Saudi Arabia stuck in Yemeni quagmire

A man playing the oud amid rubble in the Yemeni city of Taez. Five years after launching its military intervention in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has failed to uproot Iran-backed Houthi rebels from their northern strongholds.
A man playing the oud amid rubble in the Yemeni city of Taez. Five years after launching its military intervention in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has failed to uproot Iran-backed Houthi rebels from their northern strongholds.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

RIYADH • Five years after launching its much-criticised military intervention in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is stuck in a costly quagmire with no exit in sight while it grapples with multiple crises at home.

It had expected a quick victory when it led a multibillion-dollar intervention in 2015 to oust Iran-backed Houthi rebels, under a newly assertive foreign policy led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

But, exposing the limitations of its military prowess, Saudi Arabia has failed to uproot the rebels from their northern strongholds and struggled to quell deadly infighting between its allies in southern Yemen.

It stands largely alone in facing these challenges after the United Arab Emirates - its principal regional ally - drew down its military presence in Yemen in what some saw as an attempt to limit its losses.

But there appears to be no easy exit for Saudi Arabia.

"Like the Emiratis, the Saudis would like to say 'this war is over for us'," a Western official with knowledge of Riyadh's Yemen policy said. "But the situation on the ground is very challenging."

Fighting has recently escalated again between the Houthis and Riyadh-backed Yemeni troops around the strategic northern districts of Al-Jouf and Marib, ending a months-long lull.

Meanwhile, a Riyadh-brokered power-sharing deal signed in November between the Yemeni government and southern separatists, which had been hailed as a stepping stone, also appears to have stalled.

The so-called Riyadh agreement was expected to see the Yemeni government's return to the de facto capital Aden after it was expelled by the separatists. But Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed are still both in Riyadh, sources said, implying an impasse.

Top Saudi officials have voiced frustration that the feud undermines their joint campaign against the Houthis, who control vast swathes of northern Yemen.

"The Riyadh agreement has stalled, tensions are rising again in the south and fighting is escalating in the north," said the Western official.

Seeking to blunt global criticism over the civilian toll of Saudi Arabia's bombing campaign in Yemen, officials have pointed to the kingdom's development projects - including schools and desalination plants - being pursued in tandem with war.

Riyadh has also pumped in billions of dollars to prop up the central bank and Yemen's flagging currency.

But now it faces a crash in the price of oil - the mainstay of the Saudi economy - on top of a coronavirus-led economic slump.

The disease could be a wild card in the conflict. Saudi Arabia has reported hundreds of infection cases and imposed tough lockdown measures, while Yemen is highly vulnerable even if its broken healthcare system has not yet registered any cases.

Humanitarian organisations have pleaded for a ceasefire so that Yemen, one of the Arab world's poorest nations, with some 80 per cent of the population in need of assistance, is spared more misery as the virus sweeps across the globe.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2020, with the headline 'Saudi Arabia stuck in Yemeni quagmire'. Print Edition | Subscribe