A Saudi delegation visiting Sanaa, October 2022 (taken from an AFP video)

Secret Talks: Will They Lead Yemen Towards Peace or New War?


Mon, 28-11-2022 05:48 PM, Aden

Farida Ahmed (South24) 

After the declaration of the truce on April 2nd this year, the Houthis hailed it due to their feelings that they made an achievement by making pressure to reach this outcome. However, 5 days after declaring it, the group was surprised by remarkable changes within the ranks of their foes which resulted in the Riyadh Consultations. This led to the establishment of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) on April 7th consisting of 8 members. For the Saudi-led Coalition and many Yemenis, this transformation constituted a political victory which would lead to improving the military reality. The past 8 years of the war were linked to political and military figures that failed to make any remarkable achievement in the face of the Houthis who launched a coup against the authority in Sanaa in 2015. 

During this truce which lasted for more than 6 months till October 2nd, the cease-fire among the parties of the conflicts were largely applied and more air flights were resumed from the Sanaa Airport. Moreover, the fuel supplies began to flow from the Port of Hodeida to Houthi-controlled areas. This treated a major humanitarian Houthi crisis. On the other hand, the Houthis didn’t implement any of the truce items, whether those related to the prisoners, opening the Taiz crossings and the other basic roads between the governorates and paying the salaries of the employees, including the fighters from the crude oil and gas revenues in the PLC areas. 

The UN Special Envoy to Yemen “Hans Grundberg” expressed his sorrow for not reaching a deal to prolong the truce. He praised the position of the Yemeni government for its positive treatment with his proposal. [1] Moreover, the British government via its spokeswoman "Rosie Dyas" denounced the Houthi refusal to extend the truce adding that this endangers the peace opportunities. [2] This was the same position of the European Union which described the Houthi rejection as “a strategic mistake” and expressed deep frustration due to the inability to reach a deal related to renewing the truce. [3] Despite all of this, the Houthis showed clear stubbornness via their threats to hit oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and UAE. [4] They even carried out drone attacks against three strategic ports in Hadramout and Shabwa within two weeks only, the last of which was targeting the Dhabba oil port east of Mukalla on Nov 21st

The attacks by the Iran-backed religious group came in parallel with other threats of launching a maritime confrontation according to the Head of the Houthi intelligence agency “Abdullah Al-Hakim” who threatened that it could be the strongest battle against the Arab Coalition. He called his group to enhance the military and economic deterrence systems and at all levels. [5] This can reveal that the military and the security threats are still persistent. It is likely that the Houthis have intentions to escalate during the coming period, even though there are pressures regarding undisclosed understandings for reaching pacification. The forces affiliated with the Yemeni government already announced that the Houthis launched from Sanaa an anti-ship missile landed in international waters west of Hodeida. [6]

Generous offer

In a development that stirred wide controversy, Saudi Arabia invited "Mahdi Al-Mashat", Head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, to visit Riyadh. The invitation was delivered by the Saudi delegation which was sent to Sanaa in middle October to discuss numerous topics with the Houthis, top of which is “the salary files”. According to the “Akhbar Newspaper'' which is close to Lebanon's Hezbollah [7], the delegation demonstrated remarkable flexibility and proposed what he described as “funding the solutions” through an initiative entitled “helping brothers in Yemen” in an attempt to prolong the truce. It seems that the Saudis suggested to pay all the salaries of the civil services employees Included in the lists of 2014 with a cost amounting to more than $150 million a month according to senior sources who spoke to “South24 Center.” [8] The Houthi rejection of the Saudi proposal was related to the inclusion of their military and security forces in civil servants' salaries. The UN representative for Saudi Arabia “Abdulaziz Al-Wasel" said that “the group demanded that the Coalition pays the salaries of its fighters using the US dollar and to be transferred to a bank account controlled by the Houthis. [9]

For its part, Oman attempted to facilitate the Saudi-Houthi talks during past weeks. This led to a relative stabilization of the military situation despite the Houthi strikes against the ports. This came during a previous interview with Al-Mashat [10] about the presence of undisclosed understandings with regional parties about the durability of the cease-fire deal. He added that Sanaa gives some countries which he described as “aggressive” to reconsider its aggression following their realization that they are the losers according to him. The direct contact with the Houthis by the Saudis and Omanis came independently from the mediation of the UN Envoy “Hans Grundberg”. This apparently disturbed the UN organization. This was clear during Grundberg’s UNSC latest speech when he strengthened that reaching a sustainable solution won’t be possible without a comprehensive settlement for the dispute. [11]

Currently, Saudi Arabia may see that the best approach is to calm down the situation by presenting possible offers to the Houthis which can be understood on the surface as being submission from the kingdom. However, from another perspective, this may seem as being the last solution delivered by Riyadh to the Houthis before they close all doors and justifications in the peace file as usual. The Houthis want to prove that they are not only capable of maintaining military and security gains and developing their arm smuggling systems from Iran but to take salaries from the oil and gas revenues which are controlled by the Yemeni government. This is in addition to reformulating the negotiations according to their terms only. 

Saudi Arabia guarantees for paying the salaries of the employees in the Houthi-controlled areas may represent a humanitarian victory for Saudi Arabia. Such a popular move will be successful if the Saudi decides, even if this is unlikely, to return to the military confrontations towards Sanaa. 

Some sources who spoke to “South24 Center” believe that the Saudi move came with an aim to prolong the truce at any cost. This is in light of the PLC’s rejection of the new Houthi terms which are opposed by parties within the PLC such as the STC according to the South Yemen people who suffer from a long-term salary crisis. 

Away from the PLC

It is clear that the latest talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis were carried out without consulting the PLC in an unexpected deal that surprised the political parties inside the council.

PLC Chairman Rashad Al-Alimi is one of the closest figures to Riyadh. The latter attempted to distinctively present it in most international events and foreign participations. It may seek to prepare Al-Alimi for a bigger role, especially that he does not have a military weight on the ground in comparison with other members. Riyadh believes that re-creating “the legitimacy” in one figure is easier for it to take decisions related to the Yemeni affairs. 

It is important to say that since the structural changes of the Yemeni presidency, many parties including Yemeni research centers and political parties such as the Islah party attempted to belittle the eligibility of Rashad Al-Alimi as a president and tried to portray him as a second man after the PLC member and the STC President Aidrous Al-Zoubaidi. Certainly, this language was not in vain but it succeeded to affect the PLC’s consensus and may increase the gap among its members in the near future. The same language previously succeeded in creating sensitivity between Saudi Arabia and the UAE within the Coalition for some time in the field of the Yemeni war. This reduced the mutual cooperation opportunities between them and allowed the “Muslim Brotherhood” camp to control the military decision in several Northern governorates. This produced failure and military retreat which enhanced the Houthi control and influence.

Realistically, the PLC mission will end as long as engaging in a political settlement with the Houthis. This was included in the transferring power statement. The mandate of the PLC will end in accordance with a comprehensive political solution and the establishment of peace or by holding public elections according to the new constitution. [12] The phrase “the elections are options of war instead of the peace” means that the public elections can’t be conducted across the republic without liberating the areas under the Houthi control. 

Possible scenarios

Based upon the previous data, there are apparently limited options in front of the regional or local parties in Yemen. These include a scenario towards a new truce with the Houthi terms or resorting to the military option in light of the escalation of their attacks against the civilian and oil facilities. A letter of condemnation issued by the Saudi Foreign Ministry and the call by its UN Representative to designate the Houthis as a “terrorist organization” indicate that the outcome of the Saudi-Houthi talks is not guaranteed and that Riyadh may resort to other options. 

Actually, the Houthi continuous rejection of any initiatives that treat the lingering humanitarian crisis will make them appear as obstructionists. This stance may be exploited by Saudi Arabia to relieve itself of embarrassment in case it decides along with other Coalition states to launch a comprehensive military war. This was obvious in a previous statement by the Yemeni Defense Minister Mohsen Al-Daari that in case of the collapse of the UN truce, they will have alternative and untraditional plans. [13] It is understood that the coming goals will be secret and not clear for their rivals. However, the policies of Saudi Arabia or the doubtless optimism about its incoming moves in light of its endeavors to secure its airspace from any attacks that threaten the global energy sources. 

Regardless of the outcome, the current mutual dialogue style between the Saudis and the Houthis independently from other Yemeni parties including the Yemenis will likely destabilize the trust between Saudi Arabia and the PLC parties. This is even  these talks are emanating from the surrounding global circumstances such as the energy crisis and the Qatar 2022 World Cup. 

Accordingly, the Houthi intransigence towards the truce and their escalatory measures that target ships and ports would drag the state towards a more dangerous scenario, especially this contradicts the UN-led peace efforts. These concerns were expressed by international parties during a special UNSC on Tuesday. [14] It warned against dragging the states again into the conflict. Nonetheless, the possible scenarios are still open for all possibilities. All of them are related to the interim visions of the Saudis and the Houthis for the crisis as well as the other Yemeni parties which are so far absent. 

Farida Ahmed 

Executive Director of South24

Saudi ArabiaHouthisTalksPLCYemenOil ports