Yemen’s Sectarian Divide

27 May 2015

Saudi-led airstrikes against Yemen’s Houthis started on 26 March. On 14 April the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2216 giving Saudi Arabia what may be called a diplomatic victory.
The Resolution urged all Yemeni parties to respond positively to the call by President Hadi of Yemen to attend a conference in Riyadh under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council, to support the political transition in Yemen and the UN-brokered negotiations. The President had been forced by the Houthis to flee Aden and seek refuge in Saudi Arabia just before the launching of airstrikes.
Despite the wording of the Resolution and the temporary cease-fire declared by the Saudis, a Riyadh centered diplomatic endeavor stood little chance of success in view of the resentment the air campaign had created among the Houthis.

The Riyadh Conference started on Sunday 17 May under the slogan “Saving Yemen & Building a Federal State”. The Houthis did not attend and insisted that the talks be held in Yemen. The three-day meeting ended with a statement supporting President Hadi, the Saudi-led air campaign and urging the Houthis to put down their weapons and withdraw from all areas they had seized as foreseen under Resolution 2216. In other words, the Riyadh Conference failed to make concrete progress.

On Monday there was another setback. The Yemeni officials and politicians were notified that the UN-brokered Geneva peace talks to achieve an inclusive, negotiated settlement to the Yemen conflict would not start on Thursday as scheduled. It was understood that the Houthis were willing to participate in the Geneva talks but rejected Resolution 2216.

As many observers agree the Saudi-led airstrikes against the Houthis were launched not because Riyadh considered them a profound security threat but because it wanted Tehran to understand that there were limits to it regional reach. While being generous to Riyadh with Resolution 2216, the US and others must have advised the Saudis that they should give their full support to political dialogue not only to avert further bloodshed but also to avoid open-ended involvement in Yemen’s troubles. While it is understandable that the fighting could not be stopped in such a short span of time, some capitals can begin questioning the wisdom of giving extensive diplomatic support to Riyadh if there is no progress in the political track.

Yemen is only one of the sectarian conflicts facing Arab countries. Iran may indeed have been trying to extend its regional reach by exploiting divisions in Iraq, Syria as well as Yemen but it is the internal conflict, Arabs fighting Arabs which gives Tehran the opportunity.

Perhaps it is time for Arab countries to engage in a collective effort to find better means of bridging the sectarian divide and restoring their Arab identity as a common denominator. A Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) “Marshall plan for Yemen” could be a beginning.

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