‘Bitter pill to swallow’: Saudis grapple with Yemen peace deal

A peace deal may be close to being clinched, reports say, as Oman seeks direct talks between Houthis and Saudi Arabia.

Fighters loyal to Yemen's Saudi Arabia-backed government man a position near the front line in Marib [AFP]

Oman, long perceived as a neutral party in the Middle East, has spent the past few weeks attempting to get Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s Houthi rebels to the negotiating table.

The aim is ambitious – to end the war in Yemen, or at least Riyadh’s involvement in it, which began in March 2015 in support of the Yemeni government.

If reports are to be believed, the mediators may be close to success, and Saudi Arabia and the Iran-allied Houthis are “thrashing out terms for a peace deal”. Yet, despite Omani attempts, that may be wishful thinking.

“The good news is that there is clearly more focus on direct negotiations with the Houthi leadership in Sanaa,” Peter Salisbury, the International Crisis Group’s senior Yemen analyst, told Al Jazeera.

“The bad news is that this hasn’t yet closed the gap between the Houthis’ and the Saudis’ positions. Until that happens, we won’t see much movement.”

The positions of both sides have moved little since a Saudi offer of a nationwide ceasefire in Yemen was rejected by the Houthis in March.

The Houthis say elements of that offer, such as the reopening of Sanaa’s airport and unhindered access to Hodeidah port, where the majority of Yemen’s food is imported, should be unconditional.

“After that, we will discuss a comprehensive ceasefire which should be a real halt of hostilities, not a fragile truce, and that would include the exit of foreign powers from Yemen to facilitate political negotiations,” Mohammed Abdulsalam, the Houthi spokesman, told Reuters news agency on June 21.

Those terms are difficult for the Saudis to accept, and despite six years of a costly war that have brought little success, Riyadh is unlikely to be willing to abandon Yemen with few guarantees over its own security, and with an ally of its greatest regional adversary, Iran, entrenched on its southern border.

“Until now the Saudis have wanted iron-clad guarantees on border security and Iranian influence in Yemen, and have wanted to have an ally play an influential role in politics going forward,” said Salisbury.

“That position may have moderated a bit, but ending the war with only, say, a deal on the border and nothing else, would be a bitter pill to swallow.”

For their part, the Houthis believe the balance of power has shifted, and they have the upper hand militarily.

The rebel group, which continues to hold the vast majority of Yemen’s heavily populated northern and central highlands, feel they can dictate the terms – and timing – of any peace agreement.

The Houthis are on the front foot militarily on the ground in Yemen, and are continuing their attempts to take Marib, the last key government stronghold in the country’s north.

Their military capabilities are also intensifying with missile and drone attacks on Saudi territory increasing in range, and hitting large Saudi population centres, including Riyadh and Jeddah.

The US recently removed the Houthis from the State Department’s foreign terrorist organisation list and appointed a special envoy to Yemen [File: Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

Push for peace

International efforts to end the fighting in Yemen, and reduce humanitarian suffering for millions of people in what the UN has long-called the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”, have stepped up this year.

The renewed vigour followed the arrival of the new Biden administration in January in the United States. The government immediately indicated the US’s Yemen policy would differ, at least slightly, from that of the Trump administration.

“The war in Yemen must end,” President Joe Biden said in his first notable foreign policy speech in February, while also announcing the US would stop supporting offensive operations in Yemen in support of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition.

The US also quickly removed the Houthis from the State Department’s foreign terrorist organisation list, and appointed a special envoy to Yemen.

While firmly emphasising the US’s continued support for Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni government, the envoy, Tim Lenderking, has also recently called the Houthis “a legitimate actor”.

“My experience from the Houthis is that they have spoken about a commitment toward peace in Yemen and I think there are certainly elements within the leadership that favour that,” Lenderking said last week.

Long-term realities

But the gaping differences between the Houthis and their adversaries, in particular the Yemeni government and other forces arrayed against them, show few signs of disappearing.

And even if the Saudis do withdraw, the war is likely to continue in some capacity on the ground, and possibly escalate further, if a loose anti-Houthi coalition held together by the Saudis falls apart.

The anti-Houthi side believes the rebel group cannot be trusted, and point to past agreements as evidence.

“The experiment that we’ve seen in front of our eyes is Hodeidah,” said Baraa Shiban, a former member of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference, in reference to a deal that ended a coalition push for the largely Houthi-held Red Sea port city in December 2018.

“For Yemenis, this is a terrible model,” Shiban told Al Jazeera. “You have a 6km road, and there have been negotiations for three years just to remove landmines and barricades, and they haven’t been able to do that. If you can’t do that at such a small scale, how are you going to do it on a bigger scale across the country?”

“It’s not realistic or sustainable,” Shiban added. “Maybe something will be signed, but everyone will be waiting with their fingers on the trigger for it to explode again.”

Source: Al Jazeera