Saudi Arabia’s aims in Yemen have shifted from securing an absolute military victory and ensuring that the “legitimate” forces of those loyal to President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi control the whole country to reducing the territory held by Houthis and their allied fighters loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Consequently, the kingdom has again embraced different and often rival Yemeni fighters as long as they are willing to fight Houthi or Saleh forces. In the south, however, this fight is complicated by these actors’ political ambitions, which are often at odds with Saudi Arabia’s and—aided by war and further state collapse—are making a mockery of Riyadh’s commitment to one Yemen.
UN-sponsored peace talks may at some point reconvene, but they are unlikely to have much bearing on Saudi Arabia’s primary focus: ensuring that most Yemeni territory is held by fighters not directly hostile to its interests. To that end, Saleh’s former military chief Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar is back as a frontline military player. According to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,1 Ali Mohsen has broken the stalemate in the north against Houthi fighters. Khashoggi believes that support for Ali Mohsen by the Saudi-backed, Aden-based, government of Prime Minister Khaled Bahah and President Hadi was a “smart move.” Another prominent Saudi voice2 emphasizes that Ali Mohsen is just one of many Yemeni players that the kingdom is trying to “manage” as part of its attempt to incorporate the disparate elements willing to fight Houthi and Saleh forces. Saudi “management” means Saudi money, the training of some northern tribal fighters on Saudi territory, and the deployment of air power in the hope that this will assist the ground advance of friendly forces. Ali Mohsen has become more relevant to Saudi objectives in Yemen than either Bahah or Hadi, although he cannot play the strongman role that historically the Saudis have sought from regional Arab allies, including in Yemen.
If Ali Mohsen continues to prove decisive in some parts of the north, it is because of the strength of his tribal and Muslim Brotherhood (MB) alliances, including with some Zaydis (Shia-inclined northern Yemenis from whom the Houthis spring). Saudi Arabia made sure to repair its relations with the MB Islah Party, which had been neglected under King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud before the start of the Saudi-led air war in March 2015. Pragmatism has resumed its traditional importance to Riyadh as it embraces all forces, in Yemen and more widely, that do not represent a direct threat to it, especially if they are willing to fight its enemies. Consequently, Islah, which can get the job done in parts of northern Yemen, is one of a wide range of anti-Houthi/Saleh elements the Saudis are favoring. These also include different, and sometimes rival, tribal factions in the north and southerners who ultimately seek separation. Many of these Saudi-backed elements are increasingly trying to shape political realities on the ground to their specific advantage.
Although Saudi airstrikes continue over Sanaa and elsewhere in Yemen, the kingdom’s allies have yet to retake the capital. Ali Mohsen’s men cannot do it as they lack sufficient, well-placed, tribal allies there. The kingdom’s tribal opponents have a more strategic presence in Sanaa. If Houthi control over what remains of governmental institutions in the city center remains entrenched, then even a loosely united Yemen will remain elusive. However, the Saudis believe that their aerial campaign was eventually successful in enabling Hadi to have some semblance of rule in the old southern port capital of Aden—even if this is subject to challenge, including by the Islamic State, which attacked the presidential palace in late January. In neighboring Taiz, in the strategically vital southwest of Yemen, the Saudis argue that a large number of its tribal “allies” have secured much of that province from enemy control.
Of course, the most potent anti-Houthi force in Yemen continues to be al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda has been spared Saudi aerial attacks in the southern province of Hadramaut where it is in control of the Arabian Sea port city of Mukalla. Al-Qaeda is dug in deep in Mukalla, and the Saudis would not want to alienate otherwise sympathetic Hadhramis, in part due to the one million relatively well-off Hadhramis resident in Saudi Arabia. Should Yemen prove impossible to stitch back together, this province might concede territorial access to Mukalla to Saudi Arabia, which is interested in an outlet to the Arabian Sea. All of this makes Hadhramaut a province the Saudis need to handle with care. They do not want to allow al-Qaeda, a rival Sunni force that ultimately would like to destroy the Saud family, to position itself as the chief enemy of the Shia-associated Houthi, but Iranian-aligned Yemenis are plainly a much greater priority for Saudi bomber pilots.
In general it is the south of Yemen that is the most sympathetic to Saudi Arabia. This is ironic as it is mostly non-tribal, and the Saudis view tribes as a more suitable vehicle for cash inducements than ideological organizations, even though tribes are a notoriously unreliable way of influencing people. Southern actors are also problematic for Saudi Arabia. While the Saudis can aid any forces not ardently opposed to it, southern aspirations are ultimately separatist. In the south the battle for turf between Houthi/Saleh forces and their enemies could lead to the breakaway of large swathes of territory. If power-sharing proposals within Yemen reemerge, the Saudis will have their work cut out to contain southern separatist ambitions. Some of the separatists do not follow old South Yemen (pre-1990) lines and might even include adjacent territories that are geographically southern but which were politically part of the old northern Yemen Arab Republic. Saudi Arabia’s past southern patronage role was to give itself political options against the more proximate northern Yemeni republic. However, the Saudis now assume that the Iranians would benefit from a northern entity, presumably calculating that the Houthis and its allies might be able to turn it into a de facto garrison state from which Saudi Arabia could be more easily attacked. Currently, the Saudi and Egyptian navies can choke off Iranian supplies to allies in the north via Hodeidah on the Red Sea, but a formal split would make that harder.
At present, the Saudis want to use their influence to help contain separatist ambitions, not encourage them. Yemeni unity, albeit in a form that suits their interests, is still what the Saudis want. However, there is an increasing sense in the kingdom and the wider Gulf that “Yemen” is already fairly meaningless and cannot be put back together again. For all their encouragement of northern tribal allies—and the continued conduct of air strikes there—the Saudis remain focused on Aden, Taiz, and the hydrocarbon resources of Marib, places where either they or the UAE have nominal troop numbers. Consequently the political reality in the more northerly regions, including Sanaa, will be all the more remote.
The Saudis continue to assume that time is on their side. Inside the kingdom the war may cause louder grumblings over its cost in relatively straitened circumstances, but overall it remains a popular assault on perceived Iranian allies. As long as Saudi Arabia encourages Yemeni to fight Yemeni and maintains border security, then its ongoing war is manageable, even if the political outcome it apparently wants is not.
Neil Partrick is the editor of and main contributor to Saudi Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation (IB Tauris, forthcoming February 2016).
1. Telephone interview with the author, February 1, 2016.
2. Off-the-record telephone interview with the author, February 2, 2016.