Yemen in Focus: Houthi attack on Riyadh a 'bargaining chip' amid ongoing talks

Yemen in Focus: Houthi attack on Riyadh a 'bargaining chip' amid ongoing talks
This week we focus on recent escalations between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, a campaign to release prisoners, and more.
7 min read
01 April, 2020
The rebels launched a scathing attack against Saudi oil facilities in September [Getty]
Yemen's Houthi rebels this week launched their biggest attack on the neighbouring Saudi kingdom since the September assault on Aramco oil facilities, despite reports of back-channel talks between the two conflicting parties.

The attack left two civilians wounded in Riyadh, which is under a 15-hour curfew to limit the spread of coronavirus, Saudi state media reported on Saturday.

A Houthi spokesman said the rebels struck "sensitive targets" in Riyadh with long-range Zulfiqar missiles and Sammad-3 drones. The rebels also claimed to have hit "economic and military targets" in the border regions of Jizan, Najran and Asir.

But Saturday's missile and drone strikes marked the first major assault on Saudi Arabia since the Houthi rebels offered last September to halt attacks on the kingdom after devastating twin strikes on Saudi oil installations.

Saudi Arabia responded to the strikes with its own bombardment on the rebel-held Yemeni capital on Monday, which killed one civilian and some 70 Arabian horses that were stationed at a military college.

The latest developments came amid talks of a possible de-escalation to the deadly conflict, which has seen 100,000 people killed since the Saudi-led coalition intervened in March 2015. In November, a Saudi official suggested Riyadh had an "open channel" with the rebels with the goal of ending the war. 

Read more: Yemen in Focus: High hopes as peace efforts gain momentum in deadly conflict

Khalid bin Salman - the younger brother of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who orchestrated the Yemen war five-years ago - reportedly flew to the Omani capital in November where he met the late Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said to prepare high-level talks with the Houthi rebels, according to a report published by Foreign Policy.

The prince's diplomatic mission sends a "strong signal" of a shift in Saudi Arabia's war policy, reflecting "a commitment to a final comprehensive peace … and a realisation that there is no military solution to the conflict", Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, a former Yemeni foreign minister said at the time.

"I believe Prince KbS hopefully has come with a new vision to put an end to a costly war which has created great regional stability," FP reported.

But more surprisingly, a senior Saudi official on Monday said the kingdom is still in direct "daily talks" with the rebels, according to a Wall Street Journal report, in comments made just days after the strikes on Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi ambassador to Yemen Mohammed al-Jaber said the kingdom assured the rebels that Monday's strikes by the coalition had been a direct response to the Houthi attack on the kingdom a day earlier and not an escalation of the now five-year conflict.

"We are committed to our de-escalation," Jaber said. "We are ready to have a ceasefire in all Yemeni territory if they accept it," the official added.

As Yemen this week marked the fifth anniversary of the Saudi-led coalition intervention, the Houthi rebels maintain control of an entire stretch cities from their homeland in Saadah down to the midland city of Taiz, as well as the western port city of Hodeida and now Marib and Jawf.

Earlier this week, Yemen's Houthi rebels announced the release of 14 its fighters that were imprisoned by government security forces in Jawf, according to local reports, following "local negotiations".

The rebel's military might has also seen a serious advance, with the Pentagon revealing reports that Iran has continued to deliver weapons to their Yemeni allies, while other reports suggested that drones used by the Houthis are becoming deadlier and more accurate over long ranges.

Speaking to The New Arab, Yemen and Gulf analyst at Middle East Institute, Ibrahim Jalal, said the recent attack on Saudi Arabia is also unlikely to be an escalation tactic but a Houthi strategy to gain advantage by securing further Saudi and Yemeni government concessions during the ongoing talks.

"The Houthi missile attack on the Kingdom is part of the Houthi-Saudi negotiations and aims at expediting Riyadh's high-level commitment while increasing Houthi bargaining position, and so can the subsequent Saudi retaliatory bombardment in Sanaa be understood," Jalal said.

"As for the timing, the attack comes around the 5th anniversary of Houthi endurance, signalling to Riyadh that the Houthis now possess credible military capabilities enough to threaten the Saudi strategic depth at any point," he told The New Arab. 

"While the Saudi offer clearly demonstrates that Riyadh seeks a timely face-saving exit strategy from Yemen following the unprecedented September 2019 Aramco attack, the Houthi response equally shows that the Houthis are interested in securing a nationwide ceasefire to limit aerial military pressure and end the multifaceted blockade after making new territorial gains in Yemen," he added.

However, while all parties involved in the brutal Yemen conflict have accepted a Covid-19 ceasefire, media statements have yet to translate into tangible commitments, most notably on the Houthi side, Jalal noted.

Read more: Trump's aid cut is a death sentence for Yemenis facing coronavirus and war

Meanwhile, Yemenis and animal rights activists across the world expressed outrage this week after a Saudi-led coalition massacre in the capital which killed 70 pure bred Arabian horses.

Graphic images emerged online shortly after, showing dead and wounded horses strewn across the area.

The attack prompted Yemenis and animal rights activists to call for greater accountability in the conflict, which has created unbearable living conditions for millions across the country.

The operation was aimed at destroying "legitimate military targets" including Houthi ballistic capabilities which "threaten civilian lives", the Saudi-led coalition said in a statement released by the official Saudi Press Agency.

Residents in Sanaa reported multiple explosions after the coalition's bombing campaign began.

The Houthi-run Al-Masirah television reported at least 19 air strikes on a number of targets in Sanaa, including military bases and the military academy, where the horses were sheltered.


Separately, activists across the country this week launched a campaign calling for the release of prisoners held in jails, replicating similar actions taken in multiple countries battling with the coronavirus outbreak.

The three day social media campaign #SaveYemeniPrisoners "aims to pressure those in power to release detainees held under dire conditions in Yemeni prisons lacking in essential health and sanitary facilities, which threatens not only detainees' lives but also those of residents beyond prison walls", Latifa Jamel, the campaign coordinator said, according to Almasdar Online.

The campaign follows calls by United Nations chief Antonio Guterres for an end to fighting in Yemen after the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned of an impending explosion of coronavirus cases in the country.

Despite thousands of rumours floating around the country, numerous sources have confirmed Yemen has not to date announced any cases of the Covid-19 illness, but the poor state of the country's health infrastructure after five years of war would mean that such an outbreak could be catastrophic.

"There are no confirmed cases in Yemen though there are thousands of potential rumours," WHO Yemen representative, Altaf Musani said on Tuesday. 

"Authorities continue to track arrivals from a number of entry points, including land, air and sea. Specifically, there have been 4,515 that have been tracked and screened through those entry points and almost 80 percent continue to have follow up checks for 14 days after the initial screening," Musani said.

Read more: Germany extends Saudi arms ban over Yemen war role 

The UN agency, which has Rapid Response Units present across Yemen's 23 governates, has been actively working to deal with the rumours, checking up on potential cases across all districts in the country. Testing laboratories have been set up across Yemen's three foremost major cities, including the rebel-held capital Sanaa, government-held Aden in the south and the eastern city of Hadramaut.

"There are at least 26 ports of entry throughout Yemen, including land, air and sea and we have worked with authorities to make sure there is screening to take temperatures and report travel history. If confirmed, they are taken to quarantine," Musani said.

Yemen is already one of the most impoverished states in the Middle East, but its infrastructure has further deteriorated in the last five-years because of an ongoing conflict that pits the Houthi rebels against the government-backed Saudi-led coalition.

Yemen's devastating nearly-five-year war has introduced air strikes, death and poverty to a nation that was already listed as one of the most impoverished in the world. Throughout the conflict, hundreds have died by a range of diseases that spread across the country, including cholera, malaria and dengue fever. 

Yemen In Focus is a regular feature from The New Arab.

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino