Yemen’s Iran-backed rebels head for talks in territory of foe Saudi Arabia

Talks come as a UN-brokered ceasefire in years-long civil war largely holds, and after Riyadh and Tehran announced a rapprochement in March

Supporters of Yemen's Houthi rebels raise portraits of their leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi during a rally in the capital Sanaa on June 3, 2022. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP)
Supporters of Yemen's Houthi rebels raise portraits of their leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi during a rally in the capital Sanaa on June 3, 2022. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP)

SANAA, Yemen — Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels left for Riyadh Thursday on their first publicly announced visit since a Saudi-led coalition launched hostilities in 2015, raising hopes of progress toward ending the conflict.

An Omani plane carrying a 10-strong Houthi delegation and five officials from mediator Oman headed towards the Saudi capital for what a Houthi government official said would be a five-day visit.

The talks, announced only hours earlier, come five months after Saudi officials held discussions in Sanaa, and as a UN-brokered ceasefire largely holds despite officially lapsing last October.

“The delegation will head to Riyadh to continue consultations with the Saudi side,” the Houthis’ political chief, Mahdi al-Mashat, said via the rebels’ Saba news agency.

“Peace was and still is our first option and everyone must work to achieve it.”

Yemen was plunged into war when the Houthis overran the capital Sanaa in September 2014, prompting the Saudi-led intervention the following March.

The ensuing fighting has forced millions from their homes, causing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises in a country already pummeled by decades of conflict and upheaval.

Yemenis watch a speech by Yemen’s Houthi rebels leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on October 8, 2022. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP)

The six-month ceasefire that expired last October is still mostly observed but moves towards peace have been slow since the Saudi delegation visited Sanaa in April.

The Houthi delegation took off on the Omani plane days after Saudi de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met Oman’s sultan on his way back from the G20 summit in India.

‘Back rooms to the living room’

“Optimism exists regarding the mediation and the Omani efforts to achieve peace in Yemen,” Ali al-Qhoom, a member of the Houthis’ political council, posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The head of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies think tank, Majed al-Madhaji, told AFP that the Houthi visit “is like moving the relationship between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia from the back rooms to the living room.”

By organizing talks in Riyadh, both sides are “legitimizing this relationship and giving it an additional impetus.”

“On the political level, it is an advanced step to end Saudi Arabia’s direct role in Yemen and for the Houthis to acknowledge its role as a mediator,” in addition to being one of the parties to the conflict, he added.

Supporters of Yemen’s Houthi rebels attend a protest against the blockade imposed on their country by the Saudi coalition, in the capital Sanaa, on January 6, 2023. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP)

Moves towards peace in Yemen were boosted when heavyweight rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran announced a surprise rapprochement in March, seven years after they broke off ties.

The Houthi demands include payment of their civil servants’ salaries by the displaced Yemeni government, and the launch of new destinations from Sanaa airport, which was closed until last year when commercial flights resumed to Jordan and Egypt.

Underlining Yemen’s problems, UN agencies and 91 international and Yemeni non-governmental organizations said on Thursday that 21.6 million people — 75 percent of the population — needed humanitarian assistance, calling for more funding.

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