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Yemen compromise pressure grows on Saudi

Potentially wavering support from a key ally and the need for Strait of Hormuz alternatives may force the Kingdom's hand

Saudi Arabia continues to be the key backer of the internationally-recognised Yemeni authorities under President Abd-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. But a number of factors may be combining to compell Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to soften his hard-line stance and move to the negotiating table.

The kingdom continues to support the principle of Yemen remaining united, with Sanaa as its capital. Saudi Arabia's main partner in the Yemen war, which began in 2015, has been the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE until recently had a large force deployed in southern Yemen, arming and training southerners who are supporters of secession.

But over recent weeks the UAE has withdrawn most of its troops from Yemen, calling into question its commitment to the Saudi-led coalition. Anger at a missile attack—launched by the Houthi rebels who control the capital, Sanaa, and areas of central and northern Yemen—at the beginning of August, and the more general failure of government forces to defeat the Houthis, prompted supporters of a movement calling for the restoration of a southern state, independent of Sanaa, to march on the presidential palace. The missile attack hit a military parade in the southern port city of Aden and killed 36 people.

6.5mn bl/d — pipeline expansion proposed to Yanbu

Fighting then erupted in Aden, the nominal seat of government since the Houthi capture of Sanaa in 2014—although Hadi himself resides in Saudi Arabia—between these separatists and palace guards loyal to the regime. That these separatists were trained by the UAE and were prepared to take a fight to Saudi-backed Yemeni army troops makes the two countries' coalition appear decidedly shaky.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zaid of Abu Dhabi discussed events in Yemen during talks in Jeddah on 11 August. But no details were made public.

Saudi Arabia's challenge is that UAE troops have been more involved than any others on the ground in Yemen, while the kingdom's forces have attacked solely from the sky. Without UAE forces on the front lines, there seems no prospect of the Saudi-led Arab coalition achieving victory.

According to Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based pan-Arab online daily Rai al-Youm, elements in the leadership of both Saudi Arabia and the Houthis support the idea of negotiations. But the dominant Houthi military wing "want to continue launching missiles at Saudi targets and carrying out cross-border attacks to exploit the kingdom's weakened position—they will talk when they judge the time is right".

The UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is "alarmed by the military escalations in Aden" and "deeply concerned by the recent rhetoric encouraging violence against Yemeni institutions"—a reference to secessionists' calls for attacks on central-government buildings.

Energy bonus

These is another factor that might motivate Saudi appetite for a deal in Yemen. The kingdom has said it wants to expand the capacity of the east-west crude oil pipeline to the Yanbu terminal on the Red Sea from 5mn bl/d to 6.5mn bl/d. The idea is to reduce the export volumes passing through the Strait of Hormuz, in case Iranian hostilities should lead to disruption of Saudi tanker traffic.

The problem is, though, that tankers from Yanbu heading for Asian markets have to sail through the narrow Bab al-Mandeb Strait, the southern entrance to the Red Sea. In July 2018, Saudi Arabia said that two of its oil tankers had been targeted by Houthi rebels in Yemen and, for a time, the kingdom suspended shipping through the strait.

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