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Saudi Arabia’s scramble for an exit strategy in Yemen

A Houthi fighter holds his weapon during a rally against six years of a Saudi-led military operation in the capital Sanaa last month [Hani Mohammed/AP]

Saudi Arabia’s scramble for an exit strategy in Yemen

The Saudi Arabia-led alliance’s military intervention in Yemen has not only failed in its objective to rout the Houthi rebels, but the kingdom finds itself in a position in which it might be forced to capitulate.

Saudi Arabia has failed its primary objectives of defeating the Houthis and restabilising the internationally recognised government in Yemen.

“The Houthis have proven to be a formidable fighting force. Saudi Arabia does not have a comparable ground game that can match their adversaries’,” Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, told Al Jazeera.

This reality is far from what Saudi Arabia had initially anticipated when it entered into the war via Operation Decisive Storm in March 2015.

“Saudi Arabia thought it would win this war via a bombing campaign, and it would all be over in a few weeks. We have now entered the seventh year of this war with no clear end in sight,” Hashemi said.

In fact, the Houthis have been on the advance ever since, and Saudi Arabia is in a position where it is implausible to become the war’s victor. The Houthis control the capital Sanaa and large parts of Yemen’s northwest.

The city of Marib, which is of pivotal strategic importance as it functions as the country’s oil and gas production hub and possesses crucial infrastructure, is also constantly under attack.

Besides these territorial gains, the Houthis have also repeatedly shown they can attack infrastructure in Saudi territory with drones.

The conflict’s status quo puts the latest Saudi call for peace into perspective. It is not driven by the desire to create lasting peace but rather by the attempt to define an exit strategy from a conflict that has turned into a quagmire for the kingdom.

The proposal the Saudis suggest envisages a nationwide ceasefire under the supervision of the United Nations, according to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud.

During the ceasefire, negotiations should facilitate a political solution. As a token of goodwill, Saudi Arabia offered to lift its blockade of Sanaa airport and allow imports of fuel and food via the critical port of Hodeidah on the Red Sea.

However, Houthi rebels are well aware of their current position and leverage. As it stands, Saudi Arabia and its allies could potentially be forced to withdraw without the Houthis having to make any concessions. Hence, their initial rejection of the proposal did not come as a surprise, particularly as it offered “nothing new”.

The latter is an accurate statement, according to Steven Hurst, department head of history, politics and philosophy at the Manchester Metropolitan University.

“The peace plan they have put forward now is a revised version of one they advanced in 2020 rather than anything new,” said Hurst.

Nonetheless, the Houthis’ chief negotiator, Mohammed Abdulsalam, stated his willingness for further talks with Riyadh, Washington, and Muscat to facilitate a peace agreement.

Houthi fighters stand guard during a rally marking six years of war with the Saudi-led coalition in Sanaa [Hani Mohammed/AP]
Lost US support
The Houthis’ strong military position is not the only conundrum for Saudi Arabia, however.

The United States, Saudi Arabia’s most important ally for more than half a century, also played a pivotal role since March 2015 when then-President Barack Obama authorised US forces to provide logistical and intelligence support to the Saudis, Hurst said.

“The US provided the Saudis with weaponry, intelligence – including assisting with target selection – and logistics such as mid-air refuelling of Saudi planes, though the latter was ended in late 2018,” he noted.

Donald Trump presented Saudi Arabia with carte blanche for its operation in Yemen during his presidency.

“Nothing was done about Yemen during the reign of Donald Trump,” according to Hashemi.

This primarily because of Trump’s proclivity for cultivating close ties with Saudi Arabia and its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), Hurst told Al Jazeera.

“That desire in turn reflected a range of factors including Trump’s well-established admiration for ‘strong-man’ rulers, the Saudi willingness to go along with Trump’s one-sided approach to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and a mutual antipathy toward Iran.”

As a result, the Trump administration even vetoed a bipartisan congressional resolution that would have ceased US involvement in the war in 2019.


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