Amid the longest lull in fighting in Yemen — more than nine months — Saudi Arabia and its rival, Iran-backed Houthi rebels, have revived unofficial talks, according to Yemeni, Saudi and UN officials. Both sides hope to strengthen the informal ceasefire and chart a path for a negotiated end to the long civil war.
Tranquility is fragile, with no formal ceasefire since a United Nations-brokered truce ended in October. It has been rocked by Houthi attacks on oil facilities and intense rhetoric from the internationally recognized government of Yemen, an ally of Saudi Arabia, which complains that it has so far been left out of the talks. The lack of progress could lead to a collapse in the dialogue and the resumption of an all-out armed confrontation.
But all parties seem to be seeking a solution after eight years of a war that has killed more than 150,000 people, fragmented Yemen and led the poorest country in the Arab world to collapse and near famine in one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Saudi Arabia resumed indirect exchanges with the Houthis in September, when it became clear that the United Nations-brokered truce would not be renewed. Oman has been acting as an intermediary.
“It is an opportunity to end the war,” said a world body official, “if they negotiate in good faith and the talks include other Yemeni actors.” Like other officials, the UN spoke on condition of anonymity due to the fragility of the dialogue.
A Saudi diplomat said his country has asked China and Russia to put pressure on Iran and the Houthis to prevent the situation from escalating. Tehran, which has been regularly briefed by the Houthis and Omanis on the talks, has so far supported the undeclared truce, the diplomat said.
Yemen’s war began when the Houthis descended from their strongholds in the north of the country and seized the capital Sanaa in 2014, forcing the internationally recognized government to flee south and then into exile in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis entered the war in 2015, at the head of a military coalition with the United Arab Emirates and other Arab nations. The US-backed coalition has carried out a destructive bombing campaign and supports government forces and militias in the south. The conflict escalated into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, regional enemies.
Neither side has made territorial gains for years. The Houthis maintain their control over the north, Sanaa and much of the densely populated west. The government and militias control the south and east, including the key core areas with most of Yemen’s oil reserves.
The war has spilled beyond Yemen’s borders: the Houthis attack Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with ballistic missiles and explosive-laden drones. The rebels also attacked ships in the Red Sea. They used weapons from stockpiles they seized in Sanaa and weapons supplied by Iran, according to independent experts and those from the UN and Western nations.
Saudi Arabia and the Houthis have held proxy negotiations in the past, mainly for prisoner swaps or sporadic ceasefires.
The most ambitious talks, in 2019, helped halt a government advance on the Houthi-controlled Red Sea port of Hodeida. But Saudi officials accused the rebels of using an undeclared truce for territorial gains and advancing on the prized government-controlled city of Marib. A month-long battle for Marib broke out in which the Houthis suffered heavy casualties and were finally repelled in late 2021.
The UN brokered a more formal truce that began in April 2022 and was extended twice. It ended in October. Houthi attacks on oil installations in government-controlled areas have been the most significant disruption in recent months, but so far the warring parties have not resumed full fighting.
“An escalation would be costly on all fronts,” a Yemeni government official said. However, “everyone is preparing for the next round (of war) if the UN attempts and the talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis fall apart.”
One problem is that previous attempts at resolution have been stymied by the conflicting interests of the powers involved in the war—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran,” explained Abdel Bari Taher, a Yemeni commentator and former leader of the Union of Journalists.
“These talks will not lead to concrete conclusions if they do not include all Yemeni parties in the process,” Taher added.
The Houthis’ chief negotiator, Mohamed Abdul Salam, said visits to Sana’a by Omani officials show how seriously the Houthis are acting. The most recent visit concluded on Sunday.
“There is a push and pull with other parties,” he said, in an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom has developed a staged roadmap for a deal, which has been endorsed by the United States and the United Nations, the UN official said. In it, the coalition makes a number of key promises, including further reopening of Sana’a airport and easing the blockade on Hodeida, the official said.
The Houthis are demanding that the coalition pay the salaries of all state employees, including the military, from oil and gas revenues, and open all Houthi-controlled airports and ports. A Houthi official involved in the deliberations said the Saudis had promised to pay the salaries.
However, the Saudi diplomat stated that payment of military salaries is conditional on the Houthis agreeing to security guarantees, including a buffer zone with Houthi-controlled areas along the Yemen-Saudi border. The Houthis should also lift the blockade on Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, he said.
The Saudis also want the Houthis to commit to participating in official talks with other interested Yemeni parties, the diplomat added.
The Houthi official said his side has not accepted parts of the Saudi proposal, particularly security guarantees, and rejects the resumption of oil exports from government-controlled areas without payment of wages. The Houthis proposed a distribution of oil revenues according to a pre-war budget, the official said. That means Houthi-controlled areas would receive up to 80% of the revenue because they are the most populous, according to the official.
The Saudi diplomat said both sides were working with Omani officials to develop the proposal in order to make it “more satisfactory to all parties,” including other Yemeni parties.
In a briefing Monday before the United Nations Security Council, Hans Grundberg, the UN special envoy for Yemen, expressed appreciation for the Saudi and Omani diplomatic efforts. “We are witnessing a possible sea change in the trajectory of this eight-year conflict,” he said.
However, the talks between the Houthis and the Saudis have left the internationally recognized government without a voice, a Yemeni government official said. He said the government’s presidential council is concerned that Saudi Arabia “could make unacceptable concessions” to reach a deal.
But Yemen’s alliance against the Houthis remains torn by internal divisions, so there is little room for maneuver.
“We have no choice but to wait and see where these negotiations end up,” the official said.
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