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Politics & Diplomacy Saudi-Houthi Talks Move Forward

After weeks of little movement, the bilateral Saudi-Houthi talks appear to be headed toward agreement on a comprehensive ceasefire, though resolution of longstanding issues remains elusive. At month’s end, Saudi Arabia organized a meeting in Riyadh, framed officially as Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) President Rashad Al-Alimi summoning the leading figures of his government. After the Saudis met individually with each PLC member to discuss the recent talks in Oman, they reportedly agreed in principle to an initiative presented by Saudi Ambassador Mohammed al-Jaber. The proposal to the Houthis described a three-stage process for PLC-Houthi talks, to take place over two years. During the first six months, confidence-building measures would be taken, including the payment of salaries to civil servants to include security and military personnel in Houthi-held areas, the reopening of roads, and the expansion of flights from Sana’a airport, followed by three months of preparations ahead of final status talks over a transition period. The issue of public sector payments and the reopening of roads have remained unresolved since their inclusion in last year’s truce talks and were the undoing of that agreement last October.

Southern Transitional Council (STC) head Aiderous al-Zubaidi expressed the general sense of unease among PLC members when he left the meeting after an hour, saying the plan was unclear. He insisted 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.” Other STC figures have voiced similar concerns. The Islamist Islah party is reportedly extremely concerned about the talks, particularly after the Saudi-Iran rapprochement announced on March 10. The UAE has refused to engage with Houthi intermediaries. Other senior government officials have said privately that they agreed to the Saudi proposal, but expect the Houthis to reject it.

Houthi demands, as presented in January, are characteristically maximalist, a tactic they have embraced since the truce negotiations as they are repeatedly rewarded with capitulation. They include Saudi support for a comprehensive ceasefire, cessation of Saudi participation in the conflict, the full reopening of Sana’a airport and all Houthi-controlled seaports, including Hudaydah, and payment of all public sector salaries. Details on how the Saudis would accommodate these demands, or implement them as confidence-building measures, have not been forthcoming. The conditions present a number of obstacles beyond a willingness for their implementation. Security clearance for flights from Sana’a will be a thorny issue for some countries, which may see little benefit in acceding. Many international shippers are unlikely to willingly take on the exorbitant insurance fees to resume commercial imports through Hudaydah, and have had numerous shipping containers stolen by the Houthis without recompense. The provision of unpaid public sector salaries has defied agreement over a series of disputes on who should pay and who should be eligible.

Saudi Arabia reportedly remains focused on enticing a Houthi delegation to attend a public event in the Kingdom, preferably led by Supreme Political Council President Mahdi al-Mashat. The Saudis hope to use the occasion to announce an agreed roadmap, bringing in the internationally recognized government. The Houthis contend that every detail must be agreed in advance so that all remains is the choreography of the visit.

Limited talks between the Houthis and the government moved forward on a prisoner swap, announced on March 20 after ten days of negotiations in Switzerland sponsored by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. The sides agreed to free 887 detainees and meet again in May. Houthi officials said on Twitter that they would release 181 detainees in mid-April, including fifteen Saudis and three Sudanese, in exchange for 706 prisoners to be freed by the government. Among the high-profile detainees set to be released are former defense minister Mahmoud al-Subaihi, PLC member Tareq Saleh’s brother Mohammed and his son Affash, and former president Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s brother Nasser Mansour Hadi. Saleh reportedly paid a substantial sum for the inclusion of his family in the deal. Two other high-profile prisoners, leading Islah figure and negotiator Mohammed Qahtan and military commander Faisal Rajab, were not included in the list of detainees to be released. Other releases still hoped to be made include four journalists kidnapped by the Houthis in 2015 and later sentenced to death.

Saudi Arabia and Iran Restore Ties

Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations and reopen their respective embassies in a landmark deal negotiated by China. The two had severed ties after Riyadh executed a Shia cleric in 2016, and protesters subsequently stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The deal could have far-reaching implications – Iran supports the Houthi movement, smuggling weapons in defiance of a UN embargo. This has included increasingly sophisticated drone technology, which the Houthis have used to provide air support to their ground forces and target strategic and economic assets of the government and Saudi-led coalition countries. Iranian involvement may at times have been more direct; there are strong suspicions that a September 2019 attack on Saudi oil facilities was not carried out by the Houthis, as they claimed, and that missiles were fired from elsewhere.

The effects of the rapprochement on the conflict and peace process are not yet clear. Saudi Arabia appears to be rapidly trying to end its involvement in Yemen, evidenced by its ongoing bilateral talks with the Houthi movement. Its broader aim seems to be winding up its involvement in a series of controversial and largely disastrous military ventures and regional spats in search of the stability necessary for greater foreign investment. The deal with Iran may best be conceptualized as part of a parallel, complementary process rather than a necessary precursor to peace, though it may yet emerge as a driver of negotiations. Restoring relations could remove some of the Houthis’ diplomatic and military leverage – Iran has reportedly agreed to stop weapons shipments – but the group has substantial capabilities of its own. The Houthis have been at a technological disadvantage throughout the conflict, but this has done little to mitigate their battlefield successes.

The deal has brought dissonance as well as fanfare: no sooner had Iran’s UN mission suggested that the agreement would “help start a national dialogue, and form an inclusive national government in Yemen,” than a Houthi spokesperson affirmed the group’s independence, and stated that the agreement would have no impact whatsoever. It is unclear how much leverage the Iranians have over the Houthi movement or to what extent it could be coerced. It is likewise uncertain how far the Saudis would be willing to accommodate the Houthis beyond serving their own interests in disengagement.

Saudi Arabia Reasserts Power in the South

Political machinations in Wadi Hadramawt continued in March, as the governorate has become a focal point in the growing rift between Saudi Arabia and the UAE and their respective Yemeni allies. On March 4, it was reported that the Chief of Staff of the Islah-affiliated 1st Military Region, Amer Abdullah bin Hatiyan, submitted his resignation, citing security and administrative imbalance and an inability to form his own brigade. Hatiyan’s complaints refer to Islah’s long-standing influence among 1st Military Region forces. Bin Hatiyan was appointed last December as a concession to the STC and its Emirati backers, who have been agitating for the removal of Islah-affiliated forces in Wadi Hadramawt since seizing control of Shabwa in August. But Saudi Arabia has reportedly warned the STC not to escalate its involvement in the region — under threat of direct military action. The Kingdom views the governorate as a vital national security interest due to their long, shared border.

Saudi Arabia has moved to shore up the positions of its allies elsewhere, presumably with an eye towards entrenching their southern partners ahead of final status talks. As its ties with the STC deteriorate, it has drawn closer to the Islah party, whose political fortunes had appeared to be waning. A Saudi delegation met with Islah-affiliated commanders who were expelled from Shabwa and affirmed its support, and the Saudis are rumored to be providing them arms in preparation for a return to the governorate. This could ease pressure on Hadramawt and interrupt STC attempts to gain control of Seyoun. A Saudi contingent on the Socotra archipelago has also recently relocated to a base near the island’s airport. Most consequentially, however, the Kingdom is bankrolling the Nation’s Shield Forces, under the direct control of President Al-Alimi, which have taken up positions in Yemen’s southwest.

The STC Pushes Back

The STC has responded by seeking broader support. President Aiderous al-Zubaidi made a visit to Moscow on March 18 after an official invitation from Russia. The party presented the trip as drawing on former South Yemen’s close ties with the Soviet Union, but little came of the visit, which may have been orchestrated by the Saudis to placate the group. Russia is unlikely to willfully antagonize an important OPEC partner during its economic isolation. Saudi ambassador to Yemen Mohammed al-Jaber met in Moscow with Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov in late February, and Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan discussed the situation in Yemen during his own trip to Moscow in mid-March.

Following the trip, Al-Zubaidi returned to Aden, after being based in Abu Dhabi since late last year. Whether this signals the party’s desire to escalate or deescalate its standoff with Saudi-backed forces is not yet clear. The UAE is thought to have prevented Al-Zubaidi from returning to remove the risk of clashes in Aden. Al-Zubaidi stirred reaction on social media for attending an online PLC meeting on March 26 with an array of flags beside him, including one of the former South Yemen. Another senior STC figure sounded a defiant note, stating privately that the group intends to raise the stakes in the coming weeks, and is willing to escalate the confrontation rather than submit to political marginalization. On March 20, the tension was on full display in Abyan, where Prime Minister Maeen Abdelmalek narrowly avoided a confrontation with STC-affiliated soldiers during an official visit to Zinjibar.

Briefed in Riyadh on the Saudi-Houthi talks, Al-Zubaidi voiced skepticism, though he may yet use the trip to try to reset relations with Saudi Arabia. He has declared his intention to reorganize the STC’s internal structures, apparently with the aim of bringing in new faces. This may include elevating Amr al-Beidh, the son of former South Yemen president Ali Salem al-Beidh, who made a high-profile return to Aden for the first time in 29 years, telling Aden TV that he was back for the southern state’s return. Based in Oman, Al-Beidh has acted as Al-Zubaidi’s personal representative and sits on the STC’s presidential council, though he has been judged in some corners as having stayed away for too long. The UAE may also want to boost Al-Beidh as a leading STC figure.

Saleh Visits Taiz

Tareq Saleh, a member of the PLC and head of the UAE-backed National Resistance Forces, visited Taiz city on March 1, suggesting a possible rapprochement with the Islah party. Islah is the dominant security force in the city, and Saleh was photographed shaking hands with top local military leader Abdo Farhan al-Meklafi, also known as Salem. The nephew of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Tareq had not visited Taiz city since 2012. Though the meeting indicated a degree of growing cooperation between the two groups, some of their respective supporters may be less keen. Forces loyal to an Islah commander stormed the local office of the Political Bureau of the National Resistance Forces just days after Saleh’s departure, and his Emirati backers remain committed to actively marginalizing the Islamist group, most notably in Shabwa and Hadramawt.

Saleh reportedly has ambitions beyond his stronghold on the Red Sea Coast, where his forces help secure the Bab al-Mandab Strait on behalf of the UAE. In a speech ahead of his trip, he voiced skepticism about the progress and potential of ongoing Saudi-Houthi talks. Saleh may seek a new role through the revival of the once-dominant General Peoples’ Congress party, but its divided membership exemplifies the challenge of forging allies and supporters out of former military rivals. The recent opening of an airport in Al-Makha has strengthened his hand and the reach of his forces, who opened a new Political Bureau office in exile for Houthi-controlled Ibb governorate on March 20.

On March 25, Taiz Governor Nabil Shamsan, Minister of Defense Mohsen al-Daeri, and Chief of Staff Saghir bin Aziz survived two separate attacks on their respective convoys following a visit with Saleh at his base in the coastal city of Al-Makha (see, Military & Security). The government has accused the Houthis of carrying out the attacks, which seems probable given their precision. However, concern over a potential political realignment in the governorate has stoked fear within elements of Islah and the STC. Saleh, Shamsan, and Islah leaders have lately sought closer ties, and there were recent protests against governor Shamsan after he released men accused of working for Houthi forces. PLC President Rashad al-Alimi would reportedly be happy to see Shamsan go and is wary of Saleh’s national ambitions.

Rare Protests Against the Houthis in Ibb

Houthi authorities have brought in a new security director for the Al-Mashanah district in the Old City of Ibb after the March 23 funeral of social media activist Hamdi Abdelrazzaq turned into a mass anti-Houthi protest. Images showed hundreds of angry residents accompanying the body of Abdelrazzaq, who died in Houthi custody, through the streets, shouting slogans such as “no Houthis after today” and “there is no god but God, the Houthis are the enemy of God” and removing Houthi flags and placards. Abdelrazzaq posted videos on YouTube under the name Al-Mukahhal, decrying economic suffering and corruption. Many of the mourners put kohl on their eyes in commemoration of Abdelrazzaq, who was known for wearing the cosmetic, and women ululated in the streets to signify their grief. Houthi forces reportedly fired machine guns in an effort to disperse the crowds, and made dozens of arrests after the protest, while military vehicles sat at the entrances to the Old City, whose streets are too narrow for them to enter.

Though Houthi authorities seemed surprised at the outpouring of popular sentiment, they struggled to provide a convincing narrative of Abdelrazzaq’s death, claiming at one point that he was found dead outside the detention site after escaping, and that he had been arrested for insulting an influential Hashemite family. After PLC President Al-Alimi reportedly ordered a monthly payment to Abdelrazzaq’s family, high-ranking Houthi official Mohammed Ali al-Houthi said on Twitter that prosecutors had set up a committee to investigate. The surprise protests reflect the widespread discontent that occasionally flares up in Houthi-controlled territories, but also a particular problem in Ibb, which has a tradition of political activism.

The new director, Saleem al-Quhaif, was previously head of the Al-Qafr district, where he had a reputation for toughness. The Houthis have also deployed preventative security intelligence agents and masked gunmen from the Ministry of Interior’s Rapid Intervention Forces to the governorate. The latter, which Houthi authorities claim are part of a “traffic control unit,” are typically deployed to contain emergency situations and popular unrest. Houthi authorities are also trying to win over neighborhood leaders (auqal) by more than doubling cooking gas rations and handing out food baskets. Auqal play an important role in mediating local disputes, but under the Houthis they have also taken on roles such as distributing aid to families, overseeing conscription, and ensuring attendance at indoctrination programs.

Under Houthi rule, tension has often risen during Ramadan because of extra taxes. Officials have also tried to limit participation in the Ramadan evening prayers known as Tarawih by imposing restrictions on the volume of loudspeakers, prompting imams and worshippers to perform the prayers inside their homes. The Houthis view the prayers as a Sunni practice that has spread among the Zaidi population. In Sana’a, Houthi gunmen stormed and shut down a number of mosques to disrupt Tarawih prayers, in part to direct attention toward Abdelmalek al-Houthi’s Ramadan lectures, which are broadcast nightly around the same time on TV screens installed in mosques and other communal areas.

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Egypt Imposes New Entry Rules for Yemenis

Egypt has imposed additional visa restrictions on Yemeni travelers, prompting public criticism of Yemeni Foreign Minister Ahmed bin Mubarak. The new rules require Yemenis traveling to the country for medical treatment to acquire a report from an Egyptian hospital, which must be certified by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry and others to acquire security approval. The duration of a visitor’s visa has been reduced from six to three months and residency permits from one year to six months. Previously, most Yemenis seeking to travel to Egypt would arrange a report from a Yemeni hospital via their travel agent or Yemenia Airways – this was the easiest way to visit, whether or not they had a medical condition. Passengers on an April 1 Yemenia flight to Cairo were refused entry on arrival, which the airline said was because the revised Egyptian rules were announced after the flight took off.