RIYADH: Hopes for peace in Yemen rose on Thursday as a 10-strong delegation from the Iran-backed Houthi militia flew to Riyadh for their first talks in the Kingdom since the war began in 2014.
“The delegation will head to Riyadh to continue consultations with the Saudi side,” Houthi political chief Mahdi Al-Mashat said. “Peace was and still is our first option and everyone must work to achieve it.”
On Friday, the White House praised Saudi Arabia for inviting the Houthis for peace talks.
“We commend the leadership of Saudi Arabia for this current initiative and thank the leadership of Oman for its important role,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement.
“The US has been proud to lend our diplomatic support to these peace efforts in coordination with the Yemeni parties and the United Nations,” Sullivan added.
The first round of the Oman-mediated consultations between Riyadh and Sanaa, which are running in parallel to UN peace efforts, was held in April when Saudi envoys visited Sanaa. A UN-brokered ceasefire is largely holding, despite having officially lapsed last October.
Yemen was plunged into war when the Houthis overran the capital Sanaa in a coup in September 2014. A Saudi-led Arab coalition intervened on behalf of the internationally recognized government the following March.
The ensuing fighting has forced millions from their homes, and caused one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises in a country already devastated by decades of conflict and upheaval. UN agencies and 91 NGOs said on Thursday that 21.6 million people — 75 percent of the population — needed humanitarian assistance.
The six-month ceasefire that expired last October is still mostly observed but moves towards peace have been slow since the Saudi delegation visited Sanaa in April.
“Optimism exists regarding the mediation and the Omani efforts to achieve peace in Yemen,” said Ali Al-Qhoom, a member of the Houthis political council.
The head of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies think tank, Majed Al-Madhaji, said the Houthi visit was “like moving the relationship between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia from the back rooms to the living room.” By organising talks in Riyadh, both sides were “legitimizing this relationship and giving it an additional impetus. On the political level, it is an advanced step to end Saudi Arabia’s direct role in Yemen and for the Houthis to acknowledge its role as a mediator.”
Moves toward peace in Yemen were boosted when Saudi Arabia and Iran reached a surprise Chinese-brokered rapprochement in March, seven years after they broke off ties.
Houthi demands include payment of their civil servants salaries by the displaced Yemeni government, and the launch of new destinations from Sanaa airport, which was closed until last year when commercial flights resumed to Jordan and Egypt.