The Rome MED This Week newsletter provides experts’ analyses and informed comments on the most significant issues and trends in the MENA region. Today, Yemen takes centre stage after Biden’s recent announcements that could change the critical situation on the ground.
During his first month in office, US President Joe Biden has ordered the suspension of US arms sales and assistance for “offensive operations” conducted by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and appointed Tim Lenderking as the Administration’s new envoy to the country. Additionally, Biden has chosen to freeze some of the sanctions imposed on the Houthis, revoking his predecessor’s eleventh-hour move to designate the group as a terrorist organization. Such decisions not only openly break with the Trump administration’s outright support for Washington’s Gulf allies but also promise a distancing from Barack Obama’s Yemen policy, despite Biden’s appointing of various familiar faces from the previous democratic administration. Meanwhile, Martin Griffiths’, the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, first visit to Tehran indicates the possibility of Iran’s availability to put real pressure on the Houthis. These recent developments caused a stir as they could open a window of opportunity to revive multilateral dialogue and move towards a diplomatic solution for the conflict. After six years of war, the country’s economy has been shattered, tens of thousands of Yemenis, including many civilians, have been killed and more than 24 million – 80 percent of the population – are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, making Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in recent history.
Experts from the ISPI MED network react to the new challenges emerging in Yemen’s evolving situation.
The only way out is through Saudi security
“President Biden’s decisions have quickly reshaped the American policy on Yemen. But a Saudi exit-strategy will not be possible as long as the Houthis escalate missile and drone attacks against civilian targets in the kingdom and the Red Sea. Yemen’s war game has changed: Saudi national security is now clearly at stake. In 2020, the Houthis strengthened coordination with Iran and pro-Iranian militias, improving capabilities and radius of threat. Washington’s new presidency has understood this, and also the E3 group (France, Germany, UK): attacks against Saudi Arabia are growingly perceived, and condemned, as regional menaces, not only Riyadh’s problems. The White House can spin conflict resolution if it manages to reassure the Saudis on territorial defence”.
Eleonora Ardemagni, Associate Research Fellow, ISPI
Turning the tide in the Gulf
“Biden’s early decisions constitute a clear break from his predecessor to again prioritize diplomacy, values and allies. Saudi Arabia is a longstanding security partner, but it does not share American values on democracy and human rights. This is the crux of the challenge for bilateral relations. Biden wants to formally review the relationship, but he has been careful not to suggest that he seeks to end it. He’s halted support for Saudi offensive operations, but did not restrict support to Saudi defenses. The Saudis, meanwhile, have been sending their own positive signals by ending the Gulf rift and releasing political prisoners. These early signals bode well for the difficult but hopefully constructive discussions to come.”
William F. Wechsler, Director, Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs, Atlantic Council
There’s no resolution without reconciliation
“Issues like the Riyadh Agreement underline the wider complication of the conflict and the multiplicity of actors that have emerged since its start. Reckoning with these issues will be crucial to taking steps towards paving the way towards anything resembling a sustainable end to the conflict. The Biden administration is prioritizing the track one over issues like this, though they will continue support to the larger Riyadh agreement process. Since the progress in the Riyadh agreement, a peace of sorts has held in Aden, even though tensions remain. Shoring up this calm – and helping to facilitate the wider return of government services – will be vital in not just helping to move the political process forward, but also in improving the lives of millions of Yemenis.”
Adam Baron, Political Advisor, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD)
Iran wants to keep its ‘Yemeni door’ open
“I do not expect a deeper commitment from Tehran towards the peace process. The Iranians and Houthis share the same vision in Yemen. The only difference is that Iran keeps its doors open for diplomatic efforts while the Houthis close them from time to time. Martin Griffiths believes that speaking with the Iranians will expedite bringing the Houthis to the negotiation table, given the leverage Iran has over the Houthis. While it is good to open a communication channel with all regional actors involved in Yemen’s war, the real question remains – does Iran have an interest to push the Houthis to end the conflict at this point? The answer is simply no. This is especially the case during a time of potential US return to the JCPOA. Iran would want to link the peace in Yemen with its own upcoming talks”
Ahmed Nagi, Nonresident Scholar, Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center
It’s time for EU diplomacy
“The E.U. should take any available opportunity to support the Yemeni people, through development and humanitarian financing as well as diplomatically. The E.U. is a world power, complementing the influence of its Member States. Unlike the U.N., it is not directly constrained by UNSC 2216, and therefore can both engage with Ansar Allah, and ‘talk truth to power’ to President Hadi, his allies and rivals in the anti-Houthi front. It should work with other concerned groups, beyond the established Houthi versus the internationally-recognised Government duo. Such an approach could enable meaningful exchanges of views between the numerous conflicting groups, hopefully leading to a sustainable cease-fire and usefully complement the work of the U.N.”
Helen Lackner, Visiting Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)
More you should know
• Between 2015-19, 73% of Saudi Arabia’s arms imports came from the U.S. (13% from the U.K.)
• Between 2015-20, U.S. arms transfers to Saudi Arabia amounted to over $64.1 billion, averaging $10.7 billion per year (between 2010-14, to just $3 billion per year);
• 80% of Yemen’s civilian population lives under Houthi control
• In 2020, more than 2,000 Yemeni civilians were killed or injured, over 172,000 people were displaced, and over 4,600 civilian properties damaged.
• The U.S. halt in arms sales includes the $35 billion deal to sell F-35 fighter jets to the UAE.
• From 2015 to 2019, Saudi Arabia arms imports increased by 130% (becoming the largest arms importer in the world);
• Italy has blocked the sale of 12,700 aerial bombs to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (the 10th and 11th largest buyers of Italian weapons respectively) for a contract worth more than 411 million euros.
Sources: SIPRI; UNHCR; ANSA