Analysis |

Biden Navigates Through Yemen Hell, but Solution Lies in Riyadh and Tehran

Sixteen million Yemenis are on the brink of hunger, but internal power struggles are preventing a diplomatic solution

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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People displaced by conflict receive food aid near the conflict zone in Yemen's western province of Hodeida, last month.
People displaced by conflict receive food aid near the conflict zone in Yemen's western province of Hodeida, last month.Credit: Khaled ZIAD / AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Twitter account of David Beasely, the executive director the United Nations World Food Programme, is not for the faint of heart. A two-day visit he made this week to Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, produced terrifying descriptions of silent children in hospitals who don’t even have the strength to scream or cry.

And these are the lucky children who have managed to get to the hospital in the first place; many families can’t even afford to pay for the trip. About 400,000 young people are suffering from severe malnutrition, and about 16 million people are on the verge of hunger or a lack of nutrition security. The country’s fuel reserves are nearly empty and hospitals have been left without electricity. At the same time, 14 oil tankers have been docked in the Red Sea since early January, because they are unable to enter the port of Hudaydah, Yemen’s main port for receiving food supplies, medicine and other necessities.

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This maritime blockade was imposed by Saudi Arabia, which allows the passage of only meticulously selected ships. The Saudis say, and it seems justifiably so, that the Houthi rebels are imposing fuel taxes to the tune of millions of dollars, which they are using to finance their war. The United Nations backs the Saudi claim, but says that the port must be opened to fuel tankers nonetheless – if not, the hospitals will be shuttered completely.

“This is hell,” Beasley tweeted. “Yemen is becoming the worst place on Earth, and it is 100 percent man-made.” According to his estimates, the World Food Programme needs $1.9 billion to save lives, but donations have been limited. A virtual fundraising event the United Nations held earlier this month ended in great disappointment. They asked for donations totaling $3.85 billion, but raised only $1.7 billion, about a billion dollars less than what they collected in 2019. Leading the states who donated were Saudi Arabia with $430 million, Germany with about $250 million and the United States with $191 million.

Among the Middle Eastern nations in need international aid, Yemen is in the most dire state, and the war within it is raging in full force. U.S. President Joe Biden recently appointed Tim Lenderking, a senior diplomat who served in the Middle East for years, as his special envoy for Yemen. This is part of Biden’s “America is back” policy, which he declared in early February. Unlike his predecessor Donald Trump, who tried to disengage from the Middle East, withdraw troops and leave the Arab nations to handle their crises, Biden is raising the flag of U.S. intervention.

Biden has had good intentions and a well-organized policy concerning Yemen dating back to the campaign trail. He fiercely condemned U.S. arms deals with Saudi Arabia, who mainly used those weapons in its war in Yemen. When he entered the White House, Biden froze these deals in order to reexamine them.

Biden instructed Lenderking to conduct talks with Houthi representatives after he decided to officially remove them from the list of U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Talks were held in Muscat, Oman, but did not achieve any real results. The decision to clear the Houthis’ name didn’t help either. Biden was hit with harsh criticism – both at home and from the Arab coalition states – for rushing to reward the Houthis without receiving anything in return.

It seems this decision was intended not only to make the talks with the Houthis easier, but also to send a message to Iran, which backs and aids the Houthis, as a confidence-building measure in advance of negotiations over the nuclear deal. This message was met with Iranian refusal to conduct negotiations with the United States until it removed all sanctions imposed on the Islamic republic. Iran has been very carefully not to include any other issues in nuclear talks – not the war in Yemen, not its ballistic missile program and not its involvement in any other countries.

“If Lenderking decides to enable the Houthis to take control of Yemen with the help of the Iranian regime, the war will not end, wrote the respected Kuwaiti professor and journalist Mohammed Al Rumaihi in Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya. “Since the Iranian regime seeks to use the Houthis to their advantage by serving their expansionist project in the Arabian Peninsula, this means that the situation will only escalate, and the crisis will not be resolved.” This sentiment is shared by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – all of whom tried, unsuccessfully, to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Biden may be able to apply pressure to the Saudis and stop arms sales, but as he himself has made clear, he will still help the kingdom defend itself. The question is whether it is possible to reconcile between the freeze on arms sales and the Houthis’ attacks on Saudi targets. A short time after the meetings between the Houthis and U.S. representatives were reported last Thursday, the Houthis attacked one of the Aramco oil company’s facilities in Jeddah as well as a military base, using missiles and armed drones. Two days earlier, the Houthis fired a missile at the Saudi city of Jizan on the border with Yemen, killing five civilians.

Boys line up outside a charity kitchen to get food donations in Sanaa, Yemen, two months ago. Credit: REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

At the same time, the Houthis have been conducting an assault for the past month against the Marib region in southern Yemen, in an attempt to take control of it and annex it to the central and northern areas they control. Marib is an important and strategic region where most of Yemen’s oil fields are located, and is an essential source of funds for the government’s operations. For now, the Yemeni military has managed to push back the Houthi assault with Saudi help; over 90 people were killed in the battles. It is hard to see how Biden can advance his diplomatic efforts in light of these never-ending confrontations, while calls from his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, to stop the assault on Marib have been answered with even more missiles.

The southern secessionist

The military campaign waged by the Yemeni government, headed by President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and the Saudi coalition against the Houthis is just one front in which Biden does not have an orderly plan. In December, after long and difficult labor pains, the new Yemeni government was sworn in, headed by Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed. This government was supposed to end the deep conflict between Hadi’s government and the institution known as the Southern Transitional Council, which was established by tribal leaders and combatants from southern Yemen who saw the war as an opportunity to reestablish South Yemen as an independent country – as it had been until the unification with the north in 1990.

Aidarus Qassem Abdulaziz al-Zoubaidi, the UAE-based leader of the southern secessionists, gave his blessing to the new government and approved his representatives’ joining the government as ministers. This seemed to be the end of a struggle that could very well have rent Yemen into three parts: the south, controlled by the secessionists; the center, controlled by the recognized Yemeni government; and the center-north, controlled by the Houthis. But what looks like a “historic reconciliation” now seems to be far from fulfilling everyone’s hopes.

In an interview with The Guardian earlier this month, Zoubaidi said that if Biden wants to end the six-year civil war in Yemen, he can do so by backing a UN-sponsored referendum on independence for the South. “Our popular support across the South is overwhelming, and if the UN organized a referendum, we are confident we would win the support in excess of 90 percent of the southern population,” he said.

Zoubaidi began to realize his dream of southern independence in April 2020, when he announced the establishment of an autonomous region in Aden and its surrounding areas. This venture ended after violent clashes and pressure from the UAE, which has been providing Zoubaidi with military and financial sponsorship. Now Zoubaidi is demanding that his representatives be part of any diplomatic moves intended to put an end to the Yemen crisis.

The fact that a Yemeni government exists, and that his council members are a part of it, is not enough for Zoubaidi. He also wants independent representation, which the United Nations and other participants in the diplomatic efforts are not planning on providing him with for the time being, out of fear that such a step could bring down the government and the mediation efforts. In the interview, Zoubaidi explained the logic behind his demand. If the Houthis conquer the Marib region, they will complete their takeover of the north and center of the country. This creates a situation in which Yemen will be controlled by two groups: the Houthis in most of the north and Zoubaidi’s forces in most of the south.

A fighter loyal to Yemen's Houthi rebels is pictured at the funeral of fellow combatants, last month. Credit: Mohammed HUWAIS / AFP

“In that case, it would make sense to have direct talks between the parties that are in control,” he said. In other words, according to his plan, the official government of Yemen, would not even have a place in the negotiations. It is unlikely that Zoubaidi’s plan of action will have any takers, but he also has the power to torpedo any negotiations if he decides his own political aspirations are not provided for.

Between Zoubaidi’s twisting of the Yemeni government’s arm and between the White House and the Saudis, Biden will have to decide whether he is even able to separate the crisis in Yemen from the rest of the conflicts in the Middle East – and especially from his desires to conduct negotiations with Iran. The United States has traditionally treated Yemen as a branch of Saudi Arabia, and allowed it to deal with Yemen as it saw fit. Former President Barack Obama supported the establishment of an Arab coalition against the Houthis, and even approved the sale of $110 billion of weapons to Riyadh. It was only later, perhaps too late, that he placed restrictions on the types of weapons to be sold to the kingdom after the scale of the civilian toll became clear. Trump demanded that Saudi Arabia conduct negotiations with the Houthis, but did not place any military limitations on arms sales to the Saudis.

Now that Biden is turning a cold shoulder to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he will have to convince King Salman that the war in Yemen – which his son declared – is a resounding failure and should come to an end. It seems that Salman has been convinced for two years now that this is an unnecessary and harmful war for Saudi Arabia. At that point, the Emiratis, who were Saudi Arabia’s partner from the beginning of the war, withdrew their forces from Yemen. Egypt, another member of the coalition, didn’t really participate, and Pakistan, too, refused to send its air force to fight there. But the declaration of a unilateral ceasefire would be interpreted as a Saudi surrender, as well as a slap in the face to the United States as a result, at a time when Biden is making great efforts to prove that his actions vis-a-vis Iran will not come at the expense of his allies.

It is difficult to explain these considerations to the babies and children in Yemen who are starving for food, bottles of milk or the medicine that will keep them alive. After all, they are collateral damage and carry no strategic importance, statistics in the death toll, chilling personal stories that rouse little interest in the news reports.

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