Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1386, (22 - 28 March 2018)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1386, (22 - 28 March 2018)

Ahram Weekly

No way out in Yemen?

Three years of war have led to secret talks, a military standstill, and a humanitarian tragedy in Yemen, writes Haitham Nouri


No way out in Yemen?
No way out in Yemen?

As the Arab Coalition intervention in the conflict in Yemen enters its fourth year, there have been reports of secret talks between the Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia, together with a UN declaration that every child in Yemen now needs humanitarian aid.

Reuters quoted Yemeni diplomatic and political sources as saying this week that talks were underway in the Omani capital Muscat between Houthi spokesperson Mohamed Abdel-Salam and Saudi officials to end the conflict that has killed thousands, displaced millions, and pushed Yemen to the edge of famine.

It added that the negotiations are direct talks that do not include the government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, which is recognised by the international community and supported by the Saudi-led Arab Coalition.

Yemen Information Minister Muammar Al-Iryani denied the news in a tweet, stating that “Reuters reports quoting a Yemeni official about negotiations with the Houthis in Riyadh are objectionable and untrue.”

“It is unfortunate that a renowned news agency like Reuters is reporting these lies and attributing them to official Yemeni sources,” he said, urging Reuters to “immediately apologise for this mistake, which is an insult to its professionalism and reputation”.

Yemeni journalist Nabiha Al-Haydari reported in an article carried by the SABA Yemen News Agency that “this is normal because the Aden government is not participating in the talks, and if the talks are revealed this would be very embarrassing for it.”

However, both sides mentioned by Reuters disagreed about the talks. An official in the coalition denied to the US news agency CNN that the Saudis and the Houthis were in talks, saying that “Saudi Arabia is not in any form of talks with Iranian-backed Houthi militias.”

The source, who remained anonymous, said that “the coalition confirms its support of UN efforts to reach a political solution among all Yemeni parties based on the Gulf Initiative, its mechanisms, the Yemen national dialogue and the relevant UN resolutions, most notably UN Security Council Resolution 2216.”

However, the Houthis confirmed that there were talks underway. CNN quoted a source in the office of Houthi leader Saleh Al-Sammad, as saying that “talks between Saudi and Houthi officials in Oman began last month and are continuing under the auspices of Oman and the UN special envoy to Yemen.”

The source added that “three officials from our side are attending the talks in Muscat, namely spokesman Abdel-Salam, Abdel-Malek Al-Agari and Hamza Al-Houthi.”

He said that the talks had begun in February and taken off in March but had stalled on three key issues. One unidentified Yemeni minister told CNN that Abdel-Salam had spent an entire month in Oman for “preliminary talks”.

 “Abdel-Salam met several Western and Gulf officials in an attempt to reach a roadmap for peace talks. He has also travelled to Saudi Arabia several times over the past two years to participate in peace talks because the war in Yemen benefits no one,” he said.

Reuters quoted unnamed diplomatic sources as saying the talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis began two months ago, which coincides with the appointment of Britain’s Martin Griffiths as the new UN envoy to Yemen. The sources said that “there seems to be a desire by the Houthis and the Arab Coalition to reach a comprehensive deal” on the three-year conflict.

Hadi’s government held talks with the Houthis in Switzerland and Kuwait, most recently in August 2016, but no progress was made.

Abdullah Al-Sharqi, a professor of sociology at Sanaa University, said recent reports of talks “are most likely” because of the military standstill on all fronts. The Arab Coalition has been unable to reinstate Hadi’s government in Sanaa, or end the siege of Taiz, or enter the Hudaydah Port, or win the battle in Aden. “At the same time, it’s impossible for the Houthis to defeat Saudi Arabia despite intense military operations on the border. And the humanitarian situation cannot continue either,” Al-Sharqi said.

The Saudi-led Coalition, which includes Gulf and other Arab countries, launched a war on the Houthis (members of the Yemen Zaidi Shiite community) and their former ally former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh on 26 March 2015 under the pretext of supporting the recognised government in Sanaa.

The Houthis began an “uprising” in their stronghold in Saada before entering Sanaa in October 2014 and took complete control of the capital in February 2015 when Hadi fled. Hadi had come to power after Saleh stepped down in November 2011 after a popular uprising on 27 January. He went to his birthplace of Aden after the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, where he declared a temporary capital.

However, supporting the recognised government of Yemen has not been the real motive for the Gulf countries in intervening in Yemen. Rather, they hope to undermine Iran and its influence in the Arab world, which Saudi Arabia and its allies accuse of supporting the Houthis.

Both Tehran and the Houthis deny the claim, however. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubair has repeatedly said his country will not allow Iran to take control of Yemen. Al-Sharqi said the current talks were due to fractures in the two military camps and it was unlikely they would mend.

The Houthis quarreled with Saleh after he attempted to reach out to Saudi Arabia, and this ended with clashes in Sanaa that killed him and several of his relatives. A few weeks later, fighting broke out in Aden between the South Transitional Council (southern separatists) demanding the reinstatement of the former Republic of South Yemen, and the Reform Party, the political front of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen.

 The southerners won the battle and took control of the city with the help of the UAE, the second most powerful country in the Arab Coalition.

“There is no real power on the ground except the Houthis,” Al-Sharqi said, “because Saleh’s network of interests has not decided its position yet, and his son Ahmed and nephew Tarek have not taken any serious steps to fill the vacuum he left behind.”

The UN children’s fund UNICEF issued a report earlier this year entitled “Born into War: 1,000 Days of Lost Childhood” about the humanitarian situation of children in Yemen, among those most affected by the war.

The report revealed that three million children had been born in Yemen during the war and known nothing other than violence. UNICEF launched a campaign on developing early childhood in 2015 by focusing on the nutritional, health and psychological needs of a child in the first 1,000 days of life. The reality is grim for children in Yemen.

The report states that one third of infants have been born premature, 30 per cent have been acutely underweight at birth, and 25,000 have died at birth or in the first months of life. More than half the children in Yemen do not have access to clean water, and children under five account for 25 per cent of cholera and acute diarrhea cases.

Meanwhile, 1.8 million children are suffering from severe malnutrition, including 400,000 suffering from acute malnutrition and “fighting for their lives,” according to the report.

In late 2016, the UN warned that Yemen was heading towards famine along with South Sudan, Somalia and areas in northeastern Nigeria.

Saudi Crown-Prince Mohamed bin Salman was met with demonstrators in London protesting against his country’s role in Yemen earlier this month, when British Prime Minister Theresa May raised the issue in talks with the prince and expressed “her concern over the humanitarian situation in Yemen,” according to a statement from her office.

However, it appears Saudi Arabia cannot end the war in Yemen now because this would help the Houthis take control of the country and by extension help Iran, which is accused of supporting them.

The Houthis cannot stop the war either because this would mean their rivals would control the country and exact revenge on them. But the war nevertheless cannot continue as it has done, since the tragic humanitarian conditions in Yemen have now reached the extreme of famine.


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