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Commentary Failed Truce Reflects Houthi Willingness to Leverage Gov’t Divisions, Global Needs

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The UN-brokered truce in Yemen that collapsed October 2, despite efforts to prolong it, disappointed Yemenis and those in the international community who had hoped it could be the groundwork for a lasting peace agreement ending more than seven years of war.

During the preceding six months, the truce lessened some of the conflict’s devastating effects. Economically, it allowed for restrictions to be lifted on foreign fuel shipments entering the Hudaydah port as well as on commercial flights from and to Sana’a International Airport. Politically, it quieted frontlines, especially in flashpoint regions like Marib, and increased popular optimism for lasting peace. Aside from that, it shielded Saudi Arabia from energy security threats that had been prevalent for years due to Houthi missile attacks.

As the truce ended, however, the Houthis signaled a new escalation, threatening Saudi and Emirati oil companies, as well as those under Yemeni government control. Even prior to making good on some of these threats, the Houthis showed signs they intended to escalate the situation again, and it is worth exploring the local and international dynamics that influenced the failed talks and will impact efforts to restore a truce.

Locally, two factors stand out. First, the Houthis carried out three major military parades during the previous truce, signaling their willingness to escalate. They bet on the impotence of the internationally recognized government, given the division between its various parties and power imbalances. Second, the Houthis’ demands and catchphrases in the most recent negotiations shifted from a political underpinning of resisting foreign aggression to economic and legal demands that seek a share of oil revenue on the basis that they control two-thirds of the country’s population.

The US special envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, described the Houthi position as maximalist. Still, it is clear that any peace accord in Yemen will help alleviate the country’s dire economic condition by resuming oil and gas production and exports, especially given rising global demand. It is equally clear that the Houthis interpret this as a financial opportunity that would be useful to imposing their agenda.

Internationally, peace in Yemen is peace in the region. And even a peace temporarily attained in the form of continuous truces reduces risks to global energy security in the Gulf region. The increasing demand for Gulf energy resources since the Ukraine war began in February became evident in the visits of some of the world’s leaders to the Gulf region to conclude deals to compensate for Russia’s oil and gas at reasonable prices.

The Houthis calculate that a deepening of the West’s energy crisis as relations with Moscow worsen will prompt western nations to focus on finding an appropriate way to permanently end the war in Yemen and contribute to the stability of the whole region. The Houthis’ use of global energy shortages as a strategic bargaining card was apparent when local allegations surfaced in September, prior to the expiry of the truce, accusing the UAE of trying to sell Yemeni gas to Germany. Houthi authorities warned the UAE and threatened to target any foreign company working or planning to invest in Yemeni oil and gas, saying they would be deprived of these resources just as the Yemeni people have been deprived of their wealth. Weeks later, the Houthis attacked the oil terminals at Al-Nushayma in Shabwa governorate and Al-Dhabba in Hadramawt.

Internationally, failure to extend the truce also bears implications on regional rivalries and on any further talks aimed at restoring the truce itself. First, Iran may benefit anew from Yemen’s complex political scenario, particularly in light of its accusation of Saudi Arabia fueling the current protests in Iran. At the least, a resumption of fighting could dilute the international community’s focus on current protests in Iran. Tehran also could use the Houthis to retaliate against Riyadh, especially if the Houthis resume the war by focusing on Saudi Arabia rather than Marib or elsewhere in Yemen.

Second, the Houthis may see the November-December World Cup in Qatar as a leverage point similar to the energy situation if they are free of the constraints of a truce. Any Houthi strike on Saudi Arabia or the UAE would spoil the GCC countries’ desire to see this event go smoothly, especially since many attendees are expected to stay in Saudi Arabia and other nearby Gulf countries during the tournament.

Coming late to a truce is better than not coming at all. Favorable opportunities are being offered to Yemenis to solve their conflict, but fluid regional and international equations — especially those involving Riyadh and Tehran — mean further Houthi delays could have grave repercussions.

The Yemen crisis will likely be impacted soon by the Saudi-American diplomatic feud that followed the October 5 OPEC Plus decision to slash the rise in oil output. Past controversies between Washington and Riyadh, such as the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, human rights, the Yemen war, and, most recently, the oil crisis, may all be used to twist Riyadh’s arm. If the truce cannot be restored, the Houthis will intensify their words and actions, pushing Saudi Arabia to re-launch a military offensive in Yemen; this, in turn, will be met by US media pressure and a reluctance to supply Riyadh with military equipment.

Although many Yemenis consider dealing with the Houthis a waste of time, they also hold out hope for a truce that ultimately will end the war. That hope fades a little more each time the Houthis bargain to buy time, reorganize themselves and demand more concessions from the other side.

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.