US pressure meant to rally Arab Gulf countries behind Washington to confront Iran was the primary driver behind the push to prioritise ending the war in Yemen. Next, this will move in the direction of pulling the brake on Qatar's current policy, with a view to putting the Gulf house in order. The military pressure brought to bear by the Arab Coalition in Yemen also helped force the Houthi rebel leadership into negotiations, however, it may have been collective fatigue from the war that drove the concessions, with Yemen's warring parties agreeing to a ceasefire in the port city of Hodeidah, marking the biggest achievement of the UN's efforts to end the five-year-long conflict.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE played a key role in facilitating the efforts of the UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, by putting pressure on the internationally recognised government of President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi to acknowledge the facts on the ground, and by taking a bold decision to co-operate with the US roadmap, proposed by Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in late October. Equally important, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi endorsed the principle of restoring and rebuilding Yemen’s human and physical infrastructure, and took pre-emptive and immediate steps to ensure post-war reconstruction begins in earnest. This is a promising start to end the war, but a nonetheless fragile start if the international community does not invest in Yemen’s people from all backgrounds and affiliations. The suffering of the people of Yemen has reached a tragic level requiring all sides to make major compromises, which made it easier for the UN to sell its strategy.
It must be said that claims by various media outlets and think tanks that the war in Yemen had no justification and that it represented Saudi aggression on Yemen are false. The truth is that Saudi national security was facing a major threat from the Yemeni border, as Iran stood behind the Houthi provocation. It is true that the war spiralled out of control with no clear end in sight, but this does not invalidate the fact that the Yemen war started with Iranian provocations of Saudi Arabia in a way that required pushback.
The Yemen war benefited Iran, and gave it a foothold on Saudi borders, where it could deploy its destabilising instruments, including missiles aimed at Saudi cities, and use Houthi rebels for goals unrelated to Yemen's interests. Iran failed to destabilise Saudi Arabia, but it succeeded in diverting Saudi resources to the war in Yemen, away from other arenas that Iran wanted to monopolise, such as Syria.
The ceasefire agreed this week in Sweden, backed unanimously by the Security Council, was reached despite Iranian non-co-operation. Iran does not have the sway to veto Houthi consent to peace and a new political framework, for two main reasons: first, the Houthis are exhausted and need to end the war just like the other side; second, the US embargo on Iran that many in the international community have gathered behind has left the Houthis with no choice but to make peace.
Iran’s role in Yemen is therefore on the back foot. Unprecedented US sanctions on Iran have prompted the Houthi leadership to realise that there is no way to achieve a balance of power in the war, which is why they have agreed to a roadmap of withdrawals, prisoner swaps, and international observers in Hodeidah.
This does not mean that Yemen is on the cusp of full recovery. First, there is a terrible accumulation of tragedies and doubts. Second, some in the Houthi ranks are pushing towards secession, or partition into two states, or a confederation of the north and south. Some in the ranks of the government of are still refusing to face facts and think they can achieve victory. In other words, Yemen remains in grave danger, even though the ceasefire and negotiations have marked the start of the beginning of the end of the war.
Mr Griffiths is a capable negotiator who has received unequivocal international backing, including that of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. What he has achieved was endorsed by a UN Security Council resolution that practically replaces Resolution 2186. At the level of public opinion, the political process has responded to the international bewilderment over the war, and has corrected the false perception that only one side, namely Saudi Arabia, is to blame.
Indeed, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres thanked Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the agreement, highlighting the central role Saudi Arabia has played to facilitate Mr Griffiths’ mission by pressuring the Yemeni government to make concrete concessions.
But a key driver of Yemen's peace talks has been the Trump administration, including Mr Mattis and Mr Pompeo. The comments made by Mr Mattis in Manama several weeks ago proved that Washington had a coherent plan to end the war in Yemen as soon as possible.
The US priority today is to fully circumvent Iran and combat terror from all types and sources. The Trump administration wants its Arab Gulf allies to support these priorities without distractions or divisions. The Yemen war distracted Saudi Arabia and the Qatar crisis has become a thorn in US efforts. That row now requires rapid efforts for its resolution, especially now Saudi Arabia and the UAE are reassured by the start of the endgame in Yemen.
The Trump administration wants to burn Iran’s bridges with Qatar, which has become the only outlet for Iranian influence in the Arab Gulf states. The US administration wants Qatar to end its support for organisations Washington designates as terrorist groups, and end support for extremists in Libya, Lebanon, Yemen, Palestine and elsewhere. But, on the other hand, the Trump administration is clear in its insistence to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that Qatar’s return to the Gulf fold is necessary, given its alliance with the US and the American military base it hosts. Removing Qatar from the embrace of Turkey and Iran is also a priority for US interests in the region. For this reason, Washington is exerting pressure and paving the way for the end of the Qatar crisis.
The Yemen agreement is an important step aimed at more than ending the painful war there. Yemen's recovery is vital to Red Sea security projects, but that recovery will not be possible unless there is a bold strategy that pre-empts the end of political negotiations to rebuild Yemen's physical and human infrastructure.