With the world’s largest oil export terminal coming under missile and drone attack – a giant Saudi Aramco complex capable of exporting roughly 6.5 million barrels a day, nearly 7% of global oil demand – the war in Yemen has surged in the global media.
During the night on Saturday, the Houthis fired eight missiles and 14 drones toward Ras Tanura on Saudi Arabia’s east coast. And the price of Brent crude oil shot up to highs not seen since before Covid-19 was declared a pandemic.
But two templates that are far more consequential than the oil market lurk below the surface: the implications of the “forever war” in Yemen for the regional alignments in the Persian Gulf region and to the standing of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS).
The war in Yemen since the Saudi-led intervention in 2015 is now at its most intense since 2018, as the Houthis besiege the city of Marib, located in an oil-rich region, which contains an oil refinery and supplies gas to the entire country.
The Houthis have the upper hand insofar as Marib is the last bastion of the Saudi-backed forces and the outcome of their assault on it could determine the fate of the war.
The Houthis appear to be open to a comprehensive ceasefire deal that halts all airstrikes and completely lifts restrictions on the ports and airports under their control, but the opposing side suspects it to be a tactical ploy to get fresh supplies from abroad, to get a reprieve from sustained Saudi airstrikes for long enough to launch a definitive push into Marib eventually and consolidate their victory as the de facto rulers of Yemen’s northern region.
Houthi’s growing military capability
The Saudi strategy, on the other hand, has been to slow down the Houthi offensive through airstrikes on their forces while also mobilizing reinforcements from the south to ease the pressure on Marib.
To be sure, the Houthis are retaliating by staging missile and drone attacks on military and economic targets on Saudi territory, displaying their growing military capability to make Riyadh pay a heavy price for continued interference in their civil war.
The Joe Biden administration’s decision to distance itself from the war, restrict American military support for the Saudi forces and, most importantly, to remove the Houthis from the US government’s list of foreign terrorist organizations signal Washington’s reading that for all practical purposes, Riyadh has already lost the war and, therefore, the accent ought to be on diplomacy to bring the senseless fighting to an and through a negotiated settlement under United Nations auspices.
Clearly, Iran bet on the Houthis as the legitimate government of Yemen, with an embassy in Tehran headed by an “ambassador,” and that is turning out to be sound judgment. Meanwhile, Yemen has become yet another West Asian conflict – after Lebanon, Iraq and Syria – where the Saudis are ending up as losers.
Worse still, the Saudis could be staring at a quagmire in Yemen, given the US disengagement plus the withdrawal of the United Arab Emirates from the war and Egypt’s refusal to get involved despite Riyadh’s entreaties.
With the US pushing for an end to the war, the Saudis have a choice to seize on this momentum and leave it to Yemeni factions to pursue a political solution on their own. But it is unclear whether the Saudis have reached such a conclusion yet.
The five-year war in Yemen has cost Riyadh an estimated US$100 billion so far, which is imposing a heavy drain on the Saudi economy. The horrific scale of destruction that Saudi forces have wrought on Yemen has become a blot on the Saudi image regionally and internationally.
Embarrassment for the prince
The Houthis’ audacity to strike at Riyadh in broad daylight has become a matter of embarrassment personally for the crown prince, who also happens to be the defense minister and who made the fateful decision for the Saudi military intervention in 2015.
MBS’s reputation risks further damage unless a face-saving formula can be found to withdraw from the war with reasonable guarantees that the Houthis will not seek revenge. Clearly, all this inevitably casts a shadow on MBS’s credentials to be the next monarch of the kingdom.
The “X” factor here is the Biden administration’s attitude toward the Saudi succession, taking into account POTUS’ curious decision to avoid any direct contacts with MBS.
Although Washington has not imposed any sanctions against MBS after implicating him in the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, America’s intentions are far from clear. Will the US move to oust MBS at some point?
Yosef “Yossi” Beilin, a veteran politician and scholar who has served in multiple ministerial and leadership positions in the Israeli government, wrote recently in Israel Hayom, the country’s most widely distributed newspaper:
“The fact that the new [US] president didn’t call the crown prince [MBS] and made public his insistence on only speaking to his father the king sent a strong message …
“Washington has now given its official approval to the assessment that bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s killing. It may very well be that in his conversation with the Saudi king, Biden insinuated that he would be wise to replace his brash son with the man who was forced to kiss his feet and relinquished his role as crown prince four years back.”
Beilin added: “Will this be good for Israel? If it’s good for our one true ally [read the US], then it will be good for us, too.”
‘America’s favorite Saudi’
Again, the reputed British newspaper The Times has reported that the US and European intelligence agencies seek Biden’s intervention to help secure the release of “America’s favorite Saudi,” Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the former Saudi crown prince whom MBS marginalized in 2017 in humiliating circumstances and since tortured and kept under detention.
The Times took note that bin Nayef is a key ally of the US. (He was a recipient of the Central Intelligence Agency’s George Tenet Medal.) The paper quoted Bruce Riedel, one of America’s best experts on West Asia and an ex-CIA officer, that the US intelligence community is profoundly indebted to bin Nayef for cooperation during the “war on terror” in his capacity as the deputy prime minister and minister of the interior prior to his appointment as the crown prince.
It is improbable that the US will get directly involved in a succession struggle to block MBS’s ascension to the throne. But the optics of Biden’s aversion toward MBS itself conveys a potent message that could embolden the crown prince’s detractors and rivals within the Saudi regime to rally.
This is where a defeat or quagmire in Yemen could become decisive, putting question marks on MBS’s erudition and maturity to make rational decisions and casting doubt on the 35-year-old prince’s credentials to navigate the kingdom through a particularly difficult period in its modern history.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.