On November 28th Saudi Arabia released 128 prisoners captured during the ongoing war against the Houthis, an Iranian-backed Shia group, in Yemen.
The Saudi government—and chiefly Mohammed bin Salman al‑Saud, the crown prince and de facto ruler, who took the country to war against the Houthis in early 2015 shortly after his father’s accession—has been increasingly keen for some time to extricate the kingdom from the costly and reputationally damaging conflict. The UN-brokered Stockholm Agreement in December 2018 between the Saudi- and UAE-led coalition (which was formed to restore to power the internationally recognised government of Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, the president) and the Houthi rebels, which seized control of Sanaa and much of the north in late 2014, was widely violated by both parties. However, a more independent, bilateral reconciliation process between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis gained momentum from mid-September—after the Houthis claimed responsibility for two physically and psychologically devastating attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities. Later that month, indirect peace talks were initiated, mediated by Oman, officials from both sides disclosed in mid-November.
Saudi moves to end the war seem to have moved up another gear since the signing of the Riyadh Agreement in early November, which ended a three-month military stand-off in the south between the Southern Transitional Council, a UAE-backed secessionist group, and government forces. Coalition air strikes across the country were reported to have decreased by some 80% in the following weeks, and on November 26th a statement issued via Saudi state media announced that 200 Houthi prisoners would be released and that Sanaa airport would reopen for medical evacuations supervised by the World Health Organisation, a UN body. The facility has been closed to commercial flights since 2016.
Yemen’s government has reportedly been largely excluded from the fledgling peace process—in which Saudi Arabia is focused on its key strategic priorities of ensuring domestic security and drawing the Houthis away from Iran’s orbit rather than on Mr Hadi’s restoration. Anwar Gargash, the UAE foreign minister, revealed acceptance of a post-war political role for the Houthis in a high-profile speech in early November and the Saudi leadership appears to be moving in the same direction.