Saudi Arabia offers cease-fire in Yemen and lifting of blockade

By Rick Gladstone and Shuaib Almosawa

Saudi Arabia proposed what it described as a new peace offering Monday to end the kingdom’s nearly six-year-old war on the insurgency in neighboring Yemen, pledging to lift an air-and-sea blockade if the Houthi rebels agree to a cease-fire.

The offer, announced by Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, came as pressure has escalated on the country to help break a stalemate in the Yemen conflict, which the United Nations has called the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster.

Millions of Yemenis, including children, are on the verge of famine, in part because of the blockade, which has choked the delivery of food and fuel to the country, the Arab world’s poorest.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan was quoted by Arab news media as saying at a news conference that if the Houthis agreed to a cease-fire monitored by the United Nations, his country would allow the reopening of the airport in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, and would permit fuel and food imports through Hodeida, a major Yemeni seaport. Both are controlled by the Houthis.

“The initiative will take effect as soon as the Houthis agree to it,” Prince Faisal was quoted as saying.

The Houthis appeared to reject the Saudi proposal. A spokesman for the group, Muhammad Abdussalam, said on al-Masirah, a Houthi-affiliated television channel in Yemen, that the Houthis would not agree to discuss a cease-fire until Saudi Arabia first lifted its blockade.

“The ideas put forward have been discussed for more than a year, and there’s nothing new in it,” he said of the Saudi foreign minister’s announcement.

The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, Abdussalam said, is “trying to have the Yemeni people buckle under tightening the blockade in an attempt to pressure us to accept demands they were unable to achieve militarily and politically.”

Many earlier attempts aimed at halting the conflict have failed.

Farhan Haq, a U.N. spokesman, said the organization welcomed the Saudi announcement, but he declined to specify if it had been made as part of a coordinated move with Martin Griffiths, a special U.N. envoy. Griffiths has been seeking to restart negotiations, with a formula that also includes a monitored cease-fire and lifting of the blockade.

Asked about the apparent Houthi rejection, Haq said Griffiths would “be in touch with the Houthis, as with all parties, to see whether we can go further on this.”

Some diplomatic experts view the Saudi proposal as an attempt to at least look more reasonable in seeking to end the protracted conflict and to portray the Houthi side as the obstacle to a solution.

Gerald M. Feierstein, senior vice president at the Washington-based Middle East Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, said the Houthis themselves had up until recently been essentially demanding what the Saudis have proposed.

“The Houthis won’t take yes for an answer,” Feierstein said.

The insurgent group’s position, he said, “leaves the Houthis alone, isolated — and of course, they’ve benefited over the last few years because all the attention in the conflict has been focused on the Saudis, with very little attention to what the Houthis are doing.”

Saudi Arabia began an intense bombing campaign six years ago this week aimed at routing the Houthis, who had forced the Saudi-backed government to flee and still control a vast swath of Yemen. The Houthis are backed by Iran, which Saudi Arabia regards as its regional adversary, and they have frequently responded to Saudi aerial assaults by sending missiles across the border into Saudi territory.

Saudi-led bombings and Houthi attacks have devastated Yemen’s fragile economy and led to widespread civilian casualties. By some estimates nearly a quarter million Yemenis have been killed in the conflict, and millions face acute hunger or starvation. About 80% of the country’s roughly 30 million people require humanitarian help.

The Saudi announcement came just a few weeks after President Joe Biden, breaking with the previous administration of Donald Trump, announced an end to U.S. logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen.

U.N. humanitarian officials have been pleading for eased access to vulnerable Yemenis isolated by the war, warning that famine already is beginning to take hold. After a visit to Yemen in early March, David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program, the U.N.’s anti-hunger agency, said “the famine is on a worsening trajectory.”

Six years of war, Beasley said, had “completely devastated the people, in every respect.”

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