The shadow of Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, are cast on a large representation of the Yemeni flag as they attend a demonstration against an arms embargo imposed by the U.N. Security Council on Houthi leaders (photo: AP)
A few days after the Saudi crown prince’s visit to the Sultanate of Oman, an Omani plane conveying a Houthi delegation along with Omani mediators took off from the Omani capital, Muscat to the Saudi capital, Riyadh. On his way back from the G20 Summit in India, Prince Mohamed bin Salman stopped in Muscat for what was described as a “private visit”, but Sultan Haitham bin Tariq later accompanied him to Dhofar, bordering Yemen.
Official statements in Muscat and Riyadh did not elaborate on the Saudi-Omani summit, but it is clear the Yemen crisis and Omani mediation between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition to support legitimacy in Yemen was high on the agenda. Oman has been seeking to bring the warring factions in Yemen to the negotiating table behind the scenes, and it seems its earnest efforts are paying off.
In a press release on the State Department’s website, the American administration praised the move towards ending the war in Yemen. “The United States welcomes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia hosting discussions with the Houthi-led delegation in Riyadh. This important step towards peace expands on a series of engagements between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis (Ansar Allah),” the statement read.
The Houthi delegation’s visit to Saudi Arabia follows an April visit by the Saudi Ambassador in Yemen Mohamed Al-Jaberto to the rebel-held capital Sanaa, where he met with Houthi political chief Mahdi Al-Mashat. According to the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), the visit was on Saudi initiative and aims to reach “a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire in Yemen and a sustainable political solution acceptable to all Yemeni parties.”
Omani mediators had been to Sanaa in the last few months, meeting with Houthi officials, while some of the rebel leaders spent more time in Muscat. Oman maintains good relations with all parties involved, from Iran to Saudi Arabia to the Yemeni factions. Direct talks between the main powers in the Yemen conflict, Saudi Arabia, and the Houthi rebels is a major step towards a political solution. Talks between the Saudi-backed coalition government and the Houthis were fruitless.
In fact, the legitimate government, temporarily based in Aden, is fraught with internal problems. The Emirati-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) is part of the coalition government, but it is seeking a different goal: the secession of South Yemen. That contradicts the Saudi approach and that of other Yemeni factions that insist on a unified country under an inclusive government.
Last week, Bloomberg reported that the American administration is concerned about a Saudi-Emirati rift that might hinder peace efforts in Yemen. But officials in the UAE and Saudi Arabia insist that there is no rift between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on the main objectives which include ending the war and reaching a political settlement with a central government representative of all Yemeni parties.
Since the UN-brokered six-months ceasefire ended in October last year without being renewed, there has been a lull in the fighting. Omani sources say that their country’s mediation efforts were a main factor in keeping the peace, and now the Saudis are relying on those efforts to work towards a political solution and end the war.
As those sources point out, this is the first time direct talks between Saudi officials and their main rivals in Yemen have taken place. It is also the first meeting that will discuss the Houthis’ demands including a full reopening of Houthi-controlled ports and Sanaa Airport, which was closed until last year when commercial flights resumed to Jordan and Egypt. Demands also include the payment of wages for civil servants from oil revenues, rebuilding efforts, and a timeline for foreign forces to withdraw from Yemen.
The Houthi delegation to Riyadh was headed by Mahdi Al-Mashat, who told the rebels’ Saba news agency, “peace was and still is our first option and everyone must work to achieve it.” Prior to the talks, Ali Al-Qhoom, a member of the Houthis’ political council, posted on X (Twitter): “Optimism exists regarding the mediation and the Omani efforts to achieve peace in Yemen.”
The nine-year war in Yemen has had hundreds of thousands of human casualties, the result of fighting, malnutrition and diseases like cholera outbreaks. UN agencies and 91 international and Yemeni non-governmental organisations said last week that 21.6 million people 75 per cent of the population require humanitarian assistance, calling for more funding.
Oman, once accused by Saudi Arabia and the UAE of supporting the Houthi rebels and acting as a route for Iranians to supply arms, is now the main force facilitating a political solution in Yemen. Though the Riyadh talks might not result in a big breakthrough, it is a very important step on the road to ending the Yemeni crisis.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly