Yemeni Political Dialogue in Riyadh?

by Gabriele vom Bruck | published March 16, 2015 - 9:27am

On March 10, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) invited rival Yemeni factions to hold peace talks in Riyadh, the Saudi Royal Court announced.

The Saudis know only too well that the leadership of Ansar Allah, or the Houthi movement, will be reticent about taking part in negotiations with President-in-waiting ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and other Yemeni politicians in their capital -- not least because Saudi Arabian forces killed dozens of Houthi-affiliated civilians and their neighbors in air raids across the border in 2009-2010. The kingdom has declared Ansar Allah a terrorist organization. When the Houthis left the interim government in Sanaa no choice but to resign, Riyadh suspended payments on its huge aid package to Yemen. Until recently talks between the Saudis and the Houthis happened through indirect channels. Such contacts have existed since the ceasefire agreement of 2010 but Ansar Allah’s leader ‘Abd al-Malik al-Houthi officially acknowledged them only on March 15. It is not clear whether the Saudis’ redirection of “aid” to certain political stakeholders in Aden -- designated by the Gulf states as Yemen’s interim capital -- means that they have also stopped paying the Houthis to police the border.

Saudi Arabia has sponsored salafi institutions that have labeled the Zaydi Shi‘a of Yemen as heretics since the 1970s. Its state-run media have attacked the Houthis, a Zaydi movement, on a daily basis. The House of Sa‘ud hardly qualifies as a bona fide negotiator. It sees its mission in Yemen as kingmaker rather than facilitator of talks between opposing factions. Saudi Arabia is not interested in guaranteeing the Houthis a fair share of power in a future government. Let’s not forget that the so-called GCC initiative was designed to keep the “revolutionary youth” and the Houthis out of the political process following the departure of ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih from the presidency.

The Omani capital of Muscat would be a more appropriate venue for talks between the Houthis and opposition groups that formed a new national alliance on March 14. This alliance is to replace the Joint Meeting Parties that aimed to overthrow Salih. Oman has no record of direct interference in Yemeni affairs, and has good relations with all the political factions there, as well as with Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

The Saudis’ proposal to hold talks in Riyadh might be a strategic ploy enabling them to blame the Houthis for rejecting a political settlement in the event of wide-ranging hostilities. April Longley Alley of the International Crisis Group appears to believe that the Saudis themselves may not even be interested in peace. She recently argued at the Council on Foreign Relations that “it [Saudi Arabia] is aggressive in attempts to diplomatically isolate the Houthis and supports groups that will confront them militarily. It looks like Saudi Arabia is on the warpath.” By arming the Houthis’ rivals, whose weapons might fall into the hands of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia seems to envision a scenario akin to Syria and Iraq, where its enemies are fighting each other. Greater instability and civil war in Yemen may not work in the Saudis’ favor, however. The visit of a delegation carrying a letter from King Salman to Ansar Allah’s leader, shortly after the Houthis held military exercises near the Saudi Arabian border on March 11, suggests that the Saudis have reached this conclusion themselves.

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