On 2 December 2017, long-time strongman and former president Ali Abd Allah Salih abandoned his Houthi allies and called for reconciliation with Saudi Arabia. Two days later he was dead (MEES, 8 December 2017).
With Mr Salih and his massive patronage network on its side, Saudi Arabia would have looked to form a “unity” coalition within Yemen and marginalize the Houthis. But with the gamble having backfired, the kingdom now finds itself nowhere near restoring a Saudi-aligned central state. Its closest ally, President ‘Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi, remains exiled in Riyadh and the Houthis control much of northern Yemen, where the bulk of Yemen’s population is concentrated (see map). After almost three years of incessant bombing, Saudi Arabia is no closer to its initial aims.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
When Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman launched the Yemeni intervention in March 2015, his aim was to halt Houthi advances and restore Mr Hadi’s government in San’a, after its ousting three months earlier. Fearful of an Iranian client-state on its southern border, the Saudis convened an international coalition and commenced Operation Decisive Storm.
But by focusing operations in northwest Yemen where the Houthis had support from the majority Shiite population and Mr Salih’s General People’s Congress held sway Riyadh opened a military front where it would never gain popular support, a front where it suffered substantial losses in 2009, destroying the regal aspirations of then deputy-defense minister Prince Khalid bin Sultan.
In other words, rather than empowering local clients to contest power, the Crown Prince’s effort overwhelmingly focused on destroying the Houthi will to fight through bombardment a tactic of limited value in Yemen’s highlands. By contrast, the UAE invested its efforts in Yemen’s south, building alliances with local groups and liberating key areas from Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Today it looks as if no number of bombs will crush the Houthis and no single faction is popular enough to unify the country arguably the only outcome that would appease Riyadh. A withdrawal would merely empower the entrenched Houthis, while maintaining the war effort brings the kingdom no closer to its initial goal. At present, the Crown Prince must choose between a commitment like the US made in Vietnam or a destabilized collection of statelets, one of which would undoubtedly lie in Houthi hands.
One consequence of Saudi Arabia’s long, ineffectual attempt to re-legitimize Mr Hadi is the decentralization of power throughout the country. As Chatham House’s Peter Salisbury writes, the conflict is “confined to several largely static battlefields” while the majority of the country is marked by “relative stability of the borders between different areas of territorial control, the continuing flow of goods and people between these areas, or the political competition occurring within them.”
Local authorities have taken over the meager services the government once offered and have exploited the collapse in central authority to consolidate their own political and economic control. This serves to further undermine the feckless government in exile. Thus, while Mr Hadi and his government must repeat the increasingly incredulous claim to be Yemen’s sole central authority, local tribes and political groups can demonstrate on-the-ground legitimacy by maintaining security and offering basic services.
To restore political order, Saudi Arabia will have to compete not only with the Houthis, but eventually with dozens of smaller forces empowered through the conflict. Ironically, the kingdom’s prolonged military campaign to restore the pre-coup government has destroyed the very dynamics underpinning that political order in the first place.
Anti-Government Forces Control Strategic Cities Aden And San`A
A TALE OF TWO ALLIES
Abu Dhabi, Saudi’s coalition partner, limited its operational objectives and saw far greater success maintaining order on Yemen’s southern coast (MEES, 27 October 2017). UAE forces liberated key oil and LNG export facilities at Ash Shihr and Balhaf from AQAP in 2016, and built up influence in Aden whilst minimizing the role of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islah party.
The UAE-backed southern separatists even felt emboldened enough to surround the government offices in Aden and attack Saudi-backed government troops on 30 January. Of course, for Saudi Arabia a healthy alliance with the UAE is worth 10 Yemens, but the optics of intra-coalition clashes are nonetheless embarrassing and underline their competing strategies.
Riyadh for its part has doubled down on assisting Mr Hadi’s government. King Salman ordered $2bn be deposited in Yemen’s central bank in January to aid the collapsing Yemeni rial. The central government continues to export oil, with Yemen’s key Asian customers (primarily China) importing an average of 41,000 b/d in 2017 up from 13,000 b/d in 2016 but still down from 107,000 b/d in 2013. Patronage will play a massive role if Mr Hadi’s government is to reemerge, but even with the wealthy Saudis in its corner, the kaleidoscopic political order may prove unnavigable.