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Convincing the Houthis to ‘live and let live’

I don’t believe Saudi Arabia desires to exchange blows with Iran

Jamal Khashoggi

Published: Updated:

“A Saudi slap to Iran,” is how some described the legitimate Yemeni president, and I hope we repeat the word “legitimate” whenever we mention Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s escape from his detention at the presidential palace in Sanaa. Hadi fled Sanaa to Aden without his Houthi captors’ knowledge.

I don’t believe Saudi Arabia desires to exchange slaps with Iran as they are aware that the Yemeni battles haven’t been finalized. However, Saudi Arabia is certainly happy over the turn of events and the end of bad news, which has flooded us ever since last year when the Houthis exited their strongholds in Saada and headed to Amran, and Sanaa then sought to spread in the rest of Yemen and subjugate it. What makes the news of Hadi’s escape better is that Hadi’s arrival to Aden happens as the Houthis’ expansion stops. It’s as though they’ve reached their limits. It thus appears to observers that their project has ended or that their path may have shifted. However, it’s too early to declare that or to be certain of it.

The other good news is that Saudi Arabia resumed its activity in Yemen after months of a state of “halting and observing.” It rushed to contact Hadi to inform him that he is fully supported, and even better, that it resumed its contacts with the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (al-Islah), in addition to its contacts with other political players in Yemen. Saudi Arabia thus liberated itself of restrains which it has imposed on itself. The importance of Islah is its engagement with armed tribesmen who will have a role in establishing a balance of power with the Houthis. Its importance also lies in its capability to mobilize the people of Sanaa via its organized members. However, it’s not willing to take the risk of involving young men in a confrontation with the Houthis when its back is exposed. Perhaps this explains the Houthis’ campaigns against Islah in Sanaa and their detention of some of its leaders.

U.S. cooperation with Saudi Arabia

In further good news, the U.S. has also begun to cooperate more with Saudi Arabia. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who’s busy negotiating and meeting with Iranians in Geneva, has recently announced that the Iranians are conspiring with the Houthis to topple the legitimate Yemeni government. The Yemeni scene is thus ready for the next chapter, so how will events proceed? It’s necessary to say that the scene is originally Yemeni not Saudi or Iranian. The Yemenis themselves are divided. Therefore, foreign intervention may be positive if its aim is to unite Yemenis and push them to agree on how to share Yemen and establish a new Yemen. I think Saudi Arabia’s activity falls within this description of intervention. Intervention would be negative when it’s biased to one party which seeks to forcefully impose its will and decisions on other parties. Iran’s activity certainly falls within this context considering its flagrant bias to the Houthis.

Saudi initiatives in Yemen are mostly aimed at achieving two goals. The first aim is to prevent Yemen from sliding into a civil war. If Saudi Arabia doesn’t do that out of its love for Yemen (and I am certain it loves Yemen as it’s a neighbor and they share ties) then it will do so to protect its security. A civil war in Yemen will mean two costly disasters: the first one is that millions of Yemeni refugees will flock towards Saudi Arabia, and the second one is that al-Qaeda will flourish, or rather its worst version the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) which wants war and seeks expansion.

The second aim is to put an end to the Houthis’ current situation for two reasons. First of all, the Houthis are allies of Iran, and Saudi Arabia does not want Iran to have a comfortable foothold near it. Second of all, Houthis will not be able to control all of Yemen. This will divide Yemen into more than north and south. It will divide into Yemen the mountains, Yemen the coast, Yemen the desert, Yemen the south and perhaps oil-rich areas in Yemen will also be on their own. What about Tiaz, the second largest city which Houthis can’t conquer? Will it be in a region that unites it with Aden, Abyan and Yafa? Imagine how relations will be among all these “Yemens.” Who will draw their borders? This is a scenario which Saudi Arabia and its allies definitely don’t want.

The first chapter

So let’s freeze the current scene to imagine the first chapter. The Houthis control Sanaa but they are in an uncomfortable situation. They act like anyone who stages a coup does. They announced a “constitutional declaration” that lacks logic and political elites rejected it. They have their supporters, like each coup has its supporters, and they claim they want what’s good for the country. However, they know there are people who are opposed to them, and like anyone who stages a coup, they oppress those who oppose them. It’s a coup which hasn’t completely succeeded and it’s a must not to wait for it to succeed.

What makes Houthis different from others who stage a coup is that they don’t want to rule now, not out of superiority but because they actually realize they’re a mere faction among other factions. The 2011 revolution, the absence of stability after it, the competition among different parties and the Houthis’ violations have led to the division of the “deep state.” Therefore, they couldn’t inherit the state and employ it to serve and legitimize their project and make it look like it’s uniting - as right by their side there’s a man who competes with them on whatever is left of that state. This man is former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh whom the United Nations say seized around $60 billion – enough money for the political plans he’s famous for. There’s cooperation and an alliance between Houthis and Saleh but they don’t fully trust him.

The weakness of the “deep state” in Yemen, the presence of civil political opposition and armed tribal opposition of the Houthis, restoring the “constitutional legitimacy” with Hadi’s exit to Aden, the Houthis’ incapability to fully control the state pillars, including the security institution, will all convince the Houthis that they are a mere “faction” among others. This provides an opportunity which Saudi Arabia must seize now to establish developments upon it and with the support of its regional allies and the U.S. who can influence the U.N. Security Council and push all Yemeni parties to head towards an initiative. This time the initiative is pure Saudi and not Gulf. This will grant Saudi Arabia more power to pressure the Yemeni parties considering the special relation between them and will also help block attempts on decision-making by maneuvering with more than one party. Most importantly is that the Saudi kingdom is the first one to be harmed of the worst happening in Yemen.

Sharing power

The initiative aims to push all Yemeni parties, including the Houthis, toward some sort of formula to participate and share power. Elections are impossible now but the Yemeni government will not fail to find a Yemeni Loya Jirga to name a council elders or a constituent assembly or a Yemeni reconciliation council. Names do not matter. What matters is that the initiative establishes a partnership among Yemeni parties – a partnership based on the idea that Houthis are a party or a partner who’s equal with others when aspiring to establishing a new Yemen. Insisting on president Hadi’s legitimacy is wrong as we cannot go back in time and alter developments but using all pressure tools, including force, tribes, reforms and international sanctions, to push the Houthis to an agreement is what’s right.

Some of those who staged a coup are hanged when they fail and others end up as partners in governance. Developments have confirmed that no-one can win everything in Yemen. The moral says “middle ground is best.” Middle ground here is to convince the Houthis “to live and let others live.”

This article was first published in al-Hayat on March 4, 2015.

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Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.