By Brian Whitaker, March 10, 2016
After waging war in Yemen for almost a year, Saudi Arabia is gradually beginning to realise what many said at the outset: that military victory is impossible.
A few days ago the Saudis took the previously unthinkable step of engaging in direct talks with the Houthis, their principal foe in Yemen. Yesterday, reinforcing this shift, Saudi foreign minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir spoke of the kingdom’s “commitment to finding a political solution”.
Even so, an end to the conflict is probably still a long way off and the scope of the Saudi-Houthi talks so far seems to be limited to a few specific issues: cross-border conflict, prisoner exchanges and supplies of humanitarian aid to Yemen.
Writing earlier this week, Abdel Bari Atwan (the former editor of al-Quds newspaper) enumerated six reasons for changes in the Saudi position:
• First: the military intervention has been a failure. The Houthis have not surrendered and the Saudis have lost thousands of soldiers both on the border with Yemen and the battlefield inside the country.
• Second: the Saudis are facing mounting criticism of their campaign in Yemen from the west, including accusations of war crimes …
• Third: the regime fears mounting unrest inside the kingdom if it persists with this unwinnable war…
• Fourth: the enormous financial expenditure on the war, estimated by some quarters in the billions per month.
• Fifth: the increasing presence of Islamic State and al-Qaeda entities in Yemen, especially in areas outside the control of coalition forces. Aden has descended into bloody chaos assassinations, suicide attacks and car bombs a daily occurrence…
• Sixth: The thinly veiled threat of escalation from Tehran. Iranian Deputy Chief of Staff, General Masoud Jazayeri, said on Tuesday … that Iran would back the Houthis is the same way that it has backed President Assad in Syria.
The basic points here are sound, though Atwan seems unable to resist the temptation to over-egg them by claiming that the Saudis have lost “thousands” of soldiers. While it’s likely that official figures minimise the Saudi casualties, it’s not very persuasive to counter them by saying: “An Egyptian professor told me that his students have researched Saudi losses and concluded the number is at least 3,000.”
Nevertheless, in terms of unintended consequences, the Saudi intervention in Yemen is probably on a par with America’s misconceived invasion of Iraq in 2003.
For a start, the Saudis justified the war by characterising it as part of an existential struggle with Iran: one which avoided direct conflict with Iran but treated the Houthis as Iranian proxies. As a propaganda line, that idea was never very credible but talks with the Houthis have have made it even more implausible.
A secondary justification was that the Saudis were defending “legitimacy” in Yemen. The “legitimacy” in this case was that of the government led by Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Of course, the Houthis’ takeover of much of Yemen was illegitimate but Hadi’s legitimacy was also far from strong: he had been unconstitutionally “elected” president in 2012, in a single-candidate election, for a term that was originally expected to last for only two years. Hadi also has no significant power base within the country. What remains of Hadi’s legitimacy has now been further weakened by the Saudi talks with the Houthis.
Furthermore, the Saudis and their allies have proved incapable of establishing order in the supposedly liberated parts of Yemen. The main effect of driving back the Houthis has been to empower al-Qaeda and other Sunni jihadists.
Even if the war ends eventually in some kind of negotiated settlement, that will not be the end of the Saudis’ problems. Propaganda aside, the kingdom’s long-term security hinges on developing a political and security situation in Yemen which can become self-sustaining. That is not going to happen without a massive and costly international effort, including the reconstruction of infrastructure which the Saudis have spent the last 12 months destroying.