When the uprising began in Yemen that eventually ousted Ali Abdullah Saleh, Ben Ali of Tunisia had already fallen, as had Mubarak of Egypt, and NATO had entered Libya to oust Gaddafi. The Islamists had come to power in each of these countries, with Morsi in Egypt having launched a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival Iran. The region was changing at a rapid pace and the wave of “revolution” was moving Eastwards towards the Gulf monarchies which caused deep alarm and consternation in Riyadh.
When Yemenis took to the streets in Sanaa demanding the removal of long-time Saudi ally Ali Abdullah Saleh, the threat began to manifest.
Until the Yemen uprising, the Arab Spring was an incoming threat from Saudi Arabia’s Western border. When Yemenis took to the streets in Sanaa demanding the removal of long-time Saudi ally Ali Abdullah Saleh, the threat began to manifest itself on the Southern border, compounding the sense among Saudi officials that an impending existential threat was on the horizon.
Riyadh’s interpretation of this threat was different from that of Arab Spring advocates. While Tunisia was seen as an organic revolution, Saudi officials believed the changes in Egypt were the result of a “perfect storm” where the interests of the Egyptian army in rejecting Mubarak’s bid to pass on the Presidency to his son aligned with the irresistible revolutionary fever that was engulfing the region. In Libya, Saudi Arabia bristled over Doha’s all-out support for the anti-regime movements, accusing Qatar of using its media outlets to channel the popular anger and direct it at their opponents to facilitate the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as the new regional power.
In a bid to contain the spread of the Arab Spring emerging on its Southern border, Saudi Arabia embarked on an initiative under the GCC banner for a negotiated transition that would facilitate a transition of power in a manner that would secure the border. However, then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh rejected the initiative, and grew to resent Riyadh’s refusal to support him against the protestors.
The mood in the region began to change while Yemen’s protests were in full flow. Sisi had overthrown Morsi in Egypt. This rattled the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia who found themselves facing protests from elements in society seeking to capitalize on the Sisi wave to force the Brotherhood out of power. A National Dialogue began whereby Ennahda ceded the premiership to Mehdi Jomaa. In Libya, the Islamists of the General National Congress (GNC) became concerned over their future in an environment where weapons were freely available, militias were acting with impunity, and popular discontent at the lack of progress was rife. With the tenure of the GNC coming to an end, the Islamists began to explore ways to extend its tenure and avoid the prospect of elections.
An emboldened Riyadh pressed harder on its GCC initiative which was eventually accepted by Saleh who handed over power to his deputy Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. There was a subsequent National Dialogue signed also by the Houthis themselves and a government was formed that would oversee a transitional period before nationwide elections. Riyadh was satisfied with the outcome.
However, less than a year later, the Houthis, then allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, had marched on Islah in Jawf and Amran. Saleh had opened the way for them to seize Sanaa by force.
Abu Dhabi’s unrelenting support for the STC was made clear in late 2019 when it sent its planes to bomb government forces that sought to retake Aden from STC control.
Second, the UAE firmly supports the Southern Transitional Council (STC). Abu Dhabi’s unrelenting support for the Southern Transitional Council was made clear in late 2019 when it sent its planes to bomb government forces that sought to retake Aden from STC control to facilitate the return of President Hadi. This has confounded observers as it is easily construed as a blow in the face of the Saudis. Yet, even if Saudi Arabia is firmly committed to restoring Hadi’s government, it cannot simply detach itself, or discredit the desires of Abu Dhabi.
The UAE has been integral in its all-out attack, pushing back against the Arab Spring movement that was once seen as an existential threat to Al Saud. Saudi Arabia’s mutual interests with Abu Dhabi extend to Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, and in containing Turkey. The two countries are firm partners in nearly all regional issues of concern which means that the word of Abu Dhabi outweighs that of President Hadi and his government, and Riyadh is more inclined to cede to Abu Dhabi given the extent to which their wider interests align.
Abu Dhabi has also had a more personal and direct role in facilitating the rise of Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman and lobbying for his recognition in Washington. Saudi Arabia may have been perturbed with the public embarrassment caused by Abu Dhabi’s actions. But, the lack of credible alternatives that align with Saudi interests mean that working with the UAE remains the “best” option.
Third, Saudi Arabia has become weary of the negative PR and what it believes to be a heavily distorted narrative on Yemen. Despite the fact that the Houthis overthrew a government agreed upon by all Yemen’s political parties and plunged the country into war by launching a seventh armed bid for power and control, media coverage focuses on the humanitarian crisis brought about by its disastrous military campaign that has failed to yield much progress in ousting the Houthis from Sanaa.
From Riyadh’s perspective, Yemen was never a war it wanted to enter into willingly. Mohamed Bin Salman will have noted the disastrous consequences of his cousin Prince Khaled Bin Sultan’s campaign against the Houthis in 2009 when the latter’s father was Crown Prince and Khaled was tipped as a potential future King. The failed campaign ended all hopes for Prince Khaled and he lapsed into obscurity.
The aim in Yemen has always been to contain Iran which is seen as being in firm control of Baghdad on the Northern Border.
Moreover, Bin Salman was not secure domestically at the outset of the war in Yemen and was still embroiled in a fierce succession struggle with powerful rivals Mohamed Bin Nayef and Abdulrahman Bin AbdulAziz. The aim in Yemen has always been to contain Iran which is seen as being in firm control of Baghdad on the Northern Border, exerting itself in the Arabian/Persian Gulf in the East (there have been disturbances in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Shia province), and backing Houthis on the Southern border where the militia have launched missiles on Saudi mainland.
In pursuit of this strategy, tremendous damage to Yemen’s infrastructure has been wrought with famine and cholera rife as the humanitarian crisis becomes compounded by the continuation of war and the absence of any peace initiative. And, as a result of the escalating humanitarian crisis that shows little sign of abating, the UN appears more interested in peace at any cost as opposed to a serious agreement between all of Yemen’s parties. Saudi Arabia has been particularly frustrated at UN interventions that seem to have rescued the Houthis from the brink of military defeat.
In 2018, the Saudi-UAE-led coalition and Yemen’s government forces attacked the vital port city of Hodeida in a bid to cut off Houthis’ supply lines. In a last gasp effort, the Houthis contacted the UN envoy stating they were ready to talk. The UN swiftly demanded an end to the offensive and took the parties to Stockholm. The Houthis signed the agreement, reinforced their positions, shored up their supply lines, then reneged. The momentum for the offensive was lost.
Given the UN actions have inadvertently bolstered the Houthis over the years, and the heavily negative media coverage towards the Saudi coalition, Saudi Arabia may well be preparing for the possibility of being forced into negotiations with the Houthis on unfavorable terms that might demand a recognition of Houthis newfound power. Were that to happen, the image of Hadi’s government would be in tatters at having failed to reverse the coup and the National Dialogue would become obsolete. In such an event, an ally in the STC would prove useful in limiting the newfound influence of the Houthis in determining the future of Yemen.
Saudi officials are aware that Trump is struggling in the polls in the US and that there is a possibility that Biden may win the elections.
Fourth, Saudi officials are aware that Trump is struggling in the polls in the US and that there is a possibility that Biden may win the elections. Democrats are believed to be far more sympathetic to Iran than Saudi Arabia, and there is a belief that talks are already underway between Tehran and Washington under the guise of the “US-Iraq Dialogue.” Given that Houthis are backed by Iran, Riyadh cannot guarantee that the US position will be supportive of its bid to restore the international-recognized government and may well find itself facing a Congress keen to punish Bin Salman for strong arming Washington on oil, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and countless human rights violations, and reining in Saudi Arabia as part of Iran’s demands for a deal.
Therefore, to prepare for such an eventuality, Saudi Arabia may well believe that supporting the STC as an insurance for a scenario where the war ends as a stalemate between North and South will ensure its interests are represented in a manner that they would otherwise not be if it were to only support the internationally recognized government.
Despite these considerations, President Hadi’s speech from Riyadh on June 27 condemning the seizure of the island of Socotra by the STC suggests that Saudi Arabia is committed to preserving the outcomes of the Riyadh agreement and brokering a framework of cooperation between President Hadi and the STC leadership.
Saudi Arabia’s ideal scenario is to restore the internationally recognized government and drive the Houthis back from Sanaa. This way, it can maintain its influence over proceedings and intervene where necessary to prevent any perceived “threat” as tensions in the region soar between Riyadh, Tehran, and Qatar. However, as divisions in Yemen become more pronounced, and as the international community attaches less importance to the “legitimacy” of Hadi’s government, and places greater priority on peace and containing the humanitarian crisis, Saudi Arabia may well find that gambling on the STC in anticipation of talks is a more assured option in maintaining some control over Yemen’s trajectory than an insistence on restoring Hadi’s government by force amidst a lack of international appetite for such a venture.