Martin Griffiths, the new United Nations Envoy to Yemen, took his first trip to Yemen at the end of March. It was a partial success, but mostly because his sheer arrival was a breakthrough. The Houthis – the Zaidi Shi’a rebel group who have controlled Sanaa since 2014 – had banned Griffiths’ predecessor for his alleged bias. Still, the trip also served to underline the deep challenges Griffiths faces in his new position, as demonstrated by the Houthis’ launch of missiles – allegedly supplied by Iran – at Saudi Arabia just a few days later.
Three years after the start of a Saudi-led military intervention, an end to the conflict seems as far away as ever. Continued fighting has plunged much of the country into a deepening humanitarian crisis and risks yet more escalation. State institutions, already weak, have nearly disappeared. Deepening divisions have shaken Yemeni society, fueling ruptures in the country’s social fabric. It is telling that these divisions have even ripped the conflict’s alliances apart. Initial framings cast the conflict as a two-sided one, pitting the internationally recognized government against the Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s supporters. But, particularly following Saleh’s dramatic death at the hands of Houthi fighters in December, such framings no longer hold. Simultaneously, tensions between the internationally recognized government and its erstwhile allies among Yemen’s vociferously anti-Houthi southern secessionists, have repeatedly escalated, spurring street fighting in Yemen’s temporary capital, Aden. This increasing complexity and risk calls for a new approach to conflict resolution efforts.
Martin Griffiths initial priority should be to listen rather than act.
Given this mess, the replacement of the UN’s Special Envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Sheikh Ahmed, with Griffiths, a British diplomat and former director of the European Institute for Peace, presents an opportunity for an infusion of new energy and ideas. Three years of mediation and three rounds of talks in Switzerland and Kuwait led by Ould Sheikh Ahmed have failed to lead to significant progress. Criticism casting the outgoing envoy as aloof, overly rigid and increasingly inactive, has been mounting for more than a year.
Griffiths priority – despite the high expectations from some quarters – should be to listen rather than act. Previous peace efforts in Yemen, have failed to focus first on relationship building. International negotiators often suffer from elite and Sanaa-centric biases that have served to marginalize many key stakeholders in the country and sidelined its rural majority. This bias has grown worse over the past three years – understandably given the flight of the majority of foreign embassies in early 2015. Rather than those within Yemen, the existing UN-led peace process has largely privileged Yemenis who, like key diplomats, are based outside the country, making it more difficult to get accurate assessments of the conflict’s changing dynamics.
Thus, a key task facing Griffiths will be to build functional relations with the key factions on the ground. Chief among them is the Houthis, who notably refused to meet Griffiths’ predecessor due to a lack of trust. But this will also mean building trust with figures and factions like the Southern Transitional Council that have, as yet, been marginalized in the process—not taken part in the peace process. He needs to mold a potential settlement to take into consideration their concerns and to gain their buy-in to a peace process. As with key coalition states like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, he will need to reckon with the various sides’ red lines, particularly with regards to weaponry, the demobilization of military groups, and the devolution of powers.
Griffiths has an opportunity and to serve as a bridge between international and regional actors and to benefit from European diplomatic initiatives, coming from the EU and from individual European countries including France, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Germany. These initiatives have included increased engagement on the ground—epitomized by recent trips by the EU, Swedish, Dutch and German envoys to Yemen to Sanaa and Aden—and increasing efforts to build bridges with many of the groupings currently left out of the process. Mediation efforts by Kuwait and Oman—in coordination with both Europe and the UN—provide the likely means for a diplomatic resolution of the conflict facilitate talks. The leadership of an assertive UN Envoy is crucial with regards to providing back-up and facilitating coordination. It’s not just about talks. International coordination can also help to put pressure on those benefitting from Yemen’s war economy, which has enriched many of those responsible for prolonging the war.
Finally, it is crucial for Griffiths to avoid simply focusing on those who have the guns. To date, the UN process has marginalized key segments of Yemeni society like civil society, women, youth and independents. Indeed, the structure of the previous three rounds of talks rendered it more or less impossible for Yemenis not formally aligned with one of the conflict’s warring parties, treating talks simply as an effort to mediate a two-sided conflict. Nonetheless, across the country, it has been civil society that has stepped up to sustain the country amidst the ongoing conflict. Griffiths and his team should work to create substantive tracks for the meaningful inclusion of those who have helped to helped to keep the country together in any efforts to chart a path to a sustainable peace.
None of this remotely guarantees success in such a messy, intractable conflict. But Griffiths has an opportunity to make a difference if he can recognize the mistakes of his predecessors, discard outdated notions of the war, and redesign the peace process to match the actual conflict in Yemen.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.