Kerry expected to press Saudi for ‘humanitarian pause’ in Yemen

Mr Kerry arrived in Riyadh on Wednesday night as Yemen's exiled foreign minister laid out who his government would be willing to discuss future peace plans with, Justin Vela reports.

US secretary of state John Kerry arrives at Riyadh air base in Saudi Arabia on May 6, 2015. Andrew Harnik, Pool/AP Photo
Powered by automated translation

RIYADH // US secretary of state John Kerry is expected to press for a “humanitarian pause” to the bombing of Yemen in talks with Saudi Arabia on Thursday.

Mr Kerry arrived in Riyadh on Wednesday night as Yemen’s exiled foreign minister laid out who his government would be willing to discuss future peace plans with.

Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of countries, including the UAE, in a campaign to halt an offensive by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels since March 25.

More than 1,000 people are believed to have been killed in the fighting. Food, clean water and petrol are in short supply, along with frequent electricity and telecom outages.

Speaking in Riyadh where he has been exiled, foreign minister Riad Yassin Abdullah said Yemen’s former president and Houthi ally Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family members would not be welcome in future peace talks.

“Ali Abdullah Saleh is out of the question,” he said.

Those who obeyed United Nations Security Council resolution 2216 – which called for an end to the fighting and the Houthi withdrawal from areas they have taken over in the past months – were welcome to join political discussions, Mr Abdullah said.

“We hope there are some wise people, some people who would like to have a political process, from the Houthis. Not those who have been mentioned in the resolution, like Abdel Malik Al Houthi,” he said.

Before leaving Djibouti for Riyadh, Mr Kerry announced a further US$68 million (Dh250m) in US aid for Yemen, describing the situation on the ground as “dire”.

“We have urged all sides to comply with humanitarian law to take every precaution to keep civilians out of the line of fire,” he said.

Already impoverished Yemen has seen conditions deteriorate since Houthi rebels took over Sanaa in February, forcing president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi and his government into exile in Saudi Arabia.

Mr Hadi then requested Saudi Arabia to take action against the Houthis, whose victories were perceived by Riyadh as a security threat.

During his visit to Riyadh, Mr Kerry is also expected to discuss a humanitarian ceasefire to allow for aid to be delivered. He will be meeting Mr Abdullah on Thursday to discuss the ceasefire.

Mr Abdullah said on Wednesday that aerial bombardment had already stopped.

“There is already a humanitarian ceasefire ... Those who are doing all kinds of shelling, killing innocent people are on the ground, are from the Houthis.”

Mr Kerry is also in Riyadh to lay the ground for talks between Arab Gulf leaders and US president Barack Obama who will meet in the United States on May 13 and 14.

On Tuesday, French president Francois Hollande spoke at a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Riyadh. He became the first foreign leader to do so, a sign of how GCC leaders are seeking to bolster ties with allies beyond Washington.

France has reportedly taken a more hardline approach in the negotiations with Iran and has moved to strengthen its relationship with Arab Gulf states through high-profile arms deals such as a $7 billion sale of fighter jets to Qatar.

Despite strengthening ties with France, GCC countries are still looking to Washington for a clear signal of support against Iran.

Governments in GCC countries have been deeply unsettled by the possibility of a deal between the P5+1 group and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear programme. Such a deal would mean the rolling back of international sanctions imposed on Iran, which GCC leaders believe could result in Tehran increasing its already strong involvement in the region.

The removal of sanctions against Iran would also mean Tehran could ramp up oil exports, further flooding an energy market already suffering a glut of crude supplies, and drive prices down further.

The bombing campaign in Yemen was launched as part of an effort by Gulf leaders to curb Iran’s influence ahead of a possible deal and signal they will take a more confrontational approach to Tehran’s ambitions than in the past.

All the GCC countries are taking part in the coalition against the Houthis except Oman, which has a smaller military than the other states and has traditionally sought to play a more neutral role in the region. “I think Oman’s position, though unofficial, is that the two sides are not ready yet for negotiations,” said Ahmed Ali Al Mukhaini, a political analyst in Muscat.

Saudi Arabia is expected to host a conference for the different Yemeni factions to discuss the country’s future on May 17.

The Houthis have rejected such a conference being held in Riyadh.