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Politics & Diplomacy Saudi-Houthi Talks Stall

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

April began with a flurry of activity in the ongoing bilateral talks between Riyadh and the armed Houthi movement, including a highly publicized visit by a Saudi-Omani delegation to Sana’a. But the month concluded without a signed agreement and uncertainty over the provisions of a deal. Saudi Arabia appears keen to conclude its disastrous military intervention in Yemen and is attempting to reposition itself as mediator rather than a primary party to the conflict. The Saudis hope to strike an agreement on a comprehensive ceasefire soon, but numerous contentious issues remain unresolved, including the very ones which derailed last year’s truce negotiations. The talks continue, but appear to be in a holding pattern.

At the outset of the month, Riyadh summoned the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) and other leading figures of the internationally recognized government, including Prime Minister Maeen Abdelmalek Saeed, Finance Minister Salem bin Breik, and Central Bank Governor Ahmed Ghalib, reportedly to brief them on the talks and solicit their visions for a final settlement. All PLC members agreed in principle to a proposal put forward by Saudi Ambassador Mohammed al-Jaber, though they likely had little choice in the matter. The deal presented to the Houthis was for a three-stage process for negotiations with the government, which would take place in the two years following the conclusion of the current Saudi-Houthi talks. During the first six months, confidence-building measures would include the payment of back salaries to civil servants, the reopening of roads, and the expansion of flights from Sana’a airport, followed by three months of preparations ahead of final status talks. Notably, the specifics of these measures are precisely what bedeviled efforts to extend the UN-brokered truce last October, and there has been no further information on how they might be resolved.

A Saudi-Omani delegation then traveled to Sana’a, holding a highly publicized meeting on April 9 with the head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, Mahdi al-Mashat. The talks appeared to hit a snag over who the Houthis would sign a deal with: the Yemeni government or Saudi Arabia. Various Houthi media outlets said that a ceasefire agreement should be signed with Riyadh as the leader of the coalition that launched the war in March 2015, and not with the government. Senior Houthi official Mohammed al-Bukhaiti tweeted that Saudi Arabia could only present itself as a mediator after a formal end to military operations and the ending of the blockade. Houthi TV channel Al-Masirah read a statement saying Saudi Arabia should officially declare an end to the war, lift the blockade, withdraw all foreign forces, promise compensation and reconstruction, and pay all public sector salaries from oil and gas revenues. The five-day visit to Sana’a ended without an agreement.

Officials in Riyadh were optimistic that a formal ceasefire could still be rapidly engineered, reportedly hoping for a signing ceremony in Mecca during the final days of Ramadan, but there has been little further progress. Low-level contacts have resumed in Muscat, and the Saudis now aim for a Houthi delegation to visit Riyadh or for another Saudi delegation to head to Sana’a, but the timing of these prospective visits is not clear. Saudi ambassador Mohammed al-Jaber’s political standing has taken a knock from the lack of progress, giving sustenance to those who oppose his strategy for securing a Saudi exit.

The Saudi expectation appears to be that Houthi authorities will ultimately relent if they secure an agreement on Saudi-funded reconstruction and the payment of public sector salaries to civilian and military personnel. Houthi estimates for reconstruction reportedly run to US$30 billion. The government’s leading finance officials have discussed US$1 billion in short-term support, starting with US$100 million to cover public finances over the next three months. But having been proactive and public in its desire for peace, Saudi Arabia has opened itself up to escalating demands from the Houthis. Such maximalist conditions are by now familiar – the Houthis have exacted concessions from their intransigence in negotiations, and their military position affords substantial leverage. But if the talks ultimately fail, Riyadh appears to believe that the international community will now hold the Houthi leadership at fault. In that case, even in a return to open war, Riyadh might avoid some of the opprobrium it has faced in US political circles in recent years.

In an interview with Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat, US Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking revealed some frustration with the talks. He described them as the result of US and UN efforts over the past two years, emphasized that the international community should lead the reconstruction process, and stressed that Yemenis themselves must tackle the sensitive issues. The diplomatic community does still expect the talks to produce some result, and that the UN will eventually take over once an initial agreement is signed.

There are also numerous reservations about the plan from within the PLC, which has been sidelined in the process and left largely in the dark about the status of the talks. Southern Transitional Council (STC) chief Aiderous al-Zubaidi expressed the general sense of unease among members of the council, saying the plan was unclear. He also insisted during a meeting with Saudi officials on the need to discuss the “national issue” in future talks, in reference to the southern question, and said the idea of placing southern resources at the disposal of the Houthis in Sana’a was “unacceptable.” However, he later gave a televised interview to Asharq al-Awsat, in which he praised Saudi proposals and spoke repeatedly, against habit, of the ‘Yemeni people’ rather than ‘southerners.’ Other officials have said privately that they agreed to the Saudi proposal but expected the Houthi side to reject it. The UAE has so far remained silent on the talks, having spurned Houthi overtures.

Prisoners Exchanged

The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) facilitated the release of 973 detainees over four days as part of a prisoner swap agreed in Switzerland in March. On April 14, approximately 250 Houthi fighters arrived in Sana’a, exchanged for around 70 soldiers affiliated with the government, UAE-backed Giants Brigades, and Southern Resistance forces. Among the latter was former Minister of Defense Mahmoud al-Subaihi and Nasser Hadi, the brother of former President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who were flown to the interim capital Aden. On April 15, the Houthis released 16 Saudi and three Sudanese soldiers, as well as the son and brother of PLC member and commander of the National Resistance forces Tareq Saleh. They were flown to Riyadh, while 350 Houthi-affiliated prisoners arrived in Sana’a on separate flights from Abha, Saudi Arabia, and the port city of Al-Makha. On April 16, around 105 pro-Houthi prisoners were flown from Marib to Sana’a in exchange for roughly 90 pro-government prisoners, including the son and three other relatives of former Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and four Yemeni journalists who had been detained for eight years and sentenced to death by Houthi authorities. On April 17, 104 Houthi prisoners were flown from Abha to Sana’a and Aden in a unilateral release by Saudi authorities.

In an interview given shortly after he landed in Marib on April 16, freed journalist Tawfiq al-Mansouri accused the head of the Houthi’s National Committee for Prisoner Affairs, Abdelqader al-Murtada, of the systematic torture of detainees and extortion of their families. The journalists were released in exchange for Samira Marish, who government authorities accuse of leading a cell in Al-Jawf that was responsible for planting roadside bombs and assassinating senior army commanders in 2017.

The exchanges could have substantial political ramifications. Former president Hadi chose the release of his brother and the month of Ramadan to hold a gathering of PLC members, marking his first foray into public life since he stepped down last year. The April 14 meeting brought together the members of the PLC, who were in Riyadh to be briefed on the ongoing Saudi-Houthi talks. Hadi has reportedly been advised by PLC member Abdullah al-Alimi, his former office director, to try and persuade Saudi authorities to let him travel to the United States for medical treatment. Riyadh is wary of Hadi making statements from abroad that could complicate its efforts to end the conflict, including criticism of the Saudi decision to go to war, its conduct during the conflict, or his own removal from power last year.

STC attempts to win over former defense minister Mahmoud al-Subaihi, one of the highest-profile prisoners released by the Houthis, appear to have failed. Though he fought in the southern army during the 1994 war, Al-Subaihi went on to serve as a national figure, garnering a reputation for integrity, and could be a powerful player if he chooses to return to politics. He held a phone call with PLC chief Rashad al-Alimi after returning to his village, and met with STC chief Aiderous Al-Zubaidi on April 29 in Aden after days of argument over protocol. The STC wanted to choreograph the event for propaganda purposes, but Al-Subaihi insisted he meet Al-Zubaidi in his capacity as a PLC member, without secessionist symbols appearing in videos and photos; one report said he even tried to press Al-Zubaidi on his vision for a unified federal Yemen. Al-Subaihi is from Al-Subaiha tribal region of Lahj governorate, where the STC has had difficulty making political inroads.

After initially declining to include military commander Faisal Rajab in the Red Cross-organized prisoner exchanges, Houthi authorities released him on April 30 in an apparent attempt to curry favor with tribes in his home governorate of Abyan. Houthi media said Abdelmalek al-Houthi ordered his release out of appreciation for a tribal delegation that visited Sana’a on April 27 to request it, after the government neglected to include his name on prisoner lists. The government countered that the Houthis had staged the situation for public effect. Senior Houthi spokesman Mohammed al-Bukhaiti tweeted a video of Rajab’s welcome in Dhamar governorate, from where he was flown to Abyan. Houthi authorities appear to be capitalizing on the bad relations between Abyan tribes and the STC to win a form of de facto recognition and legitimacy. The tribal delegation from Abyan met northern tribal leaders during their trip to Sana’a, comparing stability in the capital favorably to the situation in the south. Sheikh Al-Khidr Suleiman al-Zamki asserted “…we are able to solve problems by ourselves without any external interference,” and the visit could lead to the opening of roads between Sana’a and Abyan via Al-Bayda, which is under Houthi control. More broadly, the Abyan tribes’ outreach could augur a new stage of separate deals that parties make with the Houthi movement – especially if the Saudi-Houthi talks drag on without result.

The releases also included Samira Marish, who was accused of carrying out IED attacks against the Saudi-led coalition in Al-Jawf. Government officials say Marish led a cell of women after her husband was killed fighting for the Houthis. Marish was exchanged for the four journalists and given a hero’s welcome in Sana’a. Her importance to the Houthis stems from her background in a poor social class known as the Muhammasheen, “the marginalized,” rather than the Hashemite class who enjoy privileges according to Houthi Zaydi ideology. Her return was an opportunity for Houthi authorities to convey to the public that they take care of their own, and to answer critics of their policies toward women – though they may also have wanted her back for fear that she could provide important information to her Islah-affiliated captors in Marib. Marish later appeared at public events where she was hailed as an example of the “wronged Yemeni woman.”

The Islah party was clearly a major beneficiary of the first round of releases. Most of those released were residents of Marib governorate – including family members of former vice president Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who were released in return for members of the Marib Hashemite Al-Ameer family. Tareq Saleh’s negotiator, on the other hand, focused on his family members, while Salafi groups had no representative at all. Frustrated families of detainees in Taiz and Ibb must now wait for future prisoner swaps, leading to a reported complaint by Taiz Governor Nabil Shamsan.

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Al-Bahsani steps away from PLC

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Houthis move to ease Ramadan tensions

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