Saudi Arabia’s Exit from the Yemeni Conflict due to COVID-19 Pressures6 min read

The novel coronavirus may have just accomplished something that millions of dollars-worth of weaponry, hundreds of thousands of dead, and five torturous years failed to do. Citing humanitarian concerns, Saudi Arabia and Yemeni rebels have recently agreed to a two-week cease-fire brokered by the U.N. that is thought to herald a Saudi withdrawal from the conflict, bringing the bloody travesty to a close.

Coronavirus – or COVID-19 – is a highly infectious respiratory illness similar to the flu. Unlike the flu, however, there is no known treatment for this illness and can either devastate the body or exist undetected. This disparity in symptoms presents a major challenge to health care professionals, as the illness becomes very difficult to contain. A healthy-feeling person may think that they are disease free and go about with their daily life, interacting with a variety of people and contaminating numerous surfaces. Those who the virus devastates are thus at a much higher risk of interacting or becoming infected by such an unwitting carrier. The elderly and those with autoimmune disorders are at high-risk of succumbing to this illness but the rest of the population is not exempt. In recent weeks, most nations throughout the world have implemented some variety of shut down or curfew, most frequently for the purpose of prohibiting large groups from gathering or international persons from entering a nation. These global measures have ground the world economy to a near standstill and countries are now looking down the barrel of a potentially devastating global economic crash.

Calls for a ceasefire and increased signaling of discussion between the Houthi rebel fighters and the Saudis have hinted at the end of the long, bloody conflict between the nations (Strobel, 2020). The past year has seen little progress by either side, with the war’s front lines in Yemen mired in constant gridlock. The political situation on the ground has made the Saudi position even more unstable as various Saudi-backed coalitions in northern, Saudi-held Yemen have begun to fraction, splintering under a struggle for power amongst local groups (The Middle East Monitor, 2020). In order to continue, Saudi Arabia would be forced to channel more finances and resources toward this doomed, increasingly unpopular conflict. This choice is appearing more and more untenable as “Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is eager to pull out of Yemen so he can focus his energies on addressing the growing economic crisis at home and the threat of an unmanageable COVID-19 outbreak” (Harb, 2020). This economic crisis is heightened by the loss of one of Saudi Arabia’s most important economic resources: religious tourism. Due to the restrictions put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19, religious pilgrimages such as those to Mecca or to other holy sites are now prohibited, dealing a devastating blow to Saudi Arabia’s already oil-heavy economy. Most of all, he wants to ensure that his ascendance to the throne, once his father departs the scene, goes smoothly.” (Harb, 2020). Devastating one’s economy over a stalemating war is not a good political image to present to one’s people and it can be safely assumed that the Prince will do what he can to avoid appearing as if he is adding undue economic burden to his subjects, especially at a time where oil prices are in flux, a dangerous position for oil-dependent Saudi Arabia.

The war between Saudi Arabia and Yemen – involving various proxies at different times through these five years – has been dragging on. It has become obvious that the most political tenable option for Saudi Arabia would be to exit Yemen, before the Saudi population became over-weary of the war and the economic drain that such an extended conflict brings. Unfortunately, however, Saudi Arabia did not have a contingency plan for such an exit that would save face on both the national and international scale (Hubbard, 2020). A contingency place presented itself recently in the shape of the novel coronavirus, as the “pandemic provides a convenient opportunity [for Saudi Arabia] to save face by declaring an end to hostilities on humanitarian grounds” (Harb, 2020).

The humanitarian crisis caused by Saudi Arabia’s ‘siege’ of Yemeni ports is only projected to worsen when the full extent of the novel coronavirus hits the vulnerable Yemeni population. According to Bruce Riedel of Brookings, “roughly 80% of the population – 24 million people – are dependent on humanitarian assistance, and two-thirds are malnourished” (Riedel, 2020). With aid blocked from being unloaded at Yemeni ports due to the Saudi blockade, vital food and medical supplies will be just out of reach for a desperate people. These humanitarian concerns may have been high on the Houthi rebels’ priority list when they agreed to a two-week cease-fire, after many months-worth of failed attempts by UN negotiators (Riedel, 2020). Even more worrying for the Yemeni response to COVID-19 pandemic is Yemen’s shocking lack of medical infrastructure. During the course of this bloody 5-year conflict, Saudi airplanes and drones have targeted Yemeni hospitals and civilian areas, often with the help of U.S. geospatial information. According to Riedel, “only half of the country’s hospitals and medical installations are operating because of the bombing and the siege” (Riedel, 2020). As the poorest country in the world, Yemen, it appears, will be “completely unprepared for the outbreak of the virus” (Riedel, 2020).

Interestingly, the rampant death of millions of civilians by either violent, direct strikes from Saudi weaponry or the slow, painful death of starvation was not enough for either side to declare a humanitarian crisis, and certainly not Saudi Arabia. The announcement that “the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen has declared a two-week ceasefire in a bid to stem the spread of the coronavirus in the war-torn country” is curious, as no other clear violation of human rights or desperate need for humanitarian aid had made any visible impression upon the conflicting sides previous (Robertson, 2020). More interestingly, the cease-fire was apparently “prompted by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ call for a pause of hostilities in the country in order to counter the spread of Covid-19” (Robertson, 2020). This leads the reader to believe that this cease-fire has far less to do with potential humanitarian benefit it may bring to the Yemeni people or due to the skilled negotiating of the U.N. representative, but reflected the growing Saudi worry about their economy and political pressures occurring at home.

Works Cited

“After 5 Years, Saudi Arabia is finally on the Verge of Defeat in Yemen.” The Middle East

Monitor, March 26, 2020.

Harb, Imad K. “Saudi Arabia is Preparing to End the War in Yemen.” Aljazeera, April 12, 2020.

Hubbard, Ben, Saeed Al-Batati, “Saudi Arabia Declares Cease-fire in Yemen, Citing Fears of

Coronavirus.” The New York Times, April 8, 2020.

Riedel, Bruce. “Saudi Arabia Wants Out of Yemen.” Brookings, April 13, 2020

Robertson, Nic, Mohammad Tawfeeq, Hamdi Alkhshali “Saudi Arabia Declares Cease-fire in

 Yemen Over Coronavirus.” CNN, April 9, 2020.

Strobel, Warren P. “Saudi Arabia Invites Houthi Rebels to Talks in Riyadh” The Wall Street

Journal, March 30, 2020.

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