A flight carrying rebel prisoners of war has arrived in Yemen from Saudi Arabia, and Saudi prisoners are due to be released later in the day, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has confirmed. The exchange involves almost 900 detainees and is taking place over several days. It comes amid peace talks that have raised hopes of an end to Yemen’s eight-year war between Iran-backed rebels and a Saudi-led coalition. The flights are a confidence-building measure coinciding with an intense diplomatic push to end Yemen’s war, which has left hundreds of thousands dead from the fighting, created food insecurity and greatly reduced access to healthcare.
On Friday, 318 prisoners were transported on four flights between government-controlled Aden and the rebel-held capital Sana’a, reuniting with their families before next week’s Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr. Saturday’s flight from the southern Saudi city of Abha took off before 9am local time, headed for Sana’a with 120 Huthi rebel prisoners, the ICRC public affairs and media adviser, Jessica Moussan, said. Sixteen Saudis and three Sudanese were expected to be transferred from Sana’a to Riyadh later on Saturday. Sudan is part of the Saudi-led coalition and has provided ground troops for the fighting.
In addition, 100 Huthis were due to be flown on three flights to Sana’a from Mokha on the Red Sea coast, a town held by the coalition-backed government. An Agence France-Presse journalist in Abha said at least three buses drove the prisoners on to the runway at the airport, which has previously come under attack from Huthi drones and missiles. Wheelchairs were positioned near the buses to take some of the prisoners to the plane.
Analysts say that eight years after mobilising a coalition to crush the Huthis, the Saudis have accepted that this goal will not be met and want to wind down their military engagement. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was a 29-year-old defence minister when the war began, has since become the kingdom’s de facto ruler and is keen to focus on his sweeping “Vision 2030” agenda for domestic changes. The Saudi exit appears to have taken new impetus from a rapprochement deal announced with Iran last month.
The China-brokered agreement calls for the Middle East heavyweights to fully restore diplomatic ties after a seven-year rupture and has the potential to remake regional ties. Saudi Arabia is also pushing for the Iran ally Syria to be reintegrated into the Arab League, more than a decade after its suspension over President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests. On Friday, the kingdom, which once openly championed Assad’s ousting, hosted top diplomats from eight other Arab countries in Jeddah for talks on Syria, then issued a statement highlighting the “importance of having an Arab leadership role in efforts to end the crisis”.
In Yemen, active fighting has reduced over the past year after a UN-brokered truce that officially lapsed in October but has largely held. A week ago, a Saudi delegation travelled to Sana’a, held by the Huthis since 2014, for talks aimed at reviving the truce and laying the groundwork for a more durable ceasefire. The delegation left on Thursday without a finalised truce but with plans for more talks, according to Huthi and Yemeni government sources.
Even if Saudi Arabia manages to negotiate a way out of the war, fighting could flare up between the different Yemeni factions. Sanam Vakil, the director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the UK-based Chatham House thinktank, said: “Saudi Arabia has been struggling to draw down its military involvement in Yemen and seeks a long-term sustainable peace that will allow it to focus on its economic priorities. Yet despite its intention, it will be the longtime broker, investor and conflict guarantor of Yemen.”
The prisoner exchange is a significant step towards rebuilding trust between the warring sides and could pave the way for further progress in peace talks. However, there are still many obstacles to overcome, including disagreements over the role of Iran in Yemen and the future of the country’s political system. The conflict has caused immense suffering for the people of Yemen, with millions facing starvation and disease due to the destruction of infrastructure and the ongoing blockade of ports by the Saudi-led coalition.
The international community has a crucial role to play in supporting efforts to end the war and provide much-needed humanitarian aid to the people of Yemen. The ICRC has called for all parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law and ensure the safe and humane treatment of prisoners and detainees. The people of Yemen have suffered for far too long, and it is time for the world to come together to help them build a better future.