By Shruti Punia and Marc Finaud*

The eight-year-old asymmetric war conducted by Saudi Arabia with its allies against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen cannot be won despite Riyadh’s enormous military superiority resulting from massive western arms sales. This major humanitarian crisis can only end with a political solution that would be in Saudi Arabia’s interest and should be backed by all regional and external actors.

The backchannel talks between Saudi Arabia and Houthi-rebels have recently resumed after the UN-brokered truce, which lasted for six months, finally expired in early October 2022. While it is assumed that both sides are determined to reach a settlement amidst an informal ceasefire in place, it is crucial to comprehend Saudi strategy in the eight-year unresolved conflict. Riyadh’s deepening and dangerously complex military intervention in the Yemen war in recent times invites close scrutiny. Indeed, the Zaydi Shia Houthis have exercised control of most of the country (the heavily populated west, the north except Marib Governorate, and the capital Sanaa) irrespective of the Saudis’ overwhelming military superiority and western advanced equipment.

The Saudi Strategic Goals

Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has been leading a coalition of nine Arab states[1] hoping that if the military venture continues long enough, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels could be tired, worsted, and eventually repulsed by their forces’ brutality. The conflict has in fact birthed one of the direst humanitarian crises of the last decade, causing widespread famine, epidemics like cholera, and relentless slaughter of innocent lives. Whilst last year was a period of relative calm and offered some respite to Yemenis, the same cannot be predicted for 2023 and a lack of progress in vital talks could lead to their indefinite collapse.

Since its beginning, the intractable civil war in Yemen has barely shown any signs of slowing down and Saudi Arabia’s armed intervention, conspicuously supported by the United States, has now seemed to reach a tipping point, with the heavy odds stacked against Riyadh’s status quo in the Arabian Peninsula. The Eastern governorate or province of al-Mahrah is of high strategic value to Saudi Arabia as it would provide direct access to the Indian Ocean, and ultimately the extension of the oil pipeline from its eastern province to the Arabian Sea. This way the kingdom could outmanoeuvre Iran and reduce its dependence on the Strait of Hormuz, which remains susceptible to Iranian attacks. Iran, undoubtedly, having painstakingly become the flagbearer of regional factionalism and arch rival of many other Arab states, remains, to this day, the catalysing factor in the Yemen civil war.

However, it is not so much Tehran’s meddling in another country’s affairs but Saudi’s pursuit of an elusive goal to control the Bab el-Mandeb Strait off the coast of Yemen—a critical oil shipping lane that links the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden—among other agendas, that has exacerbated its strategic balance, clearly not in its favour euphemistically speaking.

Whilst the two Yemeni warring parties—the Houthis and the forces belonging to the internationally recognized government—held a round of talks under the auspices of the United Nations to accomplish a ceasefire in the war-ravaged country, it hardly yielded desirable results. The finances expended, running into billions of dollars, to sponsor such a protracted conflict are bound to reinforce change-of-strategy mechanisms.

Not all wars fought with might result in successes and triumphs

The eight-year-long conflict, which fundamentally set-out to achieve a quick victory, has chiefly driven home to a belligerent yet impuissant House of al-Saud that not all wars fought with might result in successes and triumphs. Noticeably, substantial military support and arms sales to the Saudis by western powers did not help them prevail militarily in this very asymmetric conflict. The stakes are therefore high for ruling Saudi royals as the determined Mohammed Bin Salman, the crown prince, is vying to demonstrate to Iran the hegemony and the military prowess to defeat its Houthi allies and thwart its endeavours to entrench the position on the kingdom’s vulnerable southern border. However, as Dina Esfandiary, an Iran expert, explains, for Iran, support to the Houthis is opportunistic and not strategic, lacking an ultimate objective apart from leveraging Saudi concessions. This is why the prospects of bilateral talks with Saudi Arabia on potential compensation for dropping Tehran’s support to the Houthis are so important.

Despite receiving robust military aid, primarily airstrike support from its biggest ally, the United States, the Saudi operation initially named Operation Decisive Storm has been anything but decisive. As the largest global arms importer, Saudi Arabia bought 23% of all US weapons sold between 2017 and 2021. Washington has been deeply engaged in conducting counter-terrorism combat operations, mainly targeting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) since the bombing of the American destroyer, the USS Cole, in 2000 until now. Biden’s policy, beginning in February 2021, departed from the previous administrations’, bringing a halt to the support of the Saudi-led “offensive” operations. At the same time, Washington refrained from directing Saudi Arabia to end the blockade of the port of Hodeidah on the coast of Yemen, which has become detrimental to the outstanding humanitarian aid not being able to reach the desperate civilians, wreaking further havoc on an already massive catastrophe. Although, one needs to note the official end of US support to Saudi “offensive” operations, it remains to be seen whether this pushes the Saudis to find a negotiated solution.

Also unusual and critical is the Houthi’s apparent tilt towards Moscow in recognizing the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, the two Russian-supported rebel territories in eastern Ukraine. What such appeasement does do, however, is to entrench political dynamics and make them irrevocable, possibly perpetual. This rattles Washington way more than Houthis want for furthering Shia expansionism in the region.

Saudi Failed Strategies

The overtures such as a truce announced by Riyadh in April 2022 have failed to work in Saudi Arabia’s favour and disagreements with UAE and Egypt over strategic interests have diminished its credibility even further. The exit strategy for Saudi Arabia, in such a case, has seemed to evolve into some kind of Fabian tactics, avoiding pitched battles and frontal assaults in favour of wearing down an opponent through a war of attrition and indirection. This entailed using airstrikes and sporadic confrontations to target the enemy’s supply lines rather than risking the entire military clout in large-scale offensives that achieve little. Riyadh expected to exhaust Houthi rebels, perhaps in the hopes of debilitating the enemy forces whilst exercising a scorched-earth policy along the way but this has failed to defeat the rebels militarily thus far.

The Saudi overarching goals of “eliminating Iranian influence” in Yemen, ensuring the continuation of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s leadership (succeeded by Rashad Al-Alimi as Chair of the Presidential Council in April 2022), thrusting Houthis out of Sanaa, and averting the genesis of a Hezbollah-like group have run out of steam miles short of its objectives. Henceforth, Saudi Arabia could now look in the direction of Oman as the only reliable mediator to find a lasting solution to the quagmire.

Saudi Gains from a Peaceful Resolution

A speedy end to the gruelling war is indispensable to stabilize Riyadh’s own weakened position, both in terms of economic and reputational costs, and to recalibrate its long-term interests in the region. Not only this, Houthis counter-offensives which have caused immense destruction deep into Saudi Arabia reflect the growing power of the rebels. The Houthis have, indeed, in recent times, succeeded in consolidating large swathes of territories in Yemen. However, Iran’s tenacity which has suffered an excruciating blow amidst the domestic protests and civil unrest following the death of Mahsa Amini, may offer the silver lining to the Saudi regime to possess its own leverage and use it rightly so.

If Saudi Arabia’s intentions of ending the military involvement can be trusted, so can Yemen’s rebels who claim, as per their latest statement, to seek a permanent truce in the war-torn country. Notwithstanding the current world preoccupation with the war against Ukraine, the Yemen war alongside the country’s mass casualties, war crimes, food insecurity, and crippling economy must not be overlooked by the international community. Particularly, for Saudi Arabia, the lucrative priorities in the new year could mean moderating the global oil market, seeking regional stability, and forging political patronage networks for far better aims than getting engulfed in unwinnable proxy wars.

But the most important lesson to learn from the Yemen highly asymmetric war fought by Saudi Arabia and its allies is that high-tech over-armament not only leads to massive war crimes against civilians but is inadequate to defeat a more mobile and agile enemy supported by a major part of the population and resisting a foreign intervention.

* Shruti Punia is a geopolitical analyst based in India and Marc Finaud is Associate Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP).

[1] Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and UAE.