Yemen official hopeful Saudi-Houthi talks will bring about breakthrough

Negotiations have yet to yield any agreement but the subject of securing the Saudi border with Yemen is on the table, sources say

Houthi supporters brandish arms on the streets of Sanaa. EPA
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Yemeni officials are hopeful of a breakthrough as direct talks begin between the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia in a bid to negotiate an end to more than eight years of war.

The talks come after attempts to extend a UN-brokered truce broke down in October and the Houthis launched several attacks on oil ships and ports, although widespread fighting did not resume on major front lines.

"The Saudi delegation was recently in Sanaa," a Yemeni official said. "They discussed everything but didn't agree on anything yet. They both heard each other. Everyone knows the red line of the other party.

"We are expecting a breakthrough within the next few weeks."

The official source added that the Saudi team has returned to the kingdom for internal deliberation.

"They're having internal discussions and also with the Yemeni government and other partners," they said. "So wait and see is now the title of this period."

A senior US official familiar with the talks confirmed they were ongoing but said Iran needed to do more to support the path to peace.

"We appreciated that the Iranians welcomed the truce ― but what we don't see is them applying their diplomatic influence in Yemen in a way that's constructive to end the war in Yemen," they said.

The official said the continued supply of Iranian arms to the Houthis was "out of step with where the international community is and where the Houthis are in terms of their willingness to negotiate with the Saudis".

Jacob Sufyani, of the South 24 Centre for News and Studies, told The National that Oman was also playing a role in mediating between the two sides. While Muscat has not publicly commented on the matter, the sultanate has previously played a strong mediating role and has strong contacts on all sides of the conflict.

"The Saudis seem to be vying for the Houthis to stop cross-border attacks into the kingdom in return for paying military and civilian salaries in areas under Houthi control" said Mr Sufyani, who is in touch with officials close to the talks. "Riyadh is also seeking that comprehensive talks begin with the remaining local parties."

The payment of civil and public servant salaries has been a sticking point in previous negotiations with the Houthis who demand that the Yemeni government cover the expenses.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor Oman responded to a request for comment regarding the talks.

Deputy Youth Minister Hamza Al Kamay said it was natural for the Saudis to seek an understanding that secures their border with Yemen, "especially given that these areas are under Houthi control".

The Houthi movement originated in the rural, mountainous Saada Governorate of northern Yemen, bordering the Saudi Arabian province of Najran.

However, Mr Al Kamay said it was important to include Yemeni parties in the talks and that a failure to do so would be "incorrect".

The head of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) Rashad Al Alimi on Sunday announced the formation of the National Shield Forces in the country's south.

The group will be a "military reserve" led by Brigadier Bashir Saif Qaid Al Subaihi, who previously headed the New Giants Brigades Force, which is separate from the Giants Brigades in Yemen's south that has been instrumental in driving out the Houthis from the key oil-rich city of Marib.

In the statement published by state media, Mr Al Alimi said he would be overseeing the group's activities personally.

Yemen has been at war since 2014, sparked by the Houthi takeover of Sanaa which forced the government into exile. The southern port city of Aden was then recaptured following a request for an international coalition led by Saudi Arabia to assist in pushing back the rebels.

Updated: February 01, 2023, 8:14 AM