Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Is Saudi Arabia on the Verge of Striking a Deal with Yemen’s Houthi Rebels?

A billboard bearing portraits of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman (top-R), his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (bottom-R), The United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan (top-L), and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, who is also deputy supreme commander of the Emirati armed forces, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, on the main road in the port city of Aden overlooking the Gulf of Aden. Photo: Saleh Al-OBEIDI / AFP
The bloody five-year conflict in Yemen is seemingly changing course in the final months of 2019 as Saudi Arabia, the leading force in the international coalition waging war against the Houthis, is apparently moving closer to accepting a deal with the Iran-aligned rebels, who have controlled the capital Sanaa since September 2014.

In an attempt to unite its feuding allies in Yemen, the Saudis brokered an agreement between the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was forced to flee Sanaa in January 2015, and the United Arab Emirates-backed southern separatists of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which has controlled the port city of Aden since January 2018.

The agreement signed in the Saudi capital Riyadh on 5 November stipulated the formation of a new cabinet of 24 ministers, with 50 percent of the portfolios held by STC and other southern movements, the inclusion of STC negations to end the war, the placement of all military forces under the Defence Ministry and the security forces under the Interior Ministry, and the return of forces deployed after August 2019 to their original positions. According to the agreement, all Yemeni forces are to leave Aden province within 30 days, after which Saudi forces will be in charge of security there.

The signing of the agreement was attended by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, signifying the importance of the issue for the two countries heavily involved in the conflict.

No surprises

The failure of the two parties to stick to 5 December 2019 as the deadline to form the power-sharing administration and withdraw forces from Aden was not a surprise to most Yemenis, who have become used to such broken promises.

“The Riyadh Agreement erected a whole set of deadlines that, for starters, rely on very different Yemeni parties being wholly sincere in wanting and being able to share power in Aden,” Neil Patrick, a London-based Middle East analyst, told AFP.

“It’s hugely ambitious just to hope to get a power-sharing deal to meaningfully hold up in Aden,” he continued. “But to see this as a basis for the sharing of power throughout the south and for then taking on the Houthis in the north is possibly not even that serious.”

Meanwhile, it is becoming apparent that the Saudis are excessively burdened by the war in Yemen, especially in the aftermath of the devastating drone attack on major Saudi oil facilities in September. The Houthis claimed the attack, but most commentators believe Iran actually carried it out.

The UAE, for its part, although it is still strongly supporting the STC (Southern Transitional Council) in Aden, had already decided to gradually withdrew its troops. The last Emirati troops are said to have left Yemen in July 2019, leaving Saudi Arabia with limited choices to continue the war.

The Saudis are now clearly considering other ways forward. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in a press conference in early December that all Yemenis, including the Houthis, could have a role in the future of the country, and added that there could be a settlement, which would precede a solution to the ongoing conflict. “There is a possibility to calm down the situation that will be followed by a settlement in Yemen,” he said.

Even before that, the Saudis were not discreet about their indirect contact with Houthis in Oman, which has, unlike the other Gulf states, taken a neutral position regarding the conflict and is believed to be mediating overt and covert talks between the warring parties.

According to the Omani Minister of Foreign Affairs Yousuf bin Alawi, “Regarding the situation in Yemen, all parties agree that it is time to resolve this conflict and end violence and destruction. There is a real opportunity to work on confidence-building measures through settling differences and thinking of the common interest.”

In September, Foreign Policy magazine noted that the Houthis and Saudis have made unusually positive public signals indicating interest in de-escalation, and they have reportedly reopened back-channel discussions. The magazine suggested that a United Nations-brokered cease-fire agreement between Yemeni antagonists, including the Houthis, the Yemeni government, and Emirati-backed southern separatists, among others, could pave the way to end the war.

The pro-Saudi Yemeni commentator Mohamed Ali al-Saggaf went a step further, arguing that Saudi Arabia has maintained excellent historical relations with Yemen’s Zaidis, the Houthis’ religious and social incubator and that it is possible to disengage the Houthis from Iran. “The Houthis, unlike Hezbollah of Lebanon, are only a minority in Yemen and their relations with Iran are relatively recent,” he said.

However, Abdelnasir al-Mawde, a prominent Yemeni writer, argued that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get the Houthis to agree to a power-sharing arrangement. They are less likely to accept a deal because of their ideological support for the sectarian rule, which leaves no room for co-existence with other political actors./vc_column_text]

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