As fighting intensified in Marib during the month of February, along with signs of escalation on other fronts across the country, I am hopeful. The risk of an outright victory by the armed Houthi movement over everyone else, and over the chance of peace among equals that could keep Yemen in one piece, has finally triggered a series of events that could make peace possible. Let me explain this counterintuitive notion.
For several years, I have been speaking about five obstacles to peace in Yemen.
The first is the war economy. The collapse of the Yemeni state, and the extraordinary conditions of war, have made it possible for people in the right places to profit in ways they could never manage in peacetime.
On the Houthi side, the need to ‘defend Yemen against international aggression’ has been used to muffle voices of protest against naked looting that turned semi-literate Houthi apparatchiks, known as supervisors (mushrifeen), into billionaires overnight. Salaries are not paid and services are not delivered, freeing up hundreds of billions of Yemeni rials for corruption. Properties of Yemenis who opposed the Houthis were confiscated or outright looted by members of the movement. Harsh, often arbitrary, tax collection raised revenues by 500 percent, according to a credible source in Sana’a. The collection of illegal fees – from businesses, property owners, farmers and even school children – has reached absurd levels. Surcharges on petroleum products, imported mostly by companies owned by members of the movement, were at one point equal to the entire tax revenue that Houthi authorities collected, according to the same source. Humanitarian assistance by the World Food Programme (WFP) is routinely and widely diverted. Real estate in Sana’a, in the middle of war and a crushing economic crisis that leaves many teetering on the edge of famine, has witnessed a boom not seen in a long time.
Corruption and war profiteering is equally rampant on the side of the internationally recognized government. The government’s main source of funds is Saudi Arabia. According to a cabinet-level Yemeni government official who spoke with the Sana’a Center, the Saudi government was meant to transferred the sum of 40 billion Saudi riyals (US$10.66 billion) to the internationally recognized government in 2015-2016, though it received only SR25 billion (US$6.66 bn). The official said the Yemeni government representatives receiving the payment had to give the Saudi officials delivering it SR10 billion, a common practice in the Kingdom. Two-thirds of the remaining SR15 billion went directly to the pockets of the top Yemeni leadership, and the remaining SR5 billion – one-eighth of the originally intended transfer – was used to meet government operational expenses and pay salaries. With this massive sum going only to a small circle at the top, other officials below them were forced to line their pockets with money from other sources. Revenues from crude oil and cooking gas sales are often not deposited in the Central Bank of Yemen. Humanitarian aid provided by the Saudi King Salman Center is also subject to massive diversion – for instance, political party leaders in Taiz told me that the Center makes monthly allocations of thousands of food baskets to distribute to loyalists at their discretion, with many of these sold on to commercial traders. Often, ill-gotten profits from the conflict have gone to purchasing real estate in Cairo, Istanbul and a host of other destinations.
On the Saudi side, a European ambassador to Yemen said his government estimated the cost of Saudi operations in Yemen at US$5-6 billion annually. A different diplomatic source with access to the Saudi Royal Court spegged the cost of Riyadh’s Yemen operations at SR200 million per day (close to US$20 billion annually). The margin of corruption is simply astounding.
Following the failed Kuwait peace talks in 2016, there was a preponderance of evidence that the war economy was the salient factor in the conduct of the war. Violence was reduced to an endurable level; fronts remained static and commercial arrangements were reached to allow the economy to lumber along and for the warring parties to share the profits. Maintaining the status quo was clearly the objective of Saudi command when it prevented government forces from advancing toward Sana’a throughout 2016-2018, as reported publicly and privately by dozens of top Yemeni generals and political leaders, such as Presidential Advisor Abdul Aziz Jubari. Commanders who dared to advance against Saudi wishes were stopped by the bombs of the Royal Saudi Air Force, top commanders told me privately. Some of them were relieved of their duties. For example, in 2017, General Mohamed Abdallah Al-Ethari led a unit that reached the Nehm-Arhab Junction. His unit was bombed by the coalition and he and his lieutenants were recalled to Marib, relieved of their command, and reassigned to desk jobs.
The United States and the United Kingdom were complicit in that travesty. Both continued supporting Saudi Arabia despite knowledge of its untenable situation. No one was willing to tell the emperor he had no clothes. In effect, they were selling Saudi Arabia the rope by which it will hang itself. At the White House, relations with Riyadh were managed directly by President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, reducing the effectiveness of institutional corrective mechanisms and allowing short-term, and possibly personal, interests to trump American strategic interests. As for the UK, the limited leverage it had on Saudi Arabia and the Yamamah arms deal, –the largest export agreement in British history – kept Downing Street quiet.
The UN mission to Yemen, most notably the office of the special envoy, has been equally culpable in failing to recognize the centrality of the war economy to the Yemen conflict. Rather, it has continued to chase the mirage of a peace that will somehow materialize out of thin air.
Saudi insistence on maintaining the status quo has led me, among others, to speculate that the Saudis were prolonging the war for some hidden agenda. My hypothesis is that Riyadh seeks to lay its hands on territory in eastern Yemen that would grant it access to the Indian Ocean. That is the second obstacle to peace. By 2018, Saudi forces were deployed all over Al-Mahra governorate, and to some extent in Hadramawt. However, the war economy continued to govern the behavior of the anti-Houthi camp, including many Saudi officials. Given the extreme centralization of power in the Saudi system, this seems to have gone on unnoticed, or was ignored, until September of last year, when the commander of the Saudi-led coalition’s Joint Forces in Yemen, General Fahd bin Turki al-Saud, was fired on charges of corruption. That step, however, was too little and too late to stop the Houthis, who had been given a grace period of four years to build their military capabilities and activate the considerable resources of the Yemeni army that their erstwhile ally, former, and now late, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, had led but have come fully under Houthi control since early 2018.
While the Houthis are now closing in on Marib, it won’t be easy to take the city. Tens of thousands of military-age men who fled Houthi controlled territory are willing to fight to the end to prevent that. Therefore, a possibility exists that Houthi forces will avoid a major battle and skirt the city, instead advancing east to harass the Saudis in Hadramawt and Al-Mahra. Such a scenario could force Riyadh to the negotiating table, on Houthis terms, and compel it to abandon the age-old dream of access to the Indian Ocean. Another obstacle may be fading.
A third obstacle to peace is the obsolete legal framework of the peace process. UN Security Council Resolution 2216 (2015) stipulates that the Houthis must surrender their weapons and withdraw from Sana’a. These conditions of outright surrender left the Houthis no option but to keep fighting. The international community is now ready to modify resolution 2216 with another more conducive to peace, several European diplomats told the Sana’a Center, if Houthis demonstrate good faith.
Another problematic international framework for Yemen is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative, which led to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepping down in the wake of Yemen’s 2011 uprising and was intended to serve as a roadmap for a democratic transition in the country. However, the initiative’s stipulations no longer reflect the current challenges or actors in the conflict. The time seems ripe to modify the GCC Initiative as well.
The fourth obstacle to peace is the lack of proper representation for Yemeni stakeholders in the peace process. Much of the blame for this is due to President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Weaponizing the concept of ‘unity’ against his longtime southern rivals, Hadi has done his utmost to monopolize southern representation in the peace process. This left the majority of southern factions, particularly those in favor of secession, out in the cold. These actors, most notably the Southern Transitional Council, with the support of UAE, then fought to earn their inclusion, which was ultimately enshrined in the Riyadh Agreement. The valiant stand by Marib’s tribes over the past few months is likely to force their inclusion as well, potentially opening the door for an inclusive peace process. For years I have been calling for a big tent to include all Yemeni stakeholders in the process, and now that tent is slowly forming.
The last obstacle to peace is the division within the anti-Houthi camp and the overall lack of leadership. There is a narrowing window for this camp to get its acts together, or miss out as direct Houthi-Saudi negotiations look increasingly likely to commence. Either way, Houthi military successes have rendered this particular obstacle irrelevant.
With the five obstacles decreasing or disappearing, Yemenis are in all likelihood on their way to an uneasy peace, dominated by fractious militias, and the beginning of the long march toward restoring their state.
Editor’s Note: A correction was made to this article on 2020-03-23, 16:20AST. A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the time period in which the Saudi government was meant to transfer 40 billion Saudi riyals to the Yemeni government. It was 2015-16, not 2019.
This commentary appeared in Houthis at the Gates of Marib – The Yemen Review, January-February 2021
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic and security-related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.