Saudi Arabia announced a proposal Monday to give Yemen’s Houthi rebels a cease-fire in the country’s years-long conflict and reopen a major airport in the capital, the kingdom’s latest effort to halt violence that has triggered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in the Arab world’s poorest country.
Saudi Arabia’s move comes after Houthi rebels in Yemen escalated a campaign of drone and missile attacks on the kingdom’s oil installations, briefly causing global energy prices to plunge amid the coronavirus pandemic. It also comes at a time when Riyadh is attempting to repair its relationship with the United States under the leadership of Vice President Joe Biden. Saudi Arabia has been blamed internationally for airstrikes that have killed civilians and embargoes that have intensified poverty in a region on the verge of famine.
If such a scheme would succeed remains to be seen. Last year, a unilaterally proclaimed Saudi cease-fire collapsed. Fighting rages around the strategic city of Marib, and the Saudi-led coalition recently launched airstrikes on Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. Another alleged airstrike, according to a UN mission, struck a food-production company in the port city of Hodeida.
In a televised news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told journalists, “It is now up to the Houthis.” “The Houthis must choose between putting their own interests first and putting Iran’s interests first.”
According to a senior Houthi official who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity due to legislation, the rebels were aware of the plan and had been in direct contact with Saudi and Omani interlocutors. He did claim, however, that the Saudis needed to do more to see a cease-fire go into effect.
The proposal will be outlined to both the Houthis and Yemen’s internationally recognised government later Monday, according to Saudi Arabia. For the proposal to go forward, all parties will have to consent to it, with any deadline set by UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths.
In the proposal, Saudi Arabia made two concessions to the Houthis while not giving them anything they desired. The first step is to reopen Sanaa International Airport, a critical connection between Yemen and the rest of the world that has been without daily commercial flights since 2015. Officials did not state which commercial routes they wanted to see reopened right away.
The second will see taxes, customs, and other fees paid at Yemen’s Hodeida port while importing oil deposited in a Yemeni Central Bank joint account. Officials said the funds would be available to the Houthis and Yemen’s recognised government to pay civil servants and finance other programs.
The Houthis have been accused of stealing funds in the past by the Saudi government and the Yemeni government they support. According to a report published this year by a United Nations panel of experts, the Houthis “diverted” $200 million from the fund.
According to the paper, “only a small portion of the funds were used to pay salaries.”
The Houthis’ acceptance of the Saudi plan is still up in the air. Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the Houthi official, suggested a nationwide cease-fire on the condition that Saudi Arabia reopens Sanaa’s airport to commercial flights and lifts restrictions on cargo shipments to Hodeida on Friday. The bulk of the country’s essential imports pass through the port there. Both are long-standing demands of the Houthis, who swept into Sanaa in September 2014 from their northern strongholds.
“The Saudi initiative is nothing new,” another senior Houthi official told the AP on the condition of anonymity due to regulations. “First and foremost, both the airport and the port must be opened.”
The Houthis threatened to seize Yemen’s port city of Aden and fully overrun the country’s internationally recognised government, so a Saudi-led coalition joined the war in March 2015. The Saudis vowed that the offensive, which was conceived by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, would be over quickly.
Six years later, the fight continues. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Project, the war has killed over 130,000 people, including over 13,000 civilians killed in targeted attacks. Thousands of children have died as a result of hunger and disease. “The war is back in full force,” Griffiths warned only last week.
Yemen’s internationally recognised government praised the Saudi initiative as an attempt to “alleviate Yemeni people’s misery.” However, the country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement warning that the Houthis had “rebuffed all previous efforts with obstinacy” and “managed to exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.”
Since Biden’s election, his administration has reversed President Donald Trump’s decision to designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist group, enabling American aid to enter rebel-held territory. He also ended US support for Saudi Arabia in the dispute.
Tim Lenderking, the US envoy for Yemen, was sent to the area by Biden to negotiate a diplomatic settlement. Lenderking said earlier this month that the Houthis had presented them with an unspecified cease-fire plan for a “number of days,” but did not elaborate. During a February trip to Oman, he reportedly met with Houthi officials, which the State Department has refused to acknowledge.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that he had spoken with the Saudi foreign minister regarding the war in Yemen.
According to the declaration, Blinken supports efforts “to end the conflict in Yemen, beginning with the need for all parties to agree to a cease-fire and promote humanitarian aid delivery.”