Cautious Diplomacy: Saudi-Houthi talks on potential ceasefire agreement

After four days of talks with Saudi officials in Riyadh, Houthi negotiators left the Saudi capital last week. As reported by local media, the talks, focused on the prospect of reaching a cease-fire agreement, could lay the ground for a diplomatic resolution of the ongoing conflict in Yemen.

By Martina Biral

An internal conflict with regional implications

The beginning of the conflict in Yemen is commonly and erroneously identified with March 26, 2015, the day the Saudi-led military coalition began to attack the territories occupied by the Houthis, the Iranian-backed Zaidi Shiite insurgents, who had seized control of Sana’a in January 2015, arresting the President ad interim Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, the 2015 conflict turns out to be the apex of a series of crises that have swept across Yemen since 1990.
The root  of this war lies in the failed unification of the Arab Republic in the north and the democratic socialist-leaning Republic in the south. This apparent but not de facto unification was soon perceived by the southern regions of the country as an annexation.
The southern regions, despite holding 80% of Yemen’s oil and gas reserves,[1]  experienced a considerable degree of marginalization. The embezzlement of natural resource revenues and the gradual ousting of southern Yemenis from public offices and the army are just some of the factors that contributed to the outbreak of the 1994 civil war that ended with their defeat and the consolidation of power by the then-President Saleh. Discontent continued to foment rebellions concentrated particularly in the far north, where Houthi and pro-government forces ignited a series of conflicts between 2004 and 2010, commonly known as the six Sa’da wars. [2]
Marginalization from institutions has gradually involved all geographic-political peripheries, not only fueling the secessionist thrusts of the southern movement but also the autonomist aspirations of the northern militias, the Houthis, who started to move toward the border with Saudi Arabia. The conflict that has internal roots took on an increasingly regional connotation. The threat to national security was behind Riyadh’s decision to intervene in the conflict in 2015. However, the planned blitzkrieg reached an unsuccessful outcome mainly because of the increasingly strong political-military ties between the Houthis and Tehran. Since 2015, drone and missile attacks against Saudi territories have strongly intensified. [3]

The first talks on a possible peace agreement

On September 5, 2021, the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg stressed the impossibility of reaching a peace agreement given the parties’ intention to consider only “the military option.” [4]
April 2023 represented a watershed in the trajectory of this conflict. With the arrival of a Saudi delegation in Yemen, specifically in Sanaa, the first attempts of dialogue between the parties opened. However, bilateral negotiations between Houthis and Saudis, mediated by the Sultanate of Oman culminated in an unfavorable outcome from a practical perspective, leaving the parties in a stalemate.
Despite this, the negotiation session instilled hope for a potential diplomatic resolution of the conflict, that to date has claimed more than 370,000 lives according to the latest United Nations estimates. [5]
Saudi Arabia’s recalibrated aspirations, which are now oriented toward seeking a peaceful coexistence with Yemen rather than geared toward defeating the northern militia, are a possible sign of rapprochement and de-escalation of hostilities. The re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Iran in March, after being interrupted since 2016 is another pivotal step for reconstituting the negotiation process.

A possible turning point

On September 19, 2023, the Houthis left Riyadh after five days of intense discussions held by the Saudi communication and coordination team led by Saudi Ambassador to Yemen Mohammed bin Saeed Al Jaber and the Sanaa delegation, led by Houthi head of delegation Mohammed Abdul Salam.
This marks the second formal round of consultations conducted between the delegations representing Sanaa and Riyadh. Within the framework of these discussions, the parties directed their attention towards four key issues. These include the reopening of Sanaa’s ports and airport, which are currently under Houthi control; the payment of civil servants’ salaries; the reconstruction and rehabilitation of areas and infrastructure that have suffered damage or destruction during the conflict; and the need to establish a definitive timeline for the phased withdrawal of foreign military forces from the Yemeni territory.
The pro-Iranian Yemeni government’s Al-Masirah TV and Saudi media stressed the significant progress that has been made during these talks. However, Arabia pointed out the need for further discussions, urging the Yemeni delegation to promptly reconvene for further discussions “shortly”. [6]


[1] Debriefer, “Yemeni oil revenues see 34 percent increase in six months”, 23 Agosto 2022.
[2]BOUCEK, C., “War in Saada. From Local Insurrection to National Challenge”, Yemen: on the Brink, 2010.
[3]OSESGY, “Statement by the UN Special Envoy, Hans Grundberg, on the military escalation on Yemen, 28 December 2021 [EN/AR]”, 28 December 2021. 
[5]United Nations Yemen, “UN Yemen Country Results Report 2021”, 31 March 2022.
[6] REUTERS, “Houthis leave Riyadh after talks with Saudis, some progress reported-sources”, 19 September 2023.

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