Houthi delegation during a meeting with the Saudi Defense Minister in Riyadh, September 19, 2023 (official)

The Limits of the Saudi-Houthi Rapprochement


Thu, 21-09-2023 02:49 PM, Aden

The Houthi's acceptance of Saudi Arabia's invitation means an implicit recognition of the latter as a mediator

Farida Ahmed (South24)

After nine years of the Yemen war, Saudi Arabia hosted a Houthi delegation in Riyadh. The visit last week by a delegation from the Iran-backed group for negotiations is the first such public move since the intervention of the Saudi-led Arab Coalition in Yemen. According to the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), the aim of the invitation was to reach a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire in Yemen as well as achieve a sustainable political solution accepted by all sides to the Yemeni conflict. The visit of the Houthi delegation, accompanied by the mediator ’Oman‘, came five months after Saudi representatives went to Sanaa in April to discuss a sustainable truce and find ways to push forward a political solution. The Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, sponsored by China in March 2023, has lessened the fighting in Yemen and opened communication channels between the two parties.

Ostensibly, the issues taken up during the talks with the Houthis in Riyadh appear to be focused on the humanitarian angle. These include paying the salaries of the employees according to the payrolls of 2014, lifting all restrictions imposed on Sanaa Airport and the Port of Hodeidah, opening some roads, and exchanging war prisoners including abductees and forcibly disappeared persons. However, the Houthis aspire to achieve political, military, and economic gains. According to sources, this includes a permanent ceasefire across Yemen as well as halting air strikes and cross-border attacks. This is in addition to the resumption of oil and gas exports from the Yemeni fields and transferring revenues to a bank in a neutral state, achieving the spending process through a mechanism agreed upon by the parties and unifying the Yemeni Central Bank and moving it temporarily to a neutral country to perform its tasks.

The shift of the Saudi role from a main party in the war that supports the internationally-recognized government to a mediator between the latter and the Houthis will have a big strategic impact on the prospects of the upcoming political process in Yemen. This role has been actually illustrated in Riyadh’s de-escalation with the Houthis since announcing the truce in April 2022. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has reduced its military support on several fronts despite repeated Houthi attacks on areas in South Yemen and Marib. Although it has played a mediation role, Riyadh has expanded its military and political influence inside Yemen with the establishment of the ‘Nation Shield Force’, a military formation directly affiliated with it and nominally led by Rashad Al-Alimi, Chairman of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC). This role conflicts with the Saudi meditation one which aims at ending the conflict.

Moreover, the kingdom is trying to consolidate its military presence in areas outside the Houthi control by establishing Southern entities based on a new demographic structure. For example, in June 2023 Riyadh sponsored the formation of a Hadrami National Council, led by Hadrami figures who have close ties with the kingdom and the traditional Yemeni parties which have permanent disputes with Southerners, including the Islamic Islah Party. This would create divisions in the Southern political arena, despite efforts to amalgamate the Southern factions following the holding of the Southern Consultation and Dialogue Meeting, in Aden in May 2023.

It is important to state that the stance adopted by the international actors who don't encourage using military tools to end the conflict in Yemen has largely pushed Riyadh to search for alternative options. This includes rapprochement with Iran and deepening its ties with China and Russia. This has come after the Biden Administration reduced the American role in the Middle East despite Washington’s persistent attempts to restore its influence in the region. Accordingly, Riyadh has gradually excluded Yemen’s internationally recognized government from the talks with the Houthis in light of the Saudi regional approach. Apparently, the kingdom declined to include any PLC and government representatives in discussions.

Anyway, the Houthi acceptance of the Saudi invitation means an implicit recognition of the latter as a mediator. This recognition itself would lead to subsequent gains for both parties. This would also depend on the measures that are taken from now on. However, things are different for the Yemeni politicians who live in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi with ongoing disagreements between them over the simplest decisions, as well as the form of the future state, and the goals of each party. It seems that Riyadh doesn't currently look at them as part of the race, especially since they agree with and bless all Saudi moves.

Measures not arrangements

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan welcomed the arrival of the Houthi delegation to Riyadh. In a statement, he said: “President Biden, from his first weeks in office, has made de-escalating and ending the war in Yemen one of his top foreign policy priorities. The United States has been proud to lend our diplomatic support to these peace efforts in coordination with the Yemeni parties and the United Nations.” The Yemeni government also hailed the Saudi and Omani efforts to push the Houthi militia to deal seriously with the peace moves. The Southern Transitional Council (STC) stressed its keenness to achieve a comprehensive and sustainable political solution that paves the way for an unconditional dialogue to address all issues, especially the Southerners' cause and put forward a special negotiation framework for South Yemen as a basis to begin the peace efforts. The UAE, while welcoming the Saudi and Omani efforts to establish peace in Yemen, stressed “the importance of supporting all regional and international efforts made to find a sustainable political solution in Yemen, in a way that achieves the aspirations of its people for security, development, and stability.”

These stances reveal that the talks won't necessarily lead to an imminent comprehensive peace agreement. It seems that the aim of these measures is to build mutual trust and to continue the truce. This may ultimately lead to the declaration of the end of the war, a permanent ceasefire - signed by all parties. The issues discussed at the talks are subsidiary matters related basically to the humanitarian aspect. They have nothing to do with a comprehensive solution or the form of the future state. The anti-Houthi political parties welcomed the Saudi initiative probably because they know that the main issues related to political and military arrangements haven't been put on the negotiation table yet. This was confirmed by the meeting between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, PLC Chairman Rashad Al-Alimi, and PLC Vice President Aidrous Al-Zubaidi in New York on September 18, 2023. Blinken called for a permanent ceasefire and to begin a Yemeni comprehensive political process, sponsored by the United Nations. This was confirmed when the Houthi delegation left Riyadh on Tuesday (September 19) and returned to Sanaa without reaching a public agreement, belying the expectations of some quarters.

Saudi Arabia believes that for discussing the measures that were decided upon in Oman over months may not currently need the setting up of a negotiating team. The Houthi Spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam‘ said that the priority of the Riyadh round was to achieve a breakthrough regarding the humanitarian aspect. Significantly, achieving such a breakthrough is unlikely to be met with the agitation that would follow in case of arriving at a comprehensive and final peace solution in Yemen.

The biggest cause of concern for Southerners is that by excluding them from the current understandings with the Houthis it may lead to cutting them off from the final peace process. This is a very sensitive matter for the Southern people and the STC. They look at their participation as a prerogative which they can't give up as part and parcel of the South Issue which they have fought for. The main problem for Southerners regarding the agreements related to humanitarian issues and the ceasefire is using South Yemen's oil revenues to pay the salaries of the Houthi areas, including Houthi fighters. However, another option exists for paying the salaries -- through the resumption of oil exports from the Marib fields controlled by the internationally-recognized government via pipelines extended to the Port of Ras Issa which is under Houthi control. This option has been available after the successful replacement of the dilapidated tanker FSO Safer tank with a new one in August 2023. The FSO Safer, marooned off the port of Hodeidah since 2015, had been a ticking time bomb containing approximately 1.1 million barrels of oil. The two-week-long ship-to-ship operation to pump out the crude oil to a storage vessel was completed on August 11, preventing an environmental disaster.

However, there is an urgent question about who will sell the oil. If the Houthis are allowed to sell it, this would mean that Saudi Arabia and international parties turn a blind eye to the Houthi efforts to present themselves as a legitimate party. This would violate the legal status of the internationally-recognized government. According to reports, the oil revenues would be transferred to a neutral bank under the supervision of the United Nations through which salaries will be paid. Saudi Arabia largely supported the operation to save ’FSO Safer‘ and replace it with another tanker. It allocated $18 million paid in two batches. This saved the Red Sea from an environmental catastrophe. The most important political issue is that this paves the way technically to resume exporting oil from Ras Issa port.

There was another previously-arranged technical issue before the Houthi visit to Riyadh. This was seen in the purchase of two Airbus A320 aircraft by Yemen Airlines in late August. This would likely cover the deficit in the company's fleet in case of a decision to allow more flights from Sanaa to several destinations. Yemen Airlines announced the purchase, which is beyond its financial capabilities, without revealing the identity of the funders. However, Saudi Arabia was the one that funded it, especially since it owns 49% of the company's capital. It seems that Riyadh doesn't want to make a public appearance at the forefront in order not to look like a party that gives more concessions to the Houthis. Earlier, in June 2023, Yemen Airlines operated its first flight from the Houthi-run Sanaa airport to Saudi Arabia carrying Yemeni pilgrims for Hajj, marking the first flight between the two countries in seven years.

The formation of the negotiating delegation 

In an open letter to PLC Members, the Yemeni National Coalition of Political Parties and Forces expressed its concern over the Saudi efforts to push the Houthi militia toward peace. They called for engaging the Yemeni parties in drawing up solutions and not to exclude them from the negotiations. The statement demanded the establishment of a joint negotiation delegation that would represent legitimacy.

On August 30, 2023, STC President and PLC Member Aidrous Al-Zubaidi called for speeding up the establishment of a joint negotiating delegation to take charge of the negotiation process from its very beginning. This he said during his meeting with the UN Envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg in Aden.

According to diplomatic sources who spoke to ’South24 Center‘, despite Riyadh's rejection of the establishment of a joint negotiation delegation representing the Yemeni government, it is important to stress on the need to form such a delegation before any discussions related to local issues are held. This includes the establishment of a special negotiation delegation for Southern issues and to immediately select its representatives. It seems that Riyadh’s main reservations about setting up negotiating teams are related to concerns that this would thwart the entire process. However, an urgent question arises, about whether Saudi Arabia will give concessions to the Houthis at the expense of its allies in the internationally-recognized government, especially if this includes subsequent agreements related to the political settlement.

Amidst this backdrop, the challenge that would face Southerners in the coming period, especially STC which is the most political and militarily influential party in South Yemen, is how to deal with regional partners, namely the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and the local partners, especially in Hadramout, amid the growing impact of polarization and the frittering away of local rapprochement efforts. Reaching a permanent ceasefire without resolving the question of setting up of a negotiating team and its representation quotas would move the conflict to South Yemen among the recognized factions. Each faction will try to expand its influence on the ground to force decisions on the matter of representation, especially amid the regional polarization. This would undoubtedly serve the Houthis and threaten the region ultimately.

Therefore, it is important for all parties, especially the Southern ones, to open communication lines internally and regionally, especially with their Saudi and Emirati partners, and use more smart diplomatic language. The Southern political leaders will have to quickly form a special negotiating delegation representing the Southern issues. This would save South Yemen from turning into a scapegoat for regional swap deals. Moreover, this would maintain the popularity of Southern leaders on the ground, otherwise they would face the danger of becoming irrelevant if they keep giving more concessions or allow themselves to be excluded by others.

Farida Ahmed 

Executive Director of South24 Center for News and Studies

Note: This is a translated version of the original text written in Arabic

Yemeni conflictHouthisRiaydhTehranSaudi ArabiaIran