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Will new Houthi attacks jeopardise Yemen's peace process?

Will new Houthi attacks jeopardise Yemen's peace process?
5 min read
02 October, 2023
Analysis: The first deadly cross-border strike by the Houthi group in months, which killed four Bahraini soldiers, threatens to derail Yemen's fragile peace process, which had been gaining momentum since a UN-sponsored truce in 2022.

Following a UN-sponsored truce in April 2022, there has been a de-escalation in Yemen’s eight-year conflict.

Over the past 18 months, the Houthis refrained from launching drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s territory, while armed confrontations between local war rivals decreased significantly.

Since then, peace talks have gained momentum, especially after the inception of unprecedented public Saudi-Houthi talks in April this year.

With the Houthi visit to Riyadh last month, peace appeared near, and a dialogue-based solution to the conflict looked possible.

However, the latest drone attack on Saudi territories has set back diplomatic momentum and revived border-cross tensions.

On Monday, 25 September, a Houthi drone strike hit a location on Saudi territory bordering Yemen, killing four Bahraini soldiers and leaving several others wounded.

The attack raised local, regional, and international alarm over the future of ongoing peace talks facilitated by Oman and the UN.

"Diplomacy and dialogue have helped put a brake on the war in Yemen since last year,” Abdulrahman Mahdi, a retired security officer in Sanaa, told The New Arab.

“With this recent attack on the Saudi border, the renewal of the Yemen conflict is likely. Even if the two sides maintain self-restraint, the path to peace will be long.”

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Trust dwindles again

According to Mahdi, killing four Bahraini soldiers is a significant loss at a time when peace negotiations are ongoing.

"If the attack happened in wartime, that would be natural. However, it happened after a few days of Houthi-Saudi face-to-face talks. This development has obliterated trust between the two sides. And without trust, peace is hard to reach."

While Saudi Arabia has been seeking to exit the Yemen war after seven years of futile military operations, the Houthi group keeps dragging the kingdom into a quandary.

Turki Al-Maliki, the spokesperson of the Saudi-led Arab coalition that launched a military campaign against the Houthis in 2015, slammed the Houthi escalation, saying such hostile acts do not conform with the current efforts aimed at ending the conflict and reaching a comprehensive political solution.

The funeral of a Bahraini soldier on 26 September 2023 in Muharraq. Four Bahraini military personnel were killed by a recent Houthi drone strike near the Saudi-Yemeni border. [Photo by Ayman Yaqoob/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

The coalition forces, he added, reserve the right to reply to this provocation at the right time and place.

Houthi officials, however, said the four Bahraini soldiers were not the sole deaths on the Yemen-Saudi border.

The coalition killed 12 Houthi soldiers in the last month along the Saudi border, according to Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdulsalam.

He added, "While we consider incidents of truce violation to be regrettable ... we stress the importance of entering into a phase of serious peace".

Searching for recognition, not peace

The Houthi engagement in talks and their visit to Riyadh in September for negotiations do not necessarily reflect the group’s desire to end the war.

One of their key aims is to bolster their legitimacy as the ruling authority in North Yemen.

A political researcher in Sanaa, who wished to remain anonymous, told The New Arab that the Houthi group does not deal with the Saudis as a party to the war - they negotiate as if they are the legitimate authority in Yemen.

"The group has obtained popular recognition by force, and the Houthi leadership is trying to be recognised by regional powers, especially Saudi Arabia, through talks," he said.

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He added, "The rejection of the Saudi approval of the Houthi authority in North Yemen will infuriate the latter, which means cross-border attacks will resume".

Direct negotiations between the Houthis and their local opponents are not feasible at present. The former has the financial and military capabilities to fight all local rivals and only aspires to be recognised by foreign powers.

On Sunday, informed sources in Oman told Sheba Intelligence, a platform focusing on Yemen, that the second phase of negotiations, which was supposed to begin in Muscat between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, failed.

According to the sources, the Houthis asked Saudi Arabia to sign an agreement declaring the end of the war between them and Saudi Arabia. The excessive Houthi demands returned the negotiations to square one, said the sources.

A delegation from Saudi Arabia and Omani mediators arrived in Yemen's capital Sanaa in April to negotiate a new truce with the Iran-allied Houthi group, as Riyadh seeks a way out of the war in Yemen. [Getty]

Additional discouraging signs

The killing of the Bahraini soldiers has not been the sole development that jeopardises negotiations in Yemen. Other political moves have also occurred in recent days, revealing the fragility of building an enduring peace.

Last week, the Houthi group’s chief Abdulmalek Al-Houthi declared the reshuffle of the Sanaa-based government, a striking development demonstrating the movement's long-term goals and deepening influence.

This effectively means that the Houthi leadership in North Yemen is the ultimate authority in the country, and other political parties, including the former ruling party, the General People's Congress, must obey Houthi directives.

Given the unopposed authority the Houthi leadership enjoys in North Yemen, it is unlikely that they will accept a pact that compels them to share power with their Yemeni opponents.

The suspension of commercial flights from Sanaa Airport is another discouraging signal of the destiny of Yemen peace talks.

On Saturday, Yemenia Airways announced it will suspend its flights from Houthi-controlled Sanaa Airport over money-related disputes with the Houthi authorities.

The carrier has been operating six commercial flights from Sanaa to Jordan since the reopening of the Sanaa Airport as part of the UN-brokered ceasefire in April last year.

The suspension of these flights will complicate peace talks and create massive disruption for thousands of citizens who travel abroad for treatment, work, or education.

All of these recent developments seriously jeopardise the peace process and risk plunging the country into a fresh cycle of strife, causing consternation for ordinary Yemeni civilians.

"The killing of the Bahraini soldiers on the Saudi border and the halt of commercial flights from Sanaa Airport are worrying matters,” Hamid Abdullah, a school teacher in Sanaa, told The New Arab.

“The calm we have enjoyed since last year may turn into chaos at any moment."

The writer is a Yemeni journalist, reporting from Yemen, whose identity we are protecting for their security.