Saudi ambassador to Yemen Mohammad Al Jaber with the head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, Mahdi Al Mashatat the Republican Palace in Sana'a. Image Credit: Saba

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen said on Monday he had travelled to the country’s rebel-held capital to strengthen a truce and push dialogue that could end the country’s eight-year-old war.

“I visit Sana’a along with a delegation from the brotherly Sultanate of Oman to stabilise the truce and ceasefire,” Mohammad Al Jaber said on Twitter in the first official comment from Saudi authorities about the visit.

Al Jaber met with Houthi officials in Sana’a on Sunday for talks also attended by Omani officials. The trip came as talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis gained momentum after the Kingdom reached a deal with Iran last month to restore their diplomatic ties. Iran is the Houthis’ main foreign backer in Yemen’s conflict.

Al Jaber said on Twitter that his trip was meant to “stabilise the truce and ceasefire, support the prisoner exchange process and explore venues of dialogue between Yemeni components to reach a sustainable, comprehensive political solution in Yemen.”

Yemen’s conflict began in 2014 when the Iran-backed Houthis seized Sana’a and much of Yemen’s north, ousting the internationally recognized government that fled to the south then into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The Houthi move prompted a Saudi-led coalition to intervene months later in a bid to restore the internationally recognised government to power.

The conflict has in recent years turned into a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Saudi diplomat met with Mahdi Al Mashat, head of the Houthis’ supreme political council, which runs rebel-held areas in Yemen.

Yemeni and Saudi officials said Saudi Arabia and the Houthis reached a draft deal last month to revive a ceasefire that expired in October. The deal, brokered by Oman, is meant to usher in a return to political talks, said officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss closed-door negotiations.

Buffer zone

One Yemeni official said the phased roadmap includes lifting the Saudi-led coalition’s air and maritime blockade on Houthi-held areas, and the rebels would end their siege of Taiz, Yemen’s third largest city. The Houthis also accepted security guarantees for Saudi Arabia, including a buffer zone with Houthi-held areas along the Yemeni-Saudi border, he added.

The Yemeni government and the rebels would also work to unify the country’s central bank, and a mechanism would be established to pay salaries of all state employees — including the military — from oil and gas revenues, he said.

The official said Saudi Arabia promised to support a widespread reconstruction efforts in Yemen where the war devastated its infrastructure and created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric on Monday hailed the talks as “a welcome step” that would help settle the conflict and de-escalate regional tensions.

“What we’re seeing is different strands, different parties that have been in tension with each other, have been speaking,” he said.

Dujarric said the UN was not involved in the Sana’a talks, but “we very much hope that it can contribute to the overall peace efforts led by (UN envoy for Yemen) Hans Gruenberg for the renewal of the truce in Yemen and the restart of the intra-Yemeni political process.”

Yemen’s internationally recognised government has welcomed what it calls Saudi Arabia’s efforts to bring Yemeni parties to the negotiating table to reach a “comprehensive political agreement,” according to a statement released late Sunday.

Al Jaber’s trip to Sana’a came days before the implementation of a prisoner exchange deal expected to take place later this week. The deal, brokered by the UN last month, involves the release of nearly 900 war prisoners from both sides, including Saudi troops.

Ahead of his trip, the Houthis said Saudi Arabia released 13 Houthi prisoners Saturday in exchange for a Saudi prisoner the Houthis freed earlier this year.