Handshakes in Yemen are no sign of sustainable peace

The endless cycle of political conflicts in Yemen has little chance of being broken until the roots of the South v North crises in Yemen are addressed.
Wednesday 19/12/2018
Yemeni fighters loyal to the Saudi-backed Yemeni president walk down a street in the town of Khokha in the western province of Hodeidah on December 18, 2018. (AFP)
Yemeni fighters loyal to the Saudi-backed Yemeni president walk down a street in the town of Khokha in the western province of Hodeidah on December 18, 2018. (AFP)

True to their political traditions, the Yemenis once more ended up agreeing and sealed their agreements with handshakes that flabbergasted the world. The problem is that they’ve done that sort of thing before.

They did it in the 1965 Khamr Conference when the republic and the monarchy reconciled and then in Aden in 1990 when both presidents, Ali Salem al-Beidh from the south and Ali Abdullah Saleh from the north, shook hands on unification. Then these two shook hands once more in Oman in 1994 before Saleh’s army invaded South Yemen.

More recently, the Yemenis agreed on the Gulf Initiative and shook hands on it, but then turned around and fought with each other. And now, they are back shaking hands. Yemen’s modern history has never seen so many handshakes full of contradictions.

There were hardly any positive signs regarding the outcome of the Stockholm talks before they took place, especially because UN envoy Martin Griffiths was forced to break the protocol and agreed to fly with the Houthi delegation from Sana’a to Stockholm.

The Arab coalition had already agreed to the transfer of the wounded from the Houthi side in Sana’a to Muscat. The Houthis then had no more excuses for not wanting to take part in the Stockholm talks. Even so, there were no signs that the talks would achieve any significant breakthrough in more than one standing issue,  especially on Hodeidah and its port.

The Americans had to resort to their big-stick policy threats to get both sides to budge from the political stalemate and move towards at least accepting confidence-building measures.

The breakthroughs reached on the ground however were amazing, especially with regard to the port of Hodeidah. The UAE armed forces had played a crucial role in the large-scale military operation that swept through southern Yemen.

Thousands of UAE soldiers participated alongside the Yemeni Southern Giants brigades in liberating more than 75km of Yemen’s western coast until they stopped 3km shy of the port of Hodeidah. For the Houthis, this port was virtually the umbilical cord connecting them to the Iranian regime.

The US administration had threatened to classify the Houthis as a terrorist group and all of a sudden the Houthis started paying attention.

However, the concessions made by the pro-legitimate government forces on the issue of Hodeidah preempt many of the conditions in UN Resolution 2216. What happened in Stockholm was just an attempt to circumvent the international resolution. Thus, the negotiations in Sweden did not lead to the withdrawal of the Houthis from Hodeidah and the surrendering of their weapons to the pro-government forces.

Instead, the Houthis got to keep all of their weapons as they withdraw and the city will be surrendered to the local authority, which was in place before the 2014 coup. The port revenues will be deposited in the Hodeidah branch of Yemen’s Central Bank rather than in its headquarters in Aden.

The Stockholm agreement came about because the pro-legitimate government forces were weak and the Houthis were afraid of the American stick. So this agreement, like many others before it, will remain fragile because of the lack of confidence in the mechanisms for implementing it. We’ve seen this happen before with the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative when the United Nations was in charge of the “control and implementation mechanisms.”

The UN’s execution has led to the outcomes of the Yemeni national dialogue, and these, in turn, were the direct causes of the war, because the whole process was fraught with unfairness. We may recall that some major political forces from South Yemen were excluded from that process and replaced with individuals representing the Islamic parties and other power-hungry individuals. The result was that the process of national dialogue was derailed and turned into a huge mine that finally exploded in Sana’a and burned all of Yemen.

The big media hoopla that accompanied the Stockholm agreement does not reflect a breakthrough. That too was just a replay of similar past scenes, all of which unfortunately ended in political setbacks. This is why grievous concerns still exist despite Martin Griffiths’ celebration of the historic handshake between Khalid al-Yamani and Mohammed Abdul Salam. Let’s not forget that, like these two, al-Beidh and Saleh were smiling when they shook hands before turning on each other.

Political handshakes in Yemen are not a sign of sustainable peace. They are instances of the usual political protocols in Yemen, a chance to take a breather and prepare for the next opportunity to pounce on one’s opponent. The endless cycle of political conflicts in Yemen has little chance of being broken until the roots of the South vs. North crises in Yemen are addressed.