It was only last month that the Houthis called upon Saudi Arabia to initiate a truce to stop hostilities across Yemen. Sadly, it was ignored by Saudi Arabia, even though it could have been a step in the right direction to open up future avenues for peace and security in the region.
Last week, though, the leader of the Houthi militia, Abdel Malek Al-Houthi, issued new threats against Saudi Arabia if Riyadh goes ahead with plans to attack and retake Hudaydah port, a military objective for some time. “Today the port of Hudaydah is being threatened,” said Al-Houthi, “and we cannot turn a blind eye to that.”
In a televised speech, the Houthi leader continued to include the United Arab Emirates in the threat, claiming that the militia group has ballistic missiles which could reach the Gulf State. “We could target Saudi oil tankers and we could do anything,” he boasted.
In response, the UAE’s Minister of State of Foreign Affairs said that the threat against his country is “tangible proof” that the Saudi-led coalition’s Operation Decisive Storm, ongoing since March 2015, is still needed. “Iran’s militias have vile objectives and represent a real threat,” added Anwar Gargash.
However, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia seem to have shrugged off the Houthi threat, although it certainly should not be ignored. The militia has displayed great resilience against the coalition which officially entered the Yemen conflict in support of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government. The conflict has reached stalemate, without much change to territorial gains on either side. The coalition has failed to push back the Houthis’ military advances, and the capital Sana’a is yet to be retaken by Hadi’s forces fighting alongside those of the coalition. Furthermore, members of the coalition, it seems, now face the possibility of blowback for their intervention in Yemen.
According to financial services company IHS Markit, the Houthis’ missile ballistic capabilities have been increasing steadily in the past two years. “They have been able to modify and increase the range of their missiles,” explained Ludovico Carlino, a Senior Analyst on Middle East and North Africa affairs at the company. “To date there has been no evidence of Yemeni insurgents’ use of missiles with a longer range than the Burkan-1, with a maximum range of 800 km. This range, however, poses a threat to a broad range of commercial assets in southern and central Saudi Arabia.”
On 23 July, however, Saudi Arabia’s oil refinery in Yanbu was targeted by a Burkan-2 missile, a distance of around 1,400 km. This demonstrates the Houthis’ new missile capability, and poses a major security threat to Saudi Arabia’s commercial assets deep within its borders.
According to Abdel Malek Al-Houthi, his group test-fired a ballistic missile towards the UAE earlier this month. “There has been no confirmation from the coalition that such an attack actually took place,” said Carlino. “There is a lot of misinformation coming from Yemen at the moment, and much of this is just propaganda.”
The Commander of the US Navy in the Gulf, Vice Admiral Kevin M. Donegan, said this week that Iran is continuing to send the Houthis sophisticated weaponry, including anti-ship and ballistic missiles, deadly sea mines and even explosive boats of the kind that have attacked ships in the Red Sea. “These types of weapons did not exist in Yemen before the conflict,” explained Donegan. “It’s not rocket science to conclude that the Houthis are getting not only these systems but likely training and advice and assistance in how to use them.”
A report by Conflict Armament Research revealed that there is evidence of a “weapon pipeline, extending from Iran to Somalia and Yemen, which involved the transfer, by dhow, of significant quantities of Iranian-manufactured weapons and weapons that plausibly derive from Iranian stockpiles.” Iran is very clearly, if such reports are accurate, fuelling hostilities in Yemen.
The aforementioned port city of Hudaydah is a lifeline for the Yemeni people, who are currently caught in a developing famine. Essential cargo deliveries through the port have fallen by fifty per cent, leaving 3.3 million Yemenis stuck in limbo and malnourished, according to the UN, whose envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, voiced concerns in May over any attacks to retake Hudaydah port from the Houthis. An attack on the port would inflame the conflict further and, more significantly, diminish what remains of the cargo shipments reaching Yemen.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE need to assess the threats arising from their ongoing campaign in Yemen, particularly when the conflict has been at a stalemate for the past two years. It is important to seek a political settlement amid a dire humanitarian crisis; aside from the famine, an outbreak of cholera has affected 700,000 people. Without positive initiatives to end the war, asymmetric threats from the Houthis will increase the risks to the commercial, tourism and energy sectors, which are already in a perilous state.