The Houthi–Saudi Arabian conflict may be defined as a confrontation between Saudi Arabia, supported by allied countries, and the Houthi movement that seized power in Yemen. Although this conflict had a well-defined timeframe and participants, its causes and impacts are more complex and multidimensional. The purpose of this paper is to examine the Houthi–Saudi Arabian conflict and its background to define its inner factors, the role of the United States in this conflict, and the impact of this conflict on US foreign policy in the region.
Background of the Conflict
In general, the political situation in Yemen may be described as tense and complicated since the country’s formation in 1990. The modern state derived from the unification of the northern Yemeni Arab Republic, supported by Saudi Arabia and the United States, and the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, supported by the Soviet Union (Robinson 2022). At the same time, the assuming of leadership by Ali Abdullah Saleh, North Yemen’s military officer, provoked disagreements and confrontations with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) (Robinson 2022). In this case, the government could not provide stability in the country and be stable by itself.
Meanwhile, the Houthi movement came to the political stage of Yemen. Named after its religious leader, it emerged in the 1980s for cultural and religious revivalism of northern Yemen’s Zaydi Shiites, who constituted the religious minority in the country dominated by Sunni Muslims (Robinson 2022). At the same time, although the Houthi movement undertook several attempts to rise up against the government that was reportedly autocratic and corrupt, it allied with authorities for strategic benefits. While international and domestic pressure continuously escalated, Saleh delegated authority to Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, his vice president, in 2012 (Robinson 2022). However, this decision led to the escalation of a new conflict initiated by the military division between the Houthis together with military units that supported Saleh and military forces loyal to Hadi. In 2014, the Houthis occupied the capital and continued the extension of their power until Hadi’s government resigned in 2015 (Robinson 2022). However, these events led to the Houthi–Saudi–Rav Arabian conflict that is still active.
Conflict’s Timeframe, Participants, and Main Issues
The conflict was presupposed by several factors – first of all, Saudi Arabia initially supported the northern part of future Yemen and the people who formed the country’s government. In this case, the change of authority would lead to the weakness of Saudi Arabia’s influence in the region. In addition, the religious aspect played a crucial role as well. Taking into consideration that Saudi Arabia was a state dominated by Sunni Muslims and there was a long-lasting confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites, the possibility of a new Yemeni government that supported Shiites caused Saudi Arabia’s military operations.
Thus, in 2015, Saudi Arabia invaded the Republic of Yemen in response to its political struggles. This intervention was aimed “at reversing Houthi territorial strongholds in Yemen and compelling the group to negotiate with Yemen’s UN-recognized transitional leadership” (Third Way 2019, 3). For this, Saudi Arabia created a coalition of Arab states with a predominantly Sunni population. It included the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Sudan, and Kuwait. At the same time, the Saudis’ strikes across Yemen were intensely supported by the United States as it provided aircraft belonging’s refueling, training for Saudi military units, logistical assistance, weaponry from private defense companies, and intelligence (Third Way 2019). Moreover, the coalition was supported by other countries, including Pakistan, Eritrea, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France.
However, the conflict became more intense and complicated as the Houthis were substantially supported by Iran, another strong player in the Middle Eastern political area. While the confrontation became more and more prolonged, it required a peaceful resolution. Thus, in 2019, after the conflict with allies, the United Arab Emirates backed separatists and claimed equality of power. Finally, in 2022, separatists and Hadi signed the Riyadh Agreement that presupposed the formation of a new Yemeni Government in which southerners and northerners would be equally presented. However, the Houthi–Saudi Arabian conflict had devastating consequences as it led to multiple human losses and a humanitarian crisis that may be regarded as one of the worst in the world. While approximately 60,000 people were killed during the conflict, more than 8 million Yemenis faced famine due to sanctions and border blockade (Third Way 2019). Both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis were criticized by the international community for hitting civilians with missile strikes and bombings and violations of human rights.
At the same time, from a broader perspective, the Houthi–Saudi Arabian conflict was a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the strongest states in the Middle East, for regional dominance. This confrontation began in 1979 after the Islamic Revolution that occurred in Iran (Modebadze 2018). When the theocratic regime was established in Iran, Saudi Arabia had concerns related to the possibility of revolutions in other Middle Eastern countries that could lead to the expansion of Iran’s influence (Karakir 2018; Ehteshami 2018). Moreover, this confrontation was determined by the Cold War between the United States, which had a strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia, and the Soviet Union, which supported Iran (Modebadze 2018). In relation to the Houthi–Saudi Arabian conflict, “for Riyadh, accepting Houthi control of Yemen would mean allowing a hostile neighbor to reside on its southern border, and it would mark a setback in its long-standing contest with Tehran” (Robinson 2022, par. 16). In addition, as previously mentioned, this conflict was based on religious differences as well due to a continuous struggle between Sunnis and Shiites. Thus, Iran aimed to strengthen its position in the Middle East and opposed Saudi Arabia’s dominance, while the latter was determined to weaken Iranian power and counter its revolutionary threat.
Impact of the Houthi–Saudi Arabian Conflict on the US Foreign Policy
In general, throughout history, the US foreign policy in the Middle Eastern region has been characterized by tense relationships. The United States aimed to strengthen its influence due to local countries’ resource potential. According to Oren (2008, 28), “oil, an energy source for which the world has yet to find a replacement and which grows scarcer and costlier each year, may continue to fuel conflagrations that will consume American wealth and manpower.” At the same time, the Houthi–Saudi Arabian conflict created additional challenges for the country concerning its relationships with Arab states.
Before the conflict, Saudi Arabia and the United States had close strategic, economic, and security partnerships regardless of specific issues related to human rights and the principles of democracy. Supporting Saudi Arabia and the coalition led by it in the conflict with Yemen, the United States pursued its interests, including the security of Saudi Arabia’s borders, the safety of the global oil transportation that could be impacted by the struggle, and Yemen’s agreement with US policy (Robinson 2022). In particular, the United States required Yemen’s cooperation with its counterterrorism programs.
However, in the present day, the US foreign policy in relation to Saudi Arabia and Yemen aims to aid the escalation of the conflict in the future. First of all, the United States limited financial help and weaponry sales for the coalition due to multiple human losses as a result of its military offense. In addition, the United States is not interested in the conflict with Iran which may be intensified by support for Saudi Arabia’s activities. Thus, along with the end of operations’ sponsorship, the Biden Administration refused to include the Houthis in the list of terrorist groups in order to resolve the conflict peacefully (Robinson 2022). In the future, the United States may concentrate on collaboration with the United Nations to help Yemen as its confrontation with Saudi Arabia may be regarded as not its most crucial problem. The region experiences water shortages due to a growing population and inefficient irrigation that threaten the country’s urban areas (Orkaby 2017). In this case, humanitarian help and the consolidation of Arab countries’ partnership in relation to Yemen’s restoration after the conflict and environmental issues may strengthen the United States’ position in this region.
The Houthi–Saudi Arabian conflict was initiated by the Houthi movement’s seizure of power in Yemen on the basis of a deep historical conflict between the country’s south and north. In response to the Houthis’ activities, Saudi Arabia created a coalition of Arab states supported by the United States and other Western countries and invaded Yemen in 2015, aiming to restore the former government. At the same time, this conflict may be regarded as a confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional dominance. The Houthi–Saudi Arabian war ended in 2022 and resulted in multiple human losses and a humanitarian crisis. In this case, the United States, which has already undertaken efforts to avoid the escalation of this conflict, may support the restoration of Yemen to strengthen its position in this region.
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Modebadze, Valeri. 2018. “The Battle for Regional Dominance Between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Journal of Liberty and International Affairs 4, no. 3: 66-72.
Oren, Michael B. 2008. Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
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