By Veena Ali-Khan, a Yemen and Persian Gulf researcher based in New York.
The crisis in the Gaza Strip demonstrates how quickly a protracted conflict can escalate. This is concerning for Yemen, where faltering peace talks have largely frozen fighting, but a de facto truce has yielded little progress since it took effect in April 2022. Since last November, Saudi Arabia—which backs the main government forces—has sought to accelerate the peace process by hammering out a deal directly with the government’s rivals, the Iran-backed Houthis, sidestepping both its own Yemeni partners on the ground and the United Nations.
In recent months, however, Saudi Arabia’s hopes for a fast-track peace process have been dashed, and the Houthis are threatening to return to the battlefield. As the Houthi-Saudi talks continue with little evidence of progress, sidelining Western players could pose future challenges for Riyadh and the West.
To avoid more fighting—and further escalation in the region as the Houthis launch long-range missiles that appear to be targeting Israel—Saudi Arabia should bring the United Nations and Yemeni parties back into the fold to revitalize an inclusive, U.N.-led peace process. Even if both sides appear to have incentives to avoid U.N. involvement for now, further conflict and instability is a threat to both Saudi and Houthi long-term interests.
Since 2015, the Houthis have been at war with the government of Yemen and its regional backers, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Today, the Houthis are militarily dominant. Despite Riyadh’s desire to oust the group, it has a strong grip on Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and the country’s most populated territories, including the highland areas where around 80 percent of the population resides.
Riyadh is in a hurry to end the conflict. Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has spent an estimated more than $265 billion on its campaign in Yemen. Riyadh now wants to shift its focus to Vision 2030, an ambitious domestic plan to overhaul its economy, including by attracting international tourists. The Houthis could spoil this plan by firing missiles across the border at Saudi Arabia, as they have done throughout the war. Riyadh needs fighting in Yemen to end to guarantee its own security.
In April 2022, Yemen’s warring parties agreed to a U.N.-brokered truce. But five months later, it was not renewed after the government refused to agree to the Houthis’ last-minute demands that their civil and military salaries be paid using the government’s income from oil and gas exports.
Since then, an Omani-facilitated backchannel for Saudi Arabia and the Houthis has become the main venue for negotiations. Riyadh has excluded the U.N., Western actors, and the Yemeni government from ongoing talks in hopes that this would expedite the path to peace.
On Sept. 14, a Houthi delegation traveled to Riyadh to meet with Saudi negotiators. This unprecedented visit came six months after the Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed al-Jaber, traveled to Sanaa for discussions with Houthi officials. While Riyadh said the meeting had “positive results,” there was little sign of a breakthrough.
More recently, on Oct. 18, Saudi Arabia’s defense minister, Khalid bin Salman, presented a proposal to members of the Yemeni government. According to my discussions with the warring sides, the general framework of a Houthi-Saudi pact seems to be in place, though some minor details remain to be resolved. The deal is based on a proposal initially introduced by Oman.
The Houthis have not compromised on their conditions to end the war. Their demands include lifting all movement restrictions on Sanaa International Airport and the Houthi-held port of Hodeida; ensuring the payment of salaries for all state employees—including military and security personnel—from government oil revenue. Only after these conditions are met will the group consider entering Yemeni-Yemeni talks with its adversaries. Their additional demands include the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Yemen and Saudi Arabia covering reconstruction costs.
Based on my past discussions with a Saudi official, Riyadh appears willing to accede to most of the Houthis’ demands if the group agrees to a permanent cease-fire. It has also signaled, albeit less forcefully, that it wants the Houthis to commit to engaging in future U.N.-led talks with their Yemeni rivals.
A major sticking point, however, is the issue of salary payments—namely, the mechanism by which salary payments will be distributed. Also, the Houthis are adamant that state employees in territories they control be paid by profits from government oil exports. This poses a significant challenge for the government, as those earnings comprise the majority of its total revenue. The Houthis want a sustainable revenue source to guarantee their economic autonomy and ensure they can govern regardless of the conflict’s outcome. They unsuccessfully attempted to secure this militarily by trying to seize the city of Marib’s oil fields in 2021 and are now pursing the same goals via negotiation.
The two sides appear to have found a workaround for the issue of salary payments. Saudi Arabia has agreed to cover the Houthis’ salaries for one year, making payments in two installments. During this period, both the government of Yemen and the Houthis will establish economic committees to negotiate and iron out the technicalities of a lasting revenue-sharing agreement between the two sides.
Another obstacle is that Riyadh wants to be recognized by the Houthis as a mediator, rather than a party to the conflict, in a likely bid to avoid bearing reconstruction costs.
Saudi Arabia is also aware that this could all be a hard sell for its nominal partner—the Yemeni government, as represented by the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC). Understandably, the PLC is vexed that its oil wealth is being negotiated without its input. Furthermore, Riyadh is operating under the assumption that if it concedes to the Houthis’ demands, the group will engage in intra-Yemeni talks to reach a settlement. But the Yemeni government fears that if Riyadh fully concedes to the Houthis and thereby exits the conflict, the Houthis may attempt to seize the entire country.
There are suspicions that Riyadh may prioritize its own interests and forsake its Yemeni allies once an agreement is reached.
The Yemeni government’s concerns are exacerbated by the fact that Saudi Arabia has recently excluded it from its talks with the Houthis. This has raised suspicions that Riyadh may prioritize its own interests and forsake its Yemeni allies once an agreement is reached. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has not assured the government that it will provide military support if Yemen slips back into conflict. If the Houthis launch an offensive—which is not certain—the Yemeni government will fight back, but its success would hinge partly on whether Riyadh provides crucial air support or abandons it in an Afghanistan-style scenario.
Yet, another round of fighting—and a potential Houthi takeover—is an outcome that Saudi Arabia wants to avoid, too. Riyadh wants to prevent future instability. Even if the Houthis manage to gain control over the whole country after making peace with Riyadh, their ability to maintain power would be questionable. They face significant opposition from their Yemeni rivals, most particularly the military might of groups backed by the United Arab Emirates, such as the Giants Brigades, which have successfully repelled the Houthis in key fronts in the provinces of Shabwah and Marib.
Overall, a resurgence of the local conflict that could shift the front lines would only worsen the fragile security situation, which is something that Saudi Arabia, being Yemen’s neighbor, won’t be able to ignore.