Saudi Arabia and Yemen at the Crossroads

By Bruce Riedel
Tuesday, June 28, 2016, 10:23 AM

Yemen has been effectively partitioned by the war between the Saudi-backed government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Zaydi Shia Houthi rebels. The United Nations’ new "roadmap" is unlikely to put the country back together, but it may keep the fragile ceasefire in place.

The Security Council adopted Resolution 2216 in April 2015 to provide a framework for resolving the Yemen war. It is a very one-sided document that blames and sanctions the Houthis and their ally, former President Ali Abdullah Salih, for the conflict and demands the withdrawal of their forces from the capital Sanaa and the reinstatement of the government of President Hadi. The Russians abstained in the vote, asserting that the resolution is unbalanced.

The U.N. Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed has successfully persuaded the two sides to adhere to a ceasefire for almost two months despite numerous violations by both sides. His path forward, however, is constrained by the inadequacy of Resolution 2216. The roadmap is vague, but essentially repeats the basic formula of 2216.

The newly announced U.N, roadmap is unlikely to be implemented. The Houthis are unlikely to quit Sanaa and other northern cities, disarm and accept Hadi's return. At a minimum, they want a new transitional government to replace the discredited old regime. Hadi would be sidelined.

It's unclear where the Saudis are positioned now on the war. Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman (the architect of the Saudi war decision) promised President Obama last week to seek a political solution to the war. The Saudi Foreign Minister has spoken about the need to reach an accommodation with the Houthis. Riyadh speaks less about its concerns about Iran's ties to the Houthis than a year ago when that was cited as the central rationale for their intervention. Is Riyadh ready to press Hadi to step aside? If not, how does the U.N. get the Houthis to let him return? The Kingdom has most of its cards with Hadi, but it is unclear how it wants to play them.

Riyadh's principle ally, the United Arab Emirates, has publicly said it wants the war over, but then it backtracked. The war has been expensive in lives and money for the coalition. It has been far more devastating for the Yemeni people. The country is a humanitarian catastrophe. The richest Arab states have made the poorest Arab country even more desolate. They have a moral responsibility to help it recover.

Nonetheless, the war with the Houthi rebels in Yemen has given Saudi Arabia de facto control of the Yemeni side of the crucial Bab al Mandab strait between Asia and Africa. The Saudis took control the port of Aden at the entrance to the Red Sea a year ago and the strategic island named Perim or Mayun in the Bab al Mandab last October. Their Yemeni allies control Socotra Island in the Gulf of Aden as well. This spring, Saudi and Emirati troops took control of Al Mukall, the capital of Hadhramaut region in southeast Yemen, away from Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Al Mukalla is the fifth largest city in Yemen and provides the Saudis with land access across the Empty Quarter Desert to the Indian Ocean.

All of this means that the war has de facto partitioned Yemen. The Saudis have backed the shaky U.N.-brokered ceasefire and the political negotiations in Kuwait. During Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman's visit to the U.N. this week, he reaffirmed those commitments.

While the parties to the U.N. talks in Kuwait say they want a united Yemen, many southerners would prefer a return to southern independence. Saudi Arabia backed a southern secessionist rebellion in 1994. In the Middle East, 'temporary' partitions have a tendency to be lasting.

The Houthis may prefer to keep control of Sanaa and other major northern cities to the ambiguity of a transitional government. A de facto, Houthi dominated north is predominantly Zaydi. The south is Sunni.

Ironically, former President Ali Abdullah Salih is the father of modern Yemeni unity and put the country together in 1990. He bears much of the blame for Yemen's agony. Although he should have stepped down five years ago when the Arab Spring began,, he has instead conspired constantly to hold on to power. His machinations have probably now cost Yemen its brief moment as a unified state.