AnalyticsPoliciesThe possible European role in the success of the Riyadh Agreement

31 January، 2022by Mustafa Al-Gubzi0

The paper addresses the Riyadh Agreement as an entry point for further EU involvement in Yemen and explores the additional practical opportunities for positive engagement


Mustafa Naji

Executive Summary

The failure to implement the Riyadh Agreement has negatively affected the lives of Yemeni citizens, economically and in terms of security, and has impacted negatively the peace process in Yemen in general. Both of the signatories to the agreement see it as an entry point to consolidate their control. Nevertheless, the multi-dimensional conflict, with its local political and historical elements, is not only a struggle between the government of President Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), but a regional struggle between their backers, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, respectively.

The agreement deals mainly with political and military problems, but drawing attention to the economic aspect will help in moving forward with the implementation of the agreement, particularly since the agreement provides a viable model for integrating security and military units into a national framework and expanding the door for political participation.

The reasons for the failure to implement the agreement so far are not only due to the intransigence of the two Yemeni parties, but also due to the policy of Arab regional intervention and its own agenda in Yemen. Greater European engagement would provide more reasons for its success, as European countries do not have the same regional agendas in Yemen. Furthermore, Europe possesses technical expertise in negotiation that can contribute to adjusting the course of the agreement, as well as the capabilities to support institution-building and resuming development work as a condition for the success of the agreement.


  1. Establishing an Arab-European sponsorship plan to ensure the implementation of the agreement and to encourage the Yemeni parties and their regional supporters to follow it.
  2. Providing institution-building and development support in critical sectors such as energy, health and education, supporting the rule of law, and neutralizing weapons to achieve the political goals.
  3. Employing European diplomatic practices to enhance confidence, expand the circle of participation, and provide the agreement with legal, cultural, and professional standards.
  4. Strengthening the European role by establishing a common diagnosis of the crisis and a common vision for a solution that avoids conflicting efforts. The diagnosis and solution can be prepared within the framework of the European Union through a crisis management committee for Yemen, provided that the tasks of intervention are distributed among willing countries.
  5. Developing institutions and imposing standards of good governance and financial transparency in the management of public resources while dealing with the two parties of the agreement as one party, in accordance with the agreement, so that they cannot evade their social responsibility.




Before the Houthi rebels took control of the capital, Sanaa, on September 21, 2014, and imposed house arrest on the President of the Republic, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and members of the government headed by Khaled Bahah, Yemen was facing an internal war. The situation worsened more after the Arab military intervention, in March 2015, led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the name of the Arab Coalition and in favor of President Hadi, following the Battle of Aden that began on March 25, 2015, with the Houthi advance in alliance with the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In July 2015, the local resistance, supported by the Arab coalition, managed to expel the Houthi forces and those of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh from Aden Governorate, which became the temporary capital of Yemen. But the government of President Hadi—residing in the Saudi capital, Riyadh—did not return to Aden except intermittently. The Arab coalition supported some military and security forces in the southern governorates, called the Security Belts and Elite Forces, which are southern forces with separatist tendencies who clashed with the authority and government of President Hadi. The Security Belts and Elite Forces took control of some areas of the south, especially Aden and the surrounding governorates, from the control of the Houthis. In 2017, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a political entity headed by Aidarous al-Zubaidi, emerged from these forces.

This dispute aggravated into a series of armed confrontations that led to the expulsion of two Yemeni governments from Aden, the government of Ahmed Obaid bin Daghr in January 2018, then the government of Mueen Abdul Malik in August 2019. As a result, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia intervened to address the situation through the Riyadh Agreement, which was signed by the government of President Hadi and the STC in Riyadh on November 5, 2019. The agreement required the formation of a new government within 90 days, with the participation of the STC, the integration of all security and military units into the Ministries of Defense and Interior, and the return of the government to Aden to carry out its tasks.[1]

Saudi Arabia was unable to implement the agreement, which did not receive sufficient international sponsorship. The situation in the areas controlled by the Yemeni government is fragile on the political, economic, and security levels, which reduces the chances of peace and increases the suffering of Yemenis. The ongoing tension does not allow the rebuilding of the administrative apparatus and resuming the activity of government institutions that provide public services.

Therefore, this cycle must be broken through the intervention of an external party that is acceptable to the conflicting parties and has the technical capabilities to achieve tangible progress. A possible European intervention is consistent with the 2016 European General Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy, which promotes international peace and security, as well as a sense of collective human responsibility. Because of Yemen’s strategic location, which overlooks the maritime trade route through Bab al-Mandab, its proximity to energy sources in the Arabian Gulf, as well as the presence of extremist groups that threaten to spill out from the region, the conflict in Yemen has consequences of a broader global scope.

This paper assumes that the failure of the Riyadh Agreement is due to first, the absence of serious incentives for the signatories to the agreement, which leads each party to interpret its provisions unilaterally in line with its interests; and second, the absence of a serious technical mechanism to supervise and monitor the implementation of the agreement, while offering sufficient incentives and pressure for compliance. As an external party that, unlike the United States of America, is not closely involved in the war in Yemen, there is a possibility for a positive European intervention to achieve progress in the Riyadh Agreement and support the Yemeni government to face its current security, economic, and political challenges, as a first step toward establishing a comprehensive peace. By European role, we mean two levels of engagement: a joint engagement in the name of the European Union, which provides a common diagnosis or a vision for the solution; and an engagement at the level of the European countries, to implement the intervention on the side of the European Union itself.

This paper deals with the problem across three axes: the current involvement of Europe in Yemen since 2011, the Riyadh Agreement as an entry point for further European involvement, and the additional practical opportunities for European engagement in Yemen.

1. European involvement in Yemen since 2011:

Yemeni-European relations predate 2011, when the European Union and European countries supported the democratic transition process in Yemen. In addition, common economic and security interests related to combating terrorism and piracy opened the door to bilateral and multilateral relations between Yemen and the European Union.

1.1: From heavy presence to semi-absence and then return

The period after 2011 was characterized by the intensity of events in Yemen, following which European interaction with Yemen diversified. In the period that followed 2011, the European Union played an active and intense diplomatic role in accompanying and sponsoring the political transition phase. This was evident in the role of the European Union in support of the efforts of the UN Secretary-General’s envoy to Yemen, and the role of other European embassies, including France and the UK,[2] within the framework of the G10 sponsoring political transition.

However, the acceleration of events that occurred in the second half of 2014 forced many embassies to leave the capital, Sanaa and move to Riyadh, after President Hadi moved there in 2015. The European Union chose the Jordanian capital, Amman, as a platform for its work on Yemeni affairs.

According to Laurent Bonnefoy, Europe’s reaction to the situation in Yemen has been marginal or absent since 2015.[3] Yemen was not a priority within the European Union’s foreign policy, given the European interest in other regional issues, including the fight against ISIS and the Iranian nuclear file. By virtue of its historical links with Yemen, and being a permanent member of the Security Council, the UK maintained a greater margin of movement in the Yemeni file through the Quartet Committee, consisting of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the United States and the UK, in addition to a British UN envoy, who was diplomatically supported by the UK, as was evident in the Stockholm consultations.[4]

The role of the Secretary-General’s envoy in the Yemeni file has grown, while the European role has been limited to supporting the envoy’s efforts.[5] In addition to the European efforts to sponsor consultations or peace talks between Yemenis in many European cities and capitals, the EU has also participated in six emergency donor conferences to address the humanitarian situation in Yemen, and here the European countries make a significant contribution.

Neither the Mauritanian Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed nor the British Martin Griffiths’ efforts led to any significant result. However, with the appointment of a Swedish diplomat as a special UN envoy to Yemen in August 2021, hopes have been renewed for a greater European role.

1.2: European orientation in institutional building and development support

In its foreign policy, the European Union does not rely on hard power, but rather on culture, negotiation, and cooperation.[6] From this standpoint, many European countries have contributed, through bilateral cooperation relations, to the implementation of many projects in various development fields in Yemen. In addition to these bilateral relations, the role of the European Union has increased at the technical and political levels since the cooperation agreement that was signed in 1998.[7] Institution-building and development support has been a large part of European foreign policy toward Yemen, by supporting the rule of law, maintaining human rights, increasing the efficiency of national justice agencies, achieving material progress for people, promoting pluralism and democracy, supporting elections,[8] as well as confronting security challenges, including the terrorist threat in Yemen or piracy in the Gulf of Aden.

However, the ongoing war has led to greater humanitarian needs. The European Union has responded to this situation and, since 2015, European support for Yemen has been estimated at 1.1 billion euros. In 2021 alone, the European Union allocated 130 million euros for the emergency response.[9] The current efforts are limited to treating the humanitarian issues, but this is not sufficient to address the root causes of the conflict, which requires political solutions.[10] Emergency humanitarian aid is necessary, but not sufficient to strengthen institutions and create a comprehensive approach to dealing with the range of political, economic, and social problems that have been caused by and contributed to the ongoing conflict in Yemen.

1.3: The possibility and tools of European involvement

The European Union has a positive image in Yemen,[11] which allows thinking about the possibility of significant positive involvement in Yemeni affairs in general. Because Europe has not directly intervened in the war in Yemen—unlike the United States, which does not hide its military cooperation in the war—Europe and the European Union are an acceptable party to the Yemenis and can play a diplomatic role in the political solution.[12] There is also no historical colonial sensitivity linking Yemen to the present countries of the European Union, following the exit of the UK. Therefore, any current European involvement in Yemen will be free of historical burdens, just as Yemeni-European interests are direct and can be rationalized by common interests on the economic or security levels.

A European self-interest in the outcome of the conflict in Yemen is linked to the broader consequences of the so-called Arab Spring, which produced major security and structural challenges within the region, with migration and security repercussions for Europe. Hence, addressing the building of institutions, supporting development, supporting the rule of law, and pursuing disarmament are the entry points for engagement that meets the urgent needs of Yemen at present and would make such an intervention acceptable.

2. The Riyadh Agreement as a practical entry point for the European presence

The failure of Saudi Arabia to push the local parties to implement the Riyadh Agreement has led to ongoing crises and conflicts between the two parties, who have failed to present a united front against the Houthi advance. The root causes of the failure to implement the agreement need to be addressed, which can be assisted by extra-regional intervention.

2.1: Getting out of the impasse of the regional patronage: A European opportunity:

The agreement was not implemented due to a disagreement over the interpretation of its terms, which prompted the STC to declare the “autonomous administration of the south” in mid-2020. Saudi Arabia made efforts to bring the two parties closer to the agreement and to form a government, which returned to Aden at the end of December 2020. When the plane arrived, however, it was hit by a missile attack (likely from the Houthis) that nearly killed all members of the government.[13]

The political situation deteriorated between the two parties, which led to the government’s expulsion again from Aden in March 2021. A political vacuum arose as a result of the government’s dispersal and its inability to form a single political and administrative bloc capable of conducting comprehensive peace consultations in Yemen. This provided the opportunity for the Houthi’s to launch an armed attack against many areas, increasing the size of the military frontlines, prompting new waves of displacement, and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis.

The STC clearly seeks to consolidate its control over Aden and the neighboring governorates, while the government seeks to restore its influence in Aden, maintain its sole control over Shabwa, and reduce the STC’s influence in the rest of the southern governorates. Each party sees the agreement as a way to consolidate its area of ​​control, and creates an interpretation consistent with this perception. It is a conflict that is not without regional dimensions, and an echo of a conflict that the southern state witnessed in the 1980s before the reunification with the north. There are also political dimensions, as Al-Islah is present as a supporter of the government and the dominant force in the oil province of Shabwa. Al-Islah, aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood,[14] is a party that is hostile to the STC.[15]

In addition to the local dispute, there is an Arab regional dimension behind the growth of a rival force to the Yemeni government. The conflict in Aden involves the opposing interests of the STC and the Hadi government,[16] supported by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, respectively, through providing weapons intended to fight the Houthi group. The Riyadh Agreement is limited in that deals with one of the dimensions of the conflict in the southern governorates, and does not address the regional dimension itself. In light of the incongruity and conflict of wills between the two parties of the “Arab alliance,” the agreement will remain unimplemented.

Another aspect of the failure, in light of regional sponsorship, stemmed from the failure to provide a serious technical and regulatory framework that would oversee the interpretation and implementation of the terms of the agreement, leaving the door open to the whims of each party. A Saudi military committee supervised the implementation of the security and military aspect of the agreement, while the political sponsorship of the agreement was limited to the Saudi ambassador to Yemen. Furthermore, the time plan for the implementation steps of the agreement was idealistic and did not pay attention to the practical difficulties in the field.[17]

From the start of negotiations on the agreement until the return of the government, the economic situation in Yemen had deteriorated very quickly, as indicated by the accelerated collapse in the price of the national currency against the dollar. Therefore, although the agreement dealt with the political dimension, it did not provide emergency support that addresses the economic aspect. Such support would be needed to move the agreement forward, by strengthening confidence in this political mechanism. There is no meaning for a joint government without providing it with resources to confront the economic crisis.

There is a European opportunity to intervene to make the agreement a success, as a possible European role does not have those regional agendas of influence. Europe’s technical expertise in negotiation can contribute to adjusting the course of the agreement, along with economic support to result in tangible benefits to the Yemeni people.

2.2: Intensify the diplomatic approach: the additional European value

The European Union itself was formed through complex collective negotiations, based on a strategy of non-violence or dealing with problems diplomatically, and on transparent decision-making to democratize institutions. This is a policy that can be emulated. In addition, negotiations within the European Union are between states, but they are also within an internal European framework.[18]

In our opinion, the Riyadh Agreement negotiations possess this internal framework, as it paved the way to gaining legitimacy for the parties involved. Nevertheless, it needs to acquire European practices that give it enhanced confidence and an expanded circle of participation, along with legal, cultural, and professional standards. This is the added value that Europe can offer to Yemen to make the Riyadh Agreement a success.

2.3: Filling the international gap in the Riyadh Agreement

The deterioration of the situation in Aden between the forces of the STC and the government, despite its importance, was an event on the sidelines of the great Yemeni problem. While the Riyadh Agreement was between the powers supported by the Arab coalition countries, under the auspices of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Nations did not participate through its special envoy. Therefore, the Agreement remained under the exclusive sponsorship of Saudi Arabia, and it did not receive more international attention than a blessing[19] and a call for its implementation.[20]

The Riyadh Agreement provides a roadmap to address the Yemeni problem and provide a model for the possibility of normalizing life, reviving government revenue institutions, managing the economy and political participation among the various parties involved in it, as well as a model for integrating the various security and military units. The opportunity remains, however, for Europe to take the lead and strengthen the Riyadh Agreement by supporting it and emphasizing the importance of its success.

3. The practical opportunities for the European engagement

Undoubtedly, the failure of the Riyadh Agreement negatively impacts the lives of Yemenis and impedes the political process in general. European engagement should reflect a common diagnosis of the situation in Yemen and a common vision of a solution at the European level, avoiding contradictory efforts. This action cannot appear unless there is a European approach that employs the position of the European Union in the regional affairs that cast a shadow over the Yemeni issue, such as the Iranian nuclear file, the fight against terrorism, and European-Gulf economic interests. Practically, Europe can work according to specific agendas to make its engagement successful, as follows:

3.1 Coupling the political progress of the Riyadh Agreement with institution-building and governance

The two parties of the Riyadh Agreement frequently accuse each other of obstruction,[21] corruption, and mismanagement of resources, as well as disrupting the work of institutions and claiming them for themselves.[22] This has negatively affected people’s lives directly, as seen in the failure to combat the spread of epidemics, the deterioration of public services, and the lack of fuel and other essential goods.

Government is not a wheel that can be removed and brought back to work immediately. Since it left Sana’a, the government has been unable to rebuild its institutions to work regularly and provide public services. Thus, the European effort can focus on the completion of institution-building and dealing with the two parties of the agreement as one party that cannot evade its social responsibility. Emphasis can be placed on imposing standards of good governance and financial transparency in the management of public resources. It is also possible to provide European experiences in economic management to address economic imbalances, as well as provide European experiences in rebuilding public institutions and security services.

3.2 Development as an entry point for peacebuilding: coupling relief and development support

The relief work in Yemen faces great difficulties, including local parties impeding the delivery of relief aid, security difficulties, a decline in fulfilling commitments,[23] and most importantly, the absence of a unified strategy in the relief sector for local, regional, and international workers. Relief work is limited to providing immediate aid that may prevent the occurrence of famine but does not remove the recipients from the cycle of permanent need.

The continuation of the war in Yemen for a decade requires thinking in a different way to address the humanitarian catastrophe, by activating development work through supporting energy, water, health and education projects; raising the efficiency of the administrative system in managing resources; helping to unify disparate systems and services, and reducing financial division.[24]

It is possible to start with a small framework and take the Riyadh Agreement as an entry point for development work to accompany the political settlement, leading to a comprehensive political settlement in which the government is ready to bear the burdens of the economic recovery tasks in Yemen as a whole.

3.3 Distributing tasks between European countries to implement the agreement

For greater effectiveness in European engagement, it is necessary first to come up with a unified diagnosis, which could be made by a small European crisis management center specialized in Yemeni affairs, and then to define a plan of action according to the fields of politics, economics, and security. Then, tasks related to the success of the Riyadh Agreement can be distributed among a group of European countries that follows the diagnosis and the vision for the solution.

The distribution of tasks should avoid the task distribution mechanism taken by the Group of Ten—the five member states of the Security Council and major countries in the European Union and the Arab Gulf—to sponsor the political transition, and ensure that the Arab Gulf initiative, which excluded European countries and was counterproductive, is not repeated.


The Riyadh Agreement remaining unfulfilled increases the suffering of Yemenis in general, and in Aden and the areas under the control of the legitimate government in particular. Given the inability of the regional sponsorship to make the agreement succeed, positive European engagement would be welcomed, as Europe has a good image in Yemen, and its interests do not conflict with the regional agendas involved in Yemeni affairs. The economic dimension and development work should not be ignored as an entry point, because although the Riyadh Agreement deals with the political aspects of the crisis, the economic consequences of the current situation add greater complications.

It is necessary that European involvement reflects a common diagnosis of the dilemma and a common vision of a solution at the European level, to avoid conflicting efforts. Therefore, the priority for engagement should be under the umbrella of the European Union. Then, the intervention should be conducted by distributing tasks among the willing countries. In sum, involvement in the success of the Riyadh Agreement must emanate from a European approach to the situation in Yemen that combines the other priorities of Europe in the region in general, as well as a clear humanitarian goal of building sustainable peace and development.

Notes and sources


[1] Text of the “Riyadh Agreement” between the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council (document), Anadolu Agency, November 5, 2019.

[2] François Frison-Roche. Transition et négociations au Yémen : Le rôle de l’ONU. Notes de l’Ifri. Octobre 2015.

[3] Laurent Bonnefoy, The European Union’s Role in the Yemen Crisis, in Stephen W. Day  and Noel Brehony (edit), Global, Regional, and Local Dynamics in the Yemen Crisis, Palgrave Macmillan; 1st ed. 2020

[4] Political settlement to the war in Yemen: Foreign Secretary’s statement (19/ December /2018) accessed on 29/11/2021.

[5] Helen Lackner. Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State. London: Saqi, 2017. p.62.

[6] Aboubacar MAIGA, La politique européenne de gestion des crises à l’épreuve de la logique communautaire : une analyse critique dans le cas des crises libyenne et somalienne, Mémoire présenté pour l’obtention du Master en études européennes sous la direction de Jérôme Kœchlin, Genève, décembre 2012, INSTITUT EUROPÉEN DE L’UNIVERSITÉ DE GENÈVE COLLECTION EURYOPA VOL. 82 – 2013.

[7] Bilateral cooperation agreement between the European Community and the Republic of Yemen, Official Journal of the European Communities.

[8] Mona Yacoubian, Promoting Democracy in the Middle East: European Initiatives, Report of the US Institute of Peace, Special Report No. 127, October 2004.


[10] Berlin: Money alone cannot solve Yemen’s crises, Deutsche Welle, March 21, 2021

[11] Lackner, op.cit. p.90.

[12] Yemenis Raafat Al-Akhali and Farea Al-Muslimi have argued that France could play a major role in the settlement in Yemen. See: Farea Al-Muslimi, Rafat Al-Akhali, “La France est la candidate parfaite” pour mettre fin à la guerre du Yémen, Le Monde, 27 juin 2018.

[13] The war in Yemen: a UN report points to the Houthis’ responsibility for the Aden airport bombing, BBC, March 31, 2021.

[14] Hakim Muhammad, The battle in Marib and Shabwa exacerbates the crisis of confidence between the Al-Islah party and Saudi Arabia, The Arabia Felix Center for Studies, November 4, 2021.

[15] “Al-Islah” is a Muslim Brotherhood party… The deputy of the STC exposes the scheme, Al-Ain Al-Akhbariya, 21/6/2021.

[16] Bethan McKernan, Clashing UAE and Saudi interests are keeping the Yemen conflict alive, The Guardian, 26 Mar 2020

[17] Helen Lackner, Yemen: Why the Riyadh Agreement is collapsing, The European Council on Foreign Relations, 3 February 2020.

[18] Laurence Badel, “Pratiques diplomatiques européennes et mondialisations contemporaines”, Encyclopédie d’histoire numérique de l’Europe [en ligne], ISSN 2677-6588, mis en ligne le 23/06/20, consulté le 23/11/2021. Permalien :

[19] Interview with UN special envoy to Yemen, The National News, 2 November 2019.

[20] “Griffiths warns of the collapse of the Riyadh agreement and affirms adherence to the Stockholm clauses, Anadolu Agency, December 14, 2019.

[21] The statement of the STC, published on its website on November 9, 2021 and accessed on November 30, 2021.

[22] The flaws of the Riyadh agreement appear quickly: the “legitimate government” warns against the acquisition of Aden, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, December 23, 2020, accessed on November 28, 2021.

[23] Failure in Delivering Aid for Yemenis ‘the Worst International Response to a Humanitarian Crisis’, Civil Society Briefer Tells Security Council, Relief web, OCHA, 14 Oct 2021.

[24] Rafat Ali Al-Akhali & Zaid Ali Basha, Economic Priorities for a Sustainable Peace Agreement in Yemen, Sana’a Center For Strategic Studies, June 2, 2020.

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.

Mustafa Al-Gubzi

A researcher in the field of social studies, Mustafa is interested in public administration and political transformation issues in Yemeni society. He has published several studies and translations. He holds a master's degree in geopolitics from the University of Paris VIII and currently preparing for his Ph.D.

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