UN Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths was expected to start UN-backed talks to end the four-year long Yemeni war today in Sweden, with Ansarullah, representing the Iran-supported Houthis of Yemen, and representatives of the ruling regime of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), attending.
On Monday the Swedish Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying a date for the start of talks had yet to be fixed.
On Tuesday morning, however, UN sources said that the talks are likely to start on Thursday morning, with preliminary meetings held by Griffiths a day earlier.
On Tuesday Griffiths accompanied Houthi representatives on board a plane from Sanaa to Stockholm, a clear sign that the political talks were set to start.
The talks will seek to chart a preliminary roadmap towards a political settlement to a conflict that has been raging since March 2015.
Though the war was initially announced by the Hadi regime it has been prosecuted by a Saudi-led coalition in which the UAE is Riyadh’s most enthusiastic partner.
Ostensibly an operation to end the Houthis’ rebellion against Hadi’s “legitimate” regime, the conflict is actually a proxy war between on the one hand Saudi Arabia — Riyadh has long considered Yemen as its backyard — and the UAE which is keen to expand its strategic presence across the Red Sea, on the other Iran.
Tehran has a long and vocal history of supporting Shia minorities in the Arab world.
With no decisive military victory for either side in sight, the war has ratcheted up enormous humanitarian costs.
“Yemen is one of the worst humanitarian stories, if not the worst, of the 21st century,” said an international aid official who asked for her name to be withheld.
“Aside from who started the war and who has committed war crimes, because war crimes have been committed, Yemen is almost back to the middle ages.
There is acute famine, a disturbing spread of contagious disease and the infrastructure of the country is almost all gone,” she said.
Mark Lowcock, the UN’s humanitarian aid chief, has visited Yemen several times in recent weeks. He warns of devastating ramifications if the war in Yemen, which he has already qualified as the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”, is allowed to continue.
Speaking in Geneva, Lowcock said he is not expecting “easy or rapid process” in the peace talks being hosted by Sweden.
UN-backed talks were initially expected to be held in early November in Geneva but failed to materialise when the Houthis refused to leave for Switzerland for fear of being unable to return to Yemen.
They referred to cases of other Houthi politicians who had been prevented from returning following interventions by the coalition.
A Cairo-based Yemeni source close to the Hadi regime said the return of Houthis had been blocked in the past based on information that they had been in contact with militant trainers and financiers during their time out of country.
UN sources who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly in November, and earlier this week, said the “travel logistics” of the Houthi delegation were not the only problem faced by the Geneva talks.
The Houthis had demanded that some of their wounded be evacuated from Yemen while the Saudi-led coalition demands had insisted the Houthis hand over their arms in some conflict zones.
UN and regional diplomatic sources say things are different this time round. The evacuation of the wounded was secured earlier in the week following mediation by Oman and Kuwait.
Despite their membership of the Gulf Cooperation Council that is largely dominated by Riyadh’s political agenda, both countries have distanced themselves from the coalition.
Kuwait, which hosted the last round of direct talks between the warring Yemeni factions two years ago, was particularly helpful, according to one of the UN sources.
On Sunday Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström was in Kuwait for talks. Deputy Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Garallah said his country is doing everything it can to support the peace talks and argued that a settlement of the conflict in Yemen is a prerequisite for regional stability, and that any future dispensation should include room for friendly relations with Iran on the condition of non-interference by Tehran in internal Arab affairs.
On Monday the Iranian Foreign Ministry announced it would support the talks to be held by Sweden. Positive statements also came out of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
UN and Arab diplomats agree that the time is now propitious to push for a settlement of the conflict. In the words of one: “The Iranians possibly feel that this is the time to move forward because they can see that pressure is being applied by the West on Riyadh to act promptly to bring an end to the war which is why they decided to support the talks.”
“The Houthis feel weakened by this debilitating war,” said a UN source. “They do not want to alienate their own constituency because of the deteriorating humanitarian situation.”
A Cairo-based Western diplomat echoed the words of other regional and Western diplomats in recent weeks by stressing that the US and the EU are pushing Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to end the war quickly in the face of growing international outrage at the images of famine and disease coming out of devastated Yemen.
On Tuesday, as Griffiths and the Houthis were making their way to Stockholm, Sweden was preparing to receive the delegation from the Hadi regime.
A Swedish diplomat said that while his country would do everything it could to facilitate the talks, “they are essentially the call of Griffiths and the UN.”
Sweden is prepared to host the delegations for a week, give or take a couple of days, the Swedish diplomat said.
“A little under a week or a little over a week — we cannot tell yet; so much depends on how quickly the talks will start,” said a UN source.
An agreement between the two Yemeni sides on the ultimate objective of the talks has yet to be reached. The Hadi regime is hoping for a political settlement under which the Houthis recognise its “legitimacy” while the Houthis are more focused on easing humanitarian conditions.
According to a UN source the top three issues for the Swedish talks — “or at least this first round of talks since nobody is expecting a peace deal to be produced in a week or so” — are: to solve problems at the Central Bank of Yemen which have exacerbated the financial challenges facing the impoverished country; to clear the path for the security and political measures necessary to re-open Sanaa airport; and to secure the frail de-escalation at the port of Hodaidah secured in the last couple of weeks.
The UN believes success in these three areas will represent a significant confidence-building measure that could lead to improvements in the humanitarian situation and at the same time pave the way towards a political framework that can be pursued beyond the current meeting, though the UN source warns “there are no clear indications of how things will go.”
Regional diplomats are no less sceptical. They agree that the future of the talks depends on two things: Riyadh’s realisation that the world will no longer tolerate an open-ended humanitarian disaster in Yemen, and Tehran understanding that international pressure on Riyadh to end the war will stop short of pushing Saudi Arabia to accept a strong Iranian influence in Yemen.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 December, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Yemen: Hopes for peace