The Conflict in Yemen Is More Than a Proxy War

Why Local Grievances Cannot Be Overlooked in Any Peace Process

The eight-year civil war in Yemen has created what has been called the world’s worst manmade humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis have been killed and some four million people displaced. According to the United Nations, 21.6 million people in the country require humanitarian assistance and 80 percent of the population struggles to put food on the table. Given the extent of the catastrophe, it is perhaps no surprise that observers rejoiced when the Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed Al-Jaber, shook hands with leaders of the Houthi rebel group, which is allied with Iran, in April. It appeared to be a breakthrough in a devastating, unending conflict.

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have been active in Yemen, taking opposite sides in the war. The Saudis sent their forces into the country as part of a coalition effort in 2015 after their ally, interim Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, was deposed by the Houthis. The Iranian government has thrown its support behind the Houthis, fellow Shiites who control swaths of northern Yemen and want to expand their control to encompass the rest of the country.

Unwinding this complex proxy war has been nearly impossible, which is why the April talks offered so much hope. Hans Grundberg, the UN special envoy for Yemen, declared the meeting between the Saudis and the Houthi rebels “the closest Yemen has been to real progress toward lasting peace” since the war began. The breakthrough can be traced in large part to a sudden shift on the Saudi side. Riyadh backed a UN-brokered truce in April 2022, which has largely held even after formally lapsing in October. A period of relative calm on the Saudi border enabled serious negotiations. The Saudi delegation’s April visit to Sanaa, and an Omani-backed mediation effort that preceded it, showcased Riyadh’s determination to abandon its military campaign and seek a way out of the war. A Beijing-brokered agreement between Tehran and Riyadh in April restored diplomatic relations between the two countries and reinforced this new approach.

Yet a negotiated Saudi withdrawal from Yemen will almost certainly not end the war. It will merely return the country to an earlier stage of the conflict, which was local in origin and which was exacerbated by the involvement of regional powers. What unites most of Yemen’s factions is that they have gained power through coercive means. Unfortunately, these parties tend to view proposals for dialogue as mere tactical moves by their opponents that are designed to achieve military advantage.

If a peace process is to succeed, a political compromise among all warring parties—not just Yemen’s neighbors—will need to be brokered. International interlocutors such as the UN should take advantage of the current diplomatic momentum to pressure those countries entangled in the conflict to remain dedicated to a negotiated deal by increasing its engagement with them and monitoring their actions on the ground. The UN should also exert its influence on local factions to participate constructively in UN initiatives. This approach would pave the way for more lasting peace agreements among all parties in Yemen.

The outbreak of the war in Yemen and the subsequent intervention by regional powers was a natural consequence of the political and military tensions that had prevailed in the preceding years. In 2011, a popular uprising inspired by the revolts sweeping the Middle East led to the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country’s longtime strongman ruler. A political transition followed, as Saleh’s successor, Hadi, tried to guide the country toward consensual decentralized governance. But the attempt faltered. Hadi allowed a political vacuum to form in which political and military divisions widened.

A national dialogue process, which brought together all Yemen’s main factions, fell apart over irreconcilable differences within a year. Worse yet, some groups that participated in the dialogue were simultaneously carrying out military attacks on their rivals to gain advantage. Most notable among them were the Houthis, who capitalized on the weakened central state and popular discontent with the Hadi government, as well as on the unchecked ambitions of Saleh, who still hoped to make a comeback. The Houthis expanded their control in their northern home region without facing significant resistance from government armed forces. In 2014, they seized Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, with Saleh’s help, ousting Hadi, and then raced south in an attempt to take control of the rest of the country.

The United Arab Emirates in particular, but also Saudi Arabia, saw the Houthi capture of Sanaa and attempt to seize the rest of Yemen as a threat, but also as an opportunity to roll back political Islam and dismantle the political framework established after the 2011 revolt before it could further endanger their own security interests. When the Houthis took over Sanaa in September 2014 and placed Hadi under house arrest, however, both countries began military operations directly against the Houthis.

In March 2015, Saudi Arabia launched its military intervention, heading a coalition of nine countries. Although not a member of the coalition, the United States provided the group with military, logistical, and intelligence support. At the time, the Houthis were battling government forces and other Hadi-aligned groups in the country’s south and east. After coming under assault by the Saudi-led coalition, they were forced to pull out from most of these regions, although they continued to try to capture more territory. They also retained control of the northern highlands, which are home to the majority of the Yemeni population. After eight years of fighting, the war remains at a standstill in the areas that have been contested since early on in the war, with little change in the frontlines between various groups.

The Saudi-led military intervention whipped up a regional war from a collection of local conflicts, which continue to drive Yemen’s internal instability. Today’s direct talks between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, which revolve around efforts to halt reciprocal cross-border attacks, leave this conflict’s vital local dimensions unaddressed.

Local dynamics have been decisively reshaped by the competition between the Saudi-led coalition and Iran, which increased its support to the Houthis after their defeat in the south, reportedly supplying military advice, training, and weapons. The war increasingly became a regional proxy war, but even those supposedly fighting on the same side—namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE—at times pursued diverging objectives. The UAE, for example, appears less committed to Yemen’s unity than does Saudi Arabia and has supported the Southern Transitional Council, a secessionist movement based in Aden. At the same time, regional, factional, tribal, and religious forces—which over time have filled the vacuum created by the absence of security forces—have pursued their own goals, often in alignment with either Saudi Arabia or the UAE. A year ago, the two countries worked collaboratively to replace Hadi with the eight-member Presidential Leadership Council in an attempt to unite the different anti-Houthi factions under a single umbrella. Yet the individual members of the council seem more focused on their own interests than on working collectively toward a unified vision. This has left the council fragmented and dysfunctional.

In the areas they hold, the Houthis have restructured the government under their control, eliminating opposing figures and parties. They have established a system of administration that allows them to exploit all state institutions to their benefit. Many tribal and political groups that previously dealt with the Houthis were sidelined when their alliance was no longer in line with the Houthis’ interests. A notable example: the northern tribal leaders who initially supported the Houthis during their military advances in 2014 were later arrested or marginalized by the Houthis to consolidate power.

A negotiated Saudi withdrawal from Yemen will almost certainly not end the war.
None of the main actors vying for power in Yemen has anything that approaches cross-factional support. The Houthis assert revolutionary legitimacy, citing their claimed victory in the war as evidence of their right to rule Yemen, and they do not countenance sharing power as part of a negotiated deal to end the war. The group maintains a tight security grip on all areas under their control, suppressing opposition and dissent despite growing societal resentment toward their policies, which are focused on spreading ideology without concern for basic humanitarian needs.

On the other side, the separatist Southern Transitional Council has emerged as the strongest southern group. This is due mainly to the UAE’s backing its secessionist agenda. But many other movements and groups in the south do not believe that the separatists represent them. The Presidential Leadership Council oversees the internationally recognized government, but it was not formed by the will of the Yemeni people. It resulted from consensus between leaders of armed groups and support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which needed a united front to fight the Houthis. The council’s weakness has increased resentment even among those who celebrated its formation.

There are other groups sparring for power throughout Yemen, as well, pursuing their own interests while trying to appear inclusive by having a council-style leadership. The Houthis have what they call a Supreme Political Council. Tareq Saleh, a power broker on the Red Sea coast and the nephew of Yemen’s ousted leader, leads the Political Bureau of the National Resistance Political Council, which is fighting the Houthis but is not in full agreement with other anti-Houthi parties. And in the south, there are many councils claiming to represent the “southern cause” or certain regions of the country’s southeast such as the General Council of the People of Al-Mahra and Socotra or the newly formed Hadramawt National Council. But many of these groups and councils have gained power through coercive means and therefore are not seen as representing the communities in which they are based. It is hardly a recipe for stable governance.

One of the main challenges facing those who seek a peaceful solution to the war is that the parties themselves do not seem to want to envision one. Instead, many tend to see proposals for dialogue as cynical ploys on the part of their rivals. Yemen witnessed several agreements in the prewar era among local groups, but all of them were just preludes to a new round of conflict. Eight years of war have deepened the rivalries and divisions among Yemen’s parties. Most of the groups do not see the conflict as coming to a conclusive outcome and believe continued fighting is still the best way to get what they want.

The burgeoning war economy, which has benefited most of the parties and whose end would trim their financial advantages, is another challenge. Many of the factions whose participation will be required in order to achieve a political settlement have become accustomed to collecting taxes and levies without delivering services. A deal in which the state reasserts control over their territories would be financially disadvantageous to them.

Nor will the withdrawal of foreign militaries from Yemen signify an end to foreign interference in Yemeni affairs. In 2019, the UAE declared an end to its role in the war, but it has continued to exert its influence in the south through support for local proxies. Groups that Abu Dhabi has supported helped push the Houthis out of several districts of the southern governorate of Shabwah last year, for example. Its 2019 departure, in other words, merely transformed the nature of its involvement from direct to indirect intervention.

It is highly likely that Saudi Arabia will adopt a similar approach if and when it formally withdraws from the war. Riyadh will want to work through surrogates to safeguard its perceived security interests, manage threats to the kingdom, and monitor the local groups that are shaping the conflict and political landscape. What these groups do may not be a matter of great concern to Riyadh, as long as they do not present a threat to the Saudis, and it has a good means of communicating its concerns to them thanks to the alliances it has nurtured with significant Yemeni figures.

As for Iran, it is likely to continue to claim it is taking a stance of noninterference while still providing support to the Houthis. Indeed, Tehran will want to further strengthen its ties with the group, as their alliance has been a significant factor in compelling Saudi Arabia to explore diplomatic avenues to protect its territory. Yet the Houthis have shown on multiple occasions that Iran cannot control them. For example, the Houthis’ response to the deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran was: this is a deal between Riyadh and Tehran, not with Sanaa. What Iran can do, if it is serious, is withhold military support in an effort to nudge them toward an agreement with Riyadh. The deal China brokered in March between Iran and Saudi Arabia gives hope that Iran may now be willing to use its influence to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table.

Given these local dynamics, even if the Saudis and the Houthis reach a settlement, conflict in Yemen will likely continue. Indeed, if such a deal is reached, Yemen could witness an escalation of conflict among local groups, with regional actors absent in name but continuing to pursue their political and military agendas through local proxies.

To address the war’s local dimensions, an intra-Yemeni dialogue under UN auspices would be the right forum, and outside actors should continue to press for this. But getting a credible process up and running could be a tall order. It is likely to be undercut by direct and indirect regional meddling as well as the warring parties’ rejection of past agreements and resolutions, and their tendency to shun inclusive processes. Too many local actors may lack sufficient incentives to seriously engage in political talks. If the talks launch without adequate preparation, they could become a repeat of the failed National Dialogue Conference in 2013, whose collapse precipitated the war.

But there may be opportunities during this relative lull in fighting for outside actors to begin that preparation. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran should take a step back from direct interference in the war and begin to focus on persuading their respective Yemeni allies to meet one another at the negotiating table.

Eight years of war have deepened the rivalries among Yemen’s parties.
For its part, the UN should use the momentum created by Saudi outreach to the Houthis to help shape such negotiations. The UN envoy’s office should coordinate all regional and international efforts aimed at resolving the conflict in Yemen, ensuring that parallel tracks—such as the discussions between the Saudis and the Houthis—are being coordinated and are not undermining UN mediation. Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar are well placed to assist, as they have good relations with members of the Presidential Leadership Council and can also engage with the Houthis.

The UN should also continue to work to extend the truce, building on the talks between Riyadh and the Houthis, and also encourage subnational truce agreements between local actors. Its primary objectives should be to prevent an escalation that would reignite the broader war, to foster confidence among warring parties that peaceful coexistence is an option, and thus to encourage their constructive participation in any talks that should follow. Although parties had difficulty in reaching such local accords in the past, they have a better chance now against the backdrop of ongoing Houthi-Saudi talks.

The UN, working with regional actors, should also discourage any Yemeni party from attempting to place final-status issues, such as the unity of Yemen or its system of government, on the table early in the process. For example, recent moves by the UAE-backed separatists to raise the independence question could undermine talks about a nationwide cease-fire. The parties can put forward their demands for discussion once a cease-fire is in place and talks start in earnest.

Finally, negotiations should not be limited to armed entities that have gained legitimacy through battle. The talks should also comprise political and social groups, including those that represent women and young people. In the long term, the country must do more than forge temporary deals between groups. It can achieve a sustainable peace if the local conflicts that started this civil war are no longer obscured by a regional proxy war.

Check Also

Operation Iron Swords Updated to 1 p.m., November 27, 2023

The deal to release the abductees: On the evening of November 26, the third group …