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Can talks in Oman end the war in Yemen?

Children suffering from cholera can be seen receiving medical treatment in Yemen [Ian Bremmer/Facebook]
Children suffering from cholera can be seen receiving medical treatment war as the in Yemen continues [Ian Bremmer/Facebook]

A recent call by the Sultanate of Oman to hold a round of peace talks is the latest political development in a brutal civil war which has already claimed 10,000 Yemeni lives. With nearly one million cases of cholera in the country and the emergence of suspected bird flu, bringing an end to the conflict is vital to ensure humanitarian aid reaches those who need it.

Oman is holding talks with the Houthi armed group and the General People’s Congress Party (GPC) first.

“Yes, we’re open to negotiations with all parties to the conflict,” the deputy head of the Houthis’ Department of External Relations and member of the group’s political bureau, Muhammad Al-Bukhaithi told MEMO.

Following Oman’s announcement, Saudi Arabia said its “coalition seeks peace”, showing signs that all parties to the conflict may be feeling the fatigue of conflict. This is indeed a step in the right direction, and proof that the conflict has some potential to rescind its wrath

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Oman’s call for negotiation comes off the back of the Houthi’s principle negotiator, Mohammad Abdel-Salam, travelling to the country in late January. Abdel-Salam was accompanying an American citizen who worked for Safer Oil Company in Yemen. Danny Lavon Burch had been captured by the Houthis in September last year and, after meticulous mediation by Oman, was being released.

Hussain Al-Bukhaithi, a “self-made” journalist based in Yemen with strong ties to the Houthi political wing, confirmed that there are “secret negotiations being undertaken in Oman right now, it is not clear what other parties to the war are there – Saudi, [Yemen President Abd Rabbuh Mansur] Hadi or others – but Muhammad Abdel-Salam is there for some talks in Oman”.

Houthis submit peace ‘proposal’ to UN

“We have officially submitted our proposal to the UN General Assembly and Security Council,” Mohamed Ali Al-Houthi tweeted yesterday. The proposal, Al-Houthi said, had been issued by the Houthis’ High Revolutionary Committee and not by the group’s official negotiating team – perhaps insinuating an “internal” rift within the group over how to resolve the conflict. Based on my own engagement with the senior leadership of the Houthi armed group, a clear division between the political bureau and military wing is evident, especially on whether to take part in peace talks or continue fighting the Saudi-led coalition.

The two-page document dated 21 February included motions to establish a “reconciliation committee” tasked with overcoming differences with the Yemen government and the use of elections as a “mechanism” to select parliamentary spokespersons and representatives for political powers in the conflict.

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The statement goes on to seek “international guarantees” for the reconstruction of Yemen; preventing any aggression by “foreign” countries; a general amnesty for prisoners of war; and a referendum to settle the main points of contention.

No solution could be inclusive without stopping the aggression and lifting the siege imposed on air, land and sea

the statement read.

Will a British Special Envoy for Yemen be any better?

With the latest United Nations Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffith, sworn-in by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the world watches on in hope that Griffith’s extensive experience in conflict resolution; negotiation and mediation can be of use to broker a Yemen peace deal. But will an envoy who is British have any merit in the conflict? It’s likely that Griffith may be received with a similar viewing as his predecessor Ismail Ould Cheikh who was seen as “biased”. The Houthis in particular may deem it “hypocritical” for British personnel to be recruited as UN Special Envoy to Yemen – especially when the United Kingdom continues the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia; the very regime which is raining bombs on civilians in Yemen. Despite human rights groups raising alarms of war violations, a British High Court concluded last year that it was “lawful” for the UK government to continue arms sales to Saudi.

Griffith’s position may therefore be put in question as a result of what the Houthis’ call “Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen” and the UK’s perceived support for it.

Ould Cheikh had himself been accused of not uphold the principle of “neutrality” or “impartiality” based on his close proximity to the Saudi-led coalition. The lack of trust in him became ever more evident in May last year, when Ould Cheikh’s convoy came under attack with bullet rounds as it approached Sana’a. Though the attack was dubbed as an “assassination attempt” by Yemen’s foreign ministry, it was in effect a warning shot for Ould Cheikh not to enter Sana’a as a result of his “biased” approach in the conflict, Muhammad Al-Bukhaithi told MEMO. The UN envoy was a “great hindrance”, the Houthi official said.

Griffith needs to take heed of this reality moving forward.

Fatigue of conflict

The Houthi armed group is feeling the economic pinch as a result of the conflict. Late last year, Saudi-led coalition media held the Houthis responsible for robbing the banks and money exchange shops in Sana’a – though no evidence has been provided. Local media in Yemen, however, reported that “unidentified” armed groups robbed banks in the southern city of Aden, a region that has heavy presence of UAE-backed forces.

“No, this is not true,” Al-Bukhaithi said about allegations made against his group, “The Yemeni government [Houthis] closed some of the exchange shops and ran a criminal investigation. Most of them [money exchange shops] are now back open, but Saudi media lied and claimed the Houthis were robbing the banks.”

“The Houthis are not in financial difficulty,” he continued.

#YemeniCrisis

But despite claiming that the group are not in financial difficulty and that it does not tax its local population in comparison to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), at the time that MEMO spoke to Al-Bukhaithi, the Houthis hiked the price of gas in Sana’a.

In the uptick of violence in December last year, the Houthis executed raids across the capital in search of late president Ali Abdullah Saleh and loyal GPC members. Houthi Telegram groups and other open-source communication sites talked of large sums of gold and silver found in the hideouts. The Houthi run-Saba news website claimed the items would be transferred to the Central Bank to pay salaries – allegedly, this has not been the case.

All sides of the conflict are feeling the fatigue of war, and any line of negotiation should be welcomed amid the dreadful humanitarian context for the civilian population. The only foreign actor preparing a long-term foreign policy project is the UAE. Time will tell how the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council in the south will react to potential peace talks, and whether secession plans would be sacrificed in order to bring an end to the conflict – as internationally recognised President Hadi originally mandated the coalition of Arab states to help him do.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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