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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Cautious optimism reigns over Yemen peace talks 

Talks in Sweden are one step towards a political solution, but analysts and diplomats say they don't expect a breakthrough

Swedish Foreign minister Margot Wallstrom, U.N. envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths and delegates attend the opening press conference on UN.-sponsored peace talks for Yemen at Johannesberg castle, in Rimbo, Sweden. TT News Agency/via REUTERS 
Swedish Foreign minister Margot Wallstrom, U.N. envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths and delegates attend the opening press conference on UN.-sponsored peace talks for Yemen at Johannesberg castle, in Rimbo, Sweden. TT News Agency/via REUTERS 

A window of opportunity for peace in Yemen seems to have opened as warring parties on Thursday entered the first round of UN-backed peace talks since the start of the civil war in 2015, but diplomats and analysts say they don't expect any major breakthrough.

UN Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, said he believes that peace can be achieved in the war-torn country but said that “he does not want to be overly optimistic," in the short-term.

"During the coming days we will have a critical opportunity to give momentum to the peace process," Griffiths told reporters as the rival delegations gathered in Sweden. But the UN envoy stressed that current talks are only "consultations."

"We are not yet beginning the process of negotiations," he said, managing expectations of what could result from such talks.

Considering that Yemen's peace process has been stalled for years, the fact that rival parties even showed up for talks is widely seen as a small victory, especially after Houthi rebels failed to attend a previous round of meetings in Geneva last September.

Netherlands Ambassador to Yemen Irma van Dueren told The National that this week's talks present Yemen’s political process with a very unique opportunity as the parties are in one place.

“I agree with what UN Envoy Martin Griffiths said that we should be not overly optimistic but we should be ambitious,” Ms Dueren said, adding that accomplishments must be made before officials depart Sweden.

“We have some very good advisory groups, we have tremendous efforts by the [UN] envoy himself, so I’m very hopeful that there will be some progress,” Ms Dueren said.

Representatives of the two warring sides sat in the same room in the Swedish town of Rimbo, north of Stockholm, where Yemen’s Foreign Minister, Khalid Al Yamani, acknowledged the Houthi delegation’s presence.

The UN Envoy, who wanted to establish clear expectations for the Swedish talks, has outlined two objectives: an agreement on the future management of Hodeidah city and port and a de-escalation of violence.

The discussions will also focus on a humanitarian ceasefire in Hodeidah, re-opening the airport in Sanaa, placing the ports of Midi and Saleef under UN supervision, Cinzia Bianco, a senior analyst at Gulf State Analytics told The National.

“I am hopeful that at least some steps forward can be achieved on all fronts,” Ms Bianco said.

This hope, however, is not placed in the realization that there is trust between the parties. Trust actually remains quite low and it is not yet clear how it could be fostered, Ms Bianco said.

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Yemen peace talks:

Yemen's warring parties appear together for first time since 2015

Yemeni government delegation arrives in Sweden for peace talks

Rebel Houthi delegation on way to Stockholm for peace talks

Editorial: Yemen breakthrough looks closer than ever

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Talks are expected to last a week, according to a UN official, but the duration will ultimately depend on the participating delegations.

Diplomats that were present during the meeting said they are also somewhat hopeful but are managing their expectations.

Mr Griffiths has done a fantastic job sorting out the logistical, sensitive issues and bringing the two sides together for the first time since 2016, UK Ambassador to Yemen, Michael Aron told The National.

“As Martin Griffiths said, he has high ambitions, although we worry about unrealistic expectations but he has realistic ambitions for the week,” Mr Aron said.

The British Ambassador said that talks this week are going to be unpredictable due to the lack of trust between the two sides.

"Confidence-building measures are an important part of that trust, we hope we can make progress on that,” Mr Aron said.

While the British diplomat is cautious regarding an imminent breakthrough, he did say that a political solution was a matter of urgency for Yemen's population, which is suffering dire humanitarian conditions.

“I think the Yemeni people can’t wait any longer, they are suffering, there is a huge amount of responsibility on the delegations and we hope and expect to make progress on ending their suffering,” Mr Aron said.

US Ambassador to Yemen Matthew Tueller, said that obstacles to a solution still exist but noted that Yemen's young generation is a cause for optimism.

“People often ask me if I’m optimistic or pessimistic and whenever I meet with Yemeni youth I’m optimistic for the future of their country, I’m very pleased that some of the delegation here include some representative from the youth and from the women’s groups,” Mr Tueller said.

The US diplomat expects that there will be some obstacles that will come up in the next few days because the differences between the two sides are “quite great”.

“The legacy of the former leader Ali Abdullah Saleh left a power vacuum and the struggle to fill that power vacuum is still ongoing. I expect to see differences and obstacles but I hope at this point we can make some progress,” Mr Tueller said.