The Limits and Opportunities for the UN in Yemen

The Limits and Opportunities for the UN in Yemen

Despite the efforts of three United Nations Special Envoys for Yemen and the passage of multiple Security Council resolutions, Yemen remains a nation marred by conflict and fragmented into numerous mini-states. The appointment of Hans Grundberg as the new UN Special Envoy for the war torn country is a timely opportunity to reflect on the transformed realities of the conflict and the peace-building efforts of the international community in recent years. Yemen desperately needs a new approach if the new Special Envoy is to succeed where his three predecessors failed. UN efforts alone cannot put an end to the war in Yemen; there are huge regional and local forces at play that fall out of the UN’s scope of influence.

An International Failure

The peace-building efforts of the international community have yielded few positive results in the last decade and have been largely misguided. Former envoys were fixated on finding a political solution for the elites between the Houthis on the one hand and the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi on the other. They relied on a flawed belief that a single state could be revived to rule a unified Yemen without considering the drastically changing realities on the ground, such as the fact that the Southern Transitional Council (STC) affiliated forces in the South, when combined, have more control than the Houthis. Furthermore, while the UN and the international community can exert pressure on Hadi’s government in negotiations, they still have no leverage on the Houthis, which makes it extremely challenging to extract concessions.

At times, the UN process has been counterproductive when considering the developments that have arisen since the signing of the Stockholm Agreement in December 2018. Martin Griffiths, the most recent Special Envoy, caved to the pressure of demonstrating progress to the UN and the media. He signed a rushed deal that circumvented tribal mediation efforts and effectively incentivised the Houthis to keep captives as a bargaining chip by linking prisoner exchanges to the envoy’s political negotiations. The agreement also allowed the Houthis to redeploy fighters from Hodeidah to Ma’rib, increasing the chances of Ma’rib falling. Members of the Joint Forces (an umbrella name for UAE-backed forces fighting the Houthis) complained that they were not represented in the Stockholm Agreement negotiations even though they were a significant fighting force on the ground. Perhaps most importantly, the international community forced Hadi’s government to abide by the clauses of the Stockholm Agreement but failed to hold the Houthis accountable, allowing them to make significant military gains.

Limitations of a UN solution

In reality, since 2016 the Houthi party has become a state and not just a political party, while the internationally recognised government continues to lose its influence across the country.

Nevertheless, the unique nature of the war in Yemen and the failings of regional actors impose huge limitations on the ability of the UN to solve the conflict. What started as a two-party conflict has effectively fractured into several parties, including the STC and the family of the late president Ali Abdullah Saleh. A lack of leadership from the Yemeni government, the absence of effective military strategy from the Saudi-led coalition, and the diverging interests of the Saudis and Emiratis have all significantly contributed to the rise of the Houthis. In reality, since 2016 the Houthi party has become a state and not just a political party, while the internationally recognised government continues to lose its influence across the country. The Houthis now collect taxes and have inherited fundamental state, army, and security institutions. With every passing month, it becomes increasingly more difficult to ask the Houthis to abandon their accumulated power and assets.

Possibly most challenging of all is that the Houthis do not have a clear idea of what they want. Following their successful offensive and perceived victory over the Saudi-led coalition their ambitions are soaring, and they have made clear that they do not want to cease the offensive because they believe that God is on their side. They will continue to push for their expansionist goals, which rhetorically involve a conquest of Mecca and Jerusalem[1]. The Houthis’ lack of willingness to compromise is deeply concerning in the perspective of securing peace.

The Way Forward

The UN and the international community must stop seeking a two-state solution that would grant the Houthis control over Northern Yemen and leave Southern Yemen to a coalition of Hadi’s government and the STC. This short-sighted and dangerous strategy, which some Yemeni government members have called a ‘suicide attempt’[2], would likely spell the beginning of the end to Hadi and his inner circle and allow the Houthis to continue their military campaign. Regional actors need to be brought into the conversation to reflect the real distribution of power in Yemen, which include the two main political parties Islah (Riyadh-based) and the General Peoples’ Congress (Sana’a-based), Saleh’s family, local tribes[3], Iran, Oman, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia.

The Envoy should not seek a quick solution, which would be applauded internationally but exacerbate the situation on the ground.

In the past, international actors entered negotiations with pre-drafted end goals and attempted to fit Yemen into their equation. Instead, the UN should build the conditions necessary for a Yemeni-Yemeni process, without setting high expectations. Recent years have shown that the international community and the media desire a grand bargain, and the world is demanding an end to the humanitarian crisis of the war. However, lessons must be learned from the Stockholm Agreement and the Envoy should not seek a quick solution, which would be applauded internationally but exacerbate the situation on the ground.

Perhaps an attempt should be made at reconstructing national dialogue if internationally led negotiations bear no fruit in the coming months. The conditions in Yemen are much more accommodating for this now than during the National Dialogue Conference in 2013-14: the power back then was still held by a small elite, while it is much more diffused now.

Lastly, there have been calls for a new governing UN Security Council resolution to address the transformed realities of the conflict. It is doubtful that a new resolution would have any real impact as the UN does not have the tools in place to hold violating parties accountable; the Houthis and Saleh have easily found ways to bypass sanctions over the years by using a complex network of intermediaries. Directing peace efforts and resources towards drafting new resolutions is futile, if not a distraction from the otherwise fruitless UN process.

What does the future hold?

In plain words, unless the Houthis are stopped militarily, no lasting peace is likely to be made soon. However, it is unlikely that the Houthis will gain more ground than Ma’rib in the future. They currently do not have the resources to expand more than they have already, even if they believe so themselves.

A Houthi victory in Ma’rib would likely have a domino effect and lead to the STC attempting to take over the governorates of Abyan and Shabwah, which currently fall under government control.

Ma’rib is the final piece for the Houthis in reconstituting the pre-1990 North Yemen state, and if it is captured this will severely diminish the credibility of Hadi’s government. Ma’rib would give the Houthis a refinery, a power plant, and oil fields attached to a pipeline that could be rebuilt to export oil and secure more revenue. Ultimately, the Houthis will secure money, resources, and the last stronghold under government control which is relatively well-governed. A Houthi victory in Ma’rib would likely have a domino effect and lead to the STC attempting to take over the governorates of Abyan and Shabwah, which currently fall under government control. Even in the event of a Ma’rib takeover, they will likely face strong social resistance in the city. We may also witness the collapse of tribal systems in Houthi-controlled areas[4], taking away a fundamental system that has in the past resolved and managed most local disputes.


  • Acknowledge the new reality. We will not see a unified Yemen in the near future, or a centralised government in Sana’a. Grundberg must understand these new circumstances.
  • Do not pursue a two-state solution. Imposing a top-down settlement between the Houthis and the Hadi government is counterproductive as it will likely not be accepted by the Hadi government.
  • Incorporate a wider range of players in negotiations. Engage with more regional and local actors instead of only national-level actors to reflect the actual distribution of power on the ground.
  • Do not enter negotiations with pre-drafted end goals set by the international community. Build the conditions necessary for a Yemeni-Yemeni process, and aid in reconstructing the conditions for national dialogue.
  • Do not focus on drafting new UN resolutions. Directing resources towards updating resolutions will do little to affect negotiations and events on the ground.
  • Develop accountability measures. The UN has previously struggled to hold the Houthis accountable for violating the terms of the Stockholm Agreement and should consider funding organisations that are active in documenting events on the ground.
  • Explore measures to disincentivise Yemenis from joining the ranks of armed groups. Saudi Arabia intends to deport hundreds of thousands of Yemeni workers imminently, so it is vital to fund and develop programs that create other income opportunities in the country.
  • Prepare to sustain UN engagement in Yemen for the long term. It is unlikely that a peace deal will be reached any time soon, and UN member states need to give Grundberg time to work on a new approach. 

If Grundberg pursues a new strategy aligned with the recommendations set out above, at the very least local security and accountability may be improved to mitigate the impact of the war on Yemeni citizens. Perhaps with the engagement and inclusion of regional and local actors, the foundations for governance structures can be laid out to bring much-needed stability to the country.

[1] From remarks of Peter Salisbury during the AGSIW Webinar on Yemen on July 15.
[2] ibid
[3] More specifically, the Abida and Murad tribes of Ma’rib, the Awaliq tribes of Shabwa and the Hajour tribes of Hajjah.
[4] One of the pillars of the Houthi governing system is dismantling tribes so that they become subordinate to the Houthis.

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Published by the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum (MENAF) in Cambridge, England.

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