Give Peace a Chance: Could Saudi Arabia Broker a Permanent Ceasefire in Yemen?

Written by: Cooper Stewart

Since 2015, a civil war has been raging in Yemen between Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s Yemeni government and Houthi rebels. While the war began as a conflict localized within Yemen, it quickly morphed into a key theater for regional and international rivalries to play out, with Iran supporting the Houthi rebels and the U.S. and Saudi Arabia throwing their support behind Hadi’s faction. 

The humanitarian consequences of this conflict have been catastrophic. In February, the UN warned that almost 10 million people in the country are suffering from “extreme levels of hunger” and that an estimated 80% of the population requires assistance and protection. Compounding on top of the humanitarian crisis is the fact that ISIL has managed to embed itself in the country amidst the instability, a suicide bombing in the port city of Aden (which killed thirteen people) being one of their latest atrocities in Yemen.

Although many want to see an end to the fighting, both sides have repeatedly failed to reach any sort of substantive peace deal. The two sides almost achieved peace in 2016, where they agreed to a 2-day to in November. However, the ceasefire quickly broke down, with both the Houthi rebels and the Hadi-backed forces claiming that the other violated the terms of the truce (Saudi Arabia claimed the Houthis violated the treaty 180 times in the 48 hour span while a spokesperson for the Houthi rebels claimed the Hadi coalition violated the treaty 114 times during the same time period).

As the war has dragged on and the situation has grown increasingly bleak, calls for peace and a de-escalation of the conflict have continued to intensify around the globe. In April, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bipartisan measure to cut off U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition. Although the measure was vetoed by President Trump, the measure highlighted growing concerns in the United States about the bloody conflict. 

Most importantly, Saudi Arabia, the foreign power most directly involved in the conflict, has begun initiating peace talks and deals between the various fractured groups in Yemen. First, the Saudi government moved the country closer towards stability by brokering a power-sharing agreement between two anti-Houthi factions that had splintered off from one another: Hadi’s government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC). The STC broke off from Hadi’s Yemen in 2017 with the help of the United Arab Emirates and launched a rebellion against Hadi’s forces in southern Yemen. The new deal between the two factions, dubbed the Riyadh Agreement, will bring an end to the dangerous power struggle between the two.

While Saudi Arabia pursued unity amongst its allies in Yemen, they have held talks with the Houthi rebels in an attempt to form a deal that could ultimately bring a lasting peace to Yemen. In early November, it was reported that Saudi officials and Houthi rebels had been holding indirect negotiations since September of this year. Relations between the two parties have improved since these talks began, with Houthis pledging they will “stop aiming missiles and drones at Saudi Arabia.”

Unlike their previous attempt for peace in 2016, however, what is unique about this round of peace talks is that Saudi Arabia finds itself much more politically vulnerable now than it was then . Their vulnerability can be tied to the waning international support for their involvement in the civil war and to the Houthi rebels interfering with Saudi Arabia’s precious oil resources. Saudi Arabia has lost a great deal of support from two of their most crucial coalition members: the U.S. and Sudan. The bipartisan measure, which would completely end all U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s coalition, being popular amongst both political parties indicates that many in the U.S. want the conflict to end, which sends a message to Saudi Arabia that they will no longer have a guarantee that they will receive the vital military aid from America to continue this war. Sudan’s recent regime change also deals a huge blow to the Saudi’s war efforts. The new government is in the process of withdrawing their 10,000 troops from Yemen, leaving the coalition facing manpower shortages on the front lines. Finally, the Houthi rebels recently launched a devastating drone attack on two key oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, striking a major blow to their economy. Beyond the economic worries this attack generated, it also demonstrated to many Saudis that even after years of brutal fighting, the Houthi had still not been subdued and were still capable of  to Saudi Arabia. Combined together, these new developments have put Saudi Arabia in a position where they are far more inclined to seek peace in Yemen than ever before.

Although these factors have pushed Saudi Arabia into searching for peace, they have also only resulted thus far in Saudi Arabia brokering deals between itself and the Houthi rebels and between anti-Houthi factions. In order to achieve lasting peace in this conflict, which is peace between Houthis and Hadi, Saudi Arabia will have to come to terms with its major rival and the principal supporter of the Houthis: Iran. In fact, one of the main reasons for Saudi involvement in this conflict was to prevent Iran from gaining a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula (and on their border) . Therefore, the final resolution to the Yemeni Civil War will hinge upon whether the two Middle Eastern powers can come to terms that would end their involvement in this proxy war. Until both Iran and Saudi Arabia pledge to withdraw from the country, both will destructively continue to pour resources into the conflict, prolonging it indefinitely.