Khalil Dewan interviews Muhammed Al-Bukhaithi, Deputy Head of the Department of External Relations of Ansar Allah (otherwise known as the Houthis) and member of the Political Bureau. The Houthis are currently allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and have been in control of the capital Sana’a since 2014.
As the battle lines settle on a stalemate after the inception of the Saudi-led coalition’s unforgiving bombing campaign, it’s about time all parties to the conflict think about a peace process, which must include the Houthi armed group. “We are ready to reach a peace agreement with the Saudi-led coalition”, Deputy Head of External Relations, Muhammed Al-Bukhaithi confirms to me.
It’s of mutual interest for all parties in the conflict to put an end to war, but the Houthis claim that Saudi Arabia is not acting with “morality” or “logic of interest” in Yemen. Any form of peace talks requires direct dialogue, but Al-Bukhaithi claims the Saudi-led coalition “refuses this”.
The Houthi group’s main goal is to “establish justice and achieve a state of peace in Yemen,” Al-Bukhaithi emphasises. The group wish to do this with “ethical values” and without domination or imperialist ventures to supersede these goals, as seen in the global order today.
When Operation Decisive Storm began in March 2015, the Saudi-led coalition executed a coordinated aerial campaign against the Houthi group. But the Houthi armed group did not retaliate immediately. “We did not respond with a single shot for 40 days,” Al-Bukhaithi tells me. The Houthi group wanted to give the Saudi-led coalition the “opportunity to reconsider” their concerted attack campaign against them. Al-Bukhaiti says the Houthi group refrained because they wanted to show the world and the coalition that they have “no hostile intentions towards them”.
The Houthis have displayed sophisticated weaponry capability throughout the conflict, firing ballistic missiles more than 800 kilometres inside Saudi Arabia which have reached oil company Aramco in Yanbu province. Al-Bukhaiti reveals to me that the group believe the execution of rockets to be a “successful tactic”. The execution of rockets provides the group the ability to engage the coalition with “minimal loses”. The Houthi group do not envisage rescinding rocket fire into Saudi Arabia.
As the Saudi-led coalition continues to strike Yemen, Al-Bukhaithi explains that the Houthi leadership deemed it necessary to respond at a gradual pace. The group engaged the coalition until they started “firing rockets at Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates,” Al-Bukhaithi says. “Rocket fire will escalate as long as the aggression continues and the scope of its targets expands.”
In addition to ballistic missiles and rockets, the Houthis regularly conduct incursions inside Saudi Arabia’s southern border, often taking over army barracks and inflicting casualties on the Saudi Arabian army.
Any peace dialogue will require all parties to the war to “directly” engage in mediation. “We are not the ones who declared war and what we are doing is exercising our right to self-defence. When the aggression stops, so will we, without the need for an agreement”.
Saudi Arabia has not showed any signs of moving forward with mediation over the Yemen civil war. The Saudi-led coalition to this day has not communicated with the Houthi armed group.
“The problem is that we face an adversary who does not act with morality or with logic of interest”. The Houthi group deem Saudi Arabia as acting in haste, without a clear strategy or intent to stop bloodshed.
Houthi-Saleh alliance rift
Tensions between the Houthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s bloc began in 2017 when some 300,000 people celebrated the 35th year since Saleh’s General Congress Party was founded. Al-Bukhaithi tells me that the Houthis felt that Saleh used it as an opportunity to defame the group by calling them “militias,” a term hated by the Houthis. The Houthi group are prepared to reconcile any tensions that may arise with the Saleh alliance.
The fragile alliance between them has led them to question one another’s ulterior motives and goals, leading to rifts which are often made public. However, Al-Bukhaiti confirmed that the disagreements “will not affect the internal front as much as the attacking states believe they will because the position of the General People’s Congress on aggression is a principled position”.
Al-Bukhaithi emphasises that those taking on the burden of defence against the Saudi-led coalition “are the Yemeni people, led by Ansar Allah, and Saleh plays no role in this”.
In May, the Houthis fired bullet rounds at Ould Cheikh, the UN envoy to Yemen’s, car as he was travelling through the capital, Sana’a. The attack on the vehicle was dubbed as an assassination attempt by Yemen’s foreign ministry, but in effect it was a warning to Cheikh not to enter Sana’a again.
“Ould Cheikh is biased,” says Al-Bukhaithi, describing how the UN is siding with Saudi Arabia, not taking into account other parties to the conflict. “We agreed to deal with him and he has become hated by the Yemeni people”. Al-Bukhaithi tells me that Cheikh’s bias has rendered the United Nations to lose all credibility for a potential peace process in Yemen. Al-Bukhaithi went on to call Cheikh a “great hindrance” for Yemen.
The Houthis have not shied away from a potential peace process for the Yemen conflict. Al-Bukhaithi tells me that the Houthis seek a two-part dialogue initiative. “The first should be between the parties of the conflict in order to stop the regional war,” Al-Bukhaithi claimed. This includes Saudi Arabia, as the Houthi group believe the war has been initiated by Saudi Arabia.
“Second should be between the Yemeni political components in order to agree on forming a transitional authority accepted by all parties to oversee the process of a referendum and elections,” Al-Bukhaithi emphasises. The Houthis wish to see weapons confiscated from all parties in Yemen as opposed to the UN Security Council Resolution 2216 which the Houthi group believes only requests them to hand over weapons amid a war. The Houthis feel that the resolution is disingenuous and does not take heed the complexity of the conflict in Yemen.
Oman and Kuwait: key players for mediation
This year the Sultanate of Oman and Kuwait have put forward the idea of mediating the civil war. The success of this will be dependent upon how the Houthi group perceives the two countries.
“Oman and Kuwait can play a key role in stopping the war if they have the will to play a neutral and frank role with the Saudi regime,” Al-Bukhaithi says.
The Houthis believe that Saudi Arabia have pressured other Arab countries with a strategy of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” which has influenced Arab countries. The Houthi group claim that Saudi Arabia has “bought” Ould Cheikh, and hence the UN envoy to Yemen has lost neutrality in offering to mediate Yemen.
Houthis envisage a united Yemen
“We are with the unity of Yemen,” Al-Bukhaithi emphasises. “The division of Yemen to south and north is not based on any ethnic, religious, sectarian or tribal basis.” Although the Houthi group understand the demand of the southern Yemenis to secede from the north, they believe it is based on an emotional calling rather than a practical desire. The Houthi group are not calling for the southerners to “abandon their demands,” Al-Bukhaithi says, but to solve the southern secession issue in a “national framework” under peace conditions.
Al-Bukhaithi made clear that foreign countries such as the United Arab Emirates are influencing the political developments in southern Yemen. The Southern Transitional Council (STC) would not have come to fruition without the UAE.
“The south needs the north and the north needs the south to thwart external ambitions,” says Al-Bukhaithi. Many of the Houthis have relations with the southern part of Yemen, and vice versa. It is impractical to divide the country. The UAE is supporting a political outlook that the leader of the Saudi-led coalition did not envisage, or was mandated by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi when he originally requested intervention.
A peace process is urgently required to stop disproportional killings amid a dire humanitarian crisis which has already seen some 700,000 cases of cholera. Trade ports need to open to allow a greater flow of basic amenities for survival. The answer for that may well lie with the neighbouring Arab countries, Oman and Kuwait.