The arrival of a Houthi delegation in Riyadh on September 14 represents a breakthrough after nine bitter years of war. The bilateral negotiations with Saudi Prince Khaled Bin Salman have been widely celebrated and encouraged, though there are myriad grounds for skepticism. But the moment is important as well as symbolic – it marks the dampening of the dangerous and destructive egotism that sparked and sustained Yemen’s tragic conflict.
Nearly a decade of war, with hundreds of thousands of Yemenis killed, has undone years of progress and development, setting the country back at least a century. There are numerous reasons why the war began, not least the failed national dialogue process after the fall of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis’ sectarian agenda and 2014 coup, Saudi-Iranian regional competition, and the shameful failure of political elites to envision or embrace long-overdue change. But the primary though less obvious reason fighting started, and why it has dragged on so long at such great cost, is ego.
Politics and international relations in the Arab world remain intensely personal. Yemen’s – and the Arabian Peninsula’s – tribal vendettas are an instructive example of this: A conflict can begin because two men had a fight about something petty, spawning years of cyclical vengeance. Notions of honor and ego are evident on the international stage too. The Qatar crisis was a bizarre reminder that in monarchies and autocracies especially, the bruised egos of young men have outsized and destructive effects.
It was, after all, the ego of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) that led him to enter a war he could never win, no matter how deep his pockets or sophisticated his weaponry. Yemen will long remain a shameful stain on his legacy and a threat to his rule and vision for the kingdom. His political legitimacy has been largely built on the likes of Biden, Erdogan, Tamim, and other world leaders making the pilgrimage to the kingdom while it simultaneously reshapes itself into a global hub for sports and cultural events, with all the associated celebrities and glitz that comes with that.
In January 2015, weeks before launching its ill-considered and destructive military operation in Yemen, Saudi Arabia called on the Houthis to come to Riyadh for dialogue. The Houthis’ refusal to attend was a personal affront to MBS, who could not stomach the idea that the Houthis – mere upstarts in flip-flops from the mountains – refused to show up.
Former president Saleh too allowed his wounded pride to lure him back into the subsequent fray in a stupid and vengeful alliance with the Houthis; the reckless way in which he fell out with former enemies turned allies of convenience cost him his life. The Houthis’ own egotism, on the other hand, is enshrined in their extremist ideology, which holds that descendants of the prophet should enjoy a privileged status as a ruling class. Such belief has fueled their violent takeover and occupation of northern Yemen and the oppressive regime they have installed. Their superiority complex, fed by their military successes, limits their ability to govern and willingness to negotiate. Due mostly to ego and stubbornness, the Houthis appear ready to accept a deal for less than they were offered a year and a half ago.
The predicament is not confined to the belligerents in Yemen’s war. In his first years, Jamal Benomar did a marvelous job as UN envoy. But it was his presumptuous self-confidence and refusal to change course that led him to tragically fail. There are lessons to be drawn from this. Mediators must be cognizant of their own egos as well as those of the parties they engage with. Envoys, diplomats, and negotiators also need to remember that beyond rational calculus, their job – first and foremost – requires them to play therapist and have an astute understanding of human psychology. As chief US negotiator Rose Gottemoeller remarked about the 2009 New START talks with Russia, negotiating can be “like putting shoes on a three-year-old.”
The recent diplomatic breakthrough, no matter how organic it appears, is part of a large and complex edifice orchestrated by the warring parties. For the Saudis, the Houthis have finally shown up in Riyadh, and on a direct flight from Sana’a – this matters far more than outside observers can imagine. For the Houthis, this is the highest political recognition they can get: welcomed in Saudi Arabia ahead of the 9th anniversary of their takeover of Sana’a. For their part, most Yemenis look on with apprehension at the bilateral talks. They hope at least, that with egos quenched and placed aside, there will now be room for a pragmatic approach to Yemen’s current crisis and future challenges.