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In Yemen, Saudi-Houthi talks signal imminent cease-fire, but no peace in sight yet

Saudi Arabia, whose unilateral cease-fire in April 2020 and initiative in March 2021 were rejected by the Houthis, is finally eyeing a negotiable exit from a war it could not win militarily, chiefly due to multiplicity of agendas, mismanagement of war and lack of strategy.
A handout photo released by Yemen's Houthis-run Saba News Agency shows the Omani and Saudi delegations in meeting Houthi officials, on April 09, 2023 in Sana'a, Yemen. A delegation from Saudi Arabia and Omani mediators arrived in Yemen's capital Sana'a on Sunday to negotiate a new truce with the Iran-allied Houthi group, as Riyadh seeks a way out of the war and create peace in Yemen. This important political move comes as Diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict have multiplied since the Yemeni government

Saudi Arabia's high-level delegation visited Sana'a over the weekend for talks with the Houthi rebels, in a first public trip to Yemen's capital since the war intensified in 2015, raising hopes of an imminent permanent cease-fire deal buoyed by a thaw between Tehran and Riyadh. Such de-escalation is a respite for Yemenis but is not equivalent to sustainable peace in the country.

Upon arriving to Sana'a on Sunday, Saudi Ambassador to Yemen Mohammed al-Jaber said the visit would build on Omani efforts to stabilize the truce and the cease-fire. It is also to "explore venues of dialogue between Yemeni components to reach a sustainable, comprehensive political solution in Yemen,” Jaber tweeted on Monday, a day after shaking hands, exchanging smiles and taking memorable pictures with the Houthi Supreme Political Council’s chief Mahdi al-Mashat in Sana’a and others on the coalition’s wanted list.

While Jaber’s visit was not the first to Sana’a this year, the meeting marks a historic first public encounter between enemies to attempt ending the regional layer of war and is an admission of eight years of mismanagement of military operations and peace efforts alike. Neither the Saudi-led coalition defeated the Houthis, nor the Houthis controlled all of Yemen; and the internationally recognized government of Yemen has not yet been restored to Sana’a, where Iran’s role has increased significantly since 2014. Although the perception of loss and victory is largely relative given the complex ground realities in Yemen, Henry Kissinger's formula that “the conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerrilla wins if he does not lose", offers some insight to the current reality of the conflict. 

Significance of the visit

The significance of the Saudi delegation's visit stems from the official abandonment of the initial state goal for Riyadh to restore the order in Sana'a back to the government’s control before the Houthi coup d'etat in 2014 and curb Iranian influence. The Saudi intervention and United Nations Security Council Resolution 2216, based on the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative, was designed to return to that status quo. Particularly, the visit underscores the growing scope of communication and understandings between Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Houthis.

For the Houthis, the move partly offers the rebels the political recognition they seek to achieve, undermines the legitimacy of the ousted Yemeni government, further develops communications channels with Riyadh and emboldens the Houthi negotiating position ahead of comprehensive intra-Yemen peace talks. This outcome was largely unexpected eight years ago, by both the government of Yemen and Saudi Arabia, but particularly for the internationally recognized government and families of the dead across the political divide; the latest move combined with the results of the Arab coalition’s intervention can be perceived as a blowback.

Yazeed al-Jeddawy, research coordinator at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, reflected on the irony of having the internationally recognized Yemeni government based in the Saudi capital, while a Saudi delegation meets its nemesis in Sana'a. In 2019, this Al-Monitor author wrote a piece for the Middle East Institute about the Houthis' demands: “If the STC [Southern Transitional Council] could achieve this much [the Riyadh Agreement] by taking over Aden, the Houthis’ demands will force the ROYG [Republic of Yemen Government] to make huge concessions far above and beyond UNSCR 2216,” directly or indirectly.

Through this move, Saudi Arabia, whose unilateral cease-fire in April 2020 and initiative in March 2021 were rejected by the Houthis, is finally eyeing a negotiable exit from a war it could not win militarily, chiefly due to multiplicity of agendas, mismanagement of war and lack of strategy. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia's partners came to aid in the internationally recognized government — like the royalists in the 1960s — did not win and are, in fact, in the weakest position with limited maneuvering ability.

The government’s Presidential Council comprising an array of actors whose end goals are diverse might be dismayed, and having negotiated with the Houthis in different capacities in the past two decades has serious private doubts on the prospects of peace based on current power imbalances and potential scenarios, according to a high-level official. During the unilateral de-escalation initiatives in 2020-21, Saudi Arabia knew the what but did not know the how, and ever since 2021, it worked on removing obstacles and paving the way for yet a more significant, historic moment: the conclusion of an agreement in Saudi Arabia. The Houthis had repetitively preconditioned talks with Riyadh, lifting of restrictions on airports and ports, and departure of coalition forces to talk with the rest of Yemenis. The current negotiations over "a de-escalation road map" and upgrade in Saudi-Houthi talks, after the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement and based on Omani mediation, addresses Houthi demands and shows strong connection between Saudi-Iranian and Saudi-Houthi talks.

De-escalation agreement is imminent, but sustainable peace?

It is near imminent that a de-escalation road map agreement would be reached within the next weeks if details are well ironed, ideally (for Saudi Arabia) on/around Laylat al-Qadr (April 18), considered the holiest night during the fasting month of Ramadan, and in Mecca, for symbolic reasons of forgiveness, holy blessing and unity. As Jaber said in his tweet of the most recent visit, which triggered Houthi dismay and reaffirmation that Saudi Arabia remains a party to the conflict unless their conditions are met, Riyadh is attempting to replace its conflict party status with a mediation role as it reengineers its formal and informal relations in Yemen in ways seen in 1965 and 1970, when Saudi Arabia brokered talks between the republicans and royalists following the Saudi-Egyptian withdrawal agreement from Yemen.

Riyadh is hoping that the Houthis would reciprocate Jaber’s visit, noting current understandings and concessions, by visiting Saudi Arabia to seal the deal. The previous truce (April-October 2022), which collapsed due to the Houthis’ demand that the government pays salaries for Houthi security and military personnel, encompassed the reopening of Sana’a International Airport, unmonitored cessation of hostilities, reopening of roads in Taiz province and entry of fuel ships into Hodeida. Although the details of the new proposal have not been made public yet, the expanded truce is likely to be a minimum of six months, or cease-fire at best, given that the two-month renewal tenure only allowed the Houthis to leverage extension to secure more gains.

In terms of substance, it is highly likely that terms would include expanded flight destinations from/to the Sana'a airport, consolidated ease and/or removal of import restrictions as seen lately, payment of salaries for all public servants across Yemen and formation of technical committees, including related to unification of monetary policy to pave the way for the reintegration of the Central Bank of Yemen.

Contrary to the April 2022 truce or the 2018 Stockholm Agreement that were not clearly tied to a timeline for comprehensive talks, the de-escalation road map is tied to the hopeful resumption of intra-Yemen peace talks, under the auspices of the UN and with the backing of Oman (and Saudi Arabia), with a transitional period. With Yemen’s living memory of peace negotiations and non-implementation, normalization of the status quo can be expected, with the moving sands of the conflict deep and fluid to move in any direction. Cautious optimism is required, and good faith is key to changing the course of warfare, which has yet to be seen.

To this end, and as far as Yemenis are concerned, the “Saudi military intervention is coming to an end. But the [intra] Yemen war is about to get more intense,” said Nadwa al-Dawsari, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. The Saudi-Houthi breakthrough is a step, but the road to sustainable peace in Yemen still appears complicated.

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