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Saudi Arabia’s Shrinking Options in Yemen

Prasanta Kumar Pradhan is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • September 13, 2021

    Despite more than six years of Saudi-led military offensive against the Houthis, the situation in Yemen remains extremely complex and challenging for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have captured large parts of the Yemeni territory in the north-west of the country including the capital Sanaa. The Saudi-led military coalition’s twin objectives of pushing the Houthis back from Sanaa and reinstating the internationally recognised government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi remain unfulfilled.  

    The stalemate in Yemen continues as the Saudi-led coalition has imposed an air and sea blockade and has argued that access to the ports must be restricted in order to prevent the illegal flow of weapons to the Houthis. The Houthis, on the other hand, have demanded that the restrictions imposed on the ports must be removed before any ceasefire agreement can be agreed upon. This is a key factor blocking the political negotiations and ceasefire between the Houthis and the Yemeni government resulting in an impasse. Efforts to reach a ceasefire and a negotiated resolution to the conflict has not produced any concrete results as both sides have violated the ceasefire agreements in the past. Other sticky issues such as the exchange of prisoners and delivery of humanitarian aid remain unsettled in the absence of a consensus between the two parties.

    For Saudi Arabia, its national security is closely linked to stability and security in Yemen. The fall of capital Sanaa was a red-line for Saudi Arabia as it believed that the Houthis are backed by its arch-rival Iran. The Houthis have attacked Saudi Arabia using rockets, missiles and UAVs targeting a number of vital installations including airports, military bases and oil installations. Saudi authorities have intercepted and destroyed a large number of rockets, missiles and UAVs launched by the Houthis.1 As long as the Houthis are armed, capturing territories in Yemen and launching attacks on Saudi Arabia, they would continue to pose a direct security threat for the Kingdom. The current situation has left Saudi Arabia with limited options to manoeuvre in Yemen. It is caught between the resilience of the Houthis to sustain their fight, on the one hand, and the growing cost of war and the allegations of innocents being victims of their air strikes, on the other. Withdrawing from the military operation in Yemen is a hard choice for Saudi Arabia as it would leave President Hadi’s forces vulnerable to the Houthi attacks. In the event of withdrawal of the Saudi-led coalition forces, the Houthis could capture more territories in the country.

    Further, Saudi withdrawal would leave Iran to play a domineering role in Yemen which will have serious implications for the Kingdom from the security and strategic point of view. It will not only increase Iranian influence in Yemen but also in the adjacent maritime domains such as the Red Sea, Strait of Bab El Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden as well. Iranian dominance in these strategically important waterways would make Saudi Arabia extremely uncomfortable.

    On the other hand, continuing with the military engagement against the Houthis would mean further protracting the conflict without any end in sight even after more than six years of fighting. It would also mean high costs for the Saudi exchequer and the military. Besides, it would continue to draw criticism for allegedly killing innocent civilians, violating human rights and enforcing blockade on several parts of the country.

    Further, the changing US policy towards Yemen under President Biden is yet another challenge for Saudi Arabia. In January 2021, the Trump administration designated the Houthis as a terrorist organisation. After Biden assumed office, his administration revoked the decision in February 2021, while assuring the Kingdom of American support against attacks by the Houthis.2 Earlier, in the same month, President Biden had announced the US withdrawal from the “offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arm sales”. Biden administration emphasised diplomatic solution to the Yemeni crisis and appointed Timothy Lenderking as the Special Envoy to Yemen. US support is critical for Saudi Arabia to continue military operations in Yemen. The reduced US military support in the fight against the Houthis certainly adds to the worries of Saudi Arabia in Yemen. 

    For Iran, staying engaged with the Houthis in Yemen works to its strategic advantage vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. Iran has condemned the military strikes and has urged the coalition to end the blockade imposed on Yemen. By supporting the Houthis, Iran has emerged as a key player and is likely to have an influential role in the future of Yemen. Such unwavering Iranian support for the Houthis further constrains Saudi options in Yemen. Though Iranian and Saudi officials held talks in Baghdad to discuss Yemen and other issues in April this year but no workable solution emerged.3 Riyadh will still have to negotiate with Tehran to find a sustainable solution to the Yemeni crisis. However, given the history of acrimonious relationship between the two countries, the possibility of such an understanding looks highly improbable.  

    Besides, the Yemeni crisis has been a challenge for Saudi Arabia’s standing and reputation as the leader of the Arab and the Islamic world. The Kingdom has been involved in the crisis from the very beginning, right from negotiating with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down to drafting the “GCC Initiative”, and from steering the power transition process to proactively working with the UN and international community to restore stability in the country. Withdrawing from the country without any substantial gains, such as, restoring stability in Yemen or ensuring its own national security would be an embarrassment for Saudi Arabia at the hands of the Iranian-backed Houthis. The military and strategic factors may necessitate a prolonged Saudi military involvement in Yemen as long as the situation is not in its favour. But there is certainly a huge financial and human cost to the long and uncertain war in Yemen.

    Saudi Arabia has now agreed to talk with the Houthis for a ceasefire and a political solution to the crisis.4 This could be the result of the growing realisation on the part of the Kingdom that Yemen requires a political solution to the present crisis. The best possible scenario for Riyadh would be an honourable exit from Yemen with its core national security interests uncompromised. This is easier said than done, but clearly, Riyadh’s options in Yemen at present are limited and shrinking.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.

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