The US is pushing for a trilateral meeting with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as it worries that differences between the Gulf neighbours could upend its efforts to secure a lasting peace deal in Yemen.
The initiative, led by US Yemen envoy Tim Lenderking, could result in talks as early as this week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, people familiar with the matter say.
It comes as a senior delegation from the Houthi group that has held the Yemen capital Sana’a since 2014 publicly visits Riyadh for the first time for talks on ending the civil war.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have increasingly been at odds as Riyadh seeks to assert itself as the region’s financial hub, a spot long held by the UAE. Their rivalries have occasionally spilled into other countries where they both have interests, and they have disagreed over their approach to the war in Yemen, from which the UAE withdrew its troops in 2019.
The two countries had led a military intervention into Yemen in 2015 after the Iranian-backed Houthis seized swaths of the impoverished country, but they backed different anti-Houthi factions. Coalition air strikes killed thousands of people, and hundreds of thousands have died of disease and malnutrition.
The Houthis have used missiles and drones to attack Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Saudi Arabia supports the weak but internationally recognised Yemen government, while the UAE backs the Southern Transitional Council (STC) that wants the south to secede from the rest of Yemen.
Saudi Arabia, which has been focusing on domestic economic reforms that include attracting foreign investment and tourists, has been seeking for several years to extricate itself from the war, which also strained its ties with US president Joe Biden’s administration.
The kingdom also wants to negotiate a defence treaty with the US, in return for normalising relations with Israel. Ending the Yemen war could help persuade sceptical members of the US Congress, who criticised the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, to ratify any such treaty.
But the UAE fears that a deal with the Houthis would gift the rebels control of the whole of Yemen and inevitably lead to more conflict, said one person familiar with the UAE’s position.
“The Emirati plan is to strengthen its allies [in Yemen] as their assessment is the conflict is going to return regardless of the deal,” said one person familiar with the UAE position. “The Saudis are much more eager to get out. They feel they can basically get the relationship they want with the Houthis.”
A US-mediated ceasefire has held in Yemen since early 2022, although there have been intermittent clashes, including between the Houthis and the STC.
Farea Al-Muslimi, from the Chatham House think-tank, said this week’s talks in Riyadh seemed promising, and could lead to an agreement to expand the truce and Saudi financing of salaries in Yemen, a sticking point in previous negotiations. But the UAE feels looped out of the negotiations.
“The UAE feels like Saudi Arabia has left it out,” he said. “Nobody likes not to be invited to a party.”
A person briefed on the UAE’s position said it had been “co-operating with US and Saudi trilaterally for several weeks now.”