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Saudi options in Yemen exhausted

The country's disintegration is matched by growing difficulties in envisioning a peace deal

Sometimes there's merit in simplicity. It highlights truths that are camouflaged by complexity. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about the horrors of the war in Yemen, a bewildering cauldron of Yemeni, regional and international interests. Yet few can possibly understand why it's happening, let alone how it might end.

The New Yorker magazine recently added a few more thousand words to the heap, detailing US links to the war and to Saudi Arabia, its instigator. In the course of the article, the writer quoted an Arab diplomat from the Saudi-led coalition. Asked about a possible leader to head a transition government, he replied: "Who would you hand Yemen to? Who would be part of that? There is nobody."

There you have it, plain and simple. The physical destruction, and the political and military fragmentation—Yemeni and international—have reached a point where it's beyond the desire or capability of a single person to become the leader of Yemen.

This chilling thought must surely have entered the mind of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's defence minister. He was the man who decided on 25 March 2015 to order air strikes against the Houthis and elements of the Yemeni army loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Against the advice of some senior princes and court officials, he broadened the airstrikes into a multilateral Arab offensive, with the UAE becoming the Saudis' main partner. The best possible result would have been early Houthi capitulation. Second best would have seen the Houthis scurrying to the negotiating table. There was no third option. There still isn't.

The UN keeps trying to bring the parties back to the negotiating table in Kuwait. Three months of talks there in 2016 got nowhere. Oman has leveraged its good relations with Iran to urge the authorities there to persuade the Houthis to give up their weapons. To no avail.

Today, even if talks were arranged, who would be at the table? The Houthis and supporters of the late president Saleh (killed by the Houthis) are no longer allied. Southerners wanting independence are growing in number and confidence. With the support of the UAE (but definitely not Saudi Arabia—potential for yet another schism?) they're looking for a solution that would see Aden becoming the capital of a new South Yemen. They're not interested in restoring the status quo. But not all southerners have the same aim. The inhabitants of the most easterly province of al-Mahra, on the Omani border, want independence from Aden as well as Sanaa. They regard UAE troops, who are training militias in the region, as an occupying force. So does Oman.

Then there are tribal groups who are making a tidy living smuggling arms, fuel, food and other essentials across the various battle lines. In the past, they accepted Saudi money to keep in step with the government in Sanaa. Not anymore. They're happy for the war to continue. As for the overwhelming majority of Yemenis incarcerated in their own country, their hatred of Saudi Arabia is growing as the aerial bombardments continue and disease and poverty spread. How much faith would they have in a deal with a Saudi signature at the bottom? Or a Houthi signature come to that? The Houthis, confident of Iranian backing from a distance, are in no mood to surrender, despite the appalling civilian suffering.

If, miraculously, a deal was on the table, with an array of contending parties sat around it, that simple question would hang in the air: who would you hand Yemen to? No, there really is nobody. It's an answer that's surely beginning to haunt the Saudi leadership.

This article is part of an in-depth series on Geopolitics. Next article is: Energy risks in all shapes, all sizes

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