The Houthis are making gains in Yemen’s war as the Saudi-led forces face Iranian intervention and discord within the coalition. Will the Biden presidency change the West’s support for Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia’s air force launched its first air strikes on Houthi positions in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in the night of 25-26 March 2015. It was acting as the self-appointed armed wing of the international community, which wanted Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi restored as Yemen’s president following his overthrow in a rebellion the previous September. The campaign, Operation Decisive Storm, targeted a non-state armed movement claiming to represent Yemen’s Zaydis, the branch of Shia often considered closest to Sunni Islam, and even as its fifth school of Islamic law. At the time, Decisive Storm seemed likely to be over within weeks.
UN Security Council resolution 2216, passed in April 2015, retrospectively gave carte blanche to the coalition, which in addition to Saudi Arabia included a dozen Arab and Muslim countries (Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Morocco and the Gulf states, except Oman). The resolution legally sanctioned coalition military action and control over movements in and out of Yemen, including the use of a blockade, which soon exacted an appalling human toll. The blockade accelerated what is commonly called the worst humanitarian crisis in decades, to which the emergency response has been structurally underfunded. Since then, a military stalemate has set in; UN agencies estimate the fighting and the humanitarian disaster have already cost 250,000 lives (1). Western powers, involved mainly through arms sales, have found themselves associated with a war that is both shameful and ineffective (2).
The defeat, at least on the symbolic level, of the coalition and its various allies in an asymmetrical conflict has helped strengthen the Houthi camp and fragment the broad spectrum of its adversaries. In March 2020 Yemeni political scientist Abdulghani al-Iryani called on belligerents and observers to acknowledge that the Houthis ‘have won the war, and their victory is irreversible’, so that they could move on and ‘begin talking about the restoration of the Yemeni state’ (3).
More than regional divisions
But the objectives of the Houthis’ opponents within Yemen are hard to reconcile and often spill over into armed confrontations. The so-called legitimate government recognised by the international community controls only a small part of the country. Hadi, still in exile in Riyadh, with both his support base and his health uncertain, faces a challenge from a secessionist movement in southern Yemen, represented by the Southern Transitional Council (STC) among others. The president’s room for manoeuvre is also constrained by the presence of the supporters of the previous president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, assassinated by the Houthis in December 2017 after he broke an alliance he had forged with them in 2014 to topple Hadi.
But the complexities of the conflict involve more than just these regional divisions. Many military aspects, as well as political and social ones, such as the mechanisms of corruption and individual strategies for coping with the terrible economic crisis, are largely beyond the reach of intervention by Yemen’s neighbours: some civil servants have not been paid for four years and 70% of Yemenis rely on humanitarian aid. Regional issues, which are often the subject of feverish speculation, provide a necessary, though not sufficient, lens through which to view the conflict.
However, accusations against the Houthis’ alleged backer, Iran, make it necessary to assess Tehran’s role. Iran’s involvement was the primary reason for the coalition’s military intervention (though the coalition line-up has changed: Pakistan and Morocco both quit, though Pakistan was later pressured by Riyadh to return). All of its members consider Yemen a focus of Iranian expansionism. In 2018 Saudi Arabia’s de facto regent, Muhammad bin Salman, compared Iran’s policy in the region to that of Nazi Germany. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he said, ‘wishes to promote his own project in the Middle East, in the same way that Hitler sought expansion in his time’ (4).
But there is consensus among both Yemen and Iran experts that Iran’s support for the Houthis is of secondary importance and that the Houthis’ ideological origins and their capacity to mobilise are essentially local (5). Despite repeated allegations, no Iranian military instructors or members of the Revolutionary Guard have ever been identified on Yemeni soil, a very different situation from Iraq and Syria.
While Tehran’s support is limited, it is nevertheless growing, a sign of how counter-productive the Saudi coalition’s intervention has been. In October 2020 an Iranian ambassador sent to meet the Houthis in Sanaa managed to circumvent coalition border controls. And technical similarities between Iranian ordnance and the Houthis’ ground-to-ground missiles, regularly fired towards Saudi Arabia in reprisal for the bombings, lend retrospective credibility to allegations of Iranian intervention. Even so, Iran’s involvement remains carefully calibrated; its strategists seem well aware of the lines it must not cross, leaving the Saudis and their allies to dig themselves in deeper.
The coalition’s military and political failure is mainly due to Saudi Arabia; western decision-makers overestimated the kingdom’s ability to master the Yemeni situation in 2015. The Saudis, lacking both an exit strategy and clear analysis of the situation, and likely guilty of multiple war crimes (6), have damaged their image internationally and in the eyes of many Yemenis. Since 2017 the expulsion of tens of thousands of Yemeni workers, some of whom immigrated to Saudi cities long before fighting began, has heightened popular resentment which the Saudis, and especially Muhammad bin Salman, will find hard to put behind them.
Internationally, Joe Biden’s presidency may further weaken the Saudi position. During his election campaign, Biden expressed opposition to the war in Yemen and was highly critical of the Saudis’ stance, threatening to turn them into international pariahs (7). The Saudi prosecution of the war in Yemen will be a test for the new administration. Whatever the division of seats in Congress following the Senate elections in Georgia, the White House may feel tempted to pressure Saudi Arabia to end the conflict or at least force the monarchy to show greater respect for Yemen’s civilian population. Democratic senators, led by Bernie Sanders, supported several bills that would have problematised US support for the coalition in Yemen during the last administration. However, Donald Trump’s 11th-hour attempt, after his election defeat, to have the Houthi movement classified as a terrorist organisation could hamper such a diplomatic and legal reorientation.
How to end the fighting?
The Saudi government has stumbled its way into agreeing to negotiate with the Houthis, currently in a position of strength and advancing towards the town of Marib, the last stronghold of the Saudis’ protégé, Hadi (8). In parallel with efforts by UN special envoy Martin Griffiths, Saudi diplomats are discussing the status of the Saudi-Yemeni border, urging the Houthis to accept a demilitarised zone and withdraw from the Saudi villages they occupy. The Saudis’ inability to enforce the agreement signed in Riyadh in November 2019, which was supposed to end the confrontation between Hadi’s supporters and the STC, again reveals the fragility of their position. This suggests there is no guarantee that a peace agreement between the coalition and the Houthis would end the fighting.
While Tehran’s support is limited, it is nevertheless growing, a sign of how counter-productive the Saudi coalition’s intervention has been
With Oman maintaining diplomatic neutrality towards both Yemen and Iran, the Saudis have failed to reconfigure the region to their advantage. Neither Oman’s economic crisis, deepened by the Covid-19 pandemic, nor Saudi attempts to destabilise the Yemeni border region of Mahra, have brought Oman’s government to heel (9). Sultan Haitham ben Tariq, who succeeded his cousin Qaboos bin Said in January 2020, has maintained a diplomatic continuity that is ill-suited to Saudi hegemonic ambitions and also testifies to the fragmentation of political choices and rivalries between Gulf monarchies (10).
Saudi power is challenged even within the coalition. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has developed a policy that undermines the Saudi one through its military engagement in Yemen’s south and its direct support for the STC. Abu Dhabi’s views on the island of Socotra and the Red Sea ports highlight the rivalry between these two supposed allies. The Emiratis’ client relations with armed groups, and the savage repression they have encouraged of the local representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Al-Islah), some of whose leaders remain refugees in Riyadh, are signs of a lack of a regional order and of a coalition without a shared vision of the issues, priorities and threats.
Abu Dhabi’s local alliance with Salafist militias indicates a confused, short-sighted policy. It is sometimes described (particularly by European leaders) as part of a grand Emirati geopolitical plan based on economic integration and tolerance, but in fact lacks any nuance, making enemies by accusing them in black-and-white terms of being accomplices of either Turkey or Qatar, and creating only resentment and violence. Meanwhile, dissent within the coalition comes at a time when the US, Russia, China and the EU see it as vital not to take a definitive position and seem unwilling to take on the role of arbiter in this conflict or in reshaping the region.
The Gulf monarchs’ strategies show little regard for civilians. But Yemen’s 30 million people cannot fail to remind them of their presence, especially through emigration and so-called jihadist violence. Yemen’s economic and healthcare crisis, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which may have cost the lives of more than 70 doctors between April and November 2020, is bound to have an impact on the Arabian peninsula. The Gulf monarchies, already shaken by oil price volatility, new expectations from their people and the climate challenge, would be wise to draw conclusions from their interdependent relationship with Yemen and reframe it in more than purely military terms.