Yemen – Hopeful Ceasefire in Hodeida

Yemen – Hopeful Ceasefire in Hodeida

An immediate ceasefire in Yemen’s besieged city of Hodeida came into effect on 18 December and was the first serious step towards establishing peace in the war-torn kingdom. A resumption in violence now threatens the fragile agreement. However, the shifting narrative concerning Saudi Arabia’s role will play a critical role in resolving the conflict – or at least in alleviating the tragic humanitarian crisis.

A breakthrough in Yemeni peace talks

On 6 December 2018, UN-brokered talks brought together warring factions for the first talks in two years. After a week of negotiations in Sweden, UN Security General Antonio Guterres announced the ceasefire agreement between the Iranian-backed Houthis and the Yemeni government.

UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths outlined the main achievements of the agreement as; President Abdu Rabbuh Mansour Hadi agreeing to pay the salaries of civil servants in Houthi-controlled areas, the exchange of prisoners between warring groups and most importantly, a ceasefire in Hodeida, which gives the UN control of the strategic port, allowing crucial humanitarian aid to reach Sana’a and other affected parts of the country. Troops are set to withdraw first from Hodeida, and then from the wider city.

The agreement came to fruition amidst mounting international pressure to mitigate the crisis. The attendance of both Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdul-Salam and the Yemeni FM Khaled Al-Yamani was an important indicator that the ceasefire initiated a long-term peace process.

UN ceasefire under threat

On Friday 21 December, a resolution was unanimously passed by the UNSC, authorising the UN Secretary General to deploy a monitoring team to Yemen to oversee the preliminary ceasefire. Despite the willingness of key players such as Saudi Arabia and Iran to back the UN agreement at this stage, the progress is tenuous. Whilst both sides have largely stuck to the ceasefire, there have been accusations of breaches by both parties. On 10 January 2019, a drone attack by the Houthis on a military parade killed numerous government soldiers and seriously jeopardizes the prospects of further peace talks.

However, the growing international outcry for humanitarian concerns in Hodeida, as well as support from the UN in the form of a new resolution to support the Hodeida agreement (UNMHA), provide strong incentives for the Houthis and the government to cooperate. The initial willingness of the factions, as well as regional players such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, to back the initial UN agreement, signals that peaceful progress is possible. If all parties remain committed and cooperate with the UN monitoring team, then a broader regional ceasefire is possible.

Shifting attitudes towards Saudi Arabia

The Saudi-backed government of Yemen lost control of the port city Hodeida to Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in 2015, and it is no coincidence that the tides of peace are shifting as Saudi Arabia’s standing in the international community has been challenged. The future of Yemen is closely tied to Saudi geopolitics, and recent political events impacting the powerful kingdom are increasing the likelihood of a tenable peace for its warring neighbour.

 The killing of Jamal Khashoggi is an example of a recent event that has contributed to Saudi Arabia’s threatened stature. U.S senators have made it known that they believe that the crown price is complicit in the murder of Khashoggi. The murder also focused the world’s attention on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, something that had previously been ignored. The Saudi narrative explaining the death of Khashoggi has been widely criticised and diminished their public credibility, casting further doubt on the Saudi interpretation of the war in Yemen. This partly explains Saudi Arabia’s decision to opt for diplomacy with the Houthis and their support for the ceasefire.

 The U.S. Senate’s recent vote to end its involvement in the war also signals that  Saudi Arabia is falling out of favour, sending a clear message to MBS that he no longer has unconditional support. This will not compel Saudi Arabia to drastically change its foreign policy, as both the Kingdom and the U.S have many common regional interests, including quelling the threat of Iran. However, Saudi Arabia will be well-served by changing its strategy in Yemen if it is to win back support from figures in the U.S. Winding down the war and embracing the ceasefire will do that.

Beyond the U.S., the broader international community has largely supported the war through arms sales and have overlooked the humanitarian crisis raging in Yemen. However, with this public condemnation of MBS, a number of countries have indicated their intentions to cut weapons exports to Saudi Arabia. Germany, Norway, and Denmark have all suspended new licenses for arms exports, specifically citing their concerns over their use in the war in Yemen. In order to salvage their reputation and their standing amongst the international community, Saudi Arabia may follow the path laid out by the UN and cease hostilities in the near future.

Hopes for peace

The reputational damage caused by Khashoggi’s murder should not be underestimated, with Saudi Arabia facing increasing international pressure. However, if the Saudi-led coalition were to leave the conflict, this would not completely end the fighting in Yemen – indeed, the existing conflict between the Houthis and the government require complex negotiations.

With that said, the Hodeida ceasefire is still a noteworthy step towards lasting peace. The willingness of the Houthis and the government to come to the table demonstrates a newfound desire to achieve peace. The UN, by way of its Special Envoy Griffiths, needs to acts quickly to sustain the agreement and support the peace process on the ground.



About Author

Qasim Abdul-Aziz

Qasim Abdul-Aziz works with the Next Century Foundation, a think tank and track II diplomacy organisation that operates in various conflict zones, primarily the Middle East. Holds a bachelors in law and masters degree in Political Theory from the University of Birmingham.