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Despite hope, Yemen peace talks are oversold, experts say

April 13, 2023

Neither the ongoing negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi group, nor the upcoming prisoner swap, are tangible signals for an upcoming end of the war as most Yemeni factions remain excluded.

Fighters affiliated with Yemen's separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) on an armed pickup truck
Researchers see no real hope for peace as long as Yemen's political factions remain excluded from peace talksImage: SALEH OBAIDI/AFP

This week's hearty handshake by the Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed bin Saeed al-Jaber, and the political head of the Houthi rebels, Mahdi al-Mashat, has kindled a glimmer of hope that there could be an end to the war in Yemen. Since Sunday, Saudi and Houthi delegations have been holding peace talks in the Houthi-controlled capital, Sanaa.

The main topics on the negotiating table are a six-month truce between the two warring parties — the Saudi-backed internationally recognized government and the Iran-aligned Houthis — the reopening of the Houthi-controlled airport in Sanaa and the Red Sea port in Hodeida, the lifting of the Houthi blockade of the government-controlled city of Taiz, the resumption of oil exports from government-held oil fields via Houthi gateways and the consolidation of Yemen's economy.

However, despite the international hope that has accompanied this latest round of talks, there are some doubts peace could be imminent.

One reason is that Yemen's Presidential Council, the executive body of the internationally recognized government, was not included in the negotiations, nor were any other Yemeni parties, such as the separatists of the Southern Transitional Council.

A girl carries bottles of water filled from a charity tank at a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) near Sanaa
According to official UN figures, millions of Yemenis now depend on international aid for survivalImage: KHALED ABDULLAH/REUTERS

Yemen's two main political factions, the Houthis and the government, have been at war since 2014 when Iran-backed Houthi rebels seized Sanaa and ousted the government. In 2015, the situation escalated when a Saudi-led coalition of nine countries intervened in an effort to restore the internationally recognized government in the city of Aden, on the Red Sea coast.

The brutal conflict — widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran — has caused almost half a million deaths and resulted in the internal displacement of thousands of people. According to the United Nations, at least one-third of the population of 31 million is fully dependent on international aid. The situation in the war-torn country is widely considered one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

Saudis meet Houthi rebels over Yemen truce

Peace talks 'may even increase the risk of a disintegration'

Marwa Baabbad, director of the Berlin-based think tank Yemen Policy Center Germany, doesn't think the current talks are actually aimed at ending the war. "Major differences between the Yemeni parties must be addressed to open a window for sustainable peace", she told DW. 

"Oman's purpose was not to broker a wider Yemen national peace but to convince the Houthis to end their cross-border attacks, and ease the relationship between the Saudis and the Houthis," she said.

The Houthi group could indeed be next on Saudi Arabia's list of efforts to mend ties with regional enemies, after agreeing to reestablish diplomatic relations with archenemy Iran in March after seven years of frozen ties. And it's no secret that Saudi Arabia has become highly interested in exiting the costly proxy war in Yemen.

Abdulghani Al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, told DW he believed Yemen was being used as a pawn. "Saudi Arabia is pursuing short-term objectives at the expense of its long-term interests in durable stability and security in the region," he said.

"Saudi Arabia has given the Houthis the right to represent Yemen at the expense of all other parties," he added, warning that this, in combination with the Houthis' unwillingness to share political power, could accelerate the destabilization of the country.

"The current talks may even increase the risk of a disintegration of the state, as the other parties will not agree to live under Houthi control," Al-Iryani said.

He referred, above all, to a movement in the country's south that has been following its own agenda since 2017. The separatists of the Southern Transitional Council, or STC, will, in Al-Iryani's view, most likely increase their efforts to declare a unilateral secession.

Fighters affiliated with Yemen's separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) on the street in Aden
Yemen's Southern Transitional Council might soon ramp up efforts to separate, destabilizing the country even furtherImage: SALEH OBAIDI/AFP

This could lead Yemen into further instability. "Neither the STC are ready to control all of the south, nor the Houthis can control all of the north, so we are facing the disintegration of the Yemeni state and not a separation into two states," he said.

He also doubts there would be international recognition for the Houthis or the STC as new governmental bodies.

This would, in turn, negatively affect international investment and could slow down reconstruction once the war ends.

Peace requires reconstruction, reconciliation and economic recovery

Hisham Al-Omeisy, a conflict analyst and senior Yemen adviser at the Brussels-based European Institute of Peace, also doubts that the exclusive peace talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis could lead to tangible peace.

"Yemen has 21 governorates with 333 districts, each with its own unique problems. Without inclusivity, without a bottom-up approach in Yemen, any peace process is not going to be sustainable," he told DW.

Al-Omeisy said Yemen needed reconstruction plans, pathways to reconciliation and economic recovery to achieve peace. "And without all of that, and without trust-building measures as well, we are overselling the current peace talks."

This handout picture obtained from the Twitter account of Abdulqader al-Mortada, head of the Huthi National Committee for Prisoners Affairs (NCPA), on April 8, 2023 shows 13 prisoners released by the Saudi authorities in exchange for a Saudi prisoner freed earlier
The UN-brokered prisoner swap is most likely to start this week, with hundreds of families hoping to be reunitedImage: TWITTER OF ABDULQADER AL-MORTADA/AFP

Meanwhile, hopes are rising that a UN-brokered prisoner swap will actually take place later this week. In March, the Yemeni government promised to release 706 detained Houthis, while Houthi rebels said they would release 181 prisoners in exchange.

As of Thursday morning, the first 14 prisoners had been exchanged, with Majid Fadael, the official spokesman for the government delegation negotiating the exchange, confirming the swap on Twitter.

Edited by: Martin Kuebler

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa