Judging from developments on the ground in Yemen and reports from the back channels between the Houthi stronghold of Saada and the Saudi town of Abha across the border, it appears that Saudi Arabia has chosen to prepare the climate for Yemeni-Saudi talks as a first step in identifying confidence-building measures preparatory to moving on to bilateral negotiations.
This could mark the beginning of an alternative to the Geneva route after two rounds of talks in the Swiss city have failed to produce a roadmap to end the civil war in Yemen that is now in its second year.
According to information obtained by the Weekly from sources close to developments in Yemen, the forces of the rebel Houthi-Saleh alliance have been so weakened that they are now no longer able to sustain the conflict on the various fronts.
They have lost strategic positions to the Saudi-led multinational coalition, which has gained control over the strategic Midi Port on the Red Sea that had served as a crucial conduit for Iranian arms to the rebel forces.
The coalition has also succeeded in securing control over the Naham front at the strategic eastern gateway to the capital Sanaa 50 km away. Resistance forces in Taiz have succeeded in ending the months’ long blockade of their city.
These developments have led military strategists to turn their sights towards the decisive battle for Sanaa.
The road to the talks began with mediation efforts made by Oman last month. Riyadh’s agreement has come on the condition that the Houthi delegation meets with relatively low-ranking Saudi officials and that the talks are unofficial and do not take place in Riyadh.
The aim of the talks is to explore the possibility of launching negotiations in the framework of the Gulf Initiative on the crisis, UN Security Council Resolution 2216 and the Yemeni national dialogue in order to produce a roadmap for a settlement.
Houthi official spokesman Mohammed Abdel-Salam earlier went to Abha in the company of a Saudi prisoner of war who was delivered to the Saudi side without a demand for Houthi prisoners to be given in exchange.
Riyadh did in fact return a number of Houthi prisoners, signaling in the diplomatic language of tribal customs that both sides were interested in concluding peace.
A source close to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh told the Weekly that Saleh was in good health and welcomed the opportunity for a settlement with Riyadh.
The source, a member of the preparatory negotiating committee, said that he believed the talks would be “fruitful and will develop into negotiations at which Saleh and the Houthis will be at the negotiating table as a single delegation. UN special envoy for Yemen Ould Cheikh Ahmed could also visit the parties to help them formulate their demands.”
“A dialogue is in progress on the Saleh-Houthi front on how to remedy the effects of the war through measures such as compensation and reconstruction. The shape of the next government in Sanaa is also being discussed,” the source said.
“There is a desire to hold a procedural phase before the interim phase. This could entail the handover of the administration of Sanaa to the municipality and identify the agency that would handle salaries and other such issues. Since all these questions will have to be solved separately the talks will take a long time.”
The source said that should the talks pave the way for negotiations, the preparations for these would probably take place in Oman as an alternative to Geneva, although other Arab capitals, such as Cairo and Abu Dhabi, might see activities in the wings.
The parties might agree to return to Geneva as a venue for the negotiations. According to the source, Cairo and Amman have been suggested as possible places to host the preliminary talks.
“Egypt is up to date on developments. A Yemeni delegation headed by sheikh Youssef al-Awadi, secretary-general of the General People’s Congress (GPC), visited Cairo at the beginning of this week to put it in the picture on recent developments,” he said.
Saleh is currently undergoing medical treatment abroad, but the source said the former president hoped to return to Yemen in order to lay the basis for peace and in such a way as he is “neither wanted by the courts nor branded as an enemy.”
With this in place, Saleh will be able to travel freely and will be assured of “God’s peace on the Affash,” the source said, mentioning the tribe to which the former president belongs.
The source told the Weekly that he had heard Saleh expressing his desire for an “honourable exit” from the crisis. However, according to consultations in progress with the Houthis a new political front will need to be forged to make it possible for the GPC to play a major political role in the near future.
The Houthis also intend to create a new political party that will have a say in the future of the country because they do not intend to remain restricted to Saada.
Ali al-Dhubaibi, close to the Yemeni presidential affairs office in Riyadh, told the Weekly that Saudi Arabia was insisting on what he termed a “disengagement” with Tehran, by which is meant an end to the provocation against Saudi Arabia by Iran.
“Saudi Arabia is aware of the relationship between the two parties, and it seeks guarantees that this relationship will not come at the expense of Saudi security,” he said.
Riyadh knows that Saleh will not sacrifice the Houthi card until he has exhausted all the advantages it has to offer in order to accelerate a settlement, and Riyadh’s approach will most likely be to keep the negotiations on a low flame.
Recent developments in Iran have a bearing on the Yemeni situation, and the success of the reformist camp in the Assembly of Experts elections last month could work to calm hostilities between Riyadh and Tehran.
This is consistent with observations made by Nouri Zada, director of the Arab-Iranian Studies Centre in London, in an interview with BBC Arabic last week. “President Hassan Rouhani seeks calm relations with the Gulf countries, and he wants his first visit abroad to be to Saudi Arabia, but the Supreme Leader is opposed to that idea,” Zada said.
Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei is keen to leave his mark on the last chapter of the conflict in Yemen, having declared that he was ready to take part in the war in Yemen in support of the rebel forces.
Khamenei’s remarks have been interpreted as a form of one-upmanship against Saudi Arabia which a month ago declared its intention to prepare for a ground invasion of Yemen. Khamenei may also be seeking to strengthen the Houthi hand in negotiations with Iran.
As the situation stands, the anticipated battle of Sanaa may not take place.
All the parties have wearied themselves on the many fronts outside Sanaa, and they are also aware that the battle of Sanaa could ultimately destroy them.
The most likely scenario is that the capital will be handed over and that the Houthi forces will withdraw from it without resistance, just as they met with no resistance when they originally took it over in September 2014.
However, this scenario will not mark the closing chapter on Sanaa, as the drama will likely continue to unfold for many years to come.
*This story was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly.