Monday, 18th November 2019

Saudi Arabia: Signs of a Yemeni ceasefire indicate Riyadh’s changing approach

The decision by President Donald Trump to effectively refrain from intervening in a meaningful way in Middle East affairs – upending decades of United States policy – continues to have significant ramifications for the Gulf. As former UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia Sir John Jenkins wrote recently in Arab News: “We are watching the political geography of the Middle East being reshaped before our eyes.” Events in recent weeks bear out his point, particularly in relation to Saudi Arabia.

Yemen will play a critical role in this ‘reshaped’ region. Well-sourced reports at the beginning of October, in particular from Reuters reporters in Riyadh, described how Houthi overtures about a limited ceasefire had received a positive response from senior Saudis (GSN 1,091/5). Progress in subsequent talks has offered some hope that an end to the war might now be a realistic prospect. The Houthis appear to have offered to release Saudi prisoners and desist from firing missiles at the Saudi interior, while Riyadh has undertaken not to launch air strikes on Sanaa and other Houthi-held cities. Sources in Riyadh told GSN the number of air sorties being launched on Yemeni targets has since been much reduced. This was confirmed by the independent Yemen Data Project, which says Saudi-led coalition air raids in October were at their lowest level since the war began, with 83 bombing runs recorded. There were nine civilian casualties as a result in October, the second-lowest monthly total.

The Houthis launched some missile and drone attacks in October, but the missiles all fell short of their targets and none of the drone attacks caused casualties. A more recent partial ceasefire appears to remain in place. The current Saudi point man for Yemen, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS)’s younger brother, deputy defence minister Prince Khalid Bin Salman, visited Muscat earlier this month for talks with Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al-Said, in another sign that a process is under way that could extend and expand the ceasefire.

Prince Khalid’s assumption of responsibility for the Yemen file distances his elder full-brother from the war’s failure, allowing MBS to focus on the Saudi Aramco sale and other economic matters. Choosing Khalid for this task is an astute move: the young prince will be motivated to protect rather than blame his brother, but as a former member of the influential elite clan of F15 pilots he is also well placed to mollify the frustration of many in the Saudi armed forces who feel the Yemen campaign has been a national humiliation. (Although questions have been raised in the past about Khalid’s career as a fighter pilot, one Royal Saudi Air Force source who worked with him on missions told GSN he had been a “competent and disciplined pilot”.)

Saudi Arabia played a critical role in bringing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government to an accord with the Southern Transition Council, via the Riyadh Agreement signed between the two belligerents on 5 November. Analysts at both the Washington Institute and International Crisis Group have noted the agreement’s fragility, but it is clear that Riyadh is now effectively dealing with the formidable burden of delivering peace between warring factions on its own – with the UAE having effectively withdrawn from Yemen and US support undermined by disquiet in Congress.

There has been some good news for Riyadh, with US reinforcements bolstering the kingdom’s air defences and Iran finding it increasingly difficult to deliver support to the Houthis and impose its covert hegemony in the region (GSN 1,091/8). Other Iranian problems will also be welcomed in Riyadh, not least Tehran’s revelation in a 30 October statement to the International Maritime Organisation that three of its tankers had been attacked in the Red Sea by “unknown state actors”. Only one such incident was previously known. Together, these incidents mean the Red Sea is no longer safe for Iranian shipping. The resumption of uranium enrichment at the Furdow nuclear site in early November is seen by some analysts in the region as a sign of desperation – which will alienate Iran’s few remaining allies in Europe and elsewhere.

Sensing a shift, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash on 10 November urged Iran to rethink its regional strategy. He called for a “realistic diplomatic effort to reach a more sustainable agreement”. In further encouragement, the UAE has also reportedly released some long-frozen Iranian funds and reissued trading licences to Iranian money brokers – actions which might help the troubled UAE property market.

In this febrile atmosphere, all parties seem concerned about their own vulnerabilities and the weakening of their positions; they appear anxious to secure the status quo rather than risk suffering reverses. But that will not be easy. As Sir John concluded: “Without a natural point of equilibrium or a natural hegemon, the future will almost certainly be more conflict. It’s going to be a very bumpy ride.”

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