Mohammed Ali Kalfood is a freelance Yemeni journalist based between Sana’a and Hudaydah. The former managing editor of the Yemen Observer, he has written for The New York Times, The Intercept, The New Humanitarian (formerly IRIN), The Telegraph and Al Jazeera.
Abdu Ali is a 43-year-old former teacher, displaced in the city of Hudaydah on the western coast of Yemen. In 2017, he and his family escaped the hostilities near their hometown of al-Duraihimi, in southern Hudaydah governorate. Al-Duraihimi was the epicenter of the battle for Hudaydah between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition that spilled into almost all the governorate, before the warring parties signed the U.N.-brokered Stockholm Agreement in June 2018. The deal included a cease-fire that averted a siege of Hudaydah and its three seaports.
Despite that agreement, soldiers from both sides were never redeployed from the area as agreed and hostilities never actually fully ended. The ongoing fighting for Hudaydah has uprooted thousands of families from their homes and left sprawling areas strewn with landmines, particularly in its southern districts, including al-Duraihimi.
"We have had to abandon our hometown for five years; I used to be a teacher there, looking after my four kids along with their mother," Abdu told me. "Now I work at a small restaurant earning a small daily wage that can barely help."
This is the reality facing so many Yemenis hoping for a breakthrough for peace, following week-long talks between Saudi and Houthi officials, mediated by Oman, that just wrapped up in Sana'a. The first direct, public negotiations between Saudi and Houthi representatives since the war began more than eight years ago, they represent rare progress in international efforts toward a peaceful settlement to end Yemen's multifaceted political conflict, following the expiration of a nationwide U.N.-brokered cease-fire last year. They come just weeks after the unexpected rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Houthis' main backer, that was brokered in Beijing.
Unlike previous talks that led to last year's truce or the 2018 Stockholm Agreement, this new round of Saudi-Houthi negotiations has a wider and much more ambitious aim: establishing a political transition in Yemen.
- Mohammed Ali Kalfood
The talks were intended to "stabilize the truce and ceasefire, support the prisoner exchange process and explore venues of dialogue between Yemeni components to reach a sustainable, comprehensive political solution in Yemen," Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed bin Saeed al-Jaber, tweeted on Monday. Mohammed al-Bukaiti, a Houthi leader, also tweeted that Saudi and Omani officials would discuss "ways to achieve a comprehensive and lasting peace in the region." He said it would be "a triumph for both parties to achieve peace," urging all sides to take steps to "preserve a peaceful atmosphere and prepare to turn the page of the past."
Previous negotiations involving the warring parties had gone on since 2019 through U.N. mediation, but with no clear end in sight. Those U.N.-brokered talks were also never as public or so high profile as the Saudi ambassador traveling to Sana'a to meet with Houthi leaders like he did last week. But "unlike in previous times, we sensed earnestness from Saudi Arabia," al-Bukhaiti said. Now a draft agreement is reportedly on the table, which is itself in line with the U.N. process that resulted in the initial six-month cease-fire last April.
This draft agreement is said to include a renewed, longer term cease-fire extended through the end of 2023, leading to a three-month phase of wider talks on managing a two-year transitional period, during which all parties to the conflict in Yemen would negotiate a comprehensive settlement to the conflict. It would also include commitments to paying public employees' salaries across Yemen; fully reopening Yemen's land, air and seaports by lifting the Saudi-led blockade; and pulling out foreign forces—a set of longstanding demands pressed by the Houthis in previous negotiations.
While most of these issues have basically been agreed upon in previous talks, the negotiators in Sana'a were mainly seeking "an implementation mechanism," according to al-Bukaiti. However, the Saudi and Omani envoys left Sana'a on Thursday, leaving behind a number of outstanding issues, including a "mechanism for redress and reparation."
"The negotiations in Sana'a were concluded after serious and positive meetings, with the hope of completing the outstanding issues at a later time," Mohammed Abdussalam, the head of the Houthi delegation, told the Houthi-run al-Masirah TV.
On Friday, a three-day prisoner exchange kicked off, the second-largest since 2015, with 900 prisoners set to be released from both sides with the logistical support of the International Committee of the Red Cross. On the first day, 318 released detainees were airlifted on ICRC-chartered planes to and from Sana'a and Aden. The complex prisoner exchange is believed to be a major confidence-building measure amid the latest round of the Saudi-Houthi talks. One day before the Saudi envoy arrived in Sana'a, Riyadh released 13 Houthi detainees.
But for all the progress, is this really a prelude to lasting peace in Yemen? Unlike previous talks that led to the April 2022 truce or the 2018 Stockholm Agreement, this new round of public Saudi-Houthi negotiations has a wider and much more ambitious aim: establishing a political transition in Yemen, during which all the Yemeni parties would be involved in extensive peace talks, under the auspices of the U.N.
"I still think we are far from Yemeni-Yemeni dialogues, as this is not what the Houthis want to negotiate with Saudi Arabia."
- Fernando Carvajal
While this new wave of diplomacy is a step forward for Yemen, analysts and observers are still wary of its prospects to fully end the war.
"I still think we are far from Yemeni-Yemeni dialogues, as this is not what the Houthis want to negotiate with Saudi Arabia," said Fernando Carvajal, who served on the U.N. Security Council's Panel of Experts on Yemen. The Houthis, he added, "have no need to deal with the U.N. envoy [Hans Grundberg] since Saudi Arabia will prove the primary provider of what the Houthis want: money, legitimacy and power."
Carvajal also cautioned that "we cannot speak of securing implementation until we know the details of the agreement and see what each side is protecting or giving up as concessions."
Nadwa al-Dawsari, a Yemeni researcher at the Middle East Institute, was even more skeptical. "These talks have nothing to do with Yemen. These talks are between the Saudis and the Houthis," she told Middle East Eye. "They've got nothing to do with the other actors inside Yemen."
And it remains to be seen what these talks will ultimately mean for the many Yemenis, like Abdu Ali, displaced by the war and suffering its humanitarian consequences for years. "A renewed truce/possible peace deal in Yemen would be a huge development," Niku Jafarnia, a Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a tweet. However, she warned out that "there cannot be true peace until the harms done to civilians in this conflict are addressed. Accountability is a necessity, not a barrier, to sustainable peace."