Restoring legitimacy and rebuilding Yemen: Two sides of the same coin

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

After more than five weeks and over 3000 air sorties since the start of “Operation Decisive Storm,” Yemen — one of the poorest countries in the Middle East — is on the verge of total collapse as street-fighting between local groups rages in Aden, Marib, Taiz, and elsewhere.

Wary of a ground offensive, coalition leader Saudi Arabia has renamed the campaign “Operation Restoring Hope,” claiming a new focus on political engagement and humanitarian relief. Airstrikes continue, though, guided by U.S. military intelligence and supported by expedited U.S. weapons shipments. Recent reports also suggest that coalition-trained Yemeni fighters are now arriving in Aden to support the fight against the Houthis.

The Kingdom has offered $274 million to help offset the humanitarian costs, based on an impromptu UN estimate of the costs of providing basic food and medical supplies. Although regional media access has been limited (at times seemingly by choice), initial figures released by Yemeni hospitals and reported by the WHO indicate that the psychological threshold of 1000 civilian deaths has long been breached.

The operation has no clear endgame — Pakistan has refused to provide ground support for cross-border operations, while allies Egypt and the UAE are averse to supporting any political settlement that would strengthen Islamists in Yemen. The initially declared political aim of the campaign, to restore “legitimate authority” to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government, is no nearer to realization.

Initial Success?

Saudi analysts are quick to point out the bombing campaign’s successes, of course. First, militarily, they hold that it has degraded Yemen’s offensive capabilities, particularly in terms of its air force and ballistic missiles, and has therefore eliminated any direct threat to Saudi Arabia and the region. However, the campaign so far has hardly diminished the threat Houthis and Saleh loyalists pose to those who reject them in Aden and elsewhere. If anything, it has incited random anger in the case of the Houthis and determined revenge in the case of Saleh.

The decentralized nature of the Houthi militia, the dense terrain of urban environments and mountainous territory, and a lack of reliable targeting intelligence mean that civilian casualties and suffering will continue. Without a concerted ground effort, time is on the side of the Houthis and Saleh loyalists who need little to sustain their efforts and can simply sit and wait.

As soon as the coalition ran out of A-list targets (military bases, weapon depositories, missile launchers, and military airports), however, the bombing campaign expanded to target civilian infrastructure, including roads, power plants, and other installations such as administrative buildings in Saada and elsewhere. All of this has been justified with the now commonplace adages of “fighters sheltering in civilian areas” or “fighters taking civilians as human shields.”

Meanwhile, global oil markets have hardly panicked over the campaign, suggesting little global concern over a conflict involving the world’s top oil exporter alongside one of its busiest energy transit lanes. As such, there has been no serious international effort to stop the war.

Second, politically, Saudi analysts view the kingdom’s decisive action as a clear message to Iran that meddling in the affairs of the region is no longer tolerated, particularly in what amounts to Saudi Arabia’s backyard. Yet aside from the odd rhetorical statement, Iran has invested minimal effort in supporting the Houthis on the ground or in international arenas. If Iran had wished to exert political pressure on Saudi Arabia and world opinion, it could have at least suspended its participation in the nuclear talks immediately following the campaign’s announcement.

It did not, demonstrating to both the Houthis and the Saudis that their problem is fundamentally an Arab (and particularly a Gulf) problem. Saudis must cease viewing the Houthis as an Iranian proxy. Punishing them — and the civilians under their control — does nothing to punish Iran. Only this week, Saudi jets destroyed Sanaa’s airport runways rather than allow an Iranian plane to land, further crippling desperately needed humanitarian efforts.

Third, the bombing campaign and the UN Security Council resolution that followed have been touted as representing an important united Arab effort. Though they joined U.S.-led coalitions during “Desert Storm” and against ISIS, Arab states have not led a coalition of their own since the 1973 war with Israel. Yet the real test is not whether the Arabs are capable of mobilizing united forces in response to Hadi’s call for restoring legitimacy in Yemen, but whether they could do the same to respond to the calls of millions of fellow Arabs suffering in Syria, Iraq, and — most of all — Gaza and the West Bank. 

Whatever the military campaign has been able to achieve so far, it has done so at the expense of compounding what was already a critical economic and social situation for the vast majority of Yemenis, transforming it into a national humanitarian crisis. The country’s 24 million people have been cut off from the outside world for more than a month, with the majority of cities suffering from power cuts, blackouts, and a lack of fuel and drinking water. Food imports are threatened in a country where decades of failed development have left it reliant on imports for up to 90 percent of basic food items. The $4-6 billion in remittances that have long kept abject poverty at bay for many have been disrupted if not diverted altogether. A further 150,000 people have been added to the 200,000 already displaced as a result of the previous wars in Saada and in the south. 

Winning the Battles, Losing the War

Under these circumstances, every day that passes means Saudi Arabia risks losing the war regardless of whether they win every battle. The conflict has certainly empowered al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which was able to capture Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth largest city, and seize tens of millions of dollars from its central bank. The sectarian color lent to the conflict has yet again offered AQAP and other extremist groups the opportunity to present themselves as the protectors of “Sunni” Islam. As in Syria and Iraq, this will come back to haunt all involved.

As the air raids continue, the vast majority of Yemenis will slowly but surely turn against Saudi Arabia, not because they support the Houthis or even wish for a return to Saleh’s rule, but because they are proud people who reject external intervention in their country’s internal affairs, fear the division of their country into ‘tribal’ and ‘militia’ dominated cantons and will likely blame the aggressor for the failure to address the humanitarian crisis — no matter how many checks the Saudi government writes to the UN.

A Renewed Political Strategy

The only way out is a renewed call for political negotiations, playing on the fact that even the Houthis and Saleh are unlikely to desire significant gains by AQAP or the sudden appearance of Islamic State. For that call to be effective, Saudi Arabia must lead with a three-pronged strategy:

1. Declare a real and effective ceasefire in order to allow humanitarian assistance into the country.

Financing aid while continuing the air campaign can be interpreted as a cynical maneuver by an alliance that does not know where to bomb next. For this aid to reach vulnerable populations, Saudi Arabia must work towards an immediate ceasefire with enough face-saving provisions for it to have a chance at success. Saudi should (and could still) observe the sacredness of the month of Rajab (this year, the April 20 through May 18) — when Muslims are forbidden from fighting. This will give Saudi the moral high ground to seek mediation with Houthis and military divisions loyal to Saleh. Houthis would have no option but to do the same. However, expecting them to disarm, as a precondition to a ceasefire is unrealistic given the folly they find themselves in.

2. Seek a credible mediator and give up on hosting political talks in Riyadh.

Riyadh is clearly no longer an acceptable destination for the Houthis, and would likely be contentious for many other Yemeni factions. Instead, Saudi should capitalize on the impartial stance taken by Oman toward the conflict and ask them to facilitate a dialogue.

The mediation process in turn needs to tackle three inter-related objectives:

First, it must solidify the ceasefire and make sure that appropriate monitoring mechanisms are in place. 

Second, it should formulate a renewed, more robust political process, rather than trying to patch the country together through layers and layers of under-the-table deals. In doing so, Saudi Arabia needs to be pragmatic in weighing its support to Hadi against its wish to live alongside a stable and prosperous Yemen.

Former Prime Minister and newly-appointed Vice President Khaled al-Bahah might be a less divisive figure around which to base an interim government, but he must return with his cabinet to Yemen — anywhere in Yemen — otherwise he too will quickly lose legitimacy in the eyes of Yemenis. The reported appearance of coalition troops on a “reconnaissance” mission to Aden may reflect efforts to establish a safe zone for the government’s return.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the mediation process should work to build a clear relationship between citizens and the state instead of accommodating a confederation of different areas, groups, or tribal alliances. President Hadi was the result of a political deal struck between elites based on a number of compromises and backhanded deals, a makeshift arrangement that rapidly fell apart in the face of an alliance of convenience between Saleh and the Houthis. There is an urgent need to build a civil state to set the country on the right track for eventual elections and representative government.

3. Launch a reconstruction and development vision for Yemen.

If Saudi Arabia wants to truly demonstrate an “Arab resolve to act alone,” it needs to show that Arab countries can rebuild a country devastated by chronic conflict in their midst — one that, unlike war-torn Libya, Syria, or Iraq, might be salvageable.

Saudi should build upon the UN resolution to secure and finance a long-term reconstruction plan for Yemen. The plan should be based on the ultimate objective of integrating Yemen within the GCC, making use of its human and natural resources and capitalizing on its strategic coastline.

Saudi Arabia and the GCC must not write a check to the UN and leave its umbrella of bodies and NGOs to sort Yemen out on their own. Yemen’s experience has shown time and again that these groups are unable to build state capacity or to provide effective long-term development — a failure that helped bring Yemen to the brink of crisis in the first place. 

Whatever reconstruction vision emerges the GCC should remain part of its development and implementation long term. Would it not be wonderful to see the wealthy Arab states united in the constructive challenge of turning around the fortune of what once was the heart of the Arab world?  

Affording all Yemenis, including the Houthis, the space to weigh in on the future of Yemen in partnership with their fellow Gulf citizens is the one crucial weapon at the disposal of the Saudis and their allies to gain the support of the millions of Yemenis silenced by the hard choices of this war.