Is US-backed dialogue the answer for Yemen?
While Saudi Arabia and the United States agreed on the need for dialogue to end the war in Yemen, a projectile reportedly fired by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels landed in Abha International Airport, underlining the stark divergences between the country’s competing powers.
The August 28 meeting between Saudi Deputy Defence Minister and former Ambassador to the United States Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington came after news that America was preparing to initiate direct talks with the Houthis to end the 4-year-old war, people familiar with the plans said.
To convene the talks, Washington is counting on Riyadh to participate in secret meetings with Houthi leaders in Oman that could lead to a ceasefire, sources told the Wall Street Journal.
However, the United States’ willingness to have its ally engage in “secret talks” with the Houthis, whom it considers Iranian proxies, is raising serious questions about the efficacy of its foreign policy. Not only does it underline US President Donald Trump’s at times volatile policy moves, it brings to the fore Washington’s growing frustration with — and incoherent response to — a conflict that has turned into a dangerous front line in the showdown with Tehran.
At the heart of the problem is the Houthis’ agenda. The Iran-backed rebels have given no indication they are interested in peace, deploying rockets and drones at Saudi Arabia. Now Washington is asking Riyadh to forget about these flagrant attacks and join their nemesis at the negotiating table. To what end?
The United States should know the Houthis are not reliable peace partners. After all, a group whose favourite chant is “Death to America” can hardly be expected to share a compelling vision for peace with its foes.
Somehow, the United States has fooled itself into thinking it is adopting a pragmatic approach to Yemen, somewhat like the approach it took with the Taliban in Afghanistan or with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, whom Trump has met and shook hands with numerous times.
Trump’s foreign policy has been erratic. He has proven willing to sit down with his fiercest foes, even after antagonising them, and the Iran-backed Houthis are no exception.
It would be wrong to say there are no benefits to this strategy. In Yemen, dialogue with the Houthis would open important and direct channels of communication when there are growing fears of a wider regional war. This could help de-escalate tensions and allow critical alternatives to be explored.
However, the United States’ openness to dialogue with the Houthis raises many concerns: What, for instance, are the potential offers that Washington would make to the Houthis and what concessions, if any, would they receive in return?
After all, if Washington gives any ground to the Houthis, who appointed their first ambassador to Tehran in August, it would undermine its maximum pressure campaign against Iran. This would result in the Houthis gaining legitimacy, credibility and, in turn, power — a disastrous prospect for the Yemeni people.
Riyadh should follow the same course it has previously: Never say no to peace-seeking and dialogue but test the other parties’ commitment to serious engagement.
In this case, it is clear that the Houthis are unwilling to strike a resolution that has a serious chance of ending the conflict. The outcome of the US-backed negotiations will likely bear this out, revealing the Houthis to have no interest or ability to build a functioning nation-state.
Dialogue can and should be part of the solution on other fronts and Saudi Arabia, which is leading the coalition in support of Yemen’s internationally recognised government, could be a useful mediator between President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s forces and the separatist Southern Transitional Council.
On this, Saudi Arabia and the United States seem to be of one mind. A release from the US State Department stated that both Pompeo and Prince Khalid agreed that “dialogue represents the only way to achieve a stable, unified and prosperous Yemen.”
With Yemen well into its fourth year of conflict, it is understandable that all avenues for peace must be explored and dialogue, even with those who have divergent views, should not always be written off. However, it should also be considered that dialogue sometimes has adverse effects on conflicts. It can buy ill-intentioned parties time to expand their influence and sow instability, ultimately working to the detriment of those seeking peace.
Given the intricate power dynamics in Yemen, Riyadh is expected to once again demonstrate its commitment to peace and stability, which are its core objectives for the Arab Gulf region.