Yemen’s seven years of war: How the new UN envoy can lay foundations for peace
It is time to assemble an anti-Houthi negotiations delegation that reflects the realities on the ground – and that can actually enforce an eventual settlement
Well into the seventh year of war in Yemen, Hans Grundberg, the former EU ambassador to Yemen, took up the UN special envoy position on 5 September. This is a difficult time, as the warring parties show little sign of weariness and Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
More than 20 million Yemenis need humanitarian assistance. Grundberg’s predecessor, Martin Griffiths, now UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, stated at the 23 August United Nations Security Council that “five million people are one step away from succumbing to famine.”
Although dealt a particularly tough hand, Grundberg starts with some advantages: as a Swedish diplomat he brings neutrality and the good reputation of his country, which brokered the 2018 Stockholm Agreement and is not associated with the United Kingdom or the United States. His previous position as EU ambassador has given him two years’ experience of the Yemen crisis. He can also call on the European Union, which most Yemenis perceive positively, to support his initiatives.
Meanwhile, the Afghanistan debacle has dramatically reduced US credibility – which is an incentive for both Yemenis and regional parties to be more receptive to European initiatives. After years of UN failure to mediate an end to the war, Grundberg now needs to fundamentally change the international approach to ending the conflict. Here, he will need all the support he can get from the EU and its member states. He faces huge constraints, but the key one is the outdated nature of the 2015 UNSC resolution 2216. The resolution is crucial as it guides the work of the special envoy.
Resolution 2216 has two major faults: it formally recognises Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi as the “legitimate” president of the country, which restricts the interlocutors with whom the United Nations can engage; and it calls for the Houthis to withdraw to their pre-2014 positions.
For the UN to contribute constructively to a solution, it must update the resolution. As long as this remains the determining document concerning the Yemeni crisis, the special envoy cannot engage effectively with other, stronger forces on the ground – namely, more representative anti-Houthi forces with more local power than the Hadi government. As for the Houthis, demanding withdrawal to their pre-2014 positions is simply unrealistic given the territorial gains they have made since that time; and even now they remain on the offensive in Marib.
Without a new resolution and international approach, the key warring parties will be allowed to remain firmly set in their zero-sum positions. Hadi’s internationally recognised government endlessly repeats its three references as the only basis for negotiations, which would safeguard its position (these are: UNSC 2216, a return to the 2011 Gulf Cooperation Council Agreement, and the implementation of the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference). The Houthis, meanwhile, demand a complete end to the Saudi blockade (including the full reopening of all international access routes, whether Hodeida port or Sanaa airport), and an end to what they term the Saudi-led “aggression” before they will even consider a ceasefire.
One of Grundberg’s first moves should therefore be to seek an updated UNSC resolution that recognises the true balance of power within Yemen. This would seek to enable the formation of a more representative anti-Houthi delegation to be the main interlocutors of the Houthis. Here, the EU and European states with seats in the UN Security Council, including the UK, which remains a key Yemen player, should take a lead in providing the political umbrella needed to take this process forward. This should include persuading the US to back this to secure a political pathway.
With a new resolution, Grundberg should help create negotiating teams that better represent Yemen’s main political, military, and social entities – in the end, negotiations must reflect the realities on the ground and involve people with the power to enforce an agreement. A new approach that moves beyond the singular lens of the Hadi government should now include the political parties with sizeable and significant support within the country, namely the Islah party and the General People’s Congress and representatives from all regions in the country, potentially based on groupings of governorates. It should also include different socio-cultural groups, tribes, other ascribed social groups, and different professional groupings, all under the rubric of ‘civil society’, with a quota of 30 per cent women for each grouping. To be sure, there will be fierce competition for inclusion. Howls of fury will erupt from the current top leadership of the internationally recognised government, key politicians, and military leaders, such as the Southern Transitional Council, the Guards of the Republic forces (headed by Tareq Saleh, the nephew of former president Saleh), and others. The special envoy should engage in broad consultations and actively participate in the final selection of members of the anti-Houthi delegation. His neutrality can ensure a demographically and politically balanced and representative composition. He will need strong support from the EU and member states to achieve acceptance and consensus for such a delegation.
At the same time, Grundberg needs to focus on addressing the international aspects of the war. International intervention in Yemen has also changed in important ways since 2015, notably in terms of a shift of US position, with the Biden administration now focusing on ending the conflict and charting a political settlement. For its part, Saudi Arabia, having long abandoned hopes of its originally anticipated quick and decisive military victory, is now seeking a way out of what has become the Yemeni quagmire. But Riyadh still does not know how to reach a settlement with the Houthis given their hold on power and ongoing willingness to launch strikes into Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, Riyadh’s earlier close alliance with the United Arab Emirates is weakening as their objectives are increasingly diverging: the UAE focus is on ensuring long-term influence along the coasts of Yemen, in pursuit of its strategy of becoming a significant maritime power. Its key focus is not an end to the wider conflict or the political track but supporting its partners along the coasts, mainly the Southern Transitional Council and the forces of Tareq Saleh, as well as controlling a recently built air facility on Perim Island, at the entrance of the Red Sea.
Removing foreign influence from Yemen is impossible – Saudi Arabia has actively intervened in Yemen since 1934, two years after its creation, and the UAE throughout its 50-year existence – but Grundberg can still look to forge greater alignment here. Seeking an agreement that allows the Houthis to achieve one of their major demands, namely ending all forms of blockade, in exchange for border security for Saudi Arabia will be difficult but should be achievable. Although the Houthis call for an end to the external aggression and are involved in on-off discussions with the Saudis, the success of such an initiative is not guaranteed. At the same time, any immediate end to Saudi air strikes would quickly allow the Houthis to seize Marib city – which would provoke more humanitarian despair. Grundberg will need to work closely with Riyadh, the Houthis, and other international stakeholders to prevent such an outcome. This will also necessitate outreach to Tehran. Iran certainly has some influence even if the Houthis are not Iranian ‘proxies’, and its ongoing talks with Saudi Arabia, launched this year under Iraqi auspices, could play some role in this.
But ultimately it will be up to the local warring parties to secure peace. It is to be hoped that the exhaustion and despair of the millions of suffering Yemenis may finally influence their leaders to look beyond their own personal war-related benefits and reach a settlement. Grundberg must seize the initiative to push them in this direction.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.