As Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen faces increasing condemnation, and as UN-led peace talks ongoing since December appear to be making progress forging a truce between the Houthis and the Saudi-backed government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Riyadh may be forced to curtail its military involvement in the country, at least partially. Yet Saudi Arabia is cementing its presence in Yemen through economic and diplomatic initiatives designed to secure its influence even after its military campaign winds down.
Controversial aid donations and reconstruction and development projects across Yemen highlight Riyadh’s long-term ambitions. Such moves would help limit the influence of other external actors such as the United Arab Emirates, which is also jostling for greater influence in southern Yemen, even though Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are working together to fight the Houthis. Likewise, Saudi Arabia’s imposition of tariffs on goods entering Mahra from Oman arguably check the sultanate’s influence in Yemen, particularly its historically strong trading ties with Mahra.
Throughout the conflict, Saudi Arabia’s war strategy has aimed at breaking down Yemen and weakening the state while preventing it from collapsing entirely—which incidentally now provides it more opportunities to lend a “helping hand” in reconstruction. Data compiled by the Yemeni Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation shows that between March 2015 and August 2016, Saudi Arabia deliberately targeted dams, reservoirs, agriculture, and markets in almost every governorate, particularly near frontlines of the conflict in Marib, Sanaa, Taiz, and Aden. From March 2015 until September 2017, 356 Saudi air raids hit farms, 174 targeted marketplaces, and 61 struck food storage sites, according to statistics compiled by the Yemen Data Project, suggesting a deliberate focus on weaponizing access to food and ensuring Yemen’s “total reliance on food imports for survival.” According to the International Rescue Committee, the Saudi-led coalition-funded Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations (YCHO)—which delivers food, medicine, and commercial aid to Yemenis—is engaging in “war tactics.” By directing aid through Yemen’s key transit and access points, it is helping Riyadh gain control over them rather than addressing Yemen’s immediate humanitarian needs, such as lifting the blockade on Houthi-controlled ports.
Although Yemen relied on imports for 80-90 percent of its food, medicine, and fuel before 2015, trade with Saudi Arabia accounted for only 9.7 percent of these imports. Riyadh is hoping to capitalize on the collapse of Yemen’s infrastructure to increase its share of these imports and keep Yemen dependent on its support. In October, Riyadh agreed to provide Yemen $60 million worth of oil derivatives per month, with the first installment delivered in November 2018 to the eastern and central governorates of Hadhramaut, Shabwa, Al-Jawf, Marib, and Mahra. Skepticism surrounds Saudi efforts to present itself as offering a humanitarian hand to Yemen. In May 2018, it announced long-term plans to focus on developing infrastructure through the Saudi Reconstruction and Development Program in Yemen (SRPY). The program, supervised by Saudi Ambassador to Yemen Mohammad Al Jaber, “includes building and expanding civil, industrial, educational and medical facilities complete with state-of-the art technology [in Yemen],” according to the Saudi Embassy in the United States. While Riyadh conveys this as a benevolent gesture that reflects a desire to help Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, critics note that it mainly enables Saudi Arabia to expand its networks of patronage.
These widespread efforts focus on developing areas under control of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government, particularly in Mahra and Aden, as opposed to the more devastated regions under Houthi control. Among these ongoing projects—announced in May 2018 and expected to be completed no later than fall 2019—are the expansion of healthcare facilities, construction of a water purification plant, and renovation of the airport in Ghaydah. Projects also include the development of several paved roads and an electrical power plant in Mahra, renovating the port of Nushtin, and building a hospital in government-controlled Aden. Significantly, it is building the King Salman Education and Medical City University in Mahra, whose name indicates Saudi Arabia aims to impose its cultural influence as well. Even though war has not affected the city of Marib as much, Saudi Arabia has funded renovation and reconstruction work on its airport, which created thousands of jobs for Yemenis. The SRPY had also nearly completed reconstruction of the 250-kilometer (155-mile) road from Marib to Saudi Arabia, which will increase transport and communication between the two countries. The SPRY announced additional projects in December 2018 to develop the education system in Mahra and Ghaydah by providing thousands of textbooks, backpacks, desks, and school buses—arguably a Saudi attempt to win over locals.
Many of the projects are being overseen or implemented through the “temporary” capital in Aden, tying Hadi-controlled provinces more firmly to the key Yemeni commercial hub. Riyadh has attempted to redirect trade from Hodeidah, which imports over 70 percent of Yemen’s goods and has been under Houthi control since October 2014, toward Aden. Meanwhile, Hadi’s regime will be more accountable to Saudi Arabia as his influence over these regions will be more dependent on Saudi support, which in turn will grant Saudi Arabia continued investment privileges in Yemen.
These development and reconstruction projects also provide Riyadh the opportunity reap its own economic benefits, particularly as it seeks to develop new routes to increase its capacity to export oil and gas. According to a letter it sent to Ambassador Al Jaber, the Jeddah-based oil company Huta Marine initiated plans to open an oil exporting port in Mahra in summer 2018. Similarly, Saudi Arabia started constructing an alternative oil pipeline through Mahra to the Arabian Sea in September. Together, the port and pipeline provide a backup export route to the Strait of Hormuz, which Saudi Arabia claims is vulnerable to a potential Iranian blockade.
Such attempts to gain economic influence in Yemen coincide with the kingdom’s strategy to control Yemen’s key logistical hubs, through which it chooses to funnel aid. Bypassing the Houthi-controlled ports of Hodeidah and Saleef does not merely reduce aid to Houthi areas: the sheer volume of aid flowing through coalition-run ports such as Mokha, Mukalla, and Aden also provides incentives for local and international companies to increase these ports’ capacity and make them more efficient. To speed this development process and consolidate Saudi control, Riyadh has built cranes to ensure increased trade activity in and out of the ports. This will increase the economic role of these Saudi-influenced cities in the longer term. In the meantime, as long as Saudi Arabia controls the increased flow of goods through them, the ports themselves are reliant on Riyadh—and more likely to permit or tolerate future economic intervention by Saudi companies.
Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a researcher and journalist focusing on conflict and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa. Follow him on Twitter @jfentonharvey.