Saudi Arabia and UAE: Between ’Prosperity Guardian‘ and Safe Exit from Yemen


Sat, 30-12-2023 10:23 AM, Aden Time

“The danger related to the current self-distancing policy adopted by the member states of the Saudi-led Coalition and the countries overlooking the Red Sea toward the Houthi attacks is encouraging Iran to display its influence over the maritime lane between the Strait of Bab Al-Mandab- and the Suez Canal."

Farida Ahmed (South24)

With the increasing pace of the violent Israeli war on Gaza that broke out nearly 80 days ago (on October 7), the Iran-backed Houthi militia have escalated their attacks in the Red Sea by targeting ships reportedly headed for Israel via the Strait of Bab Al-Mandab and the Red Sea. This aggression has pushed many global shipping companies to suspend their activities along the busy maritime lane and go around the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) instead. The escalation in Houthi attacks on ships transiting the Red Sea has led to the launch of a US-led multi-nation security initiative under the name of ’Operation Prosperity Guardian’, which focuses on the security challenges in the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Initially, the United States downplayed the risks of the Houthi attacks on foreign vessels plying in the Red Sea. However, the recurrence of the attacks in the past weeks has complicated the situation in the region at the political, military, and economic levels, leading to the creation of the new coalition to deter the Houthi attacks and respond to calls for help by vessels. This reveals that the aim of the new coalition is more defensive in nature, rather than to completely eliminate the Houthi threat. However, it may turn into an attack force if the risks increase. 

What is interesting to note is the absence of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt from the list of countries announced by the United States as members of the new naval coalition. This comes despite the fact that Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in particular, overlook the Red Sea. The ambiguity surrounding the work of the new coalition and the role of its members are apparently one of the reasons behind the reluctance of some countries to participate in it. However, the fact that Israel didn't join the coalition even though the Houthi threats have been basically targeting vessels linked to the country has encouraged states that do not recognize the Israeli entity to join the coalition. These American and Israeli pretexts may convince the hesitant states in the region. 

This indifference was conveyed through a statement by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry stressing that “the states overlooking the Red Sea are responsible for protecting it”. This denotes that Egypt is not interested in joining the new maritime alliances. It already participates in the Combined Task Force 153 1 (CTF 153), which was formed in April 2022. It appears that Egypt doesn’t want to engage in American military adventures in the region or to deepen the complexities of the war in Gaza. (A multinational maritime partnership led by the US which operates in the Red Sea. Egypt led the task force for six months, concluding its term in June 2023.)

The cautious or dismissive stances adopted by nations regarding joining the new coalition are probably based on the interpretation of some observers that ‘Operation Prosperity Guardian' aims at mobilizing an international support front to protect Israel against international isolation following its horrible violations in Gaza. Moreover, the coalition aims to help Israel counter any economic repercussions, especially in the wake of the sharp 80% decline in the revenues of Port of Eilat (Israeli port on the Red Sea, located at the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba). The interpretation of Washington’s intentions regarding this new coalition probably differs from one party to another, based upon several calculations related to the current conflict in the region. However, it is important to point out that the United States repeatedly turned a blind eye toward the Houthi attacks on Saudi and Emirati vessels in the Red Sea over the past years. Washington also failed to act in the wake of the Houthi militia’s bombing of the ports of South Yemen over a year ago, and their threats against maritime transportation as also their economic siege imposed on the people there. 

For Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, the new naval coalition project is apparently outside the scope of their interests currently, at least on the surface. This is even though 36% of Saudi imports rely on the Red Sea’s ports. However, long-term Saudi de-escalation with the Iran-backed Houthi militia is more important for Riyadh’s strategic interests following nearly nine years of the conflict in Yemen. Therefore, Saudi Arabia does not want to engage in a new attrition war with the Houthis, especially as it has its own projects lined up related to ’Vision 2030‘, winning the bid to host ’2030 World Expo‘ and also hosting ’World Cup 20342‘. The Emirates apparently shares a similar desire to avoid possible attacks on its vital facilities if it participates in a new military coalition against the Houthis. On May 31, 2023, the UAE announced it has withdrawn from the US-led Combined Maritime Forces tasked with securing the Gulf waterways. (2 ‘Vision 2030’ is an ambitious roadmap for Saudi Arabia's transformation announced by Crown Prince and de-facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman. In November 2023, Saudi Arabia won the bid to host the World Expo 2030 in a diplomatic victory for Riyadh. Saudi Arabia was also the sole bidder for the 2034 World Cup, and is set to host the mega football event.)

The Houthis have threatened that if Saudi Arabia and the UAE participate in a war alliance against Yemen, they will destroy the oil and gas fields, and target all oil tankers in the region. 

Putting an end to the war 

On December 23, UN Envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg announced a roadmap, sponsored by the United Nations, to end the war in Yemen. The statement related to signing the anticipated roadmap focused only on ending the war, -- thereby meaning first exiting the war completely and later engaging in the preparations for the political process. For Saudi Arabia, such a deal seems appropriate and highly satisfactory as it would ensure its complete exit from the war in Yemen, where it led the military Arab Coalition for nine years at the request of the Yemeni government in 2015. Saudi Arabia is preparing for this disengagement by playing the role of a mediator - not a partner - in the war against the Houthis. It seems that Riyadh will ultimately sponsor an agreement among the Yemeni parties using the mediator’s role it has chosen to play.

Thus, Saudi Arabia’s non-participation in ‘Operation Prosperity Guardian‘ can be linked to its desire not to spoil the anticipated roadmap deal. A Saudi announcement of taking part in a security coalition of this kind will not be effective in deterring the Houthi threat given the years of fierce war between the kingdom and the Iran-backed militia. Furthermore, the Saudi participation itself will give the Houthis the pretext to refuse signing any agreement to end the war. Riyadh is keen to reach such an agreement following months of bilateral talks with the Houthis, along with Omani mediation efforts. 

It can be said that Saudi Arabia’s complete exit from the Yemen war by signing on this roadmap will change its political and legal arguments. In case the agreement collapses among the Yemeni parties, and in the event of any future Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia, Riyadh can respond militarily as an attacked country, and not as a party to the war or a leader of a military coalition in Yemen. This will lessen the pressure on Riyadh, by its political rivals, especially the US Congress, who use the Yemeni war as a pretext to demand the cessation of arms exports to the kingdom. Riyadh will also benefit from the easing of American restrictions on selling it assault weapons. US officials said that Washington is already preparing for lifting these restrictions in return for Saudi Arabia’s commitment to the truce, mediated by the United States and the United Nations in April 2022.

In a previous paper, ’South24 Center‘ had warned of the dangerous repercussions that will follow if the Houthis are given part of the substantial oil and gas revenues from the IRG (Internationally Recognized Government of Yemen) areas, as is proposed in the leaked articles of the draft roadmap. The consequences will include the massive economic losses that will basically hit oil-rich South Yemen. Moreover, the shower of oil and gas revenues will provide the Houthis with a new financial resource which they will use to enhance their military capabilities and expand their clout and thereby increase their threats locally and regionally. The STC (Southern Transitional Council) obviously rejects this. 

What next?

The top priority for Riyadh after signing the agreement to end the war will be to ensure that the Houthis do not invade more geographical areas in Yemen, which would reduce Saudi Arabia’s influence in case of the future resumption of any military operations. However, notwithstanding the expected direct military absence of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen following the cessation of the Arab Coalition’s operations after the final signing of the agreement, they will keep supporting their allies on the ground in an unofficial way, like Iran does with the Houthis. But their public support is unlikely to go beyond issuing denunciation statements in the UN Security Council against any Houthi violations. On the other hand, allies of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in Yemen will feel that they have been abandoned in exchange for securing the safe exit deal at any price for the two nations. This may lead to massive costs internally, especially since the Houthis do not respect their commitments.

Accordingly, if the agreement leads to negative repercussions at various levels, it will give an excuse to the anti-Houthi military forces to resume military operations on the ground, and free more areas in Yemen, including Hodeidah 3 whose liberation campaign was stopped by the Stockholm Agreement of 2018 4. The Yemeni military parties will have the right to fight the Houthis and secure the coast along the Red Sea and the busy Bab al-Mandab Strait without being required to abide by any previous deals. (3 Hodeidah, situated on the Red Sea, is Yemen's fourth largest city and one of the country's chief ports) (The UN-brokered Stockholm Agreement was signed between the Government of Yemen and the Houthis to demilitarize the port city of Hodeidah.)

Therefore, the political and military parties in Yemen’s internationally recognized government, especially the Southern actors, should examine their emergency options in case the agreement fails. This can be achieved by pressing their political and military options through deployment and by securing their areas on land and at sea. They can initially coordinate with the international and regional forces interested in securing the maritime shipping lanes, and put in place plans for defensive cooperation to restrain the Houthis in the region as a whole. 

The danger related to the current self-distancing policy adopted by the member states of the Saudi-led Coalition and the countries overlooking the Red Sea toward the Houthi attacks is encouraging Iran to display its influence over the maritime lane between the Strait of Bab Al-Mandab and the Suez Canal. And this is not limited to merely providing the Houthis with intelligence about a particular vessel in the Red Sea in order to attack it, according to ’The Wall Street Journal’. The leader of the Iranian Army publicly announced that the Red Sea region is under Tehran’s control. Moreover, Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the maritime straits to international shipping. 

Finally, it is important to note the statement by Ramadan Sharif, Spokesman of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), that the October 7 ‘Al-Aqsa Storm’ was one of the operations to avenge the assassination of ’Qasem Soleimani’ 5, and the statement that “vengeance will continue” reveal many facts about the current conflict in the region and its regional motives. Ultimately, this shouldn’t be read only from the perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also by taking into consideration the effect of the current regional conflict over the international maritime lanes, as well as the policies of influence and expansion led by Iran or the United States in the region. (5 On January 3, 2020, Qasem Soleimani, Iran's most powerful military commander, was targeted and killed by a US drone strike near Baghdad International Airport in Iraq. Iran vowed “severe revenge” for the attack.)

Executive Director, South24 Center for News and Studies 

Note: This is a translated version of the original text written in Arabic

Prosperity GuardianHouthisUSYemenSTCPLCRed SeaTask ForceSuez CanalSaudi ArabiaIranIsraelUAE