Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 18, 2023, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan said, “We need to find a way to get the Yemen truce reinstated but then we need to work to transition it to a permanent ceasefire,” referring to the U.N.-sponsored truce that expired in October. It had been hoped that the April 2, 2022 truce between the internationally recognized Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) and the Iran-backed Houthi insurgency would be followed by an expansion of the deal, a cease-fire, and the resumption of direct intra-Yemen talks under U.N. auspices. Six months later, in early October, the Houthis raised the ceiling of their demands by refusing to extend the truce for a third time on the previous terms, adding a new demand that salaries for civilian, military, and security employees in territories under their control be paid using the ROYG’s oil and gas revenues. The stalemate that has endured since — neither peace nor war — may have contributed to the advancement of Saudi-Houthi talks in recent months.
In June 2022, in the midst of the truce, Saudi Arabia and the Houthis resumed back-channel talks, brokered chiefly by the Sultanate of Oman. Since the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened militarily in Yemen in March 2015, Saudi-Houthi talks have taken place sporadically, focusing on Saudi border security concerns and de-escalation measures such as the April 2016 Dhahran al-Janoub cease-fire arrangements and an unannounced de-escalation in late 2019 following the attack on Saudi Aramco’s oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. While communication with the Houthis in the early years was primarily managed by Saudi Arabia, Oman’s role has gradually increased and was symbolically recognized in November 2019 when then-Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman (KBS) visited Muscat to expand Omani-Saudi relations, including leveraging Omani facilitation given its unique ties with Iran and the Houthis.
Last year, Muscat, which hosts a Houthi negotiating team and offers a venue for the insurgency to meet with Western officials, ramped up its facilitation and mediation efforts by sending a minimum of four publicly declared delegations to the Houthis in Sana’a. While the first one discussed de-escalation proposals in January 2022 and contributed to the signing of the truce that April, two other visits were in support of a truce extension in late July and in October after the Houthis made inflexible last-minute demands. Interestingly, the fourth public Omani delegation departed for Sana’a in late December to convey and discuss an updated Saudi proposal intended directly for the Houthis without engaging the Yemeni government. After further deliberations, another Omani delegation visited Sana’a on Jan. 10-15, 2023. Reports of a senior Saudi delegation, led by the country’s ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed al-Jaber, and with the involvement of intelligence officials, visiting Sana’a followed shortly afterwards. Neither the Houthis nor Saudi Arabia publicly denied such reports, and the visit should not be surprising; there was a similar exchange of visits in October 2022, allegedly focused on prisoner swap talks. In short order, Saudi-Houthi talks appear to have taken on a prominence not seen since the intervention of the Arab coalition in March 2015. Both Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister and the Iranian foreign minister’s senior advisor for political affairs, Ali Asghar Khaji, have recently visited Oman. The timing of the Saudi and Iranian visits in early February, taking into consideration the resumption of direct Saudi-Iranian talks in 2021-22 and Iran’s own interest in a tactical thaw in light of its domestic instability, strongly suggests that the two countries discussed their regional-level inputs with the Omanis beyond the Saudi-Houthi talks given the leverage and influence Iran has over the Houthis. A Saudi-Houthi agreement now looks increasingly likely, but it is highly doubtful that such a deal by itself will end the multi-layered war or build a sustainable peace.
What are the Saudi-Houthi talks about? And why now?
While Houthi-Saudi talks are not new and in the past focused on Saudi border security, cease-fire arrangements, and cross-border attacks into the kingdom, the inclusion of salary payments as part of a broader discussion of economic issues is unprecedented. The move reflects Saudi Arabia’s resolve to push for de-escalation with the Houthis ahead of the eighth anniversary of the Arab coalition’s intervention on March 26, 2023, but largely on the Houthis’ terms. The Houthis, who have conditioned their engagement in intra-Yemeni talks on unhindered access to Sana’a International Airport (SAH) and Hodeida’s ports, the departure of the remaining coalition forces, suspension of Saudi Arabia’s support for the ROYG, the nature of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the Houthis, and most recently the payment of salaries, thwarted the extension of the truce to push Riyadh closer to their demands. While Saudi Arabia increasingly understands the limits of U.N. diplomacy given Houthi tactics and objectives, the Houthis understand the strategic shift in the priorities and interests of the coalition lead, and more importantly Riyadh’s desire to end the long-drawn-out regional phase of the conflict for four reasons.
First, the Houthis, having seen America hand over Afghanistan to the Taliban after fighting the group for two decades, believe that time will play to their advantage — as it has for the past eight years for different reasons. The 2019 military drawdown of the United Arab Emirates, which led ground operations in the fight against the Houthis, sent a clear signal that Saudi Arabia’s own drawdown and exit are merely a question of time. Riyadh’s unilateral cease-fire announcements in March 2020 and the Saudi initiative in April 2021, coupled with the official statements of Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, underscored the kingdom’s wartime fatigue and search for an exit strategy. Then, on April 7, 2022, Saudi Arabia’s support for the formation of the eight-person Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), which replaced President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, reinforced the message that the Houthis could bargain on time and strengthened their political position. The primary function of the PLC by regional design does not seem to be fighting, but rather making peace with the Houthis through multi-track talks. As article 7 of the Transfer of Power notes, “The Presidential Command Council is in charge of negotiating with (Ansar Allah) the Houthis for a permanent ceasefire throughout the republic and sitting at the negotiating table to reach a final and comprehensive political solution that includes a transitional phase that will move Yemen from a state of war to a state of peace.”
Second, the Houthis know that their cross-border drone and missile attacks worry Riyadh, as the Saudis themselves acknowledge, especially in view of Vision 2030 and its investments in mega-projects in the northwest of the kingdom, by the Red Sea, and in the south. The Houthis have repeatedly threatened vital oil and gas infrastructure, as well as airports and urban centers, in Saudi Arabia, launching more than 1,000 missile and 350 drone attacks that have reached as far as Riyadh. The Houthis’ ballistic missile and drone capabilities, largely thanks to Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, have turned into a dual-track strategy of compellence and deterrence that over time pushed Riyadh to prioritize domestic security. Since the April truce and despite its collapse, the Houthis have not publicly claimed responsibility for the cross-border attacks into Saudi Arabia, especially as the coalition and the government have upheld the terms of the truce even without an agreement to extend it.
Third, the Houthis have deliberately allowed the U.N.-sponsored truce to expire to ramp up their indirect talks with Saudi Arabia in order to secure direct ones — a demand they have long voiced to change the character of the conflict and the scope of achievable gains. The prominence of the Saudi-Houthi talks increased substantially following the collapse of the truce in October 2022 after a Saudi delegation reportedly visited Sana’a and a Houthi delegation visited Abha in a bid to thaw relations. There are three main factors at play here. First, Saudi Arabia has sought a way out since at least 2020; it knew the what and now is partly working on the how, regardless of the ROYG’s position. Second, Saudi Arabia is now willing to offer more than it has in the past. The Houthis have sustained pressure to limit Riyadh’s choices by responding positively to as many demands as possible. Third, the Houthis conditioned their engagement on intra-Yemeni talks on arrangements with Riyadh, with the latter prioritizing border security and cross-border attacks. In particular, Saudi Arabia wants a buffer zone along the Saudi-Yemeni border, especially in the northwest, but has struggled to secure adequate security assurances given Iran’s influence over the group and the Houthis’ use of cross-border activity for multiple purposes, from political messaging and imposing pressure to inflicting damage and exposing the limits of available defense systems. Saudi Arabia, in particular, hopes to leverage the internal uprising in Iran, as well as past Iranian-Saudi and Saudi-Lebanese talks, in its dialogue with the Houthis. The recent high-level Saudi and Iranian visits to Oman underscore this and indicate that the discussions have reached another stage. For their part, the Houthis demand that Riyadh address the salary payment issue by either pressuring the government to pay for them out of its oil and gas revenues — even after denying the government oil exports via drone attacks in late 2022 — or prompting Saudi Arabia to finance the payments itself as part of a broader economic package. The Houthis, in their talks with the Omanis and the Saudis, have made it clear that they want the money in foreign currency and to have full control over its disbursement, giving them greater social and political control at a time of rising public discontent. Other Houthi demands include the expansion of commitments made by the Yemeni government under the truce, such as an increase in the number of SAH destinations and unrestricted, uninspected flow of goods via Hodeida’s ports, despite failing to offer anything in exchange. The opening of roads and renewal of an expanded truce or a cease-fire are also under discussion.
Fourth, given the U.N.’s inability to sequentially move from truce to cease-fire or truce to comprehensive intra-Yemeni peace talks, Saudi Arabia perceived a benefit in resuming indirect and/or direct communication with the Houthis and their regional backer, Iran, including to support the U.N. process. The coalition has failed to achieve its publicly declared objectives through the eight-year-long military campaign, and Riyadh now wants to normalize the once unwanted status quo through dialogue. For his part, U.N. Special Envoy Hans Grundberg, who recently met with the Houthis and the Omani chief mediator in Muscat, has been waiting for a breakthrough to resume mediation efforts while benefiting from the support of regional actors, including Oman and Saudi Arabia.
Prospects and implications
An agreement would have several immediate implications. For the Houthis, they would have achieved regional recognition and an endorsement of their war narrative. To an extent, this could benefit the group in reengineering its domestic alliances in the short term, especially with actors interested in playing a role in the post-agreement phase, but it remains to be seen how the Houthis can, if at all, contain rising popular discontent against their imposition of a backward moral order. If the Houthis were to receive salary financing and be in control of the funds independent of a broader settlement, that would tighten their grip on power, reshape public sentiment, and allow them to improve their economic position, especially if they choose to escalate to address power imbalances at any point. The question that arises then is whether this basket of gains would incentivize the Houthis to engage in good faith to end Yemen’s multifaceted conflict. According to Amb. Gerald Feierstein, the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and director of MEI’s Arabian Peninsula Program, Saudi-Houthi negotiations do not incentivize the Houthis to talk with the Yemeni government and deliver on any future agreement “given their track record of not honoring agreements getting the Saudis out of Yemen, which has been their priority from the beginning, and may only serve to reduce the likelihood of an end to the civil war.”
For Saudi Arabia, a deal would likely lead to a short-term neutralization of cross-border attacks, in parallel to the halt in coalition air strikes, but there is no guarantee that Iran would not influence the group’s activities in the future, should it overcome its own domestic turmoil. At the end of the day, Tehran’s military, technological, and advisory support for the Houthis is what allowed them to resist and eventually change the nature of the conflict. In September 2019, Mahdi al-Mashat, a senior leader in the Houthi insurgency, vowed to halt drone and missile cross-border attacks into Saudi Arabia, but they resumed a few months later and continued throughout March 2022.
The government is likely to be the weakest negotiating actor given its fragmentation and the multiplicity of sub-actors, interests, and agendas; this issue would only be exacerbated if the Houthis secured a Saudi-Houthi deal based on a Saudi-Iranian understanding. The formation of the PLC might have paved the way for a fragile agreement given regional influence and limited levels of autonomy, but since the Arab Spring the implementation of peace agreements — assuming the Houthis would even commit to one — has proved complex, protracted, unfinished at best, and a recipe for further cycles of violence. The proliferation of armed groups that control different parts of the country and whose objectives are at core incompatible further complicates the implementation of any peace deal. Given this calculus, there are a few potential scenarios should Saudi Arabia and the Houthis reach an Iranian-endorsed agreement, but it is only by addressing power imbalances that a road to sustainable peace can be found in Yemen.
Ibrahim Jalal is a Yemeni security, conflict, and defense researcher; a Non-Resident Scholar at MEI; and a co-founding member of the Security Distillery Think Tank. Among his research interests are the U.N.-led peace process in Yemen, U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Yemen, and the rise of the Houthi insurgency.
Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images
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