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 a record time, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has been able to successfully build a firm coalition of ten countries participating in the war against the Houthi movement and their 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 Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which expressed their unequivocal support to the Saudi’s “Decisive Operation” 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 in Yemen. While KSA seems to have done their homework to launch this operation, they will need to think carefully how to end it, and that the operation will not turn to 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 from the northern province of Saada to expand to the capital Sanaa and then southern provinces, where President Hadi enjoys overwhelming support. They controlled main ports on the Red Sea, seized most of Yemeni army’s machinery— including fighter jets— and signed an “economic partnership” agreement with Iran.
However, 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 U.N. invitations for peace talks in Doha. Additionally, they ignored all previous Security Council’s statements that called them in name to halt their rebellion and abide by the political transition process in Yemen. Most alarmingly, the Houthis alienated all Yemeni political parties— from Islamists to socialists— except a weird alliance with ousted President Saleh, who they fought against in six wars during the past decade.
Operation Decisive Storm
Given these circumstances, the Saudi intervention in Yemen suggests a number of assumptions. First, coalitions emerging from within the region seem to hold much stronger and yield more tangible outcomes compared to international intervention, even when supported by Security Council resolutions. Regional leadership, like KSA, has found support on the ground with mass protests in the Yemeni provinces of Taiz, Mareb, Aden, Ibb, and Houdiedeh in support of Saudi intervention. That is definitely not the case in 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 nowhere 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 unlimited political, diplomatic, and to a certain extent arms support to the Houthis. However, it is unlikely Iran will fight a war on behalf of the Houthis in Yemen. While condemning the Saudi intervention in Yemen, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has already urged for “dialogue and reconciliation” in Yemen. It is obvious that KSA securing the firm support of major regional players like Egypt, Turkey, and Pakistan has sent powerful message to how far can Iran go with its support to 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 an 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 to a certain extent altered the current bleak situation in the country.
Moreover, it seems that a new leadership in KSA has come with a new foreign policy. Since the arrival of King Salman to power, tension within the GCC countries— especially with Qatar— has been considerably reduced. Even countering the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) 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 MB would be in the same camp fighting Saudi’s 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 U.S. failure in rebuilding states 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 party of Yemeni politics and KSA should seriously engage with them for a comprehensive solution in Yemen. It might sounds unacceptable for some, but KSA could also talk to Iran to ensure sustainability of reached solutions. 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 come to negotiate with dignity. They should be partners in rebuilding Yemen not control and exclude others.
KSA should be very careful not to destroy state institutions in the process of removing Houthis from power. Destroying institution will likely lead to protracted instability— and Libya is a clear example of this. Furthermore, KSA should engage with those brigades of Yemeni army loyal to Saleh as some of them could probably pledged allegiance to him in the absence of better alternatives. Probably one of the mistakes that the GCC imitative made in 2011 was to allow Saleh to remain an active player in Yemeni politics. This could be an opportunity for KSA to correct this mistake, and ensure that the time has come for him to retire. As some Yemenis argue, the Houthis are “politically immature” and that Saleh— who described himself as “dancing on the heads of snakes”—has been the brain behind the current turmoil.
Finally, KSA should not take Yemeni welcoming of their intervention for granted. Due to historical reasons, Yemenis in general are sensitive to both external interventions in their own affairs and also to Saudi relations with various players in Yemeni political scene. KSA therefore should reassure Yemenis that their intervention is not going to replace Houthi control with Saudi guardianship.
Associate Professor of International Conflict Resolution - Doha Institute for Graduate Studies