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Mediation and Negotiation in Yemen: Assessing Their Impact on Conflict Resolution

01 Mar 2023,12:42 PM



Yemen has been facing armed conflict involving different actors, including domestic militant groups and foreign countries. This tension has profound negative implications for the republic's governance and continues to make Yemen the center of one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Efforts to counter Houthi aggression started after the group seized Sanaa and overthrew the government. Gulf states intervened with military intervention and kickstarted peace talks to engender a political process that would restore political transition. In addition, the United Nations stepped up its mediation efforts. This analysis examines the range of interventions used in Yemen and their implications.

The Houthis ousted the Hadi administration in March 2015, escalating violence that would spiral out of control. Houthis seized Sanaa, which hurt the country's security situation (Pradhan, 2022). Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi requested support, prompting the Saudi government to begin its first military intervention. Saudi Arabia heeded Hadi's call for the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) intervention and led a military coalition to quash Houthi aggression (Pradhan, 2022). The Saudi-led coalition conducted Operation Decisive Storm on 26 March 2015, after Hadi's appeal, which meant using economic sanctions and deploying ground troops as well as air strikes (Pradhan, 2022). The operation was the first time Saudi Arabia deviated from its longstanding unassertive foreign policy stance toward Yemen (Lauer, 2022). In April 2015, the coalition ended Operation Decisive Storm, believing its strikes destroyed Houthi heavy weapons (Pradhan, 2022). This campaign was supposed to weaken Houthi aggressors and pave the way for peace stalks.

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After Operation Decisive Storm ended, Saudi Arabia ushered in the next stage of its intervention. It dubbed the next stage Operation Restoring Hope, indicating that it would emphasize negotiations as well as political process (Pradhan, 2022). Still, the focus on negotiation did not mean the end of military strikes carried out by the coalition forces. The GCC wanted to engage in peace talks without ruling out the need to use force. The coalition's airstrikes continued with logistics and intelligence support from the US (Barakat, 2015). KSA undertook to provide $274 million in order to offset Yemen's humanitarian costs (Barakat, 2015). Saudis also indicated that they would reduce airstrikes, emphasize humanitarian assistance, and spearhead a political process that would reconcile warring factions (Tharoor, 2015). This new direction was supposed to restore political processes that would help Yemen recover.

Several factors were working against this new direction. To begin with, the operation itself lacked a clear endgame (Barakat, 2015). Support for a political bargain was also weak among coalition allies. For instance, Pakistan declined to offer ground support to aid cross-border operations (Barakat, 2015). On their part, the UAE and Egypt resisted a political settlement that would shore up Islamists in the country (Barakat, 2015). The fact that Saudi orchestrated the transition that birthed Hadi's administration in 2012 made it unlikely that the coalition would elicit desirable concessions from Houthis. It is worth noting that there are serious strategic issues when conducting military intervention in failed states. According to Cordesman (2015, para. 2), no military campaign can work without combining military action with an element of "effective stability operations bordering on nation-building." The expectation was that a heavy-handed response would force Houthis to back down and enter into negotiations (Tharoor, 2015). Even so, several factors favored Houthis and deterred them from making any concessions, including the decentralized nature and support from allies like Iran. When it first led the coalition in 2015, KSA maintained that it had to counter Iranian influence in Yemen and mitigate the risk of sharing its borders with a failed state (Lauer, 2022). Until Saudi's escalation in 2015, Iran had only sparingly supported the Houthis (Lauer, 2022). Iran intensified its support for the Houthis in response to the arrival of the Saudi coalition forces (Nichols & Landay, 2021). Ultimately, the political effort to restore legitimacy to Hadi's administration under Operation Restoring Hope was unsuccessful. The fighting is yet to abate.

The United Nations has also been at the center of mediation efforts to have all sides de-escalate and finally bring an end to the war. Mediation is when a third party resolves tension by enabling all parties to arrive at a mutually acceptable agreement (Turner, 2022). This is one of the settlement approaches set out in Chapter VI of the UN Charter (Turner, 2022). Accordingly, mediation is a key aspect of the collective security architecture the UN leverages in its peacemaking efforts in Yemen (Turner, 2022). UN presence in the country started in 2011 and originally entailed having a special representative of the Secretary General providing 'good offices' to ensure a smooth political transition (Turner, 2022). Mediation efforts yielded slow-paced gains until the fighting broke out. The events in 2015 presented circumstances that derailed previous UN mediation efforts. Yemen evolved from a state of political transition to one of globalized armed conflict (Turner, 2022). UN envoy to the country Ismail Ould made several attempts to have the warring sides meet in 2015 but faced several challenges, including leaked communications, the inability to reach a ceasefire, and the unwillingness to commit to peace talks. His efforts in 2016 started in the same tenor, with the UN Security Council Resolution 2216 taking center stage. The resolution demanded that Houthi rebels withdraw from the regions they held and relinquish their weapons. Attempts to have an agreement between the fighters and other factions failed after Houthis insisted that the UN envoy was trying to actualize an agreement that would favor Saudi Arabia. However, in November 2016, the Saudi-led military coalition and Houthis entered a ceasefire agreement. The next ceasefire agreement was in April 2020 following the global health crisis, but Saudi Arabia violated the accord in a week. The implication is that UN mediation efforts are yet to succeed.

The failure of peace talks leaves Yemen in a precarious position. Yemen does not have an internationally recognized government (Reuters, 2022; Al Jazeera, 2022). Instead, Yemen is ruled by diverse local centers of power (Sharp, 2021). The progressive dissolution of the republic's territorial integrity is concerning because current conditions suit transnational insurgents and threaten key international shipping lanes (Sharp, 2021). Also, Iran is likely to exploit this vulnerability to target Saudi's borders (Sharp, 2021). As things stand, 24 million people need assistance, and there have been 100,000 fatalities (Global Conflict Tracker, 2022). In addition, more than 4 million Yemenis have been displaced (Global Conflict Tracker, 2022). The implication is that the interventions have not yielded sustained positive results as expected.

The initial goal of intervention by coalition forces was to derail Houthi rebels. The airstrikes were to thwart the aggressors and force them into a position where they had to make concessions. Just days after launching Operation Decisive Storm, Saudi Arabia announced a strategic change. The complicated nature of Yemen as a failed state meant that the coalition had to rely on its military campaign while simultaneously engaging in peace talks to stabilize the country and foster nation-building. This stage fell apart from the outset and is far from yielding the goals espoused by the Saudi-led coalition. The UN's mediation efforts have been equally unsuccessful. To date, Yemen remains the center of the world's most serious humanitarian crisis with no end in sight. Yemen is still facing a humanitarian crisis despite sustained interventions.


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