Saudi Arabia is politically and financially exhausted after five years of conflict against the Houthis. Tired of the 200 million Saudi riyal per day cost of the war, Riyadh offered a unilateral cease-fire April 8 and then extended it two weeks later, part of its attempt to pivot to a negotiated solution after continued territorial losses. Timed with the growing COVID-19 crisis, the recent Saudi cease-fires provided face-saving moral high ground to step back militarily and invited the Houthis to follow. The Houthis, however, were not biting; they ignored the cease-fires and responded with their own peace terms that would amount to a Saudi surrender. Given Houthi intransigence and Riyadh’s increasing desperation over the deadlock, the Saudis appear to be reconsidering their engagement in Yemen in principle.
Two options appear to be under consideration, judging from Saudi Arabia’s actions and the opinions emanating from its “independent commentators”— editors and publishers who float the ideas of senior Saudi officials. One option is to make a deal with the Houthis and let other Yemeni parties fend for themselves, providing enough support to local warlords to keep Yemen in a state of perpetual civil war similar to that of Somalia in the 1990s. Saudi disengagement from Yemen would almost certainly lead to economic collapse, as much of the foreign exchange that keeps the Yemeni economy going comes from the war budget in the form of salaries and patronage payments to tribesmen. This option will be a round-about way of achieving the desired objective of “no victor-no vanquished.” Saudi Arabia would avoid an outright defeat, as there would be no winners in Yemen as it gets ravaged by famine and disease.
The second option is to break Yemen into smaller pieces. Abdul-Rahman al-Rashed, a prominent Saudi commentator and Royal Court insider, wrote that some circles in Saudi Arabia back this idea. He also noted that while many smaller Yemens would be better for Saudi Arabia than a united Yemen, the unintended consequences of breaking Yemen apart (such as the expansion of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Islamic State control over territories, or increased meddling by other regional players such as Iran, Turkey and Qatar) are cause for reconsideration of this option. If Saudi Arabia successfully breaks Yemen apart, it will naturally endeavor to annex, or bring under its hegemony, as much of eastern Yemen as it can. This option is probably attractive, as it secures the decades-old Saudi strategic objective of having access to the Indian Ocean that circumvents the Strait of Hormuz.
Saudi commentators often miss other potential risks that could be triggered by either of these two options. The most significant one is that most Yemenis will not stand by while their country is ripped apart. Instead, they are likely to close ranks behind their strongest faction, which happens to be the Houthi movement, to defend their homeland and their very survival. Already secret talks are going on between Islah and Houthi figures to formulate a collective response to that threat. Many independent Yemeni politicians and opinion-makers both at home and abroad are voicing similar thoughts. Yemenis closing ranks behind the Houthis would probably adopt the militant Houthi rhetoric of taking the fight to Saudi Arabia to recover the Yemeni territory surrendered to Saudi Arabia by the Taif agreement of 1934. That includes southern Saudi Arabia and the vast desert of the Empty Quarter. While this claim does not enjoy a legal basis under international law, such a challenge could test the fragile Saudi empire.
And the Saudi state is in fact an empire, one established by a dominant community, the Najd, which forcibly brought other parts of Arabia under its control in the 1920s and 1930s. This stands in contrast to organic states such as Yemen, which evolve over centuries or millennia and during which time it may break apart and reunite many times over. It is in the nature of an empire to exude strength and rigidity, but much like glass, when it cracks, it shatters. The Saudi state suffers deeper fault lines within it, such as the ones between Najd, the South and the Eastern Province, than between each of these provinces and the countries bordering it. The Eastern Province has more affinity with Bahrain, Iraq and Iran than with Najd. The same can be said about the relationship between the southern provinces with Yemen.
Riyadh has real reason to worry that the Houthi message could find a receptive audience in the kingdom’s south. In 1934, to woo Najran away from Yemeni ruler Imam Yahya, Abdel Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of the Saudi state, pledged to allow the Ismailis of Najran to practice their faith and traditions. However, for decades Zaidi and Ismaili communities in southern Saudi Arabia suffered from marginalization and oppression. In April 2000, authorities contended with a violent uprising in Najran after the government closure of mosques for the Ismaili subsect of Shia Islam. Given the tribal and cultural affinity — the architecture, lifestyle, even a fondness for chewing qat — the Houthi appeal as a Zaidi revivalist movement initially found resonance in much of southern Saudi Arabia and the Hijaz. In the 2000s during the Sa’ada Wars, the Yam tribe of Najran voiced its solidarity with the Wae’lah of Sa’ada, which responds to one tribal summons (a call-to-arms or da’ai). The Yemeni-Saudi border line also divides the prominent tribe of Khawlan ibn Amer between Sa’ada and the Saudi province of Asir.
The option of leaving Yemen in a state of perpetual war is likely to produce long-term security threats to Saudi Arabia, which can generally be countered, albeit at a high cost. The second option of breaking Yemen apart, while achieving some Saudi interests, also presents Iran, and, ironically, some lesser Gulf states, with the opportunity to challenge Saudi hegemony over the region. The Saudi Empire is already showing hairline cracks. A miscalculation in Yemen could cause it to shatter.
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.
- Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, “Southern Yemenis and the Jeddah Meeting,” Asharq Al-Awsat, August 19, 2019, https://english.aawsat.com/home/article/1862916/abdulrahman-al-rashed/southern-yemenis-and-jeddah-meeting