This article was originally published in June 2015 in Middle East Eye.
The Yemen peace talks in Geneva broke down last week before they even got underway – indeed, the delegations never even made it into the same room, let alone reaching an agreement. That this was so came as no great surprise either to observers or participants of the disastrous war in Yemen. But in all the talk of ‘mutual recriminations’ and ‘intransigence on both sides’, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that these talks failed because the aggressors – that is, the Saudi-led and British-US sponsored ‘coalition’ bombing the country – wanted them to fail.
The central fact is that the ceasefire proposed by UN Secretary-general Ban-Ki Moon – a basic condition for peace talks everywhere – was blocked by the Saudis. The Houthis, naturally enough, refused to negotiate whilst the Saudis were still bombing. The Saudis refused to stop bombing until the Houthis withdrew from all the cities they captured during the war. In other words, whilst the Houthis sought a mutual ceasefire, the Saudis demanded nothing less than abject surrender as the precondition for negotiations. Given that the Houthis have suffered very few territorial losses since the Saudis began bombing in March, this was obviously never going to happen.
The Saudis’ Yemeni allies – forces loyal to exiled President Hadi (who came to power in 2012 following an election in which he was the sole candidate) – clearly shared their backers’ bad faith in relation to the talks. As Medhat al-Zahedwrites in Al Ahram Weekly:
“In response to Ki-moon’s appeal for a two-week humanitarian truce on the occasion of the Holy Month of Ramadan, the Yemeni government in exile adopted a far from conciliatory tone. Ramadan was a month for jihad and did not require the fighting to stop, the foreign minister said …Opposition to a truce was stronger still from Ahmed Al-Masiri, the leader of the Southern Resistance forces that are fighting the Houthis and regiments from the Yemeni army loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh on the ground… He rejected the idea of a humanitarian truce, saying it was “out of the question during Ramadan and after Ramadan”. “Ramadan is a holy month in which jihad is permissible,” he said…The conference got off to a heated start, with the Yemeni delegation brandishing Riyadh-inspired slogans. “We came to speak about implementing the UN Security Council Resolution, not to negotiate,” it said. “The task is to reinstate the government and withdraw the militias.” The rigidity of the Yemeni government and its Saudi backer stems from the fact that they have opposed the negotiations from the outset. They have insisted on the term “consultation” and originally pushed for Riyadh as the venue. “We agreed [to come to Geneva] to please the UN, so that they don’t say we are against peace or that we are stubborn,” Al-Masiri said.”
The anti-Houthi side, in other words, had no intention of either negotiating or accepting a ceasefire themselves, but went to Geneva simply to allow the ongoing war to be spun in such a way that places the blame solely on the Houthis.
In fact, this deliberate scuppering of any chance of a negotiated settlement in favour of continued war and chaos mirrors precisely the start of the Saudi bombing campaign itself. A month after the bombing began, it was revealed that “Operation Decisive Storm” had been initiated just as Yemen’s warring parties were on the verge of signing a power-sharing agreement that could have ended the country’s civil war. As Jamestown Foundation noted: “According to the former UN Special Adviser on Yemen, Jamal Benomar, negotiations between all major stakeholders in Yemen were nearing an interim conclusion on a power sharing agreement when Saudi Arabia and its allies launched Operation Decisive Storm on March 25 (Wall Street Journal, April 26). Despite the Houthis’ push into south Yemen, representatives from the south remained engaged in negotiations. The commencement of aerial strikes by Saudi Arabia and its partners ended the negotiations and led to a dramatic escalation of violence between the Houthis and southern militias, who, with the support of Saudi Arabia, were determined to reverse the gains made in the south by the Houthis and their allies.”
The question, then, is ‘why’? Why would Saudi Arabia gratuitously extend a destabilising war on their own Southern border – and continue to do so even when it had become thoroughly apparent that their ‘Decisive’ Storm was anything but?
The answer is not simply that they want to prevent ‘Shia’ influence in Yemen’s government, as is often claimed – as if it is self-evident that a ‘Sunni’ government would be against a ‘Shia’ one. This analysis is typical of the way in which orientalist Western journalism continues to attempt to ‘naturalise’ and reify religious and ethnic divisions in a way that suggests that sectarian intolerance is somehow in the DNA of non-Europeans. In fact, the ‘Sunni’ Saudi rulers have happily supported a Yemeni ‘Shia’ movement in the past – the forerunners of the Houthis no less – in the 1960s when the Zaydi Shia royalty was under threat from an Egyptian-backed republican movement: a conflict in which the Sunni Saudis and Shia Iran were on the same side. The Saudi involvement in Yemen is not about some kind of age-old sectarian identity – it is about strategy, a specific strategy that is in fact very new, dating back to the middle of the last decade, when the Saudi-Israeli-US-British alliance decided to channel billions of dollars into sectarian death squads that would be unleashed against the growing resistance axis spearheaded by Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. The Houthis, by threatening the regional base of one of the most powerful of these groups – Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula – were a threat to this strategy. The chaos arising from the Saudi intervention, meanwhile, has provided the perfect conditions for its spread.