US and Saudi policies diverge over Yemen

Ahmad Al-Hasani, The Cradle, March 12 2023 — Riyadh wants to exit its Yemen quagmire and is willing to end the siege on Ansarallah-controlled areas. Washington will have none of that, and is sabotaging a Saudi-Yemeni peace deal.

The United States has played a crucial role in supporting the Saudi-led war on Yemen since its inception in 2015. However, after eight years of war and dramatic geopolitics changes that have taken place in Yemen, West Asia, and the world, Washington’s goals have now diverged from those of its Saudi client state.

For decades, Washington treated Yemen as Saudi Arabia’s backyard. The only exception to this rule was in 1994 when former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh put an end to the country’s civil war in collusion with the US, and without the consent of Saudi leaders, who backed southern separatists.

Outside of this occasion, Riyadh has been left to do with Yemen as it pleases, constantly interfering in the country’s internal processes by overthrowing governments, appointing officials, and manipulating tribal conflicts.

During this era, Washington more than once intervened in Yemen militarily, either to “combat terrorism” or to curb the rise of the Yemeni army in coordination with the Saleh regime. Before the start of the Saudi invasion, the US also kept its grip on Yemen to secure the flow of the five million or so barrels of oil that passed through the Bab al-Mandab Strait each day.

But once the Saudi invasion started, Washington played a pivotal role behind the scenes to help Riyadh achieve its military objectives quickly. US planners provided the Saudis with a full spectrum of equipment and services: precision weaponry, military and logistical support, and critical satellite imaging.

Between 2010 and the 2015 onset of the Yemen war, the US sold just $3 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia. Between 2015 and 2020, that number skyrocketed to an astounding $64.1 billion – not including the equivalent increase in weapons sales to Saudi allies in the Yemen war, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

However, the Yemeni resistance soon proved to be a more capable opponent than either the coalition or its western sponsors expected. As one US official described it, under Saudi leadership, the war had come to resemble “riding a bus driven by a drunk.” As the quagmire deepened, the US swooped in to intervene directly in the war by partnering with the UAE to gain control of Yemen’s southern provinces and its western coast.

The start of the Saudi-led invasion of Yemen in March 2015 came just months after Ansarallah forces captured Sanaa and ousted the western-friendly government during the 21 September revolution. The war was also launched just a few months before Iran and western powers signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal. Fearing this step could jeopardize US support for the kingdom, Riyadh rushed into war, dragging its allies along with it – safeguarding security agreements as well as arms and logistical deals with US companies.

The US was not a reluctant co-conspirator. Washington’s support for the war would provide an unprecedented boost to domestic arms sales and to the logistical services that US companies perform for the Saudi Arabian Armed Forces (SAAF), contracts that far exceed the value of arms sales.

Above all, and in complete lockstep with Riyadh, Washington had a strong interest in preventing Ansarallah from taking control of Yemen and transforming it into a stable, independent state that could project influence in the Persian Gulf region.

But despite the US’s initial drive to help the kingdom regain control of Yemen, as the years passed and the civilian death count mounted – and as Ansarallah improved its offensive capabilities, launching missile attacks on both Saudi and Emirati cities and infrastructure – Washington began to exert pressure on the kingdom to reach a truce agreement, with one caveat: Any truce must guarantee the continued besiegement of the northern Yemeni areas under Ansarallah control.

To this end, Washington appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Gulf Affairs Tim Lenderking as its special envoy for Yemen. His efforts to promote peace, however, did not stray too far from the old US talking points about the “growing power” of ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Yemen. And Lenderking continued to push back against genuine Yemeni stability and independence that could compete with Saudi Arabia and upset the balance of power in the region.

The US last year supported the unconstitutional appointment of a so-called Transitional Presidential Council (TPC) that took over from ousted president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who was booted from his position by Saudi leaders who grew frustrated with his backdoor maneuvers.

It also supported the establishment of a “unified force” affiliated with the Council’s Ministry of Defense, despite knowing the force’s internal divisions presented a ticking time bomb that would, in time, explode and create a failed state ruled by competing militias.

Despite their common interests, the US and Saudi Arabia do not share consensus on all things Yemen, and their respective visions diverge in some important ways. The most significant US priorities are:

Fighting terrorism: The US intensified its presence in Yemen under the pretext of combating terrorism after the 2000 al-Qaeda attack on the USS Cole guided missile destroyer off the coast of Aden. Washington signed security agreements with the Saleh government to open US intelligence stations in Sanaa and Aden, and to deploy military units in the Al-Anad and Daylami bases.

When Al-Qaeda increased its activities in Yemen after 2011, the US military role grew as well with at least 5,000 troops deployed to the country. Washington also allocated $250 million per year for the Yemeni Defense Ministry to combat armed groups. This lasted until 2014, when Ansarallah took control of Sanaa, pushing the US to rely on the UAE for its so-called anti-terrorism project.

US-Emirati coordination: Security and political coordination between Abu Dhabi and Washington in Yemen grew over the years after the Emiratis replaced the Saudis in several regions of the country. In the UAE, the US found a useful tool for several of its indirect plans. This on top of the UAE’s newfound alliance with Israel, as the two nations have been working in tandem in the strategic Yemeni islands of Socotra and Mayon.

International navigation protection: The US established the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) alongside 33 countries to secure water routes in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden and to protect oil tankers passing through the Bab al-Mandab Strait coming from the Gulf countries. The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, is also active along Yemeni territorial waters, and has repeatedly claimed to have confiscated weapons shipments from Iran headed to Ansarallah-controlled ports.

Dividing Yemen: The vision for Yemen truly starts to diverge between the US and Saudi Arabia when it comes to the country’s future political layout.

In contrast to Saudi Arabia – which envisions an outcome in which Yemen either remains as a strong centralized state loyal to Riyadh, or divided into six autonomous regions governed under the umbrella of a central state – Washington, like Abu Dhabi, supports a division of the country.

In the latter scenario, Ansarallah would be allowed to maintain the northern areas it currently controls, while the rest of Yemen would be divided into four independent regions (Aden, Hadramout, Marib, and the western coast). The US envisions this division as a strategy to marginalize Ansarallah and limit its clout to a specific geographical area, bordered by four warring mini-states, united in their hostility to Sanaa.

In January, Saudi Arabia held talks with Ansarallah in Sanaa and Sadaa, where the two parties agreed to expand on the terms of the UN-brokered truce that was signed in April 2022.

The Saudis also agreed to meet Ansarallah’s humanitarian-related demands, which include the easing of an air (Sanaa airport) and naval (Hodeida Port) blockade that has pushed Yemen to the brink of famine. The new terms also include reinstating salaries for Sanaa government employees that were frozen for seven years.

According to sources in the Yemeni capital, it is US intervention that prevented Saudi Arabia from putting this new agreement into action. The Saudis spilled the beans to their Yemeni negotiating partners when they said “our partners oppose expanding the truce” – and they weren’t talking about the UAE.

As the war approaches its eighth anniversary, neither the US nor Saudi Arabia have diverged in their mutual desire to keep Yemen weak and mired in crisis so as to prevent Ansarallah from playing a larger role within the region’s resistance axis.

But despite the brutal siege imposed on Yemen, the Yemeni army has significantly boosted its offensive capabilities and qualitative military advancements, forcing the kingdom to seek an exit from hostilities in order to protect Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious national economic projects – and save face over his Yemen losses.

That is Riyadh’s current internal priority. Whereas, the US, thousands of miles away from the fight, continues to insist on keeping Yemen’s conflict in play to use as leverage for its broader regional strategies. This includes exploiting the war’s catastrophic humanitarian consequences to increase domestic pressure on Ansarallah.

In short, by drawing out the existing truce ad infinitum – but only under the provision that the economic blockade of Yemen continues – ending the war is not part of Washington’s plan.

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