A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
“Nothing has driven you like delusion.”
Ibn Atta’a Allah As-Sakandri
When catastrophe strikes, one must think about how to overcome it; but when catastrophe turns into a chaotic nightmarish reality that festers and develops into a situation seemingly with no way out, reaching a solution requires thinking about the thinking process itself. That is, attempting to put forth determinants that can pull together the frayed disorder of reality, rendering possible any thinking about rational solutions. That is the status quo of Yemen today. And if the obvious solution to the problem of war is peace, we must not only think about ways of reaching peace but also, and before that, we must provide a critique of the context in which we think about peace and try to discover frames of deliberation where our approaches to the topic of peace in Yemen could develop.
Myths surrounding the conflict
The first obstacle encountered when thinking realistically about peace is the widely shared mythology about the truth of the conflict, and that is not a simple matter. All the well-known approaches to establishing peace are tainted by deeply rooted misconceptions about the war in Yemen, which hinder any meaningful discussions about it. There are different and even contradictory positions and points of view about this war. However, what is meant by ‘mythology’ in this context are the ideas and standpoints that are not based on Yemeni reality but instead are based on interpretations that enforce clichés about the reality of this war. Clichés that earned their legitimacy as basic analytic principles by virtue of being simple and by being repeated, by being shared by diverse sources, and by the fact that they have been circulated by media outlets of regional and international political powers. These myths are various and affect all aspects of the current Yemeni state of affairs; however, this article will focus on what immediately touches on the framework in which the topic of peace is being discussed.
“An absurd war that does not concern the Yemeni people.”
In the 12th century, the geographer and thinker Ibn Jubayr wrote:
“…Still the caravans passed successively from Egypt to Damascus, going through the lands of the Franks without impediment from them. In the same way the Muslims continuously journeyed from Damascus to Acre [through Frankish territory], and likewise not one of the Christian merchants was stopped or hindered [in Muslim territories]. The Christians impose a tax on the Muslims in their land which gives them full security; and likewise, the Christian merchants pay a tax upon their goods in Muslim lands. Agreement exists between them, and there is equal treatment in all cases. The soldiers engage themselves in their war, while the people are at peace and the world goes to him who conquers.” 
This was how Ibn Jubayr described the state of the Arabic Middle East during the Crusades and just before Saladin conquered Jerusalem. War did not change much about the people’s lives: it remained first and foremost a conflict between the soldiers (or a better translation, ‘war people’). Meanwhile, daily life generally continued as it was in spite of the distress of war.
This was possible in the time of Ibn Jubayr because humanity still existed in the era of groups and not yet of societies, the era of empires and not yet states. In the era of empires, the state of affairs of groups would not change significantly even when rulers or authorities changed. Many things would remain the same: the hierarchy within the group, their self-organization, the imperial authority’s distant attitude in relation to the group’s internal affairs, the obligation to pay taxes and levies in return for protection from invasion attempts.
In the modern state matters are different. Once war, any war, breaks out, it turns into a direct war between societies, communities get embroiled in it and all social structures are affected by it, regardless of morals, values, and definitions of right and wrong. One of the main dilemmas in the Yemeni public debate is that society and its elite live in the fundamental frameworks of the modern state but think of themselves and consider their reality as if they were part of an empire. This applies to discussions of various topics such as public services, the state apparatus, critiques of economic and scientific backwardness, the understanding of history, as well as war. In Yemen today, the main parties in the war (the government, the Houthi movement, the Southern Transitional Council) do not fight over the possession of land and what land produces, but mostly over the ‘possession’ of the people who inhabit the land, the Yemenis; and it is the Yemenis who are the ones on which the plans of the victor are being and will be enforced. The plans of the authorities in the modern state invade and define every aspect of an individual’s life: education, health, work, insurance, identity, religiosity, laws, doctrine, geographical boundaries, taxes, the political system, narratives of the past, the shape of the future, and even the simplest human rights such as the right to travel, speak, work, or the right to dignity — the three war parties are fighting mainly over the definition and control of all of these aspects and implementing their vision of them on the Yemeni people. This alongside the fact that it is all happening to the Yemeni people: fighting taking place between them, estimated to be in their tens of thousands (2); millions of displaced people; thousands of dead, wounded, detained, disappeared, and those who have committed suicide; millions that the three parties exploited (to varying degrees); and humiliated by poverty. If anyone has anything to do with this war, it is undoubtedly the Yemenis first and foremost. The conflict happens through them and against them, the political projects of the victor will be applied on them, and the victims, with all possible definitions of the word ‘victim’, are the Yemenis. Based on this, there is no such thing as an ‘absurd war’; there is an absurdity that we may see in the daily details of the war, in witnessing children murdered every day for no reason, and in the vindictive sadistic torture in prisons and detention centers. However, the war itself is not absurd. This is a conflict not only about control but also about determining the conditions and possibility of existence of an entire people.
‘A proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran’
Since the regional conflict erupted after the setback of the Arab revolutions in 2011, the label ‘proxy wars’ has become widely shared among foreign experts—and as usual, picked up by their Arab colleagues—in various contexts to describe conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq and Lebanon. The idea of proxy wars comes embedded with images that portray societies as stray herds whose members have no will of their own and can easily be turned into tools of violent conflicts by other ‘rational’ societies that have a strong will. Usually this label would suggest compassion for the victims, but at its core it is mere pity for communities and nations. And when pity goes beyond the scope of the individuals into the realm of the masses, it turns into its worst version because it develops a racist undertone: the condescending pity one has for the naive people who play the role of pawns in a conflict between greater powers. There is another interesting fact in this context: categorizing this struggle as a war by proxy hinders conscious and clear self-critique: if the war is nothing but a conflict between greater powers and we are mere victims, then this means that at worst our only mistake is our naivety and backwardness. Thus, with remarkable ease, we absolve ourselves from clear and specific responsibilities for a war that is raging between us and on our land! As a result, a hazy, strange solution emerges that a large number of Yemeni ‘cultural elites’ perpetuate, which is the magical phrase ‘get rid of backwardness’. This theme is one of the loopholes which some Yemeni writers and analysts use to avoid going through a rational straightforward discussion about the war: a discussion that necessitates intellectual courage, self-critique and a sense of duty. Instead, they choose to discuss strange and sometimes marginal issues far from the topics of war and peace, and society and state reform in Yemen. These intellectuals claim righteousness through discriminatory criticisms of their society which they label as bold social critiques of their country’s backwardness, and an indirect critique of war, since the first—even though we have no definition of it—is deemed to be the cause of the latter. The Yemeni war has overlapping contexts, one of which is the regional context, but this should not lead us to forget for a moment that the most important context is interaction within the country itself. Otherwise, war would have broken out in Oman or Djibouti, for example. The civil war in Yemen, which reached the point of no return with the fall of the capital, Sana’a, to the Houthi movement on 21 September 2014, was the local version of a counterrevolution, where a large part of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime allied with the Houthi militia, trying to revive the regime again after successive failed attempts during the transitional phase, using the means that the February Revolution provided (3) to formally restore the Saleh family to power and bring an end to the political and social dynamics that started with the 11 February 2011 revolution. The counterrevolution in Yemen turning into a civil war; the presence of a sectarian militia in a modern state; the initiative that the former president of the republic took to form a coalition with this militia; the fact that a large sector of his party and its social base encouraged this alliance that broke all rules of consensus in the Yemeni public sphere since 1962; and the attempt of parties, political forces and a large number of intellectuals to normalize the presence of a counterrevolution coalition with a sectarian-regionalist flavor in a remarkably calm way: all of these phenomena are deeply rooted in the Yemeni local sphere. There are broad themes that can be used and studied rationally to make sense of the civil war in Yemen and some of its trends, such as the following. The fetal state of the Yemeni republic and its short existence; the inability of the February Revolution to produce structures and leadership; the legitimacy crisis of the regime; the interference of Saleh’s family with the state, the regime, the bureaucracy, and the party in a way that is rarely found even in absolute monarchies; and a neglected, economically deteriorating countryside that is deprived of services, where two-thirds of the population lives. Added to that, ruralized cities with aging, outdated intellectual elites because the city’s institutions (universities, youth clubs, trade unions, cultural forums) are no longer capable of playing their role in reinvigorating the nation and reproducing a new elite class; the desertion of civil society since the 1990s; a deteriorating economy whose progress slowed down dramatically after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which ‘coincided’ with its transformation from a rentier economy dependent on immigrants abroad (that is, exporting people and turning them into a workforce) to a rentier economy that depends on oil exports, setting the people aside and reducing their political and economic weight; the decline of the national bourgeoisie; the obstruction led by the Saleh regime since 1994 of the process of forming a national identity that had existed since the struggles of the enlightenment generation in both sides of Yemen in the 1930s; and the state’s withdrawal from the task of achieving social integration that the two republics of the North and South had begun in the 1960s. It is possible to understand and define the interests and motives behind the interference of a foreign state to support an internal party in a civil war, and it is possible to understand the capability of foreign forces to distort a civil conflict, but this does not explain the civil war itself. The support of a foreign country does not explain why tens of thousands of people go to fight and to die. The civil war is therefore primarily the spawn of the Yemeni reality. The counterrevolution camp was Arab, not just Yemeni. And Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s neighboring country, was its Arab leader. However, at the same time, the party that profited the most from the counterrevolution was not Saudi Arabia, but another leading force of the counterrevolution camp, Iran, as its influence expanded within the Arab East and Yemen, and it has become more powerful and more daring. Iran’s influence did not expand because of the revolutions, but because of the counterrevolutions—a historical fact that is sometimes ignored in the analysis of Arab public affairs—which played a decisive role in Yemen. The connections between these contexts—the counterrevolution in Yemen and the paradox of the collision of the Saudi and Iranian leaderships of the counterrevolution, as well as Iran’s success in achieving great progress at the expense of the Arabs in general, and Saudi security in particular—was enriched by an additional event: Saudi Arabia entering a dangerous transitional phase from a system of bureaucratic feudalism to an absolute monarchy with the rise of Salman bin Abdulaziz to power in early 2015. To sum up, the last thing the civil war in Yemen should be called is a ‘proxy war’.
‘Foreign powers control the conflict sides’
This is an idea that could be easily linked to the previous idea, and is sometimes even equated with it, but the distinction between them is important in the context of the topic of peace. If the Houthis are affiliated with Iran, and the government is subordinate to Saudi Arabia, then peace is possible through reaching an agreement between these foreign powers to end the war. This thinking is unrefined and does not differentiate between the ability of foreign parties to pressure their allies (or even followers) to a particular point and their ability to control them. To critique the idea that foreign powers control the war, the reality of its respective parties must be analyzed along with a calibration of the ratio between their strength and their presence on the ground against their need for external support.
The Houthi movement’s strength is often underestimated because many analysts do not bother studying it and its complex Yemeni context, but rather simply equate it with militias affiliated with Iran in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. The Houthis are allied with Iran and are part of its regional axis, at least since its formation as a counterrevolution alliance after 2011. They give Iran weight strategically, but are not financially or militarily subordinate to Iran (4). The Houthi movement is certainly the largest and most powerful ally of Iran among all the Arab militias. First, the Houthi movement has a connection with modern Yemeni history. It is the historical successor of the Imamate system during the days of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom, against which the revolution of 26 September 1962 took place and aimed to build a republic and a modern state. It is therefore, in its roots, familiar with the modern Yemeni struggle. It is a restoration of those roots and a counterrevolution not only to the February revolution but also to the September revolution. It is a resurrection of the Imamate sultanate state and its ethno-sectarian system, but in the form of an ethnic sectarian ideology that uses the means of modernity (modern weapons, compulsory education, media, bureaucracy). This is why the Houthis, despite all the comparisons with the Mutawakkilite Kingdom, are much more violent and ferocious than the Imams’ state, and this is where they differ from the Iraqi militias, for example, whose late sultanate state did not know a sectarian-ethnic system at the beginning of its modern history. The Houthi movement is peculiar when it comes to religion and the pattern of religiosity and sectarianism that it adopts and propagates. Despite starting from Zaidism and trying to claim to represent it, its semiotic and ritualistic aspects (ceremonial rituals, colors, occasions, the architecture of its leaders memorials and the engineering of the graves of its deceased, its methods of creating charisma for its chief and its leaders, its ways of transforming its deceased war heroes into symbols and myths, etc.) are all taken, in detail, from the Iranian sphere, which uses the modern state to fuse sectarianism into nationalism. The second aspect that distinguishes the Houthi movement from other militias affiliated with Iran is its fundamental self-sufficiency. By allying with Saleh, the Houthi movement was able to control the capital, Sana’a, in 2014, in a country that suffered from severe centralization during the Saleh era. This meant that it had hold over the crux of bureaucracy and the core of the state apparatus in one stroke, and this is still one of the leverage points that no other party can claim in the Yemeni war. For example, if the Yemeni government tried to perform its tasks freely, it would find itself forced to rebuild the entire state apparatus. This is in addition to having at its disposal various security and intelligence agencies and services, and archives of their reports and operations which are concentrated in Sana’a. Therefore, the Houthis have a clear advantage over other parties on the intelligence side, added to the fact that these security services were inherited with their cadres, officials and expertise that the republic, North and South, accumulated over half a century. On the other hand, the Houthi movement has a large demographic weight, estimated at millions, that cannot be rivaled by another political or military party. This enables it to finance itself easily. And because it stems from the sultanate state, the Houthi movement does not spend these substantial revenues on public service, such as building roads, building schools, water projects, developing the health sector, or even paying civil servants salaries, but instead spends them within the movement, on their own agencies, on the parasitic social strata that it has created [especially the supervisors (Mushrifin) class], and in financing the war, as the movement’s expenditures are not subject to any legal monitoring, popular questioning or parliamentary scrutiny. To give an idea of the financial leverage the Houthi movement has and the way it profits from the population located in its areas of control, we know that it was able, by force, to obtain 19 billion Yemeni Riyals and more than a 1,000 tons of grain from Zakat alone in 2019 (5), in addition to the resources that the port of Hodeidah offers, and the taxes the movement imposes on merchants, whether they belong to the petty bourgeoisie or whether they are important merchants, businessmen or farmers. In addition, it also imposes fees on factories, customs at the entrances to Sana’a and other cities, the oil trade, the black market, and occasionally royalties. Furthermore, the Houthis are the most armed and most powerful of all Yemeni parties. On two occasions, they took over the weapons of a strong army. The first time when the movement allied with Saleh and seized the arms of the first armored division; then it engulfed the strongest and most modern, well-armed and trained army, the Republican Guard, in the first two years of the war (2015-2017). This phase ended with the Houthis having complete command over the Yemeni army when they eliminated Saleh immediately after his attempt to overthrow them in December 2017. During its alliance with Saleh (2014-2017), the Houthi movement inherited three bodies that are no less important than weapons: the Ministry of Defense with its structures and systems, the technical and engineering officials of the Yemeni army, and the military expertise and technical insurance (maintenance workshops) departments of the Ministry of Defense (these two departments are crucial for military resilience since they ensure safe passage for forces, warehouses, tunnels, improving and repairing weapons to be reused and using old weapons hidden in warehouses); the Communications and Systems Department, which is a strategic department; and the Logistics and Military Medical Services. To sum up, the Houthis took over a state, with its land, economy, bourgeoisie, society, army, bureaucracy, security apparatus and archives, and are therefore no longer just a powerful militia. Therefore, it is much more dominant than other powerful Arab militias, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, for example. To this day, we have not fully realized the magnitude of what happened on 21 September 2014.
The Southern Transitional Council (STC) is the most dependent on external support financially and militarily, and even administratively. Emirati officers intervene in the management of the various forces of the STC (6), and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was behind establishing its various forces and militias and handles their training (7). It also supports it politically, and in this sense the STC as an armed group is a party created by foreign forces (not like the government or the Houthis). However, ideologically, the STC did not come out of nowhere. It is based on two doctrines that were completely formed and were able to express themselves politically and as a movement during the Saleh era, independently from each other: chauvinist separatism (which later veered into racist beliefs), and Salafism of all kinds. The STC also had a large reservoir of fighters and did not need foreign human resources. The UAE has merged the two doctrines into one formation: separatist militias with chauvinistic discourse and a Salafist core. In August 2019, the STC was about to reproduce the Houthi experience of controlling land, resources, population and the state’s weapons, as well as inheriting the modest bureaucracy that the government began to build, but it failed to do so when its forces were defeated in Shabwah governorate. This could have been its most important step into financial sufficiency (8) as Shabwah is an oil producing governorate, and it would have been a pathway into Hadhramaut, the vast oil-rich province and home of the ancient bourgeoisie in southern Yemen, and also towards al-Mahra, the large governorate adjacent to the Sultanate of Oman whose land outlet is one of the main lines of trade and goods during the war. These two governorates, aside from their maritime and land outlets and their economic weight, would have helped the STC overcome its geographic confinement in the far south to reach regional borders, and thus would have received due political weight. There is still a possibility for the STC to surmount its failure in the future with the formation of a new government based on the Riyadh Agreement. It was assigned the Ministry of Transport, which is an important revenue ministry that could be beneficial if the council finds a legal way to prevent the transfer of its revenues to the Central Bank (9), especially since Yemen’s ports are under the control of the Emirates. The STC does not appear to be giving up the pursuit of self-sufficiency, income security and land control.
The government is dependent on Saudi Arabia for political and military support, especially the air force and heavy weaponry. Although it has all the necessary resources for financial and military land sufficiency, for various reasons the government failed to achieve this; its political and military dependence on Saudi Arabia has increased over the years, instead of diminishing. Although the government is the only entity that has clear legitimacy in Yemen—that is legitimacy in the eyes of Yemenis—it has not been able to organize the public support on which it can rely. However, it is the only party that offers a clear democratic and civic conception of the Yemeni state that is unanimously agreed upon by all the main Yemeni forces, including those that had decided to turn against it. It has a large number of fighters, and its army is the only military force in Yemen that can claim to be inclusive without sectarian or ethnic distinctions, or regionalism. It also has the support of major political parties, nationalist, leftist and Islamist, and finally it is the internationally recognized government. Because of its failure to put together a military and economic strategy on which its relations with its allies and its people can be determined, its inability to build clear social foundations and its dependence on its Saudi ally, the government has become an example of a weird paradox where the most popular and internationally agreed upon party became the weakest on the ground. Various parties to this civil war have external allies, and some of them are more dependent on foreign powers than others, but they will never stop the war because of the pressure of their allies. Their ideologies are deeply rooted, and the anti-government parties are not just armed groups; they have civilian support systems or inherited the state apparatuses, tens of thousands of Yemenis are fighting for them, they are capable of self-financing, and endless amounts of ammunition make these fighting parties closer to armies than to militias. Therefore, categorizing these warring forces as militias, distinguishing them from the national army, is helpful from a political or a legal perspective; however, this description can only be used in a Yemeni context when being aware of its limitations, as it is militarily imprecise and may distort an objective assessment of the strength of these parties on the ground. External pressures may bring different parties to the negotiation table, or force them to sign a particular side agreement, but sustainable peace will not be achieved without drastic changes on the ground that would compel Yemeni parties to accept political deals.
How do we envision peace?
“Eternal peace is a dream, and it is not even a beautiful one.” This is a quote from Helmuth von Moltke, chief of staff of the Prussian armies and hero of the wars of German unification in the 19th century. Today no one dares to say a similar phrase, even warlords; colonizing regimes and militia leaders always talk about peace and its necessity. Expressing the aim to ‘seek peace’ has become an axiom of engaging in public affairs in the contemporary world. From our side, the loud voice chanting about peace in Yemen seems strange, because what this voice does is recite poems about the beauty of peace and enters into a raging debate to prove the beauty of peace, straying away, for its own private reasons, from its only mission, which is to present a clear, specific and realistic conception of a peace project; but instead steeped in prose, ineloquent prose, because its semantics are foreign, and its authors are not writers.
The question of how to envision peace should be the main focus of all of those who want to discuss the peace topic; that is, how to see peace as accurately as possible, at least in its general principles. This is how productive discussions can proceed and political projects theoretically can be founded. Without conceiving of peace as a political process that has conditions, borders, red lines and factors of sustainability, any talk about peace loses its power. There are three main forces in the Yemeni civil war: the legitimate government, the Houthi movement, and the Southern Transitional Council.
If we exclude the possibility of a final military resolution, peace conceptions between these three forces rest on three main possibilities, and all scenarios are different combinations of them. One, the government removes itself, leaving the North to the Houthi movement and the South to the STC. Two, the government reconciles with the Houthi movement and the STC with the persistence of their militias, forces, projects and even areas of influence, which might be described as a form of ‘coexistence’ between the government and militias. And three, militias surrender to the government and hand over their weapons in recognition of the unified republic in exchange for the appropriate political compensation.
details may vary, but the primary lines of any vision of peace cannot be outside of these three possibilities and their different combinations. What is important is that all of these possibilities, despite their contradictions, will stop the war in its current form, but each of them will not only determine the future of Yemen but also its conditions of existence: the survival or abolition of a united Yemen, its political system, its geographical area, its borders, its demographic composition, etc. Also, potentially some of these possibilities do not cancel the great civil war, but rather break it into small, scattered wars. In conclusion, we find that reducing peace to just stopping the war between the Yemeni parties to be meaningless. Any Yemeni discussion that aims to establish peace does not have to start from the greatness of peace and the heinousness of war, but rather from its political meaning for the Yemeni people in the day right after ceasefire.
It is important that when a public figure talks about peace, they should be asked about the possibility that they adopt from these three possibilities, so that the sterile confusion over the matter ends and the various forces as well as public opinion can understand where that figure stands and take a position from it. That is, a public debate about peace takes place, which is so far absent in Yemen.
To conclude from the review of the realistic possibilities of peace, we can make a fundamental distinction between peace, on the one hand, and the relief of people’s suffering during the war, on the other. Peace is a political project for the future, while alleviating suffering is a humanitarian issue that concerns the current state of affairs, and confusing the two matters by turning peace into a humanitarian issue is the basis of many problems that surround the question of how to end the war, while also harming the humanitarian work itself.
Let us try to apply this distinction on the war in Taiz. The Houthi blockade of Taiz (10), although it is a criminal action with political goals, can be addressed without bringing about political change; that is, without any changes occurring in the areas of control on the ground. Politically, what is required is to stop the Houthi war on Taiz, which has continued since the beginning of 2015, and to rebuild the city as part of a comprehensive national peace project; while what is required ‘humanely’ is to allow citizens, goods and medicine to enter their city like the rest of Yemen, whose borders form frontlines in the war. This can be achieved, with great and persistent international pressure on the Houthis, but all Yemeni personalities who are ‘working’ on the issue of peace, who insist that it is a humanitarian, not a political, issue, have not taken the trouble to transform the blockade on Taiz into a humanitarian priority and have not exercised real pressure on UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths regarding it. It appears from his position and statements that he does not give it much importance in his agenda (11). We have to compare this humanitarian file and its place in the agenda of those who call themselves ‘voices of peace’ with the issue of the lack of women’s representation in the newly formed government. Consider the size of coordination between personalities from different NGOs; the statements, condemnations, and the ability to turn the matter into a media issue that resonates with Western media; and the number of initiatives, organizations, meetings and events that multiply in remarkable numbers and enjoy the support of the Office of the UN Envoy and other UN bodies that focus on the “inclusion of women and youth in peace building”.
Grouping together peace and humanitarian action is better on the individual level for whoever is working on them. First, it amplifies the value of any humanitarian effort which becomes a part of the process of ‘peace-making’: helping a sick patient with treatment or providing food supplies for a family becomes peace work! And this work, carried out every day by citizens, civil organizations, charitable societies and some patriotic merchants, allows these groups to participate in ‘peace-making’ as a field of work and a career. Furthermore, thinking about peace without discussions of politics and of the future, its two main elements, transforms the inability to analyse and investigate the status quo, and the reluctance to take a political stance and present a clear vision of peace based on them, into virtues, which guards against creating political hostilities and grants a lot of flexibility to adapt to any new facts, however things may turn out. Whereas humanitarian work, which can alleviate the suffering of millions of people, such as opening al-Hawban road in Taiz for example, is afflicted by the opposite, as it is only looked at from its political side, which even though it exists, can be bypassed with sufficient pressure. Such initiatives are directly disregarded because of the reluctance of some peace activists and humanitarian workers to be involved in exerting real pressure and taking positions for fear of losing their impartial stance.
In addition to the above, any viable peace vision must define its necessary conditions in order to become realistic, and these conditions must be of the type that can be developed if present or created if absent. It is necessary to avoid, for example, claims of the type that the condition for achieving peace is ‘convincing all parties of the futility of war’ or that ‘concessions must be made by all parties’. These are not conditions but the claims of a preacher. Any peace project needs genuine acceptance by the parties of the war; this is self-evident, but it is the conditions that activate what is self-evident. For example, in the context of peace and of concessions, the conditions should be deduced from an analysis of the political behavior of the various local parties throughout the war, their trends, their weight on the battleground, their reactions to the previous peace projects, and the motives behind these reactions. Then the conditions will be answers to the following questions: 1. How willing is each party to engage in the proposed peace conception? 2. How can the party/parties that reject this conception be pushed/compelled to accept it? 3. What exactly are the concessions that are required from each side, and how can, as proven by previous political behavior, the party that rejects the conception be pushed/compelled to make these concessions?
Since peace is a future political project concerned with the ‘day after’ the ceasefire, any conception concerning it has to evoke the region in two aspects.
The regional context of the war. The war is primarily Yemeni, but it is not just Yemeni, and therefore the regional context must be taken into consideration. The main forces involved in the Yemeni conflict are Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran. Among these forces, the power with which a solution must be reached in the first place is Saudi Arabia. The other forces do not share borders with Yemen, and political and social relations with them do not reach the level of complexity of Yemeni-Saudi relations. That is why it is difficult to imagine a sustainable peace in Yemen without reaching clarity and stability in relations with Saudi Arabia. Here, a distinction must be made between reaching solutions and good relations between neighboring Arab countries and placing regional interests above national interests. This distinction needs to be maintained primarily by policymakers, in a country that has a clear vision of its national security and with realistic prospects for development. Academics, experts and intellectuals should participate in this discussion, and refine and shape through experience, with dialogue, or even conflict, that defines national interests.
The economy and reconstruction. Despite the ferocity of the war in Yemen (12), its extension in relation to the area of land and the resulting devastation—as can be measured by the percentage of destroyed infrastructure, the numbers of deaths, internally displaced people, refugees and indirect economic loss—does not reach the levels of the Syrian civil war (13) or the wars of ISIS in Iraq (14). This has various reasons, such as the rugged geography, the vast countryside, the dispersal of population, etc. Also, large areas were not reached by the 2014 and 2015 wars, such as the eastern provinces, even if the economic and political ramifications reached them. And in spite of what is said about an international blockade on Yemen (15), various goods, essential and non-essential, have been entering the country during the years of the war through sea and land ports, specifically the port of Hodeidah and the border crossings with Oman (16). So where does this horrific social tragedy that Yemenis are experiencing in the shadow of war stem from? The two most important conditions that the war developed were the spread of personal humiliation and hard toil policies, in a country that had witnessed a popular revolution, and became, right after, one of the poorest countries in the world. We can measure misery in a religious society like the Yemeni society by suicide rates. In 2016, Yemen ranked third in the Arab world in the number of suicides, after Egypt and Sudan (17). This is in absolute numbers. Yemen occupies first place in the Arab world in suicides per capita. It is also noticeable that many suicides occur in the cities of Sana’a (18) and Ibb (19), which are two cities that do not witness military clashes, and in which there is one stable authority that monopolizes arms, the bureaucratic administration and the security apparatus. What the Yemeni society suffers is condensed into the unrestrained humiliation of citizens (banality of death and murder, beatings, insults, expulsions, kidnappings, torture and forced disappearance) and the transformation of large classes of them into poor working classes through the inflation of the currency and the absence of salaries, as well as militia taxes on goods and merchants that citizens then suffer from in the form of exorbitant price rises. This is the meaning of ‘war’ in the current Yemeni context; it is not only military operations.
‘Stopping’ the war insofar as it is an armed conflict obviously boils down to a ceasefire, but ‘ending’ the war insofar as it is a psychological and socio-economic factor will not happen without political reform that prevents humiliation and insult and guarantees a major program of reconstruction. Without this, guns may stop firing, but the ‘war’ will remain in society without it being affected by its ‘stoppage’. Accordingly, reconstruction and how to finance it and reviving the economy are vital issues in the question of ‘peacebuilding’; and here the region must be taken into consideration because its role is pivotal in both matters. More than half of Yemeni exports go to Egypt, Oman, the UAE and Saudi Arabia (20). In addition, 61 per cent of remittances come from Saudi Arabia alone (21), where hundreds of thousands of Yemenis work, and 29 per cent are from other Gulf countries, remittances which in total officially amount to $3.711 billion in 2019 (22), while their actual volume was estimated at about $8 billion annually (23). In addition, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are among the most important providers of financial aid to Yemen, and reconstruction projects cannot swiftly progress without their participation, either through aid and grants, or through investments in their private sector. This is the regional context for the Yemeni economy and its reconstruction projects, and any party’s rejection of this context will not change its reality. However, any perception of peace must distinguish between the facts of reality and the political positions taken in relation to those facts. If a party offers to reject them, it must present a viable alternative in its conception of peace that replaces the decisive role the region plays in this regard.
Conclusion: From Clamour to Debate
Contributing to the formation of a framework that makes practical thinking about peace possible and open to discussion is, in my opinion, the first step in a long journey to produce realistic conceptions for ending the war, and it is one of the duties of intellectuals and those engaged in public affairs. If they are unable to stop the tragedies of wars, they should at least use critical thinking that makes understanding these tragedies possible, and opens the horizon for the formation of solutions, while defining the role of society, its responsibility, and its realistic limits as well. In Yemen, there is not a public debate about peace. Rather, there is a loud noise, sometimes fabricated, that surrounds the topic, because most proposals are not specific projects to end the war, but rather wishes and preaching about the war.
Other projects, especially those coming from international bodies and the office of the UN Special Envoy, do not start from the Yemeni historical context of the war and do not set clear references for their proposals. These bodies have in fact succeeded in filling a void in the public sphere with their perceptions and their ideas of ‘realistic proposals’ for building peace through certain means and policies, which we can discuss on another occasion. In this context, what arose could be described as the ‘crisis of the voices of peace’, whereby the Yemeni agencies and personalities who are at the forefront of talking about the issue on every occasion and event—and have monopolized this position in a manner that characterizes industry and trade rather than public affairs—are unable to approach the issue clearly and decisively, and do not fully present their positions and ideas about war and peace in a way that could develop into viable projects that have features and that can be accepted, criticized or rejected. Meanwhile, they assume the function of continuing to recycle international proposals and whims.
The way out of this crisis requires a lot of work, but it begins with the involvement of as many formations, social bodies, elites and parties as possible in the discussion of peace, in a clear and direct manner, that evokes national interests, considerations and hopes in the first place, so that the discussion of the topic matches its reality, which is that peace, just like war, is first and foremost a Yemeni affair.
* Abd al-Majid al-Sharnoubi. Explanation of Al-Hukam Al-Attiyah. Ed. 2 (Damascus-Beirut: Dar Ibn Katheer, 1989) p.63.
- Jubayr, Ibn, and R. Broadhurst. The Travels of Ibn Jubayr. Translated by RJC Broadhurst. London: Jonathan, publisher: Bloomsbury Collections (2001).
- For a good overview of the military situation of the various parties in the Yemeni war, see the report by Nayef al-Qadassi and Adnan al-Jabrani: https://almasdaronline.com/articles/212047
- Saleh tried to exploit the failure of the Basindawa Government of National Unity in managing the country’s various crises, especially the fuel and electricity crises, to topple the government more than once through the General People’s Congress and the Houthis’ support for the angry protests and their participation in them, one of which was the tire burning demonstrations in June 2014 in Sana’a, but it failed to expand it outside the capital, see: https://bit.ly/3nUArzq. Saleh and his party also continued throughout the transitional period and weeks before the start of the war with Saudi Arabia to stage demonstrations calling for his son Ahmed to assume the presidency of the republic and starting a campaign by hanging his pictures in the streets of Sana’a, see: https://bit.ly/3sRdNM6
- Iranian support for the Houthis is focuses on providing military and intelligence experts and some technical and military equipment. For more, see the Panel of Experts report on Yemen submitted to the Security Council. To get a general picture of the size of Iran’s intervention in Yemen, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWIemGbNxrY&feature=youtu.be
- An interview with Dr. Ali Al-Ahnoumi, Deputy of the Zakat Revenue Sector at the Houthi-controlled Zakat General Authority with Al-Thawra newspaper: http://althawrah.ye/archives/576086
- Al-Qadasi and al-Jabrani, ibid.
- See the 2019 Report of the Panel of Experts on Yemen, p.62.
- See researcher Majid al-Madhaji’s comment on the 2019 battle of Shabwa at the link:
- See this paper on the New Yemeni Government, by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies:
- Despite the severity of this siege as a collective punishment, which caused the torture and death of the people of the city, cutting its ties and impeding social and economic communication between Taiz and the rest of the northern cities, I did not find statistics for the victims of Al Oqrudh road accidents or deaths resulting from preventing the entry of oxygen tubes and medicines into the city’s hospitals, and this gives us a picture of both the level of media affiliated with the popular resistance and the parties, as well as an idea of the party that currently manages the bureaucracy of the city of Taiz, and the place that this collective punishment of millions occupies on the agenda of relief organizations that issue statistics and the depth of their studies. To take a picture of some of the results of the Houthi siege of the city, see: https://daraj.com/22435/
- Although the siege of Taiz and the attack on it, and Hodeidah and the exchange of prisoners, were part of the 2018 Stockholm Agreement promoted by the UN Special Envoy, who exaggerates it because it is his only success. The number of deaths in Hodeidah and Taiz at the hands of the Houthis has doubled, and the situation in Taiz has worsened, but the city does not seem to be an important focus on the agenda of the UN Envoy, even in his speech, and he did not make sufficient effort in it. Compare his positions, statements and his activity regarding other issues.
- There are no reliable, accurate studies or results on this topic, and this is due to various reasons that deserve a separate discussion. But for an overview, see:
- For the volume of goods entering Yemen from Hodeidah port and a comparison to previous years, see the statistical yearbook for 2019 issued by the Houthi-controlled Yemeni Red Sea Ports Corporation: http://www.yrspc.net/index.php/statistics/item/2612-2019
- In this report, the volume of Omani exports from the free zone to Yemen through the land ports is mentioned:
- There are major trade relations with the Arab Gulf states, but they are either exaggerated or underestimated depending on the political position of the source, while Egypt, for example, is the largest importer of Yemeni goods, as it imports nearly a third of exports! See: https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/yemen/
- Ali Al-Dailami, “Yemenis in Saudi Arabia: Less Money to Send Home, More Pressure to Leave”, September 2020: https://sanaacenter.org/ar/publications-all/analysis-ar/11589#_ftn10
- According to the statements of the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Expatriates, see: https://socotrapost.com/economic/1967
Published in al-Madaniya Magazine
Translated by: Raed Khalifi