Research Group on 'The Middle East and Africa' FY2021-#9
"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.
Saudi Arabia faces various diplomatic and security challenges. As its intervention in Yemen has hit a wall, Saudi Arabia has been forced to revise its responses to Iran and domestic issues in the face of the Biden administration's assertions. The launch of direct talks with Iran is a positive development for regional stability but concerns about a resurgence of political instability in the region remain unresolved. This paper will examine the process of compromises among countries in the region and the geopolitical changes that are taking place behind these compromises.
Disunited intervention in Yemen
Saudi Arabia's powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has decisive political and economic authorities, has taken various measures to strengthen momentum for a royal succession. Among these, Saudi Vision 2030 seeks ways of diversifying the kingdom's oil-dependent economy. At the same time, he has made clear his stance of confronting Iran on the external front, and intensified military intervention in neighboring Yemen to beat the Iran-backed Houthis, a Shiite Muslim militia, and to restore the Yemeni government to power. In 2015, when he was deputy crown prince, an Arab coalition was formed to attack the Houthis in number. Nine Arab countries including the UAE, Morocco, Jordan, Qatar, and Egypt, participated. However, attacks against civilian targets such as hospitals, schools, and factories have increased, causing many civilian casualties in Yemen and drawing criticism. The US government, which had initially supported the coalition's intervention, has also scaled back its support activities.
The Saudi-led military intervention to put down the Houthi forces became unpopular internationally, and its initial cohesion eroded. In 2017, Qatar faced unilateral severance of diplomatic relations by four countries, including Saudi Arabia, and withdrew from the coalition. Al Jazeera, the leading Qatari media outlet, amplified its critical tone regarding the coalition's intervention in Yemen. In February 2019, Morocco voiced "concerns about the humanitarian situation in particular" and pulled out of the coalition. In July of the same year, the UAE also announced a reduction in the size of its armed forces and drastically cut the number of personnel. Egypt is a member of the coalition but has not sent any troops.
Bogged down by a 'non-state actor'
The Iranian-backed Houthis have stepped up their activities against the disorganized Arab coalition, striking Saudi Aramco oil facilities, Saudi tankers at sea and airports in the capital Riyadh and in the south with missiles and drones. Saudi Arabia's leaders, who continue to fight and simultaneously face the issue of transforming to a post-oil economic structure to address the expected future downturn in oil demand, are concerned about how global markets view their country. In addition to attracting foreign capital, Saudi Arabia is trying to promote industrial cities centered on cutting-edge technology, but it remains under military attack from abroad, a major source of anxiety from the viewpoint of promoting economic development. Meanwhile, the Houthis, a militia dedicated to increasing its sphere of influence in Yemen through fighting, have less to lose than the Saudis even if they take risks. This appears to be a typical situation of a state losing ground by fighting non-state actors.
With Saudi Arabia mired in the Yemeni civil war, mediation by the United Nations and neighboring countries has not succeeded so far. The country's leadership now needs to shift from a policy of force to other more effective measures.
Saudi relations with the Biden administration
The Saudis' focus is on the Biden administration in the United States. Even before his inauguration, President Biden, who places particular importance on human rights agenda, was keenly interested in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamaal Ahmad Khashoggi in 2018. In February 2021, shortly after President Biden's inauguration, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a report that concluded it was unlikely that the murder of Khashoggi, a matter of such political significance, would have been carried out without the approval of Crown Prince Salman, thus clarified the new US administration's harsh attitude toward the crown prince. President Biden addressed this issue, which the Trump administration had avoided, head-on in the report, and mentioned the responsibility of Crown Prince Salman, sending a strong signal that a new relationship unlike that with the previous administration was about to begin.
In April, after a tense start to the new US-Saudi relationship, Saudi and Iranian officials, who had been at odds across the Persian Gulf, held their first direct talks in Iraq since severing diplomatic ties in 2016. Behind this is believed to be US encouragement for Saudi Arabia to move toward reconciliation with Iran. As mentioned above, Saudi Arabia wants to end their country's exposure to Houthi attacks, but to do that, they need to convince Iran, which backs the Houthis, to ease the conflict with the Saudis.
Fostering a mood of dialogue
President Biden is willing to negotiate anew with Iran on the nuclear deal. However, the prospect for the course of negotiations is uncertain as Iran's newly elected president Ebrahim Raisi is seen as a conservative hardliner and a candidate for the country's next supreme leader. If Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to be at odds with each other, the environment and momentum for nuclear negotiations will be impaired. During the Obama administration from around 2012 to 2013, the Saudi government strongly opposed the US-led negotiations on a nuclear agreement with Iran, but there has been no strong opposition to US-Iran negotiations this time. Since the release of the US report in February, Saudi Arabia has been rather following the Biden administration's wishes by releasing two women human rights activists who were detained in Saudi Arabia.
In April, Saudi and Iranian officials began direct talks that have apparently been held on more than one occasion since then. This suggests that Saudi Arabia, having understood the big picture, has begun to think about building trust with various quarters while keeping an eye on the US. This is the first good news for stabilization of the Persian Gulf in a long time.
At the time of the report's release, President Biden decided to conduct telephone talks with King Salman as a channel of communication with the Saudis and not to contact Crown Prince Salman directly. Later, at the end of September, there was a new development with the travel by US National Security Advisor John Sullivan to Riyadh to meet with Crown Prince Salman and Saudi officials. The first visit to Saudi Arabia by a cabinet-level US official close to the president under the Biden administration, while not the president himself, drew attention there. In addition to human rights issues and the situation in Yemen, the two sides are also said to have discussed the oil situation. The Saudi side has hopes that this visit will lead to a meeting at higher level.
Expectations and anxieties over improving the situation
In late August, a meeting of neighboring countries mainly from the Gulf region was held in Baghdad, with the participation of the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran, marking the start of a possible rapprochement, the leaders of other Gulf countries and Egypt, and French President Emmanuel Macron. With the discussion over the issues such as refugees from Afghanistan, it was expected that a mood of dialogue would spread in the region. However, what remains of concern is the fate of the Yemeni civil war - whether the Yemeni interim government, the Houthis, and other forces involved in the conflict can reach a sustainable ceasefire - and there will be no easy solutions. The Yemeni civil war was initially fought between the transitional government forces and the Houthis, but later the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) joined forces with the government to drive the Houthis out of power. However, the army of the transitional government and the STC had a falling out in 2019, and the situation has since been unstable, with the STC declaring it would rule the South on its own, and later withdrawing its decision and coming back to cooperate with the transitional government again.
The UAE, acting as the STC's guardian, has improved its military skills by taking part in peacekeeping operations in Somalia and Kosovo. The UAE Federal Army, which has participated in various international military operations under the command of Vice President and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Federal Armed Forces Mohammed bin Zayed (Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi), is also training and guiding the STC's military organization in Yemen, indicating its desire to strengthen its political influence around the Arabian Peninsula. The diplomatic move of signing the Abraham Accords with Israel by the UAE, alongside with Bahrain, in the fall of 2020 drew attention. One of the goals of this move is to gain access to advanced Israeli technology, including military technology, as part of the UAE's exit-from-oil agenda.
Seeking to expand spheres of influence
The March 2021 agreement between Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Israel's leading aircraft manufacturer, and UAE arms manufacturer Edge to jointly develop an advanced anti-drone defense system was the first concrete example of bilateral defense cooperation. The move came as the UAE, which already manufactures and exports a wide range of weapons including armored vehicles, was considering potential exports to Saudi Arabia, which is suffering from attacks on infrastructure such as oil facilities from the Houthis. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have begun calling for a "price" for military intervention in Yemen as the country's civil war has stalled. Saudi Arabia is considering building a pipeline to connect its oil fields with Mahra in eastern Yemen to export crude oil avoiding the Strait of Hormuz, amid difficulties in regaining territory from the Houthis. The UAE has built an airfield on the southwestern island of Mayoun and it also controls the island of Socotra. In August 2020, there was a report that Israel and the UAE sent a joint investigation team of intelligence officers from the two countries to set up a joint intelligence base on Socotra. In May 2021, it was reported that Israeli tourists were visiting the island; the Yemeni interim government expressed its discontent over this, saying "our sovereignty is being ignored." This suggests that the UAE, which holds power on the island, may have accepted the Israeli tourists at its own discretion.
These moves underscore the collapse of Yemen's territorial integrity and reflect the strategic intent of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to secure spheres of influence in the country; in the case of the UAE, its apparent intention is also to use the STC and associated militias as non-state actors. From Israel's point of view, relations with the UAE can serve as both a check on Iran and a means of obtaining detailed information on the Gulf region, the frontline of the hybrid war. There seems to be an increasing need to read the situation in Yemen and the Gulf region by analyzing stakeholders' calculations and actions from multi-layered perspectives.
(The original Japanese version of this paper is dated November 22, 2021.)