Yemen has been a fertile ground for conflict. Over the past six years, the Saudi-led Arab coalition has clashed with the Houthi rebels in Hodeida, Abyan, Aden and Taiz, Al-Beidha, and Al-Jawaf. Now, both sides have poured soldiers and weaponry into the oil-rich province of Marib in northern Yemen. The ongoing battle there could ultimately decide the outcome of the war: a victory for the beleaguered Houthis could bring a new dawn to their rebellion, while a devastating defeat might signal its end.
In the midst of this fight, Saudi Arabia’s aerial bombardment of Houthi targets and fighters continues unabated. Despite the bombing, however, Saudi-backed forces have not yet scored any decisive victories against the Iran-allied Houthis in Yemen’s north. The Battle of Marib could be a critical test for the Saudi intention in Yemen and its military prowess.
The Islah Party: Saudi Arabia’s Targeted Enemy
Saudi Arabia has been known for its enmity towards the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world. In Yemen, the Muslim Brotherhood’s regional offshoot is organized as the Islah (“Reform”) Party, which is widely regarded as one of the most powerful parties within the Yemeni government. Islah had a considerable presence across the country before the civil war began. However, the war has destroyed its strength in Yemen’s north, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE have supported southern separatists to eliminate it from the south.
When the Houthi rebels took over Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, in 2015, they claimed they were only fighting Islah. However, the Houthis soon toppled the government, forced officials to flee to Riyadh, detained and tortured critics, and invaded outlying provinces under the pretext of fighting the Brotherhood. Moreover, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE oppose the Houthi rebels, they have certainly noticed that the Houthi revolt has decimated Islah’s power in Yemen, and there is evidence to suggest that they have selectively withheld support to Islah fighters in their battles against the Houthis to weaken them.
If it wanted to, Saudi Arabia could deliver another crushing blow against Islah by doing little to prevent the Houthis’ advance in Marib, one of Islah’s last remaining strongholds in the north. If the international coalition withheld its support, it would be nearly impossible for the Islah’s forces to defend the city on their own. However, dire repercussions would follow. If the fighting reaches the heart of the city, Marib will likely slide into destructive instability and face a horrendous humanitarian catastrophe. Even after the military campaign ends, the violence will probably continue.
Punishing Islah at the Expense of Peace and Stability
In spite of the unrelenting opposition by government forces, local tribesmen, and Saudi-led international forces, the Houthis have not capitulated, and they have doubled down on their attempts to seize Marib. Recently, the fighting has significantly increased, and both sides have claimed victory in clashes in Marib and its northern neighbor, al-Jawf. While it is primarily the role of the Yemeni government’s army and its affiliated tribesmen to stop the Houthi incursions into Marib, the Saudi-led Arab coalition is also responsible for Marib’s defense.
However, Saudi Arabia has instead consistently favored militias and separatist groups in Yemen over the government, which it considers to be dominated by Islah. The kingdom has supported local militias to reclaim territories from the Houthis instead of Islah, for the purpose of fighting its influence. This tactic has reduced Islah’s influence, but it has also wreaked havoc across Yemen and fragmented the country into a patchwork of militia states in the north and the south.
For Riyadh, the Muslim Brotherhood might be as Threatening as Iran
The Saudi handling of the war in Yemen since 2015 illustrates how the Kingdom considers the Muslim Brotherhood a no less threat than the Iran-supported movements in the region. While Saudi Arabia weakened the Islah Party and the Yemeni government-in-exile – that is heavily influenced by Riyadh – has remained paralyzed, the Houthis continued to expand their reach, strengthen their rule, and administer law in the provinces under their control.
The military failure of the Yemeni government forces is primarily Saudi Arabia’s fault. The international coalition controls the movement of the anti-Houthi Yemeni forces, which has consistently failed to prevent the Houthis from making gains on the ground. The latest Houthi escalation in Marib is a clear example of this trend. The Saudi-led coalition, whose forces are better-trained, may be seriously interested in defending Marib rather than simply undercutting Islah, but it, too, has often failed to stop the Houthis from making gains on the ground.
Marib Hanging in the Balance
The ongoing fight between the Houthis and the Yemeni government forces in Marib will likely end in one of two ways. The first scenario is the Houthi take over some districts in the province, but their assault is ultimately ground down. In such a scenario, Marib will be divided between the Houthis and their opponents for the foreseeable future, and the province will likely be plagued with ongoing armed confrontations. In the second scenario, the Houthis retreat from Marib, which will embolden the government forces to expand towards the Al-Jawf and Al-Beidha provinces. This scenario will represent a bitter defeat for the Houthis.
Regardless of the outcome, the battle for Marib is a historic one. If the Houthis capitulate, Marib will be remembered as the sole province in the north that was not subjugated to the Houthis. If it falls, it will be a sign that neither the Yemeni government forces nor the Saudi-led coalition can stop the Houthis from winning a decisive battle and taking over Yemen’s north. The collapse of Marib, then, will likely lead to the collapse of the UN-sponsored peace efforts, opening a new chapter of violence in the country. Therefore, to avert a humanitarian catastrophe affecting millions and bring the war to an end, it is absolutely critical that further escalation does not happen. To prevent this from happening, Saudi Arabia must set aside its differences with Islah to make a balance of power facing the Houthis advances. Doing so would do much to strengthen both their positions, save thousands of lives, and help bring a quicker end to the war – an objective that, five years in, should certainly appeal to everyone involved.
The author is a Yemeni academic who resides in Yemen and chose to conceal his identity for the safety and security of his family.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.