DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi Arabia on Monday offered a cease-fire proposal to Yemen's Houthi rebels that includes reopening their country's main airport, the kingdom's latest attempt to halt years of fighting in a war that has sparked the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
The move comes after the rebels stepped up a campaign of drone and missile attacks on 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 drawn internationally criticism for airstrikes killing civilians and embargoes exacerbating hunger in a nation on the brink of famine.
Whether the 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 of Sanaa. A U.N. mission said another suspected airstrike hit a food-production company in the port city of Hodeida.
“We want the guns to fall completely silent,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told journalists at a televised news conference in Riyadh. “It is up to the Houthis now. We are ready to go today. We hope we can have a cease-fire immediately, but the onus is on the Houthis."
A senior Houthi official, who spoke with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the rebels had been aware of the proposal and in direct communication with the Saudis, as well as interlocutors from Oman. However, he said the Saudis needed to do more to see a cease-fire implemented, something reiterated by others in the Iranian-backed rebel group.
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.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the announcement, said U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq.
“There is no doubt that every effort must be made to end the conflict and the suffering of the Yemeni people, and the United Nations looks forward to continuing its work with the parties to achieve this goal,” Haq said.
He said Griffiths "has been working extensively with the parties to see what can be done to bring them together on the sort of proposals that he made in the Security Council. ... So he will be in touch with the Houthis, as with all parties, to see whether we can go further on this.”
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 the Hodeida port while importing oil put into a joint account of Yemen’s Central Bank. That account would be accessible to the Houthis and Yemen’s recognized government to pay civil servants and fund other programs, officials said.
The Saudi government and the Yemeni government it backs have accused the Houthis of stealing those funds in the past. A report this year by a U.N. panel of experts said the Houthis “diverted” about $200 million from that fund.
“Only a small portion of the funds were used to pay salaries,” the report said.
Whether the Houthis accept the Saudi proposal remains in question. On Friday, Houthi leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi proposed a nationwide cease-fire contingent upon Saudi Arabia reopening Sanaa’s airport to commercial flights and lifting restrictions on cargo shipments to Hodeida. The port handles most of the country’s vital imports. Both are long-standing demands of the Houthis, who swept into Sanaa from their northwestern strongholds in September 2014.
“There is nothing new about the Saudi initiative," another senior Houthi official told the AP on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. "First, the airport and the port must both be opened.”
Prince Faisal criticized the Houthis for making “only more and more demands.”
“The Houthis must decide whether to put their interests first or ... Iran’s interests first," the prince said.
The 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 that the offensive — the brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — would be over in short order.
Six years later, the fighting rages on. The war has killed some 130,000 people, including over 13,000 civilians slain in targeted attacks, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Project. Tens of thousands of children have died of starvation and disease. The conflict also has turned into a regional conflict, with the Saudis using U.S.-made weaponry, and Iran linked to weapons used by the Houthis to target the kingdom.
Last week, Griffiths warned that “the war is back in full force.” Hundreds of fighters have been killed in the offensive on Marib, while other once-dormant front lines have seen renewed fighting. Saudi television channels repeatedly show black-and-white drone footage set to dramatic music of bombs dropping on suspected Houthi targets.
Yemen’s internationally recognized government praised the Saudi initiative as an effort to “ease the suffering of the Yemeni people.” But in a statement, its Foreign Affairs Ministry also warned that the Houthis had “met all previous initiatives with obstinacy and procrastination” and had “worked to deepen the humanitarian crisis.”
Since Biden took office, his administration reversed a decision by former President Donald Trump naming the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, allowing U.S. aid to flow into rebel-held territory. He also ended U.S. support for the Saudis in the war.
Biden sent the U.S. envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, to the region to negotiate a political settlement. Lenderking said earlier this month that the Houthis had an unspecified cease-fire proposal before them for a “number of days,” without elaborating. He reportedly met with Houthi officials while on a February trip to Oman, something the State Department has declined to acknowledge.
In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had spoken to the Saudi foreign minister about the war.
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.
Associated Press writers Ahmed al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed.