Saudi Arabia Looks for Yemen Exit Strategy
The kingdom wants to end its five-year commitment in the Yemen conflict without admitting defeat but choices are limited and stakes are high
After half a decade at war with little return, Saudi prospects for extricating itself from Yemen’s civil war are perhaps more appealing than ever, argues Abdulghani Aliryani, senior researcher at Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, in a recently published commentary. He says the best option the Saudis are considering involves making a deal with the Houthis and other stakeholders. However, making a deal with the Houthis would also include stoking the conflict from abroad to protect the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) reputation. Other analysts argue that all realistic exit strategies are difficult for the Saudis to consider, making a deal harder to reach, for the same political reasons.
Despite initial unwillingness earlier this year to engage in peace talks, the Saudi-led Joint Forces Command in early April declared a half-month ceasefire in Yemen after the Houthi rebels attacked two cities in Saudi Arabia, including Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia extended the ceasefire after the initial one ended, but was rebuffed by the Houthis who wanted a deal that would be tantamount to Riyadh admitting defeat.
All of this makes leaving even more enticing to the Saudis.
“Saudi Arabia has been eager to leave Yemen almost at any cost at this point as the costs of the war in terms of both finances and lives has become unbearable on the kingdom amid oil-price and COVID-19 induced economic crisis,” Dr. Andreas Krieg, assistant professor in the Institute for Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London, told The Media Line. “There are no good options for leaving Yemen with the head held high, as the crown prince, MbS, planned for a short intervention … to defeat the Houthis within a matter of weeks.”
In 2015, the year after the Houthi rebels took over Saada province, Saudi Arabia commenced military action in Yemen to fight the Shi’ite Houthis, backed allegedly by Tehran, Riyadh’s nemesis, and have threatened to take Medina and Mecca, two Muslim holy cities located in Saudi Arabia. Other Sunni countries, particularly the UAE, joined Saudi Arabia in a group supported by the United States, France and the United Kingdom.
Aliryani says that, based on Saudi actions and publications in the press that float government ideas, Riyadh is considering two ways to disembark Yemen, both of which have precarious consequences: Form an agreement with the Houthis (and other groups) or divide Yemen into smaller countries. He believes that securing a deal with the Houthis is the better decision.
“Their best option is to make sure the Yemeni state survives and its territorial integrity isn’t violated because [maintaining] the recognized boundary of the Yemeni state is a good method of containing problems, where it would be possible to support one authority that would be able to secure the country and by extension secure Saudi Arabia,” Aliryani told The Media Line.
The deal would involve compensating the Houthis for protecting the 1,800-kilometer (1,100-mile) Saudi-Yemen border, which is vulnerable to arms smuggling and other illegal activity. This would be much cheaper than the status quo – the approximately $53.3 million Riyadh spends each day on the war.
Aliryani believes that the profit motive is one of the main barriers to peace.
“The key obstacle is the war economy. On all the sides – the Yemeni government, the Houthis and Saudis – there are people making loads of money out of this war,” he said.
Aliryani argues that in addition to a compact with Houthis, the Saudi would try to end their commitments with the Yemeni government. Alongside the deal, he says the Saudis would also pay off local tribal leaders to continue the internal fighting in Yemen.
“Saudi Arabia thinks that because it hadn’t been able to defeat the Houthis as it said it would, it would look as if it had been defeated were the Houthis to assume control,” he said. “If they leave with Yemen in a state of conflict, there will be no victor in Yemen and by extension, Saudi Arabia did not lose.”
MbS’s hope to ascend to the monarchy would be bolstered by making a deal, with additional political points for not admitting defeat.
Dr. Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, agrees that the Saudis need a deal with the Houthis involving border security, but what is more urgently needed is protection for Saudi cities from Yemen-based attacks.
“Perhaps even more importantly, they must eliminate the missile threat to Saudi cities coming from Yemen,” he told The Media Line.
While Ibish disagrees that the Saudis want to continue the conflict, he notes that Saudi Arabia is not leaving on ideal terms.
“Saudi Arabia is not without options and leverage but it’s not going to simply crush the Houthis and drive them from power as it had hoped to do.”
He argues that Saudi Arabia must continue fighting for other goals in Yemen without relying primarily on the use of force.
“Saudi Arabia may find itself relying more on carrots, in the form of reconstruction and other funding, than sticks in the form of military actions, which has been the preferred method for the past five years. But it hasn’t worked, so obviously the Saudis are going to have to try to achieve their aims with a mixture of soft and investment power as well as hard power,” Ibish said.
“It might be more effective to try to wean the Houthis away from Iranian influence by leveraging reconstruction and other funding at a time when Tehran is in no position to contribute much,” he added.
Yezid Sayigh, senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut who directs the program on civil-military relations in Arab states, argues that Saudi Arabia paying off Yemeni parties is nothing new but is not for the purpose of continuing internal strife.
“The Saudis have always paid off select tribal leaders in Yemen and will probably continue to do so but I doubt they would do so in order to continue fighting if they [the Saudis] have a deal with the Houthis,” he told The Media Line. “After all, a deal would not entirely favor the Houthis, and the Saudi priority is to extract itself from the war, its interest is in the return to stability of the kind Yemen mostly had under [the president who served before the current civil war] Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Sayigh acknowledges, though, that it has been difficult for Saudi Arabia to secure a deal for domestic political reasons.
“Saudi Arabia has stayed in the conflict since 2015 for several reasons, one of which is that the conflict and its outcome were obviously tied to Mohammed bin Salman, and so he could not accept to withdraw without any gains – and indeed after major financial and human losses for the kingdom, and even greater instability and threat in Yemen,” he said.
The political aspect makes it difficult for Saudis to reach an agreement today as well.
Gerald Feierstein, a senior vice president at the Middle East Institute in Washington, who was US ambassador to Yemen under former president Barack Obama, says that a deal containing key elements of Saudi goals in the conflict is also aligned with what the US wants.
“Saudi objectives in the conflict … a unified Yemen that remains firmly committed to working with its neighbors and with the West … are consistent with US interests. Saudi failure would risk Yemen becoming a source of new instability in the region, would undermine the fight against terrorism, could pose a danger to international commerce and free passage in the Red Sea and Bab el-Mandeb, and allow for Iranian regional expansion,” he told The Media Line.
Feierstein believes that the Saudis cannot leave until those goals are accomplished.
“I believe the Saudis see the Yemen conflict as an existential threat to their security. I don’t believe that they’ll depart until they are confident that their southern border is secure, that there is a government in Sana’a that is friendly, and that Iran will not have secured a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula,” he said.