Will a new UN envoy help bring peace to Yemen?

A photo taken on March 18, 2018, shows a Yemeni child looking out from behind a wall that was damaged in an air strike in the southern Yemeni city of Taez. [Getty]
6 min read
12 July, 2021
Analysis: With the announcement of a new UN special envoy imminent, the fourth in 10 years, an end to the fighting in Yemen seems as elusive as ever.

The fourth UN envoy to Yemen will soon embark on leading peace efforts in the hope of finding a solution to the country's conflict.

The three previous envoys could not push the warring sides to commit to a political settlement and stop the war, with a decade of failed efforts leading to nowhere.

Now, EU Ambassador to Yemen Hans Grundberg is a frontrunner for the role. Any decision by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for the position must be approved by the 15-member Security Council.

In 2011, the first UN envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, began his tenure, but he stepped aside in 2015 as the war raged on.

"The three previous envoys could not push the warring sides to commit to a political settlement and stop the war, with a decade of failed efforts leading to nowhere"

He was succeeded by Ismael Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who also quit in 2018. Martin Griffiths was appointed in 2018, and he delivered his final briefing last month.

It had been hard for any of them to reconcile the differences amongst Yemen’s rival forces.

While the new UN envoy will seek to push them to reach a political deal, the reality on the ground has grown tense. Bloodshed and violence on the battlefields of the country will certainly not lay the groundwork for peace.

Last week, pro-government forces advanced in Al-Beidha province and dislodged Houthi fighters from several positions.

A Yemeni child holds missile shrapnel outside a factory after it destroyed in airstrikes carried out by warplanes of the Saudi-led coalition killing three civilians and injured six others on January 20, 2019 in Sana'a, Yemen. [Getty]
A Yemeni child holds missile shrapnel outside a factory after it was destroyed in airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition in 2019 near Sana'a. [Getty]

This development has angered the Houthis, who said talking about peace efforts while the other side is launching military operations is futile.

Dhaif Allah Al-Shami, the Houthi information minister, said in a statement to Sana’a-based Saba News Agency that the Saudi-led coalition, which supports the Yemeni government, is hiding behind the fake slogan of peace.  

He added, "The military operation [of the Saudi-backed Yemen government] is supported by the United States which falsely claims it is keen on peace [in Yemen]."

The Houthis don’t believe that the new UN envoy will re-energise the paralysed peace process, arguing that peace requires serious steps.

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On 3 July, Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, a senior member of the Houthi Supreme Political Council in Sana’a, tweeted, "The Security Council and the United Nations should change their policies from supporting the coalition of the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to supporting real peace. This is a serious step. Otherwise, any new envoy will not bring anything new or break the stalemate."

This development points to the rocky path the new UN envoy will face. Although the Houthi movement alleges that they are seeking peace and pursuing the road to a political settlement, the Yemeni government has repeatedly held the Iran-backed Houthis responsible for prolonging the conflict.

On 11 June, the Foreign Minister of Yemen, Ahmed bin Mubarak, warned that the Houthi military escalation would thwart diplomatic success. He said, "I think there are those, the hardliners, who believe that they [Houthis] have the divine right to rule Yemen, those that still have some illusions about military victory."

Political observers hold cautious hope that Hans Grundberg, if chosen as the new envoy, will be an improvement on his predecessors, given his extensive knowledge of the gulf region and the Yemen war.

"The sheer complexity of Yemen's political and military equation seems to dwarf any sense of hope for peace efforts"

Khalil Muthana Al-Omary, a political commentator and editor-in-chief of Rai Alyemen news website, said Grundberg's understanding of the conflict is a great asset that may enable him to perform better. Omary suggested some priorities to which the new envoy can pay attention.

"The new envoy should focus more on Iran because it is the one that is running the direction of the Houthi group. Exercising pressure on Iran in this regard is crucial. If Iran instructs the Houthis to behave in a certain way or be more flexible in negotiating a political solution, the Houthi group will not disobey,” Omary told The New Arab.

“Moreover, the new envoy should coordinate with the US to put pressure on the UAE so that this country would stop its interference in Yemen's sovereignty and prevent its agendas that threaten Yemen's stability," he added.

The sheer complexity of Yemen's political and military equation seems to dwarf any sense of hope for peace efforts. The schism between the local competitors is vast, and the rivalry between regional foes Iran and Saudi Arabia is tense. This reality has made achieving any breakthrough an arduous task.

Yemen Houthis [Getty]
Yemen's Houthi rebels shout slogans during a gathering to mobilise more fighters to battlefronts to fight pro-government forces in 2017. [Getty]

"The new envoy's team will therefore inherit a seemingly intractable situation - they may be able to reinterpret their mandate in ways that open up new moves, but rearranging the puzzle pieces sufficiently to enable a quick deal seems unlikely," Elana DeLozier of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote recently.

Indeed, she sees no swift path to peace in Yemen. "The path is more likely to be a long, hard slog that requires a renewed focus on laying the groundwork for sustainable peace."

At the grassroots level, the news of a new envoy did not spark much enthusiasm among Yemeni civilians. Ten years of war have shown them enough about what the role of a UN envoy entails: talks, meetings, statements but no tangible results that bring relief to the people.

Ali Nasser, a resident in Sana’a, said he is not optimistic.

"This fourth UN envoy will not compel the warring Yemeni sides to make concessions, agree to a peace roadmap and stop this bloody war,” he told The New Arab. “He will just propose solution ideas, and they will reject them. There is nothing that can bind them.”

"He will just propose solution ideas, and they will reject them. There is nothing that can bind them"

Abdu Mohammed, a local from Hodeida port living in Sana’a, said he fled from his home in fear of being killed by armed clashes. Hodeida has seen intermittent clashes between the Houthi fighters and forces led by Tareq Saleh, the nephew of late former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

"The former UN envoy, Griffiths, succeeded in 2018 in convincing the two sides to sign the  Stockholm Agreement on Hodeida. But the agreement has not been implemented, and an all-out war may erupt in the city at any time," Mohammed told The New Arab.

"The United Nations and the Houthis could not agree on making repairs to the  Safer oil tanker in Hodeida to prevent its explosion or oil leakage,” he added.

“They did not even reach an agreement to inspect a ship. So, I have a faint hope for the success of this new UN envoy to Yemen. It is the responsibility of Yemenis to agree on ending the war, and the UN will only support them."

The writer is a Yemeni journalist, reporting from Yemen, whose identity we are protecting for their security.