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Is Yemen’s fractured state reconcilable despite the anticipation of peace?


Last month, China brokered rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Irana landmark deal that restored full diplomatic ties between the two bitter rivals.

There was hope that the detente could also end one of the world’s longest-running — and all but forgotten — proxy wars in Yemen.

Peace talks do indeed have that started to end the eight-year brutal conflict between a Saudi Arabian-led coalition of nine regional countries and Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The war has led to what is often referred to as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

In spite of the exchange of hundreds of prisoners however, between last week’s detractors and promising talks about a permanent ceasefire and lifting the Saudi Arabian-led blockade of Yemen, the road to peace remains incredibly shaky.

Even more uncertain is whether Yemen will ever be able to recover once hostilities have ended.

Houthi prisoners arrive at Sana’a airport last week after being released by Saudi Arabia.
Hani Mohammed/AP

Yemen in pieces

During my trip to Yemen last July, I (Leena) was stopped by militias at more than 40 checkpoints between the southern city of Aden and the capital Sana’a. My driver, a doctor before the war, briefed me before each stop on the background and relationships of the checkpoint officers. The assignment would change quickly during the 12-hour drive!

It was clear on the ground that the humanitarian crisis had hit every part of the country and robbed the Yemenis of any meaningful prospect. This proxy war, riddled with foreign interests and fueled by regional and local competition, has left Yemen a broken nation.

Multiple armed groups vie for influence across the country. In 2014, Houthi rebels drove Yemen’s internationally recognized government into exile and took control of Sana’a. Months later, the Saudi-led coalition — backed by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and France — launched a military intervention to try to bring the government back to power.

Read more: Senate vote could end US complicity in Saudi-led genocide in Yemen

Since then, the Houthis have occasionally tried to hold onto their gains in northern Yemen launch strikes within Saudi Arabia itself.

In the south, the United Arab Emirates supports the two secessionist movements – the Southern Transitional Council and the Giant Brigades – and militarization of two Yemeni islands off the south coast.

Saudi Arabia and Oman, meanwhile, have vested interests in the Mahra region of eastern Yemen and are meddling in tribal politics. And Yemen’s largest Islamist political party, known as al-Islah, controls Marib province northeast of the capital and parts of two other regions, Taiz and Hadramawt.

The division in the country manifests itself in other ways as well. The currency used in the south differs from that in Sana’a. In Aden, the separatist flag is visible at every turn. In the north I caught the image of Iranian general Qassem Soleimaniwho was killed by the US three years ago, hanging in one of Sana’a’s main streets.

After the devastating humanitarian crisis, the fragmentation of Yemen is perhaps the most damaging outcome of this war – and the most glaring obstacle to real solutions to ending the crisis.

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People run after an explosion at the airport in Aden in 2020, shortly after a plane carrying the newly formed cabinet landed.

Read more: Yemen’s Houthis – and why they’re not just another proxy of Iran

Saudi foreign policy moderation

For the Saudis, the peace process appears to be part of a broader trend of foreign policy moderation as the kingdom attempts to pull back from nearly a decade of blunders, miscalculations and destructive forays abroad.

Since the establishment of the kingdom in 1932, Saudi diplomacy and security policy have been characterized by prudence and a desire to status quo of a regional balance of power.

In doing so, Riyadh never sought overt domination of the region. It focused its efforts on thwarting those who did, such as Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and post-revolutionary Iran. Importantly, the Saudis also tried to avoid direct confrontation, instead using their petro wealth and diplomatic influence and alliances when dealing with rivals.

The first six monarchs of the kingdom adhered to this approach. But things took a dramatic turn with the ascension of King Salman and the elevation of his heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to key positions in the Saudi government in 2015.

Known for being disregard for tradition and confident confidencebin Salman quickly set about defining a new, aggressive foreign policy for the kingdom that eschewed the lessons of the past.

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping to Riyadh in 2022.
Bandar Al-Jaloud/Saudi Royal Court Handout/EPA

This included imposing a blockade on Qatar and only just stopped an outright invasion, kidnap the Prime Minister of Lebanon, murder journalist Jamal Khashoggi and pursuing one provocative approach to its regional rival, Iran.

Under this new forceful foreign policy, the 2015 invasion of Yemen – Saudi Arabia’s first-ever major military operation abroad – was intended to be a short operation that would demonstrate the military and technological prowess of a dynamic and capable kingdom.

Read more: Is it too early to herald the ‘dawn of a new Middle East’? It all depends on what the Saudis do next

Instead, the invasion quickly turned into a protracted and wasteful quagmire. It has cost the country enormously in terms of lives, resources and reputation. At the same time it is have caused endless amounts of misery and human suffering on the Yemeni people.

Eight years later, Riyadh is returning to a less confrontational stance in the region. After the detente with Iran, resolving the war in Yemen would be another important step towards a more “normal” approach to Saudi foreign policy.

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A malnourished Yemeni child is treated in 2017 amid rising malnutrition at a hospital in Sana’a.
Yahya Arabab/EPA

What next for the Yemeni people?

After eight years of bombs, rockets, destruction and hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, it is the Yemeni people who have lost the most in this war.

Houthi and Saudi officials may claim that a political solution is being worked on, but whether this will have a serious and much-needed humanitarian component remains a big question. For the people of Yemen, the journey to peace will be grueling as they navigate the broken nation they left behind.

If the goal is to ensure lasting peace, the Saudis must honor the demands of Yemeni negotiators, starting with a permanent ceasefire and lifting the blockade.

It is also imperative that the currently exclusive Houthi-Saudi peace talks be opened to involve leaders of all factions across the country. A realistic transitional and restorative justice plan is needed to address the more pressing humanitarian challenges. This requires all parties to be present at the talks.

Finally, peace talks must continue to be Yemen-led to ultimately pave the way for a Yemeni-led and UN-backed political transition that empowers Yemenis to determine the future of their nation.

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