When Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed bin Saeed al-Jaber, traveled to Sana'a in early April, along with envoys from Oman, to hold direct, public talks with the Houthis for the first time since 2015, it sparked a glimmer of hope for a breakthrough for peace in the country. More than eight years after Riyadh intervened militarily to roll back the gains of the militant group that now controls large swaths of northern Yemen, the Saudis and the Houthis were supposedly committed to negotiations. What diplomats described as "serious and positive" meetings in Sana'a, mediated by Oman, took place amid the second-largest prisoner exchange of the war. Further rounds of negotiations were expected to follow.
But more than two months later, the Saudi-Houthi talks, with their ambitious aim to establish a "transitional period" in Yemen, have not yet produced a permanent truce, following last year's expired U.N.-brokered cease-fire, let alone paved the way to anything like final status peace talks. The negotiations appear to be frozen. "It's not easy to be clear about next steps," the Saudi envoy, al-Jaber, admitted in an interview with AFP in early May, while another diplomat working on Yemen told the news agency that hopes for a quick solution "have somewhat receded."
For his part, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, traveled to Sana'a and Aden during the first week of May in hopes of establishing a lasting cease-fire and an inclusive, U.N.-mediated political process. On May 17, Grundberg briefed the Security Council on the latest developments in Yemen and on his efforts "to secure an agreement on a way forward that could sustainably end the conflict." Yet by the end of the month, Grundberg's tone had shifted slightly, as he told the China Global Television Network that a lasting truce in Yemen is "possible, but not easy." Just this week, he said at a conference in The Hague that despite the ongoing informal truce in Yemen, the warring parties "have unfortunately also taken some steps backward."
Several Yemeni analysts and observers have from the outset been wary of the narrow scope of the negotiations, which exclude a wide range of Yemeni actors. "The Saudi-Houthi talks reached a dead end," says Abdulghani al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies, in an interview with Democracy in Exile. "There was no possible scenario for them to succeed since other Yemeni parties were excluded. The two sides," he warns, "are now preparing for the next round of violence."
"The Saudi-Houthi talks reached a dead end. There was no possible scenario for them to succeed since other Yemeni parties were excluded."
- Abdulghani al-Iryani
An editorial published by the Sana'a Center in March cautioned that diplomacy only between the Saudis and the Houthis "ensures two things: first, that the negotiators will suffer from an informational deficit, and will fail to comprehend or address the myriad grievances of those not present; and second, that they are unlikely to elicit buy-in from the numerous actors denied a place at the table."
Ibrahim Jalal, a non-resident scholar with the Middle East Institute, singled out the Houthis as spoilers. "Although there were hopes for a new form of de-escalation agreement, Saudi-Houthi talks have stalled for the same reason the truce collapsed," he tells Democracy in Exile, referring to last year's cease-fire. "The Houthis once again upped their game by pursuing a maximalist position while they buy time as they deepen their economic warfare against the Yemeni government. For negotiations to move forward, they should be linked to intra-Yemeni peace talks."
Jalal points out that "Saudi-Houthi talks are not new and have taken place sporadically since at least 2016." The difference this year was that their "scope expanded to discuss issues beyond border security and non-conventional attacks, or in other words, sovereign issues that should be discussed by the Yemeni government, with the backing of Saudi Arabia"—that is, not just between Saudi and Houthi representatives.
With Saudi-Houthi talks now at an impasse, they reflect what many experts saw as the flaws in limited negotiations that left out many Yemeni parties, as well as countries in the region that have also played major roles in the war.
Yemen's new Presidential Leadership Council—the eight-member body that was installed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates last year to replace President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi—has been sidelined from the Saudi-Houthi talks, though it still believes it will be involved in eventual intra-Yemeni dialogue that will hopefully be held under U.N. auspices. The negotiations between Riyadh and the Houthis also exclude the UAE, which had been Saudi Arabia's main coalition partner in Yemen fighting the Houthis but later shifted its priorities to supporting its own Yemeni allies and proxies, mainly the secessionist Southern Transitional Council. The STC controls much of southern Yemen and sees itself as a government-in-waiting for an independent South Yemen, which was a separate state from 1967 until Yemen's unification in 1990.
Since the Saudi envoy's visit to Sana'a on April 9, the Emirati government has not officially commented on the Saudi-Houthi negotiations. But two days after al-Jaber's visit, the UAE-aligned STC, whose leadership is represented on the Presidential Leadership Council, said that southern Yemen seeks to restore "its usurped state with full sovereignty as a strategic goal for the people of the South," insisting that it would not accept any alternatives to this goal. Moreover, senior STC officials have stated that due to their exclusion from the Saudi-Houthi talks, any prospective deal between Riyadh and the Houthis would not be "binding on us."
Riyadh's decision to pursue direct talks only with the Houthis seems to have inflamed tensions in Yemen's drawn-out conflict, particularly in southern Yemen. For years, Saudi Arabia and the UAE appeared to be committed, at least publicly, to what Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni research fellow at Chatham House, has called "a narrative of alignment" in Yemen, despite their "increasingly divergent priorities." In fact, that divergence of interests has manifested "in recurring cycles of violent conflict between their allies" in the south, as Nadwa al-Dawsari, a Yemeni researcher with the Middle East Institute, has noted, especially since the rise of the STC in 2017.
Multiple rounds of fighting since then, pitting Saudi and Emirati allies against each other, including Yemeni government forces, have fueled tensions and destabilized the south. In May, the STC signed what it called the Southern National Charter in Aden, calling for the "the restoration of the state of the south with its political and geographical borders"—that is, before the unification of Yemen in 1990. The emboldened STC is now trying to assert itself as the legitimate representative of southern Yemen, driven in part by grievances over being shut out of the peace talks between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia.
If it is only the Saudis and the Houthis at the negotiating table, there is little prospect for comprehensive and lasting peace in Yemen.
- Mohammed Ali Kalfood
As it continues to expand and absorb more political parties and groups into its ranks in southern Yemen, the Emirati-backed STC is currently eying Hadhramaut, Yemen's largest governorate and "the last stronghold of northern-based forces," according to Maged al-Madhaji, the co-founder of the Sana'a Center. The STC claims that the vast majority of people in Hadhramaut have "made their choice and taken the lead in the struggle for the independence of the south."
But the STC's ambitions in Hadhramaut may look more like total control. In September 2022, when STC-aligned forces seized the entire southern governorate of Shabwa, they expelled all forces affiliated with the Saudi-backed Islah party, Yemen's largest Sunni Islamist bloc.
With growing rifts over their competing economic and political influence in southern Yemen, tensions between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and their respective Yemeni allies, are likely to escalate. Such rifts have already fueled the looming showdown in Hadhramaut, which holds nearly 80 percent of Yemen's oil reserves and with which Saudi Arabia shares a long border.
These competing Saudi and Emirati interests in Yemen are another element complicating the exclusive Saudi-Houthi talks. "Saudi Arabia has national security concerns, while the UAE has strategic interests" in Yemen, says Jalal, "so each will attempt to influence what they can to secure their goals." But while the Saudis may aim to prevent the Emiratis and their allies from expanding their influence in Hadhramaut, al-Iryani believes that "the UAE will not allow Saudi Arabia to implement its designs on" the governorate.
If Saudi Arabia and the UAE were previously partners in Yemen, despite these hostilities between their respective allies and proxies on the ground, as al-Muslimi has put it, "one can only imagine how a confrontational relationship will play out."
This just underscores the complexity of any negotiated settlement in Yemen, and the need for inclusive talks that involve the many different Yemeni actors and outside forces vying for power and influence in the country. As al-Dawsari has warned, "the international community is eager for a 'success story' in Yemen, even if that means a sham political settlement that will likely see the civil war continue." If it is only the Saudis and the Houthis at the negotiating table, there is little prospect for comprehensive and lasting peace.