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Yemen: Why is Riyadh flexing its muscles?

Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen is now well into its fourth month but the endgame remains unclear. Perhaps that is because Yemen itself has been a secondary concern for the new Saudi king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and his son Prince Mohammed who, in making unprecedented use of the kingdom’s military hardware, have set down a marker for a new, more assertive role for Saudi Arabia in the region. Yet if the kingdom is to retain support from abroad it may have to rein in the Yemen campaign.

Since March 26, the kingdom and its coalition partners have bombed the Arab world’s poorest country while imposing a blockade on its borders, at a cost of tens of billions of dollars and thousands of Yemeni lives in what the United Nations now says is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.

Riyadh’s rationale for the campaign has been a mixed bag, with its public narrative shifting as successive goals have proved to be out of reach. First, the Saudis wanted to dislodge the Houthis, a Shia militia that has controlled the capital, Sana’a, since September 2014, and who in February chased President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to the southern port city of Aden. The plan was to deal with the Houthis and then restore President Hadi, a friend of Riyadh, to power. Yet in the early days of the campaign the Houthis, alongside Yemeni military units loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president, advanced, establishing a presence in much of west Yemen and forcing Hadi to flee the country.

The issue now became one of self-defence: Riyadh was worried about the Houthis’ ability to launch attacks on Saudi Arabia itself, using Yemen’s air force and its stock of ballistic missiles. Only a few days into the bombing campaign Ahmed bin Hasan Asiri, a Saudi military spokesman, was proclaiming ‘success’ because the air force had been destroyed along with Yemen’s stockpiles of missiles. But the Houthis later launched Scud missiles into the kingdom, giving the lie to the spokesman’s claim.

Then came a new justification: the Saudis were fighting to counter the influence of Iran, their great regional rival, which backs the Houthis – although the extent of Tehran’s support before the Saudis started bombing remains an open question.  ‘The last time I checked, Iran didn’t have a border with Yemen,’ Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, said in May, making it clear that his country sees its neighbour Yemen as a red line for Iranian influence in the region. The issue had  become one of threat containment.

The campaign has continued as a stalemate builds up on the ground. A combination of the airstrikes and surprisingly resilient local resistance movements has prevented the Houthi-Saleh alliance from completely overrunning the western half of the country but has not pushed them back. The alliance has learnt how to work around the airstrikes.  Plans for a ground invasion spearheaded by Egyptian and Pakistani troops have long since been set aside. Recent gains by anti-Houthi fighters backed by the Saudi and Emirati militaries in the southern port town of Aden have led some to believe that the tide can be turned against the northerners. But the truth is that if the current status quo continues, the fractured resistance movement will break before the Houthis and their allies do.

A combination of the fighting on the ground, the aerial campaign and the Saudi-led blockade of goods has pushed Yemen into what humanitarians fear could become a famine. On July 6, the UN said it had promoted the humanitarian crisis in Yemen to a ‘level 3’, making it among one of the worst in the world.

Western diplomats, who in public continue to support the Saudis, are muttering that the bombing campaign and blockade have not served a useful purpose for some time. Since April, the United States has been quietly trying to convince Prince Mohammed to wind down the bombing, ease the passage of trade and push Hadi towards a political solution.

But Prince Mohammed, who in April was named deputy crown prince by his father, is unlikely to undergo a change of heart, in no small part because events on the ground in Yemen itself have little to do with the strategic gains he and his father have made through the campaign.

At home, Prince Mohammed, who is also defence minister, has become a popular figure thanks to the war. It has been seen as a reassertion of Saudi primacy after years of drift under the late King Abdullah. Prince Mohammed’s rising profile probably helped his father to take the unprecedented step of making a 29-year-old second in line to the throne, thus handing the reins of power to a new generation in what many have said was effectively a palace coup.

This new assertiveness has seen Riyadh play a more visible role at the UN. In April, diplomats noted the kingdom’s role in pushing for UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which called for a unilateral withdrawal from the areas the Houthis controlled and the restoration of Hadi to power. Citing the fact that the resolution was issued under Chapter VII of the UN charter – which, among other things, can be used to justify armed intervention – the Saudis have since used the resolution to torpedo any suggestion of a negotiated settlement that leaves the Houthis armed or in political power; and to ward off any criticism of its own role in the conflict. This has made UN mediation of a peace deal – which realistically would leave the Houthis with a chunk of territory and a stockpile of arms, and needs to involve the Saudis – particularly hard. Both sides can happily claim that the other is at fault while Yemen burns to the ground.

By framing the campaign as one that pitches Saudi Arabia against Iran, the king and his son have also forced the US to show that it still picks the right sides in the region. This has been a point of contention  since the administration of Barack Obama pulled its support for a close Saudi ally, the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, during the Arab uprisings of 2011, and has been compounded by a nuclear deal with Iran that will lead to the easing of economic sanctions. Thus far the US has backed the Saudi campaign, albeit reluctantly, lending logistical and intelligence support, and has condemned Iranian involvement in Yemen.

The problem for Riyadh is that Yemen is a real place, populated by real people, not the straw man it has made it into.

Saudi Arabia showed showed a lack of political nous when it ignored a UN plea for a ‘pausefire’ – a week-long cessation of hostilities to allow food, fuel, and medical supplies into the country – on July 9. If Saudi Arabia had halted its campaign, the Houthis, who are intransigent at the best of times, would surely have violated the truce and Riyadh would have been free to resume its campaign while pointing the finger of blame at the Yemeni rebels. Instead they carried on, and their  western allies, already sick of a pointless war that they do not want to support, were not best pleased.

After being rebuked by their Western partners, the Saudis further muddied the water announcing a surprise unilateral pausefire for five days a little over 24 hours before the pause began, on July 26. This gave the the UN mediator, who had been given no forewarning, no time to convince the Houthis to sign up to it.

In the short term, the Yemen campaign may help King Salman and his son shore up their power base at home and re-establish the kingdom as a regional power. But in doing so they risk losing friends abroad.


– See more at: http://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/twt/why-riyadh-flexing-its-muscles#sthash.lPDozvPA.dpuf