MBS’s Chilly Step-Back, Ceasefire in Yemen, and Houthi Resilience  

  • Mohammed bin Salman agrees to a ceasefire in Yemen
  • For Saudi Arabia and its coalition, the costs of the war have now fully outweighed the gains 
  • Biden’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia has influenced the Kingdom’s stance on the extension of a ceasefire
DoD photo by Navy Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kathryn E. Holm / Flikr

Why is MBS’ heat level cold? 

Answer: Iranian-backed Houthis have shown strong resilience, leaving MBS with few options in Yemen. 

In 2015, when Saudi Arabia, together with its allies, launched an intervention in Yemen, their primary aim was to defeat the rise of the Iranian-backed Houthi rebel group. The Kingdom feared Yemen would become a satellite state of its rival, Iran. Whilst their involvement in the war is not black and white, Saudi motives were firmly rooted in history, geopolitics, and ideology. Ultimately, the interests of Saudi Arabia in Yemen were primarily linked to their own national security and power in the region; and to preventing an increase in Iran’s sphere of influence across the Middle East. 

Today, during the time of the ceasefire in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is in a position in which it is taking a step back from the eight-year-old proxy war. Keeping in mind that the Prince’s primary motives behind the coalition were national security and the fight for regional dominance, it becomes relatively clear that MBS has not reached his initial goal as he had wished. As the Houthi rebel group expands, the Prince’s aim to secure their position as the regional hegemon and to sustain his own power is under threat

With the rise of the Houthi rebels and their signs of resilience throughout the past years, Iran can increase its sphere of influence. The Kingdom’s involvement in the Yemen war has negatively impacted the international opinion of MBS and the House of Saud. Saudi Arabia has been lacking options in Yemen due to Houthi resilience and the withdrawal of the US intelligence support – which worsened the precision of air strikes, ultimately increasing civilian casualties and negatively affecting the public opinion of the House of Saud. 

With the lack of options available, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia enforced a shift in its strategy and agreed to take a step back from the battlefield in Yemen. Ultimately, MBS had not fulfilled his goal of preventing their rival Iran from increasing their regional reach – as seen through, for instance, attacks coming from Houthi territory towards Saudi Arabia and the UAE – making the prince’s situation rather cold. 

Who is changing MBS’ temperature? 

Answer: Outside actors such as Iran, UAE’s President MBZ and US President Biden

Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a struggle for regional hegemony, in which both are striving for influence and power in the Middle East and over Muslim nations. Iran, which backs the Houthi rebels, has shown strong resilience in Yemen – making this the primary stakeholder in changing MBS’ strategic plan. With the strong sense of power coming from Iran and the Houthis, MBS is now left with little options in the war. Moreover, the two crown princes of the Gulf, MBS and MBZ, president of the United Arab Emirates, have a strong relationship regarding politics and governance.

As MBS’ mentor, MBZ remains the driving force behind the Saudi involvement in Yemen. After being criticised by the international community over his involvement in the Yemen war and worn out of his international reputation, MBZ decided to remove forces from Yemen in 2020. Two years later, MBS sees eye to eye with UAE’s Prince; Yemen comes with no exit strategy. And so, following in the footsteps of MBZ, the Prince of Saudi Arabia has decided to take a step back too. 

Biden’s replacement of former US president Trump has also stirred up US relations with the Kingdom. Throughout the years, the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia has shifted between hesitant to close and back. The Biden presidency has refused to visit the Kingdom for a while, demanded that MBS would not be a part of Biden’s call to the Saudi King, and has criticised MBS in the past, which has strained relations between the two countries. Whilst President Biden is not meeting MBS by himself  in his next trip to Riyadh, he has recently realised that accepting the prince to the table carries significance, especially taking into consideration the failing health of the King

With gas prices spiking around the world and Iran becoming an increasing issue for the US, it is no coincidence that president Biden is now taking his trip to visit their longtime partner in the Middle East. Aiming to bolster relations with the Kingdom, Biden is heading to the region to possibly enforce a security arrangement with the country, hopefully turning the temporary Yemen truce into a lasting peace settlement”. 

What is driving MBS? 

Answer: For MBS, the losses of the war simply outweigh the gains. 

MBS’ project in Yemen had backfired. The war has been criticised by the international community, it has impacted the reputation of the Prince and the House of Saud, and it was financially draining for the member states of the coalition. With no clear exit strategy and the world watching them, many of Saudi Arabia’s allies had abandoned their role in the war, which had increased the financial strain on Saudi Arabia. The outcome of the war is definitely not what the House of Saud had expected – nor intended. Backed by Saudi’s rival Iran, the Houthis have swiftly expanded, increasing the possibilities of MBS stepping back from the war. 

The main factor that is driving MBS to do so is that the costs of the war simply continue to outweigh the gains for the Kingdom. Whilst the Houthis have attacked Saudi Arabia regularly over the past few years, the escalation against the Gulf states has persuaded MBZ and MBS to change their strategy. The strong resilience of Iran has left Saudi with few options other than exiting the war, especially when it comes to preventing further damage to their reputation. 

As not only a political leader but also an aspiring king, MBS experiences an increase of pressure coming from the international community and the global opinion towards the House of Saud. An improvement of publicity is especially important to MBS in regards to his need for international investors for the Vision 2030. Moreover, the abandonment of his allies throughout the past years has put more pressure on Saudi Arabia, both economically and politically. 

When the United States removed its intelligence support, and the UAE backed out, things became increasingly complex for the Kingdom. With eyes just on Saudi, MBS was forced to change his strategy, opting to support a ceasefire. Moreover, with the chance to tighten relations with the United States during Biden’s upcoming visit, MBS may feel increased pressure to extend the Yemen truce into a lasting peace settlement

What does this mean for you? 

Answer: The extension of a ceasefire would decrease violence within Yemen, but the country will continue to suffer. 

Whilst the extension of the ceasefire in Yemen and the step-back of MBS in the war would be a milestone for Yemen, especially in regards to human rights, it would not fix the failed state. Despite a decrease of violence, local actors would probably continue to fight after the ceasefire, and the country continues to be strongly divided. With no accepted political leader to extinguish the fires of Yemen, the Houthis will continue to have influence within its borders. 

With few improvements taking place in Yemen, the extension of the ceasefire could be both beneficial and disadvantageous for Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, the court of world opinion has developed in a way to see Saudi Arabia as the aggressor of the conflict. The reputation of Saudi Arabia, MBS and the House of Saud has therefore been impacted, meaning his recent strategic changes could improve his global image. However, these signs of giving in may imply that MBS’ intervention has failed on his behalf, and that Tehran could almost claim a sense of “victory” over their long term rival.