Early 2022 saw rekindled hopes for progress toward resolving the war in Yemen with the UN-sponsored truce between the internationally recognized government and the Houthi movement, and the formation of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC). Both moves were considered potential precursors to formal talks between the warring parties, with the PLC specifically viewed as an example of power-sharing that could be expanded as a part of a comprehensive settlement of the conflict.
But the situation threatened to return to square one in the second half of 2022, as the internal contradictions within the PLC burst the fore following the August fighting in Shabwa between Southern Transitional Council (STC)- and Islah-affiliated forces. The fallout from the battle has led to increased political tension and protests in Hadramawt governorate involving the same parties as well as local actors, as well as heightened divisions among the PLC’s members, causing most of them to spend their time outside the interim capital, Aden. On the other side, the Houthis refused to extend the truce in October, have carried out unprecedented attacks on oil export terminals in southeast Yemen in October and November, and appear to be preparing their ground forces for possible battles in Marib, Taiz, and Lahj.
Despite the bleak outlook, two tracks of ongoing talks – between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi authorities, and, according to three sources who spoke with the Sana’a Center, the Islah party and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – have led some to hope that progress is around the corner. However, these contacts must be understood within the context of current local and regional political dynamics, and past efforts at dialogue between rival actors in the conflict in Yemen. Taking these realities into account indicates that there should be caution, rather than optimism, for the prospect of imminent breakthroughs.
Saudi-Houthi Talks Follow Usual Pattern
Talks between Riyadh and the Houthis are not in themselves a sign of a political breakthrough, since this is not the first time the two parties have come together during the war. Despite reports that Riyadh has offered to hold direct talks with Houthi President Mahdi al-Mashat, no real progress has yet been realized. In fact, there were more successful talks in 2016, during which the Houthis handed over maps of landmines planted on the border with Saudi Arabia. In 2019, prince Khalid bin Salman, after taking over the Yemeni file as Saudi deputy defense minister, began communicating with the Houthis in an attempt at deescalation in response to increased Houthi cross-border drone and missile attacks. In both instances, talks were no more than tactical maneuvers aimed at managing a temporary crisis without engaging in serious efforts to achieve any lasting resolution. Even the practical de-escalation measures that resulted from these talks quickly faded with new rounds of military escalation.
The recent talks have been unique in that they have been less secretive, with both sides keen to publicize some aspects of their exchanges while staying vague on details. This suits the Houthis quite well – rumors of talks with Riyadh have the potential to destabilize the relationship between Riyadh and its local allies while increasing their own political legitimacy by presenting itself on equal footing with their Saudi and Emirati opponents. Aware of the Saudi’s overriding need for a truce that brings them security, the Houthis can raise their demands, including for financial benefits such as the inclusion of military personnel in the civil servant payroll and a share of oil export revenues without having to commit to a comprehensive settlement.
Riyadh, on the other hand, needs direct communication with the Houthis to compensate for the decline in the effectiveness of UN and Omani mediation efforts, as well as to limit the level of escalation of the ground in Yemen. The current tension between Riyadh and Washington over oil policy and the war in Ukraine, in which a major flare-up in the conflict in Yemen could present US critics of Saudi Arabia with another line of attack, also incentivizes Saudi Arabia to pursue deescalation.
Indeed, the international environment and local balance of power are no longer favorable to a large-scale military campaign by the Saudi-led coalition to pressure the Houthis. This makes it now more feasible for Saudi Arabia to go into talks with the Houthis on security arrangements such as halting ground operations in Yemen, stopping cross-border air attacks, and agreeing on a prisoner exchange. At the same time, Saudi Arabia has allowed news of the talks to leak to in part to embarrass the Houthis before their support base and observe if any internal contradictions appear within their power structures as a result.
The Saudi-Houthi talks must also be seen within the context of the going Saudi-Iranian dialogue, despite the increased hostility toward Saudi Arabia displayed by some commanders in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps related to the ongoing protests in Iran. The informal Saudi-Houthi channels of communication have operated in parallel with the Iraqi initiative for rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran that began after the attack on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019. Current talks are unlikely to lead the Houthi movement to distance itself from Tehran or forswear military options since they are taking place with significant Iranian coordination.
Indeed, the Houthi policy of escalation and de-escalation can be understood through the lens of Iranian foreign policy and its dual diplomatic and militaristic tracks, which include on the one hand de-escalating in Yemen, conducting a dialogue with Saudi Arabia, and discussing the return to the nuclear agreement with the West, and on the other using paramilitary proxies across the region to dominate and escalate when needed on the ground in order to pressure the international community. For their part, the Houthis have cleverly adapted to these Iranian dynamics: they are in talks with Saudi Arabia, but at the same time conducting strikes against ports on Yemen’s southern coast. When the political balance of power in Iran shifts decisively in favor of one of the two approaches, the Houthis will also likely change their behavior accordingly.
Islah and the UAE Begin Dialogue
Exploratory talks are taking place on another track in Yemen for the same reasons. At the beginning of November 2022, the two members of the PLC affiliated with the Islamist Islah party, Abdullah al-Alimi and Sultan al-Aradah, traveled to Abu Dhabi where they met with several high-level officials to try and manage the tense relationship between the UAE and Islah. Previously, Al-Aradah had visited in 2015 as a personal friend of Mohammed bin Zayed, who was then de facto president before officially assuming the position earlier this year. In 2018, Mohammed al-Yadoumi, head of the Islah’s Shura Council, and party secretary-general Abdelwahab al-Ansi, also had talks with Bin Zayed. Both the previous visits and current talks took place following Saudi pressure to deescalate infighting among the anti-Houthi camp and unify ranks to deal with pressing issues. In 2018, deescalation was necessary in preparation for battles on the West Coast, which involved operations spearheaded by UAE-backed forces to capture Hudaydah. Today, deescalation is needed to make sure that Hadramawt stays neutral in the conflict between Islah and Abu Dhabi’s primary Yemeni ally, the STC.
Islah responded quickly to the chance to talk with the UAE after the balance of strategic power nominally government-held areas tipped toward UAE-backed groups – most notably, the Giants Brigades, the National Resistance forces, and the STC. Saudi Arabia and the UAE had also come to a basic understanding on curbing the influence of Islah due to its military failures in combating the Houthis and political failures when it was the primary party in government under former President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Since losing in the Battle for Shabwa, Islah’s leadership has adopted a defensive strategy that leans more toward deescalation in order to maintain what remains of their political and military influence within government structures. The party is maneuvering in the space available to it to repair its shaky alliance with Saudi Arabia and to avoid more confrontations with Abu Dhabi. The UAE has opened the door once again to a group it considers an arch-rival, agreeing with Riyadh on decreasing tensions between their local allies, even if temporarily. Both countries have also recently fulfilled large financial pledges to the government to prop up the PLC and withstand the economic impact of the Houthi port attacks.
The talks in Abu Dhabi could indeed lead to a temporary de-escalation for two reasons. Firstly, there is the political and security deadlock between Islah and the STC, since neither side has been able to score a major win in the Hadramawt Valley. Second, there is a Saudi-UAE understanding on the need to see normalized relations between Islah and the STC, albeit within a framework of reducing the influence of the former and increasing the influence of the latter within the government’s new structures, such as the PLC. The Decmber 6 PLC decree replacing the chief of staff and de facto leader of the 1st Military Region based in Seyoun, Yahya Abu Awja, can be seen in this light.
It remains improbable that the talks will produce profound change in the political dynamics on the government side. The relationship between Islah and Abu Dhabi and its local allies will continue to be one of competition and hostility, and the rounds of mutual escalation could continue in Hadramawt. If there is any easing up of direct Saudi pressure on both sides, then escalation will likely increase once more.
Deadlock Likely to Continue
In short, news of Saudi-Houthi dialogue and a UAE-Islah talk could lead to a conclusion that the two major supporters of the government are trying to settle their conflicts in Yemen quickly and unilaterally while bypassing their local allies – Riyadh talks to the Houthis, ignoring the PLC; the UAE talks to Islah, ignoring the STC. But when seen in their broader context, these dialogues conform to the traditional pattern of political maneuvering used by local and regional actors involved in Yemen throughout eight years of war. What these maneuvers in fact indicate is a state of significant deadlock rather than new pathways to resolving crises.
This analysis is part of a series of publications produced by the Sana’a Center and funded by the government of the Kingdom of The Netherlands. The series explores issues within economic, political and environmental themes, aiming to inform discussion and policymaking related to Yemen that foster sustainable peace. Views expressed within should not be construed as representing the Sana’a Center or the Dutch government.