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Saudi Arabia meeting with Houthi officials in Yemen will legitimise their government

April 12, 2023 at 8:54 pm

Saudi Arabia held a meeting with AnsarAllah (“Houthi”) officials in Sana’a on Sunday April 9, 2023 [@AliAlAhmed_en/Twitter]

In a surprising turn of events, Saudi Arabia held a meeting with AnsarAllah (“Houthi”) officials in Sana’a on Sunday, marking a potential shift in the dynamics of the long-standing conflict in Yemen. This comes on the heels of Saudi Arabia’s normalisation of ties with Iran, a regional rival, indicating a possible recalibration of Riyadh’s approach towards Yemen and its internationally recognised government-in-exile, which it has been supporting.

The meeting, which took place in the Yemeni capital, was seen as a significant development in the eight-year conflict, as it was the first direct talks between representatives from the Kingdom and the Houthi movement, who dominate the Sana’a-based National Salvation Government (NSG) and have been resisting against the Saudi-led coalition since 2015.

The Houthi officials, led by the spokesperson for the NSG, Mohammed Abdul-Salam, reportedly discussed a range of issues, including reparations, another potential ceasefire, humanitarian access and the indefinite reopening of Sana’a’s International Airport. Significantly, the Omani and Saudi delegations were greeted by the President of the Supreme Political Council and head of the NSG, Mahdi Al-Mashat.

This meeting comes at a time when Saudi Arabia is undergoing a strategic shift in its foreign policy, particularly in its approach towards Iran. Since coming to power in 2017, Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has sought to consolidate power domestically and project Saudi influence regionally.

However, recent events, such as the Biden administration’s renewed efforts to engage with Iran over its nuclear ambitions and the failure of the Saudi-led coalition to achieve its military objectives in Yemen, have prompted Saudi Arabia to reassess its regional priorities. Saudi Arabia’s normalisation of ties with Iran has been seen as a major departure from its previous stance of hostility towards the Islamic Republic.

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The two regional powers have been arch-rivals for decades, competing for influence in the Middle East along sectarian lines. However, the changing geopolitical landscape in the region, coupled with the economic challenges faced by Saudi Arabia, have compelled Riyadh to seek a rapprochement with Iran. This shift in policy towards Iran has raised eyebrows and led to speculation about the potential implications for Saudi Arabia’s stance on Yemen.

The latest meeting with Houthi officials, has fuelled speculation that Saudi Arabia may be considering recognising the NSG, the de-facto authority in the Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen – the majority of the country’s most densely populated areas. The NSG was formed by the Houthis and in collaboration with loyalists of the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress (GPC) in 2016 after they overran the interim Yemeni government and dissolved the parliament. The NSG has since established its own government in Sana’a, and has been striving to gain international recognition.

The implications of Saudi Arabia recognising the NSG would be significant. It would be a tacit acknowledgment of the Houthis as a legitimate political force in Yemen, and could potentially lead to a political settlement to end the protracted conflict. The Houthis have long demanded recognition of their government as a pre-condition for any negotiations, and Saudi Arabia’s recognition of the NSG could pave the way for meaningful peace talks.

However, recognising the NSG also comes with risks and challenges for Saudi Arabia. The NSG has been accused of economic mismanagement, human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions, torture and restrictions on freedom of expression and the media. It has also been criticised for its close ties with Iran and is considered to be part of the Axis of Resistance. Domestically, sectarian concerns have also been raised of ambitions to revive a Zaidi imamate, a claim repeatedly denied by the movement in addition to the controversial imposition of the khums tax.

Recognising the NSG could potentially legitimise these actions and embolden the Houthi in their pursuit of establishing an autonomous government in Yemen. Furthermore, recognising the NSG would also entail ending Saudi Arabia’s support for the internationally recognised Yemeni government, led by the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC).

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Saudi Arabia has been leading a military coalition of Arab states to support ousted former President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and his government, which has been recognised by the international community as the legitimate government of Yemen. However, ending support for the Yemeni government could have far-reaching implications for Yemen’s political landscape and could potentially lead to further fragmentation and instability.

One of the key challenges of recognising the NSG would be the delicate balance of power within Yemen. The country has been plagued by a complex web of tribal, regional and sectarian rivalries and the Yemeni government under Hadi and, more recently, the PLC under Chairman Rashad Al-Alimi, has struggled to maintain control and assert authority over the country’s populace.

The Houthis, who belong to the Zaidi sect of Shia Islam, have been fighting for greater autonomy in northern Yemen for years. Recognising the NSG could embolden the movement and weaken the position of the internationally-recognised Yemeni government, which is already grappling with internal divisions and external threats from extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh. Another challenge would be the regional implications of Saudi Arabia accepting the NSG as Yemen’s legitimate government. Saudi Arabia has long viewed the conflict in Yemen through the lens of its rivalry with Iran, which it has accused of arming and supporting the Houthis and their allies in the armed forces.

Riyadh’s recognition of the NSG could be perceived as a win for Iran and further solidify Tehran’s influence in Yemen, which Saudi Arabia sees as a threat to its security and regional hegemony. This could potentially re-ignite tensions in the delicate relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the future and have wider repercussions for the region.

Israel, which already has a foothold in Yemen’s islands, including Socotra, thanks to its collaborative ties with the UAE will also look at ways at exploiting these vulnerabilities and preventing an openly hostile government in Yemen from being legitimised. However, despite the challenges and risks, recognising the NSG could also present an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to play a more constructive role in resolving the Yemeni conflict, although the NSG have made it clear they will not accept Riyadh as a mediator, being a warring party in the conflict.

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The war in Yemen has caused immense human suffering, with millions of Yemenis facing food insecurity, displacement and a dire humanitarian crisis. The prolonged conflict has also strained Saudi Arabia’s economy, as the cost of the war has been astronomical and has taken a toll on the country’s image in the international community. By recognising the NSG, Saudi Arabia could signal its willingness to engage in a political solution to the conflict and demonstrate a commitment to finding a peaceful resolution.

This could potentially pave the way for negotiations between the warring parties, with the NSG representing the Houthis and the internationally recognised Yemeni government representing their militia and mercenary ground forces. A political settlement would be crucial in addressing the underlying grievances of all parties and finding a sustainable solution to the conflict.

Furthermore, by gaining overseas recognition, the NSG could also open up avenues for humanitarian access and alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people. The NSG has control over key areas where humanitarian aid is desperately needed, including the capital, Sana’a, and the major Red Sea port of Al-Hudaydah.

Saudi Arabia’s recent meeting with Houthi officials and the possibility of recognising the NSG marks a potential shift in the dynamics of the Yemeni conflict. It could pave the way for political negotiations and a peaceful resolution, and signal a willingness to engage in diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the protracted war.

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Ultimately, a comprehensive and inclusive political solution is the only way to achieve lasting peace and stability in Yemen, and it is high time for all parties involved to prioritise the well-being of the Yemeni people above any political or strategic considerations.

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