The United Nations Security Council issued a presidential statement last month calling on all parties in Yemen’s internationalized civil war to “engage in peace talks in a flexible and constructive manner without preconditions, and in good faith.” But the warring parties in Yemen do not seem to be listening. While they drag their heels on ceasefire negotiations, a new initiative driven by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is taking shape behind closed doors. Dubbed the “Grand Bargain” by some observers, it threatens to sideline the U.N. peace process. Such a deal would be disastrous, and would repeat the mistakes made in the wake of the 2011 revolution in Yemen. In order to end a popular uprising and avert a war between rival elites, the Gulf States—with support from the wider international community—compelled then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh to hand over power to his deputy in November of 2011. The deal addressed none of the demands Yemen’s revolutionary youth raised; it allowed Saleh to stay in Yemen with immunity from prosecution and influence over much of Yemen’s military, and left the rest of his corrupt regime in place. Three years after the deal was signed, the world learned what Yemenis already knew: war had not been averted, but merely delayed.
To end the violence in Yemen, the international community must instead work towards a peace framework that fulfils the revolution’s demands by ending corruption and authoritarianism, and allowing for a government based on the will of the people to take hold.
Since the Houthi movement staged a coup in Yemen in 2014, the U.N. special envoy has attempted to broker a ceasefire and a political settlement. But nearly three years later, Yemen remains split between the Houthis, and their ally-of-convenience former president Saleh; President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s internationally-recognized government and its Gulf state sponsors; and local stakeholders, including tribal militias and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The international community is officially in consensus that a U.N.-brokered peace agreement is the only way forward, but thus far foreign powers have failed to back up that pro-peace rhetoric with decisive support for the U.N.-led process. Feeding off the apparent indifference of the wider world, the Houthis and the Hadi government have both attacked U.N. envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, rhetorically and literally, each accusing him of bias in favor of the other.
The Grand Bargain
Meanwhile, a “Grand Bargain” is developing in secret. Emirati officials, and more recently Saudi officials, have been meeting with representatives of both the pro-Hadi and pro-Saleh wings of the General People’s Congress (GPC), Yemen’s long-standing ruling party. According to unconfirmed but credible reports, the deal would create a revamped government coalition between the GPC and Islah–a party that includes Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood–with Hadi’s pre-coup prime minister, Khaled Bahah, as president, and former president Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, as defense minister. Essentially, this would be a sequel to the GCC Initiative that ended Ali Abdullah Saleh’s presidency after the lengthy 2011 peaceful revolution, except with even better terms for the ousted dictator. Rather than having to rely on his behind-the-scenes power alone, this deal would position his son to become Yemen’s de facto ruler, just as Saleh always wanted.
There is a real chance that the international community, despite the lip-service it pays to the importance of U.N. leadership, will endorse this Grand Bargain out of expediency. That’s exactly what happened in 2011: Yemen’s ruling parties signed a deal under the GCC’s auspices that shut out the revolutionary youth, the southern independence movement, the Houthis, and civil society. The world signed off on a checklist of superficial reforms because it was easier to let the GCC deal with Yemen than to put in the effort to help the Yemeni people achieve meaningful change. The world turned its back on Yemen in 2011, and it will very likely do so again.
This deal, negotiated without the participation of the U.N. envoy, would be disastrous for Yemen. At its heart, it is merely a reshuffling of the same old corrupt and criminal elites that have been running Yemen into the ground for the last 40 years. Saleh and his brood spent their time in power dismantling and bankrupting the institutions of the state, consolidating personal power and wealth, fomenting internal conflict, and ignoring the multiple economic and structural crises that have facilitated Yemen becoming the world’s worst humanitarian situation today.
The deal is also a recipe for continued violence, as it fails to address the local grievances that caused the present civil war, and the new ones that have emerged from it. Even if Saleh abandons the Houthis in pursuit of Saudi approval, the Houthis, now the most powerful armed movement in Yemen, will not give up the capital and their other spoils without another fight. Southern secessionists, currently in control of multiple provinces and several powerful militias, will not be mollified by vague promises of autonomy under this new deal. AQAP and the local branch of the Islamic State (IS), both of which have made significant territorial and material gains since the war began, will continue to thrive as long as Yemen remains unstable. And the millions of innocent Yemenis trapped between armed groups and megalomaniacal politicians will continue to starve and suffer, while the world’s fleeting attention wanders off to a new war.
The people of Yemen made themselves perfectly clear during the popular uprising of 2011: The elites who have ripped Yemen apart must go, making room for a new generation of leaders, a civil service that has been shackled for too long by inept kleptocrats, and a vibrant civil society that is eager to work for lasting, positive social and political change.
A credible and inclusive peace agreement is also crucial to securing regional and global security interests. U.S. policymakers have two main goals in Yemen today: ensuring that terrorist groups don’t pose a risk to America or its local allies, and preventing the expansion of Iranian influence. AQAP and IS are benefiting directly from instability, and from the coalition’s military and financial assistance to anti-Houthi militias. Iran’s influence over the Houthi-Saleh faction is becoming stronger the longer this war drags on. The right peace deal will help on both fronts.
The international community can either do the hard work that is required to reach an inclusive political resolution to the war and a just post-war reconstruction plan, or it can throw up its hands and let the warring parties carve up the country again and watch as Yemen descends into conflict once more in a few years.
The U.N.-led peace process is deeply flawed. It is not yet inclusive or ambitious enough to bring lasting peace to Yemen. But it can be improved and successfully implemented if the international community is willing to support it. The Saudi-Emirati-GPC Grand Bargain is bad for Yemen; the world can either accept it on the grounds that something is better than nothing, or it can put forward a credible alternative that offers real hope for Yemen. To that end, the international community must launch a diplomatic intervention to revitalize the U.N.-led peace process. And the U.S. must lead.
A U.S.-Led Alternative
To effectively sideline the Grand Bargain, the U.S., U.N., and the rest of the international community must present a framework that fulfills the demands of the 2011 revolution that called for an end to corrupt governance and authoritarian rule, and allows for a government based on merit and the will of the people to take hold.
First, all parties to the conflict should agree that no individual who has served as head of state or held a presidential appointment under President Saleh or the Houthi-GPC administration will be allowed to hold public office after December 2018. This rule will exclude a small number of dedicated public servants, but it is necessary to remove the incentives that have led all parties to spoil the peace process so far. Yemen has more than enough bureaucrats and civil society leaders to administer the state without the help (or hindrance) of older politicians.
Second, the peace plan must include a firm timeline for a series of referendums on self-determination for the southern governorates. Southerners have consistently demanded autonomy and have been consistently ignored. To prevent a southern secession in the immediate post-war period, there must be a clear and democratic path to independence or re-integration that will make southerners more willing and able to participate in Yemen’s reconstruction.
Third, the peace settlement must include accountability for abuses committed by all parties to the conflict. An agreement to codify a request that the International Criminal Court investigate violations of international humanitarian law and human rights since 2011 may seem unattainable, but without accountability, old spoilers will return to destroy Yemen’s peace. If the warring parties refuse to do so as part of a peace agreement, the UNSC should refer the situation in Yemen to the ICC. It will be years–if not decades–before Yemen’s own judiciary is able to handle cases against powerful figures, and bringing violators on all sides to justice cannot wait.
Fourth, and perhaps most controversial, the peace agreement must not include any promises of immunity from prosecution, and it should nullify the immunity agreements included in the 2011 GCC initiative. The immunity provided to former president Saleh in 2011 allowed him to reemerge in 2014 to spoil Yemen’s democratic transition and launch the coup d’etat sparking the current civil war. Without accountability for actors like Saleh, and others who continue to profit from Yemen’s war and corruption, spoilers will continue to act from the sidelines to undermine the next transitional government.
Finally, the parties should agree to the creation of a national reconstruction corps, and fighters who agree to surrender their weapons should be offered jobs within the corps. Yemen has no need for a strong military to defend against external threats. But the proliferation of violence and insecurity throughout the country since 2011 makes it implausible that Yemenis whose only means of income is to fight will lay down their weapons with no other economic alternatives to sustain their livelihoods. The peace process can only prevent the reemergence of civil conflict by jumpstarting significant security sector reform, removing soldiers from the battlefield, and putting them to work rebuilding the country.
Yemen is not yet unsalvageable, but to recover from this devastating war it needs inclusive peace, competent governance, and a great deal of help from the international community. A lasting peace can only come by including Yemenis who have a long-term interest in Yemen’s integral survival, not just those who seek to profit from the spoils of war and use death, destruction, and corruption to secure personal power and influence. UNSC member states and other foreign powers must commit today to supporting a credible U.N.-led peace process, or risk by their inaction condemning Yemen to endless war.