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The Complexities of a Houthi-Saudi Deal and its Impact on Yemen’s Future

More than seven years since the beginning of the war in Yemen, the potential Iranian-Saudi deal may provide a pathway for Yemenis to achieve peace. The evolving tripartite peace deal between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Houthis faces several difficulties. Many experts believe a well-negotiated peace deal could have prevented the three Sadaa wars between the late former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime and the Houthis, which took place from 2004 to 2010. However, the Arab Spring revolutions led to the Houthis coming to power, significantly altering circumstances.

Over the last decade, Yemen’s conflict changed as the warring parties became proxies influenced by regional powers. Saudi Arabia took the side of the internationally recognized Yemeni government through military intervention. At the same time, the UAE initially joined the Saudi coalition but later shifted its priorities to supporting the Southern Transitional Council (STC). Meanwhile, Iran provided technical, financial, and arms support to the Houthis, who currently control Sana’a and the North—Yemen’s most populous region. Despite growing attempts to de-escalate the conflict and the successful ceasefire, the humanitarian situation in Yemen continues to deteriorate drastically.

Regionalization of the Houthis

After the Beijing-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the examination of regional proxies became more important after meetings held in Sana’a between Mahdi al-Mashat, the head of Houthi Supreme Political Council, Houthi leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, and Saudi and Omani delegations including Mohammed Al-Jaber, the Saudi ambassador to Yemen.

The Houthi-run Saba news publication shared photos of the landmark meeting, which concluded that the Houthis are becoming a more significant party to the conflict. Charles Schmitz analyzed the speeches of the group’s founder Husayn al-Houthi and the current leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi. He found that the founder talked about issues important to all Muslims, or a specific group in Yemen, while the current leader focuses more on addressing the Yemeni people. After they came to power in the 2015 coup, the movement presented a national vision rather than a religious theocratic one.

In the past, Houthi leadership under Saleh focused on the plight of Zaydis, who suffered under a central authority. However, with Abdul Al-Malik at the helm, the Houthi movement has shifted its vision toward defining its relationship with a future Yemeni state. Schmitz’s analysis highlights the transformation in the Houthi leaders’ narratives. It examines the potential long-term role of the group in Yemen’s future, particularly if legitimized through a tripartite agreement between Tehran, Riyadh, and the Houthis.

As the war in Yemen has evolved into a regional military theater, various international actors have become involved, often overshadowing local grievances and agencies. The Houthi movement has similarly adapted its approach. If a deal were to recognize the Houthis as legitimate representatives of the Yemeni government, partly due to the country’s power vacuum, the group could become a force with regional influence and power akin to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Normalizing Houthi Rule

Legitimizing Houthi control over Yemen could create additional challenges for the country’s future. Firstly, Houthis are a powerful group that cannot be excluded from any peace agreement in Yemen. However, such a deal must encompass the diverse interests of all local groups suffering under both Houthi rule and Saudi military intervention. These groups face numerous hardships, including airstrikes, educational policy changes, gender segregation, additional taxes, food and water insecurity, and multiple pandemics. Recognizing the Houthis as the leading power in Yemen’s political landscape may inadvertently lead to the further marginalization of local actors.

Secondly, despite ongoing talks between the Houthis and Riyadh, armed conflict persists between government forces and the Houthis. As reported by Ali Al-Sakani, a freelance journalist based in Yemen, sporadic fighting and mutual artillery shelling occurred between government forces and Houthis along the al-Kasarah and Raghwan frontlines northwest of Marib, just one day after a high-level meeting. Legitimizing the Houthis could encourage them and validate their attacks on government forces. Furthermore, it could normalize their theocratic rule in an international agreement, allowing them to expand their control over more areas in Yemen and justify their use of military power under the guise of “representing” Yemenis.

Reconfiguring Social Dynamics

The normalization of Houthi rule could also create difficulties in reshaping social dynamics in Yemen, particularly concerning policies on women and education. Since the onset of the power struggle that has divided Yemen into various factions, women’s participation in social, economic, and political activities has been significantly restricted and threatened. Furthermore, as Ewa Strzelecka’s analysis of UN documents regarding conflict-related sexual violence and human rights violations in Yemen reveals, sexual and gender-based violence increased by over 60 percent within six months of the conflict’s eruption in 2015. Normalizing Houthi rule could exacerbate these issues, further hindering progress on gender equality and education in Yemen.

According to testimonies of the victims to the Panel of Experts on Yemen in 2019, “the 11 women, mentioned above, were arrested, detained, tortured or raped in Houthi custody for their political participation and views.” The Houthi authorities in the region blamed the victims      for “distributing humanitarian assistance allegedly provided by the Coalition, and for perceived refusal to indoctrinate students to Houthi ideology.” Strezelecka labels this “theology of rape,” and the victims stated in their testimonies to the panelists that “[of] the three women raped, two were asked to recite a prayer prior to the rape. This was a method of purification of the women, according to the perpetrators,” and “the women prison guards assisted to restrain the women.” The Houthi’s human rights violations and atrocities should be investigated in a transitional justice period following any peace deal, yet this will be difficult if a tripartite agreement allows the Houthis to become a legitimate regional power.

The Houthi vision of a Yemeni state raises concerns as it appears to conflict with fundamental human rights. Women’s right to education is particularly problematic, as the Houthis seek to limit women’s education to basic Islamic knowledge. Another issue in the Houthi-controlled Yemeni state is the nature and content of the educational curriculum. As Malazim points out, based on the teachings of Husayn al-Houthi and the narrative of current leader Abdulmalik Al-Houthi, Yemeni society’s needs are rooted in the Holy Quran, with education focused solely on Islamic teachings.

However, Shaker Lashuel argues that ideology dominates the national curriculum and textbooks used in Houthi-controlled public schools. The group has restructured the entire school system, including higher education, to incorporate Houthi indoctrination and propaganda related to the current war, using narratives such as “Saudi-American aggression targeting Yemen.” They also suppress dissent by arresting those who voice opposition. These issues underscore the challenges of normalizing Houthi rule, particularly concerning promoting human rights and developing a balanced, inclusive education system in Yemen.

At the current stage of the conflict and at the edge of a new deal, the role of Houthis is not solely as a non-state actor. Local, regional, and international forces are seeking to influence the future form of the Yemeni state. As Maria-Louise Clausen described it, this is “a struggle over who controls the state, rather than as a conflict between state and a non-state actor.” The possibility of a deal between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia could prevent further military action at some point, yet it might undermine the rest of Yemen’s urgent needs and the rights of different social and political groups, exacerbating other long-term issues.

The real risk is if the deal leads to further “Huthification” of the Yemeni state. The legitimization of Houthi rule might prevent any attempt for transitional justice demand and trigger further fragmentation and violence. Houthi rule has absorbed tribal power and actors into the state as a bargaining tool for loyalty and economic privileges. It has also turned many segments of Yemeni society into subaltern local agencies. A tripartite deal that is not inclusive of the different Yemeni political factions and supervised by the United Nations will further patrimonial economic relations between parties signing the deal and isolate a large segment of the country’s social and political groups.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Dr. Betul Dogan Akkas is a researcher of the Arab Gulf States. She holds a PhD in government and international affairs from Durham University. In her research, she examines foreign policy, security strategies, and political culture in the GCC states. Dogan-Akkas also covers the involvement of the GCC states in the Yemen war and Turkiye-GCC relations.

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