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PoliticsYemen

Yemen: A pawn in the power games of regional foes

October 6, 2022

With the end of a truce on October 2, the Yemeni population is facing more hardship as the two warring factions, backed by Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively, pick up where they left off.

https://p.dw.com/p/4HnGQ
Damaged vehicles and Yemeni kids are seen after an attack carried out with unmanned aerial vehicle (uav) by the Iranian-backed Houthis in Taez, Yemen
The city of Taiz remained blocked and was shelled by the Houthis group throughout the past six months of a truceImage: Abdulnasser Alseddik/AA/picture alliance

After a six-month cease-fire, Yemen's warring factions, the Iran-backed Shiite Houthi group and the Saudi-backed internationally recognized Sunni government, are nominally back at war.

This takes the conflict, which has has been named the world's worst humanitarian catastrophe by the UN, into its eighth year.

Hans Grundberg, the head of the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, put it diplomatically when asked whom he held responsible for the failure of the talks between the Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government. "I appreciate the position of the Government of Yemen on engaging positively with my proposal," the Swede said in a statement.

The talks had aimed at extending the truce for another six months, however, according to the UN, the Houthis were not willing to make far-reaching concessions, in contrast to the internationally recognized government.

In fact, the Houthis had started firing rockets within minutes of the end of the recent truce — which had been in place since April 2 and ended at midnight on October 2. 

For the Washington-based Yemeni-American analyst Fatima Abo Alasrar, a non-resident scholar at the think tank Middle East Institute (MEI), it is obvious that "the Iran-backed Houthi militia favored disengagement from the process and a return to violence […] since they have no incentive to share power," she wrote in a piece for the think tank's website.

Moreover, a new openness by the Houthi group about its Iranian backing underlines its political and military strategy.

"Tehran has long denied its role in supporting the Houthis despite evidence of the contrary," Alasrar told DW, adding that "the Houthis have been increasingly vocal about their relationship with Iran."

The Houthis' strengthened position in Yemen has been further underlined by a statement, which was published on Twitter by one of the group's spokespeople a few hours after the end of the truce. The message stated in Arabic that the Houthis gave oil companies in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates the opportunity to "arrange their status and leave […]"

For Jens Heibach, a research fellow at the Hamburg-based GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies, this explicit warning resembles the highest possible alert for Saudi Arabia's defense system. "In light of Saudi Arabia's increased international relevance as an oil supplier, the Houthis have issued the biggest threat they have at the moment," he told DW.

The warning won't go unnoticed in Saudi Arabia as Houthi-led attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia demonstrated the kingdom's military vulnerability in March this year.

The war in Yemen began in 2014 with the Houthis' seizure of Yemen's north, including the then-capital Sanaa with its international airport and the important port in Hodeidah in the country's west. It escalated a year later in 2015, when a Saudi-led Sunni coalition joined the war in support of the internationally recognized government in the newly appointed capital Aden.

It is no secret that the war is widely seen as a proxy war between the arch enemies Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.

Preferred option: Exit strategy

However, given that the war in Yemen is now in its eighth year with no sign of a military resolution, it doesn't really come as a surprise that the Saudi Kingdom has become less willing to continue fighting against the Iran-backed Houthis, Adnan Tabatabai, CEO of the Bonn-based think tank CARPO, told DW.

"Saudi Arabia has an increased desire to end the war in Yemen as soon as possible for security and economic reasons," he said.

In terms of security policy, it has been impossible to neutralize the security threat from northern Yemen through military operations against the Houthis since 2015, Tabatabai added.

Moreover, the ongoing war in Yemen also has a negative economic effect for the ambitious Sunni powerhouse.

"The war generates high costs and, moreover, undermines the international appeal of ambitious megaprojects such as Neom [a Saudi city being built in northwestern Saudi Arabia — the ed.]  which leads to reluctant international investments," Tabatabai said, and added that "this results in a willingness in Riyadh to consult with Iran."

However, the current unrest in Iran, which followed the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, and has led to global pressure on the regime, "increases the unpredictability of the peace process in Yemen because Houthis' and Iran have mutual interests in the pursuit of this war," MEI analyst Alasrar said.

A map showing areas of Yemen occupied by Houthi rebels

Yemen: High human cost

While the cease-fire had brought relief in the form of significantly reduced military action, and an increase of international aid deliveries by planes and ships, this situation is now expected to change for the worse for the population of the war-torn country.

According to this year's Human Rights Watch report, the war has caused the deaths of nearly 250,000 people, while another four million are internally displaced, and about half of the population faces acute levels of food insecurity.

However, for the decisive regional actors, Yemen's humanitarian disaster doesn't seem to be a note-worthy factor. 

"Security considerations in Saudi Arabia and Iran will be the sole determining factor for a possible end to the Yemen conflict," Adnan Tabatabai said.

"Namely, as soon as both sides conclude that they would be better off with an end to this dispute, they will commit to a new cease-fire."

Edited by: Rob Mudge

DocFilm - Yemen’s Dirty War

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa