Houthis, Saudi and Omani officials in Sanaa (Twitter - Official)

Will the Saudi Policy of Disengagement Succeed in Yemen?


Thu, 13-04-2023 12:36 AM, Aden Time

The Saudi "disengagement" policy to evade the economic costs of the war and its repercussions is apparently the most accurate to describe the scene.

Farida Ahmed (South24) 

During the first Saudi public visit to the capital city of Sanaa since being controlled by the Houthi militia, KSA’s ambassador to Yemen was seen shaking hands warmly with the group’s leader. This was part of the visit made by both Saudi and Omani delegations amid regional endeavors to end the 8-year conflict in the country. This meeting was preceded by months of undisclosed Saudi-Houthi  talks with an Omani mediation. After the truce officially expired in early October 2022, the initial talks were met with dissatisfaction by the Yemeni parties in the internationally-recognized government, especially STC which felt isolated from what was going on. This is although the Yemeni government usually welcomes Riyadh’s efforts in this respect without objection.

The handshake photos between the Chairman of the Houthi Supreme Political Council Mahdi Al-Mashat and the Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Mohammad Al Jaber have caused wide controversy. Moreover, the fact that Al-Mashat received the delegations of the two Gulf states in the “Republican Palace” has a symbolic connotation. This palace, which was previously known as “Dar Al-Wosol” was built by Imam "Ahmed bin Yahya", The last ruler of the Hashemite Imamate in Yemen, from which the Houthis descend. This is a different palace from the one built by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the 1980s in Al Sabeen District where he used to receive official delegations and hold most occasions. This confirms that the Houthis cling to their political and dynastic background. 

It has been clear that the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement contributed to moving the file of many outstanding crises in the region including the Yemeni file. Before that, Saudi Arabia took steps last year to normalize its relationships with Turkey. This followed KSA’s decision to end its dispute with Qatar after 3 years of boycott. Recently, the kingdom agreed with Syria to resume consular services and bring Damascus back to the Arab incubator. Riyadh has reconsidered its profit and loss calculations according to its comprehensive vision at internal, regional and international levels. It believes that mitigating the sharpness of the conflict and heading toward diplomatic reconciliation in the region, based on the “zero crisis” rule, would lead it accordingly to achieve its economic endeavors and strategic interests in the way it desires. 

Surprisingly, although “Biden promised to end the war in Yemen, China may have delivered on that promise,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. She added that “decades of militarized American foreign policy in the Middle East have enabled China to play the role of peacemaker while Washington is stuck and unable to offer much more than arms deals and increasingly unconvincing security assurances.” Thus, it seems that KSA which used to rely on US protection in the region began to move forward in the international arena without such protection after being let down by the US on many occasions and stances. 

Are these concessions?

On April 6th, the Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat revealed a comprehensive peace draft for the Yemeni crisis which is being finalized with international sponsorship. It is divided into several stages, foremost of which are a comprehensive ceasefire, opening land, air and sea crossings, merging the central banks and completing prisoner exchanges (all for all). Moreover, an informed source told “South24 Center” that the roadmap includes three phases: The first one includes trust-building measures such as opening land, sea and air borders, the resumption of oil exports and exchanging prisoners. The second one includes an intra-Yemeni dialogue. The third stage is “a comprehensive political operation leading to a two-year transitional phase. 

However, it does not seem that the Yemeni parties have discussed with Saudi Arabia many details about these points. The roadmap to exit the Yemeni crisis has not been clear so far, especially that the talks and meetings are still limited to the Houthis and Saudis. This is in light of the Houthi refusal to deal with the Yemeni parties in the Presidential Leadership Council(PLC) since it was established in Riyadh last year. However, according to Houthi leaders’ statements, they began to welcome an intra-Yemeni dialogue without external interventions. Nonetheless, it seems that the “humanitarian file” in which the Houthis seek to make success in agreement with KSA is the real test and indicator for them to start a new truce that extends for 6 months and probably one year. This is based on the phases of the agreement under discussion. 

As for Saudi Arabia, according to current estimates, it prefers to use the "disengagement " policy after its failure -along with its allies-in making military progress towards Sanaa for more than 8 years. The Riyadh-led Arab Coalition relied on the airstrikes to assist the ground operations as the kingdom supported forces affiliated with the internationally-recognized government. However, those airstrikes failed to make the required impact on the ground. On the contrary, they retreated and lost many geographical areas in North Yemen in favor of the Houthis. Therefore, the airstrikes were the biggest pretext for the Houthis to target oil and vital facilities in Saudi Arabia. It has been a disturbing effect for the latter. 

Thus, along with Riyadh’s endeavors to get rid of the political, military, and rights burdens of the Yemeni war, it seeks to protect its national security after being strategically exhausted. Accordingly, this does not mean protecting its Southern borders only but securing its oil and vital facilities from the Houthi drones and ballistic missiles which began to pose a big threat against it. This won’t practically end without a direct Saudi-Houthi agreement. With signing the agreement, the Houthis won’t find another pretext to hit Saudi Arabia again even if the internal battles among the Yemeni parties continue. 

Southern stance 

Despite the big pressures against Southerners every now and then, their public rejection of any changes may make them seen by all regional states and the international community as obstacles to the peace process. Therefore, STC President Aidrous Al-Zubaidi praised the moves made by the Saudi-UAE-led Arab Coalition. He said that PLC “agrees with Saudi Arabia on all future programs and roadmap for the comprehensive political operation in Yemen if they put the Southern issue among the top priority negotiation issues in a special framework. 

Supportively, STC Presidency backed Al-Zubaidi in supporting the Arab Coalition and its efforts to establish peace. However, it reiterated STC's position "to fully restore the state of South Yemen with complete sovereignty as a main strategy which it won't retreat under any circumstances". It also stressed that the negotiation framework should suit the Southern framework as an active part of the political process.

Moreover, the Presidency refused "any measures that would touch South Yemen and its sovereign economic resources". This is apparently a fixed stance adopted by most other Southern parties which have reservations about months of the Saudi-Houthi talks. This is due to their rejection of any understanding related to South Yemen and its resources without being engaged. Their main objection had been related to the matter of paying the salaries of employees in the areas controlled by the Houthis based on the 2014 payrolls. They believe that such a measure ignores the Southern employees who were forcefully dismissed from their jobs since 1994 as well as the Southern employees in the state institutions including Southern militarians since 2015. The second thing is that paying salaries will rely on oil and gas revenues in South Yemen.

For a while, and according to the Southern stance that opposes prolonging the truce based on the Houthi conditions, Saudi activists who are close to the Saudi regime launched a social media campaign against the STC and UAE to pressure Southerners in the matter of extending the truce. However, Riyadh failed in this task and headed towards making secret talks with the Houthis after isolating other governmental Yemeni parties.

However, given the latest updates of the current scene and the statements of STC that welcome the Saudi efforts to establish peace, the council- which calls for the independence of South Yemen- seems optimistic in a remarkable way. This comes after months of strong rejection that caused political and media tension. In the past days, Saudi prominent media platforms have sought - since Al-Zubaidi's arrival to Riyadh - to highlight STC's stances towards the Saudi efforts.

Observers may also read the Saudi approaches towards the Yemeni file, especially after the historic visit to Sanaa, as a failure of the war efforts led by Riyadh in North Yemen over the past 8 years. However, the "disengagement" policy to evade the economic costs of the war and its repercussions is apparently the most accurate to describe the scene. This is in light of Riyad's effort for "zeroing" its problems in the region and devoting itself to achieving the strategic vision of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia 2030, as it didn't find close allies in North Yemen. Thus, and to guarantee to secure its strategic interests and comprehensive vision at both internal and external levels, KSA found that engaging in separate understandings with the Houthis for reviving a new truce is the most appropriate currently.

Farida Ahmed 

Executive Director of South24 Center for News and Studies

South YemenSaudi ArabiaPolicyPeace TalksHouthis