Press pause in Yemen during Ramadan

Time for a rethink now that the Houthis have finally decided to attend the UN’s Geneva talks

Houthi militia stand  in front of the ruins of Yemen's defence ministry building in Sanaa. (Hani Mohammed / AP)
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Yet again, the Houthis have shown that they are untrustworthy dialogue partners, perfidious negotiators and utterly two-faced when talking about peace and political compromise. After two days of brinkmanship, a Houthi delegation finally decided yesterday to attend United Nations-brokered talks in Geneva. On Saturday, the rebels had said they would refuse to attend because they objected to there being two delegations at the talks – one representing the exiled government of president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi and the other the “coup” makers. They said this amounted to unfair and intolerable pressure on the Houthis to withdraw from the capital, Sanaa. Had the Geneva discussions been a broader multiparty conclave, the Houthis would have participated gladly and in full measure, their representative suggested. Or words to that effect.

This might have been easier to believe had the Iran-backed rebels not already racked up a long, colourful and profoundly dispiriting record of broken promises and unkept pledges since they emerged from their northern redoubt last year. It is worth recalling the brazen arrogance of their actions back in September, after they had taken control of Sanaa by brute force. Despite agreeing to the so-called Peace and National Partnership Agreement that granted them some political power but also stipulated they withdraw their militia from the capital, the Houthis did nothing. Without apology or explanation – or indeed any sign of shame – they reneged on the agreement within days and their militias defiantly stayed on and stayed in control of Sanaa. They have performed the same sort of dance of duplicity every time that a political solution is sought, to bring peace to a country blighted by years of conflict.

By that token, it is hardly surprising that the Houthis sought to play games with the talks in Geneva. Expectations of the three-day meeting were always low, so much so that they were latterly described by officials as consultations rather than “peace talks”. Now that all the interested parties will be present in Switzerland, what should we expect them to do? The answer is to press pause on the conflict. Ramadan, a month of sacrifice and giving, is the ideal time for the Houthis to show some goodwill and reconsider options with a view to solving problems. Ordinary Yemenis will have a welcome reprieve and pundits and players a chance to rethink priorities.