This past weekend, the first steps toward political dialogue in Yemen took place in Sweden; but with a large part of the country on the brink of famine, a sense of urgency remains
On 6 December, following weeks of careful diplomacy, the United Nations finally restarted consultations between Yemen’s warring parties. Given the ordeal of the previous round of discussions, this was something of an achievement in itself.
Held in a palace near the Swedish city of Uppsala, the consultations are the first of their kind since the collapse of talks in Kuwait in August 2016 – during which months of promising interactions produced no tangible results, leading to an escalation in the fighting in Yemen and an intensification of the humanitarian crisis there. In the interim, the peace process remained moribund for most of Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s term as UN envoy to the country.
There is now a rare opportunity to push for a peace settlement, seeing the fallout from the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggis as encouraging Riyadh to adopt a more conciliatory approach
The appointment of his successor, veteran British diplomat and mediator Martin Griffiths, initially seemed to inject new energy into the process. His shuttle diplomacy appeared to pave the way for steady, if slow, progress towards de-escalation, but he encountered a major setback in the run-up to planned consultations in Geneva. Despite high expectations, logistical problems involving the evacuation of wounded fighters from Sana’a and the transportation of the Houthi delegation to Switzerland prevented the talks from taking place. This risked destroying the trust Griffiths had built up with key factions in Yemen, as the internationally recognised government and the Houthis blamed each other for the impasse.
However, Griffiths’ team re-engaged with the sides, aiming to bring them together before the end of the year. At the most basic level, he has succeeded. Taking advantage of a diplomatic surge from key politicians – most notably, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt – Griffiths brokered a deal in which a Kuwaiti plane transported wounded Houthis to Oman, allowing for the meeting in Sweden.
This time around, the parties are more cautious in their expectations. Many Western diplomats state that there is now a rare opportunity to push for a peace settlement, seeing the fallout from the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi – which has spurred the US Congress to engage in unprecedented criticism of the Saudi-led coalition’s conduct in Yemen – as encouraging Riyadh to adopt a more conciliatory approach.
Nonetheless, these events are disconnected from the situation on the ground in Yemen, where the opposing forces refuse to make any significant concessions. The Yemeni government continues to view UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which calls for the Houthis to withdraw from cities and disarm unconditionally, as sacrosanct, while the Houthis portray it as effectively demanding their surrender. And there remain massive differences between the sides on issues ranging from disarmament and demobilisation to the terms of a post-war settlement.
In this context, it is unsurprising that only confidence-building measures – rather than a comprehensive accord – are up for discussion in Sweden. The Houthis and the internationally-recognised government are widely expected to focus on reaching a deal on a potential framework for future talks and possible steps towards reducing violence, discussing issues such as prisoner swaps, the status of Sana’a airport, fighting in the port of Hudayda, and the payment of salaries to government employees. Economic issues are important enough to the talks that, for the first time, the Houthi and government delegations include economic advisers such as former Yemeni tax authority head Ahmed bin Ahmed Ghaleb and pro-Houthi central bank official Mohamed al-Siyani. Due to logistical considerations, the discussions are likely to last until roughly mid-December (some diplomats have expressed hope that they will resume elsewhere in the new year).
The placid calm of Johannesbergs Slott, the venue in which the talks are being held, could scarcely be more different from the situation in Yemen. Fighting on the conflict’s many fronts continues to tear at the fabric of society, leaving 80 percent of Yemenis in need of humanitarian aid. And recent increases in the value of the Yemeni rial have done little to alleviate the dire economic situation there. Although the scale of the chaos in Yemen demands urgent action, it seems impossible for the conflict to end quickly or easily.
It is unsurprising that only confidence-building measures – rather than a comprehensive accord – are up for discussion in Sweden
In one sense, the key to peace lies not in simply conducting another round of talks but in using them to set in motion a broader process. Since the collapse of the discussions in Kuwait, major channels of communication between the internationally recognised government and the Houthis all but vanished. Thus, it is crucial to secure and build on any progress the parties make in Sweden. This is particularly true in light of the fact that, across Yemen, fighters are poised to escalate the violence – including that fighting near the port of Hudayda, a key entryway for flows of humanitarian aid into Yemen – if the discussions collapse or end indecisively.
Even if the talks currently centre on relatively narrow issues, the process must eventually include people from across Yemen’s diverse society if there is to be lasting peace. Moreover, the discussions’ international sponsors will have to coordinate their work with one another. Sustained pressure on the warring parties to reach and honour a workable agreement will open lines of communication and coordination between the various stakeholders in the effort. Above all, it is crucial that international actors maintain their sense of urgency: with large swathes of Yemen on the brink of famine, relief cannot come soon enough.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.