After three years of a grinding, bloody stalemate, the war in Yemen may be reaching an inflection point. Hoping to deliver a knockout blow, the joint United Arab Emirates’ and Yemeni forces are moving up the Red Sea coast towards the port city of Hodeidah. The UAE aims to wrest it from the Houthi rebels, and, in so doing, deprive them of vital revenues, strike a psychological blow, and pressure them to the negotiating table.
Yet even if Hodeidah falls, there is no end in sight for this conflict, whose third anniversary was eclipsed by a recent, splashy visit to the United States from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The ambitious young royal launched the war in March 2015 along with the UAE and several other nations to restore the legitimate government of Yemen. Backed by limited U.S. military support, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi sought to disrupt Iran’s nascent efforts to turn the Houthis into a proxy force, and to contain the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
If the Obama administration was never enthusiastic about the Saudi-Emirati enterprise in Yemen, it showed sustained interest in bringing the conflict to an end via a political process, and lent direct U.S. leadership to the effort in its final year. The Trump administration entered office with a stated commitment to knitting up frayed relations with the Gulf and focusing on Iran’s destabilizing activities across the region. Yet ironically, that never translated into a senior-level focus on Yemen, where those strands come tightly together. In fact, U.S. support for the coalition’s campaign has largely been on auto-pilot, when what its Gulf partners needed most over the past 18 months was a sustained diplomatic effort to enable a credible negotiated settlement.