Summary: the Saudis would like to find a path out of the Yemen war but the Houthi offensive in Marib tangles them ever deeper in a quagmire.
We thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for nearly 15 years, and has written about the country’s political, social and economic issues. Helen works as a freelance rural development consultant. Her book “Yemen in Crisis: the Road to War”, published by Verso in 2019, is a seminal study of the current war and what lies behind it. Helen’s recent Arab Digest podcast on the Yemen situation is available here.
Now in its seventh year, the Saudi regime’s intervention in Yemen is almost universally recognised as a failure, so why it is still going on? The Saudis’ main ally, the UAE, claims its own Yemeni military adventure ended in 2019, despite evidence to the contrary. Early Saudi expectation of a quick and decisive victory has been replaced by an embarrassing quagmire frequently described as Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam.
Why is Saudi Arabia fighting in Yemen?
Two contemporaneous factors answer this question: in early 2015 King Salman had just ascended to the throne and promptly appointed his inexperienced and ambitious young son Mohammed (MbS) as Minister of Defence. This was the first step in his strategy to shift succession in favour of his own sons. MBS wanted to show Saudis and the world that a new, young, dynamic generation was now in power. This conveniently coincided with the rebel Houthi final power grab in Sana’a and their offensives further south, reaching the outskirts of Aden, Yemen, President Hadi’s ‘temporary capital’, in March. Hadi took refuge in Riyadh, asking for Saudi help to return to power, providing MBS with the excuse to launch his ‘Decisive Storm’ operation.
Despite its wealth, the KSA perceives Yemen as a threat. Both countries have similar populations, but in Yemen 99% are nationals whereas in the KSA nationals form at best 60% of the population. Second, Yemen is the only republic in the Peninsula and therefore, by definition, a threat to monarchies. Third, in the current context the Saudis consider the Houthis, alongside Iranian allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, to be part of an Iranian encirclement strategy of the KSA. Whether sectarianism featured in his thinking is open to debate, given that the Saudi regime supported the Zaydi imam against the Sunni republicans in the 1960s and the new Saudi regime is reducing its reliance on Wahhabi ideology to justify its actions.
Anticipating a rapid victory thanks to the billions of US dollars spent on the most advanced Western military equipment and decades of international training for Saudi armed forces, MbS had studied neither the history of Saudi military adventures in Yemen, nor the possible consequences of his actions. With a few exceptions, including the 2009 debacle of Saudi support for Saleh’s anti-Houthi adventures, KSA involvement in Yemen has mostly taken place behind the scenes, through financial support to rival forces ensuring instability in the country.
Where are we now?
The outcome today is bleak: first, Saudi intervention has transformed an insignificant Iranian role into a strong alliance between Tehran and Sana’a. Iran now supplies advanced UAV technology to the Houthis, its ideological influence is noticeable daily as ‘twelver’ Shi’i rituals are imposed on millions living under Houthi rule. Internationally there is greater regional coordination between Shi’i elements, though the Houthis remain independent and are definitely not Iranian proxies.
Second, the Saudis are caught in a trap: legitimacy of both their intervention and Hadi’s position as president depend on UN Security Council Resolution 2216. This forces them into a close alliance despite the weakness, internal conflicts, and notorious corruption of Hadi’s Internationally Recognised Government (IRG).
The blockade of the Red Sea ports of Hodeida, Salif and Ras Isa, alongside the air strikes, are a worldwide public relations disaster. The MbS regime is justly blamed for worsening what the UN has described for years as ‘the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.’ Added to other egregious acts, including the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the war in Yemen is a constant thorn in the Saudi regime’s international relations.
Relations with MbS’s close friend and ally Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) in Abu Dhabi are also deteriorating. MbS did not welcome either the UAE’s military ‘departure’ in 2019 or its ongoing support for the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC). Both these are seriously complicating Saudi efforts at finding an honourable solution. Beyond Yemen, competition is intensifying as both countries suffer from lower oil prices and the Covid pandemic: Saudi attempts to force major international companies to move their regional HQ away from the UAE is not welcomed by MBZ. Nowadays, the great ‘mentor-mentee’ relationship between the two men is no longer mentioned; instead it’s the revival of tension between the two regimes, reminiscent of the situation decades ago.
At a time of financial constraint, MbS persists with his most ambitious and fantastic projects [e.g. NEOM]; meanwhile ordinary citizens’ incomes and living conditions are suffering, the 2021 budget has been cut by 7% and estimates of the cost of the Yemen war range from a minimum of US$25 billion to US$60 billion annually. That contrasts with Iran’s spending which is estimated at a mere US$10 to US$20 million per year on support for the Houthis.
In the early weeks of the Biden presidency much was made of US pressure to end the war but this is already fading away as the reality of US and UN limited influence on the war strikes home; ongoing Houthi missile and drone attacks on the KSA remove the urgency of ending US supplies.
Escaping the quagmire
Although the KSA and the Houthis have been talking to each other for at least two years, the worsening situation on the ground demonstrates their lack of success. Among the Houthis, some want to negotiate, capitalising on their successes to consolidate internal governance; others are determined to push further believing that success breeds success, regardless of the death toll and suffering of the population. The ongoing Marib offensive demonstrates that the second group are currently still in the ascendant.
What would the Saudi regime settle for? It certainly wants secure borders, including a sizeable demilitarised zone on the Yemeni side; an end to missile and drone strikes into KSA territory, and the removal of the ‘Iranian’ threat from Yemen. Even an unlikely breakthrough in renegotiation of the JCPOA is unlikely to have much impact on the Yemen war, though a formal Iranian commitment to end support to the Houthis might help. However, that would not be the end of the Houthis who can continue fighting without Iranian help. MbS wants to get out of the quagmire in Yemen without losing too much face, will the Houthis let him?