It is a telling example of the state of diplomacy in Yemen that the visit of a European Union delegation to the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, constituted a momentous event. EU Ambassador Antonia Calvo has been in her position for nearly a year; her deputy, Ramon Blecua has been in his even longer. Yet this was their first visit to the country – something far from unique among the diplomatic community covering Yemen.
Their visit heralded a long-overdue effort to bring important local and tribal leaders – in particular Yemen’s long marginalized southern secessionists – in from the cold, albeit largely in the form of comparatively symbolic meets for now. This is a positive step which should be welcomed by Yemen-watchers. All the more so as there are precious few positives to be found when assessing the prospects for peace.
Nearly three years after the Houthis’ takeover of Sanaa and more than two years after the launch of a Saudi-led military operation aiming to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government to power, UN-led diplomatic efforts have stalled. Attempted peace talks have failed to bear any true progress and many of the country’s key factions have lost trust in the process, which remains framed around a flawed UN resolution that casts the war as simply a two-sided conflict.
On the ground, meanwhile, tensions between erstwhile allies have threatened to ignite new fronts in the conflict. On the whole, many of those with the power to de-escalate have grown increasingly comfortable with the war economy, growing wealthy off conflict and corruption while Yemen has descended into the scene of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
It is undeniable that the time for action is yesterday. Beyond humanitarian motives, the fact is that as time goes on the conflict becomes all the more difficult to solve. The past three years have seen the entrenchment of a war economy, the destruction of much of Yemen’s infrastructure, the increasing marginalization of mainstream political factions and the rise of a cacophony of armed groups. As time passes these problems will only continue to magnify.
What, then, can be done? The short answer is that there are no easy answers. Even the complete implementation of UN Resolution 2216, which calls for the Houthis and their allies to abandon their weapons and withdraw from Yemeni cities, would do little but forestall further conflict; Yemen’s political roadmap has irrevocably changed and it is crucial that international actors step up efforts to engage with newly empowered forces, who may very well serve as spoilers if left out of any future process.
This is a role that Europe is uniquely placed to play: lacking the baggage of other key actors and maintaining longstanding relationships with key internal and external brokers, the EU and members states are able to reach out to key local actors, tribal leaders, military figures, and the private sector, who are well placed to aid in de-escalation efforts. The EU has already taken notable steps in this regard, particularly in terms of tribal engagement.
All that being said, the Riyadh-Washington access remains key to resolving the conflict. The two sides are fueling the war, but also possess leverage that could be crucial to its resolution. Engaged US diplomacy is indispensable, as is work to make sure that the concerns and viewpoints of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – which, in addition to their leading roles in the anti-Houthi coalition, have legitimate security concerns regarding the fallout of the conflict and are likely to play a key role in post war reconstruction – are incorporated into any peace process or settlement. But even with regards to these regional dynamics, Europe can play a positive facilitating role, particular in co-ordination with Gulf allies in Oman and Kuwait.
All the while it is crucial to remember that Yemen is not Sanaa: the mistakes of the Sanaa-centric post 2011 transitional process – which ultimately led to the current conflict—must not be repeated. While direct diplomacy with key actors in the Yemeni capital is crucial, such efforts must be mirrored by similar work with power brokers in key centers like Marib, Mukalla, Taiz and Aden. This must go beyond government and political representatives, to include civil society, businesspeople, and tribal figures: local grievances rooted in bread and butter issues like security and the economy must not be overshadowed by international diplomatic ceremonies.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.