Negotiating Saudi Arabia’s Defeat and the Houthi Victory in Yemen
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The images of hundreds of prisoners embracing their families after being exchanged between the Houthis and the Saudi-backed internationally recognized government of Yemen were striking. The combination of this prisoner exchange and the sudden and seemingly fast-moving rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia has led many to express optimism for the future. Is it possible that the brutal war in Yemen, which has caused one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world, could experience a happy ending after years of unsuccessful peace efforts?
Probably not. Unfortunately, what is being negotiated now is not a sustainable peace. Instead, Saudi Arabia is trying to manage the outcome of its failed war against the Houthis. Riyadh is attempting to minimize the costs of its withdrawal from a war that had long become a lost cause. The outcome of Saudi-Houthi talks, I believe, will be the institutionalization of the Houthis’ political and military power and the consolidation of Yemen as a fragmented state. This outcome is not conducive to stabilization and development, because the original drivers of the civil war have not been resolved. As a result, the risks of Yemen slipping back into violence will remain high and the country’s politics fragmented for the foreseeable future. This is a tragedy for the Yemeni people, who are already suffering from one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. It will also not be possible to contain prolonged instability within the country’s borders — it will inevitably spill over.
What Saudi Arabia, the Houthis, and Iran Want
Yemen, long plagued by instability and violence, entered the current phase of its war in 2014 when the Houthis, then rebels based in the northwest, took the capital, Sana’a. Saudi Arabia, already worried about the unstable situation in its southern neighbor, became even more anxious because of the growing relations between its rival Iran and the Houthis. At the invitation of the internationally recognized but defeated government, Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention in March 2015 to roll back the Houthis and reinstate the government. The war, however, rapidly became a costly quagmire for Riyadh. The Saudi military has achieved none of the government’s original objectives for the war. By early 2023, the Houthis had consolidated their status as the most powerful actor in Yemen. Iran had significantly deepened its partnership with the Houthis and is building a strong foothold along Saudi Arabia’s border.
Saudi Arabia’s calculus in engaging with the Houthis reflects multiple factors and changing priorities. Most importantly, it is the result of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s realization that the war in Yemen has failed. From the outset of the conflict, the Crown Prince has pushed for the continuation of the conflict and its outcome is now associated with his own personal image in the country. As the war continued, the crown prince has reportedly come to realize that the more aggressive and adventurist foreign policy of his early years has brought the country more pain than gain.
Mohamed bin Salman has therefore engineered a radical shift in foreign policy: He has been actively working to stabilize Saudi foreign relations, as witnessed not only by the rapprochement with Iran, but also by efforts to resolve, or at least better manage, disputes with neighbors, notably Qatar. It appears that he has realized that foreign entanglements, especially when they can lead the Houthis to target the kingdom with missiles and drones supplied by Iran, acted as obstacles to his grand vision of economic and social reform. Thus, the negotiations with the Houthis, in this context, are not about peace in Yemen. Instead, the terms that Saudi Arabia is seeking are for a withdrawal from a damaging war, along with an end to Houthi cross-border incursions and missile and drone strikes deep in Saudi territory.
The Houthis, for their part, have won a narrow victory in the war. The group has emerged as the dominant political and military power in the country. They therefore have no intention of making serious concessions to Saudi Arabia or to the Saudi-backed internationally recognized government, now dispersed between Aden, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi. What the Houthis want is international recognition and legitimation of their power, and the institutionalization of their domination of Sanaa and northwest Yemen. Any truce represents for them not a step towards lasting peace, but an opportunity to catch their breath after years of fighting and consolidate gains. The Houthis may also be preparing for new offensives to expand the territory under their control. It is highly likely that the Houthis will launch new offensives in the not-too-distant future to seize the strategically located and hydrocarbon-rich central city of Marib, the disputed city of Taiz south of Sanaa, and portions of the west coast. As Saudi Arabia steadily withdraws from Yemen, its already limited ability to counter these attacks will further diminish.
The extent of Tehran’s influence on Houthi decision-making remains a matter of debate. It is arguably limited — yet whatever its level, this is a secondary question. What matters more is the relative alignment of their interests, and here the answer is clearer. Iran calculates that because its Yemeni partner has won, it is now time to move to the phase of consolidating these gains. It therefore supports Houthi efforts to negotiate not peace, but the institutionalization of what would have been far-fetched a few years ago: entrenching Tehran’s foothold on the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. On this, both Iran and the Houthis agree.
Some media reports have suggested that as part of its rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, Iran has agreed to stop or reduce the flow of weapons it supplies to the Houthis. It would be highly surprising for Tehran to agree to this permanently, given the value that its ties to the Houthis now provide for Tehran’s regional aspirations. That said, it is certainly plausible that Tehran could agree to temporarily reduce or stop the flow, if only to provide the breathing space for the talks that will lead to the consolidation of its victory. This would be manageable: The Houthis are well-stocked in weapons, and with violence much reduced compared to previous years, they can temporarily make do with less or no support from their Iranian patrons. In the long-term, however, both have every incentive to maintain what has been a valuable partnership — the Houthis for lack of an alternative, and Iran because of the value it provides as means to pressure Saudi Arabia.
According to media reports, Riyadh’s aim is to propose a roadmap with a long-term truce to be followed by intra-Yemeni peace talks. Ideally, such an outcome could stabilize the situation and even reduce the violence, at least in the short term. This process, however, will face significant obstacles.
It is important to understand what the formalization and consolidation of the Houthi take-over in northwest Yemen would mean, and how this would not be conducive to stable peace-making. The Houthi administration is violently repressive, obscurantist, and corrupt. It is intolerant of opposition and, perhaps most crucially, the movement has neither the inclination nor the incentive to share power more than symbolically. Their approach to post-war politics will not be one of reconciliation, but of domination. They have also not shown themselves to be competent managers of the war-ravaged economy. There is, as such, little prospect for improvement on this front.
What remains of the Saudi-backed internationally recognized government is weak, corrupt, and fragmented. In fact, the main reason for the Houthi victory is not Iranian support, but the government’s incapacity to form a coherent and united anti-Houthi front. In a desperate attempt to shore up government forces, in April 2022 Saudi Arabia steered the creation of a Presidential Leadership Council, a body bringing together a wide range of Saudi and Emirati-backed factions united only by their opposition to the Houthis. Yet the council’s standing as a coherent entity is already more fiction than reality. In theory, the Saudi-Houthi deal is meant to open space for eventual Houthi-Presidential Leadership Council talks, possibly mediated by the United Nations. In practice, however, the council’s fragile unity will be under severe stress if or when Saudi support decreases. Moreover, some of the council’s component factions have no intention of accepting a Houthi takeover without fighting. It is, in fact, difficult to see how the Presidential Leadership Council survives the fallout from an eventual Saudi-Houthi deal.
The consequences of a Houthi-Saudi agreement would also be difficult in Yemen’s south, which was independent between 1967 and 1990. The separatist Southern Transitional Council, backed by the United Arab Emirates, is today the dominant force in the southwest. Yet it has been largely excluded from the recent Saudi-Houthi talks. While it has expressed timid support, a direct agreement between Riyadh and the Houthis will inevitably neglect southern grievances, which could eventually encourage the Southern Transitional Council to make additional secessionist gestures. In fact, there does not seem to be a workable pathway to re-integrate the southern and northern halves of the country together again. Separation may be the only option, but it will not happen harmoniously.
The growing tension between the Southern Transitional Council’s backers in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia will compound these challenges. Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have had competing interests in Yemen for years, but they have mostly been able so far to agree to disagree and manage their divergences. But Abu Dhabi’s exclusion from Saudi-Houthi talks and the emergence of a Houthi-dominated north will bring some of these disagreements out in the open. The United Arab Emirates, in particular, has no intention of abandoning the strong influence it has built in the south through its support for the Southern Transitional Council and various militias. In response, Saudi Arabia has intensified its efforts to counter this influence — this local competition will continue, and likely intensify.
Finally, and perhaps most fatally, the current Houthi-Saudi talks have completely excluded Yemeni civil society. Yet as Yemeni experts have frequently noted, there is no viable path to a sustainable peace in the absence of a comprehensive dialogue process that includes all sectors of society and rewrites the social contract. The trouble, however, is that neither Saudi Arabia nor the Houthis have a genuine interest in supporting such a process and engaging with it. Many experts, for example, argue that only federalism can offer a chance to bring the reconciliation of Yemen’s multiple regional interests and identities — the Houthis, however, maintain a deeply centralized vision of the state.
A Fragmented Yemen
Media reports suggest that the ongoing Houthi-Saudi talks might lead to the establishment of a transition period, which would include a truce and confidence-building measures, followed by an intra-Yemeni dialogue. On paper, this is certainly the right way ahead. In practice, however, the path to peace will be extraordinarily challenging. What would a post-agreement Yemen look like?
An agreement would institutionalize the domination of the Houthis over the northwest of the country. This may be an inevitable outcome. But their governance is proving increasingly violent and intolerant. It would then be just another tragic development for the Yemeni people, already exhausted by decades of conflict and abysmal governance. The Houthis are likely to use the truce to consolidate their rule. The group may also refuse to share power more than symbolically and continue to repress opposition in territories they control. They will also undoubtedly seek to expand those territories.
The Houthis’ continued ambitions will clash against those of other power centers. Some factions within the internationally recognized government will undoubtedly reject the dynamic created by the new Saudi-Houthi arrangement and will keep fighting. The Southern Transitional Council will exploit the vacuum created by the Saudi withdrawal to continue moving towards independence. There might well be periods of relative calm, but in the absence of any resolution to the country’s deep-seated problems, violence will ebb and flow.
That is why instead of peace, a Houthi-Saudi deal is more likely to lead to the further institutionalization of Houthi power and the entrenchment of a fragmented and conflicted Yemen. This is a tragedy for the Yemeni people, since one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises will struggle to be resolved. Instability will also reverberate beyond the country’s borders. The Houthis pose a long-term threat to navigation in the Red Sea, and their partnership with Iran will allow them to maintain pressure on Riyadh. Their missiles and drones will keep the ability to strike both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and perhaps Israel eventually. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will maintain a haven in the country. The conundrum for the United States and its allies, however, is that they have at most limited leverage on the unfolding catastrophe.
Thomas Juneau is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, and a non-resident fellow with the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. He tweets @thomasjuneau.