MS Risk Blog

Saudi Arabia in Yemen

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During the month of November, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Houthi rebels have been constantly escalating and the number of assaults remains high. A series of incidents such as the detection and dismantling of five Iranian-type mines on November 24, the strike on a Greek-operated tanker on November 25 and the killing of 8 Saudi soldiers on November 30 have further degraded the relations between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Recently, on November 23, a fire broke out in the Red Sea port of Jeddah, after a rocket attack on a Saudi oil storage facility, of which Houthi rebels claimed responsibility. Brigadier General Yahya Sarea, military spokesman for the Iran-allied fighters, posted on Twitter that the assault came as retaliation for the continuous and aggressive intervention of Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s civil war. Firefighting teams rallied to the place and extinguished the fire with no significant damages and no casualties. In response, Saudi Arabia mounted air raids, targeting the camps of Houthi rebels in Yemen on November, 27. Drone attacks on Saudi oil fields on August 16 and September 14 proved that modus operandi hasn’t changed significantly, however the violence has increased. The crisis has only deteriorated and is not expected to ease any time soon.

Yemen has been locked in a civil war since late 2014. The impoverished Arab country experienced the Revolution of Dignity in 2011, which forced the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign and hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. When the transition government failed to deal with instability, caused, inter alia, by corruption, unemployment, opposing groups and jihadist attacks, the northern Yemeni-based Houthi movement took over the capital Sanaa in 2014. Over 7,700 Yemenis were killed during 2014 due to armed clashes, according to a study published by a Yemeni NGO. President Hadi eventually fled to Saudi Arabia and called for international intervention. Saudi Arabia stepped up and established a coalition in 2015, made of Arab states, including UAE and Kuwait, aiming to restore Hadi’s government and confine Iran’s influence in the region. The coalition mounted Operation Decisive Storm on March 26 of that year, attacking Houthi targets in Yemen and since then, Yemen has suffered a devastating humanitarian crisis, its infrastructures have been damaged, while more than 130,000 Yemenis have been killed.

It is important to evaluate the nature of Saudi intervention with caution. Houthi rebels are aligned with and supported by Iran, a Shia state, on the basis of the common enemy of Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-state, which supports pro-government forces. Saudis construed the Houthi’s power takeover as an Iranian-controlled puppet regime and therefore, an immediate threat to the Kingdom’s border. Therefore, a seemingly civil war has turned out to be more of a proxy war, within the framework of the longlasting dispute between Shia and Sunni for regional superiority. But things are even more convoluted. In summer 2019, forces aligned with the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), claiming an independent south, seized the city of Aden, base of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s government. This is the case of a civil war within a civil war, where Saudi Arabia and UAE while being allies against Houthi, they were also rivals in the dispute between STC and the internationally recognised Republic of Yemen government (ROYG). Although the two parties signed the power-sharing Riyadh agreement in November 2019, tensions and the clashing of interests keep going, signifying the complexity of this particular conflict in the Arab state.

The Yemen civil war and the Saudi regional intervention has been harshly criticized by the international community. The European Union condemned the Saudi-led military intervention. It adopted a controversial resolution in Strasbourg in July 2015, through which the EU acknowledges the Hadi government as the legitimate one and denounces Houthi’s aggressiveness against civilians, while it condemns the Saudi Arabian-led coalition for air raids in Yemen, violating the international humanitarian law and resulting in thousands of deaths. The EU stressed that military operations would only worsen the on-going crisis, with further unfavorable consequences for the region. The oxymoron is the fact that while the EU condemns both parties, according to the latest report on French arms exports, munitions sales to Saudi Arabia have been registered throughout 2019, accounting for €1.4 billion. Currently, in light of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the escalated tensions in Yemen, United Nations also criticized Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombing, targeting Houthi targets, but causing many civilian deaths. UN condemns these acts as being against international law. On the other hand, Unites States, although a major pillar of UN, provides Saudi Arabia with sensitive intelligence data, which would enable the decision makers to form a more concise picture of the battlefield and the state of play with the Houthi forces. On the contrary, Russia has not been currently involved in the dispute, and in fact, maintains good relations with both sides.

For the time being, significant developments are yet to occur. The incident of 23rd of November simply constitutes another act of hostility that indicates a state of fragmentation in the region of Yemen, which will almost certainly continue to suffer from turmoil during the next months. In fact, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made clear the U.S. is strengthening its ties with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in view of the two countries longstanding alliance. Should Pompeo stick to his words, and given the resistance Houthi project to any assaults waged by Saudi-Arabia coalition, it is highly unlikely that military disputes in Yemen will halt any time soon. Saudi Arabia will continue to receive munitions supplementation, in order to counter assaults led by Iran-backed Houthi movement. Even during the month of November a series of mutual airstrikes and mining in Saudi and Yemeni soil were reported. The Houthis have suffered several notable casualties, but no shift in their strategic plans is expected. Admittedly, Houthi movement constitutes a very cheap opportunity for Iran to combat its biggest rival in the region, Saudi Arabia. While this is true, Houthis and Iran do not share the same ideology and beliefs, but they rather chase the accomplishment of their individual goals through coordinative practices. That being said, even if Iran withdraws from Yemeni civil war, it is likely that Houthi rebels will continue to fight for their own objectives, which is international recognition, along with the establishment of stability and transparency in the country.