Yemen’s Houthi rebels will head to Saudi Arabia amid efforts to negotiate a permanent ceasefire to end the long-running war in Yemen, according to the Saudi state news agency, a Houthi official and reports quoting diplomatic and government sources.
The visit, expected on Thursday night, raises hopes of a breakthrough in the quagmire conflict that has left hundreds of thousands dead through direct and indirect causes such as famine.
Saudi Arabia’s state news agency confirmed the visit on Thursday night, and said that the Houthis had been invited to Riyadh for ceasefire talks.
Ali al-Qhoom, a member of the Houthi political council, had earlier said the rebels’ delegation would fly to Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, on an Omani plane. A delegation from Oman, which has played the role of mediator, arrived in Yemen’s Houthi-held capital, Sanaa, on Thursday, according to Yemeni government officials.
“Optimism exists regarding the mediation and the Omani efforts to achieve peace in Yemen,” he posted on social media.
Al-Qhoom said talks will be focused on a full reopening of Houthi-controlled ports and Sanaa airport, payment of wages for public servants from oil revenues, rebuilding efforts, and a timeline for foreign forces to quit Yemen, among others. Sources speaking to the Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity also said the same. The topics are long-standing Houthi demands.
The visit comes five months after Saudi officials held talks in Sanaa and as a UN-brokered ceasefire continues to largely hold despite officially lapsing in October.
“There are preparations for a Houthi delegation to visit Riyadh within the next 72 hours,” a Yemeni government official familiar with the situation told the AFP news agency on condition of anonymity.
A Western diplomat in Yemen confirmed the visit, saying it may take place within the next two days. There was no immediate comment by Saudi officials.
Yemen was plunged into war when the Houthis seized control of Sanaa, in September 2014, prompting a military intervention led by Saudi Arabia the following March in an attempt to restore the country’s recognised government.
The ensuing fighting has forced millions from their homes, causing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises in a country already pummelled by decades of conflict and upheaval.
The six-month ceasefire that expired last October is still mostly holding but moves towards peace have been slow since the Saudi delegation visited Sanaa in April.
Fear among Yemenis despite optimism
The head of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies think tank, Majed al-Madhaji told AFP the Houthis’ visit “is like moving the relationship between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia from the back rooms to the living room”.
By organising talks in Riyadh, both sides are “legitimising this relationship and giving it an additional impetus”, he said.
“On the political level, it is an advanced step to end Saudi Arabia’s direct role in Yemen and for the Houthis to acknowledge its role as a mediator,” in addition to being one of the parties to the conflict.
According to London-based Yemen analyst Baraa Shiban, there has been a clear desire by Saudi officials to end what they feel is a long and exhausting conflict.
But for many Yemenis, the Saudi approach to end the war in Yemen is “a repetition of what the US did with the Taliban [in Afghanistan] – negotiating with one party to end the conflict rather than with all political factions”, said Shiban.
“This is self-defeating in the long run and many Yemenis fear it will end in total collapse,” he explained, adding that while the Saudis offer the Houthis incentives to end the war, they have been putting pressure on the Yemeni government, making it difficult to pay salaries and set budgets.
“In the short term, these talks are in the interest of the Yemeni people, but in the long run, they encourage the Houthis not to engage with the wider Yemeni public.
“This makes an imminent offensive by the Houthis on other Yemeni provinces possible once they feel comfortable that the Saudis have left,” he added.
Attempts at peace
Moves towards peace in Yemen have accelerated since heavyweight regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran announced a surprise rapprochement in a deal brokered by China in March, seven years after they broke off ties.
Iran says it supports the Houthis diplomatically and politically but denies providing them with any military aid, although seizures of alleged Iranian weapons headed to Yemen appear to contradict that claim.
Washington has put pressure on its traditional ally Saudi Arabia to end the war and linked some of its military support to the kingdom ending its involvement in Yemen.
Oman, which borders Yemen, has been trying for years to bridge differences between the warring parties, and more broadly between Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States.