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Houthis try to reassure skeptics they won’t seek full control of Yemen, as Saudis eye exit

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Yemen’s Houthi rebels are not interested in spreading tyranny in the country and are willing to share power with other political factions if a permanent ceasefire with Saudi Arabia is reached, a top Houthi official has said.

His attempts at reassurance will likely be viewed skeptically by the Houthis’ rivals, and come amid concerns from other stakeholders that a truce with Saudi Arabia will give the heavily-armed Iran-backed rebels free rein to take over the entire country.

Yemen’s conflict began as a civil war in 2014, when Houthi forces stormed the capital Sanaa and toppled the internationally recognized and Saudi-backed government. It spiraled into a wider war in 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition intervened in an attempt to beat back the Houthis. Eight years later, the coalition has been unable to dislodge the rebels, who have fired hundreds of rockets toward Saudi cities in retaliation. The war has sparked one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, leaving thousands dead and pushing parts of the country into famine.

A Saudi delegation arrived in Sanaa on Sunday for talks with the Houthis aimed at securing a permanent ceasefire. And on Friday, negotiations bore their biggest fruits yet with the beginning of a three-day prisoner swap of nearly 900 detainees from both sides. Houthi chief negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam tweeted on Friday that talks had been “serious and positive.”

Saudi Arabia has begun mending ties with old foes of late, namely Iran, Syria and now Yemen’s Houthis as it redirects its focus on economic growth at home, which requires regional stability.

“Saudi Arabia currently needs stability on its southern border and to (eliminate) threats to it from Houthis and others,” said Ahmed Nagi, a senior Yemen analyst at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, adding that it will transform its role in Yemen from a military one to one of soft power.

Escalating the civil war

Experts have argued that a Saudi deal with the Houthis that does not address the pre-existing political problems among Yemen’s disparate groups will only end the international dimension of the war and could escalate the civil conflict.

Other factions, especially the internationally recognized government and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) that controls parts of the south, may find al-Houthi’s promises difficult to believe, experts say, as all other stakeholders in the conflict – including the United Nations – have been excluded from the current Houthi-Saudi talks.

The STC, she said, is heavily dependent on the UAE’s support and if that ends with the withdrawal of foreign forces, they don’t have a great chance to stand up to the Houthis, “who have much more sophisticated weapons, fighting experience, training, and (Iranian) commanders helping them.”

The UAE is a member of the Saudi-led coalition but partially withdrew its troops from Yemen in 2019. Abu Dhabi nonetheless retains strong influence over Yemen’s south.

War compensation

Internal matters, including demands by the STC for the south of the country to secede, will be dealt with “in the future,” he said. The STC will be given “what is rightful (to them),” he said, but not more. He did not rule out a separation of the south but stressed that any solutions to the “southern issue” must be taken without foreign influence.

Al-Houthi repeatedly stressed the importance of Saudi Arabia meeting the group’s “humanitarian demands,” referring to a compensation package that would have Riyadh pay for the rebuilding of the country and the salaries of public sector workers.

The discussions remain secretive, and it is unclear how much compensation the Houthis have demanded, but experts expect it to be substantial. The Houthis have said in the past that it is seeking compensation for 1.3 million public employees and that the war has led to a cut in salaries and other expenses of nearly 95%, according to Houthi media. But some experts are concerned that the Houthis would use the money to pay its militia members.

“Even if the Saudis agree to pay the salaries, we have no clear image of what that might look like,” Nagi said, adding that the internationally recognized government may also require payments.

Even if a Saudi-Houthi deal is reached, there’s no guarantee that other Yemeni factions will accept it, experts say.

“Based on what we see, it is clear that those who are negotiating are closer to winning,” Nagi said, “While those who are excluded from the talks are closer to losing.”

Correction: This story has been updated to more accurately characterize al-Houthi’s comments on the group’s demand that all foreign forces leave Yemen.

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