‘Stuck in a swamp’: Saudi Arabia seeks exit from Yemen war


Eight years after launching its military campaign in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is trying to free itself from the conflict, despite slim hopes of lasting peace, to focus on ambitious projects at home.

The oil-rich monarchy signaled this month by announcing plans to resume relations with Iran, which backs Yemen’s Huthi rebels against the Saudi-backed government in a proxy war.

But as Saudi Arabia initiates sweeping social and economic changes as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” reform, it is “seeking to shift its approach in Yemen from a military strategy to a soft security strategy and political”, said Ahmed Nagi. , from the International Crisis Group.

Since the start of the Saudi-led military intervention on March 26, 2015, the kingdom has bombarded its impoverished neighbor with airstrikes in a conflict that has fueled one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, according to the United Nations.

Hundreds of thousands of people were killed through direct and indirect causes, with 4.5 million people internally displaced and more than two-thirds of the population living below the poverty line, according to United Nations estimates.

Nagi said “military operations, such as airstrikes” are likely to end, adding that the priority is now a “diplomatic solution”.

The Saudi-led intervention, which marked its eighth anniversary on Sunday, came after the Huthis took control of the capital Sanaa in 2014.

– Rebranding project –

A UN-brokered ceasefire that came into effect last April saw a sharp decline in hostilities. Although the ceasefire ended in October, the fighting has largely been on hold.

Even before the ceasefire, Saudi Arabia and the Huthis were engaged in back-channel negotiations, including talks with neutral neighbor Oman.

Riyadh’s top priority is securing border areas and stopping drone and missile attacks targeting its vital oil facilities, analysts say.

“The Saudis are currently negotiating with the Huthis to establish understandings that would enable them to secure their borders and maintain influence” in areas controlled by the Yemeni government, Nagi said.

“This new approach could enable Saudi Arabia to be a key player in Yemen’s domestic politics, to ensure that no security threats could affect the kingdom in the event that conflict continues at the local level,” Nagi told him.

The stated aim of the Saudi-led intervention was to protect civilians from Huthi attacks, restore the government and stop Yemen from becoming a safe haven for Iranian forces.

Eight years later, the rebels control parts of the country and command an impressive arsenal of weapons that they have used to attack Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, another coalition member.

For Riyadh, the result jeopardizes a rebranding project that aims to turn the conservative country into a tourism and investment hub.

Saudi Arabia, which has been largely closed off for years, is building a new futuristic $500 billion city, NEOM, and a range of resorts and attractions.

“There is a big focus in Saudi now on development, tourism, mega-projects,” said an analyst after the negotiations between Riyadh and Huthi officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

For Riyadh, there is concern that “anything related to conflict” will harm investment and stability, the analyst said.

– ‘Wash your hands’ –

The unofficial talks with the Huthis are now maturing into a possible “understanding” that could pave the way for a narrower Saudi military role ahead of UN-sponsored inter-Yemeni dialogue, the analyst said.

“They want to go from some kind of Saudi-Huthi understanding to being able to hand it over to a broader UN process,” he said.

The Saudis want to “wash their hands of the situation,” and avoid responsibility for any future explosion, he said.

A Saudi official, also speaking anonymously, said the country will not accept “any threat to our security”, noting that it shares a long border with Yemen.

“Iran can and should play a big part in advancing this — and we hope it will,” the official said, confirming negotiations with the Huthis aimed at reviving stalled peace talks. facilitated by the UN.

“We have seen some progress of course, and we want to build on that progress to achieve lasting peace to find a political solution,” the official said.

Many analysts are pessimistic that Riyadh’s plans for a reduced military role will bring peace to Yemen, which remains deeply fractured along religious, regional and political lines.

However, Saudi Arabia is “determined to leave Yemen no matter what the price”, said an Arab diplomat in Riyadh. “They are … stuck in a swamp that is very expensive on all levels.”

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