March 25, 2022
Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen
Seven years ago, Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention against the Houthis in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition’s intervention was supposed to be a quick victory against an upstart Iranian-backed group and a feather in the cap of the newly named Saudi defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman, the heir-apparent to the aging King. That victory remains elusive. Instead, Saudi Arabia is now in a worse strategic situation than when it entered the Yemen conflict in March 2015.
War came to the kingdom in the form of missile and drone attacks on airports, oil infrastructure, and now water desalination facilities. The Saudi role in exacerbating Yemen’s humanitarian crisis has hurt the kingdom’s image and added to the growing distance between the United States and its Gulf partner. The Saudis have signaled a willingness to negotiate but won’t cede Yemen to the Houthis for the same reason now–Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman intervened in the first place: Iran.
What began as a limited investment in the Houthis for Iran has matured to yield substantial dividends, challenging the current regional security architecture. Before the Saudi-led intervention, Iran’s inputs into Yemen were enough to begin developing the Houthis — military training, especially through Hezbollah in Syria; media assistance; and some funding — but not game changing. However, over the course of 2015, Iran placed increasingly senior operatives on the Yemen portfolio. Iran and Hezbollah have since transferred expertise for the indigenous production of land mines and small drones, which the Houthis have used domestically against opposing forces in the civil war, and smuggled advanced weaponry to the Houthis that has greatly expanded the scope of Yemen’s conflict.
This Iranian-sourced proliferation of sophisticated missiles and short- and long-range drones to the Houthis in Yemen presents the most “consequential threat” to US forces and their partners in the Middle East, according to head of US Central Command General Kenneth F. McKenzie. The US military forces at Al Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, fired interceptor missiles at least twice in early 2022 to defend against incoming Houthi-launched ballistic missiles. The Houthis’ potential range extends to Israel, creating the possibility of a regional escalation as tensions with Iran rise.
Dollar-for-dollar, the relative cost of the drone or missile compared to the defensive systems to counter an attack heavily favors the Houthis. Mid-range, mid-size drones used in Houthi attacks cost multiple orders of magnitude less than the $1-million missile interceptors used to shoot them down. Even though Saudi defenses are capable of thwarting nearly all Houthi attacks — upwards of 90 percent — the cost asymmetry makes this unsustainable as a way forward over the long term.
Riyadh seems to be unable to find a way out of its Yemen mess. A renewed push to sue for peace faces the same obstacles as previous efforts. Namely, the Houthis would lose more in negotiating a political resolution than they currently stand to gain by continuing to fight. The Houthis are savvy enough to signal interest in talks, seeing the opportunity to extract concessions to secure even their participation in the engagements. They welcomed the UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg’s proposed ceasefire for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan starting April 2, which would buy them time to reset on the ground, and expressed openness to the Gulf Cooperation Council’s proposed talks, slated to be held March 29–April 7, but declined the invitation, demanding talks be held in a “neutral” country and not Saudi Arabia.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ equipping of the Houthis with advanced weaponry — and the Houthis’ willingness to play Iran’s game — has put Saudi Arabia in a lose-lose position. Riyadh has actively sought to negotiate a ceasefire to end the Houthi attacks on Saudi territory. Ending military involvement in Yemen would also be a step toward repairing the now troubled relationship with the Biden administration. Yet Riyadh cannot accept the Houthis’ threat on the southern border and control over most of Yemen. To withdraw support — including military — for the Yemeni forces opposing the Houthis would ensure the Houthis will remain in power for the foreseeable future, creating an enduring Iranian threat from Yemen for Saudi Arabia.
American interests are now inextricably tied up in the Yemen conflict, which has contributed to worsening regional stability and bogged down America’s Gulf partners. Continuing pressure on Saudi Arabia to end its contribution to the war is a fruitless — and at times, counterproductive — endeavor. The Biden administration’s recent surge in support for the defense of the kingdom is a positive change but will not be enough so long as Iran continues to arm the Houthis. Stemming the weapons flow might compel the Houthis to recalculate as their drone and missile supply dwindles. Such a shift might also be enough to start serious negotiations for peace.