Despite the recent expressions of unity within the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) following the al Ula summit, a unified approach towards Yemen appears unlikely. Continued external interference will exacerbate the political stalemate and add to the suffering of the Yemeni people, argue Mahmoud Shamsan and Noman Ahmed in this op-ed.
In 2011, the wave of uprisings across the Middle East reached Yemen as demonstrators protested for social and economic rights. The Yemeni youth revolution is often described as the “stolen uprising” in which many political parties supported by foreign actors hijacked and marginalised the demands of the revolutionary youth. Qatar was one of the countries who supported the uprising from early on, causing concern amongst its neighbours. The Yemeni scenario would soon contribute to the diplomatic rift between Qatar and its Arab neighbours. Yemen suffered much from foreign interference and progress towards a political resolution remains unlikely despite the recent reconciliation within the GCC.
On 3rd, April 2011, Gulf Cooperation Council, supported a Saudi-led initiative to settle the situation by arranging the transfer of power to the then Vice President Abdu Rabbu Mansoor Hadi, following peaceful protests. The following year, an uncontested election confirmed Hadi as the legitimate president and soon a dialogue process, known as the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), was launched to create a federal state with all political factions represented. Unfortunately, the restructuring of the armed forces and the political transition only happened on paper, stalling any progress.
Over the next few years, the domestic situation in Yemen pushed Qatar away from its GCC partners. Qatar’s rapprochement with the Houthis, and generally with Iran, on one front; and their alignment with Al Islah party on the other front angered its neighbours.
However, Qatar and GCC cannot be solely blamed for this deterioration and lack of progress. The Yemeni war is a culmination of decades long crisis of sovereignty. The events in the past ten years. and the recent GCC rift, have simply prolonged the prospects of a political settlement. Fortunately, and to the benefit of the Gulf states, the blockade of Qatar has now been lifted, and the Arabs states involved restored normal ties. This, however, does not entail their policy towards various political actors in Yemen will forthwith be harmonious, as each state has fostered its own proxy actors and identified its interests in the Yemeni political process, and this is likely to persist.
Several scenarios could play out in Yemen in the aftermath of the Gulf reconciliation.
The first scenario entails Qatari support for Saudi security and military policy in Yemen. This scenario will depend on how much the Saudis would want to involve the Qataris in Yemeni affairs. The Al Ula statement coming out of the GCC 41st summit explicitly referred to supporting Yemen at both humanitarian and political levels. The statement, nonetheless, did not explicitly suggest what role would the GCC play in this process.
If Qatar works within the framework of the Arab coalition and within the parameters set by Saudi Arabia, it will have to scale down its tacit support of the Houthi cause and refrain from polishing their political image. Nevertheless, the designation of the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) by the United States, will push Qatar to revaluate its commitment to the Houthis.
The coalition, or at least the UAE, could also require Qatar not to support the Al Islah party due to their links with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is anathema for the Emiratis.
This first scenario is more likely to occur if the Saudi leadership of the Arab coalition involved in Yemen remains uncontested. There are other factors such as pressure that may be forthcoming from the Biden administration which could challenge this Saudi leadership and force it to alter its course. In this case, Qatar may have more leeway in shaping the political future in Yemen. With the current designation of Houthis as a Foreigner Terrorist Organisation (FTO), Qatar may wish to play a mediating role by hosting dialogue between Houthis and the Saudis given that the Houthis would be in a de jure isolation. While this dialogue could open prospects for progress, the Yemeni government would be forced to accept a role for the Houthis’ in Yemen’s political future, an idea that is currently dismissed by the majority in the Yemeni political landscape.
ِIn another scenario, both Qatar and UAE, now with full diplomatic relations restored, could implicitly continue their support of various proxy groups. Hence, the Gulf reconciliation would not reflect a unified policy towards Yemen with each group supporting its ideologically aligned militia group. The Saudi-backed government would then have to suffer from a lack of cooperation from Qatari-supported and UAE-supported political and military factions. If such a situation occurs, the legitimate government would be weakened and the struggle against the Houthis will hit another bump giving the Houthis a higher leverage both militarily and politically despite their designation as a terror organisation. In this scenario the Yemeni political process would face years of further stalemate and the services and security situation in government held areas will likely worsen, with ramifications on the humanitarian situation.
It most cases, the Yemeni government would have to consider, and perhaps accept, a political situation that doesn’t meet its interests. The Houthis will continue pressuring the Yemeni government and deny it the chance to reach its goals. The government itself may continue to be riddled by divisions within its ranks. The clear winner here are the external forces that seek to undermine Yemen’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Those suffering the most from continued political stalemate will be Yemen’s 30 million population of whom critical numbers are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. As Nicholas Kristof said in a recent article in the New York Times, Yemen’s starving children will not cry. Instead, they will remain eerily calm; apathetic and often expressionless in the face of a failing political system.
source: Mahmoud Shamsan is a Yemeni activist focusing on social and political issues of Yemen and the Middle East, and initiator of several cultural and humanitarian initiatives in Aden, Yemen. He is an engineering graduate and is currently based in Turkey. Noman Ahmed is a research associate at LINKS Europe.
photo: Houthi Troops in Yemen's capital, Sanaa (archive picture).