After eight years of crushing civil war in Yemen, where hundreds of thousands of people have died of violence and hunger, a new round of talks this week has raised a glimmer of hope for a breakthrough in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
The difference between these negotiations and those of years past is not on the battlefield — and some analysts fear the talks could simply usher in a different phase of a complex conflict. Instead, the factor drawing attention is a surprise rapprochement last month between two regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
For years, the rivals fed a proxy conflict that worsened the war, which has led to the deaths of more than 350,000 people, many of them from hunger, in what was already the poorest country in the region. But the recent talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia have created optimism.
Fighting in Yemen has remained relatively quiet in recent months, although a truce lapsed in October. The parties have engaged in peace talks mediated by neighboring Oman, but those meetings had gone on without a clear end in sight until this month.
Hans Grundberg, the United Nations envoy for Yemen, told The Associated Press on Sunday that now is “the closest Yemen has been to real progress towards lasting peace.”
Here is what we know about the talks this week.
Who is at the talks?
The negotiations in Yemen’s capital, Sana, bring together Saudi Arabia — which leads a military coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015 — and the Houthis, Iran-backed rebels who control Yemen’s capital and northwest.
The conflict began when Houthi fighters swept through northern Yemen into Sana in 2014, displacing the internationally recognized government. The Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015 in an attempt to restore that government, launching a devastating bombing campaign that has lasted years.
On Sunday, the Houthi-run SABA news agency released photographs of Omani and Saudi delegations meeting with Mahdi al-Mashat, head of the Houthis’ Supreme Political Council.
“It is clear that an atmosphere of peace is hanging over the region, encouraging optimism and hope,” Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a Houthi official, wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
In a carpeted room, men in gold chairs with blue cushions face each other in two rows. Another man sits om his won at the rear.
A photograph released by Yemeni state media showing the head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council meeting with Saudi and Omani delegations on Sunday.Credit…Saba News Agency, via Reuters
Saudi delegations have visited Sana before, but with Saudi Arabia and Iran agreeing to resume diplomatic relations, there is new “momentum in the region,” said Ahmed Nagi, senior Yemen analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Policy
M.B.S.’s Vision: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, has pursued a muscular foreign policy, bombing Yemen and moving aggressively to jail activists and critics.
Restoring Ties With Iran: The kingdom and Iran have agreed to re-establish diplomatic ties in a deal facilitated by China that could lead to a major realignment between regional rivals.
A Tilt Away From the West: As U.S.-Saudi relations take a hit, including over the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Riyadh has moved closer to an isolated Moscow and to Beijing, with which it signed a strategic partnership agreement.
Relations With Israel: Saudi Arabia has been seeking security guarantees from the United States and help with developing a civilian nuclear program in exchange for normalizing relations with Israel.
In an interview, Mr. al-Bukhaiti said that “unlike in previous times, we sensed earnestness from Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed Al Jaber, said on Twitter that he had come to Sana for discussions “to stabilize the truce and cease-fire” and “explore venues of dialogue” that could reach a comprehensive political solution for the country.
Yemen’s presidential leadership council — which oversees the internationally recognized government — has been essentially excluded from them, said Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute.
What are they trying to achieve?
The immediate aims are basic. Negotiators are seeking the reinstatement of a truce and a complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Yemen, Mr. al-Bukhaiti said.
The negotiators also want to pave the way for broader talks to resolve Yemen’s multifaceted political conflict and repair its demolished economy.
An agreement would most likely involve Saudi Arabia convincing its allied Yemeni government to facilitate salary payments for Yemeni civil servants, who have gone uncompensated for years and are often their families’ main breadwinners. That would lift a burden on humanitarian aid agencies, which are struggling to serve millions of hungry Yemenis in desperate need of food.
A deal could also open more flights from the Sana airport, allowing thousands of people to travel for lifesaving medical treatment, and lift restrictions on ports, making more essential goods available and easing inflation. It might also allow the resumption of Yemeni oil exports.
Some of those issues had been agreed upon in principle during earlier talks in Oman, Mr. al-Bukhaiti said. “What’s happening now is finding an implementation mechanism,” he said.
Yemen’s war runs deeper than fighting between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis, though, and a deal between the two groups would inevitably extend legitimacy to the Houthis.
“The Houthis won’t give up their ambition to rule all Yemen,” Ms. Al-Dawsari said. “Once the Saudis are out, the Houthis will expand militarily to reassert what they see as their right to exert control over the country.”
How bad is Yemen’s humanitarian situation?
Even before the war, Yemen was the poorest Arab country. But the conflict mired the Yemenis into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and pushed the country to the brink of famine.
About 24 million people — 80 percent of Yemen’s population — are in need of humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations, and millions of people have been displaced.
Deaths, particularly from hunger, have overwhelmingly affected young children. More than 11,000 children have now been killed or maimed as a result of the conflict in Yemen, according to a United Nations estimate. U.N. officials say the true toll is likely to be much higher.
Why does the détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran matter?
Although the war involves more than just a proxy conflict, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran — which has been repeatedly accused of providing weapons to the Houthis — have played a major role. Now, Saudi Arabia is cultivating closer ties with Iran in a push to ease regional tensions.
“Both Riyadh and Tehran are keen to prove that their diplomatic efforts were instrumental in bringing calmness to Yemen,” Mr. Nagi said. “They want to succeed in this endeavor.”
Saudi officials are eager to end their military involvement in Yemen, which has been expensive and damaging to the kingdom’s international reputation. Beyond that, Houthi missile and drone strikes over Saudi Arabia’s southern border have killed several dozen civilians and damaged infrastructure, and the conflict has also cast a pall over an effort by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to transform the kingdom’s economy.
Will these talks end Yemen’s conflict?
As welcome as a resolution would be to Yemenis, the talks are unlikely to lead to peace and prosperity. Yemeni analysts say that without genuine support within the country, among the Yemenis themselves, a political resolution cannot take root.
Beyond the direct violence of the war, Yemenis are grappling with an economy in shambles and the structural violence caused by corruption, fractured communities and multiple armed groups vying for power. There are rivals even among basic institutions, including two central banks and separately managed currencies, raising questions about how — and with which banknotes — civil servants would be paid.
“It seems the Saudis are in a rush to reach a deal without giving much time to discuss these important details, which could create significant divisions later on,” Mr. Nagi said.