Two weeks ago, a Reuters report indicated that Saudi Arabia would sign a UN proposal for a nationwide ceasefire with the Houthi rebels, provided the Iran-backed group agreed to a buffer zone along the kingdom’s borders and the removal of its fighters from the corridor. In exchange, the Saudis would lift an air, sea, and land blockade on Yemen that has been in effect for five years. This agreement follows high-level back-channel talks between the two sides, with sources stating that Mohammed Abdulsalam, the Houthis’ chief negotiator, and a more senior Saudi official held virtual discussions.
While there was no confirmation of such talks from any of the parties involved, the Saudi offer of a ceasefire would represent the most significant political development in the landscape of the five-year-old war. Saudi Arabia has long wished to withdraw from the war in Yemen but lacked the upper hand to the point of having considerable leverage over the Houthis in negotiations. However, current circumstances have forced the kingdom to rethink its strategy and attempt to pull out of the conflict as fast as possible with sufficient security guarantees.
A Change in Saudi Arabia’s Strategy
Saudi Arabia’s anti-Houthi campaign in Yemen has stained the kingdom’s image due to the accusations of violations of international humanitarian law. As commented above, Saudi’s exit strategy, its military campaign to push the Houthis hard enough to get them to negotiate, has failed. The 2018 Stockholm Agreement that inspired hope for a peaceful resolution to the war is far from being realized. More recently, the Saudi-led coalition announced and then extended a unilateral ceasefire that was rejected by the Houthis and also faded.
Even though the Saudi-backed Yemeni government has been able to protect the city of Marib – the government’s last stronghold in northern Yemen – with the assistance of tribal forces, it has been unable to push back against Houthi forces and secure significant territorial gains. This is in great part due to infighting within the coalition’s allies in Yemen. The kingdom has been incapable of ensuring peace and stability between the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the pro-government, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islah fighters. Continued clashes between the two groups have weakened the Riyadh Agreement, a deal implemented in 2019 as a power-sharing mechanism between Mansour Hadi’s government and the southern group. But more importantly, these clashes have harmed the coalition’s chances to secure further territorial gains and force the Houthis to accept to negotiate a ceasefire with Saudi and Yemeni government interests on top.
New American Administration and New Challenges
While attempting to bring its Yemeni allies together to stand up to the Houthis and leave the conflict was a major challenge for Saudi Arabia, the kingdom is facing another challenge with the election of Joe Biden. The president-elect is a big critic of the Saudi military campaign in the Yemeni war and said during a 2019 Democratic debate that he would stop U.S. weapon sales to Riyadh. Continuing to take part in the Yemeni war when Biden takes office would look very bad on Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s relationship with the U.S. would deteriorate from its current solid status under the Trump administration to a difficult dynamic under Biden.
However, this current urgency to pull out of the war does not mean that Saudi Arabia will work extra hard to have its Yemeni allies patch up relations. Rather, it appears that the kingdom has given up trying to make them see eye-to-eye and is now completely focused on disentangling itself from the war, even if that means conceding to Houthi demands. This is underscored by Riyadh’s decision, according to sources familiar with the matter, to grant a significant Houthi demand, namely the lifting of the air, sea, and land blockade, to try and persuade the Iran-backed group to sign a ceasefire. The lifting of the blockade has always been the rebels’ number one demand to enter ceasefire negotiations, but it had always been off the table as far as the Saudis were concerned. Easing the blockade would mean facilitating arms shipments to the Iran-backed group and actually strengthening Tehran’s presence in the southern Arabian Peninsula.
Thus, the Saudi move represents how important the kingdom deems a close and healthy relationship with the U.S. since it is willing to compromise its security concerns in Yemen for the sake of maintaining good terms with Washington. One could also assess that Saudi Arabia made this compromise betting on a period of less tension with Iran during a Biden administration. The U.S. will most likely work to rejoin the JCPOA (also known as the Iran nuclear deal) and the kingdom – and Israel – will likely urge the U.S. to expand the agreement so that it can also target Tehran’s regional influence and behavior.
Houthis Possible Response
Looking ahead, the question will be whether the Houthis will indeed negotiate a ceasefire this time. Back in April, the rebels rejected Saudi Arabia’s unilaterally declared truce. However, the current offer may well convince the Iran-backed group to negotiate a ceasefire due to the kingdom’s new willingness to lift the blockade.
Then again, the perceived Saudi hurry to disengage from the conflict might embolden the rebels to raise their leverage in negotiations. There is no guarantee that the Houthis will not make other demands, knowing that the clock is ticking against Saudi Arabia. The Houthis might also push for the reopening of Sanaa airport – only UN and humanitarian flights are currently allowed by the coalition, though the rebels blocked those in September – and other points set forth in the group’s “wish list” released in April.
Finally, recent reports indicate that the U.S. may soon designate the Houthis as a terrorist organization, with Washington reportedly waiting to make the announcement in order not to spoil ceasefire negotiations. Even though this designation would not take a heavy toll on Houthi operations but instead be catastrophic for aid operations in Houthi-controlled areas, it remains within the realm of possibility that the rebels might also demand this designation plan be scrapped so as to sign a ceasefire.
Marco Túlio Lara (@marctlara) is an analyst at Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.