The Houthis have agreed to restore a lapsed, UN-brokered ceasefire in Yemen for six months, discuss the exchange of all the prisoners they hold, and engage in direct negotiations with the Yemeni government, Yemeni government officials and local media said on Thursday.
In return, the Houthis will get salary payments for civil servants in areas they control and an easing of restrictions on Sanaa airport and Hodeidah port.
Saudi officials informed Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council in Riyadh that in addition to the truce and prisoner swap, the Houthis had agreed during direct talks to negotiate with the Yemeni government for six months, under the auspices of the UN, and discuss a two-year transitional period, two Yemeni government officials told Arab News.
The council, chaired by Rashad Al-Alimi, had convened in Riyadh to discuss how to respond to the latest peace proposals and met Saudi Defense Minister Prince Khaled bin Salman on Wednesday.
The two officials said council members would be prepared to engage in direct talks with the Houthis if it could result in a comprehensive peace agreement that ends the conflict. The council also asked for assurances the Houthis would adhere to the terms of the agreements.
In an unprecedented and surprising reversal, the Houthis, who have long rejected peace overtures, also agreed to halt attacks on oil infrastructure in government-controlled regions, open all highways in Yemen’s provinces, and end their siege of Taiz.
Based on their negotiations with Houthi representatives, Saudi officials have developed strategies for achieving a compromise between the warring sides that results in a peace agreement in Yemen.
“These are Saudi ideas for a UN-led initiative,” a Yemeni government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters, told Arab News.
“This is a lengthy peace plan centered on proclaiming a suspension of hostilities and all military activities, then establishing trust, then forming technical committees and opening all ports, then direct negotiation leading to state formation and a transitional period.”
The official added that the Saudis would deliver the Presidential Leadership Council’s response to the Houthis. A previous ceasefire deal broke down in October when the two sides failed to reach an agreement on an extension.
Al-Masdar Online, a Yemeni news site, reported that the Houthis have demanded that the Arab coalition leaves Yemen within a year of an agreement taking effect, and promised to allow the swift deployment of UN salvage teams to the Safer, a derelict oil storage vessel. It has been moored in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen since the conflict in the country began, with little or no maintenance, sparking growing fears of a devastating oil spill.
Yemeni analysts ascribed the surprising Houthi U-turn to the recent reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the militia’s inability to achieve military gains on the ground.
“The Houthis are fearful about losing Iran’s assistance,” Ali Al-Fakih, the editor of Al-Masdar Online, told Arab News. “One of Iran’s commitments under its deal with Saudi Arabia is to halt its projects in the area and the Houthis are one of its arms.”
He added that another factor that had influenced the Houthi rush to peace was a desire to regroup and negotiate deals with regional powers after failing to defeat their opponents militarily.
“The Houthis have reached a point where they cannot accomplish more than they have in the past, and if Iranian help ends, they will be exposed and lose a lot of ground,” Al-Fakih said.