The latest escalation in Yemen, particularly the cross-border rocket fire by the Ansar Allah militia (the Houthis) and the retaliatory aerial bombardment by the Arab coalition, has put the fragile city of Sanaa at risk once again and has heightened the vulnerability of Yemen’s civilian population at large. The war seems to spiral from the inner domestic battles to the outer regional hostilities, and then back again to the internal fronts in a vicious circle of violence. The United States has engaged Houthi rockets directly for the first time since the conflict began in 2014 and the Pentagon has dispatched the destroyer USS Cole to help defend against Houthi rockets targeting the United Arab Emirates—all while the special envoys of the United Nations and United States have been shuttling between Gulf capitals trying to de-escalate the violence and rekindle their diplomatic efforts to end the war. The current UN special envoy, Hans Grundberg, has not yet presented a new peace package while the Biden Administration has drifted closer to the Arab coalition’s stance, likely damaging the US role as a mediator.
The United States has been implicated as a partisan in Yemen since the inception of the conflict in 2014.
The United States has been implicated as a partisan in Yemen since the inception of the conflict in 2014. The Obama Administration, in contradiction to the policies outlined in the president’s famous Cairo speech in 2009, frustrated Arab youth and liberals in the United States by coddling the Saudi leadership, greenlighting the war in Yemen, and rewarding Saudis (and American arms manufacturers) with large packages in arms sales during his eight years in office. Washington went beyond merely tolerating the Yemen war to actually supporting it by providing naval support for the blockade around the country and offering logistical assistance to the Arab coalition’s aerial bombardment campaigns. The Biden Administration, despite initial promises for a strategic review of the special relationship with Saudi Arabia, initially halted arms sales but eventually resumed them to the Arab coalition. Moreover, it has spared Saudi Arabia and the UAE from serious criticism for their continuing war in Yemen. The persistent tilting toward Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, at the very least, complicates current attempts at mediating the conflict and bringing the Yemen war to an end.
Biden’s Foreign Policy Conundrum
President Joe Biden is struggling on a host of foreign policy issues, from the current Russian-Ukrainian crisis to nuclear strategy issues and their reverberations on the Korean peninsula. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan, despite being long overdue, leaves the impression of a weakened influence in the Middle East. This is while Washington remains mired in the intractable problems of dealing with Iran’s nuclear program and a host of regional issues, not least of which is the Yemen war. Pressures from a tense international environment and domestic challenges have put at risk Biden’s attempts to forge a new direction for US foreign policy, transitioning from a dependence on traditional security alliances—often with unsavory friends and allies—to a policy that strives for moral leadership through a reliance on democratic forces around the world.
Saudi and Emirati Options
The Yemen problem sits amid these conflicting pressures on the Biden Administration. Biden came in with a very early focus on ending the Yemen war and fulfilling a campaign promise to pressure Saudi Arabia and other regional allies on their human rights policies and their use of force in Yemen. His intentions, however, were immediately challenged by the Arab coalition partners who have sought alternatives to American security guarantees and arms sales. The UAE, for one, has deepened its relationship with Israel, coordinating anti-Iran and anti-Muslim Brotherhood policies and collaborating on security technologies with a focus on anti-rocket and drone defenses. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also been going to China and Europe for jet fighters, missiles, and drone technology. Both countries have sought to maintain good relations with Russia, also as a counter measure to their usual reliance on a special relationship with the United States. The latest example of this ambivalence is the UAE’s abstention at the UN Security Council (UNSC) from a resolution to censure Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
Washington’s actions have indeed undermined any leverage the United States may have had with Saudi Arabia and the UAE and perhaps sabotaged the US role as an honest broker in the search for peace in Yemen.
Gulf states’ flirtations with China and Russia have pushed the Biden Administration back to a cold war security calculus and to jealously guarding the special relationships with Gulf monarchies. It provided arms sales packages to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and rushed to announce a US commitment to defend the two countries from Houthi aggression. These actions were buttressed by a series of high-level statements condemning Houthi attacks and placing full responsibility on the Houthis for the escalation, thus signaling a full tilt toward the coalition. Washington’s actions have indeed undermined any leverage the United States may have had with the two allies and perhaps sabotaged the US role as an honest broker in the search for peace in Yemen.
All sides to this conflict are overreaching. The Arab coalition is escalating the level of its involvement in the hope of dissuading the Houthis from maintaining their attack on Marib—though this is having the opposite effect, causing Ansar Allah to try to widen the front to include attacks on the Arab coalition states themselves. The coalition partners on the ground are increasingly hopeful they could use the heightened regional involvement to push the Houthis all the way back to Sanaa, and perhaps beyond. At best, this is an unrealistic goal. With their cross-border attacks, the Houthis are hoping to dissuade the UAE, in particular, from returning to more direct involvement in the Yemen war. In so doing, they have also drawn the United States further into the armed conflict, which is definitely not the hoped-for outcome. Alarmingly, this escalation has actually increased destruction and devastation on the ground and caused more human suffering, thus further dimming the prospects of a peaceful settlement.
International Mediation Falls Short
On the peacemaking front, UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg was unusually blunt in stating that no warring party in Yemen is presently willing to make the uncomfortable compromises needed to end the war. Grundberg is preparing a comprehensive multi-track peace proposal to recommend to the UNSC in the spring and hints that the latter must play a stronger role in Yemen. This sounds promising as no envoy to date has presented a full package—that is, one starting with proposals for de-escalation and moving to a detailed step-by-step plan for a mutually acceptable vision of what a Yemen at peace might look like. While Grundberg has criticized Houthi attacks, he has generally shied away from laying overall blame exclusively on one side. Insisting that all parties to the conflict have presented obstacles to peace, his challenge remains one of finding not only a comprehensive peace proposal but also obtaining the commitment of the five permanent members of the UNSC to put pressure on all sides to stop the fighting and accept negotiations on the basis of a UN-sponsored plan. But this may have been undercut by the recent decision by the UN Security Council to declare the Houthis a terrorist organization.
Echoing statements by senior officials, the US special envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, added his endorsement of the general sentiment that Houthi military attacks were indeed the primary obstacle to peace in Yemen. As the Houthis shifted the focus of battle to the UAE, they raised the stakes of the war to a broader and more dangerous regional level. Indeed, it was not the first time for them to retaliate by aerial bombardment, having previously launched rockets against Saudi targets, the most notorious of which were the attacks on Saudi oil installations in 2019 and again in 2021. Whether Iran’s role in these attacks was direct or indirect, the Houthis garner the condemnation for taking the war to their enemy’s heartland and threatening western economies that depend on the export of oil from the region.
There is no doubt that, justified or not, the bombing of oil facilities and civilian airports in Saudi Arabia and the UAE raises the stakes in this war.
There is no doubt that, justified or not, the bombing of oil facilities and civilian airports in Saudi Arabia and the UAE raises the stakes in this war. Obstruction of peace efforts, however, has to be judged by the combatants’ rejection of proposals submitted to them by international mediators. On that score, the very first de-escalatory proposal made by Lenderking constituted an exchange of a partial lifting of the siege around Yemen for a general cease-fire and a return to the negotiating table. Specifically, the reopening of Sanaa airport and the Hodeida seaport would provide a welcome relief to those living under Houthi control in the north. Lenderking spoke up early about the need to exempt fuel shipments from the siege on Hodeida port; however, an exchange of a cease-fire for a partial lifting of the siege has not been accepted to date by either side, with the Houthis insisting on a total siege-lift without conditions (considering it as a humanitarian and not a political condition).
For their part, the Saudis have insisted that a nationwide cease-fire, starting with a Houthi pullback from Marib, must be obtained before even partial relief is offered. Houthis have complained further that the Saudis want to put the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi in charge of allowing shipments through the Hodeida port, which translates for the Houthis as the Hadi government’s hand on the tap and a chance for it to squeeze concessions for each shipment whether it contains fuel, food, or medicine. A full release of humanitarian shipments under UN supervision would likely induce the Houthis to agree to a cease-fire, but Saudi leaders have been unwilling to relinquish control of what comes into Sanaa airport or Hodeida seaport.
A full release of humanitarian shipments under UN supervision would likely induce the Houthis to agree to a cease-fire, but Saudi leaders have been unwilling to relinquish control of what comes into Sanaa airport or Hodeida seaport.
The Houthis, overcoming their initial reluctance, met on February 3rd with UN special envoy Hans Grundberg and presented their ideas for peace. These and earlier suggestions by the Ansar Allah have not been part of a comprehensive plan for reconciliation. Piecing together a series of declarations, statements, and commentaries by Houthi spokespeople, one can deduce the following: the Houthis reject a return to what the international community regards as the “legitimacy” of the Hadi government, insisting instead that a peaceful Yemen will have to move beyond the traditional political elites that have thus far ruled the country. They suggest that new parliamentary and presidential elections must follow a cease-fire in order to determine Yemen’s future leadership. They insist further that a cessation of the Arab coalition’s military operations and a full exchange of prisoners must be followed by the departure of all foreign troops from Yemen. A “Marib initiative,” one that is not spelled out in detail by anyone (including Omani mediators who purportedly carried it back from their visit to Sanaa), suggests a Houthi political presence in Marib city in return for quiet on that front and as a prelude to a full cease-fire.
The Way Out
US-Saudi relations will have to be seriously reevaluated if the current freezing out of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by the White House continues after he ascends to the throne. It would be very unusual, to say the least, for the White House to boycott a head of state whose country is considered a friend and ally in addition to a potential partner for peace in Yemen. Apart from the protocol aspect, it would be difficult for Washington to conduct state business only indirectly with the person actually making decisions in Riyadh.
The difficult issues of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and the war in Yemen will have to be faced head-on and resolved in order to fully normalize US-Saudi relations. The alternative would be to significantly downgrade a relationship on which the United States has relied for many years, while dealing with the implications of the kingdom’s drift toward rivals like China and Russia. In such a scenario, it would be impossible to predict whether a realignment of regional and international alliances would bring peace to Yemen.