Alwaght- Over the past few days, the Yemeni crisis resurfaced to focus as Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council (STC) said it left the pro-independence ambitions and is returning to the negotiating table with the resigned Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi within the framework of the Riyadh agreement.
A series of clashes between the separatist southerners and the fugitive government over the past months in Aden compounded the situation in the war-ravaged country. Alwaght has talked to Saadullah Zarei, an Iranian expert of the West Asia affairs, asking him questions to give a picture of what is going on especially in the south and where Saudi war policy is going.
The first question was about the reason the separatists left their self-rule plans.
Mr Zarei said that we need to first have an overall picture of the south’s situation. We need to see why the UAE, as the backer of the STC and the separatist agenda and which still is, delayed the plan. Saudi Arabia does not agree with an autonomous rule in the south in which the southerners have full control– with regard to its knowledge of the tribes and southerners. They have experience of an independent government in the south, between 1967 and 1990, which was in stark contrast to Saudi Arabia. Historically, the south received its most influence from Egypt and the southerners have always been close to Cairo mainly. Even when south’s old guard like Ali Mohsen Mohamad, Haidar al-Atas, and Salem al-Abyadh sought to negotiate, they were transferred to Cairo which was a completely meaningful move.
In the historical rivalry between the republicans and the monarchists, the republicans had Cairo as their center. Once, Gamal Abdel Naser of Egypt sent about 50,000 forces to the Arab country to support the southern forces. So, in the Saudi eyes, the south relies on Egypt.
The second point is that the Saudis feel that self-rule in the south will not take shape in practice and if pursued, it intensifies the disputes between the separatists and the Islah Party, also between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and also among various tribes in the key cities of Ma’rib and Shabwa, making the south a setting for clashes and helping Ansarullah Movement which spearheads the revolution in the country, to gradually expand its influence in this part of the country. It was by means of these disputes that the movement took parts of Al Bayda, Ma’rib, Jawf, Lahaj, and Taiz. It even took parts of southern Saudi Arabia.
“So, the Saudis believe that Ansarullah is the benefiter of the southern disputes. They think that there would be no government at the end of the road. A final government will unite the whole of Yemen and will be against Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is certain that the Ansarullah differences with Islah Party are not so complicated to remove any sights of an agreement or understanding between the two players. Under the Riyadh agreement, Taiz and parts of Hudaydah will be lost which would be a dangerous development for the Saudis. So, Saudi Arabia and the UAE with the behind-the-scenes direction of the Americans and the Israelis have concluded that they should halt the agreement. But I think that this tendency exists in the southerners who are defiant enough. They may be called reliant on the UAE, but they are astute and smart. They take the money from Abu Dhabi but go their own path. They are not bound to Riyadh agreement or others. I think that the UAE's return to the agreement with Riyadh and expressing preparation for talks are driven by the concerns about Ansarullah advances in recent months.”
Alwaght asked why the Riyadh agreement was not actually implemented and if there are chances it revives.
Mr Zarei replied that the Riyadh agreement is on a shaky foundation. According to the deal, Hadi’s prime minister should recruit 50 percent of his cabinet members from the STC. “But the STC wonder where are Hadi’s men. Why we should we give 50 percent of the cabinet to a force that does not exist on the ground."
On the other hand, those on Hadi’s side charged with the implementation of the accord are not much of strong and political people. That is why they have run into problems with Saudi Arabia. “You have heard that recently the Saudis told Hadi government’s men that from now on they have to pay for their stay at hotels in Saudi Arabia.”
Alwaght suggested that the southerners accused the opposite side of failure to adopt the terms of the agreement.
“These are political games in which one blames the other for the collapse of agreements. The main culprit is the STC which believes that the deal is not balanced. They ask where are Hadi’s forces? Where are they involved in fighting against Ansarullah? What regions did they take from Ansarullah over the past two years? But we have taken half of Hudaydah, Taiz, and Lahaj. There are some forces under the command of Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar but they do not belong to Hadi. They are remains of regular Yemen army.”
Mr Zarei was asked if he saw a link between the Saudi-Emirati differences and the failure of the Riyadh agreement.
He answered that the Riyadh agreement is a Saudi-centered accord. It sought to save Hadi and centralize his government. But this is not accepted by the UAE which does not accept Hadi as the head of government. Another point is the Saudi-Emirati conflict of strategies in Yemen. The Saudis view Yemen's case as a matter of security. But the Emiratis look at it with an economic approach. They do not look at it from a security viewpoint because they do not have common borders with Yemen. The closest distance between the UAE and Yemen is 1,300 kilometers. But Yemen has common borders with Saudi Arabia. So, for the Emiratis, the priority is economic and they find split of Yemen appropriate towards this aim.
“Mukalla Port, Nakha Port, and islands suffice the UAE. That is what creates difference of views. But Saudi Arabia has four times as many more ports than Yemen on the coasts of the Red Sea and does not need the Yemeni ports and coasts. That is why I think the differences are essential and unsolvable. The differences are not on the individuals to be agreed upon.
Alwaght asked why Saudi Arabia insists to continue the war and if it has a clear strategy in Yemen with regard to the costs of war and the humanitarian crisis caused by the war.
Mr Zarei said that we need to consider several issues in this regard. First, Saudi Arabia is stuck in the war. A war that was planned to end a month has lasted for 5 years. Look at the line of the operations. Operation Decisive Storm was designed to wage war on Yemen on March 22, 2015. On April 22, the Saudi-led coalition announced new operation and policy calling it “return of hope.”
“By return of hope the Saudis meant return of Hadi. Under the Operation Decisive Storm, they planned to obliterate Ansarullah within a month. But they then figured out how serious the Yemeni case was. Embarking on an offensive policy, Ansarullah took many regions including the significant Aden. As a result, the Saudis scaled down their expectations in the war. If we take the Operation Decisive Storm 100 percent, they downgraded their aims to 10 to 15.”
Mr Zarei made it clear that the Saudis are now immersed in war quagmire. An expensive war with no prospects of victory for them. “If we imagine green, white, and red conditions for the Yemen war, the Saudis have left ambitions for green condition and are vacillating between red and white. The white condition favors political negotiations and solutions to bring Ansarullah from battlegrounds to the political scene. In green condition, Ansarullah was supposed to exist no more, neither militarily nor politically. In the red condition, Ansarullah is a key player and thus has the upper hand. The Saudis cannot manage these conditions because Ansarullah wants to both keep its military might and create a military balance and at the same time be a strong player in the political arena of Yemen as it has a wide popular base. This brings Saudi Arabia to an impasse in its agenda.
The Saudi situation is now far worse than in 2015 because upon the start of the war, Ansarullah called on Hadi who fled to Saudi Arabia after resignation to return to the country. Ansarullah even wanted a national accord government with him. It never favored the collapse of the government because it put on the shoulder of Ansarullah the government's responsibility and burden. But now Ansarullah holds the government in Sana’a. Even the United Nations moves against its own resolution, which was against Sana’a-based administration, and regularly sends its envoy to the capital for talks. This means that Ansarullah's legitimacy is accepted internationally.
Militarily, when the war started by the Saudis and their Arab allies, Ansarullah did not have even 5 percent, or even 1 percent, of the weapons it possesses now. Currently, it flies combat drones which in addition to strikes have intelligence applications. Now it has the technology to build 6 types of short, middle, and long-range ballistic missiles– from short-range missiles to those with over a 1,000-kilometer range.
“Now the Saudis want to end the war, with what logic? There is only one logic: to accept that they have failed to realize their goals. Whenever you prevent damage, it would be beneficial. But I think that halting the war would create a crisis inside the ruling Al Saud family.”
Alwaght asked the West Asia expert for more elaboration.
He held that now the Saudi Arabian budget deficit has touched the $260 billion. To understand how big this amount is, I say that Iran with a population of over 80 million now is administered with $30 billion a year. If we want an ideal situation, $120 billion would suffice. This is while in Saudi Arabia, only 15 percent of the society lives in affluence and the last 85 percent is heavily influenced by this enormous budget deficit. So, the war has wasted the Saudi money as estimations suggest that the Arab kingdom has so far spent between $700 billion to $1 trillion on the Yemen war. Its security has been compromised and now parts of Saudi Arabia’s Jizan province are held by Ansarullah. As a result of the war, Saudi Arabia lost Yemen as its traditional backyard. Before that war, there was a home conflict between the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the people. But now Saudi security is tied to Yemen conditions. In fact, the geopolitics of the security of the Arabian Peninsula are interwoven now
“It was in the middle of this war that crisis with Qatar erupted and the Omanis dared to publicize their differences with Saudi Arabia. Also, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia showed to have differences. It was amid this war that the oil tankers in the Fujairah port of the UAE went under attacks. Saudi military bases that have been safe for decades were attacked. The highly important Aramco oil giant’s oil processing facilities were attacked and lost half of their production capacity for a couple of months. Saudi airports and ports also were attacked. These happenings should be read in history’s ground. They should not be simply passed. They took place in a geographical area that since 1930 enjoyed absolute security. So, the Saudis now want to end the war. His critics assert that the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wasted the country’s money, compromised its decades-long power monopoly, compromised its security, and the country lost its past weight and power against small neighbors. What did it gain in return? So, this string of developments leads the system to collapse from inside.”
Mr Zarei gave an example of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1980 to clarify how Saudi Arabia lost the war. He said that when the UN approved the resolution to end the Saddam war against Iran, Tehran was the victor because it managed to deter the Baathist plan to separate parts of Iran and annex them to Iraq despite the fact that the question about who should be held accountable for the war remained in place.
“In 1988, there was a debate inside Iran, then Imam (Khomeini) said that he takes the responsibility. Although we were invaded, we won the war. Imam Khomeini, who enjoyed huge respect and approval as a leader, took the responsibility. Now, look at Saudi Arabia. Bin Salman spent huge money, Riyadh has lost the war, the opposite side is extremely stronger, and in regional equations the kingdom faces new troubles. But Mohammed is neither a king nor has he the status of being the son of Abdulaziz like his father. He does not even have the experience to manage such crises. Jamal Khashoggi's case alone engaged the kingdom in a full year of a predicament. He has neither support nor popularity among royalty and only relies on the US backing. We now should ask how much the US support in the Arab world can be viable. Can Washington’s support yield results? The illusion that the US support can lead to victory is gone, especially under the presidency of Donald Trump. As a conclusion, we can say that Saudi Arabia wants to continue the war to delay the war end to a time it is strong enough.”