On April 8, the Houthis released a proposal that appeared to name their price for shifting away from Iran toward the Saudi axis. It
Houthi-Saudi relations: The impossible price of separation from Iran
Rejecting a unilateral, two-week ceasefire declared by the Saudi-led coalition on April 9, the Houthis instead revealed a proposal to end the war through a bilateral agreement between the Iran-backed rebels and Saudi Arabia, with no role for Yemen’s internationally recognized government.
The Saudi ceasefire was ostensibly intended to provide time, space and resources to counter the potential spread of COVID-19 in Yemen. The spread of the virus in Yemen, which recorded its first confirmed case on April 10, would be catastrophic for its battered health care system.
The United Nations hoped the cessation of hostilities would also create conditions for the UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths to hold talks between the government and the Houthis.
Most of the conditions and steps set out in the Houthi proposal task the Saudi-led coalition with their implementation. The proposal deals with only two parties to the conflict: the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis. The third signatory to the document would be the UN, which is assigned an intermediary position and the coordinator of its implementation.
The proposed agreement – which for the first time refers to the Houthis as the legitimate representatives of the Republic of Yemen in Sana’a rather than as Ansar Allah – appears to name the rebels’ price for shifting away from Iran toward the Saudi axis.
Riyadh has admitted to holding direct and indirect talks with the Houthis since the massive drone and missile attacks on the Aramco oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais on Sept. 14, which the Houthis claim to have carried out. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), the US, UK, France and Germany have all accused Iran of being behind the attack. Iran has denied all responsibility.
Historical models for Houthi-Saudi relations
One model that could form the basis of the relationship between the Houthis and KSA is that which emerged from the Saudi-Yemeni war of 1934 between Imam Yahya of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen and King Ibn Saud. That war led to the military defeat of the imam and negotiations that resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Taif the same year. Following a similar path would mean Saudi recognition of the Houthis as the legitimate rulers of Sana’a and Yemen’s north. It would also mean Saudi Arabia accepting defeat in its war in Yemen, which is not an easy outcome at any level.
Yet unlike the 1934 war, which was defined as a conflict between two states, the kingdom today is fighting the Houthis on behalf of the internationally recognized government.
While the Saudis are backing the government, there does not appear to be an ideological objection that prohibits it from aligning with the Houthis.
The Saudis have never really had a firm and committed relationship with any Yemeni group or leadership. In the 1960s, Saudi Arabia supported the Zaidi Imamate against the Republicans backed by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, before reconciling with subsequent rulers of the Republic of Yemen. The kingdom's alliances in Yemen have thus not not easily been reduced to a sectarian "Zaidi-Shia" or "Shafe’ee-Sunni" calculation.
So the Saudis could find themselves recognizing the legitimacy of the Houthis just as Riyadh was forced to recognize a moderate version of the republican regime at the end of the 1960s.
Is anyone winning the war?
The stated objectives of the Saudi-led coalition are to reinstall the internationally recognized government led by President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and drive the Houthis back to their ancestral homeland in Sa’ada governorate in northern Yemen. KSA also wants to reduce the influence of its regional rival Iran in its backyard. The Houthis, who now control sizable parts of the country, have everything to lose.
If we look at the war as defined by the Houthis in their own media – as a war waged by the Saudi state against the Yemeni state, which the Houthis say they are defending – the Houthis are the losing partly due to the extent of their losses compared to the relatively minimal damage to Saudi Arabia as a state.
If we look at it from the perspective provided by Saudi-led coalition media and the Yemeni parties loyal to it – as a Saudi war inside Yemen (not against Yemen) to support the internationally recognized government against rebels hostile to the kingdom – Saudi Arabia is also a losing party. The Saudi war inside Yemen has not proceeded in a way that satisfies the hopes and expectations of those who appealed to the kingdom and took refuge in it.
The successes of the rebels thus far are also the successes of Iran. If the Saudis were to shift the Houthis’ loyalties away from Iran, it would be a loss for its rival. Can the Houthis separate themselves from Iran?
The Houthis’ other geo-cultural engagements – for example,with Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon – follow from its alliance with and commitment to the model and ideology of the Iranian revolution. It is unclear how the group’s place in regional power dynamics would be shifted if it strikes a deal with Saudi Arabia.
Are the Houthis prepared or qualified to make such a leap? To be sure, it would be a giant and sudden change for the Houthi movement in Yemen. How the Houthis would renegotiate their symbols, slogans and ideologies in line with a new political reality is unclear. The group would have to prepare their followers for such a change.
However, while the Houthis are often described as rigid in their ideological views, this is the same group that fought six wars against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government and then allied with him when it was politically feasible to take advantage of his successor (Hadi) during the UN-sponsored political transition in 2014. Of course, the Houthis ultimately assassinated Saleh in late 2017 and have since worked to dismantle the long-dominant General People’s Congress political party he founded while growing closer to Iran.
Editing by Ahlam Mohsen and Casey Coombs