The wind of normalisation that is blowing across the region has not been felt so far in Yemen, where fighting has intensified in the past few months over the control of strategic areas. Under increasing pressure from the Houthi movement (officially known as Ansar Allah), the Yemeni forces affiliated with the internationally recognised government (led by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and exiled in Riyadh) had to fall back from Hodeida, a port city on the Red Sea that is vital for the commercial supply and humanitarian aid to the conflict-thorn country.
Despite the air cover from the Saudi-led coalition that has allowed the pro-government Giant Brigades to retake control of key areas in the Hodeida and Taiz provinces in recent days, the latest developments seem to suggest that the Iranian-backed Houthis seem on the edge of gaining the upper hand.
The major shift in the front lines is in part a result of the changing posture adopted by Saudi Arabia. The sudden withdrawal from Hodeida, al-Durayhimi, Bayt al-Faqih and parts of al-Tahita on 13 November has surprised not only the UN Mission to Support the Hodeida Agreement but also the pro-government Tihama Resistance Forces, which have condemned the move. Close to the Yemeni National Resistance of Tariq Saleh (nephew of the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh), the group enjoys the support of the UAE, which since 2019 has scaled down its military involvement in Yemen. Riyadh seems now going down the same path, as suggested not only by the withdrawal from Hodeida (which allowed the Houthis to reopen the road from the port city to the capital Sana’a), but also by the latest developments in Aden, where Saudi troops left a major military base in the Burayqah district earlier this month.
The spokesperson of the Saudi-led coalition Gen. Turki al-Malki dismissed reports of withdrawal from Aden as unfounded, defining the move as a simple redeployment. Indeed, the focus seems now shifting on the Marib province, where the Houthis are gaining ground after launching a new offensive in February. Home to oil and gas fields, as well as a gas power plant that once provided 40% of the country’s electricity, Marib represents a significant asset in any post-conflict scenario, also considering its two pipelines tunning towards Hodeida and Shabwah. Saudi Arabia has vowed to send reinforcements to Marib, but a reassessment of the six-year military intervention in Yemen is clearly ongoing in Riyadh.
Under increasing diplomatic pressure from the US, which has made the end of the Yemen war a foreign policy priority, Saudi Arabia is looking for an exit strategy that would undermine the strategic gains made by the Iranian-backed Houthis so far. At the same time Riyadh is seeking to improve its relations with the Biden administration, which, after starting off on the wrong foot, seems now on the mend, as indicated by the recent US$650 million sale of 280 AIM-120C Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) to intercept cross-border attack by the Houthis, which follows the US$500 million agreement for military support service announced last September.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region