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Saelem Mohammed Noman al-Mughalles, a member of the Houthi delegation, outside Johannesberg Castle in Rimbo, Sweden, on December 5, 2018. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/AFP/Getty Images

Yemen’s Houthi rebels and its internationally recognized government arrived in Sweden Wednesday for talks that the UN hopes will restart the peace process that has been stalled for more than two years. But the talks could prove a sideshow if UAE–backed forces launch an offensive to seize the Red Sea port of Hodeidah from the Houthis, potentially precipitating a long and destructive battle and a humanitarian catastrophe.

Why it matters: Per the UN, some 14 million Yemenis, half the country’s population, are in “pre-famine” conditions, one economic shock away from starvation. A fight for the Hodeidah port — the entry point for around 70% of the food, fuel, and medicine shipped into Yemen — could tip the country into widespread famine.

Details: The UAE, which has driven a military campaign that encircled the port and city, describes the Stockholm meeting as a “last chance” for the Houthis.

  • If the UAE is not satisfied with the outcome, they threaten to dispatch Yemeni forces poised on the outskirts of Hodeidah to take the port, arguing that this would deprive the Houthis of a critical revenue stream and thus force them to compromise.
  • This could happen as early as the coming holiday season, when the world is distracted.

To prevent this outcome, one of two things must happen: Either UN envoy Martin Griffiths negotiates a deal under which Hodeidah comes under UN control (something the Houthis have signaled openness to); or Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s Western allies pressure them not to launch the offensive.

What to watch: In the wake of the Nov. 29 Senate vote to advance a resolution ending U.S. participation in the conflict — and with anger growing at Saudi Arabia’s prosecution of the war, its murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and Trump's complacent approach to both — it has become more likely that Congress will force the administration's hand, lest the U.S. be viewed as complicit in the impending famine.

Robert Malley is president and CEO of the International Crisis Group. Peter Salisbury is a senior analyst on Yemen with the group.

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