By The Economist
Apr 22nd 2015
BY WADING into the war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has so far made matters worse. Tension with its regional rival, Iran, has worsened. Saudi aircraft are said to have killed 1,000 civilians and bombed scores of buildings. So most Yemenis—and Arabs across the region— heaved a sigh of relief when the Saudis declared on April 21st they would end their air strikes. Yet they reserved the right to start again, albeit on a more limited scale. The next day their jets hit a force of Houthis, members of Yemen’s Iran-backed Shia sect, who were fighting for an army base near Taiz, the benighted country’s third city.
The Saudis’ claim that their aims had been achieved rang hollow. They may have destroyed many of the Houthis’ heavy weapons. They say they encouraged the UN Security Council to pass a resolution to put an embargo on arms to the Houthis. But they are no nearer to stopping the advance of the Houthis alongside factions loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the long-serving president, who was ousted in 2012. Nor do the Saudis seem able to reinstall their protégé, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who replaced Mr Saleh but who has fled toand is now in exile in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
There has been talk of a secret deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to stop the Saudi air raids on Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, which the Houthis captured last year, in exchange for letting the strikes continue in parts of the south, for instance in Taiz, where Sunnis are in the majority. Iran was quick to praise the end of Saudi air attacks.
America appears to have played its part, too, with President Barack Obama leaning on King Salman to ease up. The Americans, along with Arab members of the Saudi-led coalition, are afraid of the war spinning out of control. Along with civilian deaths in the Saudi air raids, much of Yemen’s decrepit infrastructure, including the health service, has collapsed. Western agencies say the Saudi-led operation has blocked humanitarian aid.
Yet Saudi policy is hard to predict. It is driven not only by its rulers’ dislike of Iran and by a sense that Yemen is the kingdom’s backyard. Salman, who acceded only in January, is also acutely aware that the war’s outcome will affect his own standing and that of his youngest son, Muhammad, who some say is being positioned for a bid, in due course, for the succession. He already holds two powerful posts, as chief of the royal court and as defence minister.
America is to deploy a second warship off Yemen’s shores, supposedly to protect shipping lanes but in fact to deter Iranian ships from delivering arms to the Houthis. This may reassure the Saudis that, as a result of their air strikes being stopped, the Houthis will not be able to replenish by sea their supply of arms from Iran.
The Houthis still control Sana’a, and Mr Hadi’s allies have pledged to battle on. So the fighting is likely to continue. Many Yemenis fear that the Saudis will now finance Sunni proxies. So far the Saudis’ renamed “Operation Renewal of Hope”, which is meant to imply bringing long-term succour to Yemen’s 24m people, differs little from “Operation Decisive Storm”, as the Saudis’ initial month of bombardment was more bluntly—if inaccurately—known.
Meanwhile Yemen’s chaos is likely to continue. The Houthis’ demands for a major say in any government of national unity do not seem likely to be met by its Saudi-backed opponents. Many southerners want secession. And al-Qaeda controls an expanding slice of territory in the south and east.