Saudi Arabia-Yemen Relations: A Long History of Mistrust

Nearby Yemen and Saudi Arabia dominate the Arabian Peninsula demographically, with similar populations of around 30 million, and their respective policies have implications for the entire region. Historical legacy, economic situation and political developments explain the fundamental tensions between the two countries.

Riyadh, 26 March 2015. Prince Mohamed Ben Salman receives Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi upon his arrival at an airbase in the Saudi capital

Neither Yemen nor Saudi Arabia really considers their mutual relationship as part of its foreign relations. Neighbours, with similar populations of about 30 million people, they dominate the Arabian Peninsula demographically and their politics also affect the rest of the region. The main underlying differences between them explain the fundamental tensions which determine their relations. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is the leading absolute monarchy in the region, with an authoritarian and autocratic ruler, while the Republic of Yemen (RoY) is the only republic in the region, regardless of its current fragmentation or, prior to the war, the many flaws in its democratic processes.

While 85% of KSA residents live in urban areas, in Yemen 70% of the population live in dispersed rural settlements. At least 30% of the KSA’s population are temporary foreign migrants, including many Yemenis, with none of basic human or labour rights associated with international labour law. By contrast, Yemen is populated almost exclusively by Yemenis. Financially and economically, while the KSA lives from the revenue of its oil exports, producing in the region of 10 million barrels per day [bpd], and therefore is a meaningful player in world politics, Yemen is the poorest state in the Arab world, and an insignificant oil producer (peaked at 400,000 bpd in 2000, and diminishing ever since regardless of the war). It has little clout to achieve international strategic attention, other than its control of the Red Sea leading to the Suez Canal through the Bab al Mandab Strait and its (undeserved) reputation as a hotbed for Islamic terrorism.

Early conflicts

The KSA was founded in 1932: a mere two years later, it was involved in armed conflict with the Imamate in Sana’a, leading to its acquisition of the three provinces of Najran, Jizan and Asir; initially on the basis of renewable 20-year agreements. During the following decades when the KSA remained poor, relations with the Imamate and the British-dominated Aden and the Protectorates included no major developments.

Unsurprisingly, the KSA opposed the creation of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in 1962 and, even more so, that of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY)1, the only socialist state in the Arab world. First and foremost, they were republics thus, by definition, challenging monarchies, in an era when republicanism was on the ascendant and other monarchies were overthrown (in Iraq, Egypt, and Libya) and elsewhere in the Third World, colonies gained independence and became republics. So, in the 1960s, monarchs perceived themselves to be endangered species. During the civil war in the YAR between 1962 and 1970, the KSA regime openly supported the Imamist/royalist side. Half a century later, when sectarianism is so frequently asserted to be the cause of tensions, it is worth noting that the KSA supported a Zaydi Shi’a monarch against a Sunni republican regime.

It was during this war that the KSA initiated its policy of supporting and strengthening Zaydi tribal leaders in the far north of Yemen, including the major Hashed and Bakeel tribal confederations. This policy continued after the defeat of the Imam’s forces, when the KSA regime simultaneously supported the central authorities in Sana’a, thus ensuring that the Yemeni state remained weak and in competition with rival tribal powers based further north. Thus, the KSA effectively set up its own ‘divide and rule’ mechanisms in the YAR.

During the 23 years of existence of the PDRY, Saudi hostility to the ‘communist’ regime was a constant feature of KSA policy, including supporting exile groups diplomatically, financially, and in the media, but also encouraging armed incursions into the PDRY. The situation mellowed slightly after 1976 when diplomatic relations were established, but the KSA remained largely hostile to the PDRY regime.

Relations after the creation of the Republic of Yemen

The KSA did not welcome Yemeni unification in 1990, as it perceived a united Yemen with a large population as a threat. This was one of the reasons President Saleh of the YAR and Secretary General of the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) al Beedh accelerated the process as they feared the Saudis and internal opponents would try and prevent unification. Only four years later, in the 1994 civil war, the Saudis encouraged the southern secessionist faction it had so recently actively opposed as ‘atheistic communists’ to reassert independence. However, the KSA failed to recognise the separatist state declared by Ali Salem al Beedh in Aden in May 1994, an international recognition which might have helped it to survive. Instead, the separatists were soundly defeated by Saleh’s forces within weeks.

Since the mid-1,990s and until the current war started in 2015, the Saudis continued to play a major role in Yemeni politics but have mostly done so discretely. Fundamentally perceiving Yemen as a potential threat, its strategy remains to ensure that Yemen is simultaneously strong enough and weak enough not to be able to actively challenge it. Until 2011, Saudi policy towards Yemen was under the control of Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz who managed the Special Office for Yemeni Affairs from which he selected beneficiaries for Saudi subsidies. Its annual budget reached USD 3.5 billion (Lackner 2017 p 75). In the following years, with different princes in charge of the Yemen file, King Abdullah’s regime reduced its detailed involvement in Yemeni affairs.

The Saleh regime struggled to maintain a difficult relationship with Saudi Arabia combining financial dependence with attempts to maintain political independence. Saleh had to balance between the need for financial support for his government and the rival Saudi support to powerful tribal leaders who challenged his authority. Saudi ambiguous attitude to Saleh was best illustrated in 2011 when, seriously wounded by a bomb in his palace mosque on 3 June in Sana’a, he was flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment. But, two months later, he was able to slip back into Yemen, reassert his authority, and continue to frustrate KSA and other efforts to finalise the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Agreement meant to lead Yemen out of the Saleh era and into a transition towards a regime more acceptable to the Yemeni people. Eventually, with the help of the UN Security Council, Saleh was forced to sign the agreement and to abandon the presidency of the country. Saudi authorities could have left him to die in Yemen or ensured unsuccessful medical treatment in Riyadh, thus solving their problem with the Yemeni leader. Care for this guest would probably have been different after 2015 when the effective ruler of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), had no hesitation to have senior Saudis imprisoned in luxury hotels or assassinated in the country’s consulate in Istanbul.

Saudi-Yemen relations have a strong popular element, with millions of Yemenis having lived and worked in the Kingdom in recent decades. Popular perceptions are influenced by two main mechanisms: first, until very recently, Yemenis living in the KSA [legally or otherwise] depended on their earnings for their and their families’ livelihoods. By extension, the Yemeni economy depended on remittances, which were significantly higher than international development aid. Daily, Yemenis were also ideologically influenced by living in the cultural constraints imposed by Wahhabi culture. Ideological influence also came, first in the YAR and later in the RoY, through the financing and support of the Yemeni educational system implemented by Egyptian and Sudanese teachers; throughout the 1970s and ’80s, teachers were recruited among their national Muslim Brotherhood communities and expected to spread Islamist culture in the towns and villages where they worked. In addition, religious cadres trained in Saudi universities operate throughout Yemen, not only in the majority Sunni areas but even in Zaydi areas where the famous Dar al Hadith was established in 1980, creating a hub of Sunni fundamentalism in the heartland of Zaydism. Regardless of changes in official Saudi ideology, it will take time for decades of promotion of fundamentalist Islamism to cease being a relevant political and cultural factor in Yemen as, indeed, in many other countries.

KSA-Yemeni relations during the war

By the time Salman became king in 2015, no senior leader in the KSA was well informed of the intricacies of Yemeni politics, particularly in the northern highlands. While there is little doubt that the Saudis would intervene in the conflict between the Hadi regime and the Huthis, the form this intervention took came as a surprise to many. In previous eras, the KSA was careful to act through proxies in Yemen, rather than take open military action. Its limited intervention in the Huthi war of 2009 on behalf of the Saleh regime had demonstrated Saudi military weakness, confirming widespread international belief of the overall capacity of Saudi forces.

Decades of discrete ‘behind the scenes’ Saudi interference in Yemeni affairs ended abruptly in early 2015, with the rise to power of Salman’s favourite young son Mohammed. This coincided with the final and formal takeover of the Yemeni capital Sana’a by the (then) Saleh-Huthi movement, the flight of President Hadi from Yemen, and his appeal for help from the GCC to restore his ‘legitimate’ government to power. Throwing caution aside MBS, newly appointed as minister of Defence, launched the Decisive Storm air operation in March 2015 believing that victory would be easy and speedy thanks to the KSA’s expensive and sophisticated advanced weaponry acquired from the US, UK, France and elsewhere. Clearly, if he was aware of it, he had given no credence to his grandfather’s warning in 1934 that Yemen ‘is mountainous and tribal; no one can control it … the Ottoman state was the last of the failed invaders. I don’t want to embroil myself or my people in Yemen.’2.

The anti-Huthi coalition, officially described as Saudi-led, in its eighth year in 2022, has achieved very little, other than the death of more than 100,000 Yemenis from direct war-related activities, and a further 220,000 from indirect causes largely due to the air and maritime blockade, the humanitarian crisis, the destruction of much of Yemen’s medical infrastructure, and social fragmentation. Saudi-led airstrikes have killed hundreds of civilians in its first five years, in attacks on schools, hospitals, markets and social events such as weddings and funeral ceremonies. Although these have reduced dramatically since 2020, and targeting has been restricted to military elements, they remain vivid memories for Yemenis and there has been no accountability for attacks on civilians. No serious action has been taken either to provide compensation for victims or their relatives or, indeed, to recognise these events as war crimes. The only independent observers, the UN Human Rights Council’s Group of Eminent Experts, were disbanded in 2021 because of Saudi influence in the council. One of the few interventions comes from the US Government’s Accountability Department raising the issue of the use of US weaponry and ammunition by the Saudi-led coalition and therefore raising the issue of US responsibility in civilian deaths.

The main fronts in the war have included Saada and Hajja governorates from which the Huthis have launched incursions into the three provinces of Asir, Najran and Jizan permanently annexed by the KSA in the final border agreement signed in 2000. They are mountainous and culturally very similar to their neighbouring areas in Yemen, including the presence of significant Ismaili communities. Given their history and social composition, as well as the generally lower level of investment and services available, the KSA regime’s doubts about their population’s loyalty may have some foundation. The measures taken by the regime to deal with the situation, including displacing population from various villages to concentrate the people into fewer larger communities, are likely to contribute to disaffection, rather than strengthen solidarity with the KSA regime.

Saudi desire to extricate itself from what has become the Yemeni quagmire has been clear for some time. Internally, the war has become unpopular, partly as a result of increasingly frequent land incursions by the Huthis in the Kingdom’s south-western provinces, as well as its drone and missile strikes on oil facilities in many parts of the country. Although in 2022, the Saudi budget is boosted by extraordinarily high oil prices, the war’s estimated monthly cost of USD 5–7 billion remains a significant drain on the Kingdom’s resources, particularly at a time when MBS needs billions to finance various prestige projects whose benefits for the Kingdom’s population is less than obvious. Internationally, the Saudi military intervention in Yemen has worsened the country’s already blemished reputation leading it be described as ‘a pariah state’ by then US presidential candidate Joe Biden following the assassination of Saudi intellectual Jamal Khashogji in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Writing when there is talk of President Biden ‘swallowing his words’ and paying homage to MBS by a visit to the KSA, it is worth remembering his earlier, more principled stand.

After a number of faltering steps since 2020, the Saudi regime took action in April 2022, returning to its more traditional ‘behind the scenes’ strategy. Under the guise of a GCC-organised intra-Yemeni conference held in Riyadh, hundreds of Yemeni politicians witnessed the resignation of President Hadi, following his dismissal of Vice President Ali Mohsen al Ahmar in a performance reminiscent of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri’s ‘resignation’ in November 2017. Hadi was replaced by an eight-man Presidential Leadership Council, mostly composed of the anti-Huthi warlords, disregarding the history of failure of previous Presidential Councils in Yemen. Its mandate explicitly includes negotiating a peace agreement with the Huthi movement. Coming alongside Saudi and international support for the initial two-month truce3 organised by the new UN Special Envoy, these moves indicate that the Saudi regime is likely to return to a more backroom approach to Yemen but also that it intends to control Yemeni political developments. Whether it will succeed remains to be seen.

Regardless, and in the hope of an ending to the fighting, if not to the rivalries between politicians and regional groups, the KSA will remain a — possibly the — main external player in Yemen’s political and economic life. There is no alternative either for Yemen or for the KSA, they are neighbours and the KSA remains the destination for Yemeni workers, regardless of restrictions imposed by the Kingdom. With the worsening climate crisis, manifested in Yemen first by water scarcity, there is a strong likelihood that, in coming decades, many Yemenis will become forced climate migrants and head towards the Kingdom. It is unlikely that Yemen will be able to dispense with financial support from Saudi Arabia, though this will certainly be far less than Yemenis may hope. Yemeni perceptions of the KSA will affect relations, particularly as they range from the dependence of the internationally recognised government to the explicit and firm hostility of the Huthi movement. At the popular level, the ambiguous perceptions built over decades will persist.

1EDITOR’s NOTE: Often referred to as “North Yemen” and “South Yemen” respectively.

2Al Gosaibi memoir, quoted in British-Yemeni Society Journal 2013; p 20.

3It was renewed for a further two months on 2 June 2022.