The new Saudi initiative about a ceasefire in Yemen has opened the door for a new chapter in Saudi Arabia’s security in the region. While this is not the first announced unilateral ceasefire from Saudi Arabia, its timing is significant for several reasons. First, it happened as Washington increasingly pressured Riyadh to find a diplomatic solution to the war, notably announcing its withdrawal of direct support for the campaign in February 2021. Second, both the Saudi-led campaign of airstrikes and the Houthis’ retaliatory drone and missile attacks against Saudi oil facilities have escalated in recent weeks. Finally, the escalation in battles inside Yemen has reached new levels. If it is agreed to and carried out, the ceasefire will be an important preliminary step to finding a political end to the war.
Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud announced that the coalition will allow the reopening of Sana’a airport for a specific number of international and regional flights. It will also lessen, though not abandon altogether, its siege of Yemen’s vital Hodeidah port. According to the Saudi plan, the revenues from taxes coming from the port will go to a shared bank account between the different Yemeni parties in the country’s central bank.The Houthis’ reaction to this plan has been lukewarm. One day after the Saudi announcement, they launched an attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport. A senior Houthi leader has since argued that the entire air and sea siege should be removed to consider any new initiatives – effectively moving the goalposts for a viable agreement further.
The Ball is in the Houthis’ Court
At this point, it seems that, for the cease-fire to take effect, the regional countries and Yemenis are waiting for the commitment of the Houthis. While several states and militia groups are involved in the conflict, the two main powers are unquestionably the Saudis and the Houthis; if both are not committed, there is no truce. With the Saudis’ announcement of a ceasefire plan, the ball now is in the Houthis’ court. However, even if a complete halt of hostilities does not happen, this initiative still has the potential to de-escalate the ongoing battles in Taiz and Marib.
The Saudi proposal comes at a time when Washington is increasing its diplomatic efforts to end the war in Yemen. Biden appointed a special envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, and sent a delegation to the Gulf region to meet with officials from Yemen and Saudi Arabia, as well as Oman, which is playing a key role in moderating the negotiations between the different Yemeni factions, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. While there has been a noticeable escalation in the last few weeks – represented by new battles, the intensification of clashes in Taiz and Marib, and an increased number of missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, this initiative is a real opportunity for the Yemenis to end the armed conflict.
For the Houthis to agree to this initiative, the conditions of implementing the ceasefire and rules of engagement must be agreed upon for any lasting peace to be established. Fortunately, if the Houthis and Saudis were willing to implement the ceasefire, an agreed-upon set of conditions could be quickly facilitated between the two sides, as they have open communication channels.
The Role of the United States
Although Riyadh did not appear to have sought Washington’s input for the ceasefire proposal, the Biden administration might nonetheless support it. Washington is clearly seeking to lessen the tension in the Gulf region, in order to improve the atmosphere for future negotiations with Iran. Also, on the same day of announcing the initiative, Tehran said it supports the end of the war and the blockade of Yemen, without any mention of the Saudi initiative.
The presence of American and Iranian interests helps to explain why the Yemen conflict has been more complicated than an internal civil war, and has been linked to regional rivalries. The presence of regional rivals’ interests also helps to explain the timing of the ceasefire initiative. The situation on the ground in Yemen has not significantly changed – it remains a stalemate, with neither Houthis nor Saudi-backed government forces able to gain an edge over the other – but Riyadh’s interest in disengagement comes as the kingdom seeks to improve its relationship with the Biden administration.
While the Saudi initiative included a call for a UN-sponsored intra-Yemeni dialogue, the main challenge will undoubtedly remain in arranging for a domestic dialogue over the resolution of the war, the format of the new government, and the future of the country. Unfortunately, if negotiations collapse, it might lead to a renewed eruption of fighting – a situation which is in neither Riyadh’s nor the Houthis’ interest. For this reason, the success of negotiations is by no means certain, both sides should commit to entering them earnestly and in good faith. While the diplomatic process ensures that Saudi Arabia and the Houthis will both have to abandon some of their objectives, these sacrifices are necessary. Six years of war is far too long; it is time that Yemen had peace.