SANA'A, YEMEN - Saudi Arabia and Yemen's Iran-backed rebels are holding indirect, behind-the-scenes talks to end the devastating five-year war in Yemen, officials from both sides have told The Associated Press.
The negotiations are taking place with Oman, a Gulf Arab country that borders both Yemen and Saudi Arabia, as mediator. Oman has positioned itself as a quiet mediator in the past and in a possible sign the back-channel talks could be stepping up, Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman arrived in Muscat on Monday.
The two sides have communicated via video conference over the past two months, according to Gamal Amer, a negotiator for the Yemeni rebels known as Houthis. They have also talked through European intermediaries, according to three Houthi officials.
Yemen remains a divided country. The Iran-backed Houthis have controlled the capital, Sanaa, and much of the north since 2014. The Saudi-led military coalition, which entered the war in 2015, is fighting on behalf of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his internationally recognized government.
The Oman-mediated talks began in September, after a Houthi-claimed drone struck a key crude processing plant in Saudi Arabia - the world's largest - and dramatically cut into global oil supplies. The United States blamed Iran, which denied involvement.
The attack laid bare the vulnerability of Saudi Arabia's oil installations and appears to have propelled Riyadh toward negotiating an end to the increasingly costly war. The kingdom has also faced a growing backlash against its role in the Yemen war, including from the U.S. Congress.
The current talks focus on interim goals, such as re-opening Yemen's main international airport in Sana'a, shut down by the Saudi-led coalition in 2016. Also under discussion is a buffer zone along the Yemen-Saudi border in areas under Houthi control.
Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, a former Yemeni foreign minister, told the AP from Oman that the Saudis' main concerns include dismantling the Houthis ballistic and drone capabilities and the kingdom's border security.
The Saudis are looking for assurances the Houthis will distance themselves from Shiite power Iran, the Sunni kingdom's archrival. Riyadh has long feared the Houthis could establish an Iranian presence along the Saudi-Yemen border.
These talks could pave the way for more high-profile negotiations early next year, said one of the Houthi officials.
All officials, with the exception of Amer and al-Qirbi, spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters on backchannel negotiations.
The recent rapprochement - if materialized - could put an end to a war that has killed over 100,000 people, destroyed Yemen's infrastructure, displaced millions, and pushed the country's 30 million people into one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. However, it remains to be seen how future peace talks could shape a post-war Yemen, deeply fragmented along many fault lines during the conflict.
Last week, a senior Saudi official told a group of reporters in Washington that, “there is a sense that we need to move to resolution of this conflict.” He said the ongoing talks are also focusing on prisoner exchanges between the warring sides.
There are signs all involved in the fighting are seeking a way out. The United Arab Emirates, a member of the Saudi-led coalition, has tried to extricate itself from the conflict and last month said it was pulling out of Yemen, after spending years. financing and training militias and separatist political factions in southern Yemen.
Talks between the Yemeni rebels and the Saudis are not new.
The two sides struck a cease-fire in 2016 after a meeting in the southern Saudi region of Asir but the truce later fell apart. Amer, the Houthi negotiator, says an exchange of messages between the two sides never stopped and that they “kept a window open” for dialogue.
The Houthis and Hadi's government have also sat at a negotiating table several times, most notably at the U.N.-brokered talks in Sweden last December, when they reached a tentative peace plan that involved a cease-fire in the flashpoint port of Hodeida, the main passageway for Yemen imports and a lifeline to Houthi-controlled areas.
However, the Oman-mediated talks are not inclusive for all parties to the conflict, according to a Yemeni government official.
President Hadi's adviser Abdel-Aziz Jabari, who is also deputy speaker of parliament, says the government has been kept in the dark about what its Saudi patrons are negotiating.
He said he fears that Saudi Arabia could strike a deal to leave Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, and key other Houthi-held areas, exclusively under rebel control - cementing the country's divide.
“That would be a grave mistake and the Saudis would deeply regret it,” Jabari said.
Salman al-Ansari, a Saudi commentator who heads the pro-Saudi lobbying organization known as the Saudi American Public Relations Affairs Committee, says the Saudis were emboldened by their success in brokering a deal earlier this month between Hadi's government forces and the UAE-backed southern separatists to halt their months-long infighting in southern Yemen.
“The kingdom never concedes anything,” al-Ansari said. “Especially when (it is about) securing its own borders and deterring Iranian influence.”