Creating new perspectives since 2009

The Gulf states will not move against Yemen’s Houthis without decisive Western intervention

April 9, 2024 at 2:18 pm

Protestors walk under a billboard bearing the image of a commercial ship holding the American flag as if it’s burning after it was targeted by missiles in the Red Sea, after they took part in a rally marking International Jerusalem Day , in Sana’a, Yemen on 5 April, 2024 [Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images]

There are few active armed movements that are as aggressive and assertive – reckless, even– as Yemen’s Houthis. Since the start of Israel’s ongoing offensive and genocide of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the Houthis have launched attacks on cargo vessels linked to the occupation state passing through Bab Al-Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea, causing major disruption to international trade through the vital waterways.

Ships have been going instead around the Cape of Good Hope in an effort to avoid being targeted, yet the Houthis have even threatened to hit them up to that point. Attacks on ships have neither stopped nor slowed, with the Houthis having fired on British, American and Israeli ships in the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean over the past few days alone.

Allegedly launching the attacks in response to the crisis in Gaza and in solidarity with the Palestinians, it is likely that the militia also sees it as a tactic to project its influence over maritime boundaries rather than being limited by territorial constrictions, particularly as a way to gain leverage both diplomatically and militarily. The response by Western nations has been deadly, moving from diplomacy to the military sphere and resulting in direct strikes on Houthi targets and facilities on land and sea.

One question that many have posed throughout the crisis is, what are the Gulf Arab states doing to halt the Houthi attacks? This is their neighbourhood, after all, and it does seem to be in their interest to tackle such a threat to trade through the Red Sea and connected waterways.

Yet it is exactly the fact that the Houthis are part of their neighbourhood which prevents the Gulf states from taking any action. The memories of the movement’s missile strikes on Abu Dhabi two years ago remains fresh in the mind of the UAE, as do the numerous strikes and drone attacks on vital facilities in Saudi Arabia.

OPINION: The Houthis are turning the tables on everyone

The eight-year-long Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen to defeat the Houthis has been a painful failure for the kingdom, resulting in more loss than benefit. And although the UAE managed to largely extricate itself from that quagmire while strengthening its hand in southern Yemen through proxies, mercenaries and territorial control, it is only too happy to be free of the burden of battling the Houthis.

In the view of the Gulf states, it is an absolute priority for them to push on ahead with their national programmes to develop and diversify their economies, structure their strategic goals, reform their policies, and achieve their visions for the year 2030. Saudi Arabia in particular has learnt over the past decade that getting bogged down in Yemen, or any other regional conflict, is an obstacle to those aims. It is willing to swallow its pride by engaging in serious peace talks with the Houthis and agreeing to prisoner swaps, so a reignition of the conflict over the targeting of cargo ships would be a serious diplomatic setback for Riyadh.

The threat is a prescient and open one, with the Houthis having warned that Saudi Arabia will be their next target if it assists in the Western air strikes against them. According to reports earlier this year, it was for that reason that both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, amongst other Arab countries, have been “increasingly restricting” the US and Western partners from using their territories to conduct retaliatory operations against Iranian-backed groups and militias in Iraq, Syria and the Red Sea area.

Efforts were also taken to conceal any strikes that were carried out by aircraft launched from bases in those countries, such as Al Dhafra in the UAE, with strikes now being carried out from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. The aircraft carrier is close at hand.

READ: US may remove Houthis from terror list if Red Sea attacks cease

As is often the case when a country in the Middle East alters the course of its foreign policy, there are rumours and paranoia that the Gulf states are either aligning themselves with Israel by not doing enough to condemn the Western strikes on Yemen, or are undermining their partnership with the US and are secretly allied with the Houthis by refusing to join in on the air strikes. However, like other nations, the Gulf states prioritise their national security and interests, and refraining from action in Yemen is simply part of that process.

What may change that, though, is direct military action taken by Western forces against the Houthis. As has been laid out in a previous article, a serious operation against the Houthis and their maritime activities would not only consist of strikes on the militia’s sites and facilities, but also a ground operation.

However, even if such an operation were to be launched, some have questioned the willingness and capabilities of a Western coalition – or even that of the US alone – to penetrate Yemen and tackle the Houthis head-on. Citing the logistical and bureaucratic obstacles, the chain of command and legal procedures involved in such an operation, Erik Prince, the founder of infamous mercenary company Blackwater, suggested in a recent podcast episode the use of private military contractors (PMCs), possibly operating alongside special forces teams covertly. That would give further credence to the theory – espoused by the likes of Prince – that PMCs are the way forward in modern combat, providing flexibility and efficiency without bureaucratic burdens, particularly in complex fronts like Yemen.

Regardless of the method employed in any potential operation against the Houthis, it is certain that the Saudis or Emiratis will take no further military action in Yemen without the advance of such an operation launched by a Western coalition or a substantial mercenary or covert force.

Mere strikes on the rebel group will not be sufficient to convince the Gulf states to join in any action in the quagmire that is Yemen from which they have just managed to extract themselves, nor will guarantees of support if they agree to do so. The Gulf states may be more wary than ever of promises from the West, and will not be swayed without first seeing decisive and independent Western military action.

OPINION: Will mercenary Gulf armies signal a new Western colonial security order?

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