Yemen: Time for Decisive Diplomacy

9 May 2015
Saudi Arabia has announced a five-day humanitarian cease-fire in Yemen. The cease-fire is supposed to start on Tuesday, May 12th at 11:00 p.m., last for five days and be subject to renewal. During two press conferences with Secretary Kerry, the first in Riyadh on 7 May 2015 and the second in Paris the next day, Saudi Arabia’s new Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubair said that there had been no contact with the Houthis on this. A senior Houthi official told BBC Arabic on Friday that the ceasefire had not been formally proposed and the Houthis would not respond until a plan was properly laid out.
During these press conferences, the Saudi Foreign Minister reiterated his country’s desire to send humanitarian aid to the Yemeni people and drew attention to a contribution of 274 million dollars to the United Nations’ emergency relief efforts in Yemen. In this connection he announced that King Salman Humanitarian and Relief Center will become operational in Riyadh on May 10th and remain open to all for aid coordination purposes. He also said that he had “debriefed the Secretary on the big step done by the King in correcting the status of the Yemenis who are in Saudi Arabia in an illegal status, from 2 to 3 million Yemenis living on the Saudi land and correcting their immigration status…”

This last point has some history. In stark contrast with Gulf States, Yemen is one of world’s poorest countries. This is why millions of Yemenis have for decades sought their livelihood Saudi Arabia. In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait. This put Yemen on the spot because of its close relations with Iraq. Yemen condemned the invasion but opposed Western military intervention. It called for an Arab solution. The caused disappointment in Riyadh and led to the mass expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Yemenis from Saudi Arabia. Eventually relations improved and the Yemenis returned because they needed work and Saudi Arabia needed labor.

Put together, these show that Saudi Arabia has now decided to follow a carrot-and-stick policy towards Yemen. At a time of region-wide turmoil this will be quite a challenge.

The history of relations between Saudi Arabia and Yemen is controversial. Saudis have looked at the internal developments in Yemen from the prism of their own internal peace, stability and regime security. They have often been involved in Yemen’s internal affairs one way or the other. This latest episode of violence has an Iranian dimension and reflects a desire of the part of the Kingdom to flex its muscles as an important regional country. Having done just that under operation “Decisive Storm” Riyadh now needs to put all its energy into helping find a Yemeni political solution through decisive diplomacy. With or without external military support the Houthis are able to continue fighting, at least to disrupt an externally imposed half peace. Furthermore, continuing Saudi military intervention risks growing resentment among the Yemenis. Insisting on a Riyadh centered diplomatic endeavor and relief effort can prove to be counter-productive. Oman is not part of the Saudi-led coalition and may play a critical diplomatic role at this juncture.

In their joint press conferences Minister al-Jubair and Secretary Kerry tried to underline the solidarity among the two countries.

On Iran, the Saudi Foreign Minister said:
“… Iranian role in Yemen has been a negative one. They have supported the Houthis financially, ideologically, as well as with weapons, and this is not helpful. They have tried to smuggle weapons into Yemen in the midst of this conflict, and we have been able to stop aircraft from landing in Sana’a airport. And the United States has been able to turn back a flotilla of Iranian ships, which we suspect were loaded with weapons that were intended to go to the Houthis. So no, I do not think that Iran’s role in Yemen is a helpful one…
“… The last thing we need on our border is militia armed with missiles, in control of an air force that is loyal to Iran and Hizballah…”

As for the meeting to be held between Gulf leaders and President Obama in Camp David next week Minister al-Jubair said that this is about intensifying and strengthening the security-military relationship between the United States of America and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, as well as dealing with new challenges facing in the region, the foremost of which was the Iranian interference in the affairs of the countries of the region.

Secretary Kerry stated that the US remained deeply concerned about Iran’s activities in the region but was more reserved. He said that a cease-fire is not a substitute for an inclusive, Yemeni-led political dialog that all sides can support. In addressing the agenda of the Camp David meeting he reiterated that Gulf States have been at the very center of America’s national interests for a long time. However, he refrained from singling out Iran and referred to “a broad array of concerns which related to destabilizing efforts and to terrorist organizations”. He obviously had the nuclear deal and the need to engage Iran further for regional stability on his mind.

Tehran may pretend to be annoyed by all this but in reality it should be flattered because Iran is thus attributed greater clout than it actually has in Yemen. Iran may have been helping the Houthis in some ways but this can’t possibly be anything nearing what it has done to support the Assad regime. Tehran does not possess the means to dictate what happens in Yemen. While collateral damage caused by Saudi-led air strikes has been leading to growing international discomfort and protest, it has stressed the need for a Yemeni solution to country’s internal conflict. Iran is currently more interested in the broad picture, more focused on building a different image with a view to playing a greater regional/international role beyond the nuclear deal.

US diplomacy now has two inter-related tasks:
• Assuring its Gulf allies that it continues to care for their interests and that a nuclear deal with Iran will only enhance their security and,
• Securing Houthis’ agreement to Saudi Arabia’s “take it or leave it” cease-fire proposal and thus save Riyadh further trouble.

Lastly, a word about Senegal’s decision to send 2,100 troops to Saudi Arabia as part of the Saudi-led coalition:
Saudi Arabia and Senegal enjoy a close relationship. Riyadh traditionally provides financial support to Senegal and Senegal returns the favor with diplomatic support for Saudi causes in international forums, particularly within the now invisible Organization of Islamic Cooperation. When Riyadh prefers to remain behind the scenes Dakar becomes active. This suits the interests of the two countries. However, sending troops to Saudi Arabia even with the remote possibility of a combat role in Yemen is something different. Pakistan did the right thing by deciding not to send troops to far away Yemen. If the purpose is to show that there are other countries ready to stand by their Saudi allies at this time, this is understandable. Anything beyond that may turn into a big disappointment.

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