Reports of bilateral peace talks between Saudi Arabia and the armed Houthi movement have been trickling out since last October, and their recent confirmation in media reports has fueled widespread optimism and speculation. The talks should be welcomed as a step toward ending Yemen’s disastrous war. But to establish a lasting peace, they must quickly expand to include representation of all Yemenis.
The current status of Saudi-Houthi negotiations is unclear. They have broached issues that have been on the table since last year’s truce talks, including the provision of public sector salaries, the easing of restrictions at Houthi-held ports, and guarantees on border security. But of fundamental importance is their current exclusivity. The government believes they will soon be brought in, as President Rashad al-Alimi recently suggested, but Houthi leaders have publicly stated they will not sign a deal with the government’s Presidential Leadership Council. At present, the talks only serve the interests of their participants. The Saudis are looking to end their disastrous intervention. Unable to unseat the Houthis, they appear satisfied to cast themselves as peacemakers and end an expensive, decade-long public relations nightmare. For the Houthis, the talks are the closest they have come to international recognition of their long-standing military supremacy and go some way toward international legitimation of their authority to govern. A bilateral deal would allow both parties to wash their hands of the death and ruination they have visited on most of the country.
The salient feature of these talks is that only one delegation is Yemeni, and that despite their military dominance, Houthi authorities are hardly representative of the population that now live under their control. The limited participation ensures two things: first, that the negotiators will suffer from an informational deficit, and will fail to comprehend or address the myriad grievances of those not present; and second, that they are unlikely to elicit buy-in from the numerous actors denied a place at the table. There is a further consideration – the talks openly delegitimize the internationally recognized government. While hardly a representative body, further emasculating the fragile domestic coalition is an invitation to further dissolution and disaster.
The best way to avoid these scenarios is to facilitate the inclusion of a broad swathe of Yemeni actors, along with the country’s other Gulf partners. Both need to be involved in negotiations and any future deal. Recent history suggests that Yemen’s diverse and complex political environment harbors plenty of forces capable of disruption if left out in the cold. The country has been here before, and not long ago. The Gulf Cooperation Council and UN-sponsored National Dialogue Conference of 2013-14 was intended to promote an inclusive transition away from the authoritarian regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. But the undoing of the process, and a portent to war, was in its failure to adequately include or address the aspirations and grievances of certain parties and constituencies. It is also of paramount importance that the UAE is involved in the dialogue. Abu Dhabi has established itself as the underwriter of numerous anti-Houthi forces, and its entrenched influence must be harnessed for the greater good. If divergent Saudi and Emirati agendas flower into increased military competition, the results will be disastrous. The recent stand-off in Hadramawt does not augur well.
Though they naturally invite skepticism, the negotiations could have immediate positive externalities if handled correctly. Opening the talks to other parties would go some way to reducing tensions in government-held territories and removing the temptation for some groups to play spoiler. It would also reduce the scope for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – still a destabilizing force – to maneuver in a fragmented state. It is partly because of these ongoing Houthi-Saudi contacts that the lapsed truce has remained an informal reality. And while there have been negotiations like this before, this is the first time they have reached anything approaching the seriousness we see now.
Left to their own devices, there is every possibility the participants will make a deal that suits their interests alone, and not those of Yemen and its citizens. Instead of peace, the result might be the institutionalization of an unstable political configuration, which will ultimately invite further violence. The Saudi and Houthi sides both appear to be arranging their affairs ahead of the formal consecration of a new relationship – let that include bringing the other parties on board as soon as possible. Further, a guarantee should be given now that the results of any final settlement agreement will be put to a referendum. After so much tragedy, Yemenis deserve to have their say.