Some diplomats at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) are asking if Oman, the country which has facilitated the ‘backdoor channel’ between the Houthis in Sana’a and the rest of the world since 2015, has been abusing its leverage by using it to pursue its own interests towards the Saudis and the international community.
This question of leverage over the Houthis comes up in every round of negotiations, most recently in discussions pushing back against their diversion of humanitarian aid. But in reality, the current situation is a consequence of a poor decision to isolate the Houthis and abandon Sana’a by international diplomats in early 2015.
In the run-up to Saudi Arabia starting military operations in Yemen in 2015, embassies were burning so many documents in their compounds that smoke could be seen across Sana’a for days. The war was still little more than talk in exclusive intelligence circles but the fact everyone was backing out and leaving no trace behind was telling of what was to come.
Only the Russians remained in Sana’a, reallocating their ambassador to Riyadh but keeping the deputy ambassador in Sana’a until Saleh was killed in December 2018. Other embassies moved their headquarters immediately to Riyadh or Jeddah in Saudi Arabia depending on availability.
A handful of embassies and missions which were keen to disassociate themselves from the Saudi war in Yemen, or to maintain an image of neutrality, relocated to Jordan. Amman has come to be for Yemen what Gazientep in southern Turkey was for Syria – a capital city for embassies, aid, organizations, forums, diplomats, and intelligence personnel.
Now the only embassy operating in Sana’a is the Iranian embassy as Iran’s ambassador managed somehow to get into the country in 2020. The embassy compound is located in Haddah, at the heart of Sana’a’s most expensive – and previously largest diplomatic – area, and is the only compound being repaired.
An absence of trustworthy communication
Those Saudis who never stopped talking to the Houthis during the war have complained recently of the absence of trusted lines of communications. The former Saudi embassy in the middle of Sana’a, previously a crowded street with lines of people wanting to get to the embassy, is an abandoned building covered in pro-Houthi graffiti. Aside from a few diplomatic trips by European Union (EU) ambassadors to Yemen, there are close to zero diplomatic delegations travelling to Sana’a.
The logic behind this desertion is that any diplomatic presence in Sana’a legitimizes the Houthis’ coup, and that leaving Sana’a would isolate the group both economically and politically which would bring first pressure and then a semblance of order. Similar arguments justify the economic sieges in the country and keeping the international airports closed.
But years of war and the reality of Yemen now prove this thinking to be both wrong and catastrophic. The isolation policy has not pressured the Houthi. In fact it has allowed them to be more radical, to control society more, and to build their own economic empire.
The absence of any ‘other’ in Sana’a has only made the Houthis a more radical and brutal group. They can harass aid NGOs because no donor can threaten them by cutting aid or applying diplomatic pressure while, economically, the siege has allowed the Houthis to build an economic empire to fuel the war – the impact of the sieges has been borne by the Yemeni people rather than the Houthis.
Creating an ‘embassy vacuum’ in Yemen has achieved what the entire war was supposedly trying to prevent – Iranian influence on Yemen. The relationship between Houthis and Iran is now closer than it was in 2014, mostly because it is the only official relationship the Houthis have. Iran has even given them the Yemeni embassy building in Tehran.
Yemen’s middle-class has disappeared
And isolating the Houthis is not just a bad idea from the international perspective, because large numbers of Yemen’s educated class – intellectuals, politicians, journalists – who had the means to escape Houthi-controlled areas have done so, and almost the entire middle-class has evaporated.