Asher Orkaby Yemen United Nations Civil War
A protester shouts near a banner showing crossed-out pictures of United Nations (U.N.) special envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar and the leader of Yemen's Houthis Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, during a demonstration against the Houthi movement in Sanaa January 28, 2015.
Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

After four years on the job, on April 16, UN Special Envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar resigned. The decision was met with surprise and criticism: Benomar had been the face of Yemen’s internationally backed post­–Arab Spring political transition, and his departure is perceived by Yemenis as an admission of failure and guilt for the transitional government’s breakdown into skirmishes with the Houthis for control of the country. Yemen has witnessed several such failures over the past five decades, so the demise of recent efforts to build a stable government should not be a surprise. To prevent it from happening again, the international community should look to its history of intervention in Yemen before proceeding with new mediation efforts.

Benomar was the last of many UN diplomats who have tried to orchestrate peaceful transfers of power from the dictators that the Arab Spring swept out of office. As late as 2013, Yemen’s own transition of power was praised as a model. But the process, orchestrated by the Gulf Cooperation Council and brokered by Benomar, only delayed eventual turmoil: new Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi followed Benomar’s prescriptions, forming a national dialogue council, announcing national elections, and attempting to enact overly optimistic political reforms. Hadi was then forced to flee the country in the face of military and political opposition to his government in March. 

The UN’s frustrated efforts in Yemen mirror its past peacekeeping failures during the 1962 Yemen civil war. In September of that year, a cadre of young military officers who called for a Yemeni republic overthrew the last Yemeni imam, Muhammad al-Badr. Six years of civil war ensued, constituting one of the darkest periods in modern Yemeni history as Egypt and Saudi Arabia armed opposing sides in a war that seemed destined to go on forever. Within months of the start of hostilities, UN Secretary-General U Thant asked the Nobel Prize–winning diplomat Ralph Bunche to serve as a special envoy to Yemen. Bunche then spent most of his time shuttling between Cairo and Riyadh to convince Egypt and Saudi Arabia to withdraw from the conflict. When the warring parties reached interim agreement in 1963, the Security Council commissioned the United Nations Yemen Observation Mission (UNYOM) to oversee the withdrawal from Yemen of Egyptian soldiers and Saudi weapons.

UN Yemen Asher Orkaby Jamal Benomar
Houthi fighters stand near a damaged guard post at a Presidential Guards barracks they took over on a mountain overlooking the Presidential Palace in Sanaa January 20, 2015.
Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

UNYOM was doomed from the start by unrealistic political goals and difficult, unfamiliar circumstances. Bunche was prohibited from speaking with Badr’s tribal opposition forces, since the UN did not recognize them as a legitimate political entity. UNYOM personnel were barred from coordinating operations in territory held by the imam as well, leaving large swaths of north Yemen without an international diplomatic presence. Cease-fires were nonstarters, since the imam’s tribesmen were not included in negotiations and felt no obligation to put down their weapons. 

Rather than pursuing a peacekeeping mission, UNYOM’s mandate was limited to observing the withdrawal of Egyptian troops and the cessation of Saudi support to northern tribes. UN forces from Canada and Yugoslavia were stationed along the Saudi-Yemeni border to monitor caravan traffic and prevent the movement of arms. The mountainous, desert terrain along the border was unfamiliar to UN personnel, and they limited their observation to daylight hours. Yet given the region’s unbearable heat, particularly in the summer, most border tribes always traveled at night—leaving many crossings hidden from the gaze of UN observers.

UNYOM withdrew from Yemen in September 1964 after only 14 months in the country. The mission by this point could not secure sufficient funding, as the UN debated which countries were responsible for financing UN peacekeeping missions and whether costs were justified given their limited success. The war would not come to a political resolution until 1970, after foreign powers and international interests had withdrawn from the country on their own. Many Yemenis and foreign observers criticized international peacekeeping efforts for serving as a guise for the rearmament of the two sides in the civil war. Saudi Arabia managed to shift supply routes to other border regions outside of the UN observation zone, while Egypt staged a rouse of a withdrawal that amounted to little more than a troop transfer. UN observers were invited to oversee the withdrawal of 2,000 Egyptian soldiers through the port city of Al Hudaydah yet were asked to leave the premises before the arrival of 3,000 fresh Egyptian replacements the next week. During the 1994 civil war in Yemen, the Security Council sent another envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, whose short-lived attempt to broker a cease-fire was also ineffectual. The political and territorial complexities of Yemen proved insurmountable obstacles to the diplomatic proposals of Bunche, Brahimi, and Benomar.

Asher Orkaby Yemen United Nations Civil War
Anti-Houthi fighters of the Southern Popular Resistance stand on a tank in Yemen's southern port city of Aden May 10, 2015.

The UN has already announced the appointment of the Mauritanian diplomat Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed as Benomar’s replacement. And even as Saudi bombs continue to fall on Houthi targets in Yemen, there is talk of another international-brokered peace conference. It is not clear, however, whether the UN is determined to reform an agenda in Yemen that has failed for 50 years. Similar to the predicament of Badr and his tribesmen, the Houthi movement and its tribesmen are not internationally recognized political representatives. The Houthi movement faces calls for travel bans and arms embargoes rather than visits by international diplomats. The porous Saudi Arabia–Yemen border is again the focus of troop movements, as sporadic border clashes between Houthis and Saudi Arabians increase.

Only days into his tenure, Ould Cheikh Ahmed had already visited New York, Paris, and Riyadh to speak with foreign diplomats. He has also spoken with Hadi, a man who has lost political legitimacy as he watches and encourages bombing raids over his own country from Riyadh. Conspicuously missing from Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s travel agenda is a visit to Yemen to meet with representatives of the Houthi movement or the al Hirak movement. Ould Cheikh Ahmed is in danger of falling into the same cyclical traps of his predecessors from the 1960s by neglecting to engage unofficial yet significant Yemeni political groups.

Yemen still has the potential to be the poster child of post–Arab Spring political transitions, particularly as other countries in the region are mired in costly and long-lasting civil wars. A failure to address Yemen’s crisis as a local political issue, however, risks drawing Saudi Arabia and Iran into a broader regional conflict. As Yemen’s first civil war during the 1960s was nearing its resolution, Pavel Demchenko, the senior Middle East correspondent for the Soviet newspaper Pravda, observed that the events of September 1962 were not a revolution but rather "a centuries-old method of Yemeni regime change." The same is true of Yemen today as the country struggles to find an alternative to a defunct republican system.

The UN needs to reconsider its history in Yemen before undertaking a new peacekeeping effort. Uninformed and unprepared international interventions can exacerbate and prolong local conflicts rather than create resolutions. Perhaps it may be time to let Yemenis solve Yemen’s problems, with the UN facilitating the nation’s decision rather than implementing an outsider’s view of a diplomatic solution.

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  • ASHER ORKABY is a Research Fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies and the author of the forthcoming book The International History of the Yemen Civil War, 1962–68.
  • More By Asher Orkaby