PoliciesStudiesAlliance options: The Riyadh agreement as a strategic option to get out of the Yemeni impasse

23 March، 2022by Ahmed Eleiba0

The paper trys to answers this question: Does the Riyadh Agreement represent a strategic option for the Arab alliance and a way out of the current Yemeni impasse?

Ahmed Eleiba


Two main opposing trends form the pattern of dealing with the Riyadh Agreement[1] (November 5, 2019) between the internationally recognized Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC). The first trend is the two parties’ adherence to the agreement, evident in their media discourse. The second trend is the anti-agreement policy on the ground. There are other obstacles related to the formal aspects, such as the strategic objectives and the parties’ use of the agreement in their pursuit of opposing political projects.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as the main sponsor of the agreement, continues its efforts to urge the parties to implement the agreement. Saudi Arabia has hosted multiple rounds of negotiations between the two parties,[2] together or individually, but those meetings did not result in progress. This result raises questions about the seriousness of the two parties in implementing the agreement. What forms of pressure cards can Saudi Arabia use in this regard?

This paper discusses the possible opportunities and obstacles that hinder the agreement in the path of transition from conflict to settlement, and answers a main question: Does the Riyadh Agreement represent a strategic option for the Arab alliance and a way out of the current Yemeni impasse?

1: Motives and Contexts

It is important to address Saudi Arabia’s motives for sponsoring the Riyadh Agreement. Saudi intervention has been going on in Yemen for seven years, the longest war fought by Saudi Arabia. This war has repercussions related to border security, as Houthi attacks have affected vital targets in the Saudi depth, in addition to its material and human cost. On the political level, the process of managing a confrontation with the Houthi group — in the context of a proxy war with Iran — is a complex security process. In the long term, Saudi Arabia fears that the Houthi group will adopt the Iranian ideology and become an armed Iranian sectarian tool in southern Saudi Arabia, like those armed Shiite factions supported by Iran in Iraq, northern Saudi Arabia.[3]

South Yemen, before unification, represented the same threat to Riyadh. The difference is in the type of threat posed by the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen with its socialist ideology. After the fall of the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime, multiple threats to Saudi Arabia emerged in Yemen: an Iranian-backed rebel group in northern Yemen, and a separatist group in the south, the STC. Before that, Saudi Arabia sponsored the power transfer agreement in Yemen, and then lost confidence in its local allies after President Saleh allied himself with the Houthis.

Saudi Arabia was compelled to declare war after the overthrow of the internationally recognized government.[4] However, Saudi Arabia has so far lacked the ability to resolve it militarily. Saudi Arabia is not the only one who fought a long war. For example, the United States has not succeeded in defeating the extremist Shiite militias supported by Iran in Iraq, nor the Taliban in Afghanistan for 20 years.

To contain the crises in Yemen, the government and the STC are supported by Saudi Arabia. However, there is a conflict between these two allies of Saudi Arabia. There are no security guarantees for the stability of the Yemeni government, not only because of the conflict with the STC, but also because it will be a target of Houthi attacks, as they did when they targeted the plane carrying the members of the government at Aden airport.

The Houthi attacks are a local and regional threat, but they cannot be compared to the threats to Saudi Arabia. There are different orientations of the members of the coalition. Some believe that military operations could have been supported for some time, but it is not possible to continue an indefinite and open war. The UAE has reduced its role in military operations,[5] as have other countries whose past experiences have prevented them from engaging in the coalition significantly, such as Egypt, which was satisfied with its solidarity with the Yemeni government and the Arab coalition.

The continuation of the war in Yemen is a dilemma for Saudi Arabia, however. It cannot withdraw — as the United States did from Iraq and Afghanistan — because the current chaos in the Yemeni crisis is less than the possible chaos if Saudi Arabia decided to withdraw from Yemen.

It is true that Marib is not the center of the government, but it represents the area of military significance. If the government loses it, it will be difficult to re-mobilize regular and semi-regular forces against the Houthi militia. Most importantly, Marib is a political symbol of the government. Hence the importance of the Riyadh Agreement and the necessity of its implementation to provide an alternative place for the government in case the Houthis seize Marib.

2: Implementation Obstacles:

The failure to implement the Riyadh Agreement is inseparable from the rest of the agreements previously reached during the history of the Yemeni conflict. There are many agreements with the Houthis that have not been implemented, such as the “Peace and Partnership Agreement”, which the Houthis turned against before their coup against the recognized government. The Stockholm Agreement is still valid in theory but has been violated in practice. In addition to the freezing of the outcomes of the “national dialogue”, which is one of the reference points of the Yemeni settlement process.

It can be said that the partial and comprehensive agreements reached were made to be unworkable for the following reasons:

Political Employment of Agreements:

Agreements give political legitimacy to their parties. For example, there was no recognition of the Houthi militia before their coup against the “legitimate authority”. Afterwards, they were allowed to participate in the “Comprehensive National Dialogue Conference”, and then signed the “Peace and Partnership Agreement”. This agreement gave them the legitimacy of “political participation” as one of the Yemeni political groupings. Then the Houthi movement became a political party with the Stockholm negotiations in 2019, regardless of the implementation of the agreement. The same applies to the southern crisis. The Riyadh Agreement granted the STC political legitimacy, while the other components of the Southern Movement were excluded.

Dismantling the crisis:

In many regional conflicts and crises, there was a clear road map for the political path to stop the war and start the settlement process. But in the Yemeni case, the crises were only partially dealt with. In the north, negotiations were held with the Houthis and the recognized authority. The southern crisis was dealt with independently through the Riyadh Agreement. These two examples reflect the absence of a comprehensive vision,[6] and the result is a conflict between the content of the agreements. The Riyadh Agreement includes re-mobilizing the military to confront the Houthis, which contradicts the agreements and initiatives with the Houthis. Therefore, the Riyadh Agreement can be considered more of a tactical agreement than a strategic one.

Interim Agreements:

Most of the agreements on the Yemeni issue do not deal with the conflict in a radical way, but rather as a reaction to the variables of the conflict and the interaction of its parties. Therefore, they cannot be considered permanent or enforceable agreements. The Stockholm Agreement was signed at a time when the joint forces were close to defeating the Houthis in the Battle of Hodeidah. The international community lobbied for it, arguing that entering Hodeidah would have a significant cost to civilians. In the southern case, the Riyadh Agreement was signed in the context of the armed conflict between the government and the STC, and therefore it is a forced agreement to unify the two forces against the Houthis.

Intertwined roles:

There is a difficulty in defining the role of Saudi Arabia towards the Yemeni agreements, as while it is a mediator and sponsor, it is sometimes considered a political party. Saudi Arabia certainly has an interest in controlling the relationship between its local partners — in the context of the agreements with the Houthis — and it also has historical concerns about the situation in southern Yemen. The Yemeni crisis has renewed these fears.

Lack of political will:

There is a contradiction between words and deeds, and a large gap resulting from the different goals of the parties to the Riyadh Agreement.[7] The STC is essentially a separatist movement that seeks to gradually move towards achieving its goal of independence. On the other hand, the internationally-recognized government seeks to reduce the chances of the STC achieving this goal, even though it signed an agreement with it. The result is that the armed conflict has turned into a political struggle, not a political settlement.

The sum of these five indicators reveals the reasons for the failure to implement the Riyadh Agreement, or any settlement in general. However, the agreement cannot be abandoned. Rather its implementation has become more urgent because it creates the following opportunities:

Undermining armed conflicts between the parties to the agreement:

The Riyadh Agreement was developed for a “situational” or “compelling” goal, to unite the front against the Houthi group, and to avoid opening a new front for armed conflict in Yemen. From this angle, the agreement is positive, despite the outbreak of armed clashes twice between the two parties following the signing of the agreement. However, the nature of the military deployment resulting from the agreement prevented a renewal of the conflict, especially on the outskirts of the city of Aden.

Appointing the government as a central authority in the south, not as a regional authority:

Based on the political appendix of the agreement, the roles and powers of both the government, as a central authority, and the STC, as a regional authority, were defined. There are indeed problems in terms of implementation, but they are not due to the essence of the agreement, but rather to the nature of the conflict between the two parties to the agreement, which is evident in their political practices and their limited flexibility.[8]

Undermining the southern separatist project:

The transformation of the STC from a political component to a regional political authority, under the umbrella of the central authority, reduces the fears that may result from the absence of a central authority, even if only symbolically. Indeed, Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi has not exercised his full powers from the south so far — and there are still many obstacles to reach this point — but some of those powers were fulfilled when some of the terms of the agreement were implemented. Furthermore, Prime Minister Maeen Abdul-Malik visits Aden from time to time. It can also be pointed out that the resources of the south may not allow the STC or the government to monopolize political power, and Saudi Arabia will still be needed for economic support.

3: The future of the agreement

There are four possible scenarios for the future of the agreement:

First: Continued failure

This scenario is most likely, given the absence of political will on the part of the parties to the agreement, and the insufficient response to implementing all of its provisions. Thus, the agreement will remain political, which achieves the minimum objectives. This is an acceptable formula temporarily, but if other variables arise — especially in the case of the fall of Marib in the hands of the Houthis — this scenario will pose major problems.

Second: Execution of the agreement

Achieving this requires amending the agreement and Saudi Arabia putting pressure on the two sides, in addition to new circumstantial factors that may pressure the two parties to implement the agreement. It is not required that the implementation be carried out literally, but at least in some form, motives may be formed for this framework.

Third: Setback of the agreement

This scenario is the least likely but cannot be ruled out. If pressure backfires, or if one side withdraws as a result of political escalation, things may get out of control again.

Fourth: The Unexpected Scenario

The sudden, or unexpected, scenario is that the agreement itself is not needed, and the reasons that led to it have ended. Some variables are taking shape and may lead to a change in the scene, which may lead to diminishing the strategic importance of the Riyadh Agreement. The most prominent of these variables are:

A- The shift in the course of the coalition’s military operations:

The coalition’s concentration of military strikes on vital sites in the capital, Sana’a, especially on Sana’a Airport — during the month of December 2021, which is a major turning point in the course of military operations — prompted the Houthis to become preoccupied with the capital, which led to relieving pressure on the Marib front. It seems that there is international support of this development, as a counter-reaction to the Houthis’ continued attacks on vital installations in the Saudi heartland.[9] In addition, most international powers realize that the Houthis have turned most civilian assets into military assets, and this is evident in the Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia. This policy will lead to comprehensive strategic variables that reduce dependence on the two sides of the Riyadh Agreement in the process of counter-mobilization against the Houthis.

B- Iran’s position

This trend is led by several indicators that appeared in the second half of December 2021, including Iran’s withdrawal of its ambassador from Sana’a, Hassan Erlo, claiming that he was infected with COVID-19. Iran did not announce that he would return to Sana’a, nor did it appoint another ambassador in his place. Erlo’s exit from Yemen was mediated by an Iraqi-Omani, with Saudi approval,[10] and he later died amid reports of the causes of death. Another indication is the meeting that took place between the UN envoy to Iran, Peter Samni, with the senior advisor to the Iranian Foreign Minister for Special Political Affairs, Ali Asghar Khaji. After the exclusive meeting on Yemen, Samni announced the need to reach a ceasefire and solve the crisis of the Yemeni oil tanker “Safer”. This means that the file was discussed in detail, and the parties reviewed their terms before announcing any settlement initiative. In addition to the above, the Houthi leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, announced the acceptance of a French settlement initiative.

These variables indicate that Tehran is seeking to use the Yemeni file as a gesture to improve Iran’s position with the European powers, in parallel with the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear file. This trend may prompt the Houthi group to re-evaluate the policy of military escalation, and will also lead the coalition to not rely on the Riyadh Agreement.

4: Recommendations to the parties to the agreement:

Enhancing opportunities to move towards the implementation of the agreement may save it and provide a strategic exit from the current impasse in Yemen to the benefit of all parties, not only the Arab coalition.

1- General recommendations:
Investment in the current situation:

The Riyadh Agreement may be the last chance for all parties. Challenges and obstacles can be diagnosed, and plans can be made to avoid them, but it is important to recognise the time factor that passes without moving from the cycle of chaos, conflict, and multiple crises. It is necessary to build a model, even if partial, for stability in Yemen. This goal should be the main strategic choice for all parties. The political agreement is between the political components that are supposed to stand united in the national project, bearing in mind that the authority in all cases, whether the government or the regional authority in the south, is fragile given the general political and security situation.

Adhering to the agreement is a priority step that can be built upon if there is the political will to implement it. A new roadmap, and a clear agenda, is still needed to implement the terms of the agreement. The first step to achieve this falls on the shoulders of the follow-up committee approved by the agreement, which must reconcile the text with the implementation steps. In the first place, the two parties to the agreement must stop trading accusations and media escalation towards each other.

Addressing the elite dilemma:

There is an elite dilemma that needs to be addressed before initiating a change in the current situation. That dilemma stems from a long history of conflict and hostile behavior. Therefore, reforming the deteriorating reality not only requires political reconciliation between the STC and the internationally-recognized government, but also requires trust and abandoning the culture of hegemony, spoils, and conflicts.

Rehabilitation of the state:

The goal of state-building should be the main project and strategic priority of all Yemeni parties as well as Saudi Arabia as the sponsor of the agreement. Tactical goals that are confined to the process of consolidating power on a politically, socially, and economically fragile land are not enough.

Investment of the external support :

There is international and regional support for the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement, according to the final statement of the 42nd Gulf Summit, in addition to the statement of the Quartet (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the United States and the UK), in addition to the position of the UN Security Council. Therefore, the response of the two parties (the internationally-recognized government and the STC) to these calls may enable them to obtain the required support to make a qualitative shift in the liberated areas.[11]

2- The Arab Alliance to Support the Government:

It is important to reassess the situation in the Yemeni crisis, and not to succumb to the pressures exerted by the Houthi movement in the field through military escalation. Failure to implement the Riyadh Agreement serves the Houthis and weakens the government and the STC, and vice versa if the agreement is implemented. Thus, the agreement itself may become a model for settling the crisis in the north, and not just a solution to the dispute between the government and the STC in the south.

A political, security, and economic model should be built in the liberated territories as a strategic goal, and not limited to tactical goals. The problems and obstacles addressed in this paper should also be addressed, foremost of which is looking at the following lessons learned from the Yemeni crisis:

  • Security arrangements need to be reconsidered. Some security arrangements in the vicinity of Aden indeed separated the conflicting parties, but the next step is rebuilding and arranging a security model in the south that takes into account securing the south as a liberated area, and at the same time accommodates the process of building an organized security force, instead of the prevailing randomness. This requires developing a plan to rebuild the military and security academies, establish a national military doctrine, and build a national guard in the south of the country that meets the needs of the south and Yemen in general.
  • Building the model also requires upgrading economic assets and resources, within the framework of an attractive development project in the south and extending to the rest of the liberated areas. It is not possible to rely on oil alone, many resources can be developed, including the rehabilitation of coastal ports. The economic powers of the government and the authority of the region should be arranged in a flexible manner that does not lead to secession, or acquisition and domination. There is controversy about the priority of implementing the annexes contained in the Riyadh Agreement, but the economic annex is certainly a priority, and it could also be the beginning of rapprochement between the parties.
3- The internationally-recognized government:

The internationally-recognized government is the weakest link in this agreement, and it must therefore take the following steps:

  • Rapprochement with the STC and dealing with it flexibly as a regional authority that does not negatively affect the internationally-recognized authority. Develop an integrated framework for the authority, and clarify the powers of the two authorities. Among those steps is rebuilding trust between the two parties, and stopping the rhetoric of blaming the STC for the failure to implement the agreement.
  • The internationally-recognized authority needs to be redefined as a national authority that accommodates all parties and resolves differences politically, rather than through wars that cannot end with the victory of one party over another. Often there are enormous difficulties in achieving victory; therefore, the STC should be drawn to the side of the government, and this is a role that President Hadi should play. The coalition cannot play all roles, as there is room for President Hadi to strike a balance between all parties, and not take sides at the expense of another, but rather take sides in the goal of restoring the state.
4- The Southern Transitional Council:

There is a need to redefine the STC and its role in the political scene as a national power, before defining it as a regional authority with certain powers, and not as a transitional authority. To achieve this, the STC should consider the following:

  • The priority of the STC should be to restore the state. It is not possible to demand secession in light of the deteriorating situation in Yemen. As for the political legitimacy granted by the Riyadh Agreement to the STC, this is temporary. But even if the opportunity arose to secede by force, there would be no chance for it to be recognized internationally and regionally. Therefore, it is in the STC’s interest to adhere to unity and redefine its political identity.
  • The STC should not be alone in the de-facto authority unilaterally, because the loss of any party is a factor of weakness for all. The STC should strengthen its position by meeting the actual demands of the south. There were political grievances at the center of the southern issue, but it is important to take care of southern citizens affected by the conflict. Southern citizens bear the cost of this conflict at a time when they need services and development.

The Riyadh Agreement is an important initiative to move towards solving the Yemeni crisis. If the agreement succeeds in forming a successful model for power-sharing between the government and the STC, it will be an opportunity for a settlement with other parties such as the Houthi movement. This will then help move towards the main goal, which is rebuilding the state.

The agreements in Yemen are indeed difficult to implement, given the many obstacles created by their parties. Despite this, these agreements remain better than the alternative scenarios.

A government has been formed in the framework of implementing the agreement, which is an important step, along with the process of forming the authority of the agreement and some limited security arrangements. But despite the failure to implement the agreement until now, the policy of gradual steps may be better than the policy of returning to armed conflict.




[1] The full text of the Riyadh Agreement can be found at the following link: https://www.peaceagreements.org/viewdocument/3281

[2] Ahmed Naseer, Completing the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement… Saudi efforts and international calls, Al-Ain News website, 12/17/2021, available at the following link: https://al-ain.com/article/completing-implementation-riyadh-agreement-yemen

[3]  Brian Murphy, for Saudi Arabia, Struggles in Yemen have Deep Roots, Washington Post, April 5, 2015. Available At: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/for-saudi-arabia-struggles-in-yemen-have-deep-roots/2015/04/04/0ca4065e-9414-4f57-8347-21c52ff6a194_story.html

[4]  Tara Kavaler, Saudi Arabia Looks for Yemen Exit Strategy, Themedialine, 06/09/2020.

[5]  Ibrahim Jalal, the UAE may have withdrawn from Yemen, but its Influence Remains Strong, Middle East Institute, February 25, 2020. Available At: t: https://www.mei.edu/publications/uae-may-have-withdrawn-yemen-its-influence-remains-strong

[6]  Ahmed Eleiba, The Mentality of Deconstruction: Problems of Dealing with Conflict and Crisis Files in the Region, “Arab Wall” website, October 7, 2021. Available at the following link: https://arabwall.com/%D8%A5%D8%B4%D9%83%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D8%B9%D8%A7%D9%85%D9%84-%D9%85%D8%B9-%D9%85%D9%84%D9%81%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B5%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%88%D8%A7/

[7]  Mustafa al-Numan, The Riyadh Agreement and the Mechanism between Reality and Wish, The Independent Arabia, August 4, 2020, available at the following link: https://www.independentarabia.com/node/140286/%D8%A2%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%A1/%D8%A7%D8%AA%D9%81%D8%A7%D9%82-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%B6-%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A2%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A8%D9%8A%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%82%D8%B9-%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%85%D9%86%D9%8A

[8] Khaled Ameen, Yemen’s Power-Sharing Cabinet: What is At Stake?, Sanaa Center, April 5, 2021. Available at: https://sanaacenter.org/publications/analysis/13695

[9]  Samy Magdy, Saudi Coalition Says It Targeted Rebel-Held Yemen Airport, Washington Post, 20 Dec 2021. Available At: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/saudi-coalition-says-it-targeted-rebel-held-yemen-airport/2021/12/20/309aa486-61ce-11ec-9b51-7131fa190c5e_story.html

[10]  Dion Nissenbaum, Iran’s Top Diplomat in Yemen Leaves the Country, wsj, Dec. 18, 2021. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/irans-top-diplomat-in-yemen-leaves-the-country-11639868219

[11] – Daniel Egel, and others, Building an Enduring Peace in Yemen, RAND Corporation, 2021. Available At: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA733-1.html


This paper is part of the “Riyadh Agreement Project,” implemented by the Arabia Felix Center for Studies (AFC), with the support of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES). The aim is to understand the factors that prevent the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement and provide realistic recommendations to the concerned parties. This project will include studies and other policy papers that will be published successively.

Ahmed Eleiba

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