Analysis

Attack on Saudi Oil Facilities: The War Is in Yemen, the Solution Is in Washington

This is no longer a local conflict that developed into a proxy war; it is an international struggle for prestige and influence in a country that is very similar to Afghanistan

Fires burn in the distance after a drone strike by Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi group on Saudi company Aramco's oil processing facilities, in Buqayq, Saudi Arabia September 14, 2019
REUTERS

The massive attack by Houthis from Yemen on oil installations in Saudi Arabia was described by the Houthis as “the second balance of deterrence.” The first stage of their strategy came a few weeks ago when they attacked oil tankers and oil installations in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Houthis reaped the fruits of the first “balance of deterrence” when the UAE began withdrawing its forces from Yemen, a step the Houthis rewarded by halting their attacks on the UAE.

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This success will apparently fuel their desire to continue attacking Saudi targets 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) away, using drones supplied by Iran. Their hope is that the Saudis will follow in the UAE’s footsteps and stop their attacks on Houthi targets while handing the Houthis a position of power in the negotiations that will eventually lead to a diplomatic solution.

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Driving a wedge between Saudi Arabia and the UAE has effectively dismantled the “Arab coalition” that Saudi Arabia formed in 2015 to halt Iranian influence in Yemen. It was also designed to eradicate the rule of the Houthis, who had conquered Yemen’s capital Sana’a the year before, and to turn Yemen into a Saudi client state.

The recognition that there is no military solution to the war in Yemen – despite the superior military capabilities of Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE – along with President Donald Trump’s efforts to open direct talks with Iranian President Hassan Rohani, have spurred the U.S. administration to again try to negotiate with the Houthis, this time directly rather than through mediators.

Secondary negotiations began in July between the United Arab Emirates and the Houthis, as was revealed by Lebanon-based Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s deputy, Sheikh Naim Qassem, in an interview with the Al Mayadeen network. Iran, which allowed the Houthis to open an embassy in Tehran, is apparently an active partner in the negotiations and may also see them as a way to realign its relations with Saudi Arabia after four years of disconnect and hostility.

A boy holds a rifle as he attends a rally of Houthi movement.
Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

In the same interview, Qassem stated that Iran was always in favor of a political solution in Yemen and that “if the parties reach an agreement, the agreement could expand and include all the parties involved and with influence.” In other words, this would lead to improved relations between the Gulf states and Iran. While such a result would certainly be interpreted as a success for the Houthis and Iran, it would also free Saudi Arabia from a war costing it tens of billions of dollars. It also might enhance Riyadh’s position in Washington, where it is considered an outcast, and end the battle between Congress and President Trump over arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

A diplomatic solution cannot be merely a cease-fire or a withdrawal of forces. It requires a political and economic road map for the postwar period. The distribution of political power and an equitable budget allocation, two issues that have served over the years as grounds for the war between the Houthis and the Yemeni government – long before this war was framed as a battle between Iran on one hand and Saudi Arabia and the United States on the other – would have to be resolved in a way that would satisfy the Houthis.

Burden to fall on the Saudis

Despite the internal disagreements among their leaders, the Houthis understand that the burden of rehabilitating Yemen will fall on Saudi Arabia and Gulf states and not Iran. The stability of the Yemeni regime under Houthi leadership, with the cooperation of parties and tribes that now support the recognized and powerless government led by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, will depend mainly on the future regime’s relations with neighboring countries.

A Yemeni southern separatist fighter inspects wreckage.
Wail al-Qubaty/AP

The Houthis have hinted at this in speeches and declarations in which they stressed the role of the United States and Israel in the war, portraying them as having forced Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to launch a war against them as part of their struggle against Iran. This rhetorical maneuver is aimed at showing that there is ostensibly no ideological, religious or strategic dispute between the Houthis and the Saudis, and that the moment the United States and Israel stop intervening in what is happening in Yemen, a solution will be attainable.

This approach might have been persuasive in the early stages of the war. But after four years in which tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians have been killed by airstrikes, famine and disease, and millions left homeless and in horrific poverty, this is no longer simply a local conflict that developed into a proxy war, as in Syria or Libya. It is an international struggle for prestige and influence in a country that is very similar to Afghanistan in that it has no economic value and its strategic importance at the entrance to the Red Sea is limited.

Not the Persian Gulf

The Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandeb strait are not the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, in terms of trade volume or the quantities of oil flowing through them. Moreover, Yemen is surrounded by powerful entities such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. Navy, as well Israel, at a distance. They can guarantee free passage through the Red Sea without the conquest of Yemen even if Yemen ends up under Houthi leadership.

The concern is that Iran would increase its military presence in Yemen particularly along the coasts. But unlike Lebanon and Syria, for Iran to maintain army or naval forces far from its ports in the Persian Gulf is contrary to the strategy that it has adopted so far. And it would pose an enormous financial and military burden. It also bears noting that Iran hasn’t even sent army brigades to Syria or Lebanon, and in Iraq, it relies mainly on local militias.

Another concern is that the Houthis will serve as Iran’s military representatives, just as Hezbollah serves as its military arm in Lebanon and against Israel. Here too, a distinction must be made between the Houthis and Hezbollah. The Houthis are not orthodox Shi’ites like the Shi’ites in Lebanon so the religious alliance, to the extent it exists, is the product of a Western and Sunni Muslim outlook.

Iran did not establish the Houthi forces the way it fostered the establishment of Hezbollah. Iran has been piggybacking on the Houthis’ rebellion against the Yemeni government before and after the Arab Spring, and there is no certainty that it will be able to rely on them after the war is over.

It is doubtful that the Houthis will be willing to fight for Iran or any other country once an agreement is reached on their stake in the regime, which is expected to be significant. It appears that, for all the parties, the war in Yemen has reached a stage that provides relatively good prospects for a diplomatic solution that would end the terrible human tragedy there.