Mansour Almarzoqi, researcher on Saudi politics in Sciences Po de Lyon. Follow him on Twitter @0albogami.
Most analyses of Saudi goals in Yemen miss the most essential element: Saudi Arabia (KSA) built the Arab coalition to intervene in Yemen in order to prevent something from happening, rather than to make something happen. And that is to prevent Yemen from becoming another Iraq, where sovereignty lies in Tehran, not in Baghdad. That caveat must be kept in mind when analyzing the evolution of KSA goals there. Another caveat to keep in mind is that, strategically speaking, the political question is about one word: options.
Iranian expansionism aims at gaining more options—in Iraq (where it formed 56 militias), in the GCC (where it built the Abdali cell in Kuwait), in Syria (where it sent Afghani, Pakistani, Iraqi, and Lebanese militias to help Bashar al-Assad), in Yemen (where it armed the Houthi militia), and recently across the Arab World as a whole by announcing the formation of a “liberation army.” This expansionism walks on two legs: sectarianism, which is used as a tool to build alliances, and the weakness of central governments, without which Iranian-built militias wouldn’t be effective. These options, the Iranian regime hopes, would ensure its security, advance its interests, and bequeath to it an important seat at the regional table. Hence, when talking about an eventual end of hostilities in Yemen, one question is: is KSA willing to tolerate an Iran-dominated Yemen? The answer is: there is zero tolerance.
So the best outcome of the Yemeni crisis for the Saudi-led Arab coalition is to see the Iranian-backed Houthi militia and Saleh forces withdrawing from state institutions, ending their siege of cities like Taiz, turning in heavy weapons (including ballistic missiles), and agreeing to the formation of a unity government whose composition reflects all components of Yemeni society. Yet, it is clear that this outcome will be very difficult to achieve.
Now, in a situation where there is Iranian expansionism, where there is zero tolerance for an Iran-dominated Yemen, and where the best outcome for the Arab coalition is difficult to achieve, how does KSA see the evolution of the crisis?
First, there is enough indication that KSA won’t accept returning to the situation that existed before March 2015, namely a political scene dominated by the Iran-backed Houthi-Saleh alliance. Second, KSA believes it can influence regional and international actors. After all, KSA did change the U.S. position regarding intervention in Yemen from a total objection to a fluctuating and reserved support. Being pragmatic, KSA managed to find a common ground with Russia, which got them the backing to push through UNSC resolution 2216 (imposing an arms embargo on the Houthis) in April 2015, whereupon it replaced Operation Decisive Storm with Operation Restoring Hope. Third, the Yemeni crisis is part of a regional scene, where there is a strategic vacuum created by the emerging non-polar global order and the U.S. pivot to Asia. Internally, the change of nature and structure of power resulted in the emergence of the fourth Saudi state. Seeing an existential threat, Riyadh stepped up to be the first line of defense for its security, whatever it takes. Consequently, continuing the efforts to restore the legitimate Yemeni government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi seems to be the most likely position for KSA, despite the cost.
Riyadh has achieved several strategic goals. It prevented Yemen from becoming another Iraq, with 80 percent of Yemen now liberated. It demonstrated its capacity to take initiatives. It demonstrated its capacity to put an end to Iranian support for militias, a message to Iran-backed militias. And it demonstrated its capacity to build and manage a large-scale military operation, a message to Iran itself.