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HomeGeopolitical CompassArabian PeninsulaWhat Does Biden’s Yemen Policy Mean for Saudi Arabia?

What Does Biden’s Yemen Policy Mean for Saudi Arabia?

Author: Ahmed Nagi

Affiliation: Carnegie Middle East Centre

Organization/Publisher: Carnegie Middle East Centre

Date/Place: February 12, 2021/Beirut, Lebanon

Type of Literature: Q & A

Word Count: 1566


Keywords: Saudi Arabia, Yemeni Conflict, Houthis, Biden’s Foreign Policy.


Ahmed Nagi discusses Biden’s policy toward Yemen and its impact on the Saudi’s strategy. The Biden administration’s announcements about Yemen underline a policy shift to diplomacy and decreasing military intervention in Yemen. However, Nagi argues that this American policy shift to diplomacy is not that much different from the Saudi’s current strategy. Altogether, the US ending support for Saudi Arabia’s military offensive in Yemen, the appointment of Timothy Lenderking as the special envoy to Yemen, and the revoking of the previous administration’s designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist group are remarks of the US’ return to diplomacy and negotiations. On the other hand, the Saudi’s response has been mainly reserved while welcoming US defense cooperation and an envoy appointment that referred to a rapprochement to change toward a more diplomatic and less militaristic strategy. This Saudi shift has its justifications. Saudi Arabia has shifted from hard to soft intervention in the Yemeni conflict, since 2019, with a notable decrease in military operations and expenditures due to the increasing economic, humanitarian, and political costs of such intervention. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is another pressure on the Saudi’s situation, since international nongovernmental organizations have increased their calls to hold the Saudi Coalition in Yemen responsible for this deteriorated situation. Moreover, the southern Saudi borders have been increasingly under attack from the Houthis. Accordingly, the Saudi strategy’s current focal point is weakening—instead of defeating—Houthis; adopting a defensive policy as a replacement to its previous offensive one in terms of the number of operations and border-based rather than inland targets. However, Saudi Arabia may continue to secure its weapons needs from other countries such as Russia and China. Although there are already communication channels between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis and they have gone through several secret talks, the US could act as a tempering power in the conflict if it will follow a comprehensive strategy. However, such strategy may bring more intervention from China and Russia to exploit their leverage on Houthis to trouble the American engagement. Nagi claims that there is no chance that Saudi Arabia would get out of Yemen since the cost of remaining involved there is still less than the cost of leaving it. Saudi Arabia would be involved through proxy fighters rather than direct military intervention in Yemen, which is similar to the UAE policy. While the UAE is announcing its withdrawal from Yemen, it is keeping behind a huge number of proxy troops. The situation is the same as well for Iran. Consequently, Yemen will continue to witness many proxies fighting based on the interests of regional actors. 

By: Yomna Süleyman, CIGA Research Assistant



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