Yemen: Peace deal must be global priority

Securing a ceasefire in Yemen should be one of the world’s most urgent priorities

Ali Abdullah Saleh, the cynical despot who dominated political life in Yemen for more than three decades, once likened his task in running the fractious country to "dancing on the heads of snakes." On Monday the music finally stopped. The 75-year-old former president was killed when his convoy was attacked by Houthi rebels outside the capital, Sanaa. A man who spent his career manipulating Yemen's tribal divisions to his own advantage paid the price for one opportunist power play too many; last week Saleh had switched sides in Yemen's civil war, abandoning the Iran-aligned Houthis in favour of the Saudi-led coalition.

Saleh ruled in Yemen for 33 years – a period that included unification of the conservative north and Marxist south, civil war, revolts and Islamist militant campaigns. He survived the Arab Spring, but in 2012 he stepped down after Saudi-brokered negotiations and fled to Riyadh. When he later resurfaced in Yemen, however, it was to undermine that transition plan and join forces with the Houthis to unseat a Saudi-backed government. It was classic Saleh. As president he had fought the Houthis six times; suddenly, seeking a route back to power, he was their ally.

It may well have been that same thirst for power that prompted Saleh’s final U-turn. It was with his tacit support that the Houthi rebels took control of Sanaa in 2014, when they drove out the internationally recognised government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The pact held firm through years of bombing by the Saudi-led coalition, but when the deal finally collapsed last week Sanaa was convulsed by intense fighting that left at least 125 people dead.

Saleh played a significant role in the catastrophic three-year civil war that has destroyed Yemen, killing an estimated 10,000 of its people and leaving millions at risk of hunger and disease. But his death will not necessarily bring peace any closer; indeed it could well aggravate a conflict that long ago morphed into a proxy war between the two regional rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia. In spite of the conflict being in stalemate virtually since it began, and recent warnings that millions could die in one of the worst famines of modern times, neither side has shown a willingness to compromise.


That leaves the international community with a big responsibility. Riyadh must halt its bombing campaign, but that will require the Trump White House to do what it has been unwilling to do and apply pressure on the young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Britain and France, which supply arms to Saudi Arabia, must also step up.

Securing a ceasefire in Yemen should be one of the world’s most urgent priorities. That would allow much-needed humanitarian aid to reach those who need it and, in time, pave the way for Yemenis to sit around the negotiating table and begin a process of national reconciliation.