Saudi Arabia's botched war

Saudi Arabia has spent the past five years fighting off Iran-backed Shia rebels in a seemingly endless conflict that has cost more than 100,000 lives and left 80% of the population in need of humanitarian assistance. Only by backing UN-led peace talks will it be possible to achieve a political settlement. By Amin Saikal

By Amin Saikal

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 United Arab Emirates, 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.

Geopolitical alliance against Iran

MbS’s objective was twofold. One was to strengthen his position within the royal family in order to succeed his father, the ageing 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.

Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi together with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), the powerful Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi (photo: Reuters/Saudi Press Agency)
Holding hands with MbZ and MbS: in the war against the Houthi rebels, in which tens of thousands of people have already been killed, head of state Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has the support of the military coalition led by Riyadh. But his power is dwindling rapidly. The situation of the Hadi government is made much more difficult by the declaration of autonomy of the South. In the north of the country, it has been at war for five years with Shia Houthi rebels supported by Iran. A victory against the Houthis seems hopeless

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. U.S. 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 U.S. 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 only reunified in 1990, when the communist south joined with the Saudi-backed north.

Ruled with an iron fist: Ali Abdullah Saleh

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-Qaida filled the power vacuum.

Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
Kingmaker in the unification of the country and ruler with an iron fist: North Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh played a decisive role in the reunification and ruled until 2012, when a popular uprising forced him to hand over power to Hadi. But Saleh's political decline soon led to political, social and religious fragmentation, as the power vacuum was filled by groups ranging from the Houthis to al-Qaida

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 $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.Iran emerges as the winner?

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.

Southern Transitional Council separatists in Aden (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
Deepening crisis: at the end of April, separatists of the "Southern Transitional Council" (STC) proclaimed a separate government for the south of Yemen in the strategically important port city of Aden. The independence movement accused the internationally recognised government of having violated a peace agreement reached in November. The government called the move "catastrophic and dangerous". In the November agreement, both sides had agreed on power sharing: representatives of the separatists were to join the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. In return, they agreed to relinquish control of Aden, where the government had gone into exile after its expulsion from Sanaa in 2015. The implementation of the agreement, however, faltered

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 recognize the futility of the venture. This was consistent with his determination to override all other criticism, including of his alleged authorization 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

© Project Syndicate 2020