Yemen’s Shia political alliance, which fought against a Saudi-led Gulf alliance for years, seeks more concessions from Riyadh, experts say.
On March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia’s bloody intervention in Yemen began with airstrikes targeting the country’s Sanaa International Airport in the capital city. The attack came as a response to the Iran-backed Houthi advance towards the strategic port city of Aden and other key locations.
Backed and armed by the US, Riyadh and its other Gulf allies, like the UAE, underestimated the Houthi threat and saw them as a meek force of resistance unable to withstand Saudi's military prowess. It proved to be a total miscalculation on Saudi's behalf. Ever since their first air campaign against the rebel group, the reverse has happened: the Houthis have marched across Yemen, taking over large parts of the country. The six years of gruelling conflict has had a catastrophic impact on Yemeni people and the Arab world’s poorest country has faced one of the worst famines in the world.
Six years on, the Saudis have appeared to face a stark reality that they are not winning the war. Riyadh has now offered the Houthis a ceasefire in order to bring the war to a close, although it's not the first gesture of peace. Last year, Saudi Arabia declared a unilateral ceasefire, which quickly collapsed.
“It is up to the Houthis now,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan in a press conference in Riyadh on Monday. "The Houthis must decide whether to put their interests first or Iran’s interests first,” he added, referring to a crucial regional actor’s role in the conflict.
Experts have different opinions on how the Houthis would react to the Saudi proposal.
“From the initial responses of the Houthi leaders, it seems that the Houthis will not accept the initiative in its current form, but rather will request amendments to it,” says Najat Sayim Khalil, a Yemeni expert and a former academic at the Sanaa University.
The Saudis offered to reopen Sanaa International Airport to the outside world and to create a joint account at the Central Bank, which could be managed by both the Houthis and the Riyadh-backed Yemeni government.
Like Khalil, Bulent Aras, professor of international relations in the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University, also thinks that the Houthis will seek more concessions from Riyadh.
“The Saudi peace plan has no new items compared to last year’s plan. The Houthis want to see all seaports and airports of the country to be reopened. They also demand to get back their ships seized by the Saudi-led coalition,” Aras tells TRT World.
“As a result, the Saudi offer does not meet the Houthi expectations clearly,” Aras says.
Mohammed Abdulsalam, the Houthis’ chief negotiator, also showed hesitation at the Saudi offer, saying that "Opening the airports and seaports is a humanitarian right and should not be used as a pressure tool."
Who is cornered?
With the Biden administration coming to power, the Houthi attacks against the Saudi-led coalition have increased. Unlike the Trump government, the new team has clearly stated that it will no longer support the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen.
"The war in Yemen must end," said President Biden in February in his first big foreign policy address. Biden’s new Yemen policy appeared to make “the Houthis feel that they could corner the Saudis in the conflict to get more concessions from them,” according to Aras.
But experts like Mahjoob Zweiri, Professor of Contemporary History at Qatar University, thinks that the Houthis might also feel as though they are being cornered under the Saudi offer, which is backed by the UN.
“They feel that this will put pressure on them,” Zweiri tells TRT World. The professor, who is one of the prominent experts on the Yemen war, points out that the Saudi initiative comes at a crucial time, when the Houthis are trying to clear Saudi-backed forces from Marib, a gas-rich city. On Sunday, Riyadh was bombing the Houthis around Marib to prevent their takeover of the city.
“This [Saudi peace offer] will complicate their efforts to control Marib, in particular. So, the [Houthi] reaction will be a sort of concern. They may create doubts about the initiative and this is what they do now. They raise more doubts about the seriousness of Saudi Arabia in doing this,” Zweiri says.
But Zweiri thinks that the international community’s positive reactions to the Saudi initiative “do not help the Houthis in that direction” and will eventually increase political pressure over them.
Experts also think Shia-powered Iran, which is the regional, political and ideological nemesis of the Saudis, could also play a critical role in persuading the Houthis to sit at the negotiating table with Riyadh.
Iranians initially said they welcome the Saudi offer and want a solution, urging external players like the Saudis and the Emirates not to interfere with Yemeni internal issues. But Iran itself is also being accused of being involved in Yemeni affairs by arming the Houthis and backing them through other political and military means.
“I think Iran will try to push not necessarily for the initiative to succeed, but they try to be positive, assuming this would be helpful even to the Houthis, because it will reduce political pressure on the Houthis,” Zweiri says.
Khalil, the Yemeni academic, also thinks that Tehran might react in a positive manner to the Saudi initiative if the process ensures to protect its political gains there. “Certainly Iran will support everything that preserves gains it has achieved through the material and logistical support provided to the Houthis,” she tells TRT World.
Iran’s political advocacy of Yemeni sovereignty pretty much means Houthi control of the government and the country, according to Aras, the Gulf analyst.
“Iran will approach plans involving Saudi-UAE bloc skeptically if those plans will not strengthen the Houthis,” Aras says.
Why the Saudis sue for peace
Experts point out different motives for the recent Saudi peace initiative - from the military failure of Riyadh’s intervention in Yemen, to the Biden administration’s end of its support of the Saudi-led coalition and desire to break up the Houthis from Iranians.
“Two days from now, the war launched by Saudi Arabia and the Arab coalition enters its seventh year, and on the ground it has not made any progress for them. On the contrary, the Houthis are the ones who advanced on all military fronts and have become threatening Saudi lands with missiles and drones,” says Khalil.
“Saudi Arabia has been in a difficult situation, being unable to continue this war, due to its material costs and political damage given to Saudi Arabia as Yemeni citizens are suffering from the biggest humanitarian crisis in history,” she adds.
Zweiri sees the new political direction in Washington behind the Saudi initiative. “The new administration does not seem to be friendly to Saudi Arabia,” the professor says.
Coming under heavy criticism from both the international community and Washington on humanitarian grounds, Riyadh has been pushed to engage with a solution in the Yemen war. As a result, the Saudis wanted to make a political “gesture” to both the Americans and the world, Zweiri says.
With the initiative, the Saudis also want to transfer the burden of the war’s terrible consequences to the Houthis, “accusing them of being responsible for the continuity of the war,” Zweiri adds.
According to Aras, the main motive behind Riyad’s ceasefire proposal is to reduce Tehran’s influence over the Houthis, “offering some privileges to them and ending the conflict incrementally by bringing peace to the country.”