Saudi Arabia on Monday offered Yemeni Houthi rebels a ceasefire deal in an effort to end a six-year-long war in the country, which would include the reopening of air and sea links.
The initiative announced by Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud follows the Houthis stepping up a campaign of drone and missile attacks on Saudi cities, including on oil facilities.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Prince Faisal, said the ceasefire deal is envisioned “for the entire conflict”, including allowing for the main airport in Yemen’s rebel-held capital, Sanaa, to reopen. It would take effect “as soon as the Houthis agree to it.”
The proposal would also allow import of fuel and food through Hodidah’s western port(Yemen’s main port of entry). Political talks will be resumed between Saudi Arabia-backed government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Houthis. This will be effective when the Yemeni side accepts it, the Saudi foreign minister told a news conference.
Saudi Arabia said it was prepared to allow ships to enter the port so long as they follow the UN Security Council guidelines. Riyadh and the UN-recognized Yemeni government believe that the Houthis use the shipments to bring illegal weapons, but as the threat of famine increases, pressure is mounting on the Saudis to lift the unilateral blockade.
Riyadh also invited the Houthis “to accept the initiative… to stop the bloodshed in Yemen, address the humanitarian and economic conditions that the brotherly Yemeni people are suffering from, and gives them the opportunity to become partners in achieving peace.”
The United Nations has established a mechanism in Djibouti to inspect ships before docking at the port of Hodeidah, but Saudi-led coalition warships hold up most ships for weeks even if they have UN approval.
Prince Faisal said that tax revenue from the port would transfer to a joint bank account in the branch of Hodeidah, Yemen’s central bank.
Yemen’s internationally recognised government issued a statement welcoming the offer. However, the Houthis quickly rebuffed the proposal as “neither serious nor new,” as it did not include their demand for a complete lifting of the blockade on Sanaa airport and Hodeidah port.
“Saudi Arabia must declare an end to the aggression and lift the blockade completely, but putting forward ideas that have been discussed for over a year is nothing new,” said spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam, according to Houthi-run al-Masirah TV.
“We expected that Saudi Arabia would announce an end to the blockade of ports and airports and an initiative to allow in 14 ships that are held by the coalition,” Houthi chief negotiator Mohammad Abdulsalam said in separate comments to Reuters news agency.
Abdussalam said that the Houthis would continue the talks with the Riyadh and Washington. Diplomats say Saudi and American envoys have held discussions with Houthi officials in Oman in recent weeks. Two weeks ago, the Houthis rejected the US plan for a cease-fire because it involved no attempts to lift the blockade.
The US welcomed the commitment of Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s internationally-recognised government to a ceasefire and negotiations, deputy State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter said.
Asked about Abdulsalam’s comments that the Houthis expected Saudi Arabia to fully lift the blockade, Porter said that “negotiations are ongoing” and Riyadh’s announcement was “one step in the right direction.”
Yemen’s war began in late 2014, when the Houthis seized a large contingent of the country, including Sanaa. The fighting escalated considerably in March 2015 when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates assembled a United States-backed military alliance in order to restore Hadi’s government.
According to the Armed Conflict Locations and Event Data Project (ACLED), a database tracking violence in Yemen, more than 100,000 people died in the war, many of them were civilians.
Saudi Arabia has long accused Iran of supplying military assistance to the Houthis. Tehran denied the charge, saying it only supports the rebels diplomatically and politically. The conflict, widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has been deadlocked for years and has affected over 80% of Yemen’s population. The Houthis say they are fighting a corrupt system and foreign invasion.
Riyadh’s announcement comes as fighting rages around the strategic northern city of Marib and the Saudi-led coalition launching airstrikes as recently as Sunday targeting Sana. The coalition has responded with air raids on Houthi military sites.
The proposal also follows the recent escalation of Houthi missile and drone attacks targeting the kingdom’s oil sites, shaking global energy prices amid the coronavirus pandemic.
On Monday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a tweet he had spoken to Prince Faisal “on our work together to end the conflict in Yemen, facilitate humanitarian access and aid for the Yemeni people, and defend the Kingdom from external threats.”
The United Nations also welcomed the announcement, although U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq stressed: “It’s still early days”. Haq said the proposal is aligned with the U.N. initiative and that special envoy Martin Griffiths would now follow up with the warring parties.
Prince Faisal said Saudi Arabia was “fully committed” to working with the United Nations to end this conflict, adding that the kingdom wanted all “guns to fall completely silent”.
“That is the only thing that can really help us get to the next step, which is a political process and resolution that can make Yemen safe and secure,” he said.