Peace still elusive as GCC starts Yemen talks in Riyadh

Does the prospect of a ceasefire and another round of talks mean peace might finally break out in Yemen? The UN estimates the conflict has killed more than 400,000 people since 2015, with over two-thirds of the casualties being young children who died of ‘indirect causes’, such as hunger and preventable diseases. Other minors, and their families, have died in bombing raids that have led even staunch western allies (with lucrative economic interests) to question their arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

On 16 March GCC secretary-general Nayef Al-Hajraf proposed a ceasefire in Yemen and a new round of talks to be hosted in Riyadh. The Sanaa-based Houthi rebels quickly rejected the proposal, primarily as the Saudi capital was not neutral ground. But despite these cavils, a ten-day gathering was still due to start on 29 March.

According to one GSN analyst, the main aim of the Riyadh talks appears to be an attempt by Saudi Arabia to counter widespread criticism of its role in the conflict. However, it could presage greater changes on the ground among Saudi-linked groups – and even wider impacts, according to some sources canvassed by GSN, including for the failed state’s President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The gathering could also be used to announce significant financial assistance for the Hadi government (see GCC offers the prospect of more money for Yemen) – after a disappointing UN donors conference in mid-March at which Kuwait was the only GCC member state to pledge funds.

Many attempts at peace talks have been held in the past without success, and the Houthi dismissal of the latest initiative suggests these too are likely to fail. Al-Hajraf has said the talks’ intention was to discuss “political, military, security, economic and development obstacles in Yemen”. Sceptics have drawn parallels to the failed National Dialogue Conference of 2013/14 (GSN 963/9).

The GCC peace initiative is being arranged outside the UN-led process and at the same time as UN special envoy Hans Grundberg is holding discussions in Jordan and Oman with Yemeni parties. That has led some to also compare the latest initiative to the November 2019 agreement between the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and Hadi’s government, in which Saudi Arabia took the lead in mediating a de-escalation between the warring parties in southern Yemen and again did so outside the UN-led process (GSN 1,091/5).

Riyadh has made other efforts in the past. Saudi Arabia called for a ceasefire in April 2020, in the light of a UN drive to halt fighting so the Covid-19 pandemic could be tackled (GSN 1,100/14). This offer was similarly rejected.

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Two years on from that, international criticism of the Saudi campaign has not dissipated. Indeed, activists in the US and Europe continue to advance the narrative of a Saudi Arabia which has been all but defeated but is unable to extricate itself from a conflict on its southern border.

The kingdom’s vulnerabilities were highlighted by an attack on a Saudi Aramco facility in Jeddah on 25 March, just as the city was preparing to host its second Formula 1 Grand Prix race. Anguished driver meetings and images of flames leaping up from an Aramco complex reached the sort of global audience Saudi Arabia’s big soft power spend on sport was calculated to counteract. The event went on, but coverage of Saudi ‘sportswashing’ was just as prominent as of the racing itself.

The challenges to Saudi Arabia’s latest peace plan had increased when a list of 500 names of potential participants was leaked online in the week leading up to the F1 race. Some of those mentioned denied they had any intention of taking part. That led to conflicting accusations of who might be responsible. While some blamed a Houthi attempt to sabotage the process, others accused the Hadi government of trying to leverage more support from the GCC.

…or significant changes?

Aside from an attempt to improve its image by hosting the talks, analysts suggest Saudi Arabia may be paving the way for more significant changes.

Former Yemeni foreign minister Khaled Al-Yamani told GSN that Riyadh aimed to restore the structure of the Yemeni state and the functions of government institutions, in particular in provinces now under the control of Saudi-aligned groups. This could enable those groups to counter Houthi claims to be the sole representative of Yemen’s sovereignty and therefore the only party that should negotiate a truce with Saudi Arabia.

Jordan-based Abd Al-Naasser Al-Muwadah, told GSN that Riyadh could go further and try to bypass Hadi by seeking to introduce a new Presidential Council and a new structure to administer the provinces. Al-Muwadah believes this could also diminish the role and influence of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al-Islah party.

However, Al-Muwadah said Hadi may reject any discussion of plans to diminish his power and could sabotage any agreement sponsored by Saudi Arabia by issuing decrees or reshuffling provincial governors – which, it has been suggested, could happen in the coming days.

More broadly, tensions between rival Yemeni groups opposed to the Houthis appear to be on the rise, even if efforts are being made to avoid disputes in public. STC members have expressed concern over support from Saudi Arabia for rival southern elements. It is not clear that Riyadh has a complete strategy to deal with the many complex divisions now in play.

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