Saudi officials visit Yemen’s capital for talks with rebels

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Cairo (AP) — Saudi officials were in Yemen’s capital Sunday for talks with the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, as part of international efforts to find a settlement to Yemen’s nine-year conflict, officials said.

Saudi Arabia’s delegation, chaired by the kingdom’s ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed bin Saeed Al-Jaber, met with Mahdi al-Mashat, head of the Houthi’s supreme political council, which runs rebel-held areas in Yemen, according to the Houthi-run SABA news agency.

An Omani delegation, which arrived in Sanaa on Saturday, joined the talks, the agency reported. It said al-Mashat hailed Oman’s efforts to bridge the gap between different sides in the war to achieve peace in Yemen. SABA did not give further details.

Mohammed al-Bukaiti, a Houthi leader, said earlier on Twitter that Saudi and Omani officials would discuss “ways to achieve a comprehensive and lasting peace in the region.”

He said achieving an honorable peace between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia would be “a triumph for both parties,” and urged all sides to take steps to “preserve a peaceful atmosphere and prepare to turn the page of the past.”

There was no immediate comment from Saudi Arabia on the trip, the second of its kind in 2023, according to a Saudi official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to brief reporters.

In comments to The Associated Press, Hans Grundberg, the U.N. envoy for Yemen, described the ongoing efforts, including the Saudi and Omani talks in Sanaa, as “the closest Yemen has been to real progress towards lasting peace” since the war began.

“This is a moment to be seized and built on and a real opportunity to start an inclusive political process under U.N. auspices to sustainably end the conflict,” he said.

The talks in Sanaa are part of international efforts led by Oman to settle Yemen’s conflict, which began in 2014. That’s when the Houthis seized Sanaa and much of the country’s north, ousting the internationally recognized government that fled to the south and then into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The Houthi move prompted a Saudi-led coalition to intervene months later in a bid to restore the internationally recognized government to power. The conflict has in recent years turned into a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Saudi Arabia and the Houthis reached a draft deal last month to revive a cease-fire that expired in October. The deal is meant to usher in a return to Yemeni political talks, according to Saudi and Yemeni officials.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss closed-door negotiations.

They said the Saudi-Houthi understandings include a six-month truce with a cessation of all military activities across Yemen. The Houthis have committed to coming to the table with other Yemeni parties to negotiate a political settlement to the conflict, they said. The United Nations is meant to facilitate the political negotiations, they added.

Both parties also agreed to further ease restrictions by the Saudi-led coalition on Sanaa’s airport and the Houthi-controlled Red Sea ports in Hodeida, the officials said. The Houthis would lift their yearslong blockade on Taiz, Yemen’s third largest city which is held by government forces, they said.

The phased roadmap also includes payment for all state employees — including the military — from oil and gas revenues. In return, the rebels agreed to allow exporting oil from government-held areas after a monthslong hiatus because of Houthi attacks on oil facilities, the officials said.

Yemen’s internationally recognized presidential council was briefed on the Saudi-Houthi understandings at a Thursday meeting in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, with Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Kingdom’s defense minister, a Yemeni official said.

The Saudi-backed council, which was appointed a year ago, has given its initial approval to the draft deal, the official said.

Commenting on the Saudi-Houthi talks, Yemeni Foreign Minister Ahmed Awad Bin Mubarak said there were “positive signals” that a cease-fire deal would be announced, along with addressing other humanitarian and economic issues.

“The (regional) circumstances are different,” he told an Egyptian satellite channel Al-Qahera in an interview aired on Friday. “It pushed towards achieving a solution.”

Bin Mubarak, however, said there are “many fundamental issues” that Yemen’s warring sides need to address before reaching a settlement to the conflict.

The Oman-brokered talks have aimed at preventing both sides from resuming full-fledged fighting. The efforts gained momentum in recent weeks after Saudi Arabia reached an agreement with Iran to restore diplomatic ties after a seven-year rift. Iran, the main foreign backer of the Houthis, has said its deal with Saudi Arabia would help end Yemen’s conflict.

Ahmed Nagi, a Yemen expert at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, said the Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement has given a boost to Saudi-Houthi negotiations, and that both sides are close to announcing the cease-fire’s renewal.

However, the second track of the Houthi-Saudi negotiations — a potential roadmap to reach a permanent settlement to the conflict — would be a major challenge when discussed by Yemeni parties, he said.

“Each party has different interpretations and expectations,” he said. “Given the complexities of the situation, it is hard to see progress on this track very soon.”

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