High-level political talks cannot be the only focus for the international community if Yemen is to have any chance of recovery.
It was a telling sign of increasing frustration around the ongoing United Nations-brokered Yemen peace talks that their host, the Kuwaiti royal family, last Friday issued a 15-day deadline to the participants. Worried that the negotiations were simply going around in circles, the hosts—who have put significant effort into facilitating the talks—finally felt the need establish a firm timetable. Unfortunately there is little evidence that this intervention has done anything to resolve the plethora of sticking points between the negotiating partners and a timely resolution looks unlikely.
The third effort to bring an end to the civil war in the Arab world's most impoverished country began with high hopes. But three months after they began, the talks have reached a stalemate reflecting that seen on the battlefield. Hopes of quick progress following a two-week long break for the Eid al-Fitr holiday were dashed by escalation on numerous military fronts, particularly along the Saudi-Yemen border. And there has been little progress in bridging a still wide gap between the negotiating positions.
The Houthis and their allies, who include backers of Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, have called for the formation of a unity government before all else. But representatives of the internationally-recognized government have demanded the Houthis and their allies’ full withdrawal from Yemeni cities as an essential precondition for any political steps. While some international diplomats have spoken of promising progress, the talks have yet to lead to any concrete results.
But while the situation in the meeting rooms of Kuwait’s Bayan Palace is bad enough, the situation on the ground is much worse. Yemen is facing a collapse, not just of its political order but of society itself, with the few fibers holding the country together frayed to the point of breaking.
In the city of Aden, cast by exiled President, Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and his allies as Yemen’s temporary capital, tit-for-tat assassinations have targeted social figures ranging from government officials to religious clerics. In key battlegrounds around the country, villages that have lived in peace for generations have turned against each other with a callousness epitomized by the brutal siege on the central city of Taiz by Houthi-allied forces.
Even those able to avoid the violence have not been immune to the degradation of society: in upmarket neighborhoods in regional capitals, bigoted sectarian stereotyping is overheard with alarming regularity. And in Sanaa and the north, many are willing to write off entire social groups as ‘mercenaries’ doing the bidding of outside powers.
Yemen’s institutional capacity to govern has equally deteriorated. In Sanaa and other areas in the north, the Houthis and their allies have effectively established a parallel state in conflict with central institutions. Things are no better, however, in areas under the control of the internationally-recognized government. While Aden has been free from Houthi control for over a year, many local officials still live in fear of being targeted by terrorist attacks. Basic services like electricity remain anything but reliable, while the provision of security is ultimately left in the hands of an array of uncoordinated armed groups.
Tentative efforts to incorporate various anti-Houthi fighters into more formal venues are being made but, nonetheless, restoring the monopoly of force to a government-run security establishment remains a nearly insurmountable task. But absent the restoration of the authority of state institutions, the cycle of conflict is all but guaranteed to continue—even if some political deal is brokered at the country’s highest levels.
A new agenda
For these reasons, international actors cannot treat high-level political talks as their only task. Instead, parallel processes should be launched to address Yemen’s many local tensions. The ongoing use of traditional processes of conflict resolution—which, for example, have seen tribal mediation lead to prisoner of war swaps across the country—should be encouraged and bolstered. Second, efforts must be taken to prevent Yemen’s economy and institutions from collapse by supporting local governance authorities and, if necessary, by facilitating meetings between technocrats and representatives from varying warring factions to broach common ground.
In the absence of a comprehensive deal and permanent ceasefire, such initiatives could nonetheless improve life for ordinary Yemenis. Conversely, if the international community ignores these details, it may find itself bogged down in national political negotiations long after the nation itself has disintegrated beyond repair.