Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen recently passed its six-year mark. The war has become an unwinnable quagmire from which Riyadh struggles to find a viable exit strategy, while it has had devastating humanitarian consequences for Yemen. This has led to a growing chorus of calls for the US to cease its support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention and for Washington to pressure Riyadh into lifting the maritime and air blockade it has imposed on Yemen along with its coalition partners. The blockade does not deny the entry of all goods into Yemen; oil and food, in particular, do get imported through the port of Hudaydah on the west coast. The Saudi-led coalition does, however, enforce a long list of banned products. Moreover, a lengthy and often arbitrary inspection process significantly hinders the delivery of necessary goods, causing price increases and worsening Yemen’s already acute humanitarian crisis. In this context, calls to lift the blockade have come from Europe, and also from progressive factions within the Democratic Party in the US, which have been increasingly vocal in expressing impatience with what they view as President Joe Biden’s excessive caution in his approach toward Saudi Arabia.
The appeal of this proposal is obvious: the blockade is a highly visible and clearly morally repugnant aspect of the war. It is also tangible: if only the US mustered the courage, it could, according to critics, easily convince – or, if necessary, force – Saudi Arabia to lift it. For these advocates, this is usually driven by the noble aims of alleviating the suffering of the Yemeni people, who are victims of the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world today. Yet as history amply demonstrates, even policies based on good intentions can be counter-productive.
Lifting the blockade is not the panacea that proponents claim it is. The notion that such a unilateral gesture of goodwill might prompt the Houthis to compromise and nudge them toward engaging constructively, even if only a little, in the peace process is not consistent with their behavior in recent years. On the contrary, as their power has grown, so have their ambitions, which they have pursued increasingly aggressively. Should Saudi Arabia lift the blockade, partially or completely, the Houthis would not likely respond benevolently but would instead exploit the opportunity to violently push back their rivals. Oil allowed to come into Hudaydah port, for example, would largely be diverted to fuel the Houthi war machine. As they have repeatedly done, the Houthis would also weaponize humanitarian assistance, diverting food to their fighters and supporters.
The Houthis are in the process of building an increasingly brutal, repressive and obscurantist political order in northwest Yemen. Unilaterally lifting the blockade would only provide them with more resources to continue moving in this direction. It would not, in the longer term, improve the humanitarian situation in the areas of Yemen they control. However, it would damage the prospects of reaching a workable political solution in the future.
The Houthis’ response to the Stockholm Agreement is revealing in this regard. Reached in late 2018, the UN-mediated agreement was meant to build confidence between the internationally recognized government of President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Houthis and to reduce tensions in and around Hudaydah. Fighting around the western port city did abate, but the agreement did not lead to the promised political or humanitarian progress. Instead, the Houthis seized the opportunity to redeploy troops toward other fronts.
The better path moving forward is to advocate for a more comprehensive peace process that would include lifting the blockade, since there can be no social, economic and political progress in Yemen without this key step. But it must at the same time – not later, in an undefined future – involve a broader solution to the country’s political fragmentation. Pressure, in other words, has to be imposed on both Saudi Arabia and the Houthis; pressure on only one side would inevitably lead the other to take advantage of its adversary’s relative weakness.
The assumption behind the proposal to push Riyadh into lifting the blockade is that such an approach would represent a valuable first step toward improving the humanitarian situation, and would perhaps create more space for an eventual peace process to make progress. This is appealing in theory. In practice, however, the proposal’s desired impact – stopping and hopefully reversing the deterioration of the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen – would be unlikely to materialize. It would instead strengthen the Houthis’ brutal rule and would make future progress in pursuing peace more, not less, difficult. Friends of Yemen, in civil society and in regional and western capitals, should instead focus their energies on identifying, and then pursuing, solutions for a comprehensive peace process – which include, as part of a broader package but not in isolation, the lifting of the blockade.
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 and security-related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.
This article is part of a series of publications by the Sana’a Center examining the roles of state and non-state foreign actors in Yemen.