Anti-war exhibition

Ending the War in Yemen: Q&A with Abdulghani al-Iryani

Yemeni children visit an anti-war exhibition displaying models made by school children on January 21, 2020 in Sana'a, Yemen. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)

Almost exactly four years ago, the war in Yemen significantly escalated when President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was forced to flee Sana’a after opposition forces attempted to take control of the entire country. In the years since, hundreds of thousands of lives have been impacted or lost, a humanitarian crisis unfolded, and the conflict became far more complex with the involvement of Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Despite efforts to bring parties together and negotiate a resolution—including the Stockholm Agreement—the conflict continues. To better understand why and whether there is a way for the war to end, the Global Observatory spoke with Abdulghani al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, where he focuses on the peace process, conflict analysis, and transformations of the Yemeni state.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What would you say is the state of the conflict? How would you describe it, and would you say there is any room for a resolution?

Mr. Al-Iryani: We have basically come towards the end of the conflict, and the question should be “why is it still going?” It is continuing for two reasons mostly. One is the war economy. People from all sides are making lots of money out of this conflict, including some front-line officials of the Arab Coalition. They have no interest in bringing this conflict to an end.

The second reason is because the Saudis and the Houthis—Ansar Allah—have not been able to come to an agreement on the kind of long-term relationship they should have.

Clearly, none of the stated goals of the international armed coalition at the beginning of the conflict have been achieved. On the one hand, Ansar Allah has been able to withstand all the pressure and take over the state institutions. On the other hand, the internationally-recognized government has been able to make itself irrelevant both by its incompetence, corruption, and by its inability to respond to the needs of its people.

In this context it is hard for me to see the benefit or purpose of renewed sanctions, which usually affect the population more than they do those who control the population. In my view, it is useless. It serves no apparent interest if that interest is to bring this war to an end.

How has the involvement of Saudi Arabia and Iran changed over time?

Al-Iryani: For the Saudis, clearly they are fully involved. They are actually fighting and I think that, while they were interested in ending the conflict early on, since the failure of the Kuwait negotiations and peace talks in 2016, they have kept the war at a low level and made no effort to bring it to an end. In the meantime, they have used it to mobilize and agitate against Iran. Of course, Ansar Allah were the main beneficiary of this strategy.

As far as Iran is concerned, I think their role in Yemen is very limited. It was very limited in the beginning, and it remains limited now. But as the conflict continues, Ansar Allah is being pushed against their will to the side of the Iranians because of their need for new defense technology.

Ansar Allah has made an effort to stay away from Iran because they realize that their long-term interest is in having good relations with Saudi Arabia. They come from a part of Yemen which has always been connected to the Saudi economy. All their produce was sold in Saudi Arabia, all the imports that came to them came from Saudi Arabia. The currency of trade in their areas is the Saudi riyal not the Yemeni riyal. Their social relations are more connected to the Saudi side than they are to the Yemeni side.

A normal situation for Ansar Allah and Saudi Arabia is good neighborly relations. This situation of antagonism is an aberration. I think they both realize that they need to work out a cooperative relationship. As long they don’t, Iran benefits. Iran did not actively seek to establish a foothold in Yemen. It was the mismanagement of the Saada conflict from 2004 onwards that gave Iran that foothold with minimum investment on their part.

Over all these years I believe that Iranians were willing to trade in their card in Yemen, which they know cannot survive, for something more sustainable elsewhere. They have offered time and time again to help resolve the conflict in Yemen and both the United States and Saudi Arabia have said no. Their persistent offer tells me that they realize that they cannot sustain their position in Yemen and they would like to trade it for something that is more sustainable in another area.

Where does the Stockholm Agreement fit in? Has there been progress in implementing it?

Al-Iryani: The Stockholm Agreement is an entry point to a larger national ceasefire and return to peace. It would be useful for all the articles of the Stockholm Agreement to be implemented, but it is not necessary. What we’ve got so far out of the Stockholm Agreement is that fighting in Hodeidah stopped. The ceasefire still holds with the usual violations. The port is open, it has not been destroyed, the fighting has not gone into the middle of the city, and the roads to transport humanitarian and commercial commodities are open.

The humanitarian crisis was averted by the Stockholm Agreement and that is in itself a success. The fact that the Stockholm Agreement is still alive is also a success. To expect that all of the articles of the Stockholm Agreement will be implemented in the context of the agreement itself is unrealistic. Most of the articles of the agreement will be implemented in the context of a national ceasefire or national agreement.

Given that many are benefiting from the war economy, what can be done to disincentivize participation in it?

Al-Iryani: To be realistic, this is a conversation that we had two or three years ago, and now it would make no difference because the way parties benefit from war has been institutionalized. We cannot waste our time and energy in dealing with these issues if we have the opportunity to reach a national ceasefire. If we focus on that, then all these other issues will be solved.

Mind you, corruption and profiteering existed in the Yemeni political system before the war, during the war, and will remain after the war. Saudi Arabia also has a serious profiteering problem, so we should not expect that the war economy will go away anytime soon. If you want to solve the problem, you should focus on what can be achieved in a short period of time. That is political agreement between Ansar Allah and the Saudis.

What is needed to make that agreement happen?

Al-Iryani: I think both the Saudis and the Ansar Allah know exactly how this needs to be done. They are talking, and when they started talking they told the United Nations they do not need any help. As I explained earlier, relations between the Saudi and Yemeni side on the border area are so close that they do not need a mediator to talk to each other. Now that they are talking I think they will get there.

One obstacle that stands in the way is that the Saudis are still clinging to the objective of bringing [President Abdrabbuh Mansur] Hadi back to Sana’a. It is clear that this is not going to happen and the Saudis are hesitant to appear as if they have failed to achieve their objectives. They need a face-saving exit, one where they agree with the Ansar Allah in a way that makes them look better.

Another factor is that Ansar Allah is factionalized. There is a militant faction that would not like to see this war come to an end. I’m sure within the Saudi system there are similar considerations, but other than that, I think the international community is unanimous in supporting an end to this war. I think that it is in the interest of Saudi Arabia, it is the interest of Ansar Allah, and it is in the interest of the Yemeni people.