When Houthi rebels stormed Yemen’s capital in January, President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi was driven from power and placed under house arrest. He escaped and then fled by sea in March. Now, Hadi and his top ministers are comfortably ensconced in a five-star guest palace in Saudi Arabia’s capital of Riyadh.
While the surrounding may be pleasant, the wait is wearing. Hadi and his aides still dream of a triumphant return home, though optimism is in short supply.
The ornate lobby where they are housed has become a playground for their children, while Hadi and his men, dressed in dark business suits, spend hours watching the news and keeping in touch with supporters back home on Facebook.
Saudi Arabia is still backing Hadi and has been bombing the Houthis, who are backed by Iran, for close to three months. This hasn’t changed the balance of power on the ground, but Yemen’s humanitarian crisis continues to worsen, with an estimated 2,000 dead and a million displaced by the fighting, according to the United Nations.
The U.N. has helped arrange talks between the rival parties, which begin Monday in Geneva. But no one seems to be expecting a quick breakthrough.
“Every new day the chances (for success) in Geneva are going down because of the intense fighting,” says Rajeh Badi, a spokesman for Yemen’s government-in-exile.
In one of the conference rooms at the guest palace, the vice president of Yemen’s exile government, Khaled Bahah, is causally dressed in a sport shirt and slacks. He keeps an eye on the TV news while conferring with various ministers. He is a former oil minister, an ex-ambassador at the United Nations, and his English is flawless.
Bahah is widely seen as the man who could be part of the solution in Yemen. He is a unifying figure across Yemen’s regional and sectarian spectrum. In April, Hadi appointed Bahah as his deputy. The Saudis had urged this and it was a recognition that Yemen’s government-in-exile needed a boost as Hadi’s appeal plummets back home.
In a news conference in Riyadh, Bahah addressed remarks to the international aid organizations, calling on them to help the Yemeni people. He also addressed Yemen’s Houthis as “Our Brothers, our brothers, despite all their brutal doings need to go back to peace and peaceful tools.”
Baha’s approach toward the Houthis is in stark contrast to Hadi.
Bahah is the only top Yemeni official who has gone to the East African coastal state of of Djibouti, where some 60,000 Yemeni refugees have fled and now live in miserable conditions. Bahah also thanked Qatar’s government for 50 truckloads of food, drinking water and generators to provide fans.
Back at the guest palace in Riyadh, former Yemeni officials with time on their hands corral a reporter to complain bitterly off the record. In interviews, these officials argue that the Saudis should stop supporting Hadi.
“He is a liability” in dealing with the Houthis, said one ex-official. Hadi continues to insist that the Houthis must surrender, evacuate the capital and disarm before the Geneva consultations can move to peace negotiations.
Saudi officials also expressed concerns about Hadi in private but don’t seem willing to drop their support of him.
Hadi’s support gets weaker by the day, says another Yemeni government official who would only speak off the record on such a sensitive topic. He points out that Hadi is seen as backing more air strikes from his safe perch in Riyadh while Yemenis are struggling with severe food and fuel shortages.
International calls for another ceasefire in Yemen have gone unanswered. The Saudis halted the bombing for five days in May, but have resumed again.
Saudi Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Ahmed Al-Assir contends that the Houthis did not honor the ceasefire in May.
“You can fool me once, but not twice,” he says when asked about the possibility of another humanitarian halt in the airstrikes.
A solution for Yemen is complicated because it’s become a proxy fight for influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The talks in Geneva could indicate whether the actors in Yemen’s war are serious about finding a peaceful solution.