Cutting Losses in Yemen

Secret Saudi-Houthi talks improve the prospects for peace

By Abdel Bari Atwan

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia seems to have come to the conclusion that it can never win the war in Yemen. It has begun to seek a political solution that can extricate it from an imbroglio that has cost it dearly while damaging its international standing and subjecting it to mounting pressure due to the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen and the rising casualty toll.

The Financial Times newspaper, citing a Saudi official, revealed for the first time this week that over the past three years the war has cost Saudi Arabia $120 billion. Many insiders suspect this is an under-estimate and that the true cost has been much higher – and that is without considering the compensation the kingdom could have to pay for the 30,000 deaths and injuries and the utter devastation of Yemen’s infrastructure caused by Saudi-led airstrikes.

Thursday’s UN Security Council statement demanding that the Saudi-led coalition immediately lift its blockade of Yemeni ports and allow humanitarian supplies to be flown to Sanaa airport can be seen as a warning to Riyadh that, with the suffering of Yemeni civilians having become unbearable and more than 22 million on the verge of starvation, the situation cannot be allowed to persist.

Reports from the Omani capital, Muscat, speak of secret negotiations between a delegation from the Houthi Ansarallah movement led by Muhammad Abdessalam and a Saudi team hand-picked by Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman, reflecting both sides’ desire to reach a truce followed by talks leading to a peace settlement.

The mere fact of the meeting constitutes a turnaround in the position of Saudi Arabia, which has long refused to negotiate with the Houthis on the grounds that they are Iranian stooges. It also used to frown on any Omani mediation role because of the country’s neutral stance in the war, and preferred Kuwait as a venue for the talks held a year ago under the supervision of sacked UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmad.

It was striking that these secret talks were held without the knowledge, let alone participation, of the ‘legitimate’ Yemeni president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. There is growing talk of him having not only been sidelined by his Saudi hosts but placed under house arrest and prevented from returning to Yemen, especially to his supposedly temporary capital Aden.

It is hard to speculate whether these secret talks will succeed or fail. But by agreeing to them, the Saudi leadership has effectively recognized the Houthis as a political and military force that cannot be bypassed, either with regard to the war in Yemen or to the search for a way out of its predicament.

What Saudi Arabia seeks as a first step is an end to Houthi missile strikes and incursions across its southern border.  Saudi forces are reliably reported to be sustaining increasingly heavy casualties as Houthi fighters probe deep into Saudi territory, taking dozens of villages and dragging the Saudi military into a war of attrition in which they have the upper hand.

What the Ansarallah movement wants is recognition as a leading and legitimate force in Yemen and as the main gateway to peace in the country. The secret talks in Muscat would seem to constitute a big step towards achieving those goals, or most of them, especially after the assassination of former president Ali Abdallah Saleh and the disintegration of his General People’s Congress (GPC) party which rivalled the Houthis for power.

It would be wrong to second-guess the outcome of these negotiations. Similar talks were held in Saudi Arabia two years ago and got nowhere. But it can be confidently said that the prospects for peace in Yemen are improving as a result of a change in the Saudi stance. The Saudi leadership has been persuaded that it most show flexibility, and more, if it is to extricate itself from Yemen and the financial and human drain it causes. Its decision on Thursday to deposit two billion dollars with the Yemeni central bank in Sanaa is but one indication of this.