Yemen Looks Forward to a New UN Envoy: Causes and Repercussions for the Political Solution Track

EPC | 10 Jun 2021

On 12 May 2021, the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UNSG) António Guterres announced the appointment of his Special Envoy to Yemen, British diplomat Martin Griffiths, as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. According to this appointment, Griffiths will assume his new position after four years of service by his predecessor, namely the British economist Mark Lowcock. While the international organisation made it clear that Griffiths will continue the mediation mission in the Yemeni conflict until a suitable alternative is found for him, the timing at which this change was announced gave the impression that the international mediation in Yemen has reached a dead end, especially after Griffiths himself showed "interest in assuming a new [UN] mission”, according to United Nations (UN) officials, and that there is greater reliance on the role played by US envoy Timothy Lenderking, given that the administration of President Joe Biden considers resolving the Yemeni conflict a “top priority” for its foreign policy.

This paper sheds light on the direct and indirect reasons for Griffith's failure in his mission and his appointment to a new UN position at this time, and the repercussions of this for the role of the UN and the peace process in Yemen in general.

Background and context

When Martin Griffiths was appointed in February 2018 as the Special Envoy of the UNSG to Yemen, an atmosphere of optimism prevailed in the Yemeni political circles. The perception at the time was that the appointment of a British national with good experience in peace affairs as an envoy for Yemen reflects a tendency by the international community to put an end to the tragic war in Yemen. The envoy this time was not an Arab like his predecessors (Jamal Benomar (also bin Omar) and Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed), but rather British. As believed by some, this would give him unlimited strength and support, not only by Great Britain, but also by the entire international community. Britain is one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC), and is responsible for the Yemen file in the UNSC. Furthermore, it has strong influence and leverage at the international level. Therefore, it would strongly stand by its national to make his new mission a success.

The feeling of optimism about the possible success of the UN envoy in his difficult task was reinforced when, before the end of his first year in office, he was able to gather the parties to the conflict and resume political talks between them in the Swedish capital Stockholm in December 2018 after a hiatus of more than two years. Although the Stockholm Agreement succeeded in stopping the battle of Hodeidah (also al-Hudaydah) and sparing the city’s residents the scourge of war and destruction, and pursuant to this agreement, more than a thousand prisoners were released from both sides in the middle of 2020, the agreement which was intended to constitute a successful microcosm of a peace process that could later be generalised to the entire country has stumbled, and the UN envoy has been unable, after nearly two and a half years of the agreement, to implement all of its provisions. Nor was he ultimately able to achieve peace in Yemen. Consequently, he was apparently removed from his position in a face-saving manner for him, and perhaps his country, Britain, by appointing him to a higher position as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs.

The reasons why Griffiths did not stay in office

The immediate reason for the functional change in Martin Griffith's mission can be understood from the text of his last briefing to the UNSC on 12 May 2021. In that briefing, and to a lesser extent in the earlier one, Griffiths abandoned his usual conciliatory language and diplomacy, and clearly indicated that the Houthi group refused to meet him during those negotiations, and on several occasions. He considered this refusal a bad sign, and added, in a way that indicated his deep displeasure with this step: "to turn attendance of meetings into transactions is simply unacceptable and forfeit [sic] the opportunity to the international community to speak to the prospects of peace is a dereliction of duty".

That is not all. The UN envoy, who is fully aware of the consequences and dimensions of the resort by one of the parties to the conflict to the boycott policy and refusal to meet him, has unusually shown strong annoyance with the Houthis, criticising them in more than one paragraph in the last briefing, and directly blaming them for the faltering peace efforts in Yemen. On the other hand, Griffiths praised the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, saying: "that cooperation with the Government of Yemen on these negotiations has been excellent. I want to make that clear”.

Therefore, it is clear that the direct reason for Griffith's failure to continue his primary mission as an international mediator is the failure of one of the parties to the conflict (in this case, the Houthi group) to meet him and sit with him for a long time. This is what happened with his Mauritanian predecessor Ould Cheikh Ahmed, which means, in practice, the absence of the role, the inability to exercise the role of mediator/facilitator, and in the end, the failure of his mission. However, and more importantly, an observer of Griffith's negotiating performance, the circumstances surrounding his movements, and the analysis of many of his briefings to the UNSC, could find other indirect reasons for his removal from his position at this time. These reasons can be listed as follows:

a. The personality and performance of the UN envoy

In fact, the envoy’s nationality and the international support provided to him may not be useful if his personality is weak and his performance is not commensurate with the task and the size of the responsibility entrusted to him. A follower of Griffith’s work path over the past period would discover that his personality was not influential, compared, for example, to the first UN envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar, who – according to many observers – had a "charismatic" personality, and was able at one point to adapt the Yemeni political forces to a large extent and utilise all the possibilities of his position and the support of the UN and UNSC for him to put effective pressure on the local and external parties to reach understandings and agreements that almost came to fruition had the parties to the conflict not resorted to the language of arms to settle their scores.

As for Griffith, it is clear that his personal capabilities and professional skills are modest. He was accused of exaggerating the policy of neutrality and appeasement of the parties to the conflict, and the use of soft language with them, thinking that this is a stimulating policy and can contribute to the success of his mission or at least prolong it. However, that method, which has early been proved to be ineffective, continued unchanged until it turned into something like "negative neutrality" that eventually brought his mission to a standstill.

Moreover, Griffiths did not have a clear strategy or vision for achieving peace. He was not helped by his deputy and the rest of his weak office staff, consisting of a group of administrative staff with little political experience, by providing him with ideas and visions that would improve performance and support the envoy's mission. Thus, Griffiths relied on the cards that could be offered to him by the parties to the conflict that he could put on the table of the international community as achievements to his credit. In fact, neither the parties to the conflict, nor even the international community, did much to support his “good intentions”, so to speak. This is to be expected, given that good intentions alone are not enough to make peace in a country where the curve of conflict has reached high levels of complexity.

Griffiths has wasted a lot of time on unnecessary meetings and visits. For example, he held many meetings with women and other groups that are not influential in the ongoing conflict. Prior to each briefing to the UNSC, he was keen to intensify his “formal” diplomatic moves to give the impression to the international community that progress could achieve along the path of the political solution, which was not true. Most of his briefings were similar, and did not include anything new that could be built upon to achieve a tangible political breakthrough. Rather, they were merely a play on words and embellished phrases to spread an atmosphere of unrealistic optimism.

b. Inability to bring about a political breakthrough

As was mentioned earlier, during three years of his work, the UN envoy was unable to achieve significant progress at the political level. Rather, his movements remained stagnant, and did not approach the political file clearly and explicitly except in rare cases. The majority of those moves focused on the so-called “confidence-building files”. These are generally humanitarian and economic files, related to the traffic in ports and airports, facilitating the transit of citizens and goods in some cities, in addition to the file of prisoners, and the payment of salaries of public officials. Indeed, this was the centre of focus for the conflicting Yemeni parties at the Sweden talks, which the UN envoy would not have been able to hold in this way had it not been for the active role of former US Secretary of Defense James Mattis who strongly pushed to hold that round of talks.

Of course, the fragmentation of files and spending a long time on detailed and non-essential issues, without going into the framework of the political solution, contributed to the complication of the Yemeni crisis and the prolongation of the conflict, especially in light of the obstacles and challenges that faced the envoy’s mission, even with regard to confidence-building issues in the humanitarian field.

c. The appointment of a US special envoy to Yemen

Since the first moment of US President Joe Biden's decision to appoint a special envoy to Yemen in February 2021, it was understood that this step would come at the expense of the UN role, and at the expense of the role of UN envoy Martin Griffiths. Apparently, had the US administration had confidence in the role and capabilities of the UN envoy, it would not have appointed a special envoy, and would have contented itself with providing support for Griffiths. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the first news of Griffith’s removal (or his promotion and appointment to another position) was leaked by the website of the US magazine “Foreign Policy”. The website attributed the removal of Griffiths from his position as a mediator to the decline of his role when the Biden administration decided to take a more active role in trying to negotiate an end to the war, including the appointment of Timothy Lenderking as its special envoy to Yemen.

While there is no evidence that there is a conflict between the UN and US missions, especially that the statements of the UN and US envoys speak of cooperation and mutual support between them to reach a political settlement in Yemen, some readings indicate that there is a difference in the envoys' approaches to resolving the Yemeni crisis. While the US envoy prefers to start measures to ease restrictions on the entry of goods and oil derivatives through Hodeidah, open Sanaa International Airport as a prelude to the ceasefire process, and subsequently remove the restrictions completely after the ceasefire has been established and military operations ended throughout the country, the UN/UK envoy’s view is different. It focuses on stopping military operations first, especially in Marib, and then easing restrictions on the movement of humanitarian and commercial imports through the port of Hodeidah, as well as opening Sanaa Airport to air traffic for specific regional and international destinations.

d. Complexities of the Yemeni file and the differing nature of the current stage

The complexities of the Yemeni file, the multiplicity of the local conflict parties and their intransigence, and the assumption by the war of regional and international dimensions, not to mention the lack of objective conditions so far for bringing a comprehensive political settlement to maturity, have all made the mission of the UN envoy to Yemen difficult. They would also likely make it difficult for any other envoy. Perhaps the current transformations in the region have revealed the extent of interdependence and overlap between many regional and international issues and files, which added new complications to the task of Griffiths, who had to understand, in addition to the details of the Yemeni file, the nature of regional relations and interactions that intersect with the Yemeni file. These began to take shape in the light of the desire by the US to reduce its presence in the region and reposition and militarily deploy in other regions that are currently more important to Washington, especially in the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea to confront the “growing Chinese threat”. This policy requires that Washington rearrange the cards in the region and create a degree of relative calm therein by deescalating some hot files, and adjusting the tension level at certain limits.

In this context, Washington focuses on the Iranian nuclear file and gives it utmost importance, because returning to the nuclear agreement from the Biden administration's point of view would constitute a gateway to normalising the situation, and would contribute to opening prospects for constructive dialogue between the countries of the region, especially between Iran and Saudi Arabia (KSA), which recently held several talks in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, and perhaps in other capitals as well, given that the state of competition and indirect conflict between the two countries negatively affects the security and stability of the region, and does not serve the US trends, at least at this stage.

The recent statements made by both US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking have reinforced this US view about the interrelationship of files in the region. In the midst of the continuing European-brokered nuclear talks between the US and Iran, Blinken said: “good relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran can end conflicts and battles between proxies that destabilize the region”. He called on Tehran to use its influence on the Houthis to move constructively to end the war in Yemen. As for Lenderking, he unambiguously linked the issue of the nuclear file, Saudi-Iranian relations, and the situation in Yemen, when he said in a television interview, on 25 May 2021: "the progress of discussions on the Iranian nuclear file will contribute to the progress of the Saudi-Iranian dialogue, and benefit Yemen".

It is therefore clear that the Yemeni file, which is witnessing a military escalation in Marib governorate and an increase in the attacks of the Houthi group that reach the depth of Saudi territories, is becoming more closely linked to the nuclear file and the file of the relationship between Riyadh and Tehran. This means that any breakthrough in those two files would positively reflect on the political settlement file in Yemen. Consequently, the different nature of the stage, the existing transformations, and the overlaps between regional files have all made dealing with the Yemeni issue more complicated. and is going through different and multiple levels of interactions, which the UN envoy (Griffiths), relying on his limited capabilities, cannot deal with for the benefit of peace in Yemen.

The post-Griffiths period: the potential alternative UN envoy and last-moment moves

The change of more than one UN envoy to Yemen without achieving significant results would undoubtedly weaken the role of the UN, and calls into question its ability to play a more positive and effective mediation role in order to achieve a comprehensive political settlement in this country. As for Martin Griffiths, who is currently making his last attempt in the region to penetrate the wall of the Yemeni crisis, at least at the humanitarian level, the issue of his replacement would not affect much the international peace efforts in Yemen, especially in light of the presence of a US envoy who is actively and remarkably seeking to translate the directions of the current administration to stop the war. The US envoy, who is intensifying his diplomatic moves to implement what he recently called a reasonable and fair proposal for a ceasefire in Yemen, apparently does not act alone, but rather coordinates with the ambassadors of the UNSC permanent members, and with the ambassadors of the European Union (EU) to exercise greater pressure on all parties and to push hard – as Lenderking himself said – towards opening the economic arteries and reaching a "truce" in Yemen.

Regarding the UN envoy, who may replace Martin Griffiths, no specific person has been announced yet, and deliberations are probably continuing in this regard. Despite the leakage of many names in the past as candidates for this position, including the former UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salamé, the Swedish envoy to Yemen Peter Semneby, the EU ambassador to Yemen Hans Gundberg, the former Japanese ambassador to Yemen Katsuo Yoshi Hayashi, and the former Omani foreign minister Yusuf bin Alawi, it is difficult to expect or decide that one of these names will be the alternative to Griffith. Some analysts suggest that the new envoy may be a non-British European figure. Regardless of the envoy's nationality, it is important to benefit from the mistakes of the predecessors, have a strong personality and deep experience in the issues of the region, and have good and wide relations with all parties, in order to restore to the UN some of the prestige and credibility that it has lost recently.

At the present time, and in conjunction with the relative progress in the Vienna talks related to the Iranian nuclear file, and the great political and diplomatic movement taking place in the Omani capital Muscat regarding the Yemeni file, as well as the stalemate in the Marib battle, it is not implausible that preliminary understandings would be reached on some humanitarian issues, the entry of goods, foodstuffs and oil derivatives through the port of Hodeidah would be facilitated, and Sanaa International Airport would be partially opened. Perhaps the various statements issued by the Omani Foreign Minister Badr al-Busaidi, on 28 May 2021, by Martin Griffiths, and by the official spokesman for the Houthi group, indicate a positive atmosphere in Muscat regarding the Yemeni crisis. Al-Busaidi tweeted: “Had good discussion with Lenderking on Yemen. We hope to see a sustained flow of humanitarian aid and basic necessities [into Yemen] and a permanent ceasefire. This is the pathway to a political solution based on dialogue and negotiations”.

As for the UN envoy who recently succeeded in holding a meeting with the Houthi delegation in Muscat and their leadership in Sanaa, a press statement was issued by his office, indicating that Griffiths discussed the UN plan to open Sanaa airport, lift restrictions on the ports of Hodeidah to enhance the freedom of movement of people and goods to and from Yemen, reach a nationwide ceasefire, and commit the parties to the relaunch of a political process to end the conflict. Grifiths said: “My recent meetings, as well as the continued international and regional support, show that the parties could still seize this opportunity and make a breakthrough towards resolving the conflict”. For his part, the official spokesman for the Houthi group Mohammed Abdel Salam, tweeted that "during [his] meeting with the UN envoy and his team, discussions centred on the humanitarian agreement and working to expedite it, given the humanitarian situation suffered by the Yemeni people as a result of the unjust siege, the prevention of oil derivatives from entry, and the closure of airports, thus paving the way for broader discussions for a permanent ceasefire and a comprehensive political settlement”.

Of course, given the recent developments and statements, the following two aspects are noteworthy:

First, Griffiths was suddenly able to openly meet with the Houthi delegation in Muscat after several failed attempts over the past period to hold such a meeting. This opened the door for him to visit the Yemeni capital Sanaa on 30 May 2021, for the first time in more than a year.

Second, the Houthi spokesman has recently used a positive language that reflects a kind of optimism and responsiveness towards the UN envoy, or rather towards the proposals made by the latter, unlike most previous statements by Mohammed Abdel Salam. This opens the door to the possibility that the recent international efforts, in addition to the active mediation of Oman, which recently sent a delegation to represent it to Sanaa for the first time since the start of the crisis, would be able to achieve a real breakthrough in the Yemeni file in light of talk about new, "reasonable and just" proposals, as described by the US envoy, which probably prompted the Houthis to accept them. On a parallel track, there are speculations that the US-Iranian rapprochement in light of the two countries' desire to return to the Iranian nuclear agreement, and talk about the possibility of a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement after several exploratory meetings that brought together security officials from the two countries recently, has begun to bear fruit and in a way that may positively reflect on the Yemeni file.

It is also plausible that those positive indicators come within the framework of calming down the atmosphere ahead of the next UNSC session, and perhaps before the briefing that may be given by Griffiths as a final briefing in July 2021, in which he would invite the parties to hold a direct meeting, as the envoy himself indicated in the briefing on 12 May 2021, and to avoid accountability and having measures or steps taken at the UNSC that the UN envoy called for in the same aforementioned briefing to put pressure on all parties, especially the Houthi group. According to some analysts, this may complicate matters further and undermine the chances of peace in Yemen. Therefore, the situation required that tension between the UN envoy and the Houthis be eased in the hope that Griffith’s last briefing, if it does take place, would establish a political path which apparently would be difficult to access and whose details be difficult to discuss given the complexities of the Yemeni file that is intertwined with other regional and international issues and files. This interdependence is a “double-edged sword”; it may be useful in the event that progress is made in those files, and detrimental as those files worsen, given that its harm often exceeds its benefit.


The direct reason why Martin Griffiths did not continue his primary mission as an international mediator in Yemen can be attributed to the refusal by the Houthi group to meet him and sit with him for many months. There are also other reasons that are likely to have prompted the “removal” of Griffiths from his position at this time, the most important of which are: his lack of a clear strategy or vision to reach peace; his inability to achieve a tangible political breakthrough between the parties; the decline of his role after the US administration appointed Timothy Lenderking as its special envoy to Yemen, and also after Griffiths himself, as it was said, showed "an interest in taking on a new international mission".

As a result of this development, two remarkable developments have taken place recently: first, Griffith was suddenly able to openly meet the Houthi delegation in Muscat for the first time in many months before he went to visit the Yemeni capital Sanaa, after a break of more than a year, given that this coincided with the relative progress in the Vienna talks regarding the Iranian nuclear file, and the major political and diplomatic movement witnessed by the Omani capital Muscat regarding the Yemeni file, as well as the stalemate in the Marib battle. Secondly, the head of the Houthi negotiating delegation spoke in a positive language that reflects a kind of optimism and response to the UN mediation after Griffith’s exit. This opens the door to the possibility that the recent US and European efforts, and the active Omani mediation, could likely make a real breakthrough in the Yemeni file in light of the talk about new "reasonable and fair" proposals, as by described the US envoy.

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