April 19, 2023

Yemen News Not as Good as It Seems

Originally published in AEIdeas

Recent negotiations between Saudis and Houthis in Yemen’s capital and the subsequent confidence-building step of a prisoner exchange have raised hopes that the 8-year civil war could be winding down. The UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, who has been spearheading the international efforts to negotiation an end to the conflict, called the moment the most serious opportunity to make progress toward this effort. The White House, likewise, has welcomed developments and the possibility of a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. But, a deal with the Houthis leaves key challenges unaddressed in Yemen.

A little context on this complex conflict: The Iranian backed Houthis seized control of Yemen in a September 2014 coup d’état. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention at the behest of the Yemeni government to unseat the Houthis. The Saudi-led coalition’s strategy was largely ineffective at advancing this aim—its air campaign resulted in a number of preventable civilian casualties and its loose blockade on the sea- and air-ports choked the country economically. Differences between anti-Houthi Yemeni partners have also kept the opposing front fairly divided and focused on managing internal power struggles. The UAE, a coalition member, helped Yemenis recapture terrain in southwestern Yemen and was instrumental in uprooting al Qaeda, which controlled much of southeastern Yemen, from the populated areas. And Iran scaled up support to the Houthis during the war, battlefield testing the drones Russia now uses in Ukraine.

Finding an acceptable—and stable—resolution to the conflict in Yemen may not actually be possible yet. The civil war, pitting the Houthis against other factions, is one of many overlapping conflicts playing out in the country. For example, some southern Yemenis desire their own state again, regretting the 1990 decision to unify the question. Other southerners simply assert they deserve a larger share of any oil profits. Though production peaked in the early 2000s, the majority of Yemen’s oil reserves are in what is considered part of the south. Other political or tribal blocs likewise believe they ought to have more power at the national or even the local level. At heart, the decades-old issues are over the division of power and resources. These are what drove Yemen’s unrest during the 2011 Arab Spring and then the splintering of the country in 2014–15. Resolving the conflict with the Houthis leaves these other issues unaddressed, setting the stage for an encore act.

The Houthis—their cache of medium- and heavy weapons, and their relationship with Iran—also remain a regional security problem. Setting aside the Houthis’ ideological illiberalism and what that means for Yemeni society, the Houthis now possess ballistic missiles and one-way attack drones that can strike deep within Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (including US military bases there), and almost certainly, Israel. Ongoing interdictions of Iranian weapons shipments do not just evidence the Houthis’ continued stockpiling of these weapons but also the likelihood that the Houthi stockpiles are significant. They will not give up this Iranian-sourced arsenal, meaning the Houthis or their Iranian trainers and advisers present in Yemen, could attack regionally with little warning.

Finally, international focus has sought to mitigate the impact of the current conflict on Yemen’s humanitarian conditions. Even before the war, Yemen’s humanitarian and economic outlook for did not look good. Saudi Arabia has provided about $2 billion annually to Yemen in direct budgetary support. Now, the economy has collapsed. Industry is almost nonexistent, meaning a youth bulge, high unemployment, and low education rates will stress Yemen’s resilience coming out of the civil war. Rich neighboring Gulf States seem to prefer better-educated, non-Arabs from South Asia as a labor source, making it unlikely that the Gulf can absorb Yemen’s labor force or drive a remittance economy. The war decimated Yemen’s healthcare system and preventable, infectious diseases are now widespread. The country itself is running out of water. The cost of desalinated water remains out of reach. Yemenis will need significant support to respond to the multitude of challenges they face.

As Yemeni families welcome home detainees—some of whom have been held for eight years—and promises of future talks in May are made, the prospect of peace must not cloud assessments of what the near future holds and what no longer seems possible. The Houthi threat to US interests and regional stability is now a reality that a negotiated deal will not change. The international community and the White House should continue to facilitate and support ceasefire negotiations as they present the best way forward today. But let’s remember that the news from Yemen may not be as good as it seems.  

Katherine Zimmerman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and advises AEI’s Critical Threats Project. Follow her on Twitter: @KatieZimmerman.