Saudis Host Surprise Talks Between U.A.E., Yemen Brotherhood

(Bloomberg) -- Mohammed al-Yadomi, the head of an influential Yemeni party, was attending a summit on Jerusalem in Istanbul on Wednesday when he was summoned to the Saudi capital for an unprecedented meeting with two of the Arab world’s most powerful leaders.

A private Saudi plane flew al-Yadomi to Riyadh for talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the crown prince of the U.A.E.’s capital, Abu Dhabi, according to the deputy chief of Islah’s media department, Adnan al-Odaini.

Little detail has emerged from the discussions. But the fact that they were held at all may signal the beginning of new realignments in Yemen’s nearly three-year war -- which has become part of the broader struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional influence as well as triggering a humanitarian crisis. It has drawn in the Saudi and U.A.E. militaries on the side of the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi, a Sunni, against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

Al-Yadomi is chairman of the Islamist Islah party, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have banned. While Saudi Arabia has put aside its reservations over Islah’s affiliations to welcome its leaders as part of Hadi’s government, the U.A.E. has previously had no public contacts with the party. 

The meeting with al-Yadomi “seeks to unite efforts to defeat Iran and its Houthi militias,” U.A.E. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said in a Twitter posting late Thursday. Islah has recently said it was distancing itself from the brotherhood “and we have a chance to test intentions,” he said.

Backed Overthrow

Islah and the Houthis are now the two major forces on the ground in Yemen after the assassination of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh this month by the Houthis left his party in disarray. Having Islah on board could tilt the balance of power on the ground in favor of the Saudi-led coalition in parts of the country, including in the west and in Taiz.

The U.A.E. classifies the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists, putting it on the same spectrum as extremist groups such as Islamic State. It has jailed members of a local franchise on charges of conspiring to overthrow the government, and in Egypt, backed the overthrow of elected Islamist leader Mohamed Mursi in 2013.

The Muslim Brotherhood, established in Egypt in the 1920s, has offshoots in several Arab countries including the U.A.E., Jordan and the Palestinian territories.

Al-Odaini said Prince Mohammed “made a big effort, an effort that such a meeting clearly needed” to happen. “It looks like it’s meant to remove more obstacles facing the coalition and the legitimate Yemeni government in the fight” against the Houthis, he said in an interview from Riyadh on Thursday.

Majed al-Madhaji, executive director of the Sana’a Center of Strategic Studies, said “it is too early to talk about a breakthrough in the highly tense relation between Islah and the U.A.E. It is difficult to defuse this tension in one meeting but it’s an indication that there is a will to have understanding on big issues.”

Human Cost

Mustapha Noman, a former deputy foreign minister, said in an interview in Beirut that Wednesday’s talks came as a surprise because “the U.A.E. had never established any direct contacts with any group affiliated to the Muslim brothers.”

“My assessment is that Riyadh has put a lot of pressure on the Emiratis to open links with the Islah party in Yemen because Islah at the end of the day represents a major force on the ground,” he said.

At least 14,000 people have been killed or wounded since the Saudi-led offensive began. Nearly 1 million people have contracted cholera, and 3 million, out of a population of 28 million, are internally displaced, according to the United Nations.

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