In the second week of October, the Saudi government made a bold proposal to the Houthis. They invited the nominal leader of the de facto authorities in Sana’a, Mahdi al-Mashat, President of the Supreme Political Council and Supreme Commander of the armed forces, to visit Riyadh, meet Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, and discuss a peace deal. This was the breakthrough that the Houthis have been working for since they overthrew the internationally recognized government in 2014. Direct talks with the Saudis would confer a degree of international legitimacy to the Houthi government, but they also represent a recognition of the legitimacy that the Houthi authorities themselves have established in eight years of consolidating their rule over most of Yemen’s population.
The Houthis have played their hand strategically. Unable to defeat their disparate enemies outright, they have been wise enough to wait, giving them the rope to hang themselves. The diversity of interests and allegiances in the anti-Houthi coalition has limited its military capabilities and impeded coordination. During the fall of 2017, when government forces were within a stone’s throw of Sana’a airport, coalition air strikes forced them to pull back. The government’s credibility has been eroded by years of kowtowing to the Saudi-led coalition and senior officials living abroad. All the while, the Houthis tightened their control over state institutions and developed their offensive capabilities.
The Houthis leveraged their military successes into shrewd deal-making when the conditions were right. They agreed to negotiate with the “mercenaries” – the term they use to disparage the pro-government coalition – on several occasions: in Switzerland (2015), Kuwait (2016), and Sweden (2018). But since pushing the government forces to the gates of Marib in early 2020, they have refused to enter serious negotiations on a final settlement, instead biding time for the population under their control to accept their position as the state (Al-Dawlah). The long closure of Sana’a airport kept thousands of Yemen’s leading political, social, economic, and military figures from returning home. Perpetual Saudi-Emirati intrigue and the incompetence of the internationally recognized government have forced the majority of Yemenis, who live under Houthi control, to acknowledge that their situation is unlikely to change. Houthi control over Sana’a now appears irreversible. The group couldn’t have achieved this on their own, not without the help of the best enemies they could wish for.
Hopes that the Houthis will willingly join a national government are misplaced. The Houthis have shown no willingness to enter into a credible power sharing agreement. Their “Vision” document, which describes how they plan to share power and build a democratic state, was specifically produced for the consumption of international diplomats. Domestically, Houthi designs have focused on building the “Zaidi Taliban” state that their founder, Hussein al-Houthi, advocated for. This has notably involved the introduction of militant Zaidi views to the educational curriculum, which has been forced upon the non-Zaidi majority. Military successes have empowered the most militant factions of the movement, sidelining moderates who advocated compromise and concessions. The indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets and the weaponization of the economy have been the coalition’s greatest gifts, empowering the extremists and delegitimizing a complicit government.
When the Saudis invited Al-Mashat to Riyadh, the Houthis felt they were already well placed to extract concessions. Their response was conditional: that they would not engage in any talks with Saudi Arabia until it lifts all sanctions and pays the salaries of all civilian and military state employees, as per the 2014 payroll list, out of the oil and gas revenues controlled by the government and deposited in Al-Ahli Bank in Riyadh. While the government should fulfill the promise it made to pay salaries when it transferred the central bank from Sana’a to Aden, this is unlikely to be the end of Houthi pre-conditions for peace talks. The Houthis are negotiating from a position of strength, and based on their track record, they will push for more concessions. Looking for an exit, the Saudis will likely give in, encouraging the Houthis’ worst instincts and making the fragmentation of the Yemeni state inevitable. The government, led by Rashad al-Alimi and the Presidential Leadership Council, will likely be offered a meaningless power-sharing deal that the Houthis can renege on at will, enshrining the status of their Zaidi Taliban fiefdom.
The Houthis believe that they have defeated the coalition of 17 states and their backers, including the US and the United Kingdom, by divine intervention. They talk about self-sufficiency in food production, a practical impossibility. They still hold on to their religious mission of“liberating” Mecca and Medina. They fail to see that their fiefdom will not be viable for the long term. It will not be recognized by the international community, and will have no access to international banking, direct foreign investment, or significant development aid. They cannot maintain police control over a population that was largely subdued by excessive sanctions and a perception that the Houthis were defending Yemen from external aggression. If the Saudis make a unilateral deal with the Houthis, or force their Yemeni allies to sign a non-implementable power sharing agreement, that day will be the effective end of the Yemeni state. The immediate result will be a militant ideological force on the Saudi border, emboldened by their apparent victory and now short of an enemy. But in time, the economic situation will deteriorate and the Houthis’ control over the populace will start to crack, with chaotic and likely violent results. The day the Saudis sign a separate deal will complete a transition: they will no longer be the Houthis’ “Enemy from Heaven,” but their “Friend from Hell.”
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.