- Houthi envoys visiting Riyadh to discuss year-long conflict
- About 6,000 people have been killed in the fighting, UN says
Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince said the warring parties in Yemen are close to resolving a year-long conflict that’s become symbolic of the kingdom’s new foreign policy ambitions.
“There is significant progress in negotiations, and we have good contacts with the Houthis, with a delegation currently in Riyadh,” the 30-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also the kingdom’s defense minister, said in an interview with Bloomberg last week. “We are pushing to have this opportunity materialize on the ground but if things relapse, we are ready.”
The war came to encapsulate shifting geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East as Saudi Arabia under a new king and his increasingly powerful son embraced a more assertive regional agenda, one molded by concerns over Iran’s rise and suspicions U.S. interest in the region may be waning.
The Houthi rebels swept a Saudi ally from power last year before consolidating their hold over much of Yemen. Saudi Arabia accused Shiite Iran, its chief regional rival, of backing the offensive as part of its struggle for regional influence, and in March 2015 the kingdom and a group of Sunni-ruled allies began a military campaign to counter it.
“Saudi Arabia seems unwilling to commit the kind of ground force that would be needed to possibly defeat the Houthis,” said James Dorsey, a senior fellow in international studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. That’s one reason the kingdom is “looking for a negotiated solution,” he said. “The Saudis have also been stung by international criticism of the way they have conducted the war.”
During 12 months of fighting more than 6,000 people have been killed -- half of them civilians -- and 2.7 million displaced in the poorest country in the Arabian peninsula, according to the United Nations. The majority of civilian deaths were the result of bombing by Saudi Arabia and its allies, a top UN official said. Nearly 80 percent of the population now needs some kind of humanitarian assistance. The fighting has allowed both Islamic State and Al-Qaeda to expand their presence in Yemen, which lies to the south of the world’s largest oil exporter.
In a five-hour conversation with Bloomberg journalists, Prince Mohammed outlined some of Saudi Arabia’s regional policy positions and his views on the Saudi-U.S. relationship. The prince, second in line to the Saudi throne and the nation’s defense minister, and aides also discussed the country’s efforts to manage last year’s slump in oil prices and plans to sell shares in Saudi Aramco.
The war in Yemen further inflamed Middle East tensions at a time when major regional powers, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, were on opposing sides of other conflicts, including the now five-year fight in Syria. Amid escalating international concerns over Islamist terrorism and a refugee exodus that’s roiling Europe, global efforts to end fighting in Libya, Syria and Yemen have been stepped up.
The combatants in Yemen have agreed to a cease-fire to begin on April 10 and to start peace talks in Kuwait a week later, United Nations special envoy Ismail Ould Sheikh Ahmed said in New York. But fighting on the ground continues. Houthi rebels, who had long complained about political marginalization before seizing the capital Sana’a, and allied fighters on Sunday recaptured territory in Taiz province. That followed days of intensive clashes with forces of the Saudi-backed government of President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi.
A week before the truce kicks in, Hadi on Sunday fired Khaled Bahah from his posts as vice president and prime minister, state television reported. Major General Ali Muhssein al-Ahmer was named vice president and Ahmed Obaid Bin Daghr is now premier.
The Saudi military intervention in Yemen started two months after Prince Mohammed was appointed Minister of Defense. The bombing campaign, later backed up by limited ground forces, has been widely seen as evidence of a more interventionist foreign policy agenda since his father became king in January 2015.
The kingdom scrapped military aid to Lebanon to protest what it called the growing prominence of the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement there, and continues to demand Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad be removed from office as part of any peace deal. Saudi Arabia and Gulf allies have provided billions of dollars in aid to shore up the rule of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.
The hardened stance was prompted by a growing sense in the Middle East that U.S. policy in the region has shifted, according to analysts. While traditional alliances with Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia remain strong, Washington’s determination to strike a nuclear deal with Iran alarmed many.
Oil for Security
The prince described Saudi Arabia’s partnership with the U.S. as “huge” and one in which “oil is only a small part.” He declined to comment about the U.S. presidential race saying “we do not interfere in the elections in any other country.”
The U.S. and the Al Saud monarchy have been strategic partners since King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, Prince Mohammed’s grandfather and the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, met President Franklin D. Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy in 1945. Oil for security has underpinned the relationship between the countries.
Yet ties have been tested by political unrest in the Middle East since 2011, with differences over how to respond to Syria’s civil war, which Prince Mohammed described as “very complex,” and political turmoil in Egypt. Increased shale oil production in the U.S. added to concerns that America was becoming less engaged in the region.
“America is the policeman of the world, not just the Middle East,” the prince said sitting in his office in a royal compound in Riyadh. “It is the number one country in the world, and we consider ourselves to be the main ally for the U.S. in the Middle East and we see America as our ally.”