The first tentative steps
towards peace in Yemen are being taken in Geneva. The UN-sponsored talks between
the Houthis and the president, Abd
Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, come at a
critical juncture. Saudi-led air strikes coupled with a naval and land blockade
have trapped Yemenis, who are seeing food and water supplies dwindle. But the
kingdom, leading a military campaign in the region for the first time, has been
unable to defeat the Houthis.
This new Saudi assertivenesss,
under Salman bin Abdelaziz who ascended the throne in the spring, will have
repercussions across the Middle East. Its first test in Yemen does not so far bode
well. Having regionalised the conflict, however, any political deal will
require Riyadh’s acquiescence.
The Saudi-led intervention started on 26 March
with an air campaign, ‘Operation Decisive Storm’, in reaction to the entry of
the Houthis (a Shi’a offshoot) into Aden, where Hadi had taken refuge. The Houthi
advance was facilitated by an alliance of convenience with the former president,
Ali Abdallah Saleh, and military forces allied with him. Hadi, who fled to
Riyadh, called on Salman for assistance.
Although the official aim of the Saudi-led coalition
was restoration of Hadi’s presidency and neutralisation of the Houthi threat, Saudi
Arabia has its own security concerns. It perceives the Houthis as a proxy of
its regional opponent, Iran, and regards Yemen as within its sphere of
influence. The Houthi-Saleh coalition has acquired ballistic missiles which
threaten the Gulf region, including vital oil-shipping lanes, and the Houthi
takeover of strategic Yemeni cities could spill over to Saudi territory. It challenges
long-held Saudi policy towards Yemen, based on containment and preservation of
a domestic power balance.
Saudi Arabia’s action is also driven by the
challenging regional context that unfolded in the aftermath of the popular
uprisings in several Arab countries in 2011, which Riyadh viewed with suspicion
and repugnance. Saudi Arabia feared the removal of predictable, allied Arab
regimes and the increased agency of Islamist political movements that challenged
the Saudi Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
But above all Saudi Arabia perceives the
changing political constellation in the Middle East through the prism of its
geopolitical rivalry with Iran, which has increasingly taken on an overtly
sectarian tone. This competition has prompted both powers to see fragile Arab
countries—where the legitimacy of the regime is contested and national identity
fractured—as proxy battlegrounds. It has been played out in Lebanon, Syria and
Iraq, where Riyadh also fears growing Iranian influence.
Saudi Arabia has therefore struck the Houthis to
reassert its regional standing. Yet
while Lebanon’s Hizbullah really is a proxy of Iran, the Houthi link has
hitherto been weak: while the Houthis have looked to Iran for support, Iran has
treated them merely as a spoiler against the Saudis, providing minimal support.
So while “fighting the Iranian mirage, the Saudis may have inadvertently made the genie real”.
These events appear even more threatening to
the kingdom when its long-time ally, the United States, is engaged in a
rapprochement with Iran via the nuclear negotiations. The
Saudis are anxious that the looming American-Iranian settlement will further
empower the Iranian regime. The president,
Barack Obama, recently reassured the Gulf Arab allies of an ‘ironclad’ security
commitment in the aftermath of a possible nuclear deal. But Saudi Arabia is
still concerned that Iran’s expansionism in the region will remain unchecked.
It seems obvious now that
Saudi Arabia did not expect its mission in Yemen to last so long. In the course
of two months of targeted and near-continuous bombings, it has encountered three
First, the military plan is not
achieving its stated goals. The air-only campaign is barely halting Houthi
advances, let alone rolling them back. It is possible Saudi military planners
took inspiration from similar campaigns, such as NATO’s in Serbia in 1999, in
the hope of bringing the Houthis and their allies to a Saudi-run negotiating
table without the quagmire of a ground campaign. As Israel learned in in
Lebanon in 2006 and the US in Syria and Iraq in 2014, however, heavy and
continuous air sorties do not necessarily bring about the intended political
changes. Yet Saudi Arabia and its allies also have little appetite for a ground
invasion, despite official professions of preparedness.
Secondly, the kindgom does
not seem to have a viable and inclusive political vision of how to bring the Yemeni
war to an end. Its stated plan is based on the UN Security Council resolution 2216 (adopted in April), itself an endorsement of the
Saudi political line. The resolution demands, among other things, withdrawal of
the Houthis from all seized areas and the relinquishing of seized arms. Reflecting
Saudi policy, it fails to consider the factors underlying the actions of the
parties, the Houthis in particular. Withdrawing from the capital, Sana’a, and
other occupied areas is a non-starter for the Houthis, who have little
incentive to give up their gains.
Adopting a maximalist
position, in May Saudi Arabia organised peace talks in Riyadh, to which the Houthis
were not invited and which they rejected—since the talks were held in the
country leading the military coalition against them. Instead of changing the
venue, the Saudis hosted only Yemeni factions close to the Hadi government in
exile. While persuading (some would say cajoling) those parties to attend
undoubtedly represented a herculean effort, it was a farcical episode in the
absence of the Houthis or any representatives of the camp of the former president,
Saleh. It portrayed Hadi and his government as increasingly removed from
reality on the ground.
Losing the global argument: a
demonstration in San Francisco against the air strikes. Demotix / Steve Rhodes. All rights reserved.
Thirdly, the backdrop to the military
campaign and the lacklustre political process is an increasingly dire
humanitarian situation, in a country already suffering impoverishment and neglect.
Since the start of the air campaign, UN agencies have reported more than 2,500 deaths, with over 1m people displaced and 21m in need of humanitarian
assistance. Aid agencies have
been hampered by the air and sea blockade, with Yemenis trapped
between Houthi aggression on the ground and the Saudi-led air attacks—the
relentless bombing has deprived 3m of access to clean drinking water. While Saudi
Arabia has donated all the aid requested by the UN, this has made the country
appear guilty for the war it is waging, facing criticism from the international
humanitarian community and its western allies, while turning Yemeni public
opinion against it—and, by extension, Hadi.
The Saudi-led operation is
not working. The Houthis are still in Sana’a and around Aden, and have been
able to launch Scud missiles on Saudi soil. Given the humanitarian crisis, a
political solution is urgently needed.
The current talks in Geneva are
an encouraging step. They are likely to focus on a cessation of hostilities but
deeper issues should be discussed. The rival groups agree on the importance of
the post-Saleh Yemeni National Dialogue, but remain at odds over whether and
how power in Yemen should be federally distributed. Neither side trusts the other
and both have pursued their narrow interests at the expense of a national
The Houthis agree on the
National Dialogue but reject its six-region federal proposal and call for a new
Yemeni administration, while demanding an immediate, unconditional ceasefire by
the Saudi-led coalition. Though they have legitimate concerns regarding the
National Dialogue, the actions of the Houthis tend to discredit their stated
aims and their revolutionary credentials from the 2011 popular uprising: the
old Saleh regime, with whose forces they are now allied, sought to crush the
uprising and they have enabled Saleh to return disruptively to the political
scene. And they have publicly reached out to Iran for support.
For his part, Hadi demands
the implementation of UNSC resolution 2216, which will allow for the restoration of his government in Sana’a. Since
his election in 2012, he has however shown weak leadership skills and exploited
political developments to his own advantage. He initially allowed the Houthi
military advance to crush his domestic political opponents in the north-western
province of Sadaa, such as the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood party ‘Islah’, by
rejecting their appeals for military reinforcements. Hadi has sought external
backing too, promptly receiving it from Saudi Arabia.
While both sides accuse each
other of seeking allies of convenience, it remains to be seen whether they can
distance themselves from their factional agendas. They risk relinquishing the
gains of the 2011 revolution and driving Yemen to a bloody collapse.
While the Houthis and their
allies did use force to take advantage of political instability in Yemen, regionalising
what had been a domestic problem, Saudi Arabia now has a responsibility to help
bring about an end to the crisis. For better or for worse, Saudi buy-in is a
necessary, though not sufficient, condition.
Riyadh’s acquiescence to a
political deal, however, will not be without dangers. The kingdom has a long history
of supporting autocratic regimes in the region. It is highly likely, therefore,
that Saudi Arabia’s post-war involvement in Yemen will not respect the
democratic aspirations of Yemenis and will hinge on installing, or re-installing,
an allied leader and shaping a political system that, as far as possible, minimises
the Houthis’ power. If Hadi were to be reinstated, his legitimacy further
undermined by his handling of the crisis, he would probably be president in
As long as factionalism
continues to drive Yemeni political groups, and as long as Yemeni politicians—however
much they claim to work to realise the democratic aspirations of the Yemeni
people—are willing to co-operate with outside powers or with the elite of old
regimes to crush internal opponents, the country will be susceptible to a vicious
power play. The current talks demand of Yemeni political leaders that they step
up and be accountable to the citizenry. The challenge in Geneva remains to find
a formula that will lead to an equitable and inclusive political transition, in
which the interests and demands of the rival groups can be reconciled—and which
Saudi Arabia is willing to live with.