Saudi Arabia has proposed a ceasefire deal to end the fighting in Yemen’s six-year conflict that would include Riyadh lifting its blockade on rebel-controlled ports in the war-torn country.
The initiative announced on Monday by Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the foreign minister, comes as Iran-aligned Houthi rebels have stepped up missile and drone attacks on Saudi cities and oil infrastructure.
Saudi Arabia has also been under pressure from the Biden administration to end the conflict, which the UN says has triggered the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis.
Prince Faisal’s proposal appears to be similar to a plan backed by the US and the UN as diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict have intensified since President Joe Biden took office. But the fighting in Yemen has escalated after the Houthis launched a fresh offensive in January to seize Marib, the only province in the impoverished country’s north outside rebel control.
Saudi Arabia, which led an Arab coalition to intervene in the war in 2015 after the Houthis forced the Yemeni government into exile, has responded by bombing rebel targets in Marib and Sana’a, the capital.
Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, spoke with Prince Faisal on Monday and said they discussed working together to end the conflict, facilitating aid to Yemen and defending the kingdom from external threats.
The Saudi-led coalition has long been criticised for restricting imports to Hodeida port, which is controlled by the Houthis. Riyadh claims the rebels use the port to smuggle in weapons from Iran and generate revenue through customs.
But Hodeida is a vital artery for the delivery of humanitarian aid and about 70 per cent of imports into Yemen, a country in which millions are at risk of starvation, with two-thirds of the 28m population dependent on some kind of humanitarian support.
The Saudi-led coalition, which accuses the Houthis of being Iranian proxies, has also prevented flights in and out of Sana’a airport as the rebels control the capital.
Prince Faisal told reporters in Riyadh that if the parties agreed to the deal the capital’s airport would reopen and the coalition would allow fuel and food imports through Hodeida. He said a nationwide ceasefire, if agreed, would be implemented under UN supervision.
“The initiative will take effect as soon as the Houthis agree to it,” Prince Faisal was quoted as saying by Al Arabiya, a Saudi television network. “It is up to the Houthis now, and we are ready to go today. We hope that we can have a ceasefire immediately.”
The Houthis, which control the populous north, were dismissive of the initiative, saying it fell short of their demand for a complete lifting of the blockade on Sana’a airport and Hodeida.
“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,” Mohammed Abdulsalam, the group’s chief negotiator, told Reuters. “Opening the airports and seaports is a humanitarian right and should not be used as a pressure tool,” he said.
Abdulsalam said the Houthis would continue to talk with the Saudis as well as the US. Diplomats say Saudi and US envoys have held discussion with Houthi officials in recent weeks in Oman.
But analysts fear the rebels have been emboldened by the Biden administration’s pressure on Saudi Arabia to exit the conflict, including freezing offensive arms sales to the kingdom, as well as its decision to lift a terrorist designation on the Houthis.
That was imposed by the Trump administration in its final day in office, despite warnings by the UN and others that it could trigger the world’s worst famine in decades as traders would be wary of importing goods for fear of falling foul of US sanctions.