In May the United Nations announced that Martin Griffiths, the UN’s special envoy to Yemen, would be stepping down to take a new position as under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs. His successor, unnamed as of this writing, will be the fourth person to hold the position since Houthi forces entered Sana’a in September 2014. To mark this transition, the Sana’a Center asked five experts to reflect on Griffiths’ time leading the UN’s peace mediation efforts in Yemen and look ahead to the challenges awaiting the new special envoy.
This article, also featured in The Yemen Review, May 2021, is part of a series of publications by the Sana’a Center examining the roles of state and non-state foreign actors in Yemen.
By Benjamin Villanti
Martin Griffiths will soon end his tenure as the UN special envoy to Yemen to become UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs. The UN made the announcement last month, following his May 12 briefing to the UN Security Council. During more than three years as special envoy, Griffiths presided over UN mediation efforts and intensified UN engagement in Yemen; however, as he is set to depart, a deal remains elusive.
When Griffiths became the UN envoy in March 2018, UN efforts to negotiate an end to the war had been at a standstill for over a year-and-a-half following the breakdown of peace talks in Kuwait in 2016. Upon starting the post, Griffiths considered whether a new Security Council resolution in place of resolution 2216 would be helpful. Resolution 2216, adopted at the outset of the military intervention by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, has been often criticized as obstructing mediation efforts; the resolution makes a number of demands on the Houthi movement, including that they withdraw from seized territory and handover arms in what would amount to surrender. After completing one round of regional consultations in April 2018, Griffiths determined that obtaining a new resolution would create more trouble than it was worth.
Griffiths’ initial priority was developing a framework for negotiations. This was largely in line with what was discussed at the Kuwait peace talks: a Houthi withdrawal and disarmament in exchange for a role in Yemen’s political future. Griffiths’ key challenge was figuring out how to sequence the security and political steps, which had upended the Kuwait talks, along with questions about the appropriate level of Houthi representation and how to include the voices of Yemen’s many other factions and stakeholders.
Within months, however, Griffiths became focused on the fighting around the critical port city of Hudaydah. By early June 2018, Emirati-led forces had advanced to the city’s outskirts. If the Houthis lost Hudaydah it would be a major blow to the group. Hudaydah was the Houthis only outlet to the sea and the group benefited from revenues earned by controlling Yemen’s largest port.
The UN and NGO community warned about the consequences of an urban battle for control of the city of roughly 600,000. Not only would fighting cause civilian casualties, but it would also likely damage Hudaydah port and lead to a prolonged closure. This, UN officials and the NGOs argued, would have massive ripple effects for much of Yemen’s population, which depended on imports of food, medicine and other goods entering Yemen through the port, exacerbating what was already described as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Under strong international pressure, the UAE initially paused the attack, announcing it would give Griffiths more time to work out a negotiated Houthi withdrawal from the city.
Still, the humanitarian situation worsened. In September 2018, OCHA head Mark Lowcock, whom Griffiths will replace, began warning that a “great big famine” may engulf the country. This occurred just as Saudi Arabia was coming under more scrutiny in western media for its conduct during the war, following the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October. By the end of the month, the US had lost patience with the worsening situation. On October 30, in separate statements, both US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for a ceasefire and the resumption of peace talks in the next month.
Five weeks later, in December, Griffiths oversaw eight days of negotiations in Sweden. (To make sure the talks would actually happen, Griffiths flew with the Houthi delegation to Sweden, avoiding a repeat of attempted consultations in Geneva three months earlier in which the Houthis never left Sana’a.) The December negotiations produced the Stockholm Agreement, which included a deal to end the fighting in Hudaydah, a statement of understanding to de-escalate the situation in Taiz, and the creation of a prisoner exchange mechanism to carry out a prisoner swap.
Much of the Stockholm Agreement would never be implemented. But the deal did achieve the international community’s objective of stopping a battle for Hudydah. A small UN observer mission, the UN Mission to Support the Hudaydah Agreement, was deployed, and its presence likely helped to deter future battles for the city. The agreement also seemed to increase the Security Council’s consideration of Yemen, as it began holding monthly meetings with Griffiths. One of the unattended consequences of the Stockholm Agreement was that while it neutralized the threat to Hudaydah, it eventually allowed the Houthis to refocus their attention on other frontlines, including Marib.
Griffiths spent much of 2019 working to implement aspects of the Hudaydah agreement, particularly the redeployment of forces from the port and city. But this became bogged down by the lack of details and definitions in the original agreement. Neither side could agree on what constituted “local security forces,” who were to replace Houthi and government-affiliated forces.
Peace talks, which were planned to start again at the end of January 2019, never resumed. The Yemeni government said it would not return to talks until the Hudaydah agreement was implemented.
Under pressure from Security Council members to demonstrate progress, the UN prematurely announced in May that the Houthis had withdrawn from Hudaydah port. This was not accurate. The coast guard force that took over security at the port was commanded by Houthi figures. The controversy strained relations between Griffiths and the Yemeni government, which called for his replacement.
Later that summer, in August 2019, fighting broke out between government forces and the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC). The crisis forced the international community to realize that it could no longer postpone peace talks on a comprehensive solution to the conflict, while it waited for the Hudaydah agreement’s implementation. By then, Griffiths had also determined that resolving the issue of local security forces in Hudaydah was unlikely to happen outside of a broader political process that would address future power sharing arrangements.
A promising period of de-escalation began that fall as the Houthis and Saudi Arabia entered talks following the Houthi-claimed drone attack on the Abqaiq oil processing facility deep in Saudi territory. Saudi Arabia also brokered the Riyadh Agreement between the government and the STC, and the kingdom assumed responsibility for its implementation. The reduction in violence, however, was temporary. In early 2020, the Houthis launched an offensive on the government stronghold of Marib.
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe in March 2020, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a worldwide ceasefire to combat the pandemic. In Yemen, Griffiths used the Secretary General’s call to discuss a “joint declaration” for a nationwide ceasefire, a series of economic and humanitarian measures, and the resumption of peace talks.
On 8 April, Saudi Arabia announced a unilateral ceasefire because of the threat of COVID-19. But the prospects of an agreement “in the immediate future”, as Griffiths told the Security Council at an April 16, 2020 briefing, soon turned into months of negotiations. The Houthi offensive continued in Marib, reaching the outskirts of Marib City early in 2021. Griffiths repeatedly warned that the offensive threatens to undermine a future peace process. The UN Security Council repeatedly called on the campaign to stop and for all parties to engage with the UN Envoy.
Since February 2021, Griffiths and newly appointed US Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking have worked together in an attempt to broker an agreement around the Joint Declaration’s four key elements: a ceasefire, the opening of Sana’a airport, the lifting of restrictions on imports into Hudaydah and the resumption of peace talks. Despite this latest push for a deal, there is little indication a diplomatic breakthrough is imminent as Griffiths prepares to depart.
During his tenure, Griffiths was most effective when he was able to leverage US pressure on the Saudi-led coalition. In 2018, US pressure on Saudi Arabia was key to getting the Yemeni government to Sweden and then to accept the Stockholm Agreement. Similarly, US support in 2021 has been key to mobilizing international support for Griffiths’ latest cease-fire initiative. However, Griffiths has lacked a partner on the other side, a country that possessed leverage with the Houthis and was willing to use it. One potentially hopeful sign, which the next special envoy may be able to build upon, was Griffiths’ February 2021 visit to Iran.
But Griffiths could only mediate. He could not create peace when one or both of the parties themselves did not want it. Over the past three years, he has often recalled the role of a mediator. “I seek common grounds for agreements,” Griffiths told the UN Security Council in February 2021. “That is my job. With the support of the international community, we persuade, we facilitate, we encourage dialogue and we try to get past the events of the war.” He continued: “[There is] nothing anybody can do unfortunately to force the warring parties into peace unless they choose to put down the guns and talk to each other. And this is their responsibility.”
The UN’s Messenger
By Abdulghani Al-Iryani
To evaluate Martin Griffiths performance as a mediator and special envoy is a tricky task. UN special envoys are not ordinary mediators. They bring with them the full diplomatic weight of the international community as well as an array of carrots and sticks. They can commend good behavior, suggest rewards – funding for humanitarian response and early recovery projects – and extend technical support. Above all, they can recommend international recognition for parties to the conflict.
Special envoys can also point out bad behavior, reveal misdeeds, uncover criminal acts and recommend sanctions. Perhaps most importantly, they also shape the international community’s perception of the warring parties. While peace cannot be achieved until the parties are ready for it, a skilled UN envoy can create the conditions for peace by using these various tools to change the calculus of the warring parties so that peace becomes more profitable than war.
When Martin Griffiths was appointed in February 2018, advisors warned him that there were a number of obstacles to peace in Yemen. (Full disclosure: I was one of those advisors.) The war economy was one such obstacle. A large part of this war profiteering was the markup on petroleum products. One proposal suggested that the UN support the Yemen Petroleum Corporation in distributing petroleum products at cost, eliminating the markups that went to the pockets of warlords and warring parties. Griffiths ignored the proposal, markups proliferated, and the war continued.
Another obstacle was the vague objectives of the Saudi-led coalition, including its intention to establish a gateway to the Indian Ocean through eastern Yemen. Instead of dealing with this head-on and examining other alternatives, such as an international treaty among concerned countries that would provide access without compromising Yemeni territorial integrity, the special envoy took no action. A senior Saudi official responsible for the Yemen file recently told a Yemeni political activist “If we do not achieve our objectives, we intend to keep the situation in Yemen as it is.”
A third obstacle was the insufficient representation of various Yemeni stakeholders in the UN’s proposed peace negotiations. The UN reduced the multi-layered Yemen conflict to the two most visible actors: the internationally recognized government and Ansar Allah (the armed Houthi movement). The Special Envoy did little to address the situation. Even after the Southern Transitional Council used military force to take control of Aden, ensuring it a seat at the negotiating table, Griffiths’ framework didn’t change. There was no “big tent” that would have allowed all key stakeholders a voice in the peace process from the start of negotiations. By not doing this, Griffiths provided incentives for some groups to obstruct the commencement of serious peace negotiations.
The “Joint Declaration Framework” that Griffiths is proposing to halt the fighting will not make peace. It does not address the need for a more comprehensive representation. It does not recognize that the Yemeni state has fallen apart, and that a new model of collective leadership has become a vital necessity. It does not recognize that an agreement on the outline of a scheme for power and wealth sharing that reflects the new facts on the ground is a prerequisite to a cessation of hostilities, so as to prevent Yemen from slipping into a Somalia-like reality. Nor does it recognize that at this stage of state disintegration the international community needs to start building peace from the bottom up, stabilizing governorates and empowering them to anchor stability even when turmoil engulfs national-level politics.
The Joint Declaration is not designed with a scheme of balances among warring parties, and among the demographic components of Yemen to produce the minimum level of stability required to restore the Yemeni state, or even to keep the peace for a meaningful length of time.
The list of Griffiths’ flaws and shortcomings is long, but did he fail? The answer is: it depends.
One of the privileges of such a senior international post is that the holder has some latitude in defining his or her mission, and Griffiths was smart enough to define his mission in Yemen as one “to end the war, not to make peace.” Griffiths recognized that making peace requires a deep understanding of the politics and history of Yemen. It also requires an appreciation of the regional political dynamics that have had a tremendous influence on the conflict. That is a tall order for an outsider, so early on Griffiths told staff that he did “not want to be confused by the details.”
According to Griffiths’ definition of his mission, he did not fail by much. A nationwide cessation of hostilities is almost at hand.
However, the Joint Declaration Framework is a sure formula for a return of hostilities, probably in line with what the Saudi official meant by “keeping the situation as it is.”
During Martin Griffiths’ tenure, Yemen inched further towards collapse. Many opportunities to reverse or stop that were missed. However, we cannot blame him. That was not his responsibility. As per his definition, he was not a peacemaker, he was only the messenger.
Abdulghani al-Iryani is a senior researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies where he focuses on the peace process, conflict analysis and transformations of the Yemeni state.
An Opportunity to Revisit the UN Approach in Yemen
By Nadwa Dawsari
Last month, the UN announced that its special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, had been selected as the international body’s new humanitarian chief. It is unclear when a new envoy will be appointed to replace Griffiths, but whomever that will be, he or she must not pick up where the current envoy left off. Instead, this is an opportunity to revisit the UN-led approach to mediating the Yemen conflict. The UN needs to learn from its past mistakes, realistically assess its capacity to mitigate the conflict, and plan its next steps accordingly.
Since his appointment in February 2018, Griffiths has been unable to make any notable progress. It did not help that he inherited a rigid UN framework centered around power-sharing as a prescription to end the conflict in the country. By allowing the Houthis and the Yemeni government to monopolize the negotiations, UN mediation has incentivized violence and reinforced the power dynamics that led to the war. This elite-centric approach has overlooked other key local actors who have power and legitimacy as well as unaddressed grievances. Griffiths overestimated his ability to influence political parties and was so eager for a quick victory that he underestimated the complexity of the conflict.
Almost immediately after taking the job in early 2018, Griffiths launched a broad diplomatic campaign, engaging powers including the US and UK to pressure the Saudi-led coalition and the Yemeni government to end their offensive to retake the key seaport of Hudaydah from the Houthis. This pressure resulted in the Stockholm Agreement, which ultimately stopped the Hudaydah offensive in December 2018, but the agreement was far from a success.
Griffiths managed to gather enough international support to force the coalition and Yemeni government to halt their military operations, but he did not exercise the same pressure on the Houthis. As a result, the Houthis took advantage of the situation and repositioned their forces and made significant military gains by capturing Al-Jawf governorate, Nehm, and strategic areas in Al-Baydha and Marib province. The Houthis are now threatening the city of Marib, home to three million Yemenis including over 1 million IDPs and the last stronghold of the Yemeni government in northern Yemen.
A new UN envoy should be more realistic. Putting pressure on one party while failing to successfully exercise the same pressure on the other will inadvertently tip the scale in favor of the party that refuses to cooperate. The Houthis have demonstrated time and again that they are unwilling to de-escalate or accept a political solution with other parties.
Even if the current international pressure manages to achieve a political settlement between Hadi’s government and the Houthis, it will likely backfire. It would legitimize the Houthis military gains with political recognition, setting a precedent for incentivizing violence. Such a two-party deal would also sideline key political and armed actors, reinforce elite power dynamics, and exacerbate long-standing grievances. Having the upper hand militarily, Houthis will most likely continue their military offensive to capture Marib. The result will be intensified internal conflict, the spread of violence, and a safe haven for extremist groups. Rather than trying to impose a hasty top-down solution, a more realistic approach would be to focus on mitigating the impact of the war on Yemenis and increase demand for peace by widening the representation in the negotiations.
The UN envoy can and should come up with a solid mechanism to engage other Yemeni actors directly or indirectly. For example, additional stakeholders such as the Southern Transition Council, the political wing of Tariq Saleh’s National Resistance Forces, and the Tehama Council can be included as part of the Yemeni government delegation. Others, such as civil society leaders and tribes, can be engaged through Track II negotiations but the envoy needs to ensure Track II discussions feed into and inform Track I, which has not previously been the case.
Meanwhile, negotiations can focus on opening roads and airports as well as easing entry of humanitarian aid and access to food and goods. The new envoy should take advantage of the international commitment to end the war in Yemen and bring in key international players to help. For example, the envoy can ask the European Union, which is largely perceived to be a neutral player in Yemen, to lead negotiations on economic issues such as salary payment or engaging the private sector in the negotiations.
Business as usual for the UN in Yemen will not result in a change in the status quo. It will only heighten prospects of a Houthi takeover in Marib which, in turn, will prolong the war and increase the risk of long-term fragmentation. A collapsed Yemen will pose a security threat that will spillover throughout the region.
The Iran Dilemma of the Next UN Envoy
By Thomas Juneau
The next UN special envoy in Yemen will face an extraordinarily difficult task given the multiple and complex obstacles that the peace process in the country faces. One of those challenges is the role of Iran.
The Islamic Republic is one of the few winners of the devastating war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia intervened in 2015 at the head of a coalition of 10 countries partly with the stated objective of rolling back Iran’s influence on the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, but the war has had precisely the opposite effect. Indeed, in barely more than six years, Iran has gone from having limited ties to the Houthi movement to an entrenched position in northwest Yemen. In 2014, Iran only provided limited amounts of small weapons and ammunition to the Houthis; by now, this support has significantly increased in both quantitative (more small weapons) and qualitative (more advanced kit too, such as parts for drones and missiles) terms.
This creates a dilemma for the UN. On the one hand, Iran has emerged as an indispensable power broker in Yemen. In theory at least, no peace process can be viable if it excludes key players. This is, presumably, why the outgoing envoy, Martin Griffiths, traveled to Iran in February for the first meetings that his office has officially held with the Islamic Republic.
This reality raises the question of Tehran’s views on the peace process. It is not opposed – in theory. But it is, first, willing to be patient: It assesses, correctly, that the Houthis are winning the war. As such, any stalling of the fledgling peace process further bleeds its Saudi rival and allows its Houthi partners to continue expanding and consolidating the territory under their control. Second, Iran will only support a peace process if it entrenches Houthi influence in any post-war settlement. Any effort that calls, in particular, for the Houthis to unilaterally disarm – as UN Security Council Resolution 2216 does – is a non-starter from Iran’s perspective. And, as the past two decades have clearly demonstrated, the Islamic Republic is highly skilled at spoiling regional political developments that it believes fail to sufficiently take into consideration its interests.
This puts the next UN envoy into a delicate position. On the one hand, an emboldened Islamic Republic has managed, as the result of a fairly limited material investment, to emerge as an indispensable player in Yemen. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, backed by the US, will undeniably work hard to deny Iran space at the table of the peace process. Concretely, this means that Tehran and the Houthis will continue to oppose a peace process they view as a US-backed, Saudi-led effort to marginalize them and deny them the space they believe they have earned. This will only prolong what is already a long and devastating war.
There is another layer of complication: The Houthis are by no means Iranian proxies. Even though they benefit from growing Iranian support, they are largely autonomous and certainly do not take orders from their Iranian partner. Moreover, Iran and the Houthis largely agree on key strategic issues. There is, as such, no serious prospect of driving a wedge between them. Engaging Iran in the peace process, in other words, is unlikely to be a viable channel to pressure the Houthis to make concessions.
The bottom line is that the next envoy will have to strike a difficult balance: Failing to involve Iran in the peace process will provoke Iranian spoiling, but Saudi Arabia and the US – whose cooperation the envoy will need – will continue to resist Iran’s involvement. Furthermore, by trying to bring Iran into the equation, the envoy would expose himself or herself to criticism that he or she is facilitating the entrenchment of Iranian support for what is an increasingly repressive and brutal Houthi rule in the parts of Yemen they control.
Thomas Juneau is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and a non-resident fellow at the Sana’a Center.
20 Rules to Live By for the New Special Envoy to Yemen
By Farea al-Muslimi
- Don’t take the job. Seriously, don’t. But if you must, then apologize in advance to your kids and partner.
- Condition accepting the post on a new UN Security Council Resolution that replaces 2216. Without it, you’re just wasting everyone’s time.
- Be patient. Things in Yemen take time, a lot of time. Trying to do too much too quickly is how your predecessors made mistakes (See: Jamal Benomar’s rush toward federalism and Martin Griffith’s rush and over ambitiousness with the Stockholm Agreement of 2018).
- Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Instead, study the efforts of previous envoys and build on what is already in place. And always have Plan ‘B’ & ‘C’ ready, because Plan ‘A’ probably isn’t going to work.
- The Golden Rule regarding Yemen is that the devil, and his entire tribe, are in the details (See: the Riyadh Agreement (2019), the Peace and National Partnership Agreement (2014), and the economic and security aspects of the Stockholm Agreement (2018)).
- If you do manage to get an offer on the table, take it. There is no “better deal” tomorrow. Start small and build big.
- “There is no military solution to the war in Yemen.” We all know that, and it’s true. But neither is there a “UN solution to the war in Yemen.” You’ll need help, a lot of it.
- Make women your allies. Yemeni women have released more prisoners than all the UN envoys combined. You’re going to need their help, assistance and advice.
- Spend time in Diwans (Qat gatherings). Being around Qat Chews will help you understand how Yemen works.
- Listen to your Yemeni advisors. They have the local historical context to know what has and has not worked in the past, and why. They also crucially understand the unwritten social and political rules in Yemen. And equally important, regarding the international experts you surround yourself with, make them people who are willing to tell you: “You’re wrong.”
- Don’t fight with other diplomats for space, control or time. It’s childish and will distract you from more important work. On the contrary, cooperation and coordination with them will increase your leverage.
- Don’t accept gifts or favors from regional powers.
- Don’t ignore the southern issue or the economic file. Every one of your predecessors did and all of them failed.
- Stay out of humanitarian issues. That’s not your lane. They’ll suck up your energy, derail your plans and, even worse, humanitarian issues will become hostage to the political track (See: Safer FSO and Sana’a airport).
- Only promise what you can deliver. Promises can’t be “undone” in Yemen. If you say something and you don’t follow, trust will be irreparably broken.
- Threats won’t work. Don’t even try them. Everyone else has guns, you don’t.
- Stick to a Yemeni calendar. Thursdays and the month of Ramadan are not good times to get things accomplished in Yemen. Understand that there are things you can change and things you can’t. Also, know which is which.
- As a starting point for your research, read Steve Caton’s “Peaks of Yemen, I Summon” and Paul Dresch’s “A History of Modern Yemen”. And, of course, everything the Sana’a Center publishes.
- Know that you will be accused, bullied, vilified and attacked by the parties to the conflict and everyone else in Yemen and the region. This is the most thankless job. Make sure you have the stomach for it. Speak clearly, regularly and frankly. Do not take bullshit. This is more important than you might actually think. Being “nice”, “neutral” and “schmoozy” is neither useful nor welcomed when it comes to Yemen. Also know that you’ll probably fail, but don’t let that stop you from trying new things. You have to hope that the future can be brighter even when everyone else says it will only get darker. As the outgoing special envoy once told me: “Hope is the only currency a mediator has.”
- Finally, in the spirit of George Orwell’s rules on writing: “Break any of these rules sooner than [do] anything outright barbarous.” But the more you break, the harder your task.
Farea Al-Muslimi is co-founder and chairman of the Sana’a Center. He is also an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.
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.