Saudis’ Yemeni Quagmire

Introduction

In the month of March 2015, a Saudi led coalition consisting of ten nations, decided to carry out an aerial bombing campaign against Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East in support of its deposed President Hadii. It was a decision that drew widespread criticism. Staunch Saudi ally, Pakistan’s parliament unanimously voted against military involvement in the campaign. Two years on, thousands of civilians have been killed, millions face starvation and there seems to be no end to the fighting in sight. This begs the question, what were Saudi objectives and if there is a solution in the offing.

Background

The decision itself was provoked by the storming of Yemeni capital, Sanaa by Houthi rebels. Along with forces loyal to former President Saleh, they effectively put President Hadi under house arrest and forced his resignation along with the rest of the Government. Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia who called it as an unconstitutional coup d’état and responded with the air bombing campaign.

Much of the Houthi dissatisfaction stems from the political rearrangement post-Arab Spring. Along with the separatist Hirak movement, Houthis felt left out of the decision making process. President Hadi’s decisions in regards to implementing a new constitution are seen as unilateral and unpopular. These factors created a perception that the Hadi government is unrepresentative of the demands of the Yemeni people. It is with these demands that the Houthis marched down to the capital Sanaa and deposed President Hadi who fled to Saudi Arabia. Saudi responded with the air campaign. With it, hopes of a political transition into a peaceful democracy post-Arab Spring were dashed.

Saudi Objectives

Saudi’s objectives were primarily based on the concern that the Iran backed Houthis would take control of Yemen. From a security perspective, having an Iranian proxy in power in its neighbourhood is an undesirable outcome for the Saudis. These fears were stoked when the US Navy intercepted multiple shipments of weapons going to Houthis from Iran.ii At the onset of the campaign, Saudi Arabia stated that it was helping reinstate the internationally recognized regime of President Hadiiii.

The military objective of the campaign was also to destroy the ballistic missile depots that the Houthi rebels possessed. The air strikes targeted airports and naval blockades on the sea lanes ensured that there was no supply of resources or weapons for the Houthis. Even humanitarian aid was subverted to be brought in via Djibouti.

Reports from the ground

One of the stated objectives of the Saudi led coalition was to neutralize the ballistic missiles in rebel hands. In the middle of 2015, the coalition claimed that this objective was achieved and there was no threat to Saudi or its immediate neighbourhood.iv But as recently as the past months, missiles were still being launched deep into Saudi Arabia rendering such declarations wrong in hindsight. Neither the launch pads, nor the missile stockpiles were completely neutralized. Aside from the air campaign, Saudi led coalition also imposed a naval blockade on Yemen which has contributed to the widespread starvation in the country. 65 per cent of the population is in need of immediate access to food.v The war has strengthened the hand of the Al-Qaeda (AQAP) in the region who themselves hold significant territory within Yemen. In a situation where multiple parties with competing interests continue to bleed each other, it is the AQAP who seem to consolidate their gains and support.

Saudi Arabia has been spending nearly $ 200 million a day in this war. They have given aid worth nearly $10 billion to Hadi controlled areas, including $ 2 billion to Yemen’s central bank to stabilize the currency. Last year, they had the third highest defence budget and in a time of falling oil prices, that is an unsustainable proposition. With drop in oil prices and budget deficits, it will only hurt the Saudi treasury to continue to take part in this conflict. UAE has already withdrawn from further military action.vi It is safe to assume that Saudi Arabia will give the maximum aid for reconstruction once the war is over. With a 2030 economy diversification plan also in motion, a protracted conflict is not in Saudi interest. Along with the treasury, goodwill is also evaporating for the Saudi monarchy. Despite support of many Gulf governments, the conflict has not gone down well with many people across the region.

Iran Angle

The Saudi accusation of Iranian meddling is not completely unfounded but it is overblown. The notion that the Houthis are functioning as an Iranian proxy seem to be overstated. They are receiving some armaments but they do not seem to be under Tehran’s authority in anyway. Houthis are a Zaydi Shia group and the offensive against them by a Sunni led Saudi Arabia has taken a sectarian tone in the Western media. It is a flawed view considering Saudis actually supported the Zaydi Shias in the Yemeni civil war (1962-67).vii

It is often reported that Iran supports primarily Shia groups or militias. In reality, Iranians have been pragmatic about which groups they back. The assumption that they would support the Houthis because of the Shia angle is a flawed one and Iranian support, humanitarian or military, has been minimal. Iran does not have the capability or the will to completely turn the war in the favour of the Houthis.

Prospective Solutions

The way forward could be a political solution which involves a dialogue between all the stakeholders. This would address the flaws of the post-Arab Spring political realignment process in the country. Former President Saleh should also be involved in these talks. He, despite being on the same side now, has in the past fought with the Houthis and has a reputation for making political compromises with friends and foes alike. He is a crafty operator who, during his reign, had cultivated the support of powerful tribes, and thus could be a useful person to have in the dialogue process. Perhaps, it might even be in Saudis’ interest to have a de facto partition of Yemen, with the internationally recognized regime having control of one part and Houthis holding on to the other – a notion which the hardliners within the regime would oppose.viii

If Saudis’ seem unwilling, the US too could leverage their massive military aid to Saudi Arabia in order to bring their ally to the table for talks. The coalition could be grounded without US helpix. One way or the other, Saudis’ pre-war objectives cannot be secured by military invasion, let alone an air strikes campaign. Negotiated solution is the way. For now, it seems that the Saudi regime has overplayed its hand and consequently, lost the support of the Yemeni people for generations.

End Notes

i. “Saudi leads ten-nation Sunni coalition in bombing Yemen’s Shia rebels”, The Telegraph, 26 March 2015

ii. “US intercepts multiple shipments of weapons going to Houthis in Yemen”, CNN, 29 October 2016

iii. “Cabinet Session”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Saudi Arabia, 23 March 2015

iv. “Saudi declares end to Yemeni air strikes after four weeks of bombing” ,The Guardian, 22 April 2015

v. “As Yemen food crisis deteriorates, UN agencies appeal for urgent assistance to avoid catastrophe”, Food and Agriculture Organization, 17 February 2017

vi. “UAE: War is over for Emirati troops”, Al-Jazeera, 17 June 2016

vii. “Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen”, The Hindu, 04 May 2015

Viii. “Is Yemen Headed for Partition?”, Al-Monitor, 31 October 2016

ix. “America is Complicit in Carnage in Yemen”, NY Times, 17 August 2016.

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