Recent reports speak of a possible Houthi-Saudi peace project in light of a spate of meetings between Houthi representatives and Western diplomats. But apart from some photos and tweets, there are no tangible signs of progress yet. Conditions on the battlefield show no significant change that might suggest a political breakthrough is unfolding behind political scenes, especially in Oman which hosts the Houthi negotiating delegation. Certainly, Yemeni government sources in Riyadh are sceptical, doubting whether the Houthis would sincerely commit to a negotiating process.
There were three meetings of note recently. On Sunday, Saudi Deputy Minister of Defence Khaled Bin Salman met with Emirati Crown Prince and Vice Commander in Chief Mohamed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan in Abu Dhabi to discuss military and defence affairs and perhaps conclude a military deal. But reports have linked the meeting with some positive signs from Riyadh regarding the recent Houthi offer of a ceasefire. This is believed to be the first meeting between the two partners in the Arab coalition to restore the legitimate government in Yemen since Bin Salman’s visit to the US 27 August during which Washington reportedly sought to promote negotiations in Muscat. Washington is believed to have encouraged a plan along the lines of that proposed by former US Secretary of State John Kerry, which called on the Houthis to hand over their heavy weaponry to a third party under UN supervision as a means to initiate a new transitional phase. However, that effort appears to have stalled in the aftermath of the attacks against Aramco oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh and Washington have blamed Iran for the attacks, though the Houthis claimed responsibility.
It could be that the Salman Bin Zayed meeting had nothing to do with Saudi-Houthi talks. More likely, the two officials focused on military arrangements in southern Yemen since shortly after the meeting it was announced that Southern Movement forces had returned to Aden from the west coast. Also, developments related to the southern secessionist drive had triggered discord between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in light of the latter’s support for Southern Transitional Council (STC) forces. So even if the Saudi deputy defence minister and the Emirati crown prince did touch on a possible restart of the negotiating process in Oman, it would seem that the situation in the south of Yemen would have taken the greatest priority in their meeting, especially given these officials’ military status.
The second meeting, also held Sunday, was that between the head of the Houthi negotiating delegation, Mohamed Abdul- Salam, and the British Ambassador to Yemen Michael Aaron, in Muscat. Aaron is one of the key mediators in the Yemeni conflict at present. Following the meeting, Abdul-Salam said that the Houthis, in their meeting with the British official, stressed that they had offered their recent peace initiative to demonstrate good faith and the desire for peace and stability in Yemen. He maintained that the Saudi response so far has not lived up to the required standard for a peace initiative. He said that Saudi lack of clarity did not help give the initiative impetus to transform it into a comprehensive ceasefire. Before the meeting Aaron had spoken of “delicate progress”.
The third meeting was between the French Ambassador to Yemen Christian Testot, and Mohamed Abdel-Salam on Monday in Muscat. The substance is believed to be the same as in the Houthi official’s meeting with the British ambassador.
Clearly, if there are movements to stimulate fresh negotiations, they have quite a way to go yet. One of the most crucial conditions for progress is clear Iranian resolve to back a genuine peace process, as opposed to negotiations used for tactical purposes.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.