Mohammad Bin Salman (MbS), the architect of Saudi Arabia’s Yemen war as the country’s Defense Minister before ascending to Crown Prince in 2017, was keen to showcase the country’s military clout. This bellicose stance appears set to continue.
Months into the conflict, Saudi Arabia realized it was struggling against the local Houthi rebels, who were well equipped and trained within the country.
The Saudi-led intervention, which was claimed to reinstate the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, whom the Yemeni Houthis had forced into exile, has been fruitless and detrimental for Riyadh. Launching an aerial campaign against Yemen in March 2015, backed by a coalition of Arab and African states, Saudi Arabia believed it would end the conflict within weeks. Yet months into the conflict, Saudi Arabia realized it was struggling against the local Houthi rebels, who were well equipped and trained within the country.
It therefore aimed to target food supplies and infrastructure, to force the Houthis into submission. This however led to a collapse of Yemen’s state, which not only generated a grave humanitarian crisis, but gave the Houthis more room to manoeuvre and secured their position with the diminished government opposition.
Though the Houthis launched a violent coup that disrupted Yemen’s peace process and threatened the country’s stability, seizing the capital Sana’a in September 2014 and then expanding southwards, they posed no threat to Riyadh at the time. Saudi Arabia was instead seeking to prevent its loss of influence in Yemen, under the guise of fighting an Iran proxy and preventing Yemeni and regional destabilization.
Riyadh’s fears and claims have come to fruition. The Houthis faced protests against their insurgency, showing there was opposition to them. But while Riyadh’s bombing campaign has focused on defeating the Houthis, it has allowed the group to consolidate its control over the North.
Meanwhile, the focus on fighting the Houthis in the North has allowed the secessionist Southern Transitional Movement (STC), backed by Riyadh’s otherwise close ally and coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates, to secure its influence. It launched a coup on the temporary capital of Aden on August 10 and seized the presidential palace and key military locations.
Therefore Riyadh, traditionally seeking influence over Yemen as a whole, has failed in this objective.
To make matters worse, the Houthis are firing back at Riyadh. The Houthis began firing projectiles into Saudi territory in November 2017. Riyadh responded with a harsh land, air, and sea blockade that month, with no outcome other than exacerbating Yemen’s already dire humanitarian crisis: the Houthis still did not back off.
Houthis’ rocket fire has further proliferated this year, posing a security threat to Saudi Arabia’s southern regions of Najran, Jisan, and Asir, in particular. The civilian Abha airport was hit multiple times throughout June and July, injuring civilians. Meanwhile the Houthis reportedly began occupying parts of the south, claiming to launch key operations of capturing Saudi soldiers in late September.
While the success of this last attack is likely exaggerated, there is an increasing security threat to Riyadh. While short-term damage may be limited, it indicates a transformation that could have greater repercussions on Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s policies have also driven the Houthis into the arms of Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s policies have also driven the Houthis into the arms of Iran. Though Iran and Houthi ties exist, their closeness during the war particularly in its early stages had been exaggerated, as they had had only limited support from Tehran.
Yet now with both Tehran and Ansur Allah (or Ansarullah: the name of the Houthi movement in Yemen) facing increased foreign pressure, the two have been driven closer. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met visiting chief negotiator of the Houthis Mohammed Abdul-Salam in August, declaring Tehran’s support for the movement.
In other words, Riyadh’s policies have partly driven this increasing alignment between Iran and the Houthis. With growing Iranian support for the Houthis, it could boost the latter’s capabilities to fire on Saudi territory further and inflict greater damage.
Saudi Arabia has also cheered sanctions on Iran and the breakdown of the 2015 nuclear deal, which had lifted some sanctions on Iran in return for clauses like curtailment of its uranium enrichment policies.
Trump’s push for new sanctions on Iran led to a breakdown in the fragile diplomatic relations that the nuclear deal had attempted to salvage. Facing added economic pressure, Iran has taken a more assertive position regionally and attempted to shore up its regional influence in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen as a response.
Though it coaxed Washington into taking a harsher stance on Iran, the Saudi regime does not want conflict. After all, Riyadh would be one of the first to be affected by an escalation of hostilities, due to its geographical proximity. Instead, Saudi Arabia has sought to punish and isolate its regional rival.
Regardless of the identity of the perpetrators of the Aramco oil facilities attacks in September, they are effectively a response to Saudi Arabia’s support for or complicity in isolating Iran and the Houthis. If either side lashes out further, it could have graver consequences for Riyadh.
At a time when MbS is pushing for economic and social reforms to meet his ambitious Vision 2030 project, his foreign policies are impacting that vision significantly and are not only counter-productive to the country’s security, but also jeopardize investment and tourism.
At a time when MbS is pushing for economic and social reforms to meet his ambitious Vision 2030 project, his foreign policies are impacting that vision significantly and are not only counter-productive to the country’s security, but also jeopardize investment and tourism. Further escalations could put Riyadh in a very difficult situation.
Western nations have continued to stand by Riyadh’s policies towards Iran and Yemen, often turning a blind eye to their considerable repercussions on both countries. This comes in the form of material, particularly weapons, and consensual support including impunity for its actions.
Though the US Congress is more critical of Saudi Arabia, Trump clearly favors Riyadh, especially as a result of lobbying. Similarly, Britain continues to stand by its close Saudi ally. States such as France that have made a greater effort to uphold the nuclear deal face internal difficulties with Iran’s increasing antagonism.
Even so, Riyadh is still flailing to repair the damage from its policies. This is apparent in its supposed push for peace talks with Iran, which some have speculated would bring a more peaceful end to subsequent Middle East conflicts. However, claims of Riyadh taking a positive stance are premature, considering MbS’s declared enmity towards Iran in a recent CBS 60 Minutes interview.
On September 27, despite an unprecedented (even for them) airstrike campaign on civilian targets the weekend before that was condemned by the UN, the Saudis offered a partial ceasefire for Yemen, responding to the Houthis call for a truce the previous week. Not surprisingly, the Houthis have said that this is not enough, as Riyadh continues to impose the blockade and conduct air raids across the country that have caused what the UN has called the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” With the Saudi air force maintaining a provocative presence over Yemen’s capital, the conflict risks drawing on.
Arguably Riyadh maintains its current foreign policy position as merely posturing to appease critics, and therefore the danger of further conflict in the region, and inside Saudi Arabia itself, remains and could escalate further. Its Western allies’ tacit consent gives Riyadh a false sense of security.
Unless Riyadh adopts a more sensible foreign policy, it should expect a continued spiral towards increased isolation and economic difficulties, aside from the obvious ongoing devastation its policies have caused in Yemen and beyond.
Its Western allies should also push MbS to adopt a more diplomatic stance to increase their own abilities to improve the situation.