Reasons Behind Major Shift In Saudi Position On Yemen

Developing Just Leadership

Brecht Jonkers

Shawwal 11, 1444 2023-05-01

News & Analysis

by Brecht Jonkers (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 53, No. 3, Shawwal, 1444)

Last month witnessed a sudden shift in the global geopolitical landscape. If it is carried through to the end, will mark a profound shift in West Asian politics and the strategic balance of power in the Arab Peninsula in particular, with reverberations likely to be felt further into Eurasia.

Finally, after eight years of carnage, destruction and death, it seems that peace in Yemen is now perhaps within reach. With a swift decision that has surprised many, Saudi Arabia, seemingly out of nowhere, announced its willingness to engage in negotiations. The kingdom went as far as to openly state its intention to withdraw from Yemen in the near future and limit itself to “support” domestic negotiations and power-sharing agreements amongst Yemeni factions.

At the same time, a prisoner exchange deal of unseen proportions was concluded, freeing nearly 900 Yemenis from captivity at the hands of Saudi forces and allowing them to return home.

The Saudi ambassador to Yemen, who had been based in the occupied city of Yemen for obvious reasons, personally visited Sana‘a, met with leading Ansarullah figure Mohammed al-Houthi and was even received by President Mahdi al-Mashat, who as leader of the Supreme Political Council is the actual President of Yemen. By contrast, the so-called “Presidential Leadership Council”, as the Saudi-backed puppet government of Yemen is called since the removal of Abdrabbuh Hadi as head puppet, has been consistently kept out of all negotiations, only being briefed by the Saudi diplomatic delegation after they are done with their talks to representatives of the Sana‘a government.

Despite the fact that the destructive war on Yemen has been going on for over eight years, has plunged the country that was once known as Fortunate Arabia into the worst humanitarian crisis on the face of the earth, and has cost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives, the Saudi change of heart and reversal of years of stubborn and unmoving policy, still feels sudden and unexpected.

Surely, many may wonder why Riyadh, seemingly so suddenly, has decided to significantly lighten the blockade, told its collaborator “government of Yemen” in Aden that it will soon be on its own, and even sent its ambassador to Sana‘a to meet directly with high-ranking Ansarullah member Mohammed al-Houthi and President Mahdi al-Mashat.

The reasons for this change, and for developments that hopefully will see the final and permanent end to war, to the Saudi-led invasion attempts and to all occupation of Yemeni soil by foreign powers, are threefold.

First and foremost, the most important reason is the simple fact that Yemen has been winning the war. No serious analyst of the Saudi-led invasion and the conflict in its entirety, has been able to claim that Saudi victory was in the cards at any point during the last several years. Saudi Arabia launched the war on March 26, 2015 with the stated intention to capture Sana‘a in a matter of a few weeks, and victory guaranteed within a month.

The Saudi battle plan was basically lost from the moment this promised swift victory failed, and the offensive ground to a halt. Since then, the frontline solidified into a stalemate for most of the past eight years. Saudi Arabia, in a strategy seemingly taken from the United States “shock and awe” playbook, relied mostly on air superiority to periodically bomb Yemen, taking advantage of the lack of Yemeni aircraft and insufficient anti-aircraft defences.

True, Yemen suffered tremendously from these attacks. Nothing was safe from Saudi air raids: schools, mosques, historical sites, civilian residences, water infrastructure and even school buses were apparently considered legitimate targets by the Saudi Air Force.

However, airstrikes alone don’t win a war, especially if the end goal is occupation of the land and the re-establishment of a specific puppet regime. The land is where the decisive battles are fought. While Saudi Arabia and its Emirati allies had occupied a major chunk of Yemeni land space in terms of square kilometers, the majority of Yemen’s population, as well as most major cities and the most interesting regions for economic resource development remained firmly in the hands of the National Salvation Government in Sana‘a.

Saudi-led land forces, often consisting of foreign mercenaries such as Sudanese hired guns and the infamous US private contractor Blackwater, launched several major offensives towards Yemeni lines, often targeting the west coast and the strategic port city of Hodeidah, but to no avail. Time and again, Saudi forces were defeated, routed, pushed back into retreat or simply wiped out.

This resulted in a situation whereby the Saudi rulers were forced to look for a “graceful” way out of the conflict. Simply withdrawing and letting the puppet government in Aden to collapse amidst major Ansarullah advances, would have caused the kingdom to lose face, and would undoubtedly have evoked comparison to the chaotic retreat of US forces from Afghanistan.

As a result, the war continued and Yemenis kept dying while Riyadh bid its time looking for a way to end the fiasco that it had started.

The second major reason, and one that Crescent International had written about in the past, is the slow but gradual cooling down of relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Whereas crown prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) was once hailed as a visionary leader of a new Arab renaissance across the Peninsula, the strong-willed and ambitious Saudi royal has come to be considered more of a liability in the halls of power of the west. The American change came in particular after Joe Biden entered the White House, and tried to reign in Riyadh more than had ever been attempted in the past.

This reduction in cordiality between Washington and Riyadh has little to do with any moral qualms the US suddenly felt about Saudi Arabia’s aggressive foreign policy, much less the horrible human rights record the kingdom has in regards to labor policy, support of Wahhabi terrorist organizations worldwide or the regular crackdowns on any kind of political or religious disagreement.

These issues were far removed from any concern in the White House. The major issue is the ambitious agenda of MbS. The young brash prince has set out a clear path for himself and his kingdom the moment he took the reigns of power and became de facto ruler. As part of an ambitious set of goals named Vision 2030, MbS launched a campaign of several far-fetched projects. From plans for a hypermodern metropolis to be built from scratch at the Red Sea coast, to a cube-shaped, single-building “city within the city” that vows to feature flying cars, there probably is no better word to describe MbS’s plan than “ambitious”.

All of this was fine and good for the foreign backers of the Saudi kingdom. Luxury, opulence and even decadence have typified the kingdom’s ruling elite almost since the day the British aided the Bani Saud in taking over much of the Peninsula. However, the Saudi vision soon hit several obstacles, not the least was the general lack of western financial support in building the necessary economic base for a renewed Saudi state.

For all the wealth and opulence resulting from it, the bilateral connection between Saudi Arabia and the west has always been a very simple one: Saudi Arabia delivers petroleum at cheap prices to fuel western economies, and its rulers get exorbitant sums of money and US military protection in return. To complete the circle, the Saudi upper class then uses some of these funds to buy luxury goods, fashion, cars, yachts… from specialty providers in the west. It is a simple deal, one that has generated astronomical profits for westerners, but it is also a deal in which Saudi Arabia has been relegated to a secondary position from a geopolitical point of view.

As much as laying back and enjoying the fruits of fossil fuel wealth seemed to have been just fine for the Bani Saud during most of the kingdom’s history, MbS clearly does not see it that way anymore. As was mentioned in an earlier article on the issue, MbS is dead-set on making Saudi Arabia a profitable center of production. One might say that he seeks to establish the kingdom as a regional economic power, much like the Islamic Republic of Iran already is (although this is unlikely to be a comparison that anyone in the Saudi ruling class is willing to make).

As reporters Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck mention in their book Blood and Oil, “The way foreign business leaders wanted to do business with him was different to the way he wanted to do business with them. They just wanted him to give them money. He wanted them to invest in Saudi Arabia. Despite all these enticements, this hasn’t happened.”

Put simply, multinational corporations and western investors just don’t see Saudi Arabia as an attractive center of production. There is no real financial incentive for them to do so, as long as Saudi buyers keep importing products from abroad. Saudi Arabia’s economy remains, for the time being, based on the extraction and sale of raw materials.

Despite its extremely important strategic position on the global geopolitical map and the strong historical ties between Riyadh and Washington, the US has never treated Saudi Arabia as an equal partner. Much like so many other western “allies” have found out eventually to their frustration, MbS has had to come to terms with the fact that he is not, and likely never will be, seen as an equal by the imperial core.

A recurring theme in geopolitical developments over the past century, and in US imperialism in particular, is the fact that the US will always consider its own allies and puppets as “disposable” as soon as they are considered to be no longer useful to its geostrategic interests. Perhaps they stepped out of line, they tugged the reins of power a bit too much, or perhaps they just got unfortunate and were caught off-guard by the changing winds of geopolitics. Fact is, relying on the US as the base of one’s power is a very risky bet to make. Nobody described this better than former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests,” and “To be an enemy of America can be dangerous, but to be a friend is fatal.”

This has been experienced by US “allies” around the world, from the abandoned projects of “independent” Katanga and Taiwan, to the “friends of America” who ended up being overthrown and/or killed by the US itself, such as South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem, Panama’s Manuel Noriega and of course Saddam Hussain. It would be unthinkable that someone like MbS had not considered this risk when he set out to forge his own personal vision for Saudi Arabia’s future. It seems quite possible, therefore, that MbS decided to move first, before the US (which hides its strategic reasons for distrusting MbS behind the humanitarian veneer of being shocked at the murder of Jamal Khashoggi) acts to have him deposed or even killed.

The ominous threat looming from Washington is all the more real for MbS and to the kingdom’s future if one considers that the one real trump card that Riyadh holds, which is oil, is quickly losing its value as leverage with the Washington. Around 2018, the US reached energy self-sufficiency for the first time in decades, and has meanwhile even reached the status of net oil exporter, meaning it actually produces more fuel than it needs for its own domestic market.

It speaks for itself that the vast oil fields of the Arabian Peninsula suddenly lost a lot of their appeal in America’s halls of power, especially with the renewable energy market in the US already worth a whopping 269 billion dollars in 2022 (which already makes it bigger than the entire US domestic oil and gas industry, which was valued at $196.23 billion in 2021) and only set to boom further.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise then, that the US was only the sixth-largest export destination for Saudi Arabia in 2021. The number one, valued at no less than 19 percent of all Saudi exports that year was the People’s Republic of China.

The role of China is the third major reason behind the sudden Saudi request for negotiations and a peaceful solution to the eight-year war in Yemen. China, a country with significant investments in Saudi Arabia already, including a $50 billion investment agreed upon in late 2022 and a major joint oil refinery deal just concluded, is clearly seen as an interesting commercial partner by Riyadh.

It also helps that China has always maintained a strict non-interventionist policy that at times even looked quite opportunistic and devoid of any form of moral judgment. This is also exactly why China has always kept on selling weapons to the Saudis, even at the height of the kingdom’s war on Yemen.

Meanwhile, China has been calling for negotiations and a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Yemen, even offering itself as a mediating partner that has no real interest of its own in the region. While China maintained its recognition of the Saudi-backed puppet rulers in Aden and Riyadh as “legitimate government” of Yemen, they have also maintained open channels of communication and diplomacy with both the National Salvation Government in Sana‘a and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council separatists.

In 2019, China had laid out a suggestion for a “post-conflict Yemen”, in which key points included the integration of Yemen as well as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as the modern revival of the ancient Silk Roads is called. Yemeni journalist Mareb al-Ward, reporting for Al-Monitor, has indicated that the Chinese ambassadors to Yemen regularly met with representatives of Ansarullah, and that Chinese communications spoke of the organization as the successor of the revolutionaries of 1962.

In the wake of the tremendous diplomatic success that was the resumption of diplomatic contacts between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Chinese mediation in its typical aloof and neutral style seems to be paying off quite well.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the new wind that blows through the Arabian Peninsula will hold and lead to lasting peace. The latest talks in Sana‘a have not yet led to any firm decisions, although President Mahdi al-Mashat said the follow-up talks in Oman, that are still ongoing at the time of this writing, are developing “positively”. A possible bigger problem could be the United Arab Emirates and the southern Yemeni separatists. The Southern Transitional Council in particular has shown itself to be belligerent towards any central government in Sana‘a, as has been shown by the years of infighting between Emirati-backed separatists and forces loyal to the Saudi-backed “government” of Hadi and the Presidential Leadership Council. Moreover, it needs mentioning that the UAE still occupies various islands and archipelagos in the Gulf of Aden and near the Bab al-Mandeb Strait connecting to the Red Sea.

These strategic locations have been occupied and seen extensive development and construction works entirely beyond the reach of either Sana‘a or Aden, and it seems rather unlikely at the moment that the Emiratis are keen on just giving up their presence there.

Of course, imperial politicians and corporate media are also doing their best to undermine the peace efforts, whether through doomsaying articles vowing that peace can’t be achieved by a Saudi withdrawal anyway, or by US and zionist “warnings” that Iran is somehow behind it all and is plotting to take advantage of possible peace in Yemen. But, putting the nonsensical empty talk of imperialist pundits aside, while at the same time guarding against naive optimism, we can safely say that peace and the end of the horrible war on Yemen is, at the very least, closer than ever before.

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