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Politics & Diplomacy Houthis Visit Riyadh as Bilateral Talks Move Forward

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A Houthi delegation arrived in Riyadh for discussions with Omani and Saudi officials on September 14, the first time Houthi representatives have publicly visited the Saudi capital since the war in Yemen began. The bilateral talks now appear to be moving rapidly toward the announcement of an agreement. The Houthi delegation met with Saudi Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman, and talks took place over five days before Houthi officials announced their conclusion and returned to Sana’a. The Saudi government said it is preparing a roadmap to securing peace in Yemen, and head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council Mahdi al-Mashat indicated the group was “pleased” with the discussions. On September 20, officials in Riyadh praised the “positive results” of the negotiations and encouraged Yemeni parties to work together to reach a comprehensive solution.

The delegation was headed by Houthi negotiator Mohammed Abdelsalam, who made dovish comments to Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat, declaring that “peace is our first choice.” He was accompanied by five other senior figures: Hasan al-Kohlani, Abdelmalek al-Ejri, Yahya al-Razami, deputy foreign minister Hussein al-Ezzi, and Jalal al-Ruwaishan, who belongs to the General People’s Congress, the Houthis’ nominal ally in government. Saudi Defense Minister Khaled bin Salman tweeted photos of the meetings from his official X account (formerly Twitter), accompanied by text presenting Saudi Arabia as it wishes to be seen: as a mediator in the conflict. “I affirmed during my meeting with the delegation that the kingdom stands with Yemen and its people and its desire for the Yemeni parties to sit around the negotiating table to achieve a comprehensive and permanent peace in Yemen under UN auspices,” he wrote. “We hope serious talks will bring results and the Yemeni parties can come together and agree.”

The visit was widely praised as a sign of progress. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan issued a statement on September 15 welcoming the delegation’s arrival in Riyadh, the UAE foreign ministry issued a statement praising Saudi Arabia and Oman for their efforts to create a lasting political settlement, and Qatar commended Saudi Arabia for issuing its invitation to “a Yemeni delegation” to complete earlier talks held in Sana’a. But despite this apparent pressure from regional players, sources say the atmosphere in Riyadh was tense. The dynamics are the same as they have been for months – barely repressed fury among Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) members that they have no say in talks on the country’s future.

The PLC remains almost entirely excluded from the talks – they are provided with details of their progress, but not written drafts. The council has reportedly agreed on a declaration of principles governing their approach to the current talks and planned future negotiations with the Houthis. They recently passed comments to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including a request that foreign forces be allowed to remain in Yemen until later in the peace process. But the Saudis have delivered a harsh message. Convening the PLC in Riyadh for a series of meetings with the Saudi and Emirati diplomats, Ambassador to Yemen Mohammed al-Jaber told the council that as far as Riyadh is concerned, the war is over and a deal is close to being done. Saudi Arabia’s hosting of the 2034 World Cup, after it became the sole bidder at the October 31 deadline, underscores its desire for peace on its southern border, so it can focus on economic development, tourism, and global branding. This was further underlined by the recent announcement of another mega tourism project, this time in Abha, in the kingdom’s southwest.

Predictably, objections have been voiced most strongly by the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC). Its head, Aiderous al-Zubaidi, warned against any deal made in Riyadh after the Houthis’ visit, and told The Guardian that southerners had been “sidelined.” Al-Zubaidi has further objected to the fait accompli presented to the council by Al-Jaber, saying that the south wouldn’t accept it, that it wants its own administration with its own sources of revenue, and that it would consider such a deal as concerning only Saudi Arabia and the north. PLC sources say Al-Jaber responded that the STC is not the south’s sole representative, during a sharp exchange between the two. Al-Zubaidi is still pushing for a separate track of negotiations regarding the future of the south, but has been told by the Saudis that this is beyond the scope of the current talks and will have to wait.

The bilateral negotiations have marched on despite a rare border attack by the Houthis and renewed international attention on the group following its attempted strikes against Israel. A Houthi drone attack on the Yemeni-Saudi border on September 25 killed five Bahraini soldiers, arousing speculation over its intent: in some quarters it was interpreted as reflecting Iranian unease over the talks and their apparently rapid progress – some reports say Iran wants the Houthis to extract clearer recognition of their authority in northern Yemen. Another possibility is that the attack was the work of hardliners within senior Houthi ranks, namely Abdelkarim al-Houthi and Yahya al-Houthi. Abdelkarim, the uncle of supreme Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi, is the former chairman of the executive office of the group and current interior minister; Yahya, Abdelmalek’s older brother, serves as education minister. Saudi Arabia’s willingness to continue talks may reflect an understanding that these are the internal dynamics they are dealing with. Saudi officials have reportedly privately expressed frustration about the incident. On October 24, at least four Saudi soldiers were killed in another border clash between Saudi Arabia’s Jazan district and Yemen’s Hajjah governorate.

Developments in Gaza initially precipitated a brief pause in the Saudi-Houthi talks, but both sides now appear intent on pressing on, and an agreement has reportedly been reached on a number of outstanding items. The outlines of a prospective deal are the same as those leaked to the media earlier this year: a six-month period during which Saudi Arabia pays public sector salaries and oil and gas revenues are deposited in an account controlled by a special committee; then another six months to prepare the ground for a two-year process of talks between the government, in the form of the PLC, and the Houthis. The Houthis have now reportedly consented to allow customs tax from the ports of Hudaydah to be “included in revenues,” possibly meaning they would be part of a contribution to the nationwide payment of public sector salaries, as stipulated in the 2018 Stockholm agreement. But such news should be treated with some skepticism, as the original provision foundered due to disputes over the intended meaning of the text. The Saudis have reportedly even consented to pay the salaries for a full year, provided that this is not stipulated anywhere in writing. But core issues remain unresolved, including a long-running dispute over whether the Saudis can formally cast themselves as a mediator to the conflict. Both sides want to emerge from the negotiations in the best possible light, and coordinating this façade is proving difficult.

Houthis Fire on Israel as Regional Tensions Soar

The Houthis have claimed responsibility for several recent missile and drone operations targeting Israel. Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea gave a televised speech on October 31, declaring that attacks would persist as long as Israeli aggression in Gaza continued. The strikes raise the possibility of the Biden administration re-designating the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, after they were removed from the list in February 2021, although only a small group of congressional republicans are publicly pushing for a re-designation. Houthi caretaker Prime Minister Abdelaziz bin Habtour, who was sacked by leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi in late September, made a statement to the media describing the missiles as “belonging to the Yemeni government.”

Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi had vowed to attack Israel in an October 10 speech should the US get involved. “We will not hesitate to do everything we can […] and we are in complete coordination with the Axis of Resistance to do everything we can,” he said, referring to the military alignment of Tehran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other Iranian-backed groups. “If the US directly intervenes, we are ready to participate with missile strikes, drones, and other military options.” Abdelmalek also lamented the groups’ geographical distance from the conflict: “If only we were next to Palestine, then we would have sent hundreds of thousands of our fighters to defend it,” he said, echoing a rhetorical flourish often used by his predecessor in Sana’a, President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdelsalam took to X to attack the UAE – backers of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and other military forces on the government side – for a public statement condemning Hamas for attacks against Israeli civilians. “The UAE should have stayed quiet rather than reveal its ugly face by stabbing the Palestinian resistance in the back,” he wrote on October 9. Omani and Iranian sources have said the Houthis are prepared to be as much of a thorn in the Israelis’ side as they can be.

The attempted strikes have been stymied by air defense systems. But Houthi missiles and drones have been effective in Yemen, and the group’s strategy in the event of a wider regional conflagration could be to harass Red Sea shipping, especially American vessels or those of other nations perceived as supporters of Israel. The Houthis have fired missiles in the Red Sea before, as recently as last March, and targeted a US warship in October 2016. Further Houthi involvement in the conflict will likely provoke a commensurate response. The Houthis may now run the risk of Israel assassinating senior figures inside Yemen or US drone and missile strikes, such as those that targeted Al-Qaeda’s leadership over the past decade. The conflict will likely have a galvanizing effect on jihadists and other extremists, and could improve recruitment. Previously isolated jihadist leaders and militants have reportedly returned to the fold and rejoined Al-Qaeda in Yemen, which could augur new operations and violence. There is an increased risk of attack against Western or Yemeni government interests from Al-Qaeda, particularly elements in Al-Mahra under the influence of Iran-based leader Saif al-Adel, and this too could provoke a US response.

Yemen, like much of the region, has been consumed by the fear that the conflict in Gaza – and Houthi participation – could escalate into a wider conflagration involving Iran and its allies, and perhaps draw in the United States. The Israel-Palestine conflict remains an important touchstone in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and a devastating explosion at a hospital in Gaza provoked an outpouring of public support for the besieged inhabitants of Gaza and condemnation of Israel’s aerial bombardment campaign. A solidarity demonstration in Sana’a was held on October 20, and rallies also took place across several other governorates, including Taiz, Marib, and Hadramawt. The slogan of the Houthi group is “God is the greatest, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam,” and the group routinely holds demonstrations when violence flares up in Palestine.

Alimi Addresses UN Assembly

On September 18, PLC chief Al-Alimi and PLC member and STC chief Al-Zubaidi arrived in New York to attend the UN General Assembly. While there, they met US Secretary of State Blinken and other foreign leaders, including Jordan’s King Abdullah II and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed. They also attended the UN Sustainable Development Summit, in which Al-Alimi delivered a brief address. On September 20, they met with US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking, following his meeting with Saudi and Emirati officials, and PLC chief Rashad al-Alimi addressed the United Nations General Assembly, saying that peace in Yemen was “elusive” and stressing that his government faced serious challenges from the Houthis, extremist forces, and the country’s ongoing economic crisis. On September 24, he concluded his visit after meeting with a number of foreign ministers and attending a reception with US President Joe Biden.

Al-Zubaidi sat alongside Al-Alimi at the opening of the General Assembly on September 19, though neither looked particularly happy about it. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted a photograph on September 18 of a meeting with Al-Alimi in which Al-Zubaidi was cut out of the picture, leaving only his nameplate showing, but the US generally looked to use the UN meetings as a forum for bringing various parties together. On September 20, Blinken posted photos of himself speaking with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan and UAE Foreign Minister Bin Zayed on the sidelines of the conference, following reports stating that the US would try to bring Saudi and Emirati officials together to reduce tension over Yemen. The US may fear that the UAE and its numerous proxies, including Zubaidi’s secessionist STC, could play a spoiler role in the bilateral Saudi-Houthi talks.

ZAl-ubaidi prolonged his stay in the US and met with members of the southern Yemeni diaspora. In his sole major interview he took a measured tack, welcoming the ongoing talks as a prelude to a peace process in which the STC could negotiate for southern independence. “We are asking for the return of the southern state, with complete sovereignty, and this will happen through beginning negotiations with the Houthis and the negotiations will be, surely, long,” he said in an interview with Associated Press on the sidelines of the General Assembly. “This is the goal of our strategy for negotiations with the Houthis.”

UN Continues Shuttle Diplomacy

UN Special Envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg has maintained a busy schedule of shuttle diplomacy in support of the ongoing peace talks. On September 6, Grundberg concluded a visit to Abu Dhabi where he met with UAE Foreign Minister Khalifa Shaheen and diplomatic advisor to the Emirati president, Anwar Gargash. He also met Shabwa Governor Awad bin al-Wazir al-Awlaqi. Discussions reportedly focused on regional and international efforts to bring sustainable peace to Yemen. On September 7, Grundberg met Saudi Ambassador to Yemen Mohammed al-Jaber in Riyadh, along with the ambassadors to Yemen of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. On September 11, the Security Council held a closed meeting to discuss the situation in Yemen and heard briefings from Grundberg, Assistant Secretary-General for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Joyce Msuya, and head of the UN Mission to Support the Hudaydah Agreement Michael Beary. Council members encouraged continued peace talks led by Saudi Arabia and Oman but also stressed the importance of a Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue.

On September 25, Grundberg concluded another trip to Riyadh where he met with Al-Jaber and representatives of the P5, following direct negotiations between Saudi and Houthi officials. On October 2, Grundberg traveled to Qatar where he met Minister of State for International Cooperation Lolwah al-Khater and other officials. Three days later, he met with Foreign Minister Badr al-Busadi in Muscat to discuss developments in mediation efforts, as military adviser to the UN Special Envoy’s Office General Antony Hayward traveled to Marib for talks with officials on humanitarian and political developments and potential steps to end the war under UN auspices. Governor Sultan al-Aradah expressed his readiness to open major roads leading to Houthi-held areas within 48 hours if the Houthis agreed to do the same, according to the director of the governor’s office. General Hayward and officials from the Special Envoy’s office also spoke with civilian, security, and military leaders in the governorate.

On October 18, Grundberg concluded another visit to Riyadh where he met with senior Yemeni officials and other international stakeholders. Conversations focused on establishing an intra-Yemeni political process. On October 25, Grundberg concluded a visit to London, where he met with a number of officials from the British Foreign Office and discussed UN efforts to establish a peace process in Yemen.

The EU and US have also continued diplomatic visits in support of the peace process, though there is concern that such efforts will now be overshadowed by attention to the conflict in Gaza. On September 12, the head of the EU mission to Yemen and the ambassadors of France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland met with PLC chief Al-Alimi in Aden, where they discussed the ongoing efforts to end the conflict and stressed the importance of the PLC’s unity. The EU heads of mission to Yemen met Saudi Ambassador Al-Jaber in Riyadh on September 25 to discuss the conflict.

Senior US officials, including Middle East adviser Brett McGurk, Assistant Secretary of State of Near East Affairs Barbara Leaf, and US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking traveled to Riyadh for talks with Saudi officials. According to National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan, one of the primary purposes of the visit is to work toward “a permanent peace in Yemen.” US officials confirmed that Yemen was on top of White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk’s agenda. US Ambassador to Yemen Steve Fagin met with Hadramawt Governor Mabkhout bin Madi and Interior Minister Ibrahim Haydan, along with several local representatives, in Seyoun city, in the first visit by a US ambassador to the Hadramawt Desert and Valley region in over a decade. On October 23 and 25, the US Embassy to Yemen posted images of Ambassador Fagin meeting with senior government officials, including PLC members Othman Mujali and Abdullah al-Alimi, and Foreign Minister Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak.

Houthis Arrest Hundreds Over Sept 26 Celebrations

Following recent protests of the non-payment of public sector salaries, Houthi authorities were notably aggressive in their efforts to stop celebrations of Revolution Day on September 26, which marks the 1962 replacement of the Zaidi imamate with a republic. Hundreds of people were detained, shots were fired at cars bearing the republican flag, and flag wavers and itinerant flag sellers were beaten. Internet links to Zoom and Google Meet were down on the eve of September 26, likely a result of official jamming.

Dozens of people were held in prolonged detention. Some have been released after signing pledges not to engage in acts of public disorder, without specifying that they were celebrating the republic. Most of those arrested had carried flags in celebration. Houthi ideology holds disdain for the revolution, despite having no formal objection to Yemen’s status as a republic. Many families are staying quiet in the hope of ensuring the release of detainees rather than risk further inflaming Houthi authorities by speaking out.

In some districts, where important Houthi figures live, there were no measures taken against flag-wavers, but there was a particular crackdown in Ibb, which has been a center of anti-Houthi protest activity over the past year. Similar precautions were taken in Hudaydah city, where hundreds of Houthi forces deployed following widespread celebrations. More than 20 members of the General People’s Congress party were reportedly detained in Hudaydah for two days for fear they would mobilize demonstrators.

On social media, Houthi supporters have been passing around old clips of warnings made by senior military commander Abu Ali al-Hakim against efforts to destabilize Houthi control just before former president Ali Abdullah Saleh broke with the Houthis and was killed in 2017. Friday prayers and neighborhood representatives (s. aqil, pl. auqal) are also putting out the message that the populace should refrain from protests. The authorities have been alarmed by a gradual rise in public complaints about the economy while Houthi revenues are rising and many among the Houthi elite have clearly enriched themselves. The Teachers’ Union has been at the forefront of such protests, and support from GPC members of the Houthi parliament sparked a firestorm of rhetorical backlash in August.

Humanitarian Worker Dies in Houthi Custody

On October 25, international aid organization Save the Children announced the death of their Security and Safety Director for Yemen, Hisham al-Hakimi. Al-Hakimi reportedly died inside a Houthi Security and Intelligence Services prison after being forcibly disappeared on September 9. During his detention, the Save the Children regional office in Amman was in communication with Houthi authorities and demanded his release, but the request was rejected by the Houthi-run National Security Bureau, according to a humanitarian source. Local media reported that Al-Hakimi’s family were contacted by Houthi authorities and told to come collect his body.

A Yemeni human rights activist who was in contact with Al-Hakimi before his detention has alleged that Save the Children’s then-director in Yemen, Rama Hansraj, informed Houthi authorities that Al-Hakimi was objecting to restrictions imposed by the group and attempting to redirect projects to areas under the control of the internationally recognized government prior to his abduction. Save the Children initially issued a statement mourning Al-Hakimi on its Facebook page, without providing any information about his detention or cause of death. In a statement released a day later, the organization called for an independent investigation. An internal investigation, assisted by an external law firm, was also launched, according to employees with the organization. Save the Children suspended its work in Houthi-controlled areas for an initial period of 10 days before resuming operations.

The Houthis have targeted other humanitarian workers as well. On October 25, Houthi forces stormed the house of UNHCR employee Mubarak al-Anwa in Sana’a; Al-Anwa was kidnapped in Ibb on August 8 and is reportedly being held in Sana’a.

Hadramawt Dispute over UAE-Backed Security Operation

In Hadramawt’s capital city Mukalla, military and security forces launched operation “Scales of Justice” to target fugitives wanted by the local judiciary for rioting and disturbing the peace. Hadramawt Governor Mabkhout bin Madi characterized the campaign as a success, while local journalists and activists condemned the raids on civilian homes. Twenty people were reportedly arrested. Days before the campaign began, the Islah party had criticized the Criminal Investigation Department in Mukalla for preventing them from holding an event to celebrate the anniversary of the September 26 Revolution.

The Hadramawt Tribal Alliance, led by Amr bin Habrish, issued a statement on October 29 calling for the governorate to hold UAE-backed forces accountable for violations perpetrated during the searches and to release detainees being held without charge. The criticism provoked a furious response in STC-aligned media, which defended the UAE for standing with the governorate during its “most difficult times” and helping to “liberate the Hadramawt coast.”

The issue was still reverberating two days later when the local STC leadership issued a statement accusing Bin Habrish of abusing his authority as head of the tribal group to attack the UAE. The dispute seemed to reflect underlying Saudi-UAE tensions in Hadramawt, since Bin Habrish has drawn closer to Riyadh, but may reflect specific concerns that the UAE is trying to limit the Hadramawt Tribal Alliance’s influence along the Hadramawt coast, where the STC and other UAE-linked forces hold power.

Other Developments in Brief

Houthis Told to Vacate Syria Embassy

On October 11, Yemeni Foreign Minister Ahmed bin Mubarak announced that the Syrian government had instructed Houthi officials to vacate the Yemeni embassy in Damascus so that the Aden-based government could return to the building. The Yemeni government severed diplomatic ties with Damascus in 2011 during the Syrian civil war. In 2015, shortly after the Houthis stormed Sana’a, the group sent a diplomatic mission to Damascus that settled into the Yemeni embassy there.

Former Al-Jawf Governor Returns to Yemen

The former governor of Al-Jawf, Sheikh Amin al-Ukaimi, returned to Yemen for the first time since he was placed under house arrest in Riyadh over a year ago. At an event in Marib, Al-Ukaimi declared a rebellion against the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), describing its members as coup plotters who unseated former President Abdo Rabbuh Mansour Hadi in a fashion not unlike when the Houthis took over Sana’a in September 2014. Affiliated with the Islah party, Al-Ukaimi was replaced as governor by Hussein al-Aji al-Awadi in October 2022 after falling out of favor with Saudi Arabia. Al-Ukaimi said in his speech that he remains the legitimate governor of Al-Jawf and will not cede power to anyone who does not have the approval of the citizens of the governorate. Leaders from the General People’s Congress (GPC) and the Yemeni Socialist Party in Al-Jawf subsequently declared their support for the PLC.