Houthi Advances and Secret Saudi-Iranian Talks Prompt New Conciliatory Tone from Saudis

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SANA’A, YEMEN — Amin Jayyash, a laborer at Yemen’s Sana’a International Airport, is celebrating Labor Day (May Day) as an unemployed man. But, unlike many workers the world over, he did not lose his job due to Covid-19, but because Saudi Arabia has effectively put his employer out of business by restricting nearly all flights to it as part of a six-plus year campaign of total war on Yemen. Amin is among over 5 million Yemeni workers — 65% of the overall workforce — who have lost their jobs as a result of the ongoing war and blockade on the country, according to newly released data from the General Federation of Trade Unions of Yemen.

According to the Yemeni Workers Authority, more than 3,355 factories, 4,134 agricultural fields,  193 power stations, 793 water storage tanks and pieces of related infrastructure, 38 government-run universities, and 95 higher-education institutions and community colleges have been destroyed by Western weapons dropped on Yemen by the Saudi-led Coalition. The organization added that at least 17,000 workers have been killed or injured on the job as a result of the war.

Despite the grim statistics, many Yemeni workers celebrated this year’s Labor Day with a renewed sense of optimism, as they see hope for an end to the war and blockade on the horizon as a result of the apparently impending defeat of Saudi-backed fighters in Yemen’s oil-rich Marib province. That and the escalation of Houthi attacks on Saudi targets, including oil facilities and airports, have provided the leverage needed to bolster international efforts, led by U.S. Special Envoy Timothy Lenderking in conjunction with the United Nations, to place enough pressure on Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to force him to at least pay lip service to putting an end to the war he spearheaded over six years ago.

A new tone?

In a television interview broadcast across Saudi state-owned media outlets on Tuesday night, Salman flirted with the idea of reconciliation with the Houthis, using uncharacteristically endearing language to describe the group and acknowledging their Arab identity. While the latter description may seem trivial, it is a stark departure from the Kingdom’s efforts to portray the group as an outside force, an Iranian proxy bent on the destruction of ethnically Arab Yemen. This portrayal is, of course, demonstrably false, as Ansar Allah (the political wing of the Houthis) is comprised of a coalition of indigenous Yemeni tribes and the movement was active in the country long before Iran even existed in its current form, created as a stalwart against militant Sunni attackers backed by Saudi Arabia as far back as the 1960s.

“We still have our offer open to [have a] ceasefire and provide economic support and everything they need as long as the Houthis agree to a ceasefire and sitting at the negotiating table,” Salman said in the interview, in seemingly stark contrast to earlier Saudi ceasefire offers pegged on a Houthi withdrawal from Marib but without the concomitant lifting of the blockade and military occupation demanded by the Houthis nor the requirement that Saudi Arabia cease its support for the highly unpopular former president, Abdu Rabo Mansour Hadi. Hadi was ousted during the Arab Spring but placed back into power to run a sort of parallel government in absentia ever since.

The Saudi offer allegedly included generous economic support, huge sums of cash for Ansar Allah political leaders, and compensation to rebuild the war-destroyed country. It also came with the promise that Saudi Arabia would “allow” the movement to rule the entirety of northern Yemen with international recognition. In return, however, the Kingdom demanded something that the Houthis were unwilling to cede, that they drop their alliance with Iran and abandon support for the Palestinian cause.

In fact, Salman’s half-hearted appeal for peace did little to convince Ansar Allah’s leadership to ease the pressure on the Kingdom. Mohammed Abdulsalam, the group’s chief negotiator, responded to Salman’s statement by saying:

Positive words about Yemen must be accompanied with action… Any positive discourse on Yemen hinges on practical application, like lifting the blockade and giving priority to humanitarian issues, as they are urgent and touch the needs of all Yemeni people. Such a step would be welcomed and prove the legitimacy of a trend towards peace in Yemen.”

What is behind Saudi shift?

Mohammed bin Salman’s change of course in Yemen came just days after Saudi officials held secret talks with Iranian officials in Iraq, which culminated in statements by Saudi officials hinting that they were ready to seek reconciliation with Iran. A high-ranking member of Ansar Allah told MintPress, on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, that the offer for reconciliation came tied to a demand that Tehran pressure Ansar Allah to halt its drone and ballistic missile attacks against Saudi oil facilities, abandon efforts to recapture the oil-rich Marib province, and accept a Saudi-brokered peace deal in the war-torn country.

Ostensibly, Salman’s statements come in the context of international efforts to rekindle the Iran nuclear deal. But the facts on the ground cannot be ignored. Namely, the economic repercussions of the missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities that have been launched by the Ansar Allah-backed Yemen Army and the group’s advances in the oil-rich Marib province, a lucrative source of income for the Saudi state-owned ARAMCO oil company. In fact, just two weeks ago, Ansar Allah launched more than 20 operations using dozens of drones and ballistic missiles against Saudi facilities in Riyadh, Jeddah, Jizan and Najran. Some of the operations were publicly announced and others were kept secret. Moreover, a high-ranking commander of Saudi forces — Saleh Dirham Ramadi of Brigade 129, who was rumored to be a ringleader of ISIS — was killed in clashes with Houthi forces west of Marib.

Feature photo | Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, accompanies Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 9, 2021. Photo | Saudi Press Agency via AP

Ahmed AbdulKareem is a Yemeni journalist based in Sana’a. He covers the war in Yemen for MintPress News as well as local Yemeni media.

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