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Yemen: are Saudi plans contributing to the fall of Marib?

September 22, 2020 at 1:11 pm

Yemeni tribesman in Marib, Yemen on 12 May 2015 [AFP/Getty Images]

Nowadays, the Marib governorate is at the forefront of the scenario in Yemen as it is a top target for a comprehensive military operation to gain control that the Houthis have been involved in for about two months. More than 2.5 million people live there, including refugees, and the majority chose to remain in Marib to preserve their dignity and defend their presence and country.

We should not be pessimistic, but the indications are that we will either see the Houthis defeated and perhaps the end of their project, or see regional power Saudi Arabia facing a defeat no matter how it tries to portray itself as being in control of the outcome of the battle in Yemen. These developments coincide with the sixth anniversary of the Houthi coup in Sana’a.

I have no doubt that Saudi Arabia is losing control in Yemen, even if it claims otherwise. Three weeks ago, Prince Fahd Bin Turki Bin Abdulaziz was removed from his position as commander of the coalition forces and directing his country’s military intervention. He and Saudi Arabia’s UAE partners decided on which military targets to go for.

Anecdotal evidence from army officers, Yemeni officials and even tribal elders before and after the dismissal of Bin Turki suggests that he left behind a lot of bitterness about his behaviour and stances that reflected the reality of Saudi Arabia’s views of its allies as well as its enemies.

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Marib was an important testing ground for Bin Turki, but he has demonstrated that he was in fact one of the main obstacles to defending it. What’s more, his dismissal may be linked in part to an attempt to discredit Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman in the mire of Yemen in order to prevent him becoming King. It all has to be seen in the context of the struggle for control of the House of Saud.

Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman in Islamabad, Pakistan on 17 February 2019 [Bandar Algaloud/Anadolu Agency ]

Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad Bin Salman in Islamabad, Pakistan on 17 February 2019 [Bandar Algaloud/Anadolu Agency ]

Before his dismissal, Prince Fahd Bin Turki’s position contributed to reducing the margin for manoeuvre and the deepening despair in the tribal area of Marib, perhaps inciting the tribes against the National Army and the Islah Party. This made it easier for the Houthis to buy the loyalty of many tribal leaders in the south-western of Marib, where the Murad tribe is based. This deepened fears that the fighting would lead to restrictions on the city of Marib itself, if there was no fundamental shift in the levels of support provided to the army there.

As such, the slow progress of the Houthis towards Marib can be considered to be the result of the usual opportunism of tribal sheikhs, and a Saudi approach that constitutes a mixture of genuine hatred, blatant carelessness and the settling of scores. This was not towards enemies, but with loyal Islamic allies who contributed with their naivety and belief in the Saudi model to passing the anti-republic and anti-democratic Saudi agenda against change in the republic of Yemen over the past few decades.

The indications are that the Saudi air strikes have become more accurate in hitting military targets, with heavy casualties for the Houthi fighters. At least 300 have been killed, including senior officers.

It is too early to judge if this is down to new coalition commander Lieutenant General Mutlaq Bin Salem Bin Mutlaq Al-Azima, the Saudi Deputy Chief of the General Staff. We cannot deny, though, that improvements in accuracy have been seen.

However, the carefully drawn policy framework for developments in Marib remains suspicious. The UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is talking about the inevitable consequences of the Marib battles that could lead to the fall of the city, which would undermine the hopes for a comprehensive political process to enter a transitional phase based on partnership and pluralism. Saudi Arabia immediately adopted this approach and, following Griffiths’ statement, has used political approaches and the media to float ideas about the responsibility for what is happening in Marib and refer the situation to the international community.

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Saudi Arabia has an interest in avoiding its responsibilities towards the legitimate Yemeni government-in-exile in Riyadh and moving forward towards creating a situation on the ground that leads to Yemen being divided between the south and the north. This can only be justified by Marib falling, which would mean the automatic fall of the Yemeni government and pave the way for such division backed by the deployment of Saudi forces in Aden and Al-Mahra, in addition to air support. At that point, there will be no solution leading to national partnership, Griffiths has warned.

It is a very bleak scenario that not only threatens the fate of Marib and the Yemeni state, but also warns against a humiliating end to Saudi Arabia’s Yemen adventure. Nevertheless, if Marib falls, as happened with Sana’a, there could be fundamental changes in the struggle, with the Yemenis liberated from Saudi domination and external control.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 20 September 2020

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.