Wednesday,17 October, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)
Wednesday,17 October, 2018
Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

New mediation efforts in Yemen

UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ismaïl Ould Cheikh Ahmed is making visits to Cairo and Tehran in an attempt to step up mediation efforts in the Yemeni crisis, writes Hossam Radman

New mediation efforts in Yemen
New mediation efforts in Yemen

اقرأ باللغة العربية

The recent visit to Cairo by UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ismaïl Ould Cheikh Ahmed was a propitious step towards reviving mediation in the Yemeni conflict after a long period of stagnation.

The turbulent regional climate, the political impasse in Yemen and the persistent warfare had almost frozen peace-making efforts, but Ould Cheikh Ahmed seized on a new regional climate in August in order to give a fresh push to his mediation efforts in the conflict, adding new operational mechanisms.

Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s previous approach, whether at meetings in Kuwait or before that in Geneva, favoured bringing all the parties in the conflict together and hammering out a comprehensive settlement comprising a range of individual security and humanitarian agreements.

As this approach has not worked well, he has decided to alter his priorities and begin with smaller agreements that should eventually lead to a comprehensive settlement.

The new approach has become the cornerstone of recent UN efforts in Yemen. It entails handing the management of the country’s ports to a third and neutral party which would then submit their revenues to the Yemeni Central Bank. The legitimate government of Yemen would then pay the salaries of government employees living in areas under the control of the rebel Houthi-Saleh alliance who have not received their salaries for over a year.

These proposals have been greeted by diverse reactions on the part of local and regional parties, but Ould Cheikh Ahmed is banking on factors that he believes will increase his chances of success.

New players are now participating in the mediation efforts for whom the peace process is in their interests. The EU has also furnished significant support for Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s efforts through its envoy to Yemen, Antonia Calvo Puerta, who visited the Yemeni capital Sanaa earlier this month where she met with leaders of the Houthi-Saleh alliance.

Regionally, the Egyptian presence has stood out. Cairo is as much the capital of Yemeni peace as Riyadh is the capital of the Yemeni war, and it was in Cairo that the majority of the Yemeni politicians and civil society leaders who still hope to resume the political process, such as the Yemeni Socialist Party, the Nasserist Party and a broad swathe of the General Peoples Congress (GPC), met.

The UN envoy is also counting on international pressures on Saudi Arabia, notably from international human rights organisations. Fifteen international relief organisations have urged the warring parties in Yemen to reopen Sanaa Airport, saying in an open letter that the closure of the airport has led to untold numbers of deaths because it has prevented the arrival of urgent humanitarian relief.

The relief agencies’ plea, coming a year after the Saudi-led Coalition closed the airport, added that the closure had also prevented thousands of Yemenis from leaving the country for urgent medical treatment.

Riyadh is also coming under pressure from Washington, where Congress continues to refuse to support US backing of the Saudi-led Coalition’s campaign in Yemen. In an unprecedented vote on 14 July, the House of Representatives approved amendments to the National Defence Authorisation Act which, if passed into law, will bring US military support to a halt.

The amendments demand greater transparency regarding the US role in Yemen by requiring the president to provide Congress with a comprehensive strategy on Yemen policy and the Pentagon to provide reporting on the Saudi-led war.

The bipartisan bill was supported by a large number of Republicans, not anticipated by many observers. While this in itself does not undermine the harmony between the US Trump administration and the Saudi leadership, it should favour mediation efforts.

Ould Cheikh Ahmed has seen an opportunity to step up pressures on the local parties, and he has taken advantage of the weakness of the internationally recognised Yemeni government to compel it to listen to new initiatives. He has also taken advantage of the polarisation in Sanaa in order to win support for these initiatives, even if he has only gained partial support thus far.

The UN envoy’s actions have worked to redraw the map of political alliances in Yemen and around the Yemeni crisis. Cairo and Brussels have positioned themselves as supporters of his initiatives, while the US administration has departed from the course taken by the former Obama administration and aligned itself with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, which have tried to undermine UN efforts.

The stances have been clear from the reactions of the three parties. In late July, Riyadh claimed it had intercepted a ballistic missile targeting Mecca in advance of the main pilgrimage season. The Houthi-Saleh alliance has denied being behind the missile, and observers believe the claim is a bid on the part of Riyadh to stir up public opinion against the alliance in Sanaa and renewed peace efforts.

Abu Dhabi announced in late July that its Coalition-supported forces had retaken the Khaled bin Al-Walid military camp in western Yemen following an escalation in the fighting in the western coastal areas.

The responses by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi converged with Washington’s at the hands of its ambassador to Yemen, Mathew Tueller, who spoke of positive signs behind closed doors coming from former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s party, the GPC, on the subject of the handover of the port of Hodeida.

Tueller thereby managed to deepen tensions within the rebel alliance and to compel the GPC to deny that it had accepted Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s initiatives. Just before this, Saleh had caused the Yemeni parliament, in which his party holds the majority, to approve the handover of all Yemen’s seaports and airports to a third party that would manage them in exchange for a truce, a halt to the bombardments, and the payment of salaries.

Locally, the legitimate government has followed the course set out by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in actions on the ground. In response to the Ould Sheikh Ahmed initiatives, Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr visited the port city of Mocha, the most senior official to visit the city since it was liberated.

Sanaa is divided against the backdrop of the new initiatives. While Saleh picked up on the ports initiative through a parliamentary proposal expanding it to include all airports and seaports, he was forced to retract in order to prevent a wedge from being driven deeper into the ranks of the alliance following the statements of the US ambassador.

The Houthi reception of the UN envoy has been conspicuously frosty. Saleh Al-Sammad, head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council in Sanaa, said that Ould Cheikh Ahmed was “not welcome” in the Yemeni capital and that he “could no longer be trusted,” and it was for this reason that the council rejected the proposed initiatives.

However, the Houthi rejection runs up against Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s scepticism and the lack of trust between the Houthi Movement and the GPC. It is noteworthy that the GPC’s call for a mass rally on 24 August to commemorate the anniversary of the founding of the party was not greeted warmly by Houthi leaders.

Deep down, the Houthis fear that the UN initiative is intended to usher in an extensive solution that will close off opportunities for them to extend their influence in Yemeni governmental institutions, something which would have occurred had it not been for the war.

The Houthis also fear the return of the GPC as the largest, most effective and best-organised political force in the country, giving that party’s leadership the upper hand. Up until now, the Houthis have had the upper hand in the Sanaa-based alliance.

The recent exchanges of flatteries between Saleh and Mohamed bin Salman have increased Houthi suspicions and augmented fears that they will emerge weaker when the war is over.

In the face of Houthi intransigence, the UN envoy has embarked on the bold step of a visit to Tehran in the hope that Iran will now put pressure on its allies in Yemen. However, it is doubtful that this visit will be as positive as the one to Cairo. In an initial reaction from Yemen, Hamid Rizq, a notable Houthi figure on the Al-Masira TV channel, denounced Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s visit as a “true insult” to the Yemeni people.

“Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s movements seek to convey the message that the will of patriotic forces resides in Tehran. Such actions prove how right the chairman of the Supreme Political Council was in refusing to deal with him,” Rizq said.

At the same time, Al-Sammad announced from the Houthi base in Saada that “the army and the people’s committees have moved from the defensive to the offensive.” While the statement is imprecise, it reflects the many complexities that continue to hamper the mediation efforts that Ould Sheikh Ahmed’s visit to Tehran may do nothing to reduce.

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