Last week, former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh publicly broke with his Houthi allies, calling for an “Arab uprising” against Houthi rule and signaling his interest in restoring relations with Saudi Arabia. His “revolt” was heavily promoted by Saudi and Emirati media, and backed by the Saudi-led coalition’s air power. Two days later, the Houthis had beaten back the attempted uprising and Saleh himself was killed while fleeing from San‘a.
Backing a Saleh-led uprising against the Houthis initially seemed like a masterstroke which could break the Yemeni quagmire and deliver a face-saving way for Riyadh to declare victory. But, as with other recent Saudi foreign policy gambits, the move backfired badly. Having played their ace, and lost, the coalition once again has no strategy other than to continue its military campaign, despite its political failure and its great human cost.
The implications for Yemeni politics will not be clear for some time. But Saleh’s failed uprising already offers lessons about the limits of proxy warfare in the Middle East. Promoting Saleh’s decision to oppose the Houthis was just the latest instance of the new regional practice of standing up local forces to fight regional battles. These proxy wars have contributed directly to the failure of Yemen’s political transition, the degradation of its state, and the appalling humanitarian catastrophe in the country.
External involvement in Yemen is both similar to and different from the other post-2011 proxy wars in which regional powers sought to build up local actors to pursue their interests within fractured states. In almost every instance, these wars have had devastating effects on the targeted states. In Egypt, Saudi and Emirati political and economic support for the July 2013 coup succeeded in overthrowing the Qatar-backed Muslim Brotherhood regime of then-president Mohammed Morsi, but at a price of democratic change, human rights, and political legitimacy. In Libya, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar backed competing factions in the post-Qaddafi transition, contributing to the country’s political failure and descent into civil war. In Syria, jockeying between Saudi- and Qatari-backed factions crippled the opposition and contributed to its radicalization, even as more tightly controlled and effective Iranian proxies helped the Assad regime regain the military advantage.
In Yemen, however, proxy wars were played differently. In contrast to other regional battlefields where the state was suddenly weakened and new actors eagerly sought external support, Yemen’s state had always been weak and its actors had long experience in dealing with would-be external patrons. Local power politics rather than external political actors typically drove maneuvers, such as Saleh’s alignment with, and subsequent break from, the Houthis. But external powers could, and did, pour fuel on the flames by offering financial or military assistance and taking advantage of the fallout.
Saleh himself made a career of manipulating external powers for his own ends during his 30-year presidency. While he was closely aligned with Saudi Arabia and the United States, he frequently pursued policies that undermined their interests in ways that forced them to offer increasingly higher levels of military and economic assistance. Most famously, his dual role in the cultivation and repression of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula kept him at the center of international military assistance networks.
Saleh’s ability to balance Saudi influence was on full display after the 2011 Yemeni uprising. Even when the situation had turned violent and his continued rule had become untenable, Saleh resisted Saudi pressure to step down for some six months while recuperating in a Saudi hospital from an assassination attempt. Saudi Arabia eventually eased Saleh out of power through a highly controversial amnesty agreement which, fatefully, allowed him to continue as leader of the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) and remain politically active.
In 2012, his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, replaced him as president and was confirmed for a two-year term in an uncontested referendum while a National Dialogue process would determine fateful constitutional issues. Saleh remained in control of his networks, however, ensuring that Hadi would have little real power inside Yemen to match his backing abroad. Saleh’s 2014 alignment with the Houthis, cynical even by his standards, turned him against his former patron. But he frequently signaled his willingness to shift sides should he be offered a better deal. Saleh, in other words, was happy to play the role of proxy when it suited his interests, but could never be locked into a permanent clientelistic relationship.
The Houthis, in turn, were no more an Iranian proxy than Saleh had been a Saudi one. Despite relentless propaganda over the course of the previous decade depicting it as an Iranian cat’s paw, the Houthi movement had only limited relations with Iran and little interest in subordinating itself to external control. With a strong local base and potent ideological cohesion, the Houthis had little need for either the resources or the legitimation which an external patron could provide—and every political reason to maintain their distance. The Houthi move into San‘a had much less to do with Iranian foreign policy than with the impending adoption of undesirable federal boundaries at the conclusion of Yemen’s National Dialogue process. Those incentives began to change under the weight of the coalition’s blockade, and over the past two years the Houthis appear to have received growing military assistance from Iran—including, allegedly, the missiles used to attack Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
The UAE, for its part, sought to play the proxy game differently in Yemen. Rather than working with an established local power, the UAE has opted to develop its own capabilities on the ground while buying off useful local clients as needed. With such clients ranging from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to Saleh’s son, the UAE has made no pretense of ideological consistency. Those transactional relationships have seemed to deliver more reliable payoffs than the looser, often dysfunctional, Saudi patronage of Yemeni Salafists, the Islah Party, or tribes.
The proxy game changed after March 2015, when the military intervention of the Saudi-led coalition quickly bogged down after some initial successes and the war descended into a painful stalemate. Two years of relentless Saudi and Emirati bombing and blockading caused massive human suffering, but did little to compel the Houthis to surrender. With little hope for a military victory, the war soon partly shifted to competing efforts to buy off, mobilize, or flip local power brokers to tip the balance on the ground.
Encouraging Saleh’s uprising was only the latest, and most spectacular, of such gambits. Splitting Saleh from the Houthis was viewed as a way out of the military quagmire and a move toward an endgame. On paper, returning Saleh and the GPC to the Saudi fold seemed like the perfect way to isolate the Houthis domestically, weaken them militarily, create a cleaner alignment with the Saudi-UAE regional narrative of sectarian difference, and perhaps even force the Houthis to negotiate an exit from San‘a. With Saleh dead, however, the coalition will now likely seek to explore whether Saleh’s son, or anyone else, can successfully mobilize his networks against the Houthis.
However unlikely, the prospect of dividing Saleh and the Houthis had offered one of the few routes for winding down the war through diplomatic means. With that option now gone, the Saudi-led coalition’s military campaign and blockade will likely continue to devastate Yemenis. While the coalition has displayed little interest in the human impact of the war, mounting international criticism and Houthi missile launches directed at Riyadh airport and Abu Dhabi have shown that the fallout of the conflict cannot be indefinitely contained. The urgency of a sustained easing of the blockade and an end to the military campaign has never been more obvious.