Riyadh is in talks with Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthi rebels in a bid to end the country’s civil war, a Saudi official said Wednesday in the first official confirmation of dialogue between the two sides.
The comment comes after Saudi Arabia brokered a power sharing agreement between Yemen’s internationally recognised government and southern separatists, which observers say could pave the way for a wider peace deal.
“We have had an open channel with the Huthis since 2016. We are continuing these communications to support peace in Yemen,” a senior Saudi official told reporters.
“We don’t close our doors with the Huthis.”
The official, who declined to be named, gave no further details on the talks but the development came after rebel missile and drone attacks on Saudi cities spiked over the summer, followed by a lull in recent weeks.
There was no immediate comment from the Huthi rebels, who seized Yemen’s capital Sanaa and much of the country’s north in 2014, sparking a Saudi-led military intervention the following March.
Washington too is in talks with the Huthis, Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said during a visit to Saudi Arabia in September.
He did not say whether the Americans were holding talks separately with the rebels, but analysts say they were likely happening in consultation with Saudi Arabia, a key ally of Washington.
The Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 as the Huthi rebels closed in on second city Aden, prompting President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi to flee into Saudi exile.
Riyadh had reportedly hoped for a quick win against the Huthis, but instead waded into a quagmire that has cost it billions of dollars and hurt its reputation, while devastating the Arab world’s poorest country.
The confirmation of talks comes amid the slow implementation of a landmark ceasefire deal in rebel-held Hodeida, which was agreed between the government and the Huthis in Sweden late last year.
The deal was hailed as Yemen’s best chance so far to end the four-year conflict, but it appears to be hanging by a thread with breaches reported by both sides.
“If the Huthis (are) serious to deescalate and accept to come to the table, Saudi Arabia will support their demand and support all political parties to reach a political solution,” the Saudi official said.
The Huthis, on their part, have offered to halt all attacks on Saudi Arabia as part of a wider peace initiative, later repeating their proposal despite continued air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition.
The offer came after the Huthis claimed responsibility for attacks on September 14 against two key Saudi oil installations that temporarily knocked out half of the OPEC giant’s production.
Riyadh and Washington, however, blamed Iran for the attacks — a charge denied by Tehran.