A deal on Hodeidah would mitigate the war’s impact, but it would not end the conflict between the coalition and the Houthis. That would require, for starters, an understanding between Saudi Arabia and the insurgent group on principles governing their future relationship. Is it possible? To listen to some Houthis, the answer is: Yes. Their response may well be deceptive, but they sound a remarkably reassuring note. Asked about Saudi concerns regarding their ties to Iran and threats to Saudi territory, they don’t miss a beat; those ties are an outgrowth of the war and will loosen once the war with Riyadh is over, they insist, and any attacks they waged on Saudi Arabia are a direct reaction to Saudi operations and will end the moment the airstrikes do. They acknowledge the kingdom’s special role as Yemen’s neighbor and say they are prepared to forge privileged ties with it.
To listen to the Saudis, the answer is a skeptical no, at least for now. They have heard Houthi promises before, they say, far too many of which were not kept. They feel that a different balance of power first needs to be established—by pressuring the Houthis militarily and politically; by turning some of their supporters against them—before talks might yield fruit. They say the time is not right.
Houthis expect cracks within the coalition. Saudis anticipate cracks among the Houthis. They both can afford to wait. Yemen cannot.
Read: The war in Yemen and the making of a chaos state
The Houthis may well be dissembling about how they view the kingdom, but this much seems true: The long-term future of their northern Yemeni stronghold will depend on Saudi Arabia’s contribution, not Iran’s. When guns fall silent, Riyadh will possess the benefits of geographic proximity, abundant financial resources, and tribal and familial ties. A proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia plays to Tehran’s advantage; it can invest little and, so long as the Houthis survive, enjoy handsome returns as it watches Riyadh expend blood, treasure, and reputation on a protracted conflict.
An economic tug-of-war between the two, though, plays to Riyadh’s benefit. It can dangle before the Houthis and their constituents the prospect of reconstruction in a way that Tehran simply cannot. If the Saudis want more pragmatic Houthis to stand up to more militant ones, they are far likelier to achieve that goal through their economic leverage than by waging a battle that unites the insurgent group in opposition. Alliances fluctuate. In the 1960s, the kingdom helped the Zaydi-Shiite rulers of northern Yemen against Egyptian-backed revolutionaries who sought to overthrow their rule. In war, Iran has the advantage; in peace, it cannot compete.
Alongside a Saudi-Houthi negotiating track will need to be an intra-Yemeni one. The Houthis will need to relinquish control over areas presently under their sway, in exchange for a political and security role disproportionate to their modest demographic weight. Those talks cannot be reduced to a Yemeni government–Houthi tête-à-tête. The southerners one of us recently met in Aden are not going away, nor are the political parties and members of civil society shoved aside after the 2011 uprising. They, too, will have to be part of inclusive peace negotiations. A relatively loose, federal, decentralized Yemen likely lies at the other end.