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 meant to be a quick victory against an Iranian-backed upstart group and a feather in the cap of Saudi’s new defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman, the heir apparent to the aging king. This victory remains elusive. Instead, Saudi Arabia now finds itself in a worse strategic position than when it entered the conflict in Yemen in March 2015.

War has come to the kingdom in the form of missile and drone attacks on airports, oil infrastructureand now water desalination plants. The Saudi role in exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Yemen has damaged the kingdom’s image and added to the growing distance between the United States and its Gulf partner. The Saudis have signaled their willingness to negotiate but will not cede Yemen to the Houthis for the same reason now – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stepped in first: Iran.

What started as a limited investment in the Houthis for Iran has matured to produce substantial dividends, challenging the current regional security architecture. Prior to the Saudi-led intervention, Iran’s inflows into Yemen were sufficient to begin developing the Houthis – military training, especially through Hezbollah in Syria; media assistance; and some funding – but no game-changer. However, over the course of 2015, Iran placed increasingly experienced agents on the Yemen portfolio. Iran and Hezbollah have since transferred their expertise for the indigenous production of landmines and small drones, which the Houthis have used domestically against opposing forces in the civil war, and smuggled advanced weapons to the Houthis, which has significantly widened the scope of the conflict in Yemen.

This Iranian proliferation of sophisticated missiles and short- and long-range drones aimed at the Houthis in Yemen presents the “most consequential threat” to US forces and their partners in the Middle East, according to at the head of the American central command, General Kenneth F. McKenzie. 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 Houthi-launched ballistic missiles. The Houthis’ potential range extends to Israel, creating the possibility of regional escalation as tensions with Iran rise.

Dollar for dollar, the relative cost of the drone or missile versus defensive systems to counter an attack strongly favors the Houthis. The midrange, mid-range drones used in the Houthis’ attacks cost orders of magnitude less than the million-dollar missile interceptors used to shoot them down. Even though the Saudi defenses are capable of thwarting almost all Houthi attacks – more than 90 percent — the asymmetry of costs makes this path unsustainable in the long term.

Riyadh seems unable to find a way out of its mess in Yemen. A new push for peace pursuits faces the same obstacles as previous efforts. Namely, the Houthis would lose more by negotiating a political resolution than they currently have to gain by continuing to fight. The Houthis are savvy enough to show interest in the talks, seeing the opportunity to secure concessions to even secure their participation in the engagements. They welcomed the UN special envoy for Yemen The ceasefire proposed by Hans Grundberg for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan beginning April 2, which would give them time to get back on the pitch, and expressed openness to the The talks proposed by the Gulf Cooperation Councilwhich was to be held from March 29 to April 7, but declined the invitation, demanding that the talks be held in a “neutral” country and not in Saudi Arabia.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ equipping 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 broker a ceasefire to end Houthi attacks on Saudi territory. Ending military involvement in Yemen would also be a step towards redressing the current trouble relations with the Biden administration. Yet Riyadh cannot accept the Houthi threat on the southern border and control of most of Yemen. Withdrawing support – including military – for Yemeni forces opposing the Houthis would ensure the Houthis remain in power for the foreseeable future, creating a lasting Iranian threat from Yemen to Saudi Arabia.

American interests are now inextricably linked to the conflict in Yemen, which has contributed to worsening regional stability and bogged down American Gulf partners. The continued pressure on Saudi Arabia to end its contribution to the war is futile – and sometimes, counter productive – effort. The Biden administration’s recent surge in favor of defending the kingdom is a positive change but will not be enough as long as Iran continues to arm the Houthis. Stemming the flow of weapons could force the Houthis to recalculate as their supply of drones and missiles dwindles. Such a change could also be enough to start serious negotiations for peace.

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