Analysis Main Publications News The Yemen Review Publications Index

Commentary The Frog in Boiling Water: Saudi Arabia’s Negotiations with the Houthis

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

It has been eight months since the Saudis began direct negotiations with the Houthis, excluding the internationally recognized government and other Yemeni parties. After months of secret talks, Saudi Arabia made a huge concession by bringing bilateral negotiations into the open, receiving a Houthi delegation in Saudi Arabia and sending their own delegation, led by Ambassador Mohamed al-Jaber, to Sana’a. Houthi media hailed the arrival of the Saudi delegation as a sign of their outright victory. The absence of the internationally recognized government served to validate the Houthi claim that the conflict is between the Yemeni state, which they claim to represent, and the Saudi state, and that all other Yemeni factions are mercenaries in the service of the Saudi-led coalition. The Saudis made several other concessions, some of which were reasonable and necessary, such as lifting all remaining restrictions imposed by the coalition on the entry of ships to Hudaydah’s ports (the UN Inspection Mechanism to prevent the entry of weapons is still in force). Other concessions were political victories for the Houthis at the expense of the government, such as agreeing to discuss salary payments for all Houthi personnel, including their fighters. Despite a lack of agreement on what revenue streams would be used to finance the payment of salaries, Houthi propaganda currently claims that they will be covered by income from oil and gas sales, the only major revenue stream under government control, which were estimated at US$1.2 billion in 2021. No mention has been made of Houthi revenues, which were around US$6 billion for the same year, according to a conservative estimate made by the Sana’a Center Economic Unit. Further, the government’s oil and gas revenue has effectively been halted since Houthi drone strikes on oil export terminals last fall.

While the Saudi delegation was in Sana’a, a Houthi spokesperson attacked it viciously on account of a tweet by Ambassador al-Jaber, in which he claimed he was mediating between the Yemeni parties. The role of a mediator is coveted by the Saudis for the benefit of their base. They have always claimed that if they were actively fighting the Houthis, they would defeat them in a matter of days. The Houthi media attack on Al-Jaber was vicious, yet he remained in Sana’a for another week. Most diplomats would have quietly withdrawn and waited for a more hospitable climate to return.

Despite these concessions and Saudi flexibility, the Houthis have not made even a symbolic reciprocal gesture. On the contrary, they began raising the bar, making demands on the government to disclose its financial records and show where oil revenues went in past years. In early May, their leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi warned that they will not keep the informal truce for long if the issues under discussion are not concluded soon. Mahdi al-Mashat, the President of the Supreme Political Council, warned that the coming fight would be more ferocious than ever before.

Whether negotiations resume along the same lines or not, the developments so far have been surreal. Saudi Arabia appears to be negotiating the terms of its surrender. Is Saudi Arabia really so weak?

There are two possible explanations for this situation. The first is that Saudi officials were ordered to make the Yemen problem go away so as to focus on Vision 2030, the country’s ambitious economic plan, and are doing everything they can to make that happen. One of the lessons from ten years of border negotiations with the Saudis was that the hardest task facing Yemeni negotiators was to get the Saudis to the table. The rest was easy. Yemeni negotiators enjoyed full access to domestic leadership, and in keeping with Yemen’s egalitarian culture, did not hesitate to call their leaders in the middle of the night to discuss the negotiations, and had no qualms in disagreeing with the president of the republic.

A case in point was the Supreme Border Committee’s strong opposition to a concession made by then President Ali Abdullah Saleh in drawing the border between South Yemen and Saudi Arabia (the border between North Yemen and Saudi Arabia had been drawn by the Taif Treaty of 1934). That concession, known as the Como line, in reference to Lake Como in Italy, where Prince Sultan of Saudi Arabia had been vacationing when he invited Saleh to settle the border, was seen by the committee as unfair to Yemen, as it gave away significant territory that it could have successfully claimed. The committee opposed the Como line, and its chair declared it null and void on several occasions, but each time Saleh responded by declaring the Yemeni state’s commitment to the line. Finally, the chairman of the committee, testifying in Parliament, declared that the committee could no longer be responsible for delineating the border as Saleh had taken charge, and said he would be solely responsible for the consequences.

Saudi culture, on the other hand, is very hierarchical. The royal family holds absolute power, and the bureaucracy is extremely centralized. This creates a disconnect between the working level and the leadership, and constricts access. Communication during the border talks was difficult and slow. So despite the massive advantage of Saudi negotiators, who had many Yemeni leaders on their payroll, the few good men in the Yemeni team — regrettably, no women were included — found a winning strategy. They mimicked the proverbial “frog in boiling water,” routinely holding firm for small concessions from their Saudi counterparts. Often, it was easier for the Saudi negotiators to make these concessions than to go back to their leadership and tell them that the talks had stalled. Over time, the cumulative concessions were significant, especially in the demarcation of the old Taif Treaty border further to the west.

The Houthis are extracting small concessions one after the other, but this would not be an issue if they were willing to enter into good-faith negotiations with their Yemeni brothers to reach a reasonable power-sharing agreement. Unfortunately, the Houthis show no inclination to do so. The huge imbalance between their military and institutional capabilities and that of their adversaries makes it nearly impossible to reach a viable power-sharing agreement. During the past year, they have doubled down on asserting control of state institutions and implementing their vision of a highly centralized, theocratic “Zaidi Taliban state.” Successful Saudi-Houthi negotiations will be the death knell of the Yemeni state. Neither the South nor much of the Sunni North will agree to live under Houthi control. Yemen will disintegrate.

There is another possible explanation for the surreal scene of the Saudi-Houthi negotiations. It is conceivable that the Saudis, after lengthy and fruitless secret negotiations, have decided to address the central obstacle to a viable peace, the imbalance of power. They are addressing that imbalance with unprecedented generosity in supplying their allies with heavy firepower in preparation for another round of fighting. But having been condemned by the international community for contributing to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, the Saudis now need to demonstrate that they tried everything possible to end the conflict peacefully, but were met with Houthi intransigence. This would be used to justify resorting to force to bring the Houthis down a peg or two, and convince them to make the necessary concessions for a lasting peace.