The Price of Intervention – Saudi Arabia and The Looming Threat of a Houthi Victory in Yemen
THE COLLAPSE OF THE SAUDI-LED COALITION
In 2015, Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen’s civil war on the side of President Hadi’s government. The Saudis, backed by the US and boasting one of the most technologically advanced military forces in the Middle East, hoped for a swift victory. More than six years later, the conflict drags on, at an immense economic and human cost to the Yemeni. The Houthi rebels control territories containing around 70% of the nation’s total population, and the Saudi-led coalition is gradually losing ground. In November 2021, coalition forces withdrew from the port city of Hodeida, abandoning it to the Houthis after years of stalemate. According to coalition spokesmen, the retreat was a belated reaction to the ceasefire deal, signed in 2018. The UN-brokered accord led to a subsidence of fighting around Hodeida, allowing for the strategic redeployment of forces to other contested areas. In the past, the city, which constitutes Yemen’s main Red Sea port, was the focus of repeated coalition offensives. The fact that the abandonment of Hodeida occurs now, long after the UN’s truce has been in effect, indicates that the conflict is tipping in favour of the Houthis.
The focus of combat operations has shifted to the strategically vital region of Marib. The area, named for its capital city, contains the only oil refinery in northern Yemen, and controls access to Saudi Arabia in the north and the province of Shabwa in the south. Shabwa in itself is of key importance from both an energetic and economic standpoint. Coalition forces guarding the city of Marib face constant Houthi attacks. The Houthis lack air superiority and are forced to assault entrenched positions in the hills ringing Marib. However, gradually, and at the cost of staggering casualties, the rebels are chipping away at the coalition’s defences.
Short of a sudden influx of arms, cash and military support from the UAE or Saudi Arabia, there is little hope for Marib to hold out. The defeat at Marib is bound to exacerbate factionalism within the Saudi-led coalition. The façade of unity projected by the central government will inevitably crumble. Simultaneously, the Houthis, backed and supplied by Iran, are growing ever bolder in their attacks on Saudi Arabia proper. Although the peninsular kingdom’s defence systems deflect most strikes, missiles and drones are nevertheless increasingly threatening its main population centres in Riyadh and Jeddah. Yemen spirals into further breakdown, threatening regional stability.
THE PROSPECTS OF SETTLEMENT
As the costs of war mount, and victory seems ever more distant, Saudi Arabia is searching for an exit strategy. The Saudis will likely not be satisfied with a simple guarantee of territorial integrity. The Saudi Crown Prince, and the nation’s de-facto ruler, Mohammad bin Salman, will seek to delimit Houthi power to prevent Yemen from becoming a base for Iranian influence and unchecked Shiite militancy. The intervention in Yemen is bin Salman’s brainchild, and a cornerstone of his domestic reputation. The Crown Prince is unwilling to accept the political costs of a unilateral withdrawal. Nevertheless, bin Salman has expressed an openness to reaching a peaceful settlement.
Indeed, in March 2021, the coalition and the rebels almost agreed on a ceasefire. However, the Houthis withdrew from the negotiations at the last minute and hopes of reconciliation were dashed by the escalation of fighting in Marib. The Saudis have become prisoners of their interventionism, condemned either to abandon Yemen altogether or pour more resources into a war that has already claimed spectacular amounts of blood and treasure. With the crumbling of coalition forces, the potential for a reversal of fortunes is growing unlikelier by the day, and bin Salman is left pinning his hopes on a sudden diplomatic breakout.
The Houthis are on the front foot militarily, and are content to hold out either for victory, or at least for more favourable terms of the settlement. As the bloody battle of Marib demonstrates, the Houthi leadership has a remarkably high casualty tolerance, and is more than willing to pragmatically trade the lives of its fighters for diplomatic concessions. The Houthis’ Iranian backers have every incentive to prolong the war as much as possible, letting their Saudi rivals bleed themselves out. The often-breached ceasefire around Hodeida underscores the slim likelihood of peace. If the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis failed to uphold the demilitarization of a single city, a national-level settlement is little but a mirage. So far, it seems that the future of Yemen will be decided on the battlefield.
THE FUTURE OF US INVOLVEMENT – RETREAT AND IMPASSE
A Saudi-initiated re-escalation that would reverse the coalition’s fortunes is unlikely given America’s waning enthusiasm for the war. Shortly after being sworn into office, Biden pledged to reverse his predecessor’s course on relations with the Saudis. Biden picked Timothy Lenderking as Special Envoy to Yemen and saddled him with the unenviable task of negotiating a cessation of hostilities. Lenderking counts among the biggest experts on the Gulf region in the US foreign policy establishment, and his appointment cemented the new administration’s commitment to peace. Biden failed to deliver on his ambitious promises. Saudi airstrikes and naval blockades continue with America’s tacit endorsement. However, Biden’s pledges were not all smoke and mirrors.
The US terminated support to offensive operations conducted by bin Salman’s regime, and arms sales to the peninsular kingdom are subject to close scrutiny. The US is also withdrawing its anti-missile batteries from Saudi soil. The volume of drone strikes against Yemen saw a sharp decline under the current administration. The US will not abandon its chief regional ally altogether, but any potential attempt to turn the war in favour of the coalition would occur without Biden’s support.
Through his fixation on the status quo, Biden placed himself in a diplomatic deadlock. The US is unwilling to force the Saudis to negotiate through a unilateral withdrawal of support, but also refuses to condone further pressure on the Houthis. Despite US efforts to revive the JCPOA, relations between Washington and Teheran remain strained. The shadow of Trump-era escalation looms large over Biden’s administration. Iran seems hesitant to – once again – hazard its nuclear program on an uncertain promise of détente, and the US negotiating stance remains remarkably inflexible. Impasse in US-Iranian relations means that Biden will be unable to act as arbiter in any future negotiations. The US is condemned to observe a slow, grinding Houthi victory, and Yemen’s subsequent descent into further chaos.
THE IMPLICATIONS OF A HOUTHI VICTORY – CHAOS AND DISINTEGRATION
The defeat of the internationally recognized government will not lead to a consolidation of central authority in the hands of the Houthis. Indeed, after years of war, Yemen remains a unified country in name only. In 2016, President Hadi decreed for the central bank to be split, effectively creating two separate national economies, one in Houthi-dominated regions, and one in areas under the control of the central government. In this sense, separation is already institutionally entrenched. Reunification would require Yemen’s diverse insurgent groups to surrender power to an overarching body. However, for the nation’s rival warlords, statehood is a zero-sum game. Securing direct access to the oil and gas of Marib, Shabwa and Hadramawt is the only way to ensure the inflow of export revenues necessary to sustain military supremacy, and military supremacy is the only path towards the continued existence of each faction. In these circumstances, no insurgent group will willingly give up its security for a nebulous promise of reconciliation.
The Southern Transitional Council, situated around Yemen’s temporary capital in Aden, has long stood for emancipation, and the Giants Brigades, operating in Lahj, embody their own brand of South Yemeni secessionism. Such tendencies are bound to be reinvigorated by the breakdown of centralized authority, especially given the UAE’s backing for both groups. The Islah Party, which is linked to the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, commands strong support in the nation’s third-largest city, Taiz. The party is more akin to a loose coalition of tribal interests, and as such, represents the strong traditions of local autonomy that the Houthis will have to contend with if they hope to replace the central government. Since their inception in 2018, the National Resistance Forces, commanded by the former President’s nephew Tareq Saleh, consolidated a strong powerbase in the southwest of the country.
The NFR enjoys support from the Saudis and the UAE, with both powers eager to channel arms and finances to Saleh, and thus plant another thorn in the Houthi side. In al-Mahra, along Yemen’s eastern border, Saudi Arabia and Oman are jockeying for influence. Saudi Arabia has already constructed more than twenty military bases in the region, and bin Salman is taking steps to conscript the region’s tribesmen into paramilitary units. With the hopes of a political settlement remaining faint, the reassertion of centralized authority will be only possible through overwhelming force. So far, none of Yemen’s rival power-blocs can bring such force to bear. Even in the event of a Houthi victory, the future will be defined by ongoing conflict and the deepening of separatist tendencies.
CONTAINING A HOUTHI-DOMINATED YEMEN
The defeat of the internationally recognized government is set to resolve Biden’s diplomatic conundrum. Saudi Arabia will find itself under direct threat from the Houthis, and US support for bin Salman’s regime will thus no longer be construed as an implicit endorsement of its offensive actions. Simultaneously, the moral precarity of US involvement in the war will not be eliminated altogether. Saudi Arabia is unlikely to cease its airstrikes, which have already claimed thousands of civilian deaths, or lift the naval blockade that contributes significantly to the ensuing food security crisis.
Nevertheless, Biden has already demonstrated that he is not willing to sever all ties with bin Salman, and the inevitable intensification of Houthi and Iranian attacks will force the US to adopt a more proactive role in safeguarding Saudi air space, as well as the kingdom’s southern border. Biden could thus potentially reverse the withdrawal of anti-missile defences from Saudi Arabia, setting the stage for the reconstruction of US-Saudi ties on a more explicitly defensive basis.
The US and Saudi Arabian strategy could encompass a more comprehensive framework of containment. The Houthi victory threatens shipping transit via the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb, which controls access to the Suez Canal. As of 2018, 6.2 million barrels of petroleum products passed through the Bab el-Mandeb per day. The amount accounted for 9% of the world’s total seaborne flow of petroleum products in the given year. The international significance of Yemeni waters means that in his containment efforts, Biden can lean on a broad convergence of global interests.
The President can push to expand the operations of the Combined Task Force 151, which is responsible for counterpiracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden and around the Horn of Africa. Under the umbrella of international arms control, the US will be able to curtail the influx of Iranian supplies to the Houthis. All Biden needs to do is to act on the 2015 UN embargo on weapon imports to Yemen, backing established legal measures with the threat of credible force.
The UAE and Israel, acting in the spirit of their recent rapprochement, strive collectively to neutralize Houthi influence in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Both nations have bases in Eritrea, and the UAE controls the strategically vital archipelago of Socotra, which commands the sea-lanes running along Yemen’s southern coast. Israel has recently thrown its weight behind the Southern Transitional Council, which has long been a key recipient of the UAE’s support.
Thus, the Israeli and Emirati alliance is taking steps to forge a parallel powerbase in southern Yemen as a potential staging ground for interventions across the region. Relations between Saudi Arabia and the UAE are strained as a result of underlying economic and territorial rivalries, and despite recent advances, all dealings between Israel and the Gulf States remain clouded by decades of hostilities. Nevertheless, if Biden succeeds in the uneasy task of coordinating Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE within an international framework, he might be able to mitigate the major destabilizing implications of a Houthi victory. In contrast with the ambitious aims of the 2015 Saudi-led intervention, such hopes project a sombre image. Yemen is fated for international isolation and a future of famine and warfare, with conflicts periodically spilling over the nation’s borders and across the Middle East.
Source of the picture: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-49179146
Al-Haj, A. (2020). Yemeni separatists suspend talks with gov’t, clashes resume. The Washington Post, accessed December 2, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/yemeni-separatists-suspend-talks-with-govt-clashes-resume/2020/08/26/f84b4c3e-e780-11ea-bf44-0d31c85838a5_story.html
Al-Shamahi, A. (2021). ‘Bitter pill to swallow’: Saudis grapple with Yemen peace deal. Al Jazeera, accessed December 3, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/6/29/oman-takes-on-ambitious-mediator-role-in-yemen-conflict
Barden, J. (2019). The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is a strategic route for oil and natural gas shipments. EIA, accessed December 3, 2021, https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=41073
Detsch, J. (2021). Biden Taps Carrer Diplomat as Envoy to Yemen. Foreign Policy, accessed December 2, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/02/04/biden-taps-career-diplomat-as-envoy-to-yemen/
Jalal, I. (2020). UAE-Israel normalization gives rise to new risks for Yemen and the region. MEI, accessed December 3, 2021, https://www.mei.edu/publications/uae-israel-normalization-gives-rise-new-risks-yemen-and-region
Johnsen, G. D. (2021). The end of Yemen. Brookings, accessed December 3, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/03/25/the-end-of-yemen/
Kaye, D. D. (2021). America Is Not Withdrawing From the Middle East. Foreign Affairs, accessed December 3, 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2021-12-01/america-not-withdrawing-middle-east
Kilani, A. (2021). Deep Divisions in Yemen Raise Doubts on Achieving Unity Again. Inside Arabia, accessed December 3, 2021, https://insidearabia.com/deep-divisions-in-yemen-raise-doubts-on-achieving-unity-again/
Mimicking the mullahs: The Houthi model of government (2020). The Economist, accessed December 3, 2021, https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2020/02/06/the-houthi-model-of-government
Mokhashef, R.; Ghobari, M. (2021). Coalition forces say they have withdrawn from around Yemen’s Hodeidah port. Reuters, accessed December 2, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/coalition-forces-say-they-have-withdrawn-around-yemens-hodeidah-port-2021-11-12/¨
Omer, F. (2020). Islah Wary of a Hadi Reconciliation with the STC. Sana’a Centre For Strategic Studies, accessed December 3, 2021, https://sanaacenter.org/publications/analysis/12263
Schenker, D. (2021). Biden Needs a Plan B for Yemen If Houthis Win. Foreign Policy, accessed December 2, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/11/04/yemen-biden-war-houthi-saudi-iran/
Sheline, A. R.; Riedel, B. (2021). Biden’s broken promise on Yemen. Brookings, accessed December 3, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/09/16/bidens-broken-promise-on-yemen/
Slouching towards an exit: Saudi Arabia cannot find a way out of Yemen (2021). The Economist, accessed December 2, 2021, https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2021/11/25/saudi-arabia-cannot-find-a-way-out-of-yemen
Ulrichsen, K. C.; Cafiero, G. (2021). Biden’s Problem in Yemen: The Houthis are Winning. Gulf International Forum, accessed December 3, 2021, https://gulfif.org/bidens-problem-in-yemen-the-houthis-are-winning/
US envoy, senior diplomat urge Yemeni government to unite (2021). Middle East Monitor, accessed December 3, 2021, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20211108-us-envoy-senior-diplomat-urge-yemeni-government-to-unite/
What’s behind the Saudi ceasefire proposal in Yemen? (2021). Al Jazeera, accessed December 2, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/23/yemens-ceasefire-attempts-between-houthis-and-saudi-coalition
Wintour, P. (2021). Hopes for Yemen peace deal fade as ‘obscene’ Marib death toll rises. The Guardian, accessed December 2, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/07/hopes-for-yemen-peace-deal-fade-as-obscene-marib-death-toll-rises
Written by Matyáš Knol