Give Peace a Chance: Could Saudi Arabia broker a permanent ceasefire in Yemen?

By Cooper Stewart

Since 2015, a civil war has been raging in Yemen between Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s Yemeni government and Houthi rebels. While the war began as a conflict localized within Yemen, it quickly morphed into a key theater for regional and international rivalries to play out, with Iran supporting the Houthi rebels and the United States and Saudi Arabia throwing their support behind Hadi’s faction. 

The humanitarian consequences of this conflict have been catastrophic. In February, the United Nations warned that almost 10 million people in the country are suffering from “extreme levels of hunger” and that an estimated 80% of the population requires assistance and protection. Compounding on top of the humanitarian crisis is the fact that the Islamic State has managed to embed itself in the country amidst the instability, a suicide bombing in the port city of Aden (which killed thirteen people) as one of their most recent atrocities in the country.

Although many want to see an end to the fighting, both sides have repeatedly failed to reach any sort of substantive peace deal. The two almost achieved peace in November of 2016, when they agreed to a 2-day truce. The ceasefire quickly broke down, however, with both the Houthi rebels and the Hadi-backed forces claiming that the other violated the terms of the truce; Saudi Arabia claimed the Houthis violated the treaty 180 times in the 48 hour span, while a spokesperson for the Houthi rebels claimed the Hadi coalition violated the treaty 114 times during the same time period.

As the war drags on and the situation grows increasingly bleak, calls for peace and a de-escalation of the conflict have continued to intensify around the globe. In April, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bipartisan measure to cut off U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition. Although the measure was vetoed by President Trump, the measure highlighted growing concerns in the United States about the consequences of the bloody conflict. 

Perhaps even more importantly, however, Saudi Arabia, the foreign power most directly involved in the conflict, has begun initiating more successful peace talks and deals between the various fractured groups in Yemen.

First, the Saudi government moved the country closer towards stability by brokering a power-sharing agreement between two anti-Houthi factions that splintered off from one another: Hadi’s government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC). The STC broke off from Hadi’s Yemen in 2017 with the help of the United Arab Emirates and launched a rebellion against Hadi’s forces in southern Yemen. The new deal between the two factions, dubbed the Riyadh Agreement, will bring an end to at least one dangerous power struggle in the region.

Then, while Saudi Arabia pursued unity amongst its allies in Yemen, it also held talks with the Houthi rebels in an attempt to form a deal that could ultimately bring lasting peace to Yemen. In early November, it was reported that Saudi officials and Houthi rebels had been holding indirect negotiations since September of this year. Relations between the two parties have improved since these talks began, with Houthis pledging they will “stop aiming missiles and drones at Saudi Arabia.”

What is unique about this round of peace talks, as compared to the 2016 ceasefire, is that Saudi Arabia finds itself much more politically vulnerable now than it was then. Their vulnerability can be tied to first, the waning international support for their involvement in the civil war and second, to the Houthi rebels interfering with Saudi Arabia’s precious oil resources.

Saudi Arabia has lost a great deal of support from two of its most crucial coalition members: the United States and Sudan. The bipartisan nature of the measure from the U.S. Congress, which would completely end all U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s coalition, indicates that many in the United States want the conflict to end. This sends a message to Saudi Arabia that they will no longer have a guarantee that they will receive the vital military aid from America to continue this war. Sudan’s recent regime change also deals a huge blow to the Saudi’s war efforts. The new government is currently in the process of withdrawing some 10,000 troops from Yemen, leaving the coalition facing manpower shortages on the front lines.

Finally, the Houthi rebels recently launched a devastating drone attack on two key oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, striking a major blow to their economy. Beyond the economic worries this attack generated, it also demonstrated to many Saudis that even after years of brutal fighting, the Houthi had still not been subdued and were still capable of causing damage to Saudi Arabia. Combined together, these new developments have put Saudi Arabia in a position where they are far more inclined to seek peace in Yemen than ever before.

Although these factors have pushed Saudi Arabia into searching for peace, however, they have only resulted thus far in Saudi Arabia brokering separate deals between itself and the Houthi rebels and itself and anti-Houthi factions. In order to achieve lasting peace in this conflict, which necessitates peace between Houthis and Hadi, Saudi Arabia will have to come to terms with its major rival and the principal supporter of the Houthis: Iran.

One of the main reasons for Saudi involvement in this conflict was to prevent Iran from gaining a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula (and on their border). Therefore, the final resolution to the Yemeni Civil War will hinge upon whether the two Middle Eastern powers can make an agreement that would end their involvement in this proxy war. In other words, until both Iran and Saudi Arabia pledge to withdraw from the country, both will simply continue to pour resources into and prolong the conflict.

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