The war in Yemen is approaching its seventh year, and despite US President Biden’s promise that this war should end, there is still no end in sight. What began in 2004 as a localized conflict between the central government and the Houthi insurgents in Sa’ada governorate became an all-out war after the so-called “Arab Coalition” stepped in to support the Internationally Recognized Government (IRG) in March 2015. Clearly, it was Yemeni parties that triggered fighting, however, the role played by regional powers in escalating and prolonging the conflict must not be underestimated. As a result, argues Yemeni scholar Saif Al-Kamel, these regional actors need to be formally included in any future peace talks if the war is truly to be ended.
For more than six years, a number of external actors have supported factions within the Yemeni war. Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, and Oman have all protected, financed, and provided arms to local groups such as the Houthis, al-Islah, Salafist parties, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and others in order to promote their own agendas. They have exploited the absence of the Yemeni state to serve their own ideological, territorial, and political ambitions.
International powers have also contributed to the crisis by supplying arms and helping their allies in the region – or else by turning a blind eye and doing nothing. These various external powers may have different motivations in Yemen, but they all share one common interest: the continuation of conflict. Changing this calculation is one of the most difficult and most important tasks ahead for those seeking peace.
Iran supports the struggle of Houthis in Yemen partly because, the conflict has allowed it to add Sana’a to the group of Arab capitals within its sphere of influence along with Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut, something recently made explicit by the Iranian Ambassador in Houthi-controlled Sanaa. Further, the Islamic Republic has little interest in pursuing peace in Yemen because it sees the war as a trump card with which to harass and pressure its longtime rivals in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), where it also provides assistance to Shiite minorities.
The GCC countries see Yemen as a populous, poor, and troublesome neighbor, and the current relative political freedom a threat to their regimes. Therefore, peace in Yemen may represent a priority to the Gulf only to the extent that its absence threatens their stability. In fact, a weak and fragmented Yemen mired in violence facilitates the main GCC powers’ expansionary ambitions, helps them maintain control of important seaports and islands, and enables access to the Arabian Sea to export their oil.
This is true particularly for Saudi Arabia, which has revealed aspirations to build an oil-exporting pipeline to the Arabian Sea through Mahara governorate, thus bypassing the Strait of Hormuz. The Kingdom’s apparent keenness to prevent a military victory by any of the conflict’s parties – even the IRG, which it claims to be helping – points to its long-term policy of promoting Yemen’s instability to facilitate its own ambitions.
The UAE has shown similar ambitions. Despite announcing its withdrawal from Yemen in 2019, the IRG accused it of acting as an occupying force after it moved to establish and support loyal local groups to take control of Yemeni coastal areas, seaports, airports, and islands.
Qatar’s approach is a little different but no less involved. It pulled out of the Saudi-led Arab coalition in the wake of the diplomatic crisis with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in June 2017. However, it has continued to support al-Islah party (the Muslim Brotherhood’s branch in Yemen), despite Saudi Arabia and the UAE considering the group a terrorist organization. The IRG has also accused Qatar of providing support to the Houthis.
International resolve to promote peace has long been shown to be crucial to bring enemies to the negotiating table in protracted conflicts. In reality, it is often a matter of political will and timing. For instance, when the Trump administration wanted a foreign policy win in the Middle East, it suddenly persuaded four Arab countries within a short period to normalize relations with Israel after 70 years of no diplomatic ties.
Peace advocates now hope that the newly elected President Joe Biden will use his influence with the region’s leaders and groups to end the war. He has already announced several steps to end the war that bode well, such as eliminating the terrorist designation of the Houthis that was announced at the end of Trumps term in office, and halting arms sales to the coalition.
On top of US pressure, the UN could also do more. It should call on regional and international powers involved in the conflict to resolve their differences and stop meddling in Yemen’s conflict. This would make it easier to seek a ceasefire among local actors. Convincing these groups to give up their arms for the sake of peace is a long shot but might be possible with genuine pressures from their various sponsors. Local parties should then be brought around the dialogue table with negotiations that would preferably start where the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) ended and uphold its references and outcomes.
Many argue that because Yemenis started the war, Yemenis must end it. But achieving peace in Yemen is no longer an internal affair. The failure of peace efforts so far has resulted from the international community neglecting the rest of the new local armed groups and focusing on the IRG and the Houthis, who no longer hold the keys to a long-lasting peace. Given the influential role of external powers in the conflict, a cessation of fighting can be achieved only if the international community exerts pressure on them to step back and leave Yemenis to salvage what is left of their country.
Author bio: Saif Al-Kamel holds a Ph.D. from the United states. He has worked as a professor and a freelance consultant in Yemen and several other countries. He has also published several articles on Yemen and the Arab world.
*Saif Al-Kamel is a pseudonym for a Yemeni academic.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Yemen Policy Center or its donors.
Translator : NA
Editor : Mareike Transfeld
Copy Editor : Venetia Rainey
Photographer : Shutterstock
YPC nationwide representative survey, April–July 2019. Data cited in this paper is drawn from this survey unless otherwise indicated.
 UN News “Humanitarian crisis in Yemen remains the worst in the world, warns UN” Feb 2019. https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/02/1032811 (Accessed 3 March 2020).
 Wadhah Al-Awlaqi and Maged Al-Madhaji, Rethinking Yemen’s economy: Local governance in Yemen amid conflict and instability, July 2018. https://devchampions.org/files/Rethinking_Yemens_Economy_No2_En.pdf (Accessed 8 March 2020); Mansour Rageh, Amal Nasser, and Farea Al-Muslimi, “Yemen without a Functioning Central Bank: The Loss of Basic Economic Stabilization and Accelerating Famine,” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, November 2016. http://sanaacenter.org/publications/main-publications/55 (Accessed 23 May 2018).
Data source: OCHA, “Humanitarian needs overview 2019: Yemen”, December 2018. https://yemen.un.org/sites/default/files/2019-08/2019_Yemen_HNO_FINAL.pdf (Accessed 11 March 2020).
 Final report of the Panel of Experts on Yemen, addressed to the President of the Security Council, January 2020. https://undocs.org/S/2020/70 (Accessed 11 March 2020).
 Mareike Transfeld, “Implementing Stockholm: The Status of Local Security Forces in al-Hodeidah,” YPC Policy Report, Yemen Polling Center, Policy Report, November 2019. http://www.yemenpolling.org/Projects-en/ICSP_EU_HodeidahReport2019November30.pdf (Accessed 16 February 2020).
 Mareike Transfeld and Shaima Bin Othman, “The State of the Police in Western Yemen”, YPC research debrief, Yemen Polling Center, Research Debrief, January 2020. https://www.yemenpolling.org/4325/ (Accessed 16 February 2020).
 Amnesty International, “Yemen: Fierce new offensive displaces tens of thousands of civilians from Hodeidah” May 2018. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/05/yemen-fierce-new-offensive-displaces-tens-of-thousands-of-civilians-from-hodeidah/ (Accessed 5 March 2020).
 Maged Sultan, Mareike Transfeld and Kamal Muqbil, “Formalizing the Informal State and Non-State Security Providers in Government-Controlled Taiz City,” YPC Policy Report, Yemen Polling Center, July 2019. https://yemenpolling.org/advocacy/upfiles/ICSP_EU_FinalTaizReport2019July19.pdf (Accessed 16 February 2020).
 Nadwa al-Dawsari , “Tribal Governance And Stability In Yemen “, The Carnegie papers, Carnegie endowment (April 2012). https://carnegieendowment.org/files/yemen_tribal_governance.pdf (Accessed 5 March 2020).
CIVIC, “We Did Not Know If We Would Die From Bullets Or Hunger” Civilian Harm and Local Protection Measures in Yemen “, Jan 2019, https://civiliansinconflict.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/YEMEN_BulletsorHunger_FINAL_PROOF.pdf (Accessed 5 March 2020).
 Fatima Saleh and Ahmed al-Sharjabi “Institutional Prerequisites for the STC “Coup” in Aden and Perspectives on the Jeddah Deal” , research debrief, Yemen Polling Center, Oct 2019. https://www.yemenpolling.org/institutional-prerequisites-for-the-stc-coup-in-aden-and-perspectives-on-the-jeddah-deal/ (Accessed 16 February 2020).
 Human Rights Watch, “Yemen: Riyadh Agreement Ignores Rights Abuses”, December 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/12/12/yemen-riyadh-agreement-ignores-rights-abuses Accessed 5 Mar 2020; Human Rights Watch, “Yemen: UAE Backs Abusive Local Forces” June 2017.