Analysis

Mohammed Bin Salman's Woes Might Prove to Be Yemen's Savior

To Trump and Netanyahu, punishing Saudi Arabia means rewarding Iran and harming a vital ally in the anti-Tehran alliance. But peace has the U.S. Congress on its side

A girl walks near her house destroyed in an air strike carried out by the Saudi-led coalition in Faj Attan village, Sanaa, Yemen December 13, 2018.
REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

After a week of meetings with government and rebel officials in Rimbo, Sweden, the special UN envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, admits that his job is no walk in the park.

Houthis don’t trust the distinguished 67-year-old diplomat, who was appointed in February. As a well-connected former British diplomat, he’s viewed by the rebels as someone who sells weapons to the Saudis for slaughtering them. Yemen’s government, meanwhile, suspects Griffiths of being too indulgent with the Houthis and of backing their impossible demands.

All the same, he has the sides negotiating after a two-year break, and he has just pulled off a prisoner-swap deal that might be implemented within days.

The Houthis are holding about 8,000 prisoners, including the brother of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, former Defense Minister Mahmoud al-Subaihi and a senior member of the Reform Party ruling Yemen’s south. The government is holding about 7,500 Houthi prisoners who were captured during the last four years of war.

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Both sides say prisoners have been severely tortured in covert prisons, and The Associated Press has published an exposé in which people held prisoner by the Houthis recount their torture. This includes being hung by their wrists for days, food and sleep deprivation, beatings with clubs and rape threats. Similar descriptions come from Houthi prisoners in government prisons.

Both sides say the number of prisoners about to be exchanged is much smaller than the overall number. The organization set up by prisoners’ mothers has documented 18,000 arrests, including about 1,000 torture victims at more than 30 black sites.

The prisoners’ condition is a small part of the tragedy experienced by Yemen’s 29 million or so people; the United Nation says they are suffering “the greatest human tragedy” going on in the world. More than 10,000 people have been killed in this long war, and 40,000 to 50,000 have died from famine and disease.

Unlike Syria, where some 560,000 people have been killed according to the last count, in Yemen starvation is the greatest enemy; around 20 million people are suffering from it. In Syria, even during the worst fighting, people managed to obtain humanitarian aid, but in Yemen the routes for aid convoys are blocked.

The state’s most important port, Hodeidah, through which 90 percent of aid shipments are supposed to pass, is ruled by the rebels. Part of the city of Hodeidah, where some 600,000 people live, is ruled by the Arab coalition. From the north there are no safe routes for aid convoys, and in the south, one part of which is ruled by the regime and the coalition, and the other by Al-Qaida, it’s impossible to transfer food and medicine to the people besieged in the north.

Indeed, if the parties’ hugs and kisses when they signed the prisoner-exchange deal are translated into acts, it will mark an optimistic opening to a long, complex diplomatic campaign scheduled to last until Friday and resume at the beginning of next year. At the moment the goal is to agree to open the capital Sanaa’s airport and reach a joint-control arrangement on Hodeidah with UN supervision, to enable at least aid shipments.

Shi’ites and Sunnis

But the diplomatic moves could be thwarted. The war has morphed from a tribal-religious struggle between the Zaidi sect of the Shi’ites, led by the al-Houthi family representing some 40 percent of the population, and the Sunni administration, to an international war.

It’s not necessarily a religious war. The tribes that joined the al-Houthi family in north Yemen demanded political and economic rights based on their percentage of the population. A similar demand was made by the southern, mostly Sunni, tribes, which want their part in the oil revenues from the southern oil fields.

Theoretically, the deprived groups, both Sunni and Zaidi, could have formed an alliance of the kind that launched the Arab Spring in 2011, which led to the ousting of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The ousted president, who conducted a violent campaign against the Houthis already before the revolution, switched sides to regain power. Last December he was assassinated by rebels because he tried to switch sides again and join the Saudis, who probably promised him a considerable part in the government if he withdrew his forces from the alliance with the Houthis.

This tribal war developed into a regional war for hegemony in 2015. In January that year, when Salman was crowned Saudi king, he launched the Arab coalition; key members are the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Sudan. The goal is to subdue the Houthis, who are seen as Iran’s allies.

A soldier allied to Yemen's internationally recognized government stands guard at the fish market in Aden, Yemen, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018.
AP Photo/Jon Gambrell

The coalition chalked up a few important achievements like taking over the port of Aden and blocking the Houthis’ expansion southward. But despite this and the coalition’s American backing, the coalition failed to achieve a decisive victory. Brokerage attempts by Kuwait and the United Nations failed due to the Houthis’ refusal to withdraw from all the territory they conquered and hand over their weapons to the government.

Khashoggi’s ghost

Saudi Arabia’s efforts to set up a recognized government in Yemen headed by President Hadi turned into a farce when Hadi moved to Saudi Arabia, from where he’s “running” the affairs of a nonexistent state.

Around two months ago the body of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi rolled into the Yemeni swamp, as it were, placing Saudi Arabia and the Yemen war’s architect, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, on a collision course with Washington.

This also caused a confrontation between Congress and President Donald Trump. In March the Senate discussed halting U.S. weapons sales to the Saudis because of the high casualties in Yemen and its refusal to let humanitarian aid reach civilians in besieged cities. Mohammed went to Washington in a bid to persuade senators to drop the proposal, claiming that if Saudi Arabia can’t fight in Yemen, then Iran, Al-Qaida and the Islamic State will take its place.

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That was also Trump’s argument, and the legislation got delayed to this month. Trump explained to members of Congress that if the United States doesn’t sell arms to Saudi Arabia, European countries will step in. This  made sense in view of Riyadh’s arms deals with France and Britain.

After Khashoggi’s murder, a few Republican and Democratic senators renewed the debate on the proposal, and this time it could pass, though Trump might veto it. Mohammed, who knows he’s persona non grata on Capitol Hill, hasn’t come to Washington for the recent debates.

Five large lobbying firms that worked for the kingdom have cut their ties with the royal family due to the murder. The Washington Post, where Khashoggi worked, made it clear to one lobbyist for the Saudis, Ed Rogers, that he’ll have to choose between writing his pieces for the paper or sticking with Riyadh. Congressmen say the lobbying firms have stopped sending them requests about arms sales to the Saudis.

Only Trump is still convinced that he can block the legislation. But judging by the speed in which senators and House members are moving the process forward (on Thursday, the senate voted to end aid), it appears that at least part of it will pass by the end of the year before the recess, with the more significant part passed at the beginning of the next session.

In Trump’s opinion, punishing Saudi Arabia is tantamount to rewarding Iran and harming a vital ally in the anti-Iran alliance. Here also lies the Israeli connection. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has actively participated in shaping Trump’s response to Khashoggi’s murder. According to the Israeli strategy, to block Iran, the Houthis have to be subdued, and only Saudi Arabia can do that.

Iran, for its part, supports negotiations between the sides, because it too isn’t capable of generating the victory for its side, the Houthis. And any diplomatic solution will yield political achievements for its protégés, who have been mired in financial and military difficulties. Griffiths, who holds the ends of all these threads, must now weave the arrangement that will stop the killing.