Saudi Silence in the Face of Houthi Adventurism

After leading a particularly deadly military campaign in Yemen since 2015, and getting bogged down in it, Saudi leaders have changed their tone. For the past six months, faced with operations in support of Gaza by their Houthi enemies in the Red Sea, the Saudis seem petrified. They are careful to preserve the prospects of their withdrawal from the Yemeni front, defeated and with the somewhat cruel blessing of the Houthis.

Yemen, 12 January 2024. American and British raids to prevent the Houthis from striking commercial ships in the Red Sea.
Sam Al-Sabri/Wikimédia

The new Saudi Arabia, under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), is attracting worldwide, mostly positive, public attention with its multiplicity of ‘tape-à-l’œil’ projects, ranging from the hiring of famous football stars to putting on sports and musical events starring the most famous performers. But the most extravagant and questionable ones are MBS’s numerous luxury tourism projects, many of them on the Red Sea coast and islands. They include science fiction type urban projects such as the Line in Neom, let alone the winter sports Trojena due to host the 2029 Asian Winter games.

Their completion is doubtful as costs rise and the price of oil remains fairly static. One of them at least has now reached completion: in May the Carlton Reserve opened the region’s most expensive luxury hotel on the remote island of Ummahat, about 180 km north-west of Yanbu, in the northern part of the Red Sea. Nightly rates starting at USD 2,600 and rising to USD 20,000 are clearly not designed for the average middle class environmentally aware seeker of coral and marine life.

Such fanciful project, whose completion is under technical and financial stress, may help understand the MBS regime’s otherwise surprising silence concerning the Yemeni Houthis’ military interventions in the Red and Arabian seas in support of Palestine. When the Gaza war started last October, the Saudi regime and the Houthis were on the verge of finalising an agreement which would formally bring to an end a decade of Saudi involvement in the Yemeni civil war. Early Houthi attacks in the Red Sea did not initially halt the process for the concerned parties.

As the strikes became more effective and numerous, including the capture of the Galaxy Leader (still moored in Yemen with its crew and a local tourist attraction), and damaging others (including the sinking of the Rubymar), the Red Sea conflict became a serious international issue. More and more ships diverted away from the Suez Canal taking the longer route around the Cape of Good Hope; this increased travel time by about 10 days, and operational costs for cargoes travelling between Asia and Europe. It also deprived Egypt of desperately needed income.

Ineffective military response

Direct international intervention against these attacks started officially in December with the US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian notable for two main features, first its minimal impact on the situation as it left Houthi nuisance capacity intact, and secondly by the absence of any riparian states among its participants. In January 2024, it was followed by Operation Poseidon Archer, a US-UK operation which escalated the situation significantly as it involved direct air strikes deep into Yemeni territory. Between January and end May, they carried out 177 air strikes, most of them by the US.

Although apparently mainly avoiding civilian collateral destruction, no reliable data on casualties have become public. However, the re-emergence of air strikes has shattered Yemeni perceptions of quiet prevailing since the UN-mediated truce started in April 2022 despite its formal ending in October of that year. Indeed, there had been no Saudi-led coalition air strikes on Yemen for more than 18 months, in practice a freezing of the conflict.

A trap for the Saudis

The Saudi regime is thus in a bind, caught up in its own contradictions: its negotiations with the US towards ‘normalisation’ with Israel are (unrealistically) intended to offer the Israelis the ‘reward’ of recognition in exchange for a supposedly serious commitment towards a Palestinian state. The endlessly repeated ‘two-state solution’ ignores Israeli leaders equally repeated rejection of any form of Palestinian state, however, truncated and symbolic. Contrasting with the oil embargo in the 1973 war, the current Saudi regime has taken no practical action in support of the Palestinians, something which its citizens have noticed.

Saudi statements calling for the implementation of the 2002 King Abdullah (then Crown prince) initiative are merely regularly reiterated, for example at the May 2024 Arab Summit, as the official Arab League position. It involves establishment of diplomatic relations by all Arab states with Israel within its pre-June 1967 borders in exchange for the establishment of a fully independent Palestinian state. However, in his prior to 7 October negotiations, which appear to be proceeding secretly with Israel and with US support, MBS had not demanded that this be a fundamental condition for ‘normalisation’ with Israel. MBS is thus wasting a great opportunity to claim leadership as a defender of Palestinian historical rights. Had he done this, it is a safe bet that throughout the Arab and Islamic world, everyone would forget his lack of respect for the most elementary human rights. The passivity of the regime (and indeed of all other Arab states) contrasts with the outrage of citizens at the Israeli genocide perpetrated in Gaza in full view of the world. While Saudi citizens are actively prevented from demonstrating their support for Gazans, the regime cannot afford to openly oppose Houthi actions, as the Houthis are the only authority in the region acting in support of Palestine, regardless of the fact that their interventions have more impact on world trade than directly on Israel. Indeed, they do not prevent it from bombing Gazans at will.

Saudi official silence thus acknowledges the popularity of Houthi actions and the fact that criticising them would be perceived as open support for Israel. This would endanger the Saudi withdrawal from the Yemeni quagmire. More likely than not, this also one of the main reasons why the Saudis have also forbidden the use of their territory for the US and the UK strikes against the Houthis, and why they have denied Saudi involvement in the downing of Iranian missiles targeting Israel on 13 April. Even if peace is not on the agenda, at least stability can be achieved.

Saudi determination to end its involvement in Yemen has been clear for at least three years. Having failed to defeat the Houthis militarily and return the internationally recognised government (IRG) to power, the Saudi leadership, MBS in particular, has completely lost interest in the Yemeni issue. This failure is a reminder of his other early reckless regional failed policies. His current diplomatic efforts are focused on the success of economic elements of the 2030 Vision. Therefore, ending Saudi involvement in the war in Yemen and thus ensuring border security is thus a priority.

The Saudis have been directly negotiating a unilateral agreement with the Houthis for well over a year in a process which also marginalises the IRG. Their approach is reminiscent of the US Trump administration’s agreement with the Afghan Taliban in 2020 which totally ignored the country’s official government (despite it having been put in place by the US) and whose outcome was the August 2021 debacle when the Taliban took Kabul. There are other similarities between the Houthis and the Taliban, in particular their extremist ideology and their use of religious discourse to justify an authoritarian theocracy, without any basic human rights for citizens, women in particular. In the Saudi-Yemen case, the main difference is a cosmetic arrangement whereby the nature of the deal is camouflaged by taking the form of an agreement between the Houthis and the IRG, in which the Saudis merely sign as ‘witnesses’.

Having persuaded the Houthis to accept this redefinition of the Saudi role, the regime thus avoids the real possibility of being charged in international courts of war crimes for actions committed between 2015 and 2020. For the Houthis, such an agreement serves their interests as it would recognise them officially as the victors in what they have always insisted on being a war between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, considering themselves the legitimate representatives of the Yemeni state.

The format of this agreement, which has been imposed on both the IRG and the UN mediators, would further weaken the former, leaving the Houthis in a strong position for the next stage, the UN-mediated Yemeni-Yemeni peace negotiations. Moreover, in addition to their military strength and their control over 70% of the country’s population, but they now have the international status gained from supporting Palestine, attacking Israeli interests and being an internationally recognised force. By contrast, the divided and weak IRG is unlikely to have significant diplomatic or political, let alone military, support from the Saudis.

US procrastination

Since January, when the US launched air strikes on Yemen, Washington has sent contradictory messages about the wisdom of finalising the Houthi-Saudi deal: first actively supporting it, then calling for its postponement/cancellation and more recently again calling for it to proceed. Saudi determination to proceed may be behind the US changed position.

A major justification for the Houthis to reach a final agreement with the Saudis is their current financial difficulties. Humanitarian support is significantly lower than in recent years, with only 21% of a much-truncated UN Humanitarian Response Plan funded as of 31 May. Reduced commercial traffic in Yemen’s Red Sea ports is impacting their customs revenues. Hence Saudi payment of all state salaries, including those of military/security staff for a period of up to a year, is a major incentive to conclude the proposed agreement. The agreement is, however, affected by the US’s designation of the Houthis as a ‘specially designated global terrorist group’ in January 2024 which will inevitably complicate standard financial transaction procedures. The Houthis are also aware of the severe constraints suffered by the IRG due to disbursement delays of contributions promised by the Saudis, particularly since the formation of the Presidential Leadership Council in April 2022, so they are likely to do their best to avoid a similar situation, by insisting on guarantees.

Coping with the Houthis

Although it would not demonstrate success of its Yemeni venture, the Houthi-Saudi agreement would fulfil the Saudi regime’s main current demands: a secure border along Yemen’s western densely populated areas, and freedom to focus on their internal economic plans. The remaining issue of its long borders with Hadhramaut explains Saudi continued determination to preventing that important governorate from falling under the control of UAE-supported forces. Saudi Arabia has significant support from Hadhrami political, social and military forces which have prevented this from happening up to now. Hadhramaut is where increasing divergences with the UAE are most prominent, as well as in the constant bickering between PLC members who were jointly selected by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2022. Whether the UAE would maintain its deep commitment to various mutually incompatible Yemeni factions once the Saudis are no longer involved remains to be seen.

It is also worth wondering whether the new socially ‘liberal’ Saudi regime would be happy to have a fundamental Islamist neighbour, given that the Houthis are not Sunni Wahhabis but Zaydi extremists. Theological differences exist but their daily practices are far more similar, socially and politically; although MBS has brought his own fundamentalists to heel, he has not renounced religion as a means of social control.

Determined to make progress with its mutually advantageous deal, the Saudis have avoided expressing opposition to Houthi adventurism in the Red Sea and have also maintained their rapprochement with Iran. However, this agreement would leave the Yemeni internal conflict in a quagmire, with a deeply concerning the imbalance of power between the conflicting sides. There is little doubt that, as has been the case throughout this conflict, the main victims will be the Yemeni people.