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Will Saudi Arabia’s ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ restore order in Yemen?

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.

In record time, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has succeeded in building a firm coalition of ten countries participating in the war against the Houthi movement and its ally, ousted Yemeni President Ali Abdulla Saleh. Furthermore, legitimacy— a major requirement for successful international intervention— has been secured through two main regional organizations: the Arab League and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which expressed their unequivocal support for the Saudis’ “Operation Decisive Storm” in Yemen. In addition, elected Yemeni President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi made the request for intervention publicly, which KSA used to legitimize its military intervention. While Saudi leaders seem to have done their homework before launching this operation, they will need to think carefully about how to end it and ensure that the operation will not further exacerbate instability in Yemen.

Houthi fighters and key regional players

Since the beginning of their coup against the central government back in September 2014, the Houthis have been successful in expanding their areas of control and defeating their foes. With almost no military resistance, they started in the northern province of Saada, expanded to the capital, Sanaa, and then turned to the southern provinces, where President Hadi enjoys overwhelming support. They controlled the main ports on the Red Sea, seized most of the Yemeni army’s machinery— including fighter jets— and signed an “economic partnership” agreement with Iran.

However, the Houthis miserably failed to play by the rules— alienating most regional players (with the exception of Iran). They rejected KSA’s call for negotiations in Riyadh and the United Nations’ invitations for peace talks in Doha. Additionally, they ignored all previous UN Security Council statements calling on them to halt their rebellion and abide by Yemen’s political transition process. Most alarmingly, the Houthis alienated all Yemeni political parties— from Islamists to socialists— except a weird alliance with ousted President Saleh, against whom they fought in six wars during the past decade.

Operation Decisive Storm

Given these circumstances, the Saudi intervention in Yemen suggests a number of implications. First, coalitions emerging from within the region seem to be more durable and yield more tangible outcomes than international intervention, even when supported by Security Council resolutions. Regional leadership has found support on the ground, with mass protests in the Yemeni provinces of Taiz, Mareb, Aden, Ibb, and Houdiedeh backing Saudi intervention. That is definitely not the case for the alliance that the United States is leading against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria. While protesters are carrying the pictures of King Salman in Yemen, the picture of President Obama has not been seen in any part of the region.

Furthermore, regional coalition-building reveals the limits of Iranian intervention in the Arab countries, or what Iranian leaders call a “control of the four capitals”— Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut, and Sanaa. Iran will provide the Houthis with unlimited political, diplomatic, and, to a certain extent, arms support. However, it is unlikely Iran will fight a war in Yemen on behalf of the Houthis. While condemning the Saudi intervention in Yemen, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has already urged “dialogue and reconciliation” in Yemen. It is obvious that the firm support of major regional players like Egypt, Turkey, and Pakistan for the Saudi-led operation has sent a powerful message about how far Iran can go in supporting the Houthis. This actually has led some political analysts in the region to suggest that a similar Turkey-led coalition could have put an end to the four-year suffering of the Syrian people and that the solution is in the region, not in American leadership. It sounds like a bit of an ambitious proposition, as Syria has many other variables, but at minimum, a firm regional coalition could have altered the current bleak situation in that country.

Moreover, it seems that the new Saudi leadership has come with a new foreign policy. Since the arrival of King Salman to power, tensions within the Gulf Cooperation Council countries— especially with Qatar— have been considerably reduced. Even countering the Muslim Brotherhood brand of political Islam has become less of a priority for KSA’s foreign policy. Who could have imagined a couple of years ago that KSA and the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood would be in the same camp fighting the Saudis’ traditional ally, Saleh? The 2011 GCC initiative was designed to keep Saleh and his party present in Yemeni politics to counter the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Al-Islah party.

What’s next for Decisive Storm

KSA should not take its successes in building a regional coalition against the Houthis for granted. Removing a party from power is much easier than rebuilding a state and putting— as the nursery rhyme goes— “Humpty Dumpty back together again.” Drawing lessons from the U.S. failure in rebuilding the state in Iraq and Afghanistan should be very helpful. No Yemeni “de-Baathification” should ever be envisioned. The Houthis, despite their rebellious behavior, remain an authentic Yemeni political party and KSA should seriously engage with them to reach a comprehensive solution in Yemen. It might sound unacceptable to some, but KSA could also talk to Iran to ensure sustainability of any solutions that are reached. Talking does not necessarily mean accepting the other party’s demands. Obviously, the conditions for negotiations have changed now and Yemeni political parties are no longer expected to negotiate under a Houthi-set ceiling in Sanaa. Yemeni parties should negotiate on an equal footing and the Houthis should be allowed to negotiate with dignity. They should be partners in rebuilding Yemen, not controlling and excluding others.

KSA should be very careful not to destroy state institutions in the process of removing the Houthis from power. Destroying institutions will likely lead to protracted instability; Libya is a clear example of this. Furthermore, KSA should engage with those brigades of the Yemeni army loyal to Saleh, as some probably pledged allegiance to him in the absence of better alternatives. One of the mistakes in the 2011 GCC imitative was allowing Saleh to remain an active player in Yemeni politics. This could be an opportunity for KSA to correct that mistake, and ensure that the time has come for him to retire. As some Yemenis argue, the Houthis are “politically immature” and Saleh— who described himself as “dancing on the heads of snakes”—has been the brains behind the current turmoil.
Finally, KSA should not take Yemenis’ welcome of their intervention for granted. For historical reasons, Yemenis in general are sensitive to external interventions in their affairs and also to Saudi relations with various players in the Yemeni political scene. KSA therefore should reassure Yemenis that their intervention is not going to replace Houthi control with Saudi guardianship. 

Ibrahim Fraihat

Associate Professor of International Conflict Resolution - Doha Institute for Graduate Studies


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