After five grueling years of war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia appears to be warming to the idea of pulling out, following recent developments which include its own coalition fragmenting, the Houthi rebels gaining more ground and Saudi Arabia’s own floundering economy having to bite the bullet after record low oil prices.

Following UN pressure over the coronavirus, a recently announced ceasefire, which Riyadh agreed to on March 25th, is encouraging.

Yet just as Saudi Arabia’s hasty entry into the war in 2015 seemed ill-conceived and badly timed, its so-called willingness now to depart from the battlefield is also problematic and worrisome to analysts.

Just as Saudi Arabia’s hasty entry into the war in 2015 seemed ill-conceived and badly timed, its so-called willingness now to depart from the battlefield is also problematic and worrisome to analysts.

The war in Yemen has cost Riyadh an estimated $100 billion USD so far, not to mention US taxpayers were also paying the tab of refueling Saudi and coalition jets as they performed sorties.

On the face of it, for the Saudi Crown prince who has been “credited” with the disastrous decision in 2015 to start the war in Yemen, there is a lot to be said for ending it.  For one thing, the sheer cost of it is staggering. Not only for the kingdom but also the international community which is estimated to have to cough up almost $30 billion USD in aid alone in the coming years, according to the Associated Press.

Another reason, which makes sense to western pundits, is that for Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi prince poised to take the throne, it might be the only smart decision he is ever likely to take, given the trail of havoc he has left behind him. Indeed, a number of poorly judged policies have impacted Riyadh’s public image around the world and continue, to this day, to plague it ahead of the auspicious G20 Summit which the Saudis will host in November.

From the Qatar blockade, right through the assassination and then botched cover-up of the Saudi polemicist Jamal Khashoggi, there isn’t much to showcase to world leaders at the moment. Especially when the most recent decision by MbS – to start an oil price war with Russia – has already resulted in a word face smack.  Few can believe the rank idiocy of such a move which is akin to shooting both feet with the same pistol. Saudi Arabia seems to find it hard not to impale itself on its own erroneous policy decisions and a $25 USD per barrel oil is the latest fine mess that it has gotten itself into.

Saudi Arabia pulling out of Yemen, could buy it some goodwill around the world, in a period where western media has gorged itself on reporting of recent arrests of the Crown Prince’s chief critics.

And so, pulling out of Yemen, could buy it some goodwill around the world, in a period where western media has gorged itself on reporting of recent arrests of the Crown Prince’s chief critics. Another move which has also only served to reinforce a point that the more you act to silence your critics, the more insecure and weaker you come across to even those who support you.

Madawi Al Rasheed, visiting professor at the Middle East Center, at the London School of Economics puts it succinctly: “The arrests are a stark reminder that Mohammed bin Salman has utterly failed in co-opting the royal family, containing the aspirations of its sidelined senior members, and extracting undisputed allegiance from them,” he told Carnegie recently.

MbS is not showing great leadership qualities at the moment. He is merely driving a point home that he is not a confident leader and many in the kingdom doubt he will be able to hold his leadership together once King Salman has passed away.

That, in a nutshell, explains why the recent arrests happened.  They were a last ditched attempt to galvanize support for the Crown Prince, clearing the way for any dissidents to establish a silent opposition, albeit a somnolent one – which is of course, exactly what has been the unintended consequences of the crackdown. Foot, pistol, shooting accident.

All such short-sighted actions are part of a theme of a wobbly leader whose arbitrary measures simply tighten the noose around his neck and sow the seeds for a military coup in the coming years.

The problem for MbS is that while the world might give him a second chance, his immediate entourage will judge him as being weak if he is to walk away from Yemen.

Therefore, doing the smart thing and getting out of Yemen, might buy some time and prove to the dissidents who hide in the shadows, that the young king-in-waiting is wiser than his years. The problem for MbS though is that while the world might give him a second chance, his immediate entourage will judge him as being weak if he is to walk away from Yemen.

Any retreat from the battlefield, has to come packed with face-saving virtues built into it, which is why he badly needs international players who can mediate and navigate him out of the quagmire.

Time is not on his side though as each day that passes, the Houthis take more ground in the north of the country, in the very region – Sada – which had previously strong links with Saudi Arabia. The Houthis are also planning to take other strongholds off the Saudi-backed Hadi government in Aden, such as the Marib Governorate and its capital, Marib City.

If such a move on Marib were successful, it would be a crushing blow to MbS and his Yemen position, leaving him wide open to ridicule and scorn even from his servile support base, let alone from the four leading critics which were recently arrested.  One of whom spoke openly in London about the Crown Prince’s failures and of who is still part of an important group of elders who, in Saudi society, gets to vote on important matters like the handing over of power from King Salman to MbS.

MbS is ensnared in Yemen by his own making.

MbS is ensnared in Yemen by his own making. Previous bold ideas of boosting the prominence of Hadi as a president in Aden (which few believe can control Yemen) and seeking to reduce Iran’s influence on the Houthis are still being flouted by the Saudis.

But the reality is that MbS and his negotiators will have to move fast in securing a more realistic deal with the Houthis. A deal needs to happen which ensures the security of the Kingdom’s southern border and improves relations with at least the region of Sada as the way forward.

It’s not just that the Houthis have Marib in their sights though. Many hardliners within the Iran-backed movement believe that it might be more advantageous for them to negotiate a peace settlement with the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) only.

After all it is the division between UAE and Saudi Arabia, which essentially allowed Abu Dhabi’s STC to seize control of Aden in August 2019. Since then, Southern Yemen has emerged as a civil war within a civil war, which in many ways the Houthis capitalized on as two regional geopolitical foes faced one another in Aden, weakening even further the legitimacy of Hadi and his motley government.

In practical terms, there is not much impetus though for the Houthis to negotiate with either the Saudis or the UAE-backed STC (the latter being more aligned to Russia which seeks to benefit from a split Yemen). Ironically, the Houthis may well choose to talk to both groups, the Saudis and the STC. In either case, the Houthis are stronger contenders for a peace settlement than Iran itself, which is plagued by the coronavirus and excruciating US sanctions.

It is one of the painful pills to swallow for MbS that while very early on the timeline of the war in Yemen—when the Houthis seized control of the disputed capital of Sanaa in 2014—they were backed by Iran and tarnished by the image of being a “Shia” movement more or less like Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Analysts point out that the group was only supported ideologically by Iran then, not with hardware or military assistance. That came later as a direct result of the Saudi bombing campaign in Sanaa, which stooped so low as to even bomb wedding parties and a school bus full of children.

Also, the Houthis have a good number of Sunnis in their ranks and, if it were akin to Hezbollah, surely the Saudis now would be having back channel talks directly with the Iranians, would they not?

That painful irony is not lost in the present negotiations whereby the Houthis see more value in talking with the Saudis about a possible deal. In the longer-term, peace, certainly in Sada province, can only be assured by Riyadh which has close links to it. Though in reality, there is scant advantage in signing up to anything which would restrict the Houthis and their regional ambitions. This makes it hard for MbS to come to the table with anything of real value. Simply, the Houthis lost too much and now appear to be in a position of being close to a win-win tipping point in Yemen.

It may well be the smartest move that MbS has ever made to talk to the Houthis now. But to stand tall, above the UAE, and to broker a deal which makes him look like a winner will be harder than a camel entering the eye of a needle.

It may well be the smartest move that MbS has ever made to talk to the Houthis now. But to stand tall, above the UAE, and to broker a deal which makes him look like a winner will be harder than a camel entering the eye of a needle.

When the G20 Summit kicks off later in the year, Yemen may well be not a subject that any officials in Riyadh wish to discuss as the landscape of winners and losers will not be conducive for discussion, if the Houthis continue with their territorial gains. The lessons of Yemen to MbS might be too late to even be acknowledged as the UAE and Russia step forward and reap the spoils of war, leaving MbS on the touchline pondering who his real friends are in the region.

~~~

* The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Inside Arabia.

READ ALSO

Latest Saudi Purge Signals Tough Times Ahead. But What’s the Link with Trump?