The Saudis’ botched war in Yemen

Despite more than five years of military intervention in Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign has failed to save the country from disintegration.

The Southern Transitional Council (STC), backed by the UAE, now occupies the important port of Aden, and, to the dismay of Saudi Arabia, has declared self-rule over the south.

But this de facto partition ultimately may not reduce instability in Yemen and the region.

In fact, Yemen already is effectively divided into three territorial entities. The Saudi-backed government of President Abdu Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, now exiled, and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels control the other two. This has prolonged the fighting – described as “a civil war within a civil war” – with profound geostrategic implications.

The conflict has persisted since early 2015, when the Arab coalition, comprising of Saudi Arabia and eight other countries, including the UAE, launched a massive military intervention.

The main architect was Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), now the kingdom’s de facto ruler. A crucial supporter was the equally forceful Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), crown prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE armed forces.

MBS’s objective was twofold. One was to strengthen his position within the royal family in order to succeed his father, the aging King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud.

The other was to restore Hadi’s rule, which ended in September 2014, when fighters from the minority Zaidi-Shia Houthis took over Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, and drove him out.

MBS also wanted to demonstrate to Shia Iran that Sunni Saudi Arabia – the site of Islam’s two holiest shrines – would no longer be a passive power and would not tolerate expansion of Iranian influence in the region, especially up to the Saudi border.

MBS’s anti-Iranian aim resonated with MBZ and other allies, who formed a counterweight to the Islamic republic.

US President Barack Obama’s administration was in the process of negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, which was signed in July 2015. While the ongoing talks made Obama hesitant about the Saudi-led intervention, America’s traditional alliance with the kingdom won out, and the US backed the coalition.

Saudi Arabia expected that armed intervention and aerial bombing would defeat the Houthis and restore Hadi’s rule in Sana’a within weeks. But they underestimated the social and political complexity of a country that had reunified only in 1990, when the communist south joined with the Saudi-backed north.

Northern Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh played a key role in reunification and led united Yemen with an iron fist until 2012, when a popular uprising forced him to hand over power to Hadi. But Saleh’s political demise soon led to political, social, and sectarian fragmentation, as groups from the Houthis to al-Qaeda filled the power vacuum.

The Saudi-led intervention has been costly in both human and economic terms for all sides. Although no official figures have been provided, the war’s cost is estimated to have been more than US$100 billion up to 2018, with substantial troop and military hardware losses.

The damage that the conflict has inflicted upon the Yemeni people has been astronomical.

According to the United Nations, some 112,000 have been killed, including 12,000 civilians, with almost 70% of civilian deaths due to coalition air strikes. Moreover, 80% of the country’s citizens – 24 million people – need humanitarian assistance, and the UN reported in 2019 that almost ten million were “one step away from famine”. There has been extensive physical destruction, too.

The mounting casualties and humanitarian crisis prompted Obama to become critical of the Arab coalition’s operations, and in December 2016 he halted the sale of some arms to Saudi Arabia. Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, reversed course and has provided the Saudis both weapons and carte blanche in Yemen.

And yet Trump’s target, Iran, has reasons to feel strategically resilient. The Houthis now command a large chunk of Yemen along the Saudi border, and the STC has chipped away the South.

Meanwhile, Hadi’s forces hold smaller areas, which must trouble not only MBS, but also Trump, who alleges that Iran is the source of all problems in the region and must be contained at all costs.

For most of the war, MBS was trying to consolidate power at home. Despite growing international criticism of the military campaign and rifts within the Arab coalition – especially between the kingdom and the UAE – MBS was unwilling to recognise the futility of the venture.

This was consistent with his determination to override all other criticism, including of his alleged authorisation of the October 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul and the arrest of potential opponents within the Saudi royal family.

The war may be in a new phase. While the Saudis prefer an end to the STC’s control over the south, there are signs that they are retreating, following a broken ceasefire and the crumbling of the Riyadh Agreement, a peace deal brokered in November 2019.

The kingdom’s allies and enemies will not relent in their quest for supremacy in both the north and south, even as the Covid-19 pandemic bears down on the country (the first case was confirmed last month).

Partition is unlikely to serve the cause of stability and security in Yemen. But it provides an opportunity for MBS and Trump to take stock of their policies, which have exacerbated uncertainty in the Gulf.

There are no easy fixes. But only by backing UN-led peace talks between the warring parties will it even be possible to achieve a political settlement that spares the region further power rivalries – and further bloodshed.

Amin Saikal, a former distinguished professor of political science at the Australian National University. © Project Syndicate 2019.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.