Saudi-led coalition calls for two-week ceasefire in Yemen amidst COVID-19 pandemic

YemenBy Kaitlin Presnell, Senior Analyst, Middle East Section
Analytical Question: Will the war in Yemen end in 2020? | Date: 09 April 2020

THE SAUDI ARABIAN-LED COALITION of Arab states, which been fighting in support of the Yemeni government and against the Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels, has placed  into effect a unilateral two-week ceasefire amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The unilateral ceasefire is expected to suspend hostilities on the alliance’s part, which will make it the first nationwide truce to take hold in Yemen during the five-year war[1]. This announcement could potentially indicate that the war in Yemen may enter a long-standing intermission, and even help bring an end to the war.

On Wednesday, the Saudi-led coalition declared a two-week ceasefire that was scheduled to go into effect at 1200 local time on Thursday. The coalition, which includes Saudi Arabia’s Arab allies and the internationally recognized government of Yemen, has pledged to halt all air, ground, and naval hostilities[2]. The ceasefire is meant to last for two weeks but the coalition said it will be open to an extension at a later date. Colonel Turki al-Malki, spokesman for the coalition, stated that this move was aimed to help facilitate talks for a permanent ceasefire in the Yemeni war, in an effort to avoid to an outbreak of COVID-19[3]. On that same day, Mohammed Abdulsalam, spokesman for the Houthi rebels, tweeted that the Houthis had sent the United Nations a comprehensive vision that included “an end to the war and to the blockade imposed on Yemen”[4]. This follows a ceasefire proposal that was communicated to the Yemeni government, the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels by Martin Griffiths, the United Nations’ special envoy for Yemen. All parties welcomed and pledged support for it.

This development follows the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic that threatens to overwhelm Yemen, a country that is currently host to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis[5] and is in the middle of a cholera outbreak[6]. The COVID-19 pandemic, which traces its origins to China’s Hubei Province, is as an animal-to-person coronavirus[7]. It began to spread in early January through person-to-person contact and has now infected around 1.7 million people around the world[8]. Saudi Arabia has the highest reported number of COVID-19 infections in the Middle East, with at least 3,500 cases. As many as 150 of those cases are members of the ruling Saudi royal family[9], with Saudi Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the governor of Riyadh, being in intensive care after contracting the virus. King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have both isolated themselves amidst the outbreak in an effort to avoid it themselves[10]. In early March, the kingdom banned the year-round Umrah pilgrimage and largely restricted travel in and out of the country, as well as between the provinces. Saudi Arabia has extended 24-hour curfews in four governorates and five cities with a round-the-clock lockdown being imposed on the capital of Riyadh[11]. Yemen has only one confirmed case of COVID-19 as of today, but many fear that it will soon become overwhelmed with cases, due to its weakened healthcare system that has been affected by the ongoing war and cholera outbreak.

The announcement of a ceasefire by the Saudi-UAE coalition is likely to hold, but only if all sides in the war adhere to it. The Houthi rebels have previously stated that they would support a ceasefire on the Saudi-led coalitions’ part, but would like to see implementation on the ground first[12]. Compared to efforts for a ceasefire in Yemen before the pandemic started, this ceasefire has had far more success in gaining the agreement of all sides involved in the conflict. This gesture is the first by any government involved in an international armed conflict to pause hostilities because of the pandemic[13] and is likely to become the first nationwide truce to take hold in Yemen during the ongoing war[14]. The ceasefire itself has the potential to last, depending on how COVID-19 affects both Saudi Arabia and Yemen. If the pandemic continues to worsen in Saudi Arabia, it is likely that the kingdom will want to distance itself from the war while it focuses internally on fighting the spread of the virus. This shift in focus could also take place in Yemen as well, once case begin to multiply in the country and the virus begins to spread.

There seems to be potential for the Yemeni war to come to an end due to the announced ceasefire, especially with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Because this ceasefire was announced in an effort to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 in Yemen, it can be assessed with high confidence that the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the Yemeni war. If this ceasefire were to last throughout the two-week period and be extended once expired, then a more comprehensive assessment could be made on whether this report will bring the Yemeni war to an end. Because the ceasefire was just announced, any assessment made as of today would be wholly dependent on adherence from all sides of the war.