How new US envoy to Yemen can end the stalemate

Dr Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

US President Joe Biden’s decision last week to appoint Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Timothy Lenderking as a special envoy to Yemen is an important step toward resolving the conflict there. US leadership is key to augmenting Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and UN efforts to bring peace to the country.

Lenderking is an excellent choice for the job. He is a cool-headed, seasoned diplomat with an impeccable reputation and extensive experience in the region. He is also a good listener. Here is a list of seven key elements that he could consider.

Firstly, a cease-fire is essential. Last year, the government of Yemen and the Arab coalition accepted UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ call for a global cease-fire. The Houthis did not, and have instead continued their attempts at a military solution, making significant territorial gains. Recent Houthi escalations on several fronts, including increased attacks on Saudi Arabia, are probably intended to bolster the group’s position in the negotiations. However, this reckless behavior should not be rewarded by, for example, removing the US’ Foreign Terrorist Organization designation prematurely. As Yemen’s cease-fires tend to be ephemeral at times, securing them should not be allowed to hold up the other elements of the solution.

Secondly, the Yemen conflict must be de-linked from the US-Iran standoff as much as possible, avoiding entangling the country in an uncertain process that could be lengthy. If allowed, Tehran will try to use its involvement in Yemen as a bargaining chip so as to protect its other more valuable assets in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, or its nuclear program, but accepting such horse-trading will only prolong Yemen’s misery. Yemen’s precarious humanitarian situation ought to preclude such linkages.

Third is that international shipping through the Bab Al-Mandab Strait and Red Sea should be protected and not used as a hostage during the conflict. A more robust security presence is needed to secure maritime lanes and enforce the arms embargo, as stipulated in UN Security Council Resolution 2216, among others.

Fourthly, a political solution must be articulated as the eventual aim of intra-Yemeni talks. Yemenis have spoken clearly about the shape of that solution: A democratic, secular and decentralized system with a special status for the South. Yemen’s own National Dialogue Conference in 2013-2014 put a considerable amount of flesh on that general concept. The outcomes of that dialogue, where the Houthis were represented, should provide guidance for the eventual shape of the Yemeni state. Presidential and parliamentary elections, as stipulated in the GCC Initiative and its implementing mechanism, need to be planned from now to reassure Yemenis of a future free of outdated ideas of tribal and religious supremacy and a clerical elite’s attempts to rule the country by divine right.

The fifth element is that humanitarian assistance is critical and should continue unfettered. Fighting disease, including the coronavirus disease, and providing food are priorities. The obstruction or diversion of aid, harassment of aid workers, and looting of supplies or allowing them to rot in warehouses should not be allowed. The new US envoy should make it very clear from the start that aid may not be used as a tool for political bargaining, expediency or self-enrichment.

Sixth is that longer-term development assistance should be resumed by all donors, wherever possible. The GCC has continued to provide development assistance to Yemen where security conditions permit. A GCC-Yemen joint committee has been meeting for that purpose for some time and plans to meet again in early March. Other international donors should do the same. The US could lead by example by resuming large-scale development aid to Yemen. The Friends of Yemen group, when it functioned between 2010 and 2014, was key to coordinating international aid to the country and could be revived to perform that function once again.

Seventh is that confidence-building measures should be explored but should not divert attention from the larger goal of a grand political solution. They could include implementing the remaining elements of the Stockholm agreement, turning the management of Hodeidah port over to the UN, and resolving the Safer tanker impasse, all of which the UN has been working on with little progress. They could also include fixing the bifurcated financial and monetary system to stop the downward slide of the Yemeni riyal and enable Yemeni expatriates to send remittances home more easily. Streamlining welfare payments to needy families and pensions to retired government employees everywhere should also be a priority, as should resuming development aid to get the economy moving and provide jobs. Regrouping the Friends of Yemen and relaunching similar international meetings could reassure Yemenis of international support.
The most important factor is to listen to and empower local voices, especially those from Yemen itself.
The most important factor in all these elements is to listen to and empower local voices, especially those from Yemen itself.
Yemenis have made their opinions very clear about how to go about resolving the conflict and shaping the future of their country. Some examples stand out as serious attempts to get Yemeni voices heard and good results came out of them. There was the 10-month-long, wide-ranging national conference of 2013-14, the outcomes of which have stood the test of time. In 2016, the UN envoy at the time held moderated talks in Kuwait lasting five months and producing the best outline yet for a solution to the conflict. The GCC Initiative itself was a direct result of sustained talks throughout 2011 between different Yemeni political groups.

The organization of new large-scale, all-Yemeni gatherings needs to be explored to update and build on those earlier successes.
The aim should be to assist the new special envoy by providing context and reality checks for his official talks with various parties. Those gatherings could be hosted in neighboring countries and could include an all-encompassing conference for political groups, another for academics, writers, other influencers and think tanks, and a third for Yemeni women from all regions.

The writer is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist.