Ali Owidha/Reuters

The Dilemma of Concluding Agreements in Yemen


Sun, 01-10-2023 02:14 PM, Aden

Facts reveal that progressing to the final settlement of the conflict in Yemen requires the concluding of agreements whose broad lines would be consistent with the nature of the status quo and can absorb the demands of all the parties.

Waddah Al-Oubali (South24) 

All wars and conflicts end with resolutions enforced due to the situation on the ground or after all the parties involved arrive at a "power balance" in which they are unable to triumph over each other. In such a scenario, the stance of regional and international parties and policies may have a direct impact on the nature and direction of the war trajectory.

In Yemen, in particular, the complex nature of the arena or the type of the conflict is not just between the two parties as some claim in order to ignore and bypass the demands of some of the main groups and their political aspirations that require recognition and constructive intervention. It is important to recognize the need to allocate a special framework for their demands as part of the negotiations. This would ensure that these matters are discussed while arriving at a fair outcome. This is a main precondition for the success of any settlement in a way that would guarantee the smooth implementation of its outcomes.

Negotiations cannot be considered fair and balanced unless they take into account the main Yemeni parties on the ground, including their stance, their demands, and aspirations as an important basis to enter the path towards sustainable peace and not relapse into conflict. It is imperative that negotiations shouldn't continue on the same path that has been carried out in Oman for more than one year and the subsequent meetings in Sanaa and Riyadh.

Such negotiations are inconsistent with the reality of the situation on the ground and the yearnings of the people. If the negotiations continue in this way, they will not achieve the desired objective of sustainable peace as they would have failed to take into account the just political, legal, and popular demands.

Compulsory path

During each of the Saudi consultation rounds with the Houthis, the Northern factions were favorably disposed and raised no objections. This stance leaves the door open for the growing demands of Houthis. On the other hand, whenever the concerns of the Southern parties were voiced, they were repeatedly changed into statements about the importance of parity in the formation of the negotiation team empowered for special negotiations for the South issues, as per the outcomes of the intra-Yemeni Riyadh Consultations of April 2022. The latter called for a special negotiation framework for resolving the South Issue in any peace negotiations sponsored by the United Nations.

The Southern Transitional Council (STC), in its latest statement, endorsed the peace efforts as well as the visit by the Houthi-Omani delegation to Riyadh in mid-September. The STC stressed its keenness to achieve a comprehensive and sustainable political process that would pave the way for an unconditional dialogue and guarantee the resolution of all issues, especially recognizing South and allocating a special negotiation framework to solve it. Importantly, STC President Aidrous Al-Zubaidi in his statement to "The Guardian" newspaper has voiced dissatisfaction at being excluded from the talks. He said they have been “sidelined and pushed to one side” from the critical talks held in Riyadh. He warned that “if a bad deal is struck" that allows Houthi control then it would enable Iran to take control of the strategic Bab Al-Mandab trade route and the oil fields in South Yemen.

The STC asserts itself as a representative of South Issue. It has a big popular base of supporters as well as affiliated military and security forces that control most Southern governorates except the valley and desert of Hadramout along with Al-Mahra governorate. The STC's military forces stopped at the gates of the aforementioned areas for reasons related to the neighboring states that had expressed dissatisfaction over the deployment of the STC-affiliates Southern forces near their borders.

Race for Influence 

The recent Saudi interest in holding peace consultations with the Houthis came concurrently with the Kingdom's moves to prepare for imposing a permanent Saudi influence in a large governorate like Hadramout which is rich in oil and mineral resource. This is in addition to its location overlooking the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden. This comes amid the public and secret Omani influence being exercised in Al-Mahra governorate, in South Yemen that shares an international border with Oman.

Both Saudi Arabia and Oman probably see South Yemen, which is adjacent to their borders, as a vital area for considerations related to national security and economy. Both countries are trying to assert their presence in Hadramout and Al-Mahra to ensure securing of their borders in addition to the economic interest in the two governorates. It isn't a secret that Saudi Arabia sought to naturalize many rich Hadrami men while Oman did the same in Al-Mahra. Both of them seek guarantees which are probably related to ensuring loyalty or to control and secure their territories.

To shore up its influence, Riyadh visibly supports some Hadrami factions. It invited Hadrami figures who met in Riyadh in May 2023 to establish the so-called ’Hadrami National Council‘ which was declared on June 20. However, the Hadrami National Council is beset with disagreements among its members and factions since certain political parties control it. This has led to delay in holding its first conference.

Legitimate concerns

Taking into consideration the Kingdom's national security calculations, the Saudi’s concerns regarding any future barriers it could face in exporting oil is understandable, upon which its economy depends. Moreover, Riyadh’s heavyweight international status basically rests on oil. Its concerns are mainly related to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' grip on the Strait of Hormuz which serves as the gateway to the Arabian Gulf. This makes the Saudi influence in Hadramout appear more as a national security affair. In view of the 700-km border it shares with Hadramout.Saudi Arabia believes that the governorate is the most important alternative lane for it to export oil through the Arabian Sea without having to use the Strait of Hormuz. This would help the kingdom avoid surrendering to the Iranian blackmail and Tehran's repeated threats of closing down the Strait of Hormuz if Iran and its nuclear facilities are hit by an American-Israeli military strike.

A tactical stance

Some Northern parties believe that the Saudi influence in Hadramout will be an obstacle to the STC's project of an independent South Yemen and would even thwart it. We have to take into consideration that the Saudi influence paves the way to turn Hadramout into a territory as part of a future Yemeni federal state. This was mentioned in the outcome document of the National Dialogue Conference that was held in Sanaa in 2013. The Northern factions haven't cared about changing the reality on the ground after 2015. This has led to changes in the parties and power balances over the years, and it is now no longer appropriate to impose the outcomes as part of the references for an incoming solution in Yemen.

Moreover, the aforementioned NDC document is still a draft. Approving it requires a new federal constitution which will be put under popular vote prior to the adoption of the territory. Therefore, the establishment of the territories lacks legitimacy as of now. Thus, the stances adopted by the aforementioned parties would be directed in light of STC's media actions and reactions. 

Possible future approaches 

It is important to refer here to the STC's repeated assertions that it aims at building an independent federal South state that would guarantee the rights of the Southern territories for a full-power local administration. This was shown in the Fourth Principle of the Southern National Charter signed by a number of Southern factions on May 8, 2023. According to it, Hadramout will be a federal territory as part of STC's agenda and its vision for the desired state. This can also apply to other Southern governorates.

This could provide a common ground to build approaches between the STC and Saudi Arabia which can be smoothly carried out. The basis of this approach are STC's recognition of the Saudi influence in Hadramout, understanding Riyadh’s concerns and the STC’s commitment to safeguard the Saudi’s areas of concern in the future. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia will recognize the establishment of a federal Southern state, wherein any future arrangements or decisions related to Hadramout will be carried out by coordinating with the Saudi-backed Hadrami parties as part of the South state, especially in the early stages that require building trust between both Saudis and Southerners.

This objective review of these approaches and the way in which all local Yemeni parties think while building their stances serves as an early warning to active international and regional parties in the Yemeni scene of the importance of building balanced agreements that would deal positively with the modern transformations, stances and the reality on the ground. They have to engage with the demands of all parties in a professional and accurate manner that allows them to arrive at a relevant solution that would be implemented by all parties with conviction, uninterrupted by the delay caused by the cropping up of some issues or the planting of obstacles that would collapse the accord in the early stages.

Collision and implementation failure

If we review the percentage of what was implemented regarding the most prominent accords and agreements over the past period, including the Dhahran Al-Janoub Agreement between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis in April 2016, the Stockholm Agreement between the internationally-recognized government and the Houthis in 2018, the Riyadh Agreement between the previous internationally-recognized government and STC in November 2019 and the inter-Yemeni Riyadh Consultations in April 2022, we will find that 80% of the contents and articles of these agreements were drafted in a random fashion, without any consideration of the facts and issues that have undoubtedly prevented them from being implemented. Carrying out most of the aforementioned agreements has been impossible as their makers, including the mediators and envoys, ignored the ground realities and the nature of the periods in which they were drafted. Amidst this, some stakeholders evade or refuse to fulfill their obligations despite the circumstances being amenable. This has led ultimately to suspend some of the articles and commitments till today. Others have become outdated due to the nature of the new changes in the map of control on areas included in these agreements and deals.

Accordingly, facts and data reveal that progressing to the final settlement of the conflict in Yemen requires building agreements whose broad lines would be consistent with the nature of the status quo and can absorb the demands of all parties. Meanwhile, the implementation mechanism should be adjusted in a time-scheduled manner along with providing necessary guarantees to carry them out. Without making these moves, the deals will end up being added to a long list of suspended and hollow inapplicable settlements and agreements.

Waddah Al-Oubali

Non-resident Fellow at South24 Center for News and Studies, Expert and Military Analyst

Note: This is a translated version of the original text written in Arabic

YemenYemeni crisisHouthisSaudi ArabiaOmanSanaaRiyadhSouth YemenSTCSouth IssueHadramoutOmanPeace