Yemen war a quagmire for Saudi Arabia

Houthi fighters claim to have taken control of 10 out of fourteen districts of the strategic northern city of Marib, Yemen

With the world’s largest oil export terminal coming under missile and drone attack — a giant Saudi Aramco complex capable of exporting roughly 6.5m barrels a day, nearly 7% of global oil demand — the war in Yemen surges in the global media. During the night on Saturday, the Houthis fired eight missiles and 14 drones towards Ras Tanura on Saudi Arabia’s east coast. And Brent crude oil price shot up to highs not seen since before coronavirus was declared a pandemic. 

But two templates that are far more consequential than oil market lie lurk below the surface — the implications of the ‘forever war’ in Yemen for the regional alignments in the Persian Gulf and to the standing of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). 

The war in Yemen since the Saudi-led intervention in 2015 is currently at its most intense since 2018, as the Houthis besiege the city of Marib, located in an oil-rich region of the country, which contains an oil refinery and supplies gas to the entire country. The Houthis have the upper hand insofar as Marib is the last bastion of the Saudi-backed forces and the outcome of their assault on it could determine the fate of the war. 

The Houthis appear to be open to a comprehensive ceasefire deal that halts all airstrikes and completely lifts restrictions on the ports and airports under their control, but the opposing side suspects it to be a tactical ploy to to get fresh supplies from abroad, to get reprieve from sustained Saudi airstrikes for long enough to launch a definitive push into Marib eventually and consolidate their victory as the de facto rulers of Yemen’s northern region. 

The Saudi strategy, on the other hand, has been to slow down the Houthi offensive through air strikes on their forces while also mobilising reinforcements from the south to ease the pressure on Marib. To be sure, the Houthis are retaliating by staging missile and drone attacks on military and economic targets on Saudi territory, displaying their growing military capability to make Riyadh pay a heavy price for continued interference in their civil war. 

To be sure, the Biden administration’s decision to distance itself from the war, restrict American military support for the Saudi forces and, most important, to remove the Houthis from the US government’s list of foreign terrorist organisations signal Washington’s reading that for all practical purposes, Riyadh has already lost the war and, therefore, the accent ought to be on diplomacy to bring the senseless fighting to an and through a negotiated settlement under the UN auspices. 

Clearly, Iran betted on Houthis as the legitimate government of Yemen (with an embassy in Tehran headed by an ‘ambassador’) and that is turning out to be sound judgment. On the contrary, Yemen becomes yet another West Asian conflict — after Lebanon, Iraq and Syria — where Saudis are ending up as losers. 

Worse still, Saudis could be staring at a quagmire in Yemen, given the US disengagement plus the withdrawal of the UAE from the war and Egypt’s refusal to get involved despite Riyadh’s entreaties. But with the US pushing for an end to the war, the Saudis have a choice to seize on this momentum and leave it to Yemeni factions to pursue a political solution on their own. But it is unclear whether the Saudis have reached such a conclusion yet.  

The 5-year war in Yemen has cost Riyadh an estimated $100 billion so far, which is imposing a heavy drain on the Saudi economy. The horrific scale of destruction that Saudi forces have wrought on Yemen has become a blot on the Saudi image regionally and internationally. The Houthis’ audacity to strike at Riyadh in broad daylight becomes a matter of embarrassment personally for the Crown Prince, who also happens to be the defence minister and who took the fateful decision for the Saudi military intervention in 2015.

MBS’ reputation risks further damage unless a face-saving formula can be found to extricate from the war with reasonable guarantees that Houthis will not seek revenge. Clearly, all this inevitably casts a shadow on MBS’ credentials to be the next monarch of the kingdom.

The ‘X’ factor here is the Biden administration’s attitude toward the Saudi succession, taking into account the POTUS’ curious decision to avoid any direct contacts with MBS. Although Washington has not imposed any sanctions against MBS after implicating him in the brutal murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, US’ intentions are far from clear. Will the US move to oust MBS at some point? 

Dr. Yosef “Yossi” Beilin, the veteran Israeli politician and scholar who has served in multiple ministerial and leadership positions in the Israeli government, wrote recently in Israel Hayom, the country’s most widely distributed newspaper: 

“The fact that the new (US) president didn’t call the crown prince (MBS) and made public his insistence on only speaking to his father the king sent a strong message… Washington has now given its official approval to the assessment that bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s killing. It may very well be that in his conversation with the Saudi king, Biden insinuated that he would be wise to replace his brash son with the man who was forced to kiss his feet and relinquished his role as crown prince four years back.”

Beilin adds, “Will this be good for Israel? If it’s good for our one true ally (read the US), then it will be good for us, too.” 

Again, the reputed British newspaper Times has reported that the US and European intelligence agencies seek Biden’s intervention to help secure the release of “America’s favourite Saudi”, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the former Saudi crown prince whom MBS marginalised in 2017 in humiliating circumstances and since tortured and kept under detention.  

The Times took note that bin Nayef is a key ally of the US. (He was a recipient of the CIA’s George Tenet Medal.) The paper quoted Bruce Riedel, one of America’s best experts on West Asia and an ex-CIA officer, that the US intelligence community is profoundly indebted to Nayef for cooperation during the “war on terror” in his capacity as the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior prior to his appointment as the Crown Prince. 

It is improbable that the US will get directly involved in a succession struggle to block MBS’ ascension to the throne. But the optics of Biden’s aversion toward MBS itself conveys a potent message that could embolden the crown prince’s detractors and rivals within the Saudi regime to rally. 

This is where a defeat or quagmire in Yemen can become decisive, putting question marks on MBS’ erudition and maturity to take rational decisions and casts doubt on the 35-year old prince’s credentials to navigate the kingdom through a particularly difficult period in its modern history.