BEIRUT, Lebanon – The coronavirus pandemic could help end one of the worst wars in the world.
This hope emerged this week as the main fighters in Yemen, the poorest Arab country, outlined their visions for the path to peace.
Saudi Arabia announced a unilateral ceasefire on Wednesday to facilitate talks and prevent the spread of the corona virus. Almost simultaneously, the Houthi rebels who control the Yemeni capital unveiled their own eight-sided peace plan. The United Nations, which has been struggling to suppress violence in Yemen for years, hopes to have talks between them next week.
The war has caused incalculable human suffering since the start of the Yemen bombing and blockade led by Saudi Arabia in 2015. Tens of thousands of people have died, cities have been destroyed, poverty has spread and diseases such as cholera have proven difficult to defeat. The country’s medical system has been dismantled and many people lack clean water.
This reality would make the 30 million people in Yemen dangerously vulnerable if the corona virus prevailed, and the country reported its first case on Friday.
The infected man, a 60-year-old heavy smoker, is a worker in the port of Al-Shihir city in Hadramout province, where he is believed to have caught the virus from foreign seafarers. He is being treated in a hospital and the authorities have blocked the city and sent soldiers to keep the residents in their homes.
The ceasefire in Saudi Arabia was announced five years after the kingdom and some of its Arab allies launched military intervention in Yemen to try to push back the Houthis, which was in line with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival stand. The Houthis had stormed the Yemeni capital Sana and exiled the government.
Now the Saudis have many reasons to look for a way out, analysts said. The cost of the war was enormous and at a time when the kingdom was de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants to push through expensive efforts to diversify the Saudi economy.
More recently, The global drop in oil demand due to corona virus barriers and a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia has exacerbated fiscal pressures and reduced oil prices to less than half what the Kingdom needs to balance its budget.
Saudi Arabia has long been subjected to international criticism for contributing to Yemen’s humanitarian breakdown. This criticism would likely increase if many Yemenis died from Covid-19.
But the kingdom can be trapped with an enemy who prefers to keep fighting. There were reports of violations within hours of the Thursday afternoon ceasefire.
The Saudis had informed the Houthis in advance that the ceasefire would be announced, a diplomat with knowledge of the exchange. However, the Houthi leaders have not yet given an official response to the initiative.
In a telephone call, Muhammad al-Bukhaiti, a senior Houthi leader, dismissed the Saudi announcement as “more of a continuation of the war than an armistice”.
“Saudi Arabia is mobilizing its air, naval and armed forces to further block Yemen, which has far greater implications than continuing the air bombs,” he said.
Another senior Houthi official, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, published the group’s own peace proposal. These included the end of the blockade led by Saudi Arabia, the reopening of Yemeni airports, long-term Saudi financial commitments to rebuild Yemen, and direct talks between the Saudis and the Houthis about Yemen’s political future – with no direct mention of the Yemeni government.
These demands showed that after surrendering to the richest country in the Arab world and keeping the Yemeni capital for five years, the Houthis were in no mood to make concessions, analysts said.
“The Saudis are trying to get out of the conflict and the Houthis are gripping their necks,” he said Abdulghani Al-Iryani, senior researcher at the Sana Center for Strategic Studies.
The Houthi’s position has been strengthened by military achievements in recent months against the kingdom’s Yemeni allies in key provinces in central Yemen.
“The only thing they can do well is fight,” Al-Iryani said of the Houthis, “and they won’t leave this comfortable terrain without a comprehensive agreement.”
Other analysts raised other issues that could affect the success of the ceasefire in Saudi Arabia. For one thing, it remains unknown who else will honor it.
“It is one-sided, so it is not clear how the Houthis react and how much buy-in the Yemenis are fighting against the Houthis on the ground,” he said April Longley Alley, deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. “Are there other Yemenis present?”
A number of leaders of the internationally recognized government of Yemen said Thursday they supported the ceasefire, and Yemen’s president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, is said to have asked loyalist troops to end the fight. But Mr. Hadi and many of his ministers are in exile in Saudi Arabia and have little control over the local fighters.
If the warring parties decide to hold conversations that are conducted over telephone and computer connections, the United Nations has laid the diplomatic foundations through months of discussions with both sides. However, it is far from clear whether they would participate.
“Implementing a ceasefire is no small feat, and the first test will be whether the parties appear at this virtual meeting,” said Ms. Alley.
Even if this is the case, the ceasefire is unlikely to continue unless it is linked to a major process aimed at addressing the many problems that Yemenis have struggled with.
“The ceasefire cannot be permanent without a political process that underpins an armistice, without a way out, and without very specific economic and humanitarian confidence-building measures,” said Ms. Alley.
Saeed Al-Batati reported from Al Mukalla, Yemen, and Shuaib Almosawa from Sana.