Saudi, Yemen’s Houthis hold ‘indirect talks’ in Oman to end war

Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s Houthi rebels are holding indirect, behind-the-scenes talks to end the devastating five-year war in Yemen, officials from the two warring sides have said.

The negotiations are taking place with Oman, a Gulf Arab country that borders both Yemen and Saudi Arabia, as the mediator.

The two sides have communicated via video conference over the past two months, Gamal Amer, a negotiator for the Houthis, told the Associated Press news agency.

They have also talked through European intermediaries, according to three Houthi officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to reporters on backchannel negotiations.

The Oman-mediated talks began in September after a Houthi-claimed drone struck a key crude processing plant in Saudi Arabia – the world’s largest – and dramatically cut into global oil supplies. The United States blamed Iran, which denied involvement.

The current talks focus on interim goals, such as reopening Yemen’s main international airport in Sanaa, shut down by the Saudi-led coalition in 2016. Also under discussion is a buffer zone along the Yemen-Saudi border in areas under Houthi control.

Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, a former Yemeni foreign minister, told the AP from Oman that the Saudis’ main concerns include dismantling the Houthis’ ballistic and drone capabilities and the kingdom’s border security.

The Saudis are also looking for assurances the Houthis will distance themselves from Shia power, Iran, the Sunni kingdom’s archrival.

Divided nation

Yemen remains a divided country. The Iran-backed Houthis have controlled the capital, Sanaa, and much of the north since 2014.

The Saudi-led military coalition, which entered the war in 2015, is fighting on behalf of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his internationally-recognised government.

Last week, a senior Saudi official told a group of reporters in Washington that “there is a sense that we need to move to resolution of this conflict.” He said the ongoing talks are also focusing on prisoner exchanges between the warring sides.

The recent rapprochement could pave the way for more high-profile negotiations early next year, a Houthi official said.

However, the Oman-mediated talks are not inclusive for all parties to the conflict, according to a Yemeni government official.

President Hadi’s adviser, Abdel-Aziz Jabari, who is also deputy speaker of parliament, said the government has been kept in the dark about what its Saudi patrons are negotiating.

He said he fears that Saudi Arabia could strike a deal to leave Sanaa, and other key Houthi-held areas, exclusively under rebel control – cementing the country’s divide.

“That would be a grave mistake and the Saudis would deeply regret it,” Jabari said.

‘Open window’

Talks between the Yemeni rebels and the Saudis are not new.

The two sides struck a ceasefire deal in 2016 after a meeting in the southern Saudi region of Asir but the truce later fell apart.

Amer, the Houthi negotiator, said an exchange of messages between the two sides never stopped and that they “kept a window open” for dialogue.

The Houthis and Hadi’s government have also sat at a negotiating table several times, most notably at the United Nations-brokered talks in Sweden last December, when they reached a tentative peace plan that involved a ceasefire in the flashpoint port of Hodeidah, the main passageway for Yemen imports and a lifeline to Houthi-controlled areas.

The recent rapprochement – if materialised – could put an end to a war that has killed more than 100,000 people, destroyed Yemen’s infrastructure, displaced millions, and pushed the country’s 30 million people into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

Salman al-Ansari, a Saudi commentator who heads the pro-Saudi lobbying organisation known as the Saudi American Public Relations Affairs Committee, said the Saudis were emboldened by their success in brokering a deal earlier this month between Hadi’s government forces and the UAE-backed southern separatists to halt their months-long infighting in southern Yemen.

“The kingdom never concedes anything,” al-Ansari said. “Especially when [it is about] securing its own borders and deterring Iranian influence.”