Hussein Alwaday

Ending the Zero-Sum Game:
What’s Needed to Strike a Compromise in Yemen


October 2020

There’s renewed hope for future compromise between Yemen’s internationally recognized government (IRG) and the Houthis following the warring parties’ agreement last month to exchange prisoners. But, arriving at this promising trust-building measure has been very difficult, and more needs to change if the country is to achieve further progress on a path to reconciliation.

Currently, there are two separate peace deals at stake in Yemen. UN-sponsored talks between President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi’s government and the Houthis are ongoing. At the same time, the international community is waiting for the Riyadh Agreement, which was signed in November 2019 between the IRG and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), to move forward. However, for the warring parties, the compromises required to make progress on either of these tracts are not currently seen as strategic and would jeopardize their self-interests. The prolonged conflict is giving various parties to the war the opportunity to build military power, expand their influence within state institutions and inflate their financial capabilities. Each warring side fears the other may exploit a peace agreement to wrest complete control over the country.

The longer a compromise stalls on either agreement, the more complicated it will become to establish a workable breakthrough. Over the course of five years, the warring parties have disbanded into numerous factions, and the war has fractured into multiple–almost independent–conflicts. Each of these separate fronts comes with a different set of leaders with their own fears and interests. These unique and shifting dynamics also require a tailored approach to peace building because of the spectrum of opinions about what that should look like. Sometimes the various party leaders see their situation in the war clearly and make decisions grounded in rationale, and other times, they are hindered by wishful thinking.

As long as the warring parties continue to benefit from the conflict more than from compromise, they will not agree to a meaningful peace deal. This aspect of the conflict is entrenching “winner takes all” mindsets. Unless the wars’ leaders abandon this zero-sum game approach, peace in Yemen will remain out of reach. This idea is explored further below.

Fears of a Compromise

After five years of war, the Houthis have transformed from an armed sociopolitical movement into a commanding military force, operating a coercive authority in territories under its control in north-western Yemen. The group currently controls the capital Sana’a, one-third of the country’s land, two-thirds of its population and almost all of the former central state’s weaponry and institutions. The group has developed a repressive, vice grip on the populace and silences dissent. As a result, the Houthis fear that a peace agreement involving a power sharing arrangement would invite a “Trojan Horse” into Sana’a, where the group currently enjoys security and military hegemony.

As the Houthis have consolidated control over northern Yemen, the IRG’s domestic influence and legitimacy has eroded. It currently maintains little more than a fragile, symbolic political presence in Yemen. The longer the IRG remains outside the country, the harder it will become for them to create a transitional government, which is a precursor to its ability to re-establish power in Sana’a. But given the IRG’s exile in Riyadh, where many members enjoy lavish lifestyles funded by Saudi Arabia, there’s a lack of incentive for these leaders to return to a country where any sort of peace agreement would likely mean they’d have to share power with their archenemy. Because of the Houthis’ military strength on the ground, the IRG fears the group has the means to abandon a potential power-sharing agreement in order to cement itself as a dominant political force, similar to how Hezbollah has wielded power in Lebanon.

Like the IRG, another major political player in the conflict, the Islah Party, which is a blend of Muslim Brotherhood and tribal loyalists, has not shown much interest in reaching a peace agreement. The group is the Houthis’ biggest rival in Yemen, both in terms of military and political influence. But given Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ war on the Muslim Brotherhood in the region, the party does not openly assert independence from the IRG, the state nor the national army. The longer the war drags on, the more embedded Islah’s influence will become on the IRG’s institutions. For that reason, the party ties its willingness to compromise to the implementation of UN Resolution 2216.

The Houthis and the IRG: Winner Takes All and the Battle for Marib

Throughout the ongoing peace negotiations, the IRG has also insisted on the implementation of UN Resolution 2216. Its full implementation would guarantee that the IRG emerges from the war as the “winner” because the resolution calls for the complete disarmament and withdrawal of the Houthis and the restoration of the “legitimate government” in the capital. This would guarantee the IRG receives the entire metaphorical “cake.” All other parties would have to accept a limited role in a renewed national partnership, turn over their heavy weaponry and relinquish territorial gains without any compensatory measures. Large questions remain about the practicality of the resolution.

Some international experts argue the resolution doesn’t reflect the situation’s complexity. The war is not just a two-party conflict as it’s depicted in the resolution. But as long as the UN’s special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, uses the resolution as the basis for peace talks, the IRG will not abandon its position. Government leaders see the resolution as their only real option to make a safe return to Yemen because of their dwindling in-country influence and eroding legitimacy. The government’s support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE is also on the decline.

The Houthis, on the other hand, are not interested in a peace agreement as long as the group has the opportunity to make more territorial gains. In short, the longer a peace agreement is postponed, the greater territorial control the Houthis will have. Most recently, the Houthis want to takeover Marib, an IRG stronghold and an oil-rich governorate east of Sanaa. A changing of the guard in Marib would cause a major shift in the conflict’s current power structure and would most certainly have dire humanitarian consequences for the local population. An estimated one million internally displaced people already live in the governorate.

The Houthis prefer a military victory over political dialogue. The group hopes a takeover in Marib could tip the scales in their favor at the UN-led talks, forcing negotiators to recognize their de-facto power and reconsider provisions of Resolution 2216. Ultimately, The Houthis want to undercut the IRG’s position to the point that the group can assert itself as the true and singular representative of the Yemeni people and negotiate directly with Saudi Arabia. From the Houthis’ perspective, direct talks with Saudi Arabia outside of the UN framework could guarantee a deal in which the group does not have to share power with the IRG. Ironically, the recent emergence and growing strength of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) as well as the expulsion of the central government from Aden in August 2019, has further weakened the IRG’s position in the conflict and played into the Houthis’ hands.

Deliberate Stalling in the South?

The STC sees itself as the potential governing body for a future independent state in Yemen’s southern governorates. The group has slowly started building its military power with support from the UAE because of unsuccessful bids for recognition from the wider international community. The STC now effectively controls large parts of the country’s southwest regions. Part of its strategy has been to avoid implementing the Riyadh Agreement, which calls for the formation of a shared government, the unification of the country’s armed forces and the return of the IRG to Aden. Although the STC and the IRG have repeatedly reaffirmed their commitment to the agreement, it is evident that neither of the parties are genuinely interested in following through with the deal.

Implementing the Riyadh Agreement would force the STC to relinquish its political and military standing, as well as its bid for an independent state. The IRG would be free to return to the South and re-establish its military and political dominance. As long as the UAE supports its presence, the STC will continue to hold off on seriously accepting the terms of the agreement. Meanwhile, the IRG refuses to recognize the STC as a legitimate political party and is hoping the international community will issue a UN Security Council resolution officially labeling them a rebel group.

In the event the Riyadh Agreement succeeds, the IRG would be able to present itself as a united front against the Houthis, inviting back the complete support of the Saudi-led coalition. If the Riyadh agreement continues to falter, the STC will maintain and potentially expand its grip on southern Yemen, further weakening the IRG. This failure will be a boon to the Houthis. Unless these two forces can form a unified front, the IRG’s military forces will be spread too thin, leaving its last major stronghold vulnerable to a Houthis takeover.

If the Houthis were to gain control of Marib, it’s possible that a potential peace agreement that excludes the IRG could emerge. Under these circumstances, the Saudi-led coalition would have to negotiate directly with the Houthis. This would benefit both the Houthis and the STC as the two groups would have greater leverage to strike a deal to retain the territories they’ve gained. However, this scenario would not only sideline the IRG and its immediate supporters, but it would also leave many others without any input in the country’s future, such as the Islah party and its supporters.

How to Create an Outcome Where Everyone Wins

As the war in Yemen continues to fragment into a variety of fronts with multiple actors, a negotiated country-wide peace agreement is more difficult than ever. A number of things listed below would need to change so the warring parties are incentivized to move towards a compromise.

On the international level: The framework for the UN-led peace talks need to move away from UN Resolution 2216, which promotes a “winner takes all” strategy. This issue could be, at least partially, resolved by inviting more than two parties to the negotiating table and pressuring the Houthis to stop its military advancements. This represents a similar tactic the UN has already used. International negotiators convinced the Saudi-led coalition to pull back as they advanced up the western coast of Hodeidah in 2018.

On the regional level: Political and material support for the warring parties coming from regional actors—namely Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran—should not encourage a zero-sum game, but should instead motivate in-country leadership to compromise. This requires high-level negotiations between these external and powerful countries pushing them to find a regional approach that results in more inclusive dialogue.

On the local level: The warring parties in Yemen need to build trust between them and begin to make compromises. Given that the three parties to the conflict discussed here have at least shown interest in participating in peace talks, this can be leveraged in favor of fostering more dialogue. A deal that caters to the core interests of each party, including offering them international recognition, is needed.

Author: Hussein Alwaday is a Yemeni journalist and writer interested in democracy and secularism in the Arab world. He also works as a media consultant for a number of international organizations, including: Oxfam, the United States Agency for Development, the United Nations, and the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ). He speaks both English and Arabic.

Translator : Amal Abdullah

Editor : Mareike Transfeld and Kate Nevens

C.Editor : Katie Riordan

Photographer : Nisreen Nader

Donor : German Federal Foreign Office
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[11]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).

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[13] 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.

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