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The Sana’a Center Editorial Signing Over Sovereignty

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

History will likely record the Riyadh Agreement as a game-changing moment in the ongoing Yemeni conflict – how exactly the game will change is still far from certain. What the agreement signed on November 5 in the Saudi capital may mean is that for the first time since the war began the disparate forces that make up the anti-Houthi coalition could come under a unified command and control, and that there may be one fewer state-within-a-state in Yemen to contend with.

While Yemen’s internationally recognized government and the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) had been at odds since the latter’s inception in 2017, more recently there has also been searing tension between the two primary backers of these Yemeni parties, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, respectively. The Riyadh Agreement seeks to put these differences to rest: it lays out steps for the STC, both politically and militarily, to be absorbed into the Yemeni government. While the two Yemeni parties are signatories to the agreement, its clauses pave the way for both, and all other military and security forces in southern Yemen, to come under Saudi Arabia’s charge. The agreement would thus have the UAE relinquishing its authority over the multitude of militias it has recruited, trained, armed and financed since it entered the war in 2015 as Saudi Arabia’s main coalition partner in a regional military intervention in Yemen.

In reshaping the Yemeni cabinet and making it explicitly beholden to Saudi Arabia, the Riyadh Agreement could mean that President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s decisions will no longer be dictated by his sons or his political ally, Yemen’s Islah Party. Instead, Hadi and the STC have accepted that all major government actions be subordinated to Saudi Arabia. The STC, in an abrupt turn, also has accepted to be under an arrangement that explicitly endorses a unified Yemeni state, in so doing opening the door for its representatives to be present at any future United Nations-led peace talks to end the wider war. By staging a coup against the Yemeni government in Aden this past August, the STC has thus earned its place in the cabinet and international recognition, in another normalization of violence as a means to political ends.

From a purely conflict resolution perspective, having more of the main belligerents represented at the table is good news. Before, even if UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths had secured an agreement between warring parties, the large southern constituencies unrepresented at the talks may not have felt beholden to it and could have undermined the effectiveness of the deal on the ground.

With the anti-Houthi side thus seemingly unifying under Saudi patronage, for better or worse, Riyadh now owns what happens, and what doesn’t happen, in southern Yemen. While unwritten in the actual text, it would appear the new hierarchy the agreement envisions will specifically be headed by Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman, who has quietly assumed responsibility for the Yemen file from his brother, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and defense minister. This was notable in the meetings Khalid held in the months leading up to the Riyadh Agreement with United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the heads of the Yemeni government and the STC, and the UN special envoy for Yemen, among others.

Indeed, following the attacks on the Saudi Aramco oil facilities in September, it was Khalid who took point position for Riyadh in back-channel talks with the armed Houthi movement for military de-escalation. The 31-year-old prince will undoubtedly be pushing for the agreement’s success to prove himself worthy of authority in the eyes of King Salman and, most importantly, his brother Mohammed who is soon to be king and will be looking for a new crown prince. Khalid bin Salman’s vested interest in the agreement’s success and the back-channel conversations between him and the Houthis which began in September, as reported by the Sana’a Center, could foster the necessary matrix for a broader peace process in Yemen among all sides. It could allow Saudi Arabia to regain one thing it had in 2011, following the Yemeni uprising, and lost again in 2015 with the start of its military intervention in Yemen, which is the ability to be an umbrella over everyone to reach a peace deal in the country.

A worst-case scenario for the Riyadh Agreement, however, is that it turns into a mass wedding but no one is quite sure who is meant to be married to whom, and chaos ensues. The vastness of the profound military and political reforms that the agreement calls for, the vagueness on the specifics regarding how these reforms should be undertaken and the hyperoptimistic time frame within which they should be completed leaves one to wonder if anything but chaos is possible. Even if the Yemeni government and the STC were entering into the agreement in the spirit of cooperation and good faith – which they most certainly are not – its implementation would be fraught, especially with the process headed by a Saudi bureaucracy known for its bloat and sluggishness. Remember, Saudi Arabia began its military adventure in Yemen claiming that the war would be over in a matter of weeks; now, close to five years later, the lack of foresight those words held is painfully apparent.

There have been various missed opportunities that may have been more conducive to a deal like the Riyadh Agreement to unite the anti-Houthi side: such as July 2015 when the coalition and local forces liberated Aden from Houthi control; or when Hadi sacked Aidarous al-Zubaidi as governor of Aden in April 2017 and before the latter had founded the STC; or when STC-affiliated forces first routed the Yemeni government from Aden in January 2018 and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had stepped in to resolve the tensions. At best, the current Riyadh Agreement should thus be approached with cautious optimism.

For the agreement to succeed Saudi Arabia cannot approach it as an end in itself, but as part of a larger effort to reconstitute the Yemeni government, end the conflict and bring about stability in its southern neighbor. Three steps to demonstrate this seriousness would be to: 1) put real money and resources into helping reform Yemeni government finances and economic practices, rather than just throwing money at the problem when it reaches a crisis point; 2) reopen Sana’a Airport to commercial flights, beginning with medical evacuations for those with emergencies; 3) stop deporting hundreds of thousands of Yemeni laborers as part of the Saudi Vision 2030’s aims for ‘Saudization’ of the labour force – in the years to come the loss of these remittances to Yemen, currently the country’s largest source of foreign currency, will cause untold hardship and undoubtedly reignite socioeconomic instability and conflict.

Whatever the outcome of the Riyadh Agreement, history will remember that Yemeni government and STC leaders alike smiled at the cameras and hailed the Riyadh Agreement as a triumph. These men who denounce the Houthis as Iranian proxies themselves celebrated signing over the country’s sovereignty, and their own legitimacy and authority, to a foreign power.

This editorial appeared in Riyadh Picks Up the Pieces – The Yemen Review, October 2019

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