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Ending War in Yemen Requires Talk, Not Labels

Designating the Houthis as terrorists will serve only to confirm their existing biases.

By , the senior analyst for Yemen at the International Crisis Group, and , the U.S. program director at the International Crisis Group.
Supporters of Yemen’s Houthi rebels attend a rally marking the fourth anniversary of the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Sanaa, Yemen, on March 26, 2019.
Supporters of Yemen’s Houthi rebels attend a rally marking the fourth anniversary of the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Sanaa, Yemen, on March 26, 2019.
Supporters of Yemen’s Houthi rebels attend a rally marking the fourth anniversary of the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Sanaa, Yemen, on March 26, 2019. MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images

U.N. Security Council horse-trading has begun in earnest in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The first reported case of deal-making in New York centered around the often-overlooked conflict in Yemen. On Monday, Russia’s mission to the United Nations voted in favor of a new resolution that, among other things, named the Houthi movement that controls northwestern Yemen a “terrorist group.”

This marked a sudden about-turn for Moscow. Russian officials had raised strong objections over the use of the terrorist label just a week earlier, part of a longstanding pattern of Russian opposition to overtly onerous censure of the Houthis by the Security Council. One cause for the Russians’ change of tune? On Friday, the United Arab Emirates, which had proposed adding the Houthi terrorist label to the Yemen resolution, abstained in a vote on another resolution, one censuring Moscow for its Ukraine invasion.

American, British, and other Western officials were furious at the UAE abstention on a vote on what has quickly become the top U.S. foreign policy objective of isolating Russia. Emirati opprobrium towards the Houthis and Russian deal-making does not explain the UAE abstention in the Ukraine vote its entirety. (Emirati officials say that the abstention demonstrates Abu Dhabi’s independence from U.S. foreign policy dictates, and some observers see it as a rebuke to a perception of dwindling U.S. support for its partners in the Gulf as American interests shift.)

U.N. Security Council horse-trading has begun in earnest in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The first reported case of deal-making in New York centered around the often-overlooked conflict in Yemen. On Monday, Russia’s mission to the United Nations voted in favor of a new resolution that, among other things, named the Houthi movement that controls northwestern Yemen a “terrorist group.”

This marked a sudden about-turn for Moscow. Russian officials had raised strong objections over the use of the terrorist label just a week earlier, part of a longstanding pattern of Russian opposition to overtly onerous censure of the Houthis by the Security Council. One cause for the Russians’ change of tune? On Friday, the United Arab Emirates, which had proposed adding the Houthi terrorist label to the Yemen resolution, abstained in a vote on another resolution, one censuring Moscow for its Ukraine invasion.

American, British, and other Western officials were furious at the UAE abstention on a vote on what has quickly become the top U.S. foreign policy objective of isolating Russia. Emirati opprobrium towards the Houthis and Russian deal-making does not explain the UAE abstention in the Ukraine vote its entirety. (Emirati officials say that the abstention demonstrates Abu Dhabi’s independence from U.S. foreign policy dictates, and some observers see it as a rebuke to a perception of dwindling U.S. support for its partners in the Gulf as American interests shift.)

But four Western diplomats we spoke to in New York after the vote said they felt it was clear that the UAE was willing to expend political capital in order to secure the Russians’ vote for the resolution. Labelling the Houthis terrorists, in other words, is a big deal for the UAE. And they aren’t finished yet. Abu Dhabi is likely to direct its energy toward securing a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation for the Houthis in Washington. However, this would be counterproductive, deepening Yemen’s humanitarian plight while doing little if anything to push the Houthis toward compromise and making diplomacy harder.

The reason for the Emiratis’ ire towards the Houthis is clear. Last month the rebels, who control Yemen’s populous northern highlands including the capital, Sanaa, launched four rounds of missile and drone attacks on the UAE, killing three civilians and injuring several others. One of the targets was the Al Dhafra Air Base, which hosts U.S. forces. In claiming responsibility, the Houthis intimated that they planned to target civilian infrastructure next, including the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building, and Dubai Expo 2020.

Emirati officials contend the Houthis’ cross-border attacks were unprovoked because, they say, their forces withdrew from the war in Yemen in 2019. (The UAE role in Yemen is complicated: Abu Dhabi is not directly involved in frontline combat but wields considerable influence over armed groups on the ground, including fighters who put a stop to Houthi territorial gains earlier this year.) They also say that threatened attacks on civilian targets are unjustifiable, cross a red line, and clearly satisfy the criteria of what constitutes terrorism.

The UAE responded to the cross-border attacks by mobilizing international support. Along with Saudi Arabia and Israel, it launched a campaign for the U.S. government and world powers to label and designate the Houthis as terrorists. In particular, it has sought the reinstatement of the FTO designation the Trump administration rushed through in its final days in office, and which the Biden administration rescinded shortly afterward in early 2021.

At the same time, Emirati diplomats began to push for the Security Council resolution, on the renewal of an eight-year-old sanctions regime for Yemen, to include reference to the Houthis as a “terrorist organization”—an extremely rare move for the Security Council—in addition to a group-wide arms embargo, travel ban, and assets freeze for the Houthis, along with a stepped-up maritime interdiction regime in and around Yemeni waters.

UAE officials say that the push to label and designate the Houthis terrorists is not a purely symbolic or punitive measure, although they say the United States should support this effort if only for the sake of the countries’ strong bilateral relationship. They claim it makes strategic sense, arguing that a terrorism designation would fit into a broader campaign against the rebels designed to bring them to the negotiating table through military, political, and economic pressure. The main intended effect of an FTO designation would be to make the sanctioned group so toxic to deal with politically and economically that it either collapses or capitulates to its enemies’ demands.

There are valid arguments for pressuring the Houthis to bring them back to the negotiating table. By the end of 2021, with military victory in the oil-rich governorate of Marib in sight, the Houthis had become maximalist in their political demands and became hostile toward U.N. efforts at diplomacy, likely perceiving that there was no point in negotiating until they had fully seized Marib. By late 2021, many Western officials were debating how to deal with the Houthis once they had scored such a major, possibly decisive, victory in the war.

The situation has changed since the turn of the year. In January and February, UAE-aligned, Saudi-overseen fighters took back strategic territory the Houthis had seized several months earlier, dealing the Houthis a setback to the campaign to take Marib. The Houthis justified their attacks on the UAE by citing the military losses they suffered in the Shabwa and Marib battles, which brought two years of Houthi territorial expansion to a halt and tipped the conflict back to something close to military equilibrium for the first time in several years.

Unlike in the past, such as when UAE-backed forces closed in on Houthi-held Hodeida port, an important trade hub and humanitarian lifeline on the Red Sea, Western officials are unlikely to criticize this anti-Houthi campaign so long as it has the limited objective of preventing the Houthis from overrunning Marib. Going further, the United States in late February announced targeted sanctions against economic networks outside of Yemen that it says support the Houthis.

Yet the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen may be reaching the outer limits of international support for pressure on the Houthis. While it looks like a success in the UAE, the Saudi and Yemeni government’s push to politically toxify and economically isolate the Houthis through the Security Council resolution may prove to demonstrate the ceiling for possible sanctions against the Houthis.

Although the UAE was successful in adding the “terrorist group” label to the resolution, diplomats involved in drafting the text and U.N. officials say that the term has no legal force and does not mean the Houthis have been designated as a terrorist organization. (The United Nations has never achieved consensus on the meaning of the term “terrorism” and has does not have specific procedures in place for designating groups as terrorist organizations, taking a case-by-case approach through detailed resolutions, or adding groups with connections to al Qaeda or the Islamic State to existing sanctions regimes.)

The resolution was also significantly stripped down compared to Emirati ambitions. It expanded an arms embargo on the Houthi leader Abdul Malik al Houthi to cover the entire group but, in practice, this is how the embargo had already been interpreted. Meanwhile, American, British, and Chinese objections led to the proposed asset freezes and travel bans, along with the expanded maritime interdiction authorities, stripped from the resolution.

This, Western diplomatic officials in New York say, demonstrates limited the global appetite for broad economic sanctions against the Houthis. Numerous Security Council members expressed concern over the potential humanitarian fallout of applying the terrorist label, although senior Western officials say they do not expect it to have a significant impact. The resolution “changes nothing,” a Muscat-based representative for the group told us, and simply proves bias against the group, he said. It will not prevent contact with the U.N. special envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, the representative added.

Abu Dhabi remains undeterred. UAE officials continue to push for the United States to apply the FTO designation to the Houthis, and they may wield the new U.N. resolution as part of their push, arguing that because the United Nations has applied the label to the group, the United States and others must enact it. Yemen’s internationally recognized government has made this argument.

But anger from U.S. officials over the Ukraine resolution may limit American interests in helping the Emiratis for the time being, particularly if Abu Dhabi abstains on another U.N. vote on Ukraine at the General Assembly on Wednesday. More importantly, the consensus in the White House, which engaged in intensive deliberations over what measures to take after the Houthi attacks on the UAE, is that an FTO designation would be the wrong instrument for achieving additional pressure and is likely to prove counterproductive.

The U.S. assessment is accurate. While it would likely do little to change the Houthis’ posture, an FTO designation would almost certainly greatly compound the humanitarian catastrophe that has been unfolding in Yemen. This is because it would make conducting any kind of business in Houthi-controlled areas, indeed across the entire country, extremely risky for international firms. Major humanitarian organizations warn that a designation would decimate an already severely ailing economy. Such arguments proved compelling for the Biden administration when it reversed the Trump administration’s FTO designation, which was widely seen in Washington as a last broadside toward Iran rather than part of a coherent policy on Yemen.

The Houthis, meanwhile, are all but certain to see an FTO designation as confirmation of their existing biases. Houthi officials view the conflict as an externally imposed “aggression” designed to roll back what they claim was their 2014 revolution against a corrupt U.S. and Saudi puppet regime. It was in fact a coup that sparked a civil war into which Riyadh intervened. They complain bitterly that what they term “reciprocal” cross-border attacks on their regional rivals are termed “terrorism” while Saudi air strikes using Western arms that kill civilians are swept under the rug. While this view is highly partial, it doesn’t change the fact that a designation can only reinforce the Houthis’ paranoia about an international plot against them and would further legitimize, in their eyes, what they say are reciprocal attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The potential for diplomatic fallout is also high. As the scholar Sophie Haspeslagh argues convincingly, the terrorism label and associated designations since 2001 have likely prolonged rather than shortened conflicts ranging from Afghanistan to Colombia. Designations deepen political polarization, foster incentives for non-designated groups to pursue maximalist demands, and make third-party mediation, vital to resolving conflicts through political settlements, harder at times by criminalizing even limited contact with designated groups.

Because they are implemented by the United States and can lead to criminal and financial penalties there, FTO designations have a particularly chilling effect. Indeed, the Yemeni government would likely see a U.S. designation as an opportunity to retrench its position and refuse negotiations with a group that, however onerous, controls parts of Yemen where an estimated 20 million people live.

The Security Council resolution notes the international consensus that there is no military solution to the war in Yemen and that “the only viable path forward is dialogue.” However hard to swallow for the Houthis’ rivals, this remains an unavoidable truth. Officials in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh say that they want to use the terrorist label and an FTO designation to bring the Houthis back to the table and negotiate an end to the war.

Yet they acknowledge that a designation is unlikely to damage the Houthis or change their approach to the conflict. But a designation would serve to escalate the conflict, not help bring it to an end, wasting rather than building upon the current pressure on the Houthis. Ultimately, this will have to be achieved with diplomacy, not labels.

Peter Salisbury is the senior analyst for Yemen at the International Crisis Group.

Michael Wahid Hanna is the U.S. program director at the International Crisis Group and a nonresident senior fellow at the Reiss Center on Law and Security at New York University.

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