This report is based on the presentations and discussions during the UAE Security Forum 2019, “Reshaping the Future of the Horn of Africa,” held on December 12, 2019 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Speaking at an Atlantic Council event on July 17, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook argued that economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the administration of President Donald J. Trump had substantially weakened Tehran’s “proxies” in the region. Hook referred to prominent coverage of the issue in major newspapers to support his claim. While these articles focused almost exclusively on the impact on Hezbollah, the most powerful military organization in Lebanon, they offered no evidence to support an argument that the Houthis – the Shia insurgency that seized power in Yemen in September 2014 and historically has been a beneficiary of Iranian support – are substantially diminished or weakened. In fact, in light of the recent decision by the United Arab Emirates to withdraw the bulk of its military assets from Yemen, the Houthis may well be in a stronger position than they have been at at almost any point since March 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition, including the UAE, intervened in what had been up to that point a civil war.
Security specialist Michael Knights argued on July 10 that the withdrawal of Emirati forces from Yemen “will make a recovery by the Houthis and AQAP [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] more likely. Local crises in Yemen will now become more frequent and more consequential.” With the UAE’s pullout, Knights claimed, “Saudi Arabia can prevent peace from breaking out and can bleed the Houthis on a never-ending northern front, but only the UAE had the military potency and local allied forces to credibly threaten defeat for the Houthis.”
Even the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, the de facto Emirati spokesman on the Yemen war, acknowledged the risk in a July 22 op-ed asserting: “The Yemeni parties – the Houthis specifically – should see this move for what it is: a confidence-building measure to create new momentum to end the conflict. The international community also must seize the moment. It must deter any side from exploiting or undermining this opportunity, stop the Houthis from blocking aid, hasten compromise from all sides and support a determined U.N.-led mediation effort.”
That U.N. effort continues to sputter along. During a July 18 briefing to the U.N. Security Council, U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths reported that yet another “important breakthrough and an encouraging sign of progress” had been achieved. Representatives of the Houthis and the exiled government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, meeting face-to-face for the first time since February, agreed on the operational details of the redeployment of forces from three Red Sea ports: Hodeidah, Ras Isa, and Salif. The redeployment was first agreed to in December 2018 but has proceeded in fits and starts ever since. Griffiths acknowledged that major challenges remain, including battlefield issues that threaten to derail any progress toward a negotiated end to the war. “The political and security landscape in Yemen – whether on the front lines or in other areas – is becoming increasingly fragmented,” Griffiths warned. He was acknowledging what has long been the case: Yemen’s war is not a binary conflict but rather a broadly contested landscape upon which multiple armed groups and militias are struggling to assert their own agendas and establish themselves as parties whose interests must be taken into account in any political consultation regarding Yemen’s future.
In addition, Griffiths warned, “There are also continuous acts of political and military provocations that can hold back the peace process,” including military operations on Yemen’s northern border with Saudi Arabia. He also mentioned his concern over continued attacks by the Houthis on civilian infrastructure in the kingdom.
Indeed, the Houthis have stepped up strikes into Saudi territory in recent weeks, launching dozens of attacks, including missile and drone strikes, some of which have resulted in casualties. This vulnerability is the Saudis’ Achilles’ heel: Unlike the UAE, Saudi Arabia shares an over 900-mile border with Yemen, and Riyadh’s inability to prevent the Houthis from lobbing missiles into populated areas, or conducting cross-border incursions, is the biggest impediment to Saudi Arabia’s ability to extricate itself from this conflict. This is something the Saudis most certainly want to do after over four years of war have left nearly 92,000 people in Yemen dead and spawned one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.
These realities contributed to bipartisan support in both houses of the U.S. Congress for legislation that would suspend an emergency sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Trump has promised to veto the resolutions, but the move nonetheless makes clear the extent of the reputational damage the Yemen war has caused to a pair of countries the administration argues are essential to its efforts to counter Iran’s influence in the region.
This loss of confidence in Congress almost certainly factored into the UAE’s decision to withdraw its forces from Yemen, as did the elevated tensions in the Gulf as Iran has responded to crippling U.S. sanctions. On July 8, a senior Emirati official told Reuters: “Many people asked if this is also linked to the current rise of tensions with Iran. I would say fundamentally no … But of course we cannot be blind to the overall strategic picture.”
With its decision to withdraw from Yemen, the UAE has fundamentally changed the strategic context in Yemen, presenting the parties to the conflict – and the international community – with what Griffiths characterized as “a crucial moment for the destiny of this war.” How key players react to this moment will determine that destiny. As Elana DeLozier wrote recently, “If the Saudis do not pursue a political solution more proactively, they risk being left on their own to fight a war they cannot win.” Even Gargash’s reference to the need to “hasten compromise from all sides” has widely been interpreted as a message to Riyadh to take advantage of the new dynamic in play in Yemen and find a way out of the war. The Saudis almost certainly understand this: King Salman bin Abdulaziz reportedly has indicated he wants the kingdom out of Yemen in short order. But if the Saudis are to move in this direction, the Houthis must cooperate. It is too early to tell if the notoriously fractious leadership of the insurgency is in a mood to ease pressure on the Saudi border and give Riyadh an exit door, or keep the pressure up through continued missile and drone attacks and, in doing so, provoke Riyadh into more retaliatory strikes, ensuring that the vicious cycle of violence in which Yemen is trapped continues.
In this regard, this “crucial moment” may present an unexpected opportunity for regional adversaries to work together on a goal on which all would seem to agree: the need to end Yemen’s war. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are said to have quietly established direct channels to Iran in recent months, and it would seem likely that preventing the war in Yemen from further enflaming regional tensions is an issue under discussion. What is less clear is whether Iran, which has often asserted that it is prepared to use what influence it has with the Houthis to try and bring the war to an end, will see such an outcome as being to its advantage at a moment when it seems more interested in demonstrating its capacity for stoking rather than resolving instability.
Similarly, the Trump administration has a deep interest in helping the Saudis get out of Yemen and removing one of the principal reasons a key regional partner has suffered a significant loss of its international prestige. But to do so, the White House will have to demonstrate a willingness to see the war in Yemen as something other than simply a theater in which Houthi “proxies” are busily advancing the interests of their Iranian mentors, and acknowledge that the root causes of the conflict – and its ultimate solution – are to be found in Yemen’s own unique and complex history.
Sultan Haitham will need to balance powerful interests while engaging all parties, especially as he tackles economic policy.
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