Stockholm, Sweden – Representatives from the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels are due to meet in Sweden this week for UN-sponsored talks aimed at ending more than three years of war that have ravaged the country.
The UN has refused to reveal the exact date and venue, but the talks are expected to take place on December 5 or 6, close to the capital, Stockholm.
While there have been several international initiatives aimed at bringing the brutal war to a close, sources have told Al Jazeera that the latest round of discussions could yield major breakthroughs.
A source familiar with the talks said that the UN was seeking to introduce a set of confidence-building measures, including a ceasefire in Hodeidah and an end to the air attacks across the country by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The source added that the Houthis would cease all rocket and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The talks are also expected to discuss the reopening of Sanaa international airport, large-scale prisoner swaps and the payment of salaries to civil servants in Houthi-held areas.
The war, which has been raging since March 2015, has received considerable media attention following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy who was brutally murdered inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2.
Western powers have expressed their anger over the killing and pulled their support from the Saudi-UAE alliance in an attempt to communicate their displeasure.
Germany and Norway suspended arms exports to Riyadh while the US Senate is due to consider a resolution this week to end its support for the conflict.
Under the leadership of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the alliance has launched more than 18,000 air raids on Yemen and imposed a raft of punitive economic measures aimed at undermining the Houthis’ grip on power.
This has exacerbated Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, which aid groups have decried as “choking civilians”.
More than three-quarters of the population, around 22 million people, need humanitarian assistance, while 11 million require urgent help in order to survive.
Who is attending?
According to the UN, the “consultations” will be only be attended by the main “parties to the conflict” – representatives from President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government and the Houthis.
The Special UN Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffith, has been hoping to get both sides to agree to a “framework” that “establishes the principles and parameters for UN-led, inclusive Yemeni negotiations to end the war, and restart a political transition”.
As part of his efforts to get the warring parties around the negotiating table, Griffith arrived in Sanaa on Monday after spending the previous two weeks shuttling between the two sides.
Shortly after, 50 wounded Houthi fighters were flown on a UN chartered plane from the Yemeni capital to Oman for medical treatment.
British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt called the evacuation a “positive 1st step,” adding that it was “encouraging to see some of the practical steps I discussed with the Iranian, UAE and Saudi leaders on recent trips come to pass”.
The fate of wounded rebels had been a stumbling block to the start of a previous round of aborted peace talks in September.
Efforts to launch peace negotiators in Switzerland failed spectacularly when the Houthis refused to turn up, saying they needed stronger security guarantees from the international community.
Previous talks also broke down in 2016, when 108 days of negotiations in Kuwait failed to yield a deal and delegates from the rebel movement were left stranded outside of Yemen for three months.
Sources in the capital told Al Jazeera that the Houthis were expected to leave Sanaa on Tuesday on a Kuwaiti flight accompanied by Kuwait’s Ambassador to Yemen.
Who is not attending?
Despite the lead role the alliance is playing in the war, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will not be present in Sweden.
However, both countries and Iran, which supposedly backs the Houthis, have said they support the UN’s scheme.
One powerful group expected to be left out of the talks are the southern secessionists, some of whom are represented by the Southern Transitional Council (STC).
Financed by the UAE, the STC has been aggressively pursuing independence for southern Yemen, which was an independent country until 1990.
“These talks are dealing with somewhat specific measures that don’t necessarily involve the STC directly,” said Adam Baron, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“But any substantive peace process would likely have to involve the STC in some form.”
Kawkab al-Thaibani, a Yemeni rights activist and member of the Women4Yemen network, called for women to be given more prominence.
“This is not just a call for social equity. For these talks to be successful, women from both camps have to be represented,” al-Thaibani said.
“We need the effective participation of women, both in terms of numbers and representation. Women are absent and are poorly represented by both sides and unless they are included in future political discussions, the talks will be doomed to fail.”
What might come out of these talks?
Getting the warring parties around the negotiating table is in itself a “major achievement”, according to analysts.
“Realistically, a best-case scenario would be to see a set of announcements on confidence-building measures, a set of de-escalation agreements and then some sort of agreement for further talks,” said Baron.
“But the trust among the various parties is so low at this point that this really is starting off from ground zero.”
Maysaa Shuja al-Deen, a non-resident fellow at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, said while this first round of talks would be “a trust-building exercise”, there could still be several breakthroughs.
“Agreeing on a ceasefire is going to be pretty easy,” she said. “The Houthis have already said they will not fire missiles into Saudi Arabia and the UAE. So while it seems like a big outcome, it’s actually a pretty simple and straight-forward issue.”
“The major issues are: What happens with Hodeidah port and the city and will the Houthis transfer control to the UN?
“Also, what happens to the thousands of prisoners held by both sides? This is a priority for the government. They have a lot of people who are being held by the Houthis, such as the former Minister of Defence, General Mahmoud Al Subaihi, and one of Hadi’s relatives, his nephew, Nasser Ahmed Mansour Hadi,” she said.
Around 1.2 million civil servants have not been paid since 2016, compounding the country’s humanitarian crisis, and that is something the Houthis would be looking to address, al-Deen said.
Shireen al-Adeimi, a Yemeni political analyst and assistant professor at Michigan State University, said it would be difficult to see the crisis come to a conclusion without the end of foreign intervention.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have set up military bases in several parts of southern Yemen, and control the country’s airspace and seas.
“Before the war, there was a discussion of Yemen becoming a federal state, something akin to the relationship Quebec has with Canada,” said Adeimi.
“Something like that could be well received and placate some of the grievances we see among southerners,” she said. “But the people see Hadi as a traitor, someone who has completely failed them – a Saudi puppet.”
“Unless there is an end to this foreign intervention, unless the Yemenis are given a chance to decide their future for themselves, it will be hard to see the country begin the healing process.”