The political conflict in Yemen began in 2011 and led to the stepping down of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012. The ensuing repercussions led to a widespread civil war that expanded in March 2015 between two main parties: the Houthis and their allies on the one hand, and the Government of Yemen and its allies on the other. These events required a Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General to Yemen, of which there have been four since 2015. After the Houthis were expelled from Aden, and large areas were liberated in the south, a dispute emerged between the allied southern components and the government. This resulted in an armed conflict in which the forces of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) managed to expel the Yemeni government from the city of Aden, in August 2019. Subsequently, Saudi Arabia negotiated the so-called Riyadh Agreement between the Government of Yemen and the STC to develop a “coalition” line to confront the Houthis. The agreement states that government will be shared between the internationally-recognized Government of Yemen and the STC, who would then enter into final solution consultations regarding the conflict in Yemen.
In the context of these events in Yemen, the agreement, and the subsequent difficulties that accompanied its implementation, the former UN envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths emphasized that he sees the Riyadh Agreement as the right path to a comprehensive peace, given that the agreement is part of a series of partial agreements that can eventually lead to ending the war. The speeches of Griffiths, and most recently Hans Grundberg, included clear calls for the two parties of the agreement to implement it. They also highlighted the benefits that implementation could grant to the reality of Yemenis, especially in the south. Nevertheless, such calls have so far been insufficient and devoid of real pressure to prevent each party from taking the agreement as a tactic or an entry point to achieve its own goals and interests.
A Historical background
After years of partnership imposed by the presence of a common enemy, the Houthi group, the forces of the STC (backed by the UAE) expelled the government forces, (led by President Abd Rabbu Mansour and supported by Saudi Arabia), from Aden and spread to areas in Abyan and Shabwa. These confrontations revealed the fundamental difference between the political and military components allied to fight against the Houthis, who currently control most of northern Yemen and limited parts of the south after they were pushed back from Aden in 2015.
Those confrontations prompted Saudi Arabia—which leads the Arab coalition in favor of the internationally-recognized government in Yemen—to unite these conflicting forces under the Riyadh Agreement, which was signed in Riyadh on November 5, 2019. The agreement mainly stipulated the formation of an equal partnership government between the north and the south, with the participation of the STC, and the integration of the various armed forces under the ministries of defense and interior. The agreement also called to take security, military, and economic measures to reform the collapsing economy and improve services in the areas under the control of government forces and their allies.
The Riyadh Agreement is a new addition to the series of the previous Yemeni agreements, since the “Gulf Initiative” that affected most events in Yemen after 2011; the “National Dialogue Conference” and the “Peace and Partnership Agreement” signed on September 21, 2014; and the Security Council Resolution No. 2216. The STC, with its goal of secession, considers the Riyadh Agreement as one of the agreements that organized the relations between the two parties of the Yemeni unity, as the agreement emphasizes the north-south sharing of power. From the perspective of the United Nations, the agreement is part of a series of steps toward peace within the framework of the international parties efforts to stop the war in Yemen, following the Stockholm Agreement signed between the government and the Houthis on December 13, 2018.
Despite the great welcome expressed by the former UN envoy to Yemen (Martin Griffiths) to the Riyadh Agreement, and the subsequent moves at various local, regional and international levels to support its implementation, the current steps have only been part of a broader effort to reach a final solution to ending the war and bringing peace to Yemen. Understanding the details of the agreement are critical for the UN envoy, as the UN should play a key role in improving and implementing the agreement itself.
This paper explores the nature of the relationship between the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General of the United Nations with the parties responsible for implementing the Riyadh Agreement (the Yemeni government and the STC). The paper also analyzes the role played by the UN envoy within Yemen and what he can do to further the implementation of this agreement.
The mission of the envoy and its relationship with the parties of the agreement
The main task of the Special Envoy is to enable the resumption of a peaceful, inclusive, orderly, and Yemeni-led political transition process that meets the legitimate demands and aspirations of the Yemeni people for peaceful change and meaningful political, economic, and social reform. These aspirations were set out in the 2011 Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative and its implementation mechanism and the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference of 2013–2014. The Special Envoy works closely with the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the UN Security Council, and other international partners to ensure strong and consistent international backing for peace and stability in Yemen. For this goal, the UN envoy seeks to work on mediation efforts between the various parties, through diplomatic consultations and negotiations, to reach an agreement on temporary security and political arrangements for a transitional period to end the conflict and resume the peaceful and comprehensive political transition in a post-war transitional process. Hence, the opportunities of the UN envoy regarding the Riyadh Agreement are governed by these guidelines that govern his work, through which he seeks the appropriate conditions for reaching final-stage talks that can stop the war and lead to peace in Yemen. The principles of the Gulf Initiative and the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference seem to be relatively consistent with the rhetoric of the government team and its allies in the Riyadh Agreement. However, they contradict the objectives of the STC, which seeks independence from the Republic of Yemen. This reflects a fundamental contradiction that hinders the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement.
The STC has nevertheless expressed its desire to cooperate with the UN envoy and work on implementing the provisions of the Riyadh Agreement. In the last meeting between the President of the STC, Aidarous Al-Zubaidi, and the UN envoy, Hans Grundberg, on November 11, 2021, Al-Zubaidi stressed the “necessity to speed up the implementation of the economic part” of the Riyadh Agreement in order “to address the economic crisis and stop the collapse of the local currency.”
As can be seen from the above statement: the “STC” desires to achieve immediate interests, and at the same time seeks to achieve its ultimate goal, i.e. “restoring the southern state” to what it was before 1990. The position of Al-Zubaidi reflects the crisis experienced by the signatories of the agreement, as it is based on principles contrary to the existence of the STC itself, and the parties continue to request support from the UN envoy, who also depends in his work on the same governing principles.
This is also evident in the statement of Mansour Saleh, a leader in the STC, who said that the statements of UN envoy Hans Grundberg are “welcomed, but they are not sufficient to find a comprehensive and sustainable solution in Yemen, as long as their efforts remain far from the main real problem, which is the problem of power among the Yemeni forces.” He said that the solution to the southern problem and the Yemeni problem in general lies mainly in “the importance of the world’s understanding of the need for the people of the south to restore their state that existed before the union with North Yemen.” The STC has thus benefited from the Riyadh Agreement by obtaining international recognition without losing any of its interests on the ground, as well as without making any military or security concessions, or even postponing its goal of independence.
These contradictions bring to mind the modern history of Yemen, which is governed by three major conflicts: the basic principles governing all agreements, the practices of each party, and the special agendas of each party. The position of the STC, according to Mansour Saleh’s statement, is clear: he wants the UN envoy to engage in something that contravenes the principles of his role.
The efforts of the UN envoy to implement the agreement
In addition to shuttle flights and continuous consultations between all parties, the briefing of the UN envoy to the Security Council is one of the most important tools through which his role is performed. Through these briefings, international actors are informed of what is happening on the ground in Yemen to provide them with a clear vision that helps them work to take the required positions and issue the appropriate decisions.
For more than two years, there was a prominent presence of the Riyadh Agreement in most of the briefings of the UN envoy to the Security Council. He reiterated his call to the Yemeni government and the STC to intensify efforts to resume the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement, and emphasized the advantages that implementation would bring: ensuring the inclusion of the STC in the Yemeni government negotiating delegation upon the resumption of the UN-led political process.
The UN envoy said that peace will not last in Yemen in the long term if southern voices do not play a role in shaping the overall contours of peace, emphasizing that dialogue is the only way to resolve the differences between the two parties. The envoy also stressed that the agreement will work to achieve greater stability in the southern governorates, improve the efficiency of state institutions, and pave the way for real political cooperation between the two parties. These briefings show his continuous affirmation of “the positive role played by Saudi Arabia in this regard as an example of the role that regional support can play in all efforts to reach peace.”
These briefings also reflect the international vision toward the conflict in Yemen on the one hand, and the work to influence political decision-makers in the Security Council on the other. The positive expressions contained in the UN briefings are a good indicator of the envoy’s role in Yemen on this issue. Nevertheless, the briefings must go deeper into the details of the problem and formulate practical recommendations that can truly address the issues.
The UN envoy is also active regionally to encourage other actors to stop the war in Yemen and to implement the provisions of the Riyadh Agreement. Because of the dependence of the conflicting Yemeni parties on regional intervention, these international tours focus particularly on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as the sponsor of the agreement on the one hand, and the main influencer on Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his allies on the other. The UN envoy should, however, give the same importance to the UAE, because it has a direct influence on the STC, and can contribute positively to the implementation of the agreement if it decided to do so.
All these efforts of the UN envoy at the local, regional, and international levels enjoy international sponsorship, attention, and follow-up. That has been done by supporting the envoy and the continuous emphasis on the need to start the peace process in Yemen and implement the relevant Security Council resolutions, including UN Security Council Resolution No. 2216, the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative and its implementation mechanism, and the output of the National Dialogue Conference. The implementation of the Riyadh Agreement will enhance the efforts of the United Nations for a comprehensive solution and the establishment of peace in Yemen.
In the words of Sweden’s ambassador to the United Nations, supporting the United Nations Special Envoy to Yemen has become more important than ever. Accordingly, “the international community have a responsibility to continue to push, and to continue to be active, and to continue to push the parties. Ultimately, it is their responsibility. We cannot accept that they do not take their responsibility in building peace..” This international support can be a powerful and effective incentive either to put pressure on these parties to continue their commitment to implementing the agreement, or on regional actors who have a local and regional influence that may lead to unifying internal efforts toward a comprehensive peace.
Supporting the role of the UN envoy
The view of the United Nations, and its Special Envoy to Yemen, is clear toward the Riyadh Agreement. The agreement is treated as a single package that paves the way for accepting the United Nations initiative for a comprehensive solution in Yemen, an initiative opposed by the parties to the conflict in Yemen. In addition, the STC demands inclusion in any consultations for a final solution as a representative of the southern issue. The agreement has enabled the STC to obtain this demand, while other parties (in the south or in Yemen in general) are excluded.
It is necessary to strengthen the role of the UN envoy to implement the agreement, especially with regard to the economic and service aspects, which are directly related to people’s lives and their daily needs. The political and military aspects are more complex, given the central contradiction of objectives between the conflicting parties.
The basic rules that govern the work of the Special Envoy in Yemen are based on the Gulf Initiative and the outcomes of the national dialogue, which are the same foundations on which the provisions of the Riyadh Agreement between the Yemeni government and the STC were founded. However, the envoy seeks to achieve a political settlement that leads to stopping the war and bringing peace to the country, regardless of the text of the Gulf Initiative and the outcomes of the dialogue conference. The STC shares this strategy with the UN envoy, in that it wants to partially achieve the goals of the agreement while retaining its basic principles and objectives, which broadly speaking are secession.
The UN envoy carries out various activities that seek to implement the tasks assigned to him, including providing periodic briefings to the Security Council, as well as shuttle tours to meet with local, regional and international influencers. The presence of the agreement in all the briefings is ineffective, however, and there is a lack of attention to some regional influencers, namely the UAE.
The key role that can be played by the UN envoy is in pushing for the implementation of the economic and services aspects of the Riyadh Agreement, which is a common demand apparent in not only the statements of both parties, but also the Yemeni people themselves. Stabilizing and strengthening the economic situation in Yemen is needed to combat one of the world’s greatest humanitarian crises, and can lay the foundation for a political settlement that can finally bring the war to a close.
- Exert more international pressure and prepare an international vision that guarantees and monitors the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement.
- Activate international efforts to ensure the implementation of the agreement, and oblige the local disputants and their regional supporters to do so.
- Urgently implement the economic part of the agreement, which enjoys broad consensus between the conflicting parties in Yemen.
- Include accurate facts about the details of the progress of the agreement in the briefings submitted to the Security Council, and monitor the performance of the signatories so that the members of the Security Council have a clear vision that enables them to identify the party that obstructs the implementation of the agreement.
- Involve international parties that can contribute positively to the implementation of the agreement, and consult with them as well as with regional parties, so that regional consultations do not have an adverse negative impact.
- Employ international support for the UN envoy to put pressure on local and regional elements that directly impede implementation.
- Expand the number of external parties that are involved in the agreement to pressure for its implementation. In particular, this could involve components of civil society in the areas controlled by the government.
Notes and sources
 Eden Time. November 11, 2021. https://www.aden-tm.net/NDetails.aspx?contid=189839
 Sputnik Arabic. A leader in the STC reveals the council’s position on the statements of the new UN envoy to Yemen. September 24, 2021. https://arabic.sputniknews.com/20210924/%D9%82%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%AF%D9%8A-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%8A-%D9%8A%D9%83%D8%B4%D9%81-%D9%85%D9%88%D9%82%D9%81-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%AC%D9%84%D8%B3-%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%AA%D8%B5%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%AD%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%A8%D8%B9%D9%88%D8%AB-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D9%85%D9%85%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%AF-%D9%84%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%85%D9%86-1050237100.html
 Ibrahim Jalal. The Riyadh Agreement: Yemen’s new cabinet and what remains to be done, Middle East Institute. February 1, 2021. https://www.mei.edu/publications/riyadh-agreement-yemens-new-cabinet-and-what-remains-be-done
 OSESGY. BRIEFING TO UNITED NATIONS SECURITY COUNCIL BY THE SPECIAL ENVOY FOR YEMEN – MR. MARTIN GRIFFITHS. Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary General for Yemen .14 May 2020. https://osesgy.unmissions.org/briefing-united-nations-security-council-special-envoy-yemen-%E2%80%93-mr-martin-griffiths-1
 OSESGY. BRIEFING TO UNITED NATIONS SECURITY COUNCIL BY THE SPECIAL ENVOY FOR YEMEN – HANS GRUNDBERG. Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary General for Yemen. 10 Sep 2021. https://osesgy.unmissions.org/briefing-united-nations-security-council-special-envoy-yemen-%E2%80%93-hans-grundberg
 OSESGY. BRIEFING TO UNITED NATIONS SECURITY COUNCIL BY THE SPECIAL ENVOY FOR YEMEN – MARTIN GRIFFITHS. Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary General for Yemen. 15 Jun 2021. https://osesgy.unmissions.org/briefing-united-nations-security-council-special-envoy-yemen-%E2%80%93-martin-griffiths-4
 OSESGY. BRIEFING TO UNITED NATIONS SECURITY COUNCIL BY THE SPECIAL ENVOY FOR YEMEN – MARTIN GRIFFITHS. Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary General for Yemen. 11 Nov 2020. https://osesgy.unmissions.org/briefing-united-nations-security-council-special-envoy-yemen-%E2%80%93-martin-griffiths
 OSESGY. BRIEFING OF THE SPECIAL ENVOY OF THE UNITED NATIONS SECRETARY-GENERAL FOR YEMEN TO THE OPEN SESSION OF THE UN SECURITY COUNCIL. Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary General for Yemen. 22 Nov 2019. https://osesgy.unmissions.org/briefing-special-envoy-united-nations-secretary-general-yemen-open-session-un-security-council
 Government Offices of Sweden. Joint Communiqué on the Conflict in Yemen. This content was published in the period between 21 January 2019 and 8 July 2021. https://www.government.se/statements/2020/09/joint-communique-on-the-conflict-in-yemen/
 Sana’a Center For Strategic Studies. The Riyadh Agreement’s Fading Promise– The Yemen Review. October 2020. https://sanaacenter.org/publications/the-yemen-review/11814
 Saleh Baidhani. Riyadh agreement advances in Yemen as UN pursues comprehensive formula. The Arab Weekly. Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary General for Yemen. 15 Aug 2020. https://thearabweekly.com/riyadh-agreement-advances-yemen-un-pursues-comprehensive-formula
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.