or would they prefer to become a legitimate political party, able to contest parliamentary and presidential elections and participate in government? The same considerations apply to the STC. Zoubadi seems to favor a two-state Yemen. Can he be persuaded to a unified federal structure?
In fact UN Resolution 2216 does embrace the idea of a democratic federally united Yemen. Backed by a UN peace-keeping force, a lasting political deal would involve the end of the Saudi-led military operation, the active involvement of the Houthis, the integration of the STC, however nominally independent, into a united Yemen, and probably a major financial commitment by Saudi Arabia to fund the rebuilding of the country. Can Grundberg bring about negotiations aimed at a peaceful transition to a political solution for a united Yemen?