President Biden’s Trip to the Region and its Impact on Yemen

Despite once referring to Saudi Arabia as a “pariah,” United States (US) President Joe Biden  recently found himself forced to visit the country due to a confluence of events. The post-Arab Spring regional reconciliation, Russian invasion of Ukraine, and global energy crisis made him reconsider the importance of the Middle East and Saudi Arabia in particular in order to mitigate the catastrophic global oil prices and stabilize the region. His trip, beginning in Israel before moving to Saudi Arabia, marks the beginning of a new chapter in post-Arab Spring US-Middle Eastern ties as he aims to soothe the two US allies and pressure an enemy, Iran.

As part of a broader Middle East plan under the GCC+3 Summit, made up of the six GCC states in addition to Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan, President Biden will discuss innovative ways of cooperation amid several promising trends, including Iran’s regional interference and unclear threat, Israel’s regional integration, improving US-Saudi relations, the energy issue, and security issues, including the Yemen war.

Indeed, the conflict in Yemen has been a consistent concern for Biden. Since his election campaign, he  has maintained a steadfast stance on stopping the war in Yemen, starting with his decision to overturn President Trump’s designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist group and the appointment of a special envoy for Yemen.

Nonetheless, according to Ahmed Nagi, a scholar at Carnegie Middle East Center, the Yemeni war will remain only “a secondary issue, one whose importance will not exceed its security implications.” Nagi further adds that “this enshrines the traditional U.S. policy that looks at Yemen through the lens of what Yemen means to its neighbors and to the United States, not to Yemenis—a policy that brings no genuine stability to either Yemen or the region.”

On the other hand, optimists have high hopes for the timely visit given the ongoing regional reconciliation, the new Yemeni political reshuffle [Presidential Leadership Council, PLC], the running Yemen U.N.-brokered truce, the Ukrainian conflict, and the global oil crisis.

Biden’s meeting with Saudi leadership is likely to address three Yemen-related issues, ranging from a possible truce extension to the resumption of US offensive weapons supplies to Saudi Arabia for its campaign in Yemen, and enrolling the Yemen Presidential Council into the regional anti-Iran bloc. But how will this restored relationship affect Yemen’s ongoing conflict?

A Prolonged Yemen Truce and Regional Energy Security

In the Washington Post, referring to the Yemen war, President Biden wrote “I named an envoy and engaged with leaders across the region, including with the king of Saudi Arabia, to lay the foundation for a truce. After a year of our persistent diplomacy, that truce is now in place, and lifesaving humanitarian assistance is reaching cities and towns that had been under siege. As a result, the past few months in Yemen have been the most peaceful in seven years.” Given Biden’s claim that the current truce in Yemen mostly came to fruitition through his own efforts, ending the war in Yemen will undoutbeldy be a key point on his tour agenda.

While Biden’s short-term aim seems to lie in a swap of Yemeni truce for Saudi oil, his long-term approach to ending the war still remains unclear. Premised on President Biden’s ‘grey zone’ approach to stopping the war, and the Houthis approach towards the truce as a chance to recuperate before the next round of conflict, Yemeni affairs researcher Mustafa Naji skeptically alleges that “what is now urgent for regional stakeholders is to install a fragile truce in Yemen that would temporarily secure regional energy facilities and shipping routes to reach the American and European markets in sufficient quantities and at affordable prices.” It is no secret that Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two biggest nations in the military coalition, have been subjected to deadly Houthi attacks on vital energy infrastructure, the most recent of which occurred last March. If the truce falls apart for internal or external causes, the Houthis may carry out similar strikes in the future.

It is also likely that President Biden will emphasize the humanitarian and economic dimension in Yemen, accompanied by the existing armistice, by urging donor countries and Yemen’s allies to abide by their commitments toward Yemen reconstruction.

Yemen and Revitalized US-Saudi Ties

Undeniably, the Yemen war has been a source of tension between Saudi Arabia and the Biden administration, which accused the former of committing war crimes there. Consequently, the direct outcome was a major deteroritation in relations, especially seen in the US move to halt sells of advanced arms to Saudi Arabia. For the kingdom, this was an unforgivable move by its 80-year ally given that it considers the Iranian-backed Houthis to be an essential threat to its national security. From the Saudi viewpoint, the US should should have at least supplied air defense equipment and applied serious pressure on the Houthis.

The crux of the matter is that their attitudes toward each other have changed at the right time, as Saudi Arabia could play an important role in mitigating the devestating oil crisis. Initially, in return, Saudi leaders would likely seek to convince the Americans that the route to Tehran begins in Yemen, and that good faith to Saudi Arabia would require the US to cut off Iran’s influence in Yemen. This would obviously require the Biden Administration to exert maximum pressure on the Iranians and Houthis to move beyond the recent truce and ensure Saudi national security.

Riyadh appears to be vacillating between hope for a final settlement to the Yemen war and concern about the Houthis’ reluctant commitment to peace. In such a scenario, it must seek security guarantees from its ally, the United States, in the form of deals on advanced weaponry delivery. Despite the hardening posture of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, a resumption of US offensive arms sales to Riyadh could embolden Saudi Arabia to resume the war in Yemen and/or restore trust among US allies in the face of rising Russian and Chinese influence. Furthermore, in light of the current global oil crisis, Saudis believe it vital to equip defensive systems such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, which has been delayed since 2017, to shield Gulf energy supplies versus Iranian-developed Houthi ballistic missiles and drones.

Yemen and Biden’s Israel-Arab Bloc Plan

The United States’ Middle East policy should be reset. From Obama’s shaky deal with Iran to Trump’s “green-light” Gulf policy to Biden’s overly liberal approach, the United States has much to answer for in its relations with its traditional regional allies, especially Saudi Arabia. In retrospect, it seems that every global oil crisis makes Washington remember to pay attention to the Gulf region, like President Jimmy Carter’s doctrine of Gulf region defense in the early 1980s. Figuratively speaking, President Biden has switched from human rights to ally rights, and is erecting a Middle Eastern NATO in exchange for stable petrol prices.

It is too early to predict how the GCC+3 Summit countries would arrange for the envisioned security cooperation between the Arab world and Israel. Regarding Yemen, the multi-actor governance is likely to produce two varying positions between rejection and bandwagoning. Surely, the Houthis will resist any sort of regional normalization and cooperation with Israel. While “the Saudi-backed Presidential Leadership Council will be comfortable with any regional arrangements or alliances that will encircle Iran and limit its influence over its followers, including the Houthis. In practice, however, the government does not have a margin of rejection or acceptance,” argued Mustafa Naji.

There are certain caveats and limitations to be noted in this regard. Firstly, the legitimate Yemeni authority lacks the security and defense capabilities to join any regional coalition. Secondly, dealing with Israel, whether directly or indirectly, has heightened sensitivity in Yemeni society. Furthermore, any tilt toward Israel by the council would provide the Houthis with more ideological and political leverage in propagating their populist anti-Israel/anti-US narrative. For instance, Yemeni political groups, notably the anti-Houthi Islah party and the Houthis themselves, have regularly accused the UAE of using Yemen’s Socotra Island as a joint UAE-Israeli intelligence base.

How Do Iran and the Houthis View the Visit?

Iran is fully aware that the Ukraine conflict and the escalation of regional concerns over its nuclear program have redirected a US-Israeli-Arab compass towards it, of which this visit is but one indicator. A potential anti-Iran regional alliance would force Iran to play all its cards at once in Yemen and other proxy countries. Alone in Yemen, Iran would drive a wedge between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia by rallying the former to undermine Biden’s pressured Yemen truce.

Iranians label such growing regional normalization of ties with Israel as “a stab in the back.”  In an immediate response to Biden’s trip to the region, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi posited, “If the visits of American officials to the countries of the region are to strengthen the position of the Zionist regime and to normalize this regime’s relations with some countries, their efforts will not create security for the Zionists in any way.”

The Houthis, on the other hand, interpret this visit as a Western-Israeli plot that will help them insist on what they were attempting to prove. Moreover, they regard the recent truce as nothing more than a Western game to solidify the regional alliance with Israel. Days before Biden’s trip, the Houthis’ leader, Abdul-Malik Al Houthi, accused Saudi Arabia of provoking Muslims’ sentiments by receiving the US president during the Eid and Hajj pilgrimages in a televised speech on Eid al-Adha. Finally, since they regard the Saudi concessions, such as the present truce, merely as a bargaining chip to buy time and lend focus to the global oil crisis, they may use it as blackmail to obtain further concessions in their favor and that of their partner Iran. A possible way of doing so is to resume their attacks on Saudi vital energy facilities and shipping routes. Their increasing military and popular mobilization, as well as their reluctance to lift the siege of Taiz and unblock roadways in other Yemeni cities during the truce, signal that they want to escalate once more.