Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen proved to be a “strategic failure”, but a full and official withdrawal from that country is unlikely, analysts say.
Last week, a series of leaked emails revealed that Saudi Arabia‘s crown prince and defence minister, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, expressed a desire to end the war in Yemen during talks with former US officials. In the leaked emails, Mohammed bin Salman said that he ‘”wants out” of the two-year war he started in Yemen and that he was not against US rapprochement with Iran to end the conflict.
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Adam Baron, a Yemen analyst, says that a Saudi pull out is not going to be “complete” since the kingdom’s security is largely reliant on Yemen’s security.
“Yes, the Saudis would like out of the war-but only on their own terms,” Baron said.
“What’s broadly necessary would be a deal that ensures Saudi interests are preserved in Yemen, that heavy weaponry is handed over, an end to cross border attacks, and that any incipient Iranian influence is not allowed to gain permanence, let alone expand,” Baron told Al Jazeera.
“It’s in the kingdom’s interest to prevent Yemen devolving further into the chaotic abyss.”
On Wednesday, an air strike on a hotel near the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, has killed at least 35 people, a local medic said.
Yemen has long been the Arab region’s poorest country, and previously relied on US aid and assistance from its neighbours to stay afloat. Inflation was worsening and unemployment rates soared prior to the 2011 uprising.
Money from the country’s dwindling oil reserves has been wasted or stolen during overthrown President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year reign. A 2015 UN report exposed Saleh’s accumulated fortune of up to $60bn from corruption, extortion and embezzlement.
Following Saleh’s overthrow, a bloody civil war had erupted between Houthi rebels and supporters of Yemen’s internationally recognised government. In September 2014, Houthi fighters took control of the capital, Sanaa, and pushed towards Yemen’s biggest city, Aden. In response to Houthis’ advances, a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia launched a military campaign in March 2015 to drive out the Houthis from Sanaa.
The war has left various areas in dire need of humanitarian assistance and has enabled al-Qaeda to grow amid a security vacuum.
Yemen, home to more than 27 million people, is on the verge of famine and in the middle of an “unprecedented” cholera outbreak. Referring to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, the UN has warned that the country is heading towards “total collapse.”
Currently, more than seven million people are on the verge of starvation due to border blockades and impoverishment from years of war, while about 80 percent of the population are reliant on some form of humanitarian aid. According to the UN, the world’s largest humanitarian crisis is in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s involvement has contributed to the country’s humanitarian crisis, damaging Mohammed bin Salman’s image both internationally and regionally, says Luciano Zaccara, Gulf politics researcher at Qatar University.
A retreat means a defeat. It also means the collapse of the goals that the coalition came to achieve in Yemen.
“The increasing criticism worldwide against the coalition attacks – considered the main reason behind the cholera epidemic that is killing thousands of civilians, the obscure situation of detainees, and the blockade of Sanaa airport and Hudaida port that is preventing humanitarian supply to arrive to the blocked areas controlled by the Houthis, are making this war very unpopular,” Zaccara told Al Jazeera.
“Allowing Sanaa airport to operate may help ease the critical humanitarian situation, even though it is still in the hands of the Houthis. Opening the airport will also allow thousands of people to leave the country to receive specialised treatment,” he said.
Similarly, a confidential UN report conducted by a UN Security Council panel of experts, has determined that the coalition continues to have “little operational or tactical impact on the ground”.
Although one of the Suadi-led offensive’s main objectives was to reinstate Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the internationally recognised president who was exiled for 11 months, the political reality on the ground succeeded in dividing Hadi’s supporters – some of whom are now fighting for legitimacy, according to the report.
The south has formed a “competing political council … with a stated goal of an independent South Yemen,” the report pointed out. “It [the council] includes key officials and members of the legitimate government.”
The report goes on to examine how proxy militia groups, armed by members of the Saudi-led coalition, are pursuing individual agendas – the result of which has further weakened Hadi’s position.
If a Saudi “total or partial” pull out were to happen, says Zaccara, Saudi Arabia would ensure that an appropriate political solution would be implemented to preserve its image internationally.
“Even though the Houthis may benefit from this, there is still strong criticism on their [Houthis] role in their controlled area that should be addressed,” he added.
But Sanaa-based political analyst, Yaseen al-Tamimi, does not anticipate a Saudi pull out, describing the possibility of a Saudi exit from Yemen as “dangerous”.
“A retreat means a defeat,” Tamimi said. “It also means the collapse of the goals that the coalition came to achieve in Yemen. The coalition’s withdrawal will not help the Saudi Kingdom in maintaining safe borders [with Yemen],” he told Al Jazeera.
“There is no readily available solution that can fill the vacuum in this war-ravaged nation. The legitimate government of Yemen does not have the sufficient resources to continue the war or win it,” Tamimi added.
According to the report, both Houthi-Saleh forces, and the United Arab Emirates – a member of the coalition – “continue to engage in detention practices that violate international humanitarian law and human rights norms.”
The report references cases of prolonged disappearances that infringe on Yemeni people’s individual liberties. While Houthi fighters continue to suppress voices of discontent, Yemenis say a Saudi exit will only strengthen the Houthis’ grip.
“The beneficiaries of the Saudi exit are the Houthis who want to rule Yemen,” Halah Mansr, a Sanaa-based university student, told Al Jazeera. “We do not care how it will end and who will be at the helm of the country. Peace is all what we want.”
“Even the areas which were liberated by the coalition are unstable … This is not a success. It is a setback for the coalition – they haven’t succeeded militarily, or diplomatically [by bringing stability to Yemen],” Mansr added.
But some believe that an end to the war should be followed by other steps.
“Yemenis are suffering here and abroad. When they [the coalition] pull out, life will change for the better,” Leila Saleh, a university student, told Al Jazeera.
“I want the coalition to pull out, and at the same time push the parties of the conflict to peace negotiations. This will be in the interest of Yemenis.”