The turning point of the Houthi attack in Bab el Mandeb Strait
Barely two days after Iranian President Hassan Rohani threatened US President Donald Trump in their war of words, Houthi militia targeted two Saudi oil tankers in the Red Sea, transforming the war of words between the Iranian side and the American side into an on-the-ground reality.
Rohani’s declarations that Iran has other surprise options for the United States besides the Hormuz Strait in the Arabian Gulf were thinly veiled and were put into action by the Houthi militia at Bab el Mandeb by targeting the Saudi tankers.
Considering the Saudi decision to suspend shipments through Bab el Mandeb, the most important aspect to keep in mind is that Riyadh has been bearing since 2011 the tremendous political brunt of its commitment to not internationalise the Yemeni conflict within the wider conflicts in the region.
Saudi Arabia bore the consequences of this burden as it did not wish the Yemeni question to become a chip in the political bargaining process that Iran is engaging in to expand its influence in the Arab region. Saudi Arabia has, therefore, patiently played the long game when it comes to the Yemeni question and has shown a readiness to accept political solutions as in the 2015 Operation Restoration of Hope.
Before Trump announced his decision to withdraw the United States from the nuclear deal with Iran, the Iranians were discussing with the Americans the possibility of Iran’s giving up Yemen in exchange for the United States maintaining the nuclear deal. For Iran to make such a suggestion presupposes that they are the decision-makers in Yemen.
This supposition is divorced from reality, which the United States knows. The United States also knows that Saudi Arabia will not accept any bargaining when it comes to Yemen and so did not entertain the Iranians in any way.
The sensitivity of internationalising the Yemeni question for Riyadh leaves no room for risk-taking because the Saudis are aware that internationalisation means Yemeni territory will become politically and militarily an open battleground for conflicts which many regional and international powers would like to create.
Perhaps the Saudis, whose ties with the Yemenis go back to the 1934 Treaty of Taif, are aware that the challenge in Yemen is to resolve their crisis within an Arab framework, no matter how much it worsens.
This is what Riyadh corrected after the Houthi coup on September 21, 2014, when UN Envoy Jamal Benomar was given the reins of the Gulf initiative, which had failed and led to the coup. Saudi Arabia had to regain the initiative in Yemen by announcing the March 2015 Operation Determination Storm to restore Yemeni political legitimacy.
The Saudi decision suspending crude oil shipments through the Bab el Mandeb Strait does not count as an internationalisation of the issue as much as it is an attempt to lay the proper pathways for dealing internationally with the Yemeni crisis. Targeting Saudi tankers July 25 was not the first incident of its kind. The Houthi militias attacked an American frigate in October 2016 and an Emirati rescue ship.
The aim of the Saudi position is to hold the international community responsible, specifically the European Union, which stood against liberating Hodeidah.
UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths has exhausted all opportunities to convince the Houthi militias to surrender the city of Hodeidah. The Houthis played the waiting game, hoping that Iran would pull them out of a military quagmire, especially after the battle to liberate Hodeidah Airport demonstrated the military capabilities of the combined forces of the Southern Giants Brigades, the Tihama and National Resistance Forces, with support from the Arab alliance forces.
In addition, the United Nations’ pretexts of humanitarian aid and relief were stopped with the commitment of the Arab Alliance to keep the Hodeidah port open.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, moreover, conducted an airlift to ensure the flow of humanitarian aid to all Yemeni governorates, including those under the authority of the Houthis. Some of the military operations south of Hodeidah are aimed at opening roads and cities so aid could be delivered via Mokha port in case Hodeidah port suffered any serious damage.
The developments of Bab el Mandeb represent an important turning point in the Yemeni war and a difficult test for the international community. The European Union and Griffiths must take advantage of this pressure to achieve a breakthrough in the petrified Houthi position.
The Houthis’ attrition tactics have been met with restraint by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have long put up with the Houthis’ and Iran’s policy of pushing for the worst. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have reacted wisely because Saudi Arabia realises it is fighting a war with important international consequences.
Failing in this effort will lead to the internationalisation of the Yemeni conflict. Saudi Arabia is trying to make sure that the plans laid down by Iran and others for the region do not come to light.