December 16, 2020

US Needs to Take on a Leadership Role to Secure its Interests in Yemen

Originally published in Middle East Institute

The Biden administration should chart a new course for Yemen, breaking from the flawed policies under Presidents Obama and Trump. That means retaking a leadership role to secure U.S. interests: defeating al-Qaeda’s threat, reducing Iranian influence, stabilizing the region, and addressing humanitarian conditions. Yemen’s myriad conflicts even beyond its civil war have created opportunities for al-Qaeda and the Houthis to strengthen, destabilized the Arabian Peninsula, and exacerbated already-poor humanitarian conditions. Focusing on these conflicts, rather than just the civil war or counterterrorism, is the best way forward.

The U.S. should help resolve the key underlying issue: the future division of power and resources in Yemen. It should lead efforts to negotiate subnational settlements to reduce conflict, especially where al-Qaeda operates. Such steps will begin stabilizing parts of Yemen, making it less permissive for al-Qaeda and improving access for humanitarian and development assistance. Additionally, the U.S. should ensure the Houthis do not benefit from assistance programs while also preventing partners from taking actions that drive the Houthis toward Iran.

Crucially, the Biden administration needs to resist the temptation to break with Saudi Arabia altogether in Yemen. Hammering the Saudis (or Emiratis) for worsening Yemen’s catastrophic humanitarian conditions may play well in Congress but will not create the conditions necessary to end Yemen’s war. Saudi activities in Yemen are not contingent on U.S. support, and the move will distance a key Gulf partner, especially should Iranian nuclear negotiations resume. Instead, quietly helping the Saudis exit the military conflict without further empowering the Houthis — or Iran — would be energy better spent.

What’s clear from the past is that U.S. diplomacy from Riyadh, rhetoric about negotiated solutions, and support for the U.N.-led effort have done little for Yemenis and the U.S. Extending the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran to Yemen and subcontracting U.S. interests to Saudi Arabia has done even less. And counterterrorism gains are eroding. Previous U.S. policy has failed. The Biden administration now has to show smart, tough leadership to keep regional partners in line as it moves to achieve U.S. goals in Yemen and the region.

The Middle East Institute originally published this article as a response to the question, "How should the Biden administration approach Yemen?" The full series is available here.