Saudi Arabia has been holding talks with Houthi rebels for the first time in more than two years in a sign Riyadh wants to de-escalate hostilities in Yemen in the wake of last month’s attacks on its oil facilities.
The “back-channel” negotiations began after the Iran-aligned Houthis announced on September 20 that they would cease drone and missile attacks on the kingdom, people briefed on the talks said. A week earlier, the Houthis had claimed to have launched the strikes that hit Saudi Arabia’s biggest crude processing facility and the Khurais oilfield, temporarily knocking out half of oil production in the world’s top oil exporter and underscoring the vulnerability of its energy infrastructure.
The US and Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for the attack. Tehran denied any involvement and backed the Houthi claims that it was in self-defence for Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Yemen war, where it leads an Arab coalition fighting the rebels.
A western diplomat said the missile and drone attacks on the Saudi oil facilities were key to the shift in Riyadh’s position. “If the Yemen war hadn’t existed, Iran wouldn’t have been able to distract away from its responsibility for the attacks,” the diplomat said.
Another factor behind Riyadh’s shift has been the weakening of its coalition after the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia’s main ally, announced in July that it was drawing down its troop presence in Yemen, people familiar with the matter said.
The UAE deployed thousands of soldiers in Yemen and trained local forces, making it the coalition’s most important actor on the ground. In contrast, Saudi ground troops have been mostly concentrated in the kingdom’s border region, while Riyadh has used its air force to bombard Houthi-controlled areas.
The conflict, which morphed into proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has been deadlocked for years and experts have persistently said there is no military solution.
After the Houthis said they would halt missile and drone attacks into the kingdom, Riyadh agreed to halt its bombing raids over four Houthi-held cities, including Sana’a, the capital. The Houthis, meanwhile, have released nearly 300 prisoners, including three Saudis.
These are seen as confidence-building measures, and discussions are going on over other initiatives, such as lifting a coalition blockade on fuel imports to the Houthi-controlled north through Hodeidah port and allowing the rebels to use Sana’a airport. This could begin with so-called mercy flights to allow the sick and wounded to leave for medical treatment. One person briefed on talks said this week the coalition agreed that four tankers waiting off Hodeidah would be able to enter the port. Another person said there had been positive indications on the lifting of the fuel blockade but nothing had been finalised.
“It’s very fragile but I think both sides have an interest in it working,” the diplomat said. “It’s not peace in Yemen, we are possibly talking about end of daily bombardments across the country and missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, while the UN tries to move on with a political agreement.”
The Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 after the Houthis ousted the Yemeni government and seized Sana’a. The conflict has triggered what the UN describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis as it has pushed more than 10m people to the brink of famine. A UN experts panel has said all sides may have committed war crimes and the Saudi-led coalition has drawn widespread international criticism for killing thousands of civilians in bombing raids.
The fuel blockade, which has been in force for several weeks, has exacerbated the situation as it has caused food prices to rise, meaning “tens of thousands of families” can no longer afford to feed themselves, an aid worker said.
The Houthis have fired scores of missiles and drones into the kingdom during the conflict and stepped up their attacks as tensions between the US and Iran escalated in the summer. Washington and Riyadh accuse Tehran of smuggling weapons to the Houthis, including sophisticated drones and missiles used to strike Saudi airports, oil infrastructure and desalination plants.
But experts say the scale of the attack on Saudi oil facilities may have caused a rethink among Houthis about their ties to Iran and the potential repercussions.
“We are now in the last five minutes of the Yemen war,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a Dubai-based political commentator. “There has been a lot of progress in the talks.”
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, told CBS News last month that “we open all initiatives for a political solution in Yemen”.
“We are doing this every day,” he said. “But we try to turn this discussion into an actual implementation on the ground, and the Houthis a few days ago announced a ceasefire, from their side, we consider it a positive step to push for more serious and active political dialogue.”
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