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Can a religious pilgrimage make peace a prospect in Yemen?

For the first time since 2015, the Saudis invited the Houthis to perform the Hajj at Mecca. And guess what? It went off without a hitch.

Reporting | Analysis | Middle East

SANAA, Yemen — In a move that appears to mark a new phase of diplomacy and a step towards ending nearly a decade of war, a Houthi delegation returned home in the early hours on July 9th after traveling to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj in late June at the Kingdom’s invitation.

It was the first Houthi visit in eight years, and came in the wake of the historic Saudi-Iranian deal brokered by China that saw the two countries reopen their embassies.

"The main benefit is that it contributes to a climate of distension, which will possibly allow to make further progress in the ongoing negotiations between Houthis and Riyadh," said Marta Furlan, a researcher who focuses on rebel governance, Salafi-Jihadism, civil wars, and the Middle East. 

According to the Saba agency, the Houthi delegation included Fuad Naji, the deputy of the Houthi-run Ministry of Guidance and Hajj and Umrah Affairs; Abdul Rahman Al-Naami, the Undersecretary of the Hajj and Umrah Sector at the Ministry of Guidance; Ali Ali Ja’il, the Director General of Hajj and Umrah; and a number of scientific, social, and tribal experts. 

Houthi authorities say nearly 600 pilgrims were able to travel to Saudi Arabia via Sanaa airport. Meanwhile, over 700 have returned through the airport in the first direct flights between the Houthi-held Sanaa airport and Saudi Arabia since 2016. The internationally recognized government stated that 24,255 Yemeni pilgrims performed Hajj this year. 

The optics are all positive. The Saudi-led coalition used to accuse the Houthis of launching attacks on the kingdom with the intention of targeting Mecca. Meanwhile, the Houthis accused the kingdom of preventing them from performing Hajj. In a 2015 protest in Sanaa, Houthis and their supporters were photographed carrying their files wearing Hajj clothes threatening to enter Mecca by force. This season, however, the Saudis decided to invite them to perform Hajj without guns.

"Bargaining"

Abdul-Bari Taher, former head of the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate, thinks that the Houthis accepting the Saudi invitation to perform Hajj is "essentially bargaining." 

According to Iran’s UN mission, the restoration of bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia through a breakthrough agreement will aid in achieving a political resolution to the prolonged conflict in Yemen. Tehran has been backing the Houthis since the war began in 2015.

"The invitation from Saudi Arabia comes in the context of understanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran to reach solutions, and each has its own interests and aspirations, " Taher told RS. 

Taher noted that there has been some rumors about the Houthis actually taking their guns to the Hajj. He called this a "myth." 

"The Houthis' Hajj is both a pilgrimage and a trade; it is the performance of a religious duty and political bargaining, which may be fundamental for both parties." Taher noted. 

"The most important thing, God willing, is that they reach solutions to stop the war that has destroyed Yemen."

"Political Pilgrimage"

There has been no official comment from the Saudis on their invitation to the Houthis to perform Hajj. However, the UN envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, welcomed “the operation of flights for Yemeni pilgrims from Sanaa to Saudi Arabia” and thanked Saudi Arabia for facilitating this important step.

Grundberg tweeted: "I hope this positive step & the spirit of peace of the Hajj season encourage the parties to take more steps to ease freedom of movement restrictions including inside Yemen, reach a nationwide ceasefire & start an inclusive political dialogue under UN auspices."

Yemen’s ambassador to the UK, Yaseen Saeed Noman, labeled the Houthis’ Hajj as a “political pilgrimage” rather than a religious one. He added that it is “a turning point in a journey filled with sin and bloodshed.” 

Support for Saudi-Houthi talks

Meanwhile, the Houthis’ Hajj pilgrimage could offer a rare opportunity for confidence-building. UN-Omani efforts seem to be speeding up the long peace process to end the war, despite the challenges ahead.

In April, Saudi and Omani delegations met with Houthi officials in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, as part of Riyadh’s efforts to establish a permanent ceasefire and end its involvement in the country’s ongoing war. 

That meeting, mediated by Oman, represents progress in the consultations between Riyadh and Houthis, which are taking place alongside U.N. peace efforts. 

Although there have been no reports of direct talks between the two sides since then, it has been reported that the Saudi coalition will permit flights between the Houthi-controlled Sanaa airport and India and Egypt.

However, Furlan warns that the Hajj will not necessarily lead to progress on all fronts in the current peace talks. “Even if this development will have a positive impact on Houthi-Saudi talks, it will not be the same for the conflict fought inside Yemen between Houthis and the government,” said Furlan.

The Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) was established in April 2022 in Saudi Arabia to represent all factions of the internationally recognized government, including the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), the Islah Party, and the General People's Congress, which was the party of the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The rift between the Houthis and Saudis is not the only obstacle to achieve peace in Yemen, as the current negotiations are taking place between these two parties, rather than between the Saudi-backed government or the PLC. However, if the conflict between the Houthis and Saudis is resolved, it could pave the way for negotiations between the Houthis and PLC to reach a comprehensive solution to end the war.

At present, the PLC is not united due to differing goals among its members. For example, one of its parties, the STC, is seeking to re-establish an independent state in the South that existed prior to Yemen's unification in 1990.

The Houthis view the STC as separatists and an extension of the UAE’s influence in the south. On the other hand, the STC sees the Houthis as an Iranian proxy in Yemen, seeking to occupy southern Yemen and Aden. The STC believes that it is the only Yemeni party capable of defeating the Houthis, as evidenced by their success in driving them out of Aden and several other southern provinces in 2015 with support of Saudi-UAE coalition. 

"Since they first started last October, in fact, the peace talks have been exclusively between the Houthis and the Saudis, with the PLC never included in any meaningful way. Thus, while the current negotiations might bring an end to the conflict between the Houthis and Riyadh, the Yemeni dimension of the war remains unaddressed," Furlan told RS. 

Although the international community has been silent regarding the Houthi acceptance of Hajj, it is not clear if they will support any outcomes that may result in case the Houthi delegation to perform Hajj held talks in KSA.

"It is clear that things are still difficult because the conflict is dependent on regional and international conflict," Taher told RS. 

Furlan thinks that "it is reasonable to expect that the international community will continue to voice its support for the Houthi-Saudi talk track."

"New post-conflict relationship"

It's clear that both Houthis and Saudis want an end to the war. Since the UN truce went into effect in April 2022, Houthis have not launched any cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia. In contrast, the Saudi-led coalition has allowed limited flights from Sanaa Airport and lifted restrictions on Hodeidah port, allowing the entry of fuel and food ships without inspections.

Oman has played a vital role in the progress of peace talks, which started with a visit by Saudi Ambassador to Yemen, Mohamed Al Jaber, to Sanaa in April. During his visit, he met with senior Houthi leaders. 

"It definitely signals Riyadh’s willingness to reach an understanding with the Houthis and turn the page on the disastrous Yemeni experience,” said Furlan.

Muslim Pilgrims at The Kaaba in the Haram Mosque of Mecca , Saudi Arabia, In the morning during Hajj. (Shutterstock/TEA OOR)
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