After the announcement of US President Joe Biden on February 5 to stop US support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive operations in Yemen, the next challenge is to ensure regional involvement does not contribute to further fragmentation. Yemen’s internationally-recognized government (IRG) and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) are supported separately by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates respectively. These Gulf states have been doing much of their bidding in Yemen through the IRG and STC, which has undermined Yemen’s ability to autonomously reach an internal peace agreement.
Regional interference from neighboring countries in Yemen’s civil war has severely complicated negotiations to reach a robust and inclusive political settlement aimed at ending the ongoing fighting. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has often on the surface operated as a unified front. For example, in 2015 the six-nation bloc publicly backed an aerial bombing campaign in Yemen aimed at restoring the internationally-recognized government (IRG) to power. However, GCC countries also often lack consensus about their individual postures toward Yemen. Following Yemen’s popular uprising in 2011 and subsequent transitional government agreement, the GCC states largely engaged with Yemen separately and with differing agendas. This aided in Yemen’s political fragmentation and paved the way for today’s bloody conflict. Most recently, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have diverged in their approach to Yemen, with the Saudis propping up the IRG and the Emiratis backing the Southern Transitional Council (STC).
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are engaging in a cat-and-mouse game in which the Saudis want the Emiratis to urge the STC to moderate their political demands. At the same time, the Emiratis expect Saudi leadership to pressure the IRG to accept a true power-sharing agreement. Despite the fact that their outside influence has exacerbated the domestic fault line between the STC and the IRG, these wealthier regional states will likely play a prominent role in Yemen’s post-conflict reconstruction through expected aid delivery and development programs. For this reason, instead of forcing the Gulf states to swiftly extract themselves from all peace negotiations, they should rather reframe how they are involved. In order for Yemen to progress towards a viable resolution of peace, a binding document that limits outside countries’ external engagement should be created. All parties to the conflict—regional and domestic—should sign off on it. To ensure a commitment to these principles, an incremental series of confidence-building measures—based on transparency and reciprocal communication—need to be enacted.
The GCC has long been involved in Yemeni affairs, partly because of Yemen’s geostrategic importance on the Arabian Peninsula. Each country has its own history with Yemen and distinct set of motives for diplomacy. Under the reign of Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, who served as Saudi Arabia’s minister of defense from 1963 until 2011, the bloc’s largest hegemonic power built up and maintained extensive networks of transnational patronage. Historically, Saudi Arabia has had not only economic interests in Yemen but also practical concerns of border security.
The UAE’s interests in Yemen date back to the 1970s when its founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, sought to develop ties with its neighbor to the south. The UAE, however, also has a broader geopolitical stake in Yemen that stems from its commercial interests in the Gulf of Aden and the Horn of Africa.
Throughout the 2000’s, and even more so in the following decade, a series of developments tested some of the relationships between Yemen and regional states. Saudi Arabia gradually came to view Yemen through a counter-terrorism lens, especially after the Saudi and Yemeni branches of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) merged and found a home in Yemen in 2009. The gradual breakdown of Saudi patronage networks in Yemen, as well as the beginning of more regional competition for influence in Yemen, has also shifted the dynamics of foreign relations within the Gulf over the past few decades.
Yemen’s popular uprising in 2011 further shifted foreign policy strategies. The ousting of President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power that year was accompanied by a multi-pronged, GCC-sponsored transition agreement. Called the GCC Initiative, the accord sought stability, while at the same time working to ensure that Yemen’s democratic aspirations didn’t spill over into other Gulf countries, where leaders enjoy autocratic rule. Although the transitional government process outlined in the GCC agreement was meant to culminate in democratic elections, the takeover of Sana’a by the Houthis in 2014 derailed the process. The capture of the capital led to a de facto partition of the state which triggered the Saudi and Emirati-led military intervention in Yemen on March 26, 2015.
The Gulf states have tended to act in Yemen according to their national—rather than a regional—interests, especially after the GCC Initiative began to falter. Saudi officials gave their Emirati and other coalition partners short notice of their intent to begin dropping bombs in Yemen in March 2015, and with a U.S. audience in mind, they announced the launch of military operations at a press conference in Washington, D.C. The purpose of the intervention had many goals. Ostensibly, it was to stop the Houthis’ advances and re-instate the IRG. But, Saudi Arabia also wanted to ensure its biggest regional rival, Iran, was not able to expand its influence in Yemen through the their allies, the Houthis. The UAE ‘s participation in the military intervention was largely motivated by the prospect of economic gain if they could gain influence in the Port of Aden in southern Yemen.
After the initial aerial offensive, Saudi and Emirati troops subsequently deployed in different geographic areas and forged separate ties with the IRG and the STC, which is vying for an independent southern state. Armed clashes in Aden in August 2019 were just one manifestation of this lack of coordination of Saudi and Emirati policymaking. These clashes led to the UAE-backed STC exiling the IRG from its interim capital in Aden.
The Riyadh Agreement, which was mediated between the IRG and the STC, never really succeeded in bringing the two sides together. The recent compromise to form a “unity government” in December of last year only happened after renewed direct involvement from the Saudis. However, the lack of implementation of the new government structure, highlights the ongoing tension between the Saudi and Emirati-backed visions for Yemen’s political future. The resulting impasse has undermined the anti-Houthi campaign in Yemen and makes eventual post-conflict political negotiations more difficult.
The challenge moving forward is to incentivize regional actors to play a constructive role in Yemen’s future peace prospects. To this end, the relationship between them and the groups they support in Yemen needs to fundamentally change. First, for any meaningful political dialogue to be effective, Yemeni groups being propped up by foreign nations will need to sever these ties and begin focusing on domestic issues. This will also require outside influences to relinquish their self-serving desires to shape Yemen’s future political and military dynamics.
All parties with an interest in Yemen’s future, including the Gulf states, Iran, the IRG, the STC and the Houthis will need to commit to new rules of engagement. This will require a foundational agreement that acknowledges help from outside countries will be needed to rebuild a post-conflict Yemen. The groups need to reach a consensus on what constitutes acceptable forms of support, such as development aid money, and to whom and in what form that support can be directed without creating further divisions.
Getting regional powers to commit to and follow through with such an agreement will not be easy. Even if the parties can reach basic a consensus, questions about how to ensure all parties act in good faith and release their grip on Yemen in tandem remain. Because Yemen serves as a proxy war for Saudi Arabia and Iran, both nations will be especially reluctant to back down. It’s likely the international community will need to oversee the process and offer incentives to ensure accountability with any agreement. Kuwait, because of their regional reputation as a trusted broker, could also oversee compliance. Only once all parties can ensure that the peace process is squarely in the hands of Yemenis, without outside influence, will meaningful progress be possible.
Author bio: Fellow for the Middle East, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy
Editor: Mareike Transfeld
Copy Editor: Katie Riordan
YPC nationwide representative survey, April–July 2019. Data cited in this paper is drawn from this survey unless otherwise indicated.
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