Houthi-Saudi talks: Time for peace in Yemen?

Houthi-Saudi talks: Time for peace in Yemen?
A Yemeni delegation has visited Saudi Arabia to negotiate a truce in the border region - could this be the start of a serious peace process to end the conflict?
5 min read
09 March, 2016
The face-to-face talks between Saudis and Houthis are promising but formidable obstacles await [AFP]
It is not clear what reports of a Houthi rebel delegation in Saudi Arabia signify exactly.

The information leaked to The New Arab and other media outlets is conflicting.

Some sources said the delegation that crossed from the Houthi stronghold of Saada into Saudi Arabia this week consisted mainly of Yemeni tribal leaders.

The tribal delegation, the sources said, was in Saudi Arabia to negotiate a limited truce along the border meant to allow aid to be delivered to areas hit hard by the conflict.

They were also in Saudi Arabia for a prisoner swap, handing over Saudi soldiers captured by the Yemeni rebels in return for several Yemeni prisoners.

Other sources, however, said the Houthi delegation was "military" in nature, and was led by none other than Houthi group spokesman Mohammad Abdul-Salam.

The coalition has since issued an official statement saying Yemen's delegation sought to negotiate a truce "along the border with the kingdom to allow the entry of medical and humanitarian aid to Yemeni towns near the theatre of operations".

Coalition forces have responded by allowing aid to flow through the Alb border crossing, said a statement published by the official SPA news agency.

Although coalition spokesman Ahmad al-Assiri denied there was an undeclared truce, no airstrikes or shelling has taken place in the border region in the past several days. Furthermore, there has been a marked reduction in strikes throughout Yemen.

Saudi soldier Jaber al-Kaabi was handed over to the coalition in exchange for seven Yemenis who were detained by Saudi authorities at the border

Unprecedented breakthrough

Whatever the purpose or level of the first direct talks of their kind between the two sides since Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen a year ago, many analysts agree it marks an unprecedented breakthrough.

The UN envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, is already in Saudi Arabia, in a push for the resumption of negotiations between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels and their allied supporters of deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Some analysts placed the breakthrough in the context of previous undeclared meetings in Muscat between Saudi and Houthi representatives, as brokered by Oman.

The Inner City Press blog published a leaked email allegedly sent in February by the UN Yemen envoy to Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman. 

"I had a private discussion with... [Saudi] State Minister Mussaeed Al Ayban... where I briefed them on the readiness of the Houthis to resume discreet face-to-face meetings with KSA representatives," reads the email.

While the Saudis welcomed the progress made and expressed their commitment to proceed, they also emphasised that, in light of the progress the coalition has been making on the ground and its advance toward Sanaa, "the Houthis should seize this opportunity and discuss in good faith as they are in a weaker position", it added.

The email continued: "KSA will not consider elevating the level of their representation in talks (with the Houthis)... KSA accepted the proposal of Mohamed Abdul-Salam to meet in a third country (Jordan). Mohamed Abe Assalem has suggested to me either Morocco or Jordan as the venue."

The email therefore suggests face-to-face meetings between the two sides had already been taking place.

Some analysts placed the breakthrough in the context of previous undeclared meetings in Muscat between Saudi and Houthi representatives brokered by Oman.

Fatwa diplomacy

Meanwhile, a senior cleric close to the Houthis currently present in Qom, Iran, has issued a fatwa backing "peace and reconciliation" with Saudi Arabia.

Sheikh Issam Imad, an ideologue of the Iran-backed Yemeni rebel group, wrote on his Facebook page: "God orders us to seek peace and reconciliation" whenever peace is an option.

Imad was answering a question whether there should be peace with the Saudi "aggressors", as the Houthi supporters said.

In what also could be a favourable sign, efforts for peace in Yemen will also be on the agenda of Wednesday's meeting of the GCC foreign ministers, which will be attended by the Yemeni foreign minister.

Worth mentioning is that the United Nations has been pushing for peace talks between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the Houthis and their allies, but those efforts have been deadlocked over disagreements on a ceasefire.

All this comes in addition to the fact that the talks were revealed in and of itself sends out a message, regardless of the level of representation at the talks or their narrow scope.

Indeed, no declared talks between the Houthis and the Saudis have been held since 2004 - though leaks indicate a meeting brought together Riyadh's former ambassador in Sanaa with Saleh Habra, the former political representative of the group. In 2014, Riyadh designated the Houthis as a "terror organisation".

A senior Iranian military official signalled on Tuesday that Iran could send military advisers to Yemen to help the Houthi group fight the Gulf Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia

Iran a third wheel?

Nevertheless, formidable obstacles - including both Iran's stance and the Saudi-led coalition's need for some kind of public media victory in Yemen - could hinder major progress.

A senior Iranian military official signalled on Tuesday that Iran could send military advisers to Yemen to help the Houthi group fight the Gulf Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia.

Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri, deputy chief of staff of the armed forces, suggested Iran could support the Houthis in a similar way it has backed President Bashar al-Assad's forces in Syria, in an interview with the Tasnim news agency:

"The Islamic Republic felt its duty to help the Syrian government and nation. It also feels its duty to help the people of Yemen in any way it can, and to any level necessary."

Saudi Arabia has often accused Iran of backing Yemen's armed Houthi movement, which drove the internationally recognised government into exile, triggering a Gulf military intervention in March 2015.

Tehran views the Houthis as the legitimate authority in Yemen, but denies providing material support to them. The Houthis say they are a fighting a revolution against a corrupt government and its Gulf Arab backers.

A growing dispute between Riyadh and Tehran, which severed diplomatic ties between them in January, has harmed the prospects of a peace deal in Yemen. More than 6,000 people have been killed, about half of them civilians, since the start of the Saudi-led intervention a year ago.

Follow Karim Traboulsi on Twitter: @kareemios