In this Feb. 12, 2018 photo, young Saudi-led backed forces, part of Ahmed Al-Kawkabani's southern resistance unit in Hodeida, patrol al-Khoukha, Yemen. Young men, some as young as 12, have served on the front lines throughout Yemen’s 3-year-old war.

In this Feb. 12, 2018 photo, young Saudi-led backed forces, part of Ahmed Al-Kawkabani's southern resistance unit in Hodeida, patrol al-Khoukha, Yemen. Young men, some as young as 12, have served on the front lines throughout Yemen’s 3-year-old war. AP / Nariman El-Mofty

Houthis ‘Softening,’ But UAE Minister Says Yemen Security Could Still Require Foreign Troops

The UAE’s foreign-affairs minister says the Houthis are weakening under pressure from the Saudi-led military coalition. The question is what comes next, and who should decide.

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — The Houthi rebellion in Yemen is “softening” under military pressure from the coalition of Saudi, United Arab Emirates, U.S. and others there, according to the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs. But the possibility of a prolonged coalition presence in Yemen after the rebellion ends is very real, says Dr. Anwar bin Mohammed Gargash.

Gargash was in Bratislava, Slovakia, for the annual GLOBSEC conference and sat down with Defense One for a conversation at a cafe along the banks of the Danube river. He is cautiously optimistic that Martin Griffiths, the new UN envoy to Yemen, will hasten a political compromise and end the three-year war. Griffiths is pushing toward a political solution to the conflict, one he described as “available” in a letter he wrote in April.

“I am hoping that this time once a political process starts and the Houthis recognize that there is international community intent on bringing this conflict to an end, politically, I hope… this will signal what you call the end of the conflict,” said Gargash. “The parties failed to solve it last time because the Houthis refused to pull their militias out of the capital and some of the urban centers.”

The beginning of the end of the rebellion, Gargash said, was the death in December of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Houthi ally. “That marriage of convenience came to a violent end with his killing. Clearly, now, the Houthis are fighting, but they are really trying to maintain their hold on where they are. They are not expanding. We are seeing a softer enemy in many places. Having said that, the military pressure is designed to change the calculus and bring a political solution. We aren’t looking for a total military victory,” he said.

The coalition’s pressure campaign, however, continues to be rebuffed by Iranian support for the rebels. U.S. military and intelligence officials claim that Iran is arming the Houthis with missile components (although the Houthis had a sizable stock of old Soviet ballistic missiles as well.) Gargash echoed the assertion that Iran is exacerbating the crisis by shipping missiles to the Houthis, mostly in pieces to avoid detection. 

“There was no… equipment such as this in the beginning of the conflict. So, clearly, while we are controlling the flow of Iranian weapons to Yemen, in terms of quantity, it doesn’t mean we have been completely successful in closing the routes for these. A lot of these are coming from one central port in Iran, which is Bandar Abbas, and then taking different routes, in many cases they are disassembled and put together,” he said.

While the missile threat is real, Gargash downplayed their importance to prolonging the war as nothing more than a Houthi ploy to “divert attention among the Houthis away from their receding control of the land in the current battles.”

Ultimately, he argued, the defeat of the Houthis will not necessarily end the need for Saudi-led forces in Yemen, and whether a new Yemeni government is capable of counterterror operations.

“Any Yemeni state that will emerge will in the beginning be a weak state, and will be harassed if we are not addressing the terrorism aspect of it,” he said. “I think this is a golden opportunity for us to decimate al-Qaeda. We have huge success in various areas against al-Qaeda,” according to Gargash.

International observers have charged the Saudi-led coalition with human rights abuses in the conflict, which has seen heavy civilian deaths. Likewise, some observers are skeptical of the coalition’s ultimate goal.

“The Saudi and UAE position on Yemen has been fairly consistent, but not necessarily in a good way,” said the Brookings Institution’s Shadi Hamid in an email. “Officials say they aren't seeking total victory and are open to compromise, but in reality, what we see with the Saudi-led coalition is a continued inflexibility and resistance to taking into account the international community's humanitarian concerns. However bad the Houthis and Iran are doesn't — and can't — justify a destructive intervention that has led to one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in the world.”

“This isn't surprising: the current Saudi and UAE leadership has quite self-consciously adopted an increasingly maximalist approach in any number of theaters, whether it's Iran, the crisis with Qatar, eliminating the Muslim Brotherhood, and of course Yemen. So yes, as Emirati officials have said, victory cannot be total, and thinking that it can is a recipe for endless conflict. But there's no one, certainly not in the Trump administration, willing to reign in the aggressive–and I would argue unsustainable—winner-takes-all foreign policy coming from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi” he said.

Listen to the full interview w UAE’s Gargash in the next podcast episode of Defense One Radio, coming later this week.