The Middle East has witnessed a remarkable acceleration in diplomatic rapprochement in recent weeks. As politicians and diplomats widen channels of communication and take careful steps to develop ties, they establish trust and work constructively with former antagonists.
In the case of Yemen – in its eighth year of war since the Houthi rebel group took over Sanaa in 2014 – recent moves towards establishing a long-term truce and possibly finding a political resolution to the conflict are welcome. But the issue of trust is particularly important when governments and the international community have to engage politically with a large, well-armed militia.
Analysts say that Saudi Arabia's talks with Iran over the past months lent momentum to political peace in Yemen and made reaching a deal with the rebels more likely, especially given that negotiations about a planned prisoner swap had been stalled for at least three years. Images this week of the Saudi ambassador to Yemen visiting Sanaa to meet Houthi figures alongside a delegation from Oman show that initial trust, of a kind, may have been established.
Nevertheless, there is a long road ahead and efforts to end long-running conflicts are often precarious. Although UN Special Envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg on Monday called the Saudi-Houthi talks, “the closest Yemen has been to real progress towards lasting peace”, questions remain about the rebels’ intentions.
There is the issue of remaining detainees in Houthi-run jails and the nature of the justice system in areas controlled by the rebels. There are also concerns about the movement’s hostility to members of Yemen’s religious minorities, such as Jews and Bahais. And the rebels will have to facilitate the work of international aid organisations who want to help the country’s millions of impoverished civilians.
It is unrealistic to expect a militant organisation like the Houthis, steeped as it is in extremist ideology, to change overnight. Like comparable movements, such as Hezbollah, it has consistently revealed its propensity for destabilisation while failing when it comes to governing. The Houthis have embedded their loyalists in Yemen’s political institutions and the organisation remains a potent source of regional instability, one that has a track record of attacking neighbouring countries.
So, caution will be needed. Nevertheless, the scenes of recent dialogue in Sanaa and the guarded optimism shown by international negotiators would have been unimaginable even a year ago given the protracted nature of Yemen’s war, which the UN estimates has claimed more than 377,000 lives and created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.
If a tentative peace process is established it could pave the way for the most important element in ending the conflict – talks between Yemeni representatives. Last week, an Omani official told The National: “It is not about the peace mediators; it is about the Yemenis themselves opening up brotherly negotiations to end the civil war.”
For that to happen, trust will need to be built. Yemen’s government, regional neighbours and the international community are ready to do their bit. Now, it is up to the Houthis to prove that they are partners for peace.