From Al-Ula to Riyadh: The Impact of the Gulf Consensus on the Yemeni Scene


Mon, 13-12-2021 10:17 PM, Aden

Farida Ahmed (South24) 

Riyadh is scheduled to host The 42nd GCC Summit on Dec 14th. This summit is apparently different from its predecessors, as the good signs have loomed since the thaw in relationships between the “Quartet countries” and Qatar in the Alula Summit that was held in January last year. The summit witnessed reconfirmation about the GCC’s goals stipulated in the organization’s Statute which aim to reach cooperation, integration and harmony among the GCC’S states in all fields until attaining unity in a way that boosts their regional and international role, as well as working as one economic and political group to contribute in security, peace, stability and prosperity in the region (1). The summit achieved relative success. The KSA, The UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have lifted the boycott imposed on Qatar and restored diplomatic relationships with it. Moreover, Qatar suspended its lawsuit against the UAE in the World Trade Organization regarding alleged measures that aimed to isolate it economically. According to a statement, facilitating a “final friendly settlement” (2) is the goal behind those steps. 

Back to the “boycott crisis”, it demonstrated that the Quartet’s attitude towards Qatar was based on accusation against Doha of backing extremist forces and groups seeking to destabilize the region. Accordingly, The internationally-recognized Yemeni government later accused Qatar of supporting the Houthis and other radical groups in Yemen. (3) Regarding this part specifically, The boycott, which lasted for more than 3 years, impacted the political dynamics and developments in Yemen, especially that Doha played a big role in backing the “Yemeni Islah Party”, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The party’s presence in South Yemen has shrunk after the STC’s control over most areas there, especially the interim capital, Aden, the main headquarter of the STC and Hady Government. 

The General Gulf situation suggests that there are intentions to reestablish the relationships and rearrange the Gulf house with its regional ties. This comes particularly after the turning point made by the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and its ramifications on a number of files and crises in the Middle East. This means re-adjusting the political and security calculations for the Gulf States after the strategic vacuum caused by Washington. However, the Nuclear File remains the biggest concern of the international Community at the moment among all the region's files and issues, especially the USA and Israel. 

Attitude towards Iran

Obviously, the upcoming Riyadh’s Summit will witness discussions among the Gulf states about some pivotal issues. However, it seems that the “Iranian File “will get the most attention as a top priority of its agenda. This is revealed by the DPA Agency which reported that the Summit will focus on “the outcome of the negotiations of the Nuclear Deal Joint Committee between Iran and the International forces in Vienna, and the continuous Iran’s interventions in the Arab Internal affairs” (4), in addition to accusations against Tehran of “fueling, backing and funding sectarian and doctrinal disputes as well as arming the sectarian militias and terrorist organizations. This includes providing them with ballistic missiles and drones to target civilians and threaten international shipping lanes” according to the same source. 

Remarkably, It seems that the attitude of the Saudi Crown Prince “Mohammed bin Salman” towards Iran hasn’t changed in spite of the talks between the two countries which were described by “Saudi official sources” in Mid October as “exploratory”. Although many observers deem those talks as capable of making a breakthrough that could result in a positive change in the region, many indicators proved that Riyadh’s desire to restore relations with Tehran began to fade amid the Iranian escalation through the Houthis in Yemen. Apparently, the outcome of the “Riyadh’ Summit won’t differ from those of Alula which expressed the importance to face the challenges emanated from the Iranian behavior caused by its activities that aim to destabilize the region. It seems that the tone against Iran will be sharper this time, and several issues related to Tehran’s negative role in many countries will be opened including the crises in Yemen, Lebanon and the three Emirati islands occupied by Iran. 

Amid the escalating regional tensions between Iran and the KSA, it was logical that Riyadh sought for justifications to intensify its air strikes against Sana’a during the last two weeks after months off thanks to the international efforts and pressure for halting the war and reopening the Sana’a Airport. In This regard, The Arab Coalition quickly declassified a video (5) which apparently shows Houthi elements testing an Air system by using a UN plane during landing and taking off to ensure the system’s efficiency, taking the plane as a moving aerial target. The footage allowed Riyadh to prove two important things they used to claim about, the first of which is the Houthi use of the airport as a military barrack. This itself is a sufficient justification for delaying reopening the Sana’a Airport. The second thing is exposing the involvement of an expert affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in supervising the test operations and the live experiments related to launching the missile. 

The UN Envoy “Hans Grundburg” has not commented on the footage although a United Nation’s planes were targets of those simulation exercises made by the Houthis. Similarly, the US Envoy “Linderking” has not issued any comment about this in spite of the two envoys' constant calls for the urgent need to open Sana’a Airport. However, the Houthis, after more than two weeks of silence and monitoring the situation, since the beginning of the Coalition’s intensification of its strikes against Sana’a, decided to challenge the KSA and respond through the so called military operation “December 7th” which targeted a number of locations and headquarters in six cities within the Saudi depth by using ballistic missiles and drones. (6)

Amid the continuing escalatory context, the summit will have to find out a consensual collective position among the GCC’s state members against Iran. For this urgent purpose, the Saudi Crown Prince visited a number of high-level Gulf states top of which were Oman and Qatar which still keep good relations with Tehran contrary to its tension with the other Gulf axis led by the KSA. On the other hand, Riyadh wants to secure an Omani and Qatari position before the statement of the upcoming summit towards Iran. The KSA also wants to ensure that Doha, in particular, will fulfill the commitments it made at Al-Ula Summit.

It seems that “Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the GCC’s states has provoked Iran as its Foreign Minister’s Spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, “advised the neighbors to behave in a rational and mature way in their statements and speech, and to focus on correcting their wrong policies.” (7) All these developments in the region come in a context in which the US position on Iran is still marred by tension and escalation. The Vienna Talks regarding the Iranian nuclear program have not made any progress, and Tehran is still insisting on its position of refusing to meet with US officials face to face as part of efforts to revive the rounds of direct negotiations. A high-ranking US Official told Reuters (8) that US and Israeli defense commanders discussed last Thursday making possible military maneuvers that would prepare for the worst possible scenario of destroying Iran's nuclear facilities in case of the failure of diplomatic talks and if the leaders of both countries request this. 

The impact of the Gulf consensus on the Yemeni crisis 

There is no doubt that the Gulf consensus came as a result of a set of repercussions and regional and international developments, which required the GCC states to rearrange themselves as a unified political entity that represents a vital strategic depth in the Arabian Peninsula, especially in light of the danger of the increasing Iranian expansion that swallows countries in the region, and with The continuing cost of conflicts in the Middle East at a time when the world is witnessing successive economic crises.

Naturally, this consensus among the Gulf states which have suffered political, economic and social rifts among themselves for more than 3 years would remarkably impact the Yemeni file with the same degree emanated by their previous disputes. 

This consensus will constitute an important step for Yemen. It will serve as an important strategic guarantor to mainly curb the internal conflict in Yemen, as well as being an opportunity that may bring some benefits to the economic file, and contribute to its stability, even relatively, by providing aid and deposits to the Yemeni Central Bank to help saving the economy and the Yemeni currency.

It can be said that the most important thing for both Gulf and Yemeni sides currently is to adopt an approach that could produce a comprehensive solution for solving the Yemeni crisis. This matter is directly related to the Iranian file in the region as Tehran is the strategic supporter of the Houthis. The Gulf states may collectively try to press Iran, with the help of the United States and perhaps Israel, to push Iran to accept direct talks regarding the Nuclear Program, and to make more concessions in this file.

Furthermore, it's worth mentioning that the Riyadh Agreement, signed in November 2019 between the STC and Yemeni Presidency, has been welcomed by the Gulf states except for Qatar and Oman. During the latest Bin Salman’s visit to the GCC’S states, the Saudi-Emirati statement was the only one which pointed to the adherence to the Riyadh Agreement while the other statements ignored it. The outcome of the upcoming summit may carry convergence in positions towards the agreement, but could renew adherence to the three references to In order to satisfy different parties. It is necessary to note that the previous Gulf initiatives that were presented to resolve the Yemeni crisis faced disastrous failure due to the lack of focus on the real situation of South Yemen.
Accordingly, there are possible two scenarios related to the path of the Yemeni crisis: 

The first scenario:
To adjust the level of ongoing tension between the KSA and Iran by reducing the intensified air strikes which have been carried out for more than two weeks against sensitive military Houthi positions in Sana’a and other areas controlled by them in North , and to focus on the diplomatic path in parallel with Vienna Talks about the Iranian Nuclear File. practical steps could be adopted as a start of a long track towards reaching an all-out political settlement in Yemen, sponsored by the GCC.

The second scenario (the most likely):

The second scenario is the continuation of the military escalation, like what happened in the past days, through intensifying the Arab Coalition’s airstrikes against Sana’a, and by tightening the grip on the Houthis in a way that could change the Biden Administration's perceptions and positions towards the Yemeni crisis that could lead to increase the pressure against the Houthis. This will have its impact on Vienna Negotiations about the Iranian Nuclear File. It is likely that this will push the Houthis towards accepting a quick settlement to maintain the gains they achieved in North Yemen, especially if there will be concurrent military moves by Hadi Government Forces to reverse path of the war in Marib Governorate and elsewhere, and redeploy in the Western Coast, along with the STC’s preparations to stop the Houthi advance towards wider areas in Shabwa Governorate.

Ultimately, the Houthis will face a hard situation and they won’t be able to expand into new areas. They will be forced to give up many advantages In the event that the course of the battle against them is corrected to be more concentrated, organised and professional than before. Additionally, the continuing pressure against the Houthis would push them to accept a settlement in return of reducing the pressure on the political file related to Iran which still dodges about it in Vienna. 

Things could go further than that if Israel, with the US help, decides to strike Iran. This would; require freezing the military file in Yemen and the Houthi threats against the KSA and Gulf states by making a “nominal” political settlement to guarantee neutralizing the Iranian Power in the South of Arab Peninsula. 

Research fellow at South24 Center for News and Studies, specializing in political affairs

Photo: Sultan of Oman Haitham bin Tariq welcomes Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, in Muscat (Getty Images)

Arab GulfSaudi ArabiaOmanUAEQatarBahrainKuwaitYemenIranHouthisAlUlaCrisis