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'Saudi Arabia has lost the war in Yemen'

March 25, 2021

Saudi Arabia is one of the primary belligerents in Yemen's six-year civil war. Now, the Saudi government has presented a peace initiative. But that does not automatically mean an end to the conflict.

Smoke and dust rise near buildings from air strikes launched by Saudi-led coalition on Sanaa
Houthis have sustained losses as a result of Saudi raids on Sanaa, but civilians are hardest hitImage: Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had hoped to quickly crush Houthi rebels with Saudi Arabia's intervention in the conflict in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and a number of other Middle Eastern countries have been backing the troops of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in the battle against the Shiite Houthis, who, in turn, have the support of Saudi Arabia's primary regional rival, Iran.

But it has become clear that the Houthis have been steadily gaining ground since the conflict started on March 26, 2015. Saudi Arabia can no longer win the war. According to UN estimates, more than 230,000 people have been killed and millions are hungry and sick. And the ailing health system has collapsed under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic.

A woman cradles a sick child in Yemen
Over 20 million people, many starving or undernourished, dependent on humanitarian aidImage: Mohammed Hamoud/AA/picture alliance

Saudi Arabia has put forward a plan to end the war in Yemen. The foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan al Saud, announced that the proposals would include a nationwide ceasefire under the supervision of the United Nations. Last year, the Gulf state made similar overtures.

Saudis want out

The plan is clearly Saudi Arabia's exit strategy. Houthi rebels have seized the capital, Sanaa, and large swaths of northwestern Yemen. In February, they began an offensive to seize the oil-rich city of Marib. For years, Saudi Arabia and the Saudi-led military coalition have been launching air attacks on Sanaa — and had closed air and sea links in an effort to cut off the Houthis' access to supplies.

Al Saud said the government wanted to stop the spiral of violence and would reopen the airport in Sanaa to improve food distribution in Yemen. Saudi Arabia's government announced that it would also relax its blockade of the port of Hodeidah to allow fuel and food imports. Four ships carrying fuel have just docked in Hodeidah. They are reported to have a total of 45,000 tons of diesel, 5,000 tons of liquified gas and more than 22,000 tons of food onboard.

Government soldiers in a pickup truck in Yemen
Soldiers in the back of a pickup following the death of a general in fighting with HouthisImage: Ali Owidha/REUTERS

The Houthis initially rejected Saudi Arabia's peace initiative, saying it offered nothing new. Their chief negotiator, Mohammed Abdulsalam, did, however, say that he was ready to hold further talks with the Saudi and US governments and the government of the regional mediator, Oman, to reach a peace deal. Yet he added that fuel, food, medical and basic goods supplies were a humanitarian and legal right. "We do not accept any military or political conditions for receiving them," Abdulsalam said.

Nevertheless, officials from the United States, the UN, and Oman do believe that negotiations have a chance. For weeks now, Oman has been hosting talks between the Houthis and the US special envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking. Yet, at the moment, no one is counting on a swift ceasefire and a speedy end to the war.

A World Food Programme distribution center in Sanaa
Many people are dependent on food aid from the UN World Food Programme in SanaaImage: Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS

Biden's new approach

US President Joe Biden's inauguration has stepped up the pressure on the Saudi monarchy. In February, he announced a halt in US support for the military intervention in Yemen and the withdrawal of important logistical support and intelligence from the Saudi-led military campaign. 

"Saudi Arabia has lost the war in Yemen — and that is chiefly because the Biden administration has made clear that it no longer supports the Saudi operations there," said Guido Steinberg a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs who specializes in the Middle East. He said this meant that the Saudis would have to deescalate the situation in Yemen. The Houthi offensive on Marib could cause the pro-Saudi forces — in particular, the internationally recognized government of Yemen — to lose one of their last strategically important regions.

The Houthis believe that they now have the upper hand thanks to their advances and Biden's stance, Steinberg said. He added that they could be banking on their opponents' capitulating. Officials in Iran, too, would be happy to see Saudi Arabia defeated. 

Graves for COVID-19 victims in Yemen
Yemen has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemicImage: Anees Mahyoub/REUTERS

Steinberg said this could lead to the formation of two large opposing camps: "the Houthis in the north, on the one hand, and the separatist forces and their allies in the south — that could definitely culminate in the division of Yemen." The separatists have been fighting for an independent state in southern Yemen for decades now. South Yemen existed as an entity before the unification of the country in 1990. However, southern separatist forces have since withdrawn the unilateral declaration of autonomy that they announced last year. Steinberg said Saudi Arabia might have lost the war, but that doesn't automatically mean that the war is over.

Civilians continue to pay the price. For weeks, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been warning that Yemen is facing the world's worst famine in decades. And, as if that were not enough, the country has just had to declare a state of emergency because of a sharp spike in coronavirus infections.

This article has been adapted from German.