Screenshot of the seminar

Seminar: The Motives, Agenda and Scenarios of the Saudi-Houthi Talks


Sat, 18-03-2023 01:35 PM, Aden

Aden (South24) 

On Sunday, a virtual seminar, jointly hosted by “South24 Center” and the "Knowledge Center for Studies and Strategic Researches", discussed the ongoing talks between Saudi Arabia and the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.

The seminar was virtually held via the video conference application “Zoom” and lasted for about 90 minutes. It was moderated by journalist Amani Bakhariba with the participation of three political researchers. The session focused on three main axes: the motives of the talks, their agendas and the expected scenarios amid local, regional and international developments. 

The two centers hosted journalist and political researcher Hussam Radman, political activist and media professional Nasr Alesayi and political researcher Hisham Alkaff who also the executive director of "Knowledge Center". 

Talks' motives

Researcher Radman believes that the Saudi policies have experienced transformations over the past period regarding regional files, particularly in the year 2022. He said: “2022 was the year of strategic and deep changes in the KSA’s foreign policy at more than one level”.

He added: “Saudi Arabia began to explicitly lean towards openness to the east more than to the West. This has affected the Kingdom’s regional policy. Riyadh resorted to the policy of zero problem with its regional rivals such as Turkey and Iran while increasing the competition with its allies such as UAE and Egypt”.

He went on to say: “Thus, in the face of these changes of the Saudi policy, the Yemeni file has been just a small detail and a headache that has to be alleviated to allow Riyadh achieving its political transformations. This shift in the Yemeni arena is part of KSA’s international policy shifts and the formulation of new local Yemeni balances”. 

Radman indicated that through its talks with the Houthis, Saudi Arabia wants to gain more time to complete its regional policy and to turn into a mediator in the Yemeni crisis rather than being one of its main parties. He added: “It seems that Riyadh has relatively succeeded but we can’t say that it has achieved full success”. 

Political researcher Hisham Alkaff agreed with Hussam Radman regarding the Saudi policy transformations. He said: “The changes in the Yemeni scene is a reflection of the changes in the Saudi political mood. There are new alliances and new results. There is a main question today: Where has the crisis in Yemen reached after all these years?”

He noted that: “the Kingdom’s allies in the Yemeni legitimate government and STC have not been involved or consulted by Riyadh in the talks with the Houthis. These talks in Muscat served as an indicator about the Saudi trend to throw its local cards in Yemen and head towards negotiating with the Houthis in parallel with the establishment of the Nation Shield Forces (NSF) in South Yemen”.

Alkaff believes that the binary Saudi-Houthi talks have not been a result of the latest Iranian-Saudi rapprochement, sponsored by China, which was concluded with reconciliation and an agreement to restore the diplomatic relationships. He pointed out that Riyadh addresses its files separately as part of its political transformations in line with “Vision 2030”. 

He added: “The Saudi policy is based upon pacification and zeroing the problems. Currently, it seeks to assert itself in Wadi Hadramout concurrently with its talks with the Houthis. Saudi Arabia considers the First Military District and the NSF as guarantors of its influence in South Yemen”.

Political activist and media professional Nasr Alesayi said: “What happened between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis are mere talks which have not reached the level of consultations. Riyadh has the right to maintain its national security and borders 8 years after the failure of the Yemeni parties to fight the Houthis and reach Sanaa”.

He mentioned that: “talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis are not new but they are old ones which date back to before 2015. This hotline is ongoing. Riyadh intervened in Yemen to support legitimacy. However, neither Saudi Arabia, the UAE nor any country in the Arab Coalition have committed to liberate Sanaa, a mission which the Yemeni parties failed to achieve despite support”.

He further said: “Saudi Arabia has not abandoned the internationally-recognized government. It is engaged in talks with the Houthis to secure its borders and for pacification. I think that the Houthis will miss this opportunity”.

Alesayi indicated that the Yemeni crisis is a complicated one and that Saudi Arabia has been aware of that. He pointed to the presence of international pressure to calm down the situation in Yemen and that KSA has responded to these talks to prove its desire in making peace. Moreover, Riyadh submitted proposals to install a permanent truce in Yemen”.

Talks' agenda

Regarding the points included in the Saudi-Houthi talks, Alkaff believes that they likely include security and pacification guarantees on the part of the Houthis in return of fulfilling the group’s conditions such as paying salaries, opening the Port of Hodeidah for commercial voyages and the Sanaa Airport for air flights. He indicated that ships have already entered the Port of Hodeidah recently”.

Alesayi believes that the talks between Riyadh and the Houthis are not part of solving the Yemeni crisis but related to other issues including securing the Kingdom’s borders and territories”. He added: “Saudi Minister of Defense Prince Khalid bin Salman clearly said that the internal matters related to the Yemeni file are internal affairs in which Saudi Arabia can’t play a role”. 

He believes that "what has been done by KSA in this phase comes as part of Riyadh’s endeavors to prove to the international community its desire for peace and pacification, especially amid the Western pressure on the Arab Coalition. I think that the Houthis will return to the war even if the current efforts succeed. This would push for establishing an international coalition to counter the Houthis instead of the Arab Coalition”.

In this regard, Radman said: “We can’t do more than speculation regarding the contents of the Saudi-Houthi talks. These talks are wrapped with much ambiguity. The two parties deliberately did that. Furthermore, the Houthis exploited this ambiguity as an attempt to target the relationships between Saudi Arabia and its allied Yemeni parties”.

He added: “The only output of these binary talks is halting the escalation and military activities. Over the past period, there has been no major hostilities in the internal fronts in Yemen. Likewise, the situation on the Saudi-Yemeni borders has also been calm”. 

Radman believes that some of what Saudi offered to the Houthis such as reducing restrictions on the Port of Hodeidah and the Sanaa Airport are part of the Saudi "bribes" and temptation to the group in return for de- escalation commitment and the continuation of talks. He added: "The Houthis want a written binary deal with Riyadh which includes the kingdom's security without touching Yemen's future".

He believes that "Saudi Arabia won't accept that as it would mean handing over Yemen to Iran and the Houthis". Radman pointed to information he obtained that Saudi Arabia submitted a proposal for a "framework agreement" that goes through the known phases of any political solutions including pacification, confidence-building, and the beginning of a political process.

Radman describes the latest Saudi-Iranian agreement to resume their binary relationship as being “a new variant". He added: "There is a new variant in the equation which is the Saudi-Iranian agreement that could lead to more pressure against the Houthis to engage in a more comprehensive negotiation path".

He noted that "the Saudis are apparently betting on Iranian, Chinese and Russian pressure against the Houthis currently", adding that "Riyadh has reached a conviction that East is the one which can pose pressure against the Houthis not the West".

Talks' scenarios

As for the possible scenarios of these talks, Alesayi said: "I think that matters won't go beyond talks or advanced consultations. They won’t reach the level of negotiations as Saudi Arabia only negotiates with countries and won't negotiate with the Houthi militias".

"The Houthi wing linked to Tehran is the one which controls the political and military decisions in Sanaa. However, there are tribal and political forces not linked with Iran that may push towards reaching understandings with Saudi Arabia if they feel that the talks will be in their interest," he added. 

Alesayi indicated that the talks won't include crucial issues such as the people of South Yemen and the internationally-recognized legitimacy adding that these issues are considered "red lines" for many internal and external parties.

Radman pointed out that there are two possible scenarios for these talks: The first one is that the Saudi-Houthi talks will continue without reaching any results along with an increase in verbal escalation while keeping open communication channels. The second scenario is that these talks will result in a form of a truce similar to the former UN-brokered one".

Radman concluded that the Houthis will deal with the truce in the second scenario to make maximum gains along with trying to buy more time. Radman expects that Iran will pressure the Houthis due to its latest rapprochement and the restoration of its relationships with Saudi Arabia.

The full seminar:

South24 Center for News and Studies

South24 CenterSeminarSaudi ArabiaHouthisIranYemen