Washington D.C. (GPA) – According to a leaked email exchange, U.S. officials claim Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman wants out of the Yemen war and is comfortable with the U.S. engaging with Iran. While it seems straightforward, this could actually be setting the stage for a deeper rift in the Gulf Crisis.
The emails obtained by Middle East Eye display a chat between former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, and the U.A.E.’s ambassador to Washington, Yousef Otaiba. The thread took place in April of this year. In it, Indyk describes a conversation between Mohammed bin Salman, former U.S. national security advisor Stephen Hadley, and himself. According to Indyk, bin Salman said that he wants out of Yemen and wouldn’t mind if Washington engaged with Iran. (Whatever that means.)
Otaiba: Sometimes foreign ministers have to raise the bar a little higher. And I think MBS is far more pragmatic than what we hear is (sic) Saudi public positions.
Indyk: I agree on that. He was quite clear with Steve Hadley and me that he wants out of Yemen and that he is OK with the US engaging Iran as long as it is co-ordinated in advance and the objectives are clear.
Otaiba: I do not think we will ever see a more pragmatic leader in that country. Which is why engaging with them is so important and will yield the most results we can ever get out of Saudi.
Indyk: We’re doing our best to do that.
It is important to keep in mind that while the email itself could very well be accurate (and likely is), Indyk is describing a conversation to a third party. Did he remember the conversation with bin Salman correctly? Could he have been exaggerating in his email exchange with Otaiba? If the exchange is 100% genuine, this is interesting for a few reasons.
Qatar Rift and the Non-Existent Iranian Threat in Yemen
The leaked Indyk-Otaiba exchange took place in April– one month before Saudi Arabia and their allies declared diplomatic war against Qatar. In June, Saudi Arabia announced their list of demands and 24-hour ultimatum to Qatar which included severing all diplomatic ties with Iran. The Saudis even forced Qatar out of their coalition against Yemen citing their links to Iran. So why would bin Salman condone their U.S. ally engaging Iran yet condemn Qatar? Was this bin Salman’s way of warning the U.S. not to take the Qatar stuff too seriously?
Either way, it certainly seems to indicate that bashing on Qatar for their ties to Iran is mostly superficial. But as usual, there’s probably a lot more to it than that.
That brings us to the non-existent yet omnipresent Iranian threat in Yemen. At Geopolitics Alert, we’ve long suspected that the United States knows the so-called Iranian threat in Yemen is not what they portray it to be. In fact, official sources refuse to provide any tangible evidence that Yemen’s resistance (aka “the Houthis”) is financed or supported by Iran. The facts just aren’t there.
But the Saudis spend a lot of money on U.S. weapons for their war against Yemen. And by supporting the Saudis, the U.S. can hold a permanent military presence throughout all Saudi coalition-controlled territory in Yemen. Yemen’s resistance is adamantly anti-imperialist and does not want the U.S. exploiting their country. So the U.S. and their allies have to push the Iranian threat to justify the military presence and weapon sales. They really just want to control the entire southern border of the Arabian Peninsula and Yemen’s waters. The war is a perfect opportunity for that.
Shift in the Kingdom – Shift in Yemen Narrative
Otaiba and Indyk both agreed that bin Salman is a “pragmatic leader.” This conversation took place almost two months before the Saudis announced that bin Salman would be replacing Mohammed bin Nayef as Crown Prince. So his words should be absorbed as an upcoming shift in the Kingdom’s policies.
The war in Yemen is a PR disaster for Saudi Arabia– that’s why mainstream outlets don’t cover it. They’re responsible for the worst humanitarian disaster taking place in the world right now. The Saudi air strike campaign targets homes, schools, funerals, and hospitals. Civilians die from air strikes on a daily basis. Their blockade over Yemen has possibly killed even more civilians than their bombs because it triggered a cholera epidemic and famine.
On top of this, the Saudi puppet “internationally recognized” President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi gets less popular by the day. Yemen’s resistance pushed him out of the capital Sana’a in 2014. He fled to Aden where the Saudi coalition has tried to set up an improvised capital. That has also failed, and Hadi currently resides in Riyadh.
Yemenis in the south don’t support Hadi and Saudi interests either. Many are pushing for a U.A.E.-led secession campaign. As a result, U.A.E.-supported officials and Saudi-supported officials are constantly at odds with one another diplomatically in territory under their control. Not to mention their militias frequently engage in infighting.
The coalition also hoped they could fracture Yemen’s resistance by getting former President Saleh to abandon support for the General People’s Congress. Which they probably hoped would cause the GPC to split from Ansarullah (aka “the Houthis”). And boom: Yemen’s resistance coalition would be divided and broken.
But it didn’t work out that way. In fact, the Saudi coalition against Yemen has only made the Yemeni resistance stronger. So of course bin Salman wants out of Yemen– he knows his team has completely failed their objectives.
What does this mean?
The Saudis could be preparing to show the U.A.E. the same fate they’ve granted Qatar. Like Syria, Yemen is a battleground for regional powers. But it’s not the Iran-Saudi proxy war the media makes it out to be.
First of all, the Gulf countries are all competing to see who can be the best U.S. lap dog– and Yemen is the battleground. The Saudis didn’t welcome U.S. troops into Yemen last week: U.A.E. troops did. As mentioned above, the Emirate-supported secessionist movement has substantial popular support in the south– the Saudi occupation does not.
The Emirates also control Socotra, a Yemeni island not far from Somalia which they’ve turned into a military base. But that’s not all: the U.A.E. is trying to control the entire Gulf of Aden (and the Red Sea) by expanding military bases in Somaliland, Djibouti, and Eritrea. The Horn of Africa is becoming an arms race hotspot itself as Turkey (among others) is also expanding their influence there.
Recently, the Saudis and U.A.E. were at odds as to who would take over the Bab al-Mandab Strait: a vital choke point in the Red Sea under Yemeni jurisdiction. Once again, it appears the Saudis have lost, and al-Mandab will be under Emirati control. If Yemen’s resistance gives it up (they probably won’t) al-Hodeidah port will face the same fate of Emirati occupation.
Like Otaiba says, bin Salman is a pragmatist. He wants out of Yemen because he’s losing, and he’s conveniently setting the stage to accuse the U.A.E. of colluding with Iran. The Saudis and Emiratis are desperately trying to make their coalition look solid on the surface. But their own selfish regional ambitions can only continue for so long before someone cracks. The only question is: what will set it off?
Also published on Medium.