Saudi Arabia must face the damage from the past three-plus years of war in Yemen. The conflict has soured the kingdom’s relations with the international community, affected regional security dynamics and harmed its reputation in the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia is in a unique position to simultaneously keep Iran out of Yemen and end the war on favorable terms if it change its role from warmaker to peacemaker. Saudi Arabia could use its clout and leverage within Western circles and empower international institutions and mechanisms to resolve the conflict. However, the window for achieving a resolution to the conflict is rapidly closing.
The-U.N. sponsored Geneva peace talks that were scheduled to open last Thursday have practically collapsed, in part because Houthis rebels who control the capitol (and most of western Yemen) were afraid their return would be halted due to Saudi Arabia’s control of Yemen’s airspace. The Saudis could provide their enemy and the U.N. officials with travel support — or perhaps they could even offer them a Saudi plane. Even better, Saudi Arabia could announce a cease-fire and offer peace talks in the Saudi Arabian city of Taif, where previous peace talks with Yemenis have taken place.
Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen were driven by national security concerns due to Iranian involvement in the country. However, Saudi Arabia’s war efforts have not provided an extra layer of security but have rather increased the likelihood of domestic casualties and damage. Saudi defense systems rely on the U.S.-made Patriot missile system. Saudi Arabia has been successful in preventing Houthi missiles from causing substantial damage. Yet, the inability of Saudi authorities in preventing Houthi missiles from being fired in the first place serves as an embarrassing reminder that the kingdom’s leadership is unable to restrain their Iranian-backed opponent.
Each missile fired by Houthi forces poses both a political and financial burden on the kingdom. The cost of an Iranian missile supplied to the Houthis is uncertain, but one can speculate that each missile does not compare to the cost of a $3 million Patriot missile.
Unexpected costs associated with the conflict in Yemen means Saudi Arabia has increasingly been borrowing funds in international markets without clearly saying what the funds are for. The kingdom has reportedly raised $11 billion in a loan from international banks.
Furthermore, the political costs associated with the loss of innocent life cannot be tabulated. Lapses in Saudi intel led to the deployment of a bomb to target a bus suspected of carrying Houthi forces. Instead, the missile struck a school bus carrying children. The kingdom cannot afford to have an open war zone at its southern border, the confidence of international markets and the moral high ground.
Mistakes and risks associated with long-term conflict diminish Saudi standing internationally and increase the chances of a confrontation with traditional allies. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently stated, “We support our partner Saudi Arabia’s right to self-defense.” The Saudi media ran Mattis’s statement and quoted him with great enthusiasm but selectively omitted the portion that stated American support was “not unconditional” and that he urged Saudi authorities to “do everything humanly possible to avoid any innocent loss of life.”
Mattis’s remarks should serve as a reality check to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi Arabia is defined and represented by its Islamic stature. We should not need to be reminded of the value of human life. Muslims around the world deserve to see birthplace of Islam represent the ethics of Islam.
Saudi Arabia does not deserve to be compared to Syria, whose leader seemingly did not hesitate to use chemical weapons against his people. But further continuation of the war in Yemen will validate voices saying that Saudi Arabia is doing in Yemen what Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Russians and Iranians are doing in Syria. Even the south of Yemen that has been “liberated,” protesters are currently staging a civil disobedience campaign, chanting slogans against the Saudi-led coalition, which is seen as the actual power on the ground, rather than Yemen’s exiled government.
Peace talks will provide Saudi Arabia with a golden opportunity. Riyadh will almost certainly find international support if it enters into a cease-fire as negotiations take place. It must utilize its global clout and incorporate international institutions and allies to financially pressure Tehran to stand down in Yemen. The Saudi Arabian crown prince must also accept that the Houthis, the Islah (Sunni Islamists) and the southern separatists should play a future role in the governance of Yemen. Obviously, Riyadh will not get all of what it wants and would leave Yemenis to sort out their differences with their fellow Houthis in a National Congress — instead of on bloody battlefields.
The longer this cruel war lasts in Yemen, the more permanent the damage will be. The people of Yemen will be busy fighting poverty, cholera and water scarcity and rebuilding their country. The crown prince must bring an end to the violence and restore the dignity of the birthplace of Islam.