On September 14, a Houthi delegation and a team of Omani diplomats flew to Riyadh for talks on resolving the Yemeni conflict(s), constituting the highest-level Houthi-Saudi official negotiations on Saudi soil since Yemen’s civil war began nine years ago. On September 20, Saudi officials said the visit produced “positive results.”
The talks followed a five-month hiatus in peace negotiations since after the last round of Omani-facilitated Houthi-Saudi negotiations that took place in Sana‘a in April. The most recent talks appeared to offer more hope for a sustained truce between the Houthis and the kingdom, which would be necessary for bringing lasting peace to Yemen. But concerns persist that a final peace accord between those two parties to what has been a devastating conflict may lead to renewed warfare between the Houthis and other Yemeni factions.
New Saudi Language
In Riyadh, the Houthi delegation met with Saudi Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman, who referred to the visiting Houthi representatives as the “Sana‘a delegation,” rather than “the Houthis” or “Ansar Allah,” the official name of the Houthi militia. Such terminology appeared to signal Riyadh’s recognition that the Houthis are indeed running a government, underscoring Saudi Arabia’s growing willingness to find a modus vivendi with the powerful force that has effectively consolidated power in northern Yemen.
“The shift in language to ‘Sana‘a delegation’ is significant,” according to Elisabeth Kendall, who teaches Arab studies at the University of Cambridge. “The Houthis and Ansar Allah have long been vilified in the Saudi media, so removing references to them appears designed to de-stigmatize the talks and avoid any notion of a Saudi climb-down,” she told RS.
“The significance of new naming stems from re-positioning and pre-understandings: the desire to improve [the] diplomatic atmosphere, flip the page of full tensions at any cost, confer symbolic recognition, and gradually shift public perceptions,” agreed Ibrahim Jalal, a non-resident scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. (Editor's note: MEI counts the Saudi government among its major donors.)
Obstacles to a Houthi-Saudi Pact
Despite recent progress, the Houthis and Saudis have yet to finally reach a permanent truce, and more work will be required. At least four delicate issues remain unresolved.
First is the issue of salary payments for public sector employees in the Houthi-controlled north, where approximately 80% of Yemen’s population lives. The Houthis demand payments of salaries of public sector workers in areas under their control. But their adversaries worry that the money will fund Ansar Allah’s war machine. Nonetheless, there is some vagueness to this Houthi demand because sometimes Ansar Allah frames their demand as if the Houthis want all the back payment while on other occasions making it seem as though they are only demanding salary payments moving forward.
The second issue deals with the distribution of Yemen’s national oil and gas revenues. “The Houthis will get what they’ve been demanding for a long time — their share. Or they won’t allow the export of oil and gas to proceed in peace,” Nabeel Khoury, the former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen who is currently a non-resident Fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, told RS.
The third concern has to do with Houthi demands that the Saudis permit the unrestricted- reopening of Sana‘a international airport, as well as other airports in Yemen, and the country’s seaports. While these airports and ports have already opened up significantly over the past year, the Houthis demand that they fully reopen. Additionally, Ansar Allah demands flights to and from Sana‘a airport from more countries than currently permitted.
The final issue regards the Houthis’ access to funds in Yemen’s Aden-based Central Bank. The talks thus far have addressed how the Central Bank can be reunited, either in Yemen or possibly in another country such as Oman or Jordan. “The idea is again a Houthi demand that money going into the central bank should be available to them as well. The logistics of this will be an important consideration,” according to Khoury.
Largely thanks to Oman’s much-lauded mediation skills, momentum behind the negotiations appears to have accelerated. However, these talks will probably move slowly, with progress coming incrementally given the long-standing distrust that exists between the Houthis and the Saudis. Although trust-building between the two sides can’t happen overnight, it is significant that the Houthis sent a senior delegation to Riyadh.
Moreover, a September 25 Houthi drone attack along the Yemeni-Saudi border, which resulted in the death of at least three Bahraini soldiers, may set the talks back. According to Jalal, this attack was part of a Houthi effort to “exercise pressure to secure more Saudi concessions…and flip the page at any cost.” It will be important to see if and when the Houthis carry out more such attacks and how Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) might respond.
Yemen’s Bigger Picture
There is more to the Yemeni civil war than the Houthi-Saudi conflict. There are many other conflicts in the country that will require hard work to resolve. If a Houthi-Saudi pact is in fact achieved, it will not guarantee peace between Ansar Allah and other armed groups in Yemen. Many communities in Yemen fear that the Houthis could turn their formidable military power on them after they sign a potential truce with Riyadh.
“This issue is that the Houthis will have reached a deal with the Saudis, not with their domestic enemies and rivals,” according to Kendall. “If the Houthis no longer face any military threat from Saudi, they may feel empowered to push their advantage domestically to gain further territory, more resources and greater political power.”
“Currently, there is no shared domestic vision for the future shape of Yemen, neither between the Houthis and the internationally recognized government, nor even between the nominally allied members of that government. With the domestic parties themselves so heavily factionalized, the risk of civil war or a frozen conflict remains high,” she added.
Jalal echoed those concerns. “While efforts to end the conflict are welcome, all non-Houthi Yemeni groups and political parties have legitimate concerns, as they should, given the very domestic root causes of the conflict and multiplicity of stakes and interests.
“Ongoing Saudi-Houthi talks are one layer but have yet to address the complexity of what matters most to Yemenis, who shall the seek to improve the quality, content and design of any peace agreement because in the past [they] paid the price of fragile peace,” he noted.
The weak and fragile Presidential Leadership Council, which is Yemen’s internationally recognized government, has not participated in the Houthi-Saudi talks. Nor has the UAE. As Khoury told RS, there are signs that Abu Dhabi is “quite miffed” by its exclusion. What this means is that a potential Houthi-Saudi Arabia truce could result in Ansar Allah consolidating its hold on the north, while a regime led by the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) that governs Aden and other parts of southern Yemen declares its independence. The STC has been clear that it will not accept a Houthi-Saudi pact imposed on all of Yemen without its agreement.
Ultimately, the latest talks held in Riyadh with the Houthi delegation will ideally pave the way for inclusive Yemeni-Yemeni talks to establish a roadmap toward broader peace across all of Yemen. But the fear is that Yemen’s civil war will reignite once Saudi Arabia exits. Time will tell whether a Houthi-Saudi pact would push Ansar Allah toward making concessions to other Yemeni groups or wage war against them.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Washington, DC. He is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Georgetown University, and an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project.
Saudi Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman meets Yemen's Houthi delegation in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia September 19, 2023. Saudi Press Agency/Handout via REUTERS
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
Dear RS readers: It has been an extraordinary year and our editing team has been working overtime to make sure that we are covering the current conflicts with quality, fresh analysis that doesn’t cleave to the mainstream orthodoxy or take official Washington and the commentariat at face value. Our staff reporters, experts, and outside writers offer top-notch, independent work, daily. Please consider making a tax-exempt, year-end contribution to Responsible Statecraft so that we can continue this quality coverage — which you will find nowhere else — into 2024. Happy Holidays!
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Journalists in the press room watch as Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and fellow candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy discuss an issue during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S., December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
It's as if the Ukraine War has all but ended — at least for American politics.
If the Republican debates had occurred last year, they would have been consumed with talk over whether Vladimir Putin was readying to roll across Europe and how weak President Biden was for not giving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky our best tanks, our most powerful fighter aircraft, the longest range missiles we had — maybe even access to nukes.
But Zelensky wasn’t anywhere near the debate stage in Alabama last night, his name not even invoked. Fitting, we guess, since the Senate failed to pass an aid package yesterday that would have sent another $60 billion to Ukraine. This, despite administration claims that the war effort is literally running out of money. Biden even took to the airwaves Wednesday to warn of a NATO war if the funding wasn’t approved.
Republicans have been souring on the aid for months now, which might account for Ukraine’s diminished importance in the conversation. It was outweighed last night by the conflict in Israel, which in itself only drew three questions: Do we send in special forces to get the eight remaining American hostages back from Hamas? What kind of punishment could be slapped on university presidents who allow “pro Hamas” protests on campus? And how do we “get” Iran for purportedly being behind it all?
Ukraine was wielded, albeit briefly, as a blunt instrument. At the very least it gave us the tiniest of glimpses into the competing world views of the hawks on the dais (Chris Christie and Nikki Haley) and their chief agitant, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley raised the issue (without being asked about it) by fitting it into her usual stream of Domino Theory conciousness:
“The problem is, you have to see that all of these are related. If you look at the fact Russia was losing that war with Ukraine, Putin had hit rock bottom, they had raised the draft age to 65. He was getting drones and missiles — drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea. And so what happened when he hit rock bottom, all of a sudden his other friend, Iran, Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin's birthday. There is no one happier right now than Putin because all of the attention America had on Ukraine suddenly went to Israel. And that's what they were hoping is going to happen. We need to make sure that we have full clarity, that there is a reason again that Taiwanese want to help Ukrainians because they know if Ukraine wins China won't invade Taiwan. There's a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins. These are all connected. But what wins all of that is a strong America, not a weak America. And that's what Joe Biden has given us.”
Vivek Ramaswamy responds:
“I want to say one thing about that tie to Ukraine. Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom. I was the first person to say we need a reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. Now a lot of the neocons are quietly coming along to that position with the exceptions of Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, who still support this, what I believe, is pointless war in Ukraine. …One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for. … So reject this myth that they've been selling you that somebody had a cup of coffee stint at the UN and then makes eight million bucks after has real foreign policy experience. It takes an outsider to see this through.”
To which Chris Christie retorted:
“Let me just say something here, you know, his (Ramaswamy’s) reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. He made it clear. Give them all the land they've already stolen. Promise Putin you'll never put Ukraine in Russia, and then trust Putin not to have a relationship with China.” (Christie then essentially calls Ramaswamy a liar for suggesting he never said that.)
"These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn't know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons. You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today."
That was basically it. After $130 billion in U.S. taxpayer money since 2022, most of which we are being told has been spent in Ukraine. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead and maimed, Ukraine’s economy in such a state that the West has to prop it up, and NATO pledging more troops and weapons it doesn’t even seem to have, the issue was afforded a scant few minutes, and used only in the broadest of ways to pound each other. Gone was even the ghost of the old argument that the free world was at stake or that our obligation to Ukrainians was a moral imperative. It’s been reduced to a political cudgel, which is the first step to being memory holed in Washington. It happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in prior president debates 2012 and 2016.
The gist seems to be, maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away?