Saudi Arabia’s Paradigm Shift In Dealing With Yemen’s Houthis

Destruction caused by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike in Sanaa in August 2017

By Khalid Al-Karimi

Saudi Arabia has lately adopted a fresh policy on dealing with Yemen’s Houthi group. Over the last five years, the Saudi-led Arab collation has failed to win the battle, and a military victory in Yemen remains a remote possibility.  Changing course, then, appears to be urgent and unavoidable given the fact that the five years of ground fighting and airstrikes have proven ineffective and counterproductive.

Now, Saudi leadership has opted for talks with the Houthis, whom the Saudis view as a proxy of Iran. The Kingdom has also considered the Houthis a terrorist organization and an outlawed militia, but now it is willing to engage in talks with them in a bid to stem their destructive attacks and repeated border incursions.

While the Saudi-Houthi talks are an optimistic sign, it will not be a magic wand for putting out the flames of a war that rendered Yemen as home to the worst humanitarian crisis. This rapprochement is a double-edged development. It is likely to stop Houthi attacks on Saudi vital facilities, but the Houthis will also benefit politically.

The ongoing negotiation is led by Oman, a Gulf country that has remained neutral since the eruption of Saudi-led conflict in Yemen. According to recent reports, the Saudi-Houthi talks revolve around a buffer-zone along the Yemen-Saudi border, and reopening Sanaa International Airport which stopped operating in 2016 when Saudi Arabia shut it down, except for limited humanitarian and United Nations flights. Saudi Arabia also wants the Houthis to end their ties to Iran and dismantle their ballistic capabilities.

The Saudis are interested in rapprochement with the Houthis especially in the wake of the Houthi September attack on oil giant Aramco, and the inability of the Saudis’ sophisticated defense system, including the patriot missiles, to defend it, and and the Abqaiq and Khurais oil installations. The attacks knocked out almost 50 percent of the Aramco’s production plants. At the time, Houthis confidently assumed responsibility for the attack, saying they can launch more should Saudi Arabia continues its military operations in Yemen, particularly airstrikes.

The Saudi-led Arab coalition’s original plan to wipe out Houthi influence in Yemen. However, Anwar Gargash, minister of foreign affairs of UAE, a leading member of the Arab coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen recently pointed out that the Houthis will have a role in Yemen’s future. “Houthi militias have wreaked havoc on the country, but they are a part of Yemeni society and they will have a role in its future,” he said. Such a statement would not have been said a couple of years back.

Concerning rapprochement

The Houthis are seemingly not yet prepared to put their weapons down, retreat from some locations, or make substantial concessions to the U.N.-recognized Saudi-backed Yemeni government. But the group may acquiesce to stop sending missiles to Saudi territories as long as Saudi Arabia discontinues airstrikes on Yemen and allows reopening Sanaa International Airport.

The internationally recognized Yemeni government has opposed the recent Saudi-Houthi behind-the-scene talks. The government deems any direct Saudi-Houthi dialogue as a gain for the Houthi movement and a disregard for the government legitimacy. Abdel-Aziz Jubari, an adviser of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, said they were not informed about the start of talks between their Saudis and Houthis. The concern, he added, is that the Saudis could reach a deal with the Houthis and leave territories including Sanaa under the Houthi control. “That would be a grave mistake and the Saudis would deeply regret it.”

At the same time, since the conflict began ion 2015, the Yemeni government has failed to find a political or military solution and the ensuing humanitarian crisis has complicated this quagmire. Meanwhile, it is at loggerheads with the southern separatists, who recently signed a Saudi-sponsored power-sharing deal in Riyadh.

The bottom line is that any Saudi-Houthi talks will intend to address the tactical concerns of both sides, but it will not necessarily mean lead to a wider peace in Yemen. Instead, all parties to the conflict should engage in unconditional serious peace talks and lay the groundwork for lasting and comprehensive solution.

Khalid Al-Karimi is a freelance reporter and translator. He is a staff member of the Sana’a-based Yemeni Media Center and previously worked as a full-time editor and reporter at the Yemen Times newspaper.

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