Can Saudi Arabia Exit Yemen in a Dignified Manner?

More than six years have passed since the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia launched its Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen. Today it is obvious that the Saudi-led military coalition has failed to defeat the Houthis rebels—one of Riyadh’s main objectives back in March 2015. Ansar Allah, the dominant Houthi militia, currently controls Sanaa and the country’s northwest where the majority of Yemen’s citizens live. Ansar Allah’s territorial gains and continued missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia explain why the Houthis feel confident and emboldened. Put simply, the Houthis are “winning” this war.

Within this context, Riyadh wants to exit the Yemeni quagmire, albeit in a manner that enables them to feel dignified. The war’s prolongation would be costly for the Kingdom in terms of its economic interests, national security, and reputation around the world. At the same time, with new leadership in Washington that favors winding down the Yemeni crisis, Riyadh is under greater pressure from its most important western partner to bring the conflict to an end. These points help explain both Saudi Arabia’s ceasefire offer last month as well as the Kingdom’s engagement with the Sultanate of Oman (a diplomatic bridge between the Houthi rebels, Saudi Arabia, and the West) on the issue of Yemen.

But the Houthis are not making anything easy for their Saudi rivals. Last month, the Houthis rejected Riyadh’s ceasefire offer and continued their fight to usurp hydrocarbon-rich Marib, which would put virtually all of northern Yemen under the control of the Iran-backed forces. Ansar Allah senses weakness and increased vulnerability on Saudi Arabia’s part. The Houthis believe that the time is opportune for more military advances to push the balance of power in Yemen even more in their favor prior to negotiations. While the Saudis undoubtedly seek an end to the conflict in Yemen, it would be extremely humiliating for them to exit the war with an Iranian-sponsored militia ruling 80 percent of their neighboring country’s citizens. According to an announcement made last month by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, there is a growing Saudi appetite for Turkish armed drones. By turning to Ankara for drones, Riyadh could potentially bypass arms embargoes imposed on Saudi Arabia by certain western governments. Yet whether Saudi Arabia purchasing these Turkish drones could change the balance of power in Yemen in favor of Riyadh is far from clear.

At this point, the conflict continues as both the Saudis and Houthis have a gap between their demands for a ceasefire that has not yet closed. Riyadh is in favor of the United Nations (UN) supervising a nationwide ceasefire in Yemen and the Saudi government has offered to make certain concessions related to the blockade of Yemen’s international airport in the capital and permitting some imports to come in through the Hodeidah port. Yet with quite a bit of leverage in the conflict, Ansar Allah has not agreed to these terms. According to the Iran-backed rebels, the Saudi offer in March constituted “nothing new” and they thus predictably rejected it. Objectively, the Houthis are accurate in pointing out that this year’s Saudi proposal is merely a “revised version” of one which Riyadh offered last year. The Houthi position is that the blockade of Yemen must be lifted 100 percent before any ceasefire is implemented. Any partial lifting of the blockade by Saudi Arabia falls short of Ansar Allah’s demands that the militia says Riyadh must meet before they lay down arms.

Marib and the Larger Regional Picture

As the battle for Marib continues, experts agree that this fight will heavily influence the process for arriving at a political solution to the civil war. “At this point, no serious negotiations seem in the offing until the Houthis succeed or fail in capturing Marib city,” wrote David Ottaway a fellow in the Middle East program at the Wilson International Center for Scholars. Speaking to France 24, a Houthi negotiator in Sanaa said that “Marib is essential for us because of the blockade which stops the impoverished Yemeni population from buying petrol and gas at market prices” and that Houthis “will have to try and lift [the Saudi blockade] by force”.

If Ansar Allah manages to take over Marib, which would result in the UN-recognized government led by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi being in control of essentially no northern territory, the Houthis will find themselves in an even stronger position to make demands. In the words of Abdulghani al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies’, Marib falling to the Houthis would be “the final bullet in the head of the internationally recognized government.” Under such a scenario, Riyadh would have to make a difficult decision about whether to continue officially supporting Hadi’s government (which by then could be described as a fictitious entity) or granting legitimacy to the Abu Dhabi-sponsored Southern Transitional Council as a ruling body in southern Yemen.

That said, if pro-Hadi/anti-Houthi forces prevent Ansar Allah from usurping Marib, the Houthi fighters might be more willing to enter talks with their Yemeni and Saudi rivals sooner rather than later. Yet, so long as the intense battle for the province rages on, the Saudis are likely to continue their bombing campaigns to try to prevent a Houthi takeover of this resource-rich part of Yemen located near the Saudi border. 

The situation in Yemen is heavily connected to the state of US-Iran relations. From Tehran’s perspective, Biden’s administration is continuing Trump’s campaign of “maximum pressure.” Until this changes, it is a safe bet that the Islamic Republic will keep exploiting the Yemeni conflict to send messages to Washington, while putting more pressure on the Biden administration to make concessions to Tehran. By the same token, if the US would ease pressure on the Islamic Republic, it would be reasonable to expect Yemen to be the regional issue where Tehran would make some concessions. Yemen is a country where Iran has historically wielded only marginal influence and which has been much closer to fellow Arabian countries than to Iran. Today, Yemen is far less important to Iran’s strategic interests than other hotspots in the Arab region such as Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, where the Iranians see themselves having higher stakes. Therefore, one could imagine Tehran ending or at least decreasing its “malign” conduct in Yemen to gain something from Washington in terms of sanctions relief.

Looking ahead, the path to peace in Yemen will be messy and challenging. That Omani efforts to help mediate an end to this war have yet to produce a breakthrough underscores the extent to which restoring peace in Yemen is extremely difficult. Bringing the Houthis and Saudis to a point where they can agree on the terms for a ceasefire and, eventually, a political settlement will probably require continued diplomatic efforts. To be sure, as the Biden administration deals with the situation in this war-ravaged and deeply fractured country, there are tough realities Washington must face. These include the fact that cutting off arms sales to Saudi Arabia will not in itself stop warfare in Yemen, that the US has virtually no leverage over the Houthis, and that achieving a total military victory over Ansar Allah is not in the cards.  

Realistically, Yemen will need a power-sharing agreement that enables all the major actors in the country to have a seat at the table. But if certain players in the conflict—chiefly the Houthis—believe that there is more to be gained from fighting than from negotiating, this gruesome war that has beset Yemen since 2014/2015 will continue. Tragically, the world’s worst humanitarian disasters will also continue, as they cannot be meaningfully addressed until the fighting stops. Ultimately, bringing long lasting peace and stability to Yemen will require a solution that leaves all the major players in the war feeling dignified and secure. The grievances and legitimate security concerns of all key actors need to be addressed through a power sharing agreement. Attempts at solving the conflict in ways that result in some of the players feeling humiliated will fail to produce a lasting peace in Yemen.