Neil Partrick, editor and lead contributor to Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation (IB Tauris, 2016). Follow him on Twitter @neilpartrick.
Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen vowed to return the Houthis to their northern Saada heartland and to restore the Saudis’ ally, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to power in Sanaa—even though the Saudis had long worked with current Houthi ally Ali Abdullah Saleh and previously sought amicable border security arrangements with the Houthis after failing to defeat them in a land war in 2009–10.
Unsurprisingly, the Saudis’ second war against the Houthis soon reached a dead end. In September 2015 Hadi returned to the country he was apparently the legitimate ruler of, albeit only to Aden, but then fled again. Since returning to Aden in November, Hadi has struggled to retain a foothold there, despite the efforts of supposedly loyal “official” Yemeni troops and some Emirati special forces. Southern secessionists are reasserting themselves in their old southern capital. After a year of more or less constant aerial bombardment, the Saudis’ de facto commander-in-chief, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seemingly concluded that the conflict was irresolvable. There were not enough Yemeni Sunni tribal fighters willing to take the riyal, and he was not prepared to make the mistake Prince Khaled had five years earlier and put Saudi skin in the game, nor would the Sudanese or Eritrean governments send enough fighters to do the dirty work. Consequently, Saudi Arabia decided to talk to the Houthis again.
In March 2016, a Houthi delegation visited Jeddah for exploratory talks on what an internal Yemeni compromise would look like. The Houthi-Saleh forces had the upper hand and were not interested in disarming and handing power back to Hadi. In Kuwait, a formal talks process still involves all key Yemeni elements except al-Qaeda and similarly offers the Houthis a negotiated exit from key cities they control, including Sanaa. The Houthis do not need the Iranians, their distant allies, to persuade them that the previous status quo is hardly a prize worth capitulating over.
The United States is now proposing that the Houthis and Saleh forces each have a third of the seats in a Sanaa-based government and Hadi loyalists the balance—something the Saudis will struggle to stomach. Why would the Houthis or Saleh give up the control of arms that allowed them to force this concession? Saleh never lost control of many of the armed forces anyway. A Zaidi Shia like the Houthis, Saleh is part of this Yemeni plurality, but more importantly he uses largesse and tribal nous to keep himself in the game. The Saudi realignment with the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood (the Islah Party) after the beginning of its air war was too late for Islah’s leadership to reliably recommission its old tribal fighters. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Saleh’s former comrade-in-arms, took the Saudi riyal and made some gains at the Houthis’ expense, but even he cannot crack Sanaa.
The de facto autonomous southern Yemeni entity is once again susceptible to Saudi and Gulf influence, including the Hadramaut province with which the kingdom has strong links, while the rest of the south is also replete with al-Qaeda fighters that the Saudis only belatedly took an interest in battling. However, the outlines of an informal Yemeni territorial arrangement are in place. The North is likely to remain an awkward fiefdom of the Houthis and Saleh. The Saudis’ old northern Salafi friends helped motivate the Houthis to expand in the first place and make unreliable Yemeni-Saudi border police. The Saudis would therefore be well advised to seek a modus vivendi with the new northern Yemeni entity, just as they and the Emiratis have in the south. After all, the Saudis used to enjoy playing southern Yemen off against its northern counterpart via allies in both countries. However, anything like a formal acceptance of the political reality of a re-divided Yemen would be a difficult loss of public face, and, sadly, not yet a price that the de facto Saudi leader is prepared to pay. We can expect more “war, war” to accompany yet more “jaw, jaw,” as the Saudis will in practice only accept Yemeni power sharing if their local allies control most of the guns.