Analysis: Four major challenges facing Riyadh’s negotiations with the Houthis

English - Sunday 17 September 2023 الساعة 09:13 am
Mokha, NewsYemen, exclusive:

Nearly five months after the visit of a Saudi delegation to Sanaa, headed by Ambassador Mohammed Al Jaber, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia invited a delegation from the Houthi group - Iran's arm in Yemen - to visit Riyadh in order to resume the faltering negotiations since last April.

According to what leaders in the group’s authority in Sana’a announced, this visit is supposed to last for five days, starting last Thursday evening, and although it is too early to anticipate the results of the visit, there are a number of data that reveal major difficulties surrounding the progress of the negotiations in this round, which puts A set of challenges facing negotiations.

Approval of the government and parties represented by the Leadership Council

The first of these challenges is that the legitimate government and all the forces opposed to the Houthi group do not seem satisfied with the progress of these negotiations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Houthi group from the beginning. While the government welcomed this call to resume negotiations in Riyadh, and renewed its continued openness to all initiatives aimed at bringing about a just and comprehensive peace, the government’s statement included that its welcome and openness to these initiatives is conditional on it being “in accordance with the three terms of reference, and in a way that ensures an end to the coup, the restoration of state institutions, security, stability and development in Yemen,” according to the statement issued by the government in conjunction with the Houthi delegation’s visit to Riyadh.

The Southern Transitional Council, in turn, stated in its statement issued on Saturday, coinciding with the Houthi delegation’s visit to Riyadh, that its welcome of the Saudi initiative is conditional “on achieving a comprehensive and sustainable political process that establishes an unconditional dialogue to ensure that all issues are addressed, and at the forefront of that is the acknowledgment of the issue of the people of the South and the establishment of a special negotiating framework to resolve it as a basis for starting peace efforts. In its statement, the Council stressed the necessity of adhering to the contents of the “Riyadh Agreement” sponsored by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to which the Transitional Council was a party with the government, in addition to adhering to the contents of the Gulf Cooperation Council consultations that resulted in the formation of the Presidential Leadership Council on April 7, 2022.

In addition to the legitimate government and the Transitional Council, the National Resistance Forces, led by Brigadier General Tariq Saleh on the West Coast, are a force with military weight on the ground and have a political office that manages the affairs of the National Resistance’s involvement in the political process, in addition to its leader being a member of the Presidential Leadership Council. This political and military weight of the national resistance necessitates its inclusion in the negotiating framework of any negotiations with the Houthi group and in any regional, international and international efforts to find the desired political settlement formula to end the war and bring peace.

The humanitarian and reconstruction file

At the forefront of the files on the agenda of these negotiations is the salary file, which the Houthi group demands to be paid from oil and gas revenues, in addition to its demand to share these revenues with the legitimate government. There is also the file of closed roads, most notably the ports in the city of Taiz, and the file of opening new destinations for flights to and from Sanaa Airport, as well as the reconstruction file.

It does not seem that these are all the issues whose solution could lead to ending the war and bringing peace to the country. The southern issue is still outside the negotiating framework, and the Houthi group continues to practice the Imamate approach that conflicts with the goals of the September 26, 1962 revolution, and the group’s leader calls for the mandate for himself as an alternative approach. In governing elections and giving the people their right to choose who will rule them... and many issues that pose greater challenges than the challenges surrounding the implementation of the provision of disbursing salaries, opening closed roads, and expanding the airspace destinations of Sanaa Airport and the sea space of Hodeidah Port.

However, even the files on the current agenda of these negotiations are considered thorny, despite the prevailing optimism in the statements of the Houthi leaders and regional and international diplomats.

The Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is close to Hezbollah and Iran, reported that there is anticipation in Sanaa for the announcement of an agreement “to stop the war and end the siege within days” as an expected result of the Houthi delegation’s visit to Riyadh. On Friday, the newspaper quoted what it called “diplomatic sources” that the invitation to the Houthi delegation was preceded by Saudi arrangements “for a signing ceremony to officially end the state of war in Yemen,” and that this signing ceremony will take place in Riyadh in the presence of representatives of the Presidential Leadership Council, the Houthi delegation, and the mediation delegation. Omani, and representatives of the European Union, the United States, Britain, France, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Secretary-General of the Arab League.

It added that the announcement will include "a ceasefire agreement, and the signing of the understandings that had been reached regarding the disbursement of salaries, the opening of roads, and the expansion of commercial flight destinations from Sanaa Airport to five other airports, in addition to resolving the stalled issue of prisoners and detainees according to the all-in-one rule." However, diplomatic sources, which the newspaper said were familiar with the discussions, spoke of “a Saudi-American-UN approach to transfer a number of disagreements over implementation mechanisms to future rounds,” and that implementation arrangements will be undertaken by the office of the UN envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg.

Iran's role in advancing the negotiations

The Houthi delegation headed to Riyadh last Thursday evening, accompanied by the Omani mediation delegation, which was on its second visit to Sanaa in less than a month.

According to the Associated Press, it is still unclear what conditions are being discussed between Riyadh and the Houthis, but this visit comes within the subsequent steps of the Saudi-Iranian agreement that was sponsored by China last March, and in the wake of a wave of diplomatic activity between the various parties. In the ongoing war in Yemen.

The agency linked Saudi Arabia's invitation to the Houthis to Riyadh with the recent visit of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Oman last Monday. She said that last Thursday, King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed received letters from Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi, and that both countries did not announce the content of those letters, but they came during an Omani delegation’s visit to Houthi officials in Sanaa. On the same day, the head of the so-called Supreme Political Council of the Houthis announced that a delegation from the group would head to Riyadh “in response to Omani mediation” in order to “complete consultations with the Saudi side.”

Al-Mashat showed flexibility in his statement, in contrast to the threats he has been making over the past months to resume the war and target Saudi and Emirati facilities with ballistic missiles and drones. Al-Mashat said in the context of his announcement of accepting the Saudi invitation: “Peace was and will remain our first choice, which everyone must work on.” Despite the Iranian push, which seems clear according to this news, the coming days and events will be enough to reveal the extent of the Iranian push towards a peaceful solution or towards escalation.

Houthi stubbornness in negotiations

The Houthis' intransigence in negotiations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not limited to setting impossible conditions on the negotiating agenda, but also to refusing to negotiate with the legitimate government and the Yemeni parties opposed to it. In conjunction with the Houthi delegation heading to Riyadh, the leader of the group, Muhammad Ali Al-Houthi, said that their negotiations are continuing with Saudi Arabia “as the leader of the coalition” and with Omani mediation, and that his group will only dialogue with the coalition, given that the decision to stop the war is in its hands, and that any Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue is “an internal matter.” 

The statements of the Houthi leaders indicate that they do not wish to negotiate with the legitimate government and the parties opposing them, while they continue to threaten to resume the war against the local parties, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, if the negotiations fail.

The majority of the Houthis’ demands are related to money: salaries, reconstruction, reparations, opening new destinations for Sana’a airport, lifting all restrictions on the port of Hodeidah... etc., as long as they deal with the Arab coalition as a bank treasury that pumps money, and they deal with the Yemeni parties opposing them as Subjects who are supposed to offer loyalty to the divine ruler, any negotiations will not bring Yemen to a political settlement, and the fuse of the revolution will remain burning against this group that jumped to the forefront of ruling the country at its worst historical moment.