Neil Partrick, the editor and lead contributor to Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation (IB Tauris, second edition, April 2018). Follow him on Twitter @neilpartrick.
Saudi Arabia no longer knows what it wants in Yemen. The current, four-year-long war was launched to roll back the Houthis to their northern Yemeni heartlands and to see a cooperative Yemeni leadership (broadly speaking) reinstated in Sanaa. However, the Saudis, with UAE involvement, are stuck in a destructive and politically counterproductive routine of air strikes—coupled with the more traditional Saudi policy of deploying cash to try to win friends, but with only mixed success in influencing people. The Saudis would probably do better to focus solely on their established, if admittedly clumsy, use of riyals and state Wahhabism in a bid to turn the clock back in Yemen to when tribes and those susceptible to Salafism were cooperative to a degree. Instead, they are blindly sticking to a failed air war that encourages Houthi missile strikes deep into Saudi territory.
The Saudis’ strategic fear in 2015 was that the Houthis’ advance inside Yemen was benefiting Iran. This has become an acute reality: Iran has greatly deepened its assistance to a Houthi force that has become deeply entrenched in running key northern territory, including Sanaa. The Emiratis, with whom the Saudis ostensibly have an alliance in Yemen that is marked more by what they do not want than by what they jointly do, are evidently planning for the completion of the Yemeni state’s collapse.
The UAE overtly backs southern secessionists and opposes their enemy, the Saudi-backed nominal Yemeni president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. In March 2019, two of his senior officials attacked the UAE’s pursuit of a southern Yemeni state (or several southern statelets); Hadi himself has attacked the UAE for behaving like an “occupier” for building up pro-Emirati, pro-secessionist forces and taking over the island of Socotra. The Saudis’ Yemeni allies include Salafis, whom the Emiratis ostensibly spurn but who are well represented among their southern allies, and the Yemeni, tribalized version of the Muslim Brotherhood, Islah, which the UAE cannot countenance. Islah and its key ally, the Saudi-backed Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Hadi’s deputy, might yet decide to take on southern secessionists in an echo of the Yemeni civil war of 1994, thereby pitting Saudi allies against Emirati ones, as seen in January 2018 when they fought each other for control of Aden airport.
In Mahra, the easternmost province, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are seeking to weaken Omani influence and its alleged arms facilitation to the Houthis by backing disparate local elements. In the Saudi case, this has included resuming its ill-judged attempts elsewhere to promote proto-Wahhabi ideological fervor, something that so spectacularly backfired over a decade ago in the Houthi heartland of Saada. For well over a year, Saudis have been seeking to control the Mahra-Oman border and the province’s airport and seaport facilities, while the UAE has focused on trying to include this very distinct and relatively Oman-friendly province in its southern Yemeni secessionist plans. The Saudis might be happy at any developments that emphasize the incoherence of the Yemeni state, motivated perhaps by a grand design to secure land corridors to the Arabian Sea. But Yemen’s proven inability to run a coherent, centralized state would probably enable a de facto Saudi land grab or vassal statelet in the south, whether the Saudis continue to wage war on Yemen or not.
The first phase of a peace agreement in Hodeidah, poorly observed by Houthi and Emirati-backed forces, has little to do with strategic Saudi or Emirati political (mis)calculations in the Yemeni conflict, and much more to do with these two countries’ attempted public relations in response to discomfited western allies.
The Saudis’ incoherence over Yemen relates in part to the established Saudi tradition of being happy to accept Yemeni state weakness as the acceptable price for the kingdom’s own security. This plainly does not work any longer: Yemeni state collapse has increased Saudi national security problems, while the UAE, only indirectly affected by such issues, is stirring the strategic pot to both Saudi and Yemeni disadvantage.