Saturday, April 20, 2024

Half-Truths About Saudi War on Yemen Won’t Save UN’s Shaky Truce

Sana’a, YemenWorld powers ostensibly responsible for ending Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen have recently provided half-truths about the failure of the warring parties to extend a United Nations’ brokered truce. Extended twice since the parties signed on April 2, the ceasefire expired on October 2 without the parties agreeing on its renewal terms. The Houthi movement, which leads a coalition government based in Yemen’s capital Sana’a and controls north Yemen, demanded that Riyadh and its backed Yemeni government in south Yemen pay the public servants monthly salaries—the Saudi-backed government had cut the wages for the public servants in the north since August 2016. Saudi Arabia only agreed to pay the health and educational sectors, which Sana’a refused. The elements of the truce are still holding, pending further diplomacy by the UN, the United States of America, Britain, and other key European states.

Unfortunately, the current rhetoric and diplomacy to revive the flawed truce in Yemen ring a familiar bill with the gunboat diplomacy that has been employed for years. That rhetoric has been in parallel with Riyadh’s relentless bombing and other warfare tactics. Riyadh’s allies, led by the US and UK, have since vowed to end Yemen’s war, one that they have enabled militarily and politically. Yemenis have seen their lives and country shattered and destroyed by a war that has created the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe. They are yet to see a genuine effort to end the war. As Riyadh’s hope of a swift and outright military victory against its enemy turned out to be illusory, economic warfare appeared feasible. In August 2016, the Saudi-backed Yemeni government ordered the relocation of Yemen’s central bank from Sana’a into Aden, the southern Yemen province it controls. It said that Sana’a was directing the bank resources to the war effort, a charge that turned out to be untrue. Until the bank’s relocation, Sana’a would pay all public servants’ wages, even those considered adversaries. Diplomats and Yemenis on both sides of the war told Reuters that the central bank “has been the last bastion of the impoverished country’s financial system amid a civil war and is effectively running the economy.” After the UN and other agencies watching Yemen sounded the alarm, the Saudi-backed Yemeni government pledged to continue the bank policy of paying monthly wages — over one million public servants provide for an estimated ten million extended family members. That promise never saw the light. In a 2017 briefing to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien said, “The institutional capacity of Yemen to respond to the basic needs of the population is crumbling, exacerbated by the failure of the Central Bank – following its move from Sana’a to Aden – to operate in the interests of the people it is intended to serve.” O’Brien highlighted that the salary cut was “pushing more and more families toward poverty and starvation.” 

For Riyadh, Yemen’s estimated 30.5 million population and their livelihoods seemed to have been a lawful target by its relentless bombing campaign and other warfare tactics. Attacks on school buses, hospitals, wedding and funeral gatherings, food production, and water sanitation plants have all been a hallmark of the Saudi war. The blockade of Yemen’s north port and airport has primarily been responsible for the death of thousands from starvation, disease, and other causes that could otherwise have been treated or prevented. 

The use of starvation as a method of warfare has failed to achieve Riyadh’s goal: forcing its enemy to surrender and starving 80 percent of the population that lives under Sana’a control into submission. It has backfired. Sana’a military capability has increased, launching missiles and drone attacks against oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and its main partner United Arab Emirates (UAE). While looking the other way as Yemenis were being starved, Riyadh’s allies, mainly the US and UK, have condemned those attacks as terrorist attacks and vowed to defend its Saudi ally. Sana’a has stressed it would stop its retaliation only when the blockade and bombing campaign on Yemen ceases.

It wasn’t until the oil facilities of the Saudis and UAE were targeted that UN attempts to broker a truce finally succeeded. The current UN truce allowed for a halt to Saudi’s air bombs, two flights a week from Sana’a airport, and an easing of restrictions on Hodeidah ports in north Yemen. In return, Sana’a halted drone and missile attacks against Saudi Arabia and UAE. The aim of the truce, said UN envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg back in August, was a break from violence to allow the parties to address “urgent humanitarian and economic needs.” For Sana’a and almost all Yemenis, those urgent needs are the payment of salaries to all public servants and lifting the blockade on the ports and Sana’a airport. At each of the two renewals of the truce, Saudi Arabia and the US sought Oman’s help to pressure the Sana’a government to renew the truce under its original terms with the promise to address those urgent economic measures afterward. None of those measures materialized, leading eventually to the current deadlock. For Riyadh and its backers, conceding to those demands before renewing the truce appear to signal a defeat.

The current diplomacy at reviving the truce is at risk of resurgence of violence that would certainly be much more dangerous and more challenging to contain now. Sana’a government has maintained that revenues from Yemen’s oil exports should be allocated to pay the public servants’ salaries instead of enriching corrupted officials within the Saudi-backed Yemeni government. Some news reports suggest that revenues from Yemeni oil exports from 2016 to 2021 have totaled over $13 billion, more than enough to allow for the regular salary payment. But Saudi backed government has even failed to pay the government employees living under their territories. Since the truce expired, Sana’a has threatened to prevent further Yemeni oil exports and target any navy ships that keep impeding fuel imports bound for north Yemeni ports. It has since stopped three attempts at oil exports by launching what it called “warning attacks” on oil tankers docking at Yemenis ports for failing to abide by Sana’a earlier warnings.

World powers blaming Sana’a for failing to renew the truce have once again shown their disregard for the people’s basic needs. They have, this time, toed the Saudi line that those demands were abruptly raised and only served the short-sighted interests of the Houthi movement. An October 5 UNSC statement stated, “the Houthis’ maximalist demands in the final days of negotiations had hindered the United Nations efforts to broker agreement, risking negative consequences.” It thanked the Saudi-backed Yemeni government for engaging with the UN efforts. It singled out the Houthis and called them to “refrain from provocation, prioritize the Yemeni people, and return to engaging constructively in negotiations.” In his briefing to UNSC on October 15, Mr. Grundberg echoed UNSC’s praise for the Saudi-backed government and blamed Sana’a for the failure to renew the truce. “I regret that Ansar Allah came up with additional demands that could not be met,” said Grundberg, referring to the Houthis by their political name. He urged all parties to “demonstrate the leadership and flexibility required to reach an extended and expanded agreement.” Saudi Arabia and the world powers backing it deliberately omit any reference to the Sana’a government, calling it instead “the Houthis”—a bid to demonize it and delegitimize the rightful demands and grievances of the people it represents. That was evident in remarks made by US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking, who said that the Houthis were driving up very strong demands. “…this isn’t the time to play those kinds of games,” said Lenderking of the demands raised by Sana’a ahead of the expected extension on October 2. “I mean, this is the time to put realistic priorities on the table and not to drive the price beyond what is possible,” he added. Sana’a’s top leaders brought up the issue of salary payment and the blockade in several meetings with Mr. Grundberg. 

Meeting Grundberg on May 18, Mahdi al-Mashat, a senior Houthi general commanding the Sana’a government Armed Forces, reiterated that the Saudis, which he said control Yemen’s oil and its revenues, needed to “pay the arrears in monthly salaries of all state servants and ensure their sustainability.” At the end of May, Sana’a Chief negotiator Muhammad Abdussalam reiterated al-Mashat’s demand in a meeting with Grundberg in Muscat.

Furthermore, a July statement aired by Almasirah tv, the Houthi’s mouthpiece, said that Sana’a wouldn’t accept further truce extensions as Lenderking was again in the region pushing for another renewal of the truce. “The Yemeni people won’t accept another futile extension attempt at the expense of the peoples’ livelihoods and movements… and stand ready to face all challenges… The countries of aggression shall be held responsible for any [dangerous] escalation [that might happen in the future],” the statement concluded.

On October 18, Saudi king Salman called on UNSC to designate the Houthis as a terrorist group, isolate it, and “dry up its sources of funding,” something Biden had alluded to back in January as the Houthi movement refused a Saudi truce initiative.

While Sana’a military capability can in no way match that of its powerful enemy, it has improved enough to threaten oil-rich gulf states and further disrupt the global energy supplies.

Sana’a retaliation is looming. A resumption of violence is in no one’s interest. But it’s much more dangerous for Riyadh and its allies now to keep overlooking the urgent needs of the Yemeni people. And here I shall quote Lenderking and say, “this isn’t the time to play those kinds of games.”

Author profile
Shuaib Almosawa

Shuaib Almosawa is a freelance Yemeni journalist based in Yemen's capital Sana'a.

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