Saudi Arabia offers ceasefire plan to Yemen rebels

Announcing proposal, Saudi FM says the Houthis ‘must decide whether to put their interests first or Iran’s interests first’

Smoke rises after Saudi-led airstrikes on an army base in Sanaa, Yemen, March 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed, File)
Smoke rises after Saudi-led airstrikes on an army base in Sanaa, Yemen, March 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed, File)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi Arabia announced a plan Monday to offer Yemen’s Houthi rebels a ceasefire in the country’s yearslong war and allow a major airport to reopen in its capital, the kingdom’s latest attempt to halt fighting that has sparked the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in the Arab world’s poorest nation.

The move by Saudi Arabia comes after Yemen’s Houthi rebels stepped up a campaign of drone and missile attacks targeting the kingdom’s oil sites, briefly shaking global energy prices amid the coronavirus pandemic. It also comes as Riyadh tries to rehabilitate its image with the US under President Joe Biden. Saudi Arabia has waged a war that saw it internationally criticized for airstrikes killing civilians and embargoes exacerbating hunger in a nation on the brink of famine.

Whether such a plan will take hold remains another question. A unilaterally declared Saudi ceasefire collapsed last year. Fighting rages around the crucial city of Marib and the Saudi-led coalition launched airstrikes as recently as Sunday targeting Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. A United Nations mission said another suspected airstrike hit a food-production company in the port city of Hodeida.

The Houthis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“It is up to the Houthis now,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told journalists in a televised news conference in Riyadh. “The Houthis must decide whether to put their interests first or Iran’s interests first.”

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan speaks during a press conference in the capital Riyadh on March 22, 2021, announcing an offer of a ceasefire with Yemen’s Houthi rebels. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP)

Saudi Arabia said the plan would be presented both to the Houthis and Yemen’s internationally recognized government later Monday. Both would need to accept the plan in order for it to move forward, with any timeline likely to be set by UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths.

Saudi Arabia has had direct contact with the Houthis prior to Monday’s announcement, as well as through intermediaries like the UN, the US and the sultanate of Oman.

Saudi Arabia made two concessions to the Houthis in the plan, while not offering everything the rebels previously wanted. The first involves reopening Sanaa International Airport, a vital link for Yemen to the outside world that hasn’t seen regular commercial flights since 2015. Officials did not immediately identify what commercial routes they wanted to see resume.

The second would see taxes, customs and other fees generated by Yemen’s Hodeida port while importing oil put into a joint account of Yemen’s Central Bank. That money would be accessible to the Houthis and Yemen’s recognized government to pay civil servants and fund other programs, officials said.

The Saudi government and the Yemeni government they back have accused the Houthis of stealing those funds in the past. A UN panel of experts’ report this year said the Houthis “diverted” some $200 million from that fund.

“Only a small portion of the funds were used to pay salaries,” the report said.

Houthi Shiite fighters wearing army uniforms ride on a pickup truck as they guard a street during a demonstration in Sanaa, Yemen, January 23, 2015. Their sign reads ‘death to Israel, cursed be the Jews’ (AP/Hani Mohammed)

Whether the Houthis accept the Saudi proposal remains in question. On Friday, Houthi leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi proposed a nationwide ceasefire contingent upon Saudi Arabia reopening Sanaa’s airport to commercial flights and lifting restrictions on cargo shipments to Hodeida. The port there handles the majority of the country’s vital imports. Both are long-standing demands of the Houthis, who swept into Sanaa from their northwestern strongholds in September 2014.

A Saudi-led coalition entered the conflict in March 2015 as the Houthis threatened to take Yemen’s port city of Aden and completely overrun the country’s internationally recognized government. The Saudis promised the offensive — the brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — would be over in short order.

Six years later, the fighting rages on. The war has killed some 130,000 people, including over 13,000 civilians slain in targeted attacks, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Project. Tens of thousands of children have died of starvation and disease. Just last week, Griffiths warned that “the war is back in full force.”

Since Biden took office, his administration reversed a decision by US president Donald Trump naming the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, allowing American aid to flow into rebel-held territory. He also ended US support for the Saudis in the war.

Biden sent the US envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, to the region to negotiate a political settlement. Lenderking said earlier this month that the Houthis had an unspecified ceasefire proposal before them for a “number of days,” without elaborating. He reportedly met with Houthi officials while on a February trip to Oman, something the State Department has declined to acknowledge.

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