Yemen peace push 'serious' but next steps unclear: Saudi envoy
Warring parties in Yemen are "serious" about ending a devastating eight-year-old conflict but it is impossible to predict when direct talks, much less a breakthrough, might happen, Saudi Arabia's envoy told AFP.
"Everybody is serious. Serious means everybody is looking for peace," Mohammed al-Jaber said in his first extensive comments after meeting with Huthi leaders in Sanaa last month. But he added: "It's not easy to be clear about next steps."
The comments seemed to undercut expectations for an imminent deal to conclude fighting that has killed hundreds of thousands of people directly and indirectly and left two-thirds of Yemen's population dependent on aid, according to the United Nations.
Saudi Arabia mobilised a coalition to back the internationally recognised government in 2015, after the Iran-backed Huthis seized the capital Sanaa the previous year.
Subsequent coalition air strikes killed and injured tens of thousands, according to the UN, while failing to dislodge the Huthis, though fighting diminished considerably after a truce announced in April 2022.
Jaber, Riyadh's ambassador to Yemen, travelled to Sanaa in April as part of a plan to "stabilise" the truce, which officially expired in October.
But no deal was struck and Jaber said there were no concrete plans to move the process forward.
"Nothing is clear, but I'm optimistic, and we hope inshallah (God willing) Yemenis can find a way as soon as possible," he said.
The push for peace in Yemen appeared to be revived by a surprise rapprochement deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran announced in March.
However, hopes for a quick resolution "have somewhat receded", according to one diplomat working on the file.
- Saudi mediation? -
The Huthis see Saudi Arabia as a party to the conflict, whereas Jaber indicated that Riyadh sees itself as more of a mediator trying to facilitate an agreement between the rebels and Yemen's government.
"Because of Saudi Arabia's relationship with all Yemenis, including the Huthis, we used our leverage to convince all Yemenis to sit at the table and discuss those issues," Jaber said during the interview on a flight back to Saudi Arabia from Aden, where he inaugurated Saudi-funded upgrades to the main hospital and airport.
"In the end, it's about Yemenis," he added, though he also noted the two sides currently "refuse to sit together".
In a separate interview at the presidential palace in Aden, Rashad al-Alimi, chair of the Yemeni government's Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), also told AFP that Riyadh was acting as a mediator.
"The Saudi role is a mediating role between the official government and the rebels," Alimi said in his first public remarks on the process.
Diplomats and analysts have said PLC members are frustrated by being excluded from the talks, especially as they touch on issues like whether Yemeni oil revenue could be used to pay Huthi-appointed civil servants' salaries.
"There has to be more consultation with other Yemenis. All the (PLC members) hunkered down in Riyadh only have a basic knowledge of what is happening," one diplomat said.
- 'Out of the war' -
Yet Alimi said talks between Riyadh and the Huthis are merely "a way to reach Yemeni-Yemeni peace talks" and pushed back on claims the PLC had been sidelined.
"We were informed by the Saudi side of these steps before they began, and we are also informed of what is going on in these contacts," he said.
There are also persistent concerns about whether the PLC, an eight-member body formed in Riyadh in April 2022, can stay united.
Earlier this week, the United Arab Emirates-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), whose leadership is represented on the PLC, unveiled a new charter affirming its push for a "federal independent" state.
Alimi insisted there was "no disagreement within the Presidential Leadership Council", which he said "represents all Yemeni parties".
For his part, Jaber rejected the notion that Riyadh is focused solely on securing a quick exit from a war that did not go as planned.
"I don't agree," he said. "We are working hard to take Yemen out of the war. If we take Yemen out of the war, we can go out of the war and start supporting the economy and supporting the government."