Saudi Arabia Offers Cease-Fire Plan to Yemen Rebels

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -
Men are silhouetted against a large representation of the Yemeni flag in Sanaa, Yemen. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed, File)

Saudi Arabia announced a plan Monday to offer Yemen’s Houthi rebels a cease-fire in the country’s yearslong war and allow a major airport to reopen in its capital, the kingdom’s latest attempt to halt fighting that has sparked the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in the Arab world’s poorest nation.

The move by Saudi Arabia comes after Yemen’s Houthi rebels stepped up a campaign of drone and missile attacks targeting the kingdom’s oil sites, briefly shaking global energy prices amid the coronavirus pandemic. It also comes as Riyadh tries to rehabilitate its image with the U.S. under President Joe Biden.

Saudi Arabia has waged a war that saw it internationally criticized for airstrikes killing civilians and embargoes exacerbating hunger in a nation on the brink of famine.

Whether such a plan will take hold remains another question. A unilaterally declared Saudi cease-fire collapsed last year. Fighting rages around the crucial city of Marib and the Saudi-led coalition launched airstrikes as recently as Sunday targeting Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. A United Nations mission said another suspected airstrike hit a food-production company in the port city of Hodeida.

“It is up to the Houthis now,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told journalists in a televised news conference in Riyadh. “The Houthis must decide whether to put their interests first or Iran’s interests first.”

A senior Houthi official, who spoke with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity under regulations, said the rebels had been aware of the proposal and in direct communication with the Saudis, as well as Omani interlocutors. However, he said the Saudis needed to do more to see a cease-fire implemented.

Saudi Arabia said the plan would be presented both to the Houthis and Yemen’s internationally recognized government later Monday. Both would need to accept the plan for it to move forward, with any timeline likely to be set by U.N. Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths.

Saudi Arabia made two concessions to the Houthis in the plan, while not offering everything the rebels previously wanted. The first involves reopening Sanaa International Airport, a vital link for Yemen to the outside world that hasn’t seen regular commercial flights since 2015. Officials did not immediately identify what commercial routes they wanted to see resume.

The second would see taxes, customs and other fees generated by Yemen’s Hodeida port while importing oil put into a joint account of Yemen’s Central Bank. That money would be accessible to the Houthis and Yemen’s recognized government to pay civil servants and fund other programs, officials said.

Whether the Houthis accept the Saudi proposal remains in question.

A Saudi-led coalition entered Yemen’s war in March 2015 as the Houthis threatened to take Yemen’s port city of Aden and completely overrun the country’s internationally recognized government. The Saudis promised the offensive — the brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — would be over in short order.

Six years later, the fighting rages on.

Since Biden took office, his administration reversed a decision by President Donald Trump naming the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, allowing American aid to flow into rebel-held territory. He also ended U.S. support for the Saudis in the war.

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had spoken to the Saudi foreign minister about the war in Yemen.

Blinken supports efforts “to end the conflict in Yemen, starting with the need for all parties to commit to a cease-fire and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid,” the statement said.