On November 15, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced the temporary cessation of coalition airstrikes on Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah, which borders the Red Sea. While several Yemeni security personnel stated that the GCC coalition could resume its airstrikes in Hodeidah, if Houthi rebels attacked their military personnel, this unexpected air raid suspension gave new impetus to a seemingly moribund Yemen peace process. In the days that followed the Arab coalition’s Hodeidah announcement, representatives of Yemen’s internationally recognized government agreed to attend peace talks in Sweden and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman expressed support for a political settlement in Yemen.
The Saudi-led coalition’s surprise policy shift towards Yemen reflects the impact of intensified Western pressure on Riyadh, since journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in early October. In defiance of pressure from senior U.S. officials, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, to implement a political solution in Yemen, Saudi Arabia launched 100 airstrikes against civilian populations in Hodeidah in early November. This military escalation caused the United States to suspend refuelling assistance for coalition fighter jets in Yemen, and encouraged several of Washington’s European allies to condemn U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
While Saudi Arabia appears to have moderated its Yemen policy to appease Western critics, it remains unclear whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will abandon his commitment to vanquishing Houthi rebels in Yemen through military means. The course that Mohammed bin Salman chooses to take will be largely determined by his assessment of the West’s willingness to convert criticisms of Saudi Arabia’s military campaign into genuine coercive pressure.
Over the past 18 months, critical decisions made by Mohammed bin Salman, like the imposition of a blockade against Qatar, detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and expulsion of the Canadian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, were implemented on the assumption that little Western backlash would result. This belief in Saudi impunity ended abruptly with Khashoggi’s murder, as U.S. and British criticisms of Mohammed bin Salman’s handling of the case left Riyadh in a uniquely vulnerable position.
In the past week alone, the CIA implicated Mohammed bin Salman in Khashoggi’s murder, the U.S. Department of Treasury enacted targeted sanctions against 17 prominent Saudi officials, and a bipartisan bill was advanced in the U.S. Senate to suspend Washington’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok also announced his support for the implementation of a UN arms embargo against Saudi Arabia, which reflects a growing reticence within European capitals to support Riyadh’s military campaign in Yemen.
Although these developments are indicative of a paradigm shift in the West’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, glimmers of the U.S. and Europe’s previous accommodating stance towards Saudi Arabia remain present. While U.S. President Donald Trump recently criticized Saudi Arabia for its misuse of U.S. arms in Yemen, his continued emphasis on the benefits of Saudi arms contracts for U.S. companies has raised questions about his willingness to stand up to Mohammed bin Salman. French President Emmanuel Macron has been similarly circumspect about enacting punitive measures against Saudi Arabia, as he recently described calls for France to suspend arms sales to Riyadh over the Khashoggi murder as “pure demagoguery”.
Extrapolating from Mohammed bin Salman’s past conduct, these mixed signals from Western leaders could convince the Saudi Crown Prince to test the resolve of Riyadh’s closest allies once again by intensifying its military campaign in Yemen. The probability of this outcome can be explained by the significance of a victory in Yemen for Mohammed bin Salman’s stature in Saudi Arabia. Although Mohammed bin Salman was only appointed as Crown Prince in June 2017, he is widely regarded as the driving force behind Riyadh’s intervention in Yemen, which began less than two months after he became Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Defense in January 2015.
The importance of the Yemen campaign for Mohammed bin Salman’s domestic credibility has been amplified further by the Crown Prince’s frequent descriptions of the conflict as a proxy war against Iran-backed terrorist forces. Even though the Saudi-led coalition has not achieved a decisive victory against Houthi rebel forces since Aden surrendered to President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s forces in July 2015, the Yemen war still commands broad support within the Saudi political establishment. This support is evident even amongst reformists, like Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, who argued that Mohammed bin Salman has not overstretched Saudi Arabia’s capabilities by intervening in Yemen and that the war was necessary to prevent Yemen from becoming a hub of Shiite extremism.
The lingering perception amongst senior members within the Saudi-led coalition that the Yemen war is winnable could convince Mohammed bin Salman to reignite Saudi Arabia’s military campaign. In a September 12 op-ed for the Washington Post, the UAE’s Ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba praised the coalition’s progress against extremists in Yemen. Pro-Saudi commentators in Yemen have also highlighted the retreat of Houthi rebels in west Hodeidah as proof that the coalition has a realistic path to victory, as the fall of Hodeidah is widely viewed as a gateway for the Arab coalition to enclose on the Houthi capital of Sana’a.
This belief that the Yemen conflict is not an intractable quagmire, but a winnable war, could convince Saudi Arabia to dial up its military efforts in the country, if a suitable pretext emerges. The most likely justification for a Saudi escalation would be a rejection of a peace settlement by Houthi rebels. Even though the Houthis have responded to the Saudi-led coalition’s pledged suspension of air raids in Hodeidah by ruling out future ballistic missile strikes on Saudi territory, Houthi militants continue to view Hadi as an illegitimate leader and sentenced Hadi to death in March 2017 for treason.
This intransigent attitude could cause the Houthis to reject future peace talks, much like they abstained from the UN-brokered negotiations in early September. Saudi Arabia could use this non-participation as a rationale for launching renewed military strikes on Houthi-held regions. This scenario has already played out in the days since the Saudi-led coalition’s air raid suspension in Hodeidah, as Houthi militants allegedly fired a ballistic missile on Saudi Arabia on Nov. 19, which provoked renewed skirmishes in the port city.
The expansionist ambitions of the Southern Movement, a UAE-backed organization that supports south Yemeni independence, could also provide an opening for a Saudi escalation in Yemen. The Southern Movement’s conquest of Aden in September 2017, and hostile attitude towards pro-Hadi Islah members, has resulted in a de facto schism within the Arab coalition over Yemen’s political future. UN-backed negotiators have taken Saudi Arabia’s side in this dispute, as they have refused to invite Southern Movement representatives to the bargaining table and expressed support for Yemen’s territorial integrity. This diplomatic isolation could cause the Southern Movement to intensify its military activities, as it seeks to gain a seat at the bargaining table. Intensified UAE-backed belligerence from Southern Movement forces would almost certainly provoke a retaliation from Houthi and Saudi-backed Islah forces, as these militants have challenged the Southern Transitional Council (STC)’s hegemony over Aden.
Although the Saudi-led coalition’s air raid suspension in Hodeidah is a positive step, it could be a false dawn, rather than a liminal moment, in ending Yemen’s three-and-a-half-year long war. As long as Mohammed bin Salman believes that Western powers will not seriously confront Saudi Arabia over the civilian casualties resulting from its war in Yemen, and Houthi and Southern Movement representatives challenge Hadi’s legitimacy, the potential for intensified conflict will hang as a dark cloud over upcoming peace negotiations in Yemen.