Will Qatar Return to a Mediator Role in the Yemen Conflict?

Yemen has been devastated by a civil war ongoing since 2014. The atmosphere following the Arab uprisings led to drastic unrest in one of the Middle East’s most divided and economically deprived countries, starting in the North among the Houthis and spilling over to the South with the Southern Movement’s secessionist attempt. In addition to Yemen’s political, military, and economic problems, the central government has lost power over the governorates and other local services to provide basic needs. The Saudi-led coalition’s military operations and the later UAE’s military actions in the South worsened the civilian causalities which reached 230,000 deaths. The Covid-19 pandemic additionally led to deterioration in civilian conditions under a demolished health sector.

Although experts on Yemen did not agree yet to define the civil war as a proxy war, given the extensive involvement of international actors, it is an accurate assessment of the conflict’s nature. The central government is backed by the Saudi-led coalition, the Houthis are supported by Iran and there are other important central actors such as the United Nations (UN) and regional states like Oman.  

The diplomatic efforts to ease Yemen’s political problems have intensified since February with Saudi Arabia’s offer to the Houthis. Nonetheless, heavy military fighting is ongoing, especially in the North at the Marib front. The Marib governorate holds a strategic location close to the capitol of Sanaa, is particularly rich in oil and gas and hosts more than a million internal refugees. Thus, the devastating conditions in Marib and the military conflict has led to a further worsening of conditions country-wide. The critical role of UN negotiations among the parties and Oman’s regional support to Yemeni society brings new challenges and opportunities to the war. Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, a member of the Supreme Political Council in the Houthi-led National Salvation Government, recently tweeted that “If the aggressor countries respond positively to the message of the Sultan of Oman, I believe that there is no obstacle in our view to holding a meeting and completing the dialogue in Qatar.” Thus, Oman’s current position in conflict resolution and Qatar’s potential participation are currently on the table.

Who has mediated so far?

Since the Saudi-led coalition’s military intervention, many international actors became involved in resolving the conflict. In the initial stages, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was involved in the unrest in 2011, and its political intervention was followed by the beginning of military operations in 2015. Oman was the first state working to diplomatically resolve the conflict despite the military intervention. For Yemenis, Oman was a safe neighbor that kept its borders open for logistical help and avoided military confrontation with any of the parties involved in the conflict. In 2016, Kuwait also initiated a diplomatic shuttle; however, this initiative was not successful. When Martin Griffiths became the UN envoy in March 2018, in the framework of the peace talks in Kuwait, a new peace deal was conducted in Stockholm urging for the Hodeidah redeployment plan, a Houthi withdrawal, and disarmament. Although Griffiths depicted the Stockholm agreement as a major shift and breakthrough, it did not bear fruit as expected. While diplomatic efforts were intensifying, the structure of the war and the military coalition changed as well. With the Gulf crisis and the start of the blockade on Qatar, the Qatari military forces who were responsible for border security were deported. Qatari political authorities stated that since the conflict’s outbreak, Qatar has not been enthusiastic about the military intervention and Qatari officials prioritized a diplomatic solution. Meanwhile, the UAE started supporting the Southern secessionists and established military bases in Yemen and the Horn of Africa to control Aden’s maritime security. The UAE and Saudi Arabia supported two different blocs in the conflict and this contradicting stance was followed by the Riyadh agreement between the Saudi-led coalition and the Southern secessionists, although the agreement did not meet expectations. When the Covid-19 pandemic deteriorated living conditions in Yemen, the UN urged the parties involved in the conflict to hold peace talks, and in April 2020 the Saudi-led coalition declared a unilateral ceasefire in response to the pandemic.

The Current Diplomatic Shuttle

Despite all these attempts, neither a sustainable ceasefire, nor a comprehensive peace plan has been achieved in Yemen. The international community’s optimistic approach to Joe Biden’s potential strategies to de-escalating the tension in Yemen has remained illusive up until now. However, a new United States (US) Special Envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, has been appointed and, along with Griffiths, a new diplomatic round started. In fact, the new breakthrough is based on Saudi-Iranian talks that have been carried out since April, indicating the war’s regional dynamics. Griffiths and Lenderking have been traveling to Riyadh and Muscat since May. However, according to Griffiths’ statements, the Houthis did not initially meet him, and they emphasized the importance of their military gains and the Marib offensive. However, later by the end of May, Griffiths and Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul Salam finally met in Muscat after further talks between the UN Special Envoy to Yemen and Saudi Arabia in Riyadh.

Unlike the other Gulf monarchies, Oman did not join the military intervention in Yemen. Rather, Oman became a hub for Houthis in exile and their communications with third parties. Also, thousands of Yemeni refugees were welcomed in Oman. The neighboring Sultanate’s role is not critical only for its unique and non-military approach to the Yemeni conflict, but also its good relations with both the US and Iran. Both Griffiths and Lenderking were hosted in Oman in recent weeks giving the parties a neutral venue to conduct negotiations. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also visited Oman to meet with Abdul Salam.

Saudi Arabia declared a ceasefire on June 3 to provide a suitable atmosphere for the peace talks, however, as was the case in previous ceasefires, the Houthis seemingly did not respect the call and were blamed for another missile attack that targeted Marib a couple of days after. An Omani delegation landed in Sanaa along with Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul Salam and other Houthi officials and met with Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi. After the start of the peace talks, Griffiths urged the warring parties to bridge the gap and reach a ceasefire after this intensified diplomatic attempt that was supported by both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Griffiths underlined in his brief that this time “there’s an extraordinary amount of diplomatic consensus… there is a real diplomatic energy now, which hasn’t always been the case.” Unsurprisingly, Oman’s intervention is welcomed by both the Houthis and the central government. However, it is important to underline that all this shuttle diplomacy and the travel of some Houthis officials to Sanaa from Oman, where they have been in exile since 2016, is only possible with the Saudi-led coalition’s approval as it controls Yemen’s airspace. However, neither Oman’s role in negotiations, nor Saudi-Iranian talks is enough to encourage a sustainable peace process in Yemen.

The clash of interests

The critical threshold for a comprehensive deal is the clash of interests. In fact, it is not only an external determinant for the domestic groups in the conflict, but also for the external actors involved in Yemen. For the Houthis, a ceasefire is supposed to start with the opening of Sanaa airport, the lifting of the coalition’s sea blockade, and ignoring their violent and offensive warfare. However, for international organizations and experts working in the field such as Nadwa Dawsari, Summer Nasser and Abdulghani Al-Iryani, the violence embedded in the war conditions has been growing and unavoidably results in the current humanitarian crisis. For a country like Yemen, the ongoing violence with the involvement of an international military intervention irrevocably destroys a centuries-long multidimensional social structure and diversity.

Does Qatar have a special position in the mediation?

Qatar has been mediating conflicts in Eritrea, Lebanon, Darfur, Yemen, and Palestine since Shaikh Hamad’s era. Similar to the foreign policy strategies of Oman, Qatari policymakers have prioritized political dialogue and non-military options to resolve regional conflicts. Both Oman and Qatar have maintained cordial relations with Iran, however Oman’s ties with the Islamic Republic have been especially prominent. This is also why Qatar and Oman were accused of militarily and politically supporting the Houthis in Yemen. Oman was accused of providing logistical access to arms transfers from Iran to Sanaa. However, Omani and Qatari dialogue with the Houthis is actually based on the lack of threat perception from the rebel group. Qatar does not share a border with Yemen and the war does not cause direct insecurity towards the oil-rich monarchy. Whereas Oman does share a border with the war-ravaged country; it is not the Houthis that specifically pose a threat to the Sultanate, but rather the overall instability, refugees, and evacuation of wounded Yemenis to Oman. Also, there was tension between the UAE and Oman regarding the Emirates’ military presence in al-Mahra and Soqotra. For Saudi Arabia, the role of both Qatar and Oman in mediating/facilitating humanitarian assistance is acceptable so long as it does not contradict the Kingdom’s interests. Thus, Qatar’s mediation efforts in 2010 were quite lighter so as to not ignore the domination of Saudi intervention in Yemen. For the same reason, Oman was less active in Yemen until the 2014 rebellions; however, it has been never isolated by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the same manner that Qatar faced after the blockade beginning in 2017.

As Omani scholar Abdullah Baabood underlines, Qatar’s initial reaction to the war between 2014-2017 was to support the GCC’s decisions in Yemen, notably the Saudi Arabian way of dealing with the conflict and supporting the “Friends of Yemen” group. After its isolation since 2017 only humanitarian assistance has been ongoing, but Qatar has officially declared its goal to return to high-profile conflict mediation efforts in the nuclear deal with Iran and the Yemen war.

With respect to assessing Qatar’s mediation in Yemen since 2007, the first comment would be on Shaikh Hamad’s personalized initiatives. Since Qatar’s foreign policymaking is in the hands of a small circle of elites, it is highly personalized and guided by the leader’s strategic choices. The senior Emir had used his personal connections and took initiatives in the conflictual cases of Lebanon and Darfur. Thus, also in Yemen, he visited Sanaa following an invitation by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, later when the mediation failed, both the former President Saleh and some scholars like Isa Blumi in his seminal book Destroying Yemen, depictured Qatar’s role as to simply throw money at the problems. This critique of Qatar’s investments and humanitarian aid in Yemen was based on short-term aid packages and economic projects that allegedly harm Yemen’s nature and infrastructure. 

A sustainable peace process at stake

Qatar’s meditation efforts in Yemen have been assessed in the greater discussion of small states’ state-branding and soft-power tools to increase their visibility and role in politics. However, the Yemen war in its current stage requires more systemic, indigenous, and well-structured mediation than humanitarian aid or promising financial support for parties. The war economy has monopolized the distribution of goods and services in Yemen and has led to a failed state abandoning a great extent of the population from their basic needs. Considering Oman’s own economic problems and the current domestic unrest due to unemployment and a lack of public funds, policymakers question the extent to which Oman will be able to focus on the devastation of Yemen’s economic and social structure. On the other hand, Yemen’s current condition that is segregated into three diverse main interest groups (the Houthis, the Southern Movement, and the government), along with other armed groups and tribal conflicts, requires more than bringing parties to the same table. For a sustainable peace process, a well-structured and all-inclusive deal is necessary. Also, the international actors involved in the resolution, notably the UN, need to engage with the country’s realities and unique characteristics by including tribal leaders and women so the negotiations can hear their concerns and expectations. Thus, whoever takes the lead in mediating in Yemen, needs to go beyond establishing a reputation as a peacemaker or helping the parties to discussions without finalizing a comprehensive plan to first stop the Houthi’s violence.

Mohammed Al-Houthi’s tweet implying Qatar’s potential involvement in the process is not the first time that statements on Qatar’s return to mediation in Yemen have surfaced. Since February, Qatar has restored its ties with the Yemeni government and deployed intensive diplomatic contacts with the Houthis over Oman to revisit its negotiator role in the war. It has been clear since 2014 that none of the mediators, not even the UN, is the panacea for Yemen’s longstanding problems. Any model or party for mediation and ceasefire in Yemen needs to focus on an effective follow-up mechanism to avoid further violence and corruption, and thus, overall human suffering. Secondly, mediators’ focus needs to be on Yemenis’ interest in a generic, realistic, and unified approach, rather than post-war construction or investment projects. The last point is to sequence the security and political steps in the peace process. Especially the role of UN and EU as transparent international agencies can help the regional powers to share their strategies and reach a sustainable process if the military and political elements work simultaneously. Otherwise, a war economy and arms smuggling will continue to support the war’s victors and political initiatives will not succeed in establishing long-term stability.