The Arab coalition’s intervention in Yemen was supposed to last just a few weeks. Now in its sixth year, the Yemen conflict has resulted in over a hundred thousand casualties, crushed the country’s already fragile economy, and repeatedly threatened mass starvation for millions of people. While peace talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis are ongoing, various impediments remain. Among the most pressing is the Houthi movement’s possession of long-range missiles. Thanks in large part to Arab Coalition missile defenses, the Houthis’ missile campaign has contributed very little to their war effort. Nevertheless, the prospective dangers of such weapons and the Iranian influence that comes with them make Riyadh less willing to accept a Houthi role in a post-war Yemen government. Limitations on Houthi missile capabilities will, therefore, be a necessary component of any lasting peace.
The Yemen conflict has seen Houthi militias fire more ballistic missiles than any other conflict in recent history. With the assistance of Iran, Houthi forces have fired hundreds of missiles to strike Arab Coalition bases, population centers, and infrastructure. Shorter-range missiles frequently target the southern Saudi cities of Khamis Mushait, Najran, and Jizan, while longer-range missiles have reached as far as Riyadh. The Houthis have also struck scores of targets with antiship, anti-tank, and surface-to-air missiles, unguided artillery rockets, and armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
With these attacks, the Houthis have tried to hurt the Arab Coalition militarily, economically, and politically. This approach has yielded few results. This failure is likely due to the limited accuracy and reliability of Houthi missiles, and the effectiveness of Arab Coalition missile defenses. From hundreds of Houthi missiles launches, only seven have resulted in heavy coalition military losses.
Houthi missile attacks have also failed to “shake” Arab Coalition economies as Houthi leaders vowed to do. Houthi forces have used missiles to target Saudi oil facilities and tankers, launching missions like “Operation Economic Deterrence” to strike the Shaybah oilfield in August 2019. However, only a few Houthi attacks have temporarily disrupted shipping, and none have caused a noticeable decline in oil production.
Houthi missile strikes on civilian areas have furthermore backfired. Rather than raise political discontent among Saudi citizens, Riyadh has used civilian deaths as justification for its intervention. Some Houthi leaders recognize this issue. As one spokesperson complained, “Saudi Arabia is now portraying its aggression on Yemen as if it’s just a response to our missile and border attacks.”
While failing to achieve meaningful strategic ends, the Houthi missile arsenal complicates prospects for peace and restoring stability. Riyadh remains unlikely to accept the presence of a hostile force armed with long-range missiles on its southern flank. These missiles also come with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps training and influence, further unsettling Saudi Arabia.
Ongoing peace talks must cover numerous contentious issues. From Iranian influence in Yemen to border security and demilitarized zones, Saudi and Houthi diplomats face difficult negotiations. Yet addressing the Houthis’ ballistic missile arsenal could prove to be one avenue for progress. A settlement here would mark a significant confidence-building measure, reduce Saudi security concerns, and loosen Houthi ties with Iran, while still minimally affecting Houthi military capability. If the Houthis put these missiles on the negotiating table, it would demonstrate their resolve to become a legitimate and recognized part of a future Yemen government. All parties would benefit from such an arrangement.
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