What Biden's Saudi trip could mean for Yemen's war

Illustration Analysis - Yemen-Biden-MBS
5 min read
13 July, 2022
Analysis: Pushing Yemen's warring parties to work on alleviating humanitarian suffering is possible, but the challenging task is convincing them to offer sufficient political and military concessions.

Joe Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia this week is a turning point in the relationship between the US president and the Saudi leadership.

In 2020, Biden vowed to render Saudi Arabia a "pariah." That harsh language has now softened, and his upcoming trip confirms that the US administration’s anger with the Kingdom has dissipated.  

Two issues largely contributed to the negative global image of Saudi Arabia: the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident journalist, in 2018, and a destructive military campaign in Yemen since 2015.

The war in Yemen created what is known today as the world's worst humanitarian tragedy.

"Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia will unlikely change the mindsets of the conflicting parties at a political or military level"

Stopping this war is a major priority for Biden's administration, and the agenda of his trip to Saudi Arabia will not disregard this seven-year conflict.

Although Biden has displayed enthusiasm in bringing the war to an end, any Yemen-related outcomes of his meeting with Saudi leaders are likely to be impactful at a humanitarian level, but not necessarily politically or militarily.

US diplomatic efforts have already borne fruit, and the months-long truce in Yemen has seen tremendous humanitarian relief for millions of Yemenis.

The number of deaths has plummeted, commercial flights have resumed at the Houthi-controlled Sanaa airport, and the fuel crisis has been addressed. Civilians in Yemen would not have felt these benefits without the ceasefire.

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The truce would not have been reached without the vital engagement of the US through its envoy Tim Lenderking, who was appointed last year.

During Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia, an emphasis on maintaining and boosting humanitarian relief would be assertive.

Speaking of his purpose for going to Saudi Arabia, Biden said during a press conference in Spain on 30 June, "The overall piece here is we're also going to try to reduce the deaths in the war that's occurring in Yemen. There's a whole range of things that go well beyond anything having to do with Saudi in particular".

Nevertheless, reducing deaths in Yemen could also be achieved through freezing military operations by Saudi Arabia, Yemen's Saudi-backed forces, and the Iran-allied Houthi group.

What Biden's Saudi trip could mean for Yemen's war
The months-long truce in Yemen has seen tremendous humanitarian relief for millions of Yemenis. [Getty]

Much-needed concessions in Yemen

Pushing Yemen's warring sides to work on alleviating humanitarian suffering is possible. The challenging task is convincing them to offer sufficient political and military concessions.

That is to say, Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia will unlikely change the mindsets of the conflicting parties at a political or military level.

At the political level, Yemen now has two governments, one in Houthi-controlled Sanaa and the other in Aden, where the UN-recognised government is operating. The former does not recognise the latter as a legitimate authority in Yemen, and the latter sees the Houthis as a militant group that adheres to an Iranian agenda.

The war in Yemen is not only about who should rule the country. It is also about the type of political system that should be adopted.

"The military situation is complex in Yemen. Rival powers have separate forces under their command, and no party is capable of defeating the other quickly"

While the Houthi group detests democracy and does not believe in it as a system of governance, the Yemeni government insists that democracy is critical to stable governance and crucial for distributing wealth and power fairly.

Therefore, no matter how serious or enthusiastic Biden is about resolving the conflict in Yemen, he will not be able to bridge this gap between Yemen's rivals.

Moreover, the military situation is complex in Yemen. Rival powers have separate forces under their command, and no party is capable of defeating the other quickly. The two sides have thousands of fighters possessing vast amounts of arms. Preparations for more battles, meanwhile, have not ceased.

For the conflict to come to an absolute end, all these forces should be under one command, and they should neither follow instructions from Saudi Arabia nor Iran. This is what Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia will fail to accomplish.  

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Notably, the most defiant group in Yemen is the Houthis. The group's missile attacks have struck several targets in Saudi territory, as well as Yemeni cities outside of their control, including Marib and Aden.

As time goes by, their missile capabilities will increase, and their missile ranges will expand. There is an ongoing flow of smuggled weapons from Iran, and this accumulation of arms only adds to their confidence regarding the viability of a military option.

Given their faith in military force as a way to obtain their goals, diplomacy has failed, and it may keep misfiring.

In February 2021, president Biden abolished a resolution by Donald Trump's administration that designated the Houthis as a terrorist group. After the US revoked this designation, the Houthis stepped up their military operations in Marib to seize the government's last stronghold in northern Yemen.

Yemen war
Reducing deaths in Yemen could be achieved through freezing military operations by Saudi Arabia, Yemen's Saudi-backed forces, and the Iran-allied Houthi group. [Getty]

By delisting the Houthis from the Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list, Biden's administration aimed to deter further humanitarian deterioration in the war-ravaged nation. However, the Houthis' appetite for fighting augmented once they were removed.

Recurring missile attacks, however, compelled Biden to reconsider re-designating the group as a terrorist organisation. The move came after drone and missile attacks struck the United Arab Emirates in January this year.

Biden's statement amounted to an admission that the Houthi group qualifies for a terrorist designation, yet the subsequent complications of such a resolution would make ending the conflict a much more arduous task.

"At the political level, Yemen now has two governments, one in Houthi-controlled Sanaa and the other in Aden"

In the final analysis, Biden's trip to Saudi Arabia will be a tremendous push for humanitarian relief in Yemen, particularly maintaining the truce and possibly extending it.

The genuine challenge lies in persuading the warring parties to offer concessions at the military and political levels. Tackling humanitarian issues in Yemen is similar to treating the symptoms while leaving the cause unaddressed.

Should Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia solely concentrate on the symptoms, it can be safely said that a cessation of the war in Yemen is still a distant possibility.

The writer is a Yemeni journalist, reporting from Yemen, whose identity we are protecting for their security.