Advanced plans by Saudi Arabia to strike a peace deal with the Houthi rebels in Yemen are being jeopardised by Houthi attacks on Israel and this week’s seizure of an Israeli-linked commercial vessel in the Red Sea.
Saudi Arabia hopes it can maintain a firewall between the Yemen peace talks and the Houthis’ attacks on Israel, but in London and Washington there is pressure to redesignate the Houthis as a terrorist organisation, which would threaten any deal.
There are also reports that the US is willing to launch an attack on Houthi military sites in and around Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, as well as its port operations room, unless the ship seized on Sunday, the Galaxy Leader, is released.
Last week the Saudis summoned the official UN-recognised Yemen government for further talks in Riyadh to present a revised roadmap that would lead to foreign forces, including those from Saudi Arabia, leaving in six months. It includes a budget deal under which large sums would be transferred from the oil-rich south to the impoverished north, which is dominated by the Iranian-backed Houthis.
Critics of the deal claim it empowers the Houthis, but Saudi Arabia, eager to exit what has proved to be an ill-judged military intervention in Yemen’s civil war, wants to end its engagement as quickly as possible.
Saudi Arabia would also fund the payment of salaries to tens of thousands of unpaid government staff.
In two rounds of meetings, a multistage Saudi roadmap was outlined to the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), the coalition representing the UN-backed Yemeni government based in Aden and opposed to the Houthis.
Houthi leaders, who have declared themselves part of an “axis of resistance” of Iran’s allies and proxies retaliating against Israel’s war with Hamas, are determined to show military solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. A third round of cruise missiles fired from Yemen towards Israel were shot down on Thursday morning by a US destroyer.
Some regard the Houthi missiles and drones as symbolic displays of solidarity designed for a domestic Yemeni audience. However, international alarm grew on Sunday when in a sophisticated helicopter raid Houthi fighters hijacked the Galaxy Leader. The 25-strong crew of the Japanese-managed ship, which includes 17 Filipinos, had been on a journey from Egypt to India.
The ship is ultimately owned by the Israeli billionaire Abraham Ungar but the plea to release the crew is being led by Japan.
The Houthis say they will target not just Israeli ships but those that protect Israeli ships in the narrow Bab-el-Mandeb strait and the Red Sea. The threat shows how Houthi entrenchment in Yemen, including at the strategic port of Hodeidah, could represent a long-term threat to western shipping interests in the region.
On 8 November the Houthis used an Iranian Khordad-3 air defence system to down a US drone.
The US national security council spokesperson John Kirby said this week: “In light of the recent targeting of civilians by the Houthis, and now the piracy of a ship in international waters, we have begun a review of potential terrorist designations and we’ll be considering other options together with our allies and partners as well.”
Yemen’s war began when the Houthis descended from their strongholds in northern Yemen and seized Sana’a in 2014, forcing the internationally recognised government to flee to the south and then into exile in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh intervened in 2015. More than 250,000 people are thought to have died as a result of the conflict.
Saudi efforts to strike a peace deal with the Houthis are aggravated by parts of the PLC opposing its terms on the grounds that the deal would not retain enough funds in the country’s south. The deal would lead to the country’s two central banks and currencies being unified. A military buffer zone between north Yemen and Saudi Arabia would also be established. Discussions on a separate state for the south would be held later.
The PLC has strongly condemned the Houthi piracy, while the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, said it was laughable that the US was claiming to uphold international law.
The US may also reactivate the Combined Maritime Forces to protect commercial ships in international trade lanes in the Red Sea.
On Monday, the commander of the Houthi coastal defence forces, Muhammad al-Qadiri, warned against “any foreign interference in Yemen’s territorial waters or islands”, saying there would be “an appropriate response to any step of this kind