Yemen’s Hidden Path to Peace

Yemeni media announced that Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebel movement had exchanged the bodies of 64 fighters along Yemen’s northern border in what has been celebrated as a positive development in relations between the two main belligerents in the country’s eight-year civil war.

Yet it remains unclear whether they can make more substantive progress on reaching a comprehensive cease-fire. Since April, the Houthis have been in negotiations with the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, but so far they have struggled to reach an agreement on such exchanges, let alone on ending the terrible conflict that has torn the country apart, killed hundreds of thousands of Yemenis, and produced one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

In part, the lack of progress stems from the intransigence of the two sides. The Saudis, in backing the Yemeni government, are seeking to maintain a weak and docile Yemeni state that will not threaten Saudi Arabia’s southern border. In turn, the Houthis have refused to enter true cease-fire negotiations until Saudi Arabia unilaterally ends their war, withdraws all Saudi-led military forces, fully ends its blockade of Yemen’s air and naval ports, and commits to open-ended reparations to the Houthi government. In short, the Saudis want the Houthis to give up power, and the Houthis want the Saudis to hand them the entire country on a silver platter.

A larger issue is the lack of legitimacy of the parties themselves. Consider how the Saudis are seen in much of Yemen. In April, when a Saudi-Omani delegation arrived in Sanaa, the capital, to begin the talks with the Houthis, hardly anyone greeted them as peacemakers. Instead, the delegates were portrayed by Houthi media as the principal aggressors in the conflict, while the Saudi-allied Yemeni government was described as having been trivialized by a powerful foreign neighbour that has waged a brutal war for its own ends.

But the Houthis are hardly more popular. Since seizing the capital in 2015, they have established a dictatorial regime and have been accused of widespread repression and human rights violations, along with endemic corruption and open discrimination. Moreover, like the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, the Houthis appear to have accepted foreign support, including from Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shia group, and especially Iran. What the two sides in the current negotiations have in common, then, is that they are both unpopular among the broader Yemeni population and have both become inseparably enmeshed with regional power alliances.

In fact, this is not the first time in Yemen’s history that the country has been caught between two deeply unpopular, foreign-dominated factions. When a similar civil war followed the founding of the Yemen Republic in the 1960s, it took the emergence of a third party to end years of violence and establish a stable, compromise administration with popular legitimacy. If Yemen’s current exile government and the Houthi rebels are going to reach a more lasting settlement, they would do well to learn from this history and include other leaders with greater popular legitimacy in their talks.


In 1962, Yemeni revolutionaries overthrew the country’s centuries-old Zaydi Shia imamate to found the Yemen Arab Republic, an Arab Nationalist state, in the northwestern half of present-day Yemen. But a significant population in the north—including the same tribal groups that currently support the Houthi movement—remained loyal to the deposed imam. Almost immediately, the revolutionary leaders found themselves at war with a militant opposition.

Unable to defend the nascent republic on their own, the revolutionary leaders appealed to the Egyptian government for assistance and Cairo ultimately sent 70,000 troops and one-third of its air force. By backing the republic, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser saw a way to burnish his regional credentials as a champion of pan-Arabism. The northern tribal opposition, in turn, sought support from Saudi Arabia, which feared Nasser’s destabilizing presence on the Arabian Peninsula. To assist the northern tribal militias, Riyadh opened its territory as a safe haven and supported them financially.

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Foreign Affairs
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