In 2020, the intermittent border battle between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia has gained in frequency, accuracy and targets, turning into the most slippery dimension of the Yemen war. This is a rising, dangerous trend: risks of miscalculation accentuate on both sides, also offering new casus belli between conflicting parties.
The low-intensity border battle is about air and maritime attacks. On December 14, 2020, a Singapore-flagged oil tanker was attacked by an explosive-laden boat while it was anchored at the fuel terminal of Jeddah. The incident provoked a small fire and no casualties. The attack has not been claimed by the Houthis yet: it would be the first-ever episode occurring in the important Jeddah port.
A spokes-person at the Saudi energy ministry condemned “these acts of terrorism and vandalism, directed against vital installations”. These words echo while the Trump administration is insistently considering designating the Houthis (Ansar Allah) a foreign terrorist organization before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021.
Border violence follows a scheme. The Zaydi Shia armed movement carries out asymmetric attacks against Saudi territory, mainly targeting military and civilian infrastructures in southern regions (Jizan, Asir and Najran), or Saudi maritime interests, as the border battle spills over into the Red Sea threatening freedom of navigation. The Saudis react by intensifying the airstrikes against Saada and the Houthi-controlled areas.
Just in November 2020, two unmanned explosive boats damaged a floating Saudi Aramco platform at the oil terminal of Jizan (13 November); a missile struck a Saudi Aramco distribution station in Jeddah, provoking a limited fire (23 November); a Greek-run tanker was damaged by a sea mine explosion off the coast of Shuqaiq, close to Jizan (26 November).
Border stabilization and Saudi national security
In this framework, securing the Yemeni-Saudi border, included its maritime side, stands at the top of any conflict resolution effort. In case of a national ceasefire, its success will largely depend on the stabilization of the frontier: in the medium-term, no transitional government of power-sharing including Ansar Allah would politically survive the weekly launch of missiles and armed drones by the Houthis against Saudi Arabia, its interests and, to a lesser extent, global shipping transiting through the Red Sea.
The Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, begun in March 2015, has contributed to worsening, not to improving, Saudi Arabia’s national security. This is the great paradox - and limit - of this operation: the Houthis’ asymmetric attacks started after 2015, with a significant improvement of their air defence system since 2017. Now that Riyadh seeks a way out from Yemen, the border battle drags it inside, as Saudi oil infrastructures reveal their vulnerability. Moreover, most of “Vision 2030”-related projects are focused on the Saudi Red Sea coast.
The Yemeni-Saudi border first demarcated in 1934 (Ta’if Treaty) and formalized in 2000 (Jeddah Treaty) divides, only formally, a borderland of people sharing kinship ties, informal economy and culture: protests against boundary fortifications preceded, and were distinguished from, the rise of the Houthi insurgency.
Border de-escalation must be pursued in order to build a post-conflict horizon for Yemen. As reported by media sources, Saudi Arabia would accept a national ceasefire negotiated by the United Nations if the Houthis agree upon a buffer zone between Yemen and the kingdom, until aUN-supported transitional government is in place in Yemen. In return, the Saudis would ease the air and sea blockade on the neighbouring country.
Geography is a powerful tool in the Houthis’ hands, given the territorial proximity with Saudi Arabia. The armed movement supported by Iran - but deeply rooted in Yemen’s social fabric -, uses and will likely use asymmetric attacks to put the Saudis under pressure, eyeing political concessions for their de facto authority among Saada, Sanaa and Hodeida. Moreover, the Houthis capitalize on border attacks to boost their propaganda of “resistance” in Yemen and abroad.
The Saudi role in border security governance
Trapped in the same war it has contributed to regionalize, Saudi Arabia’s military presence in Yemen is going to last, also in case of a national ceasefire and transitional government. This is especially because of the Yemeni border.
In fact, Saudi Arabia is highly involved in border security governance, trying to secure the front line partially controlled by Houthi forces. As the UN Panel of Experts 2020 report describes, “the Yemeni fighters operating on the Yemen side of the border are rallied in military units affiliated with Saudi Arabia” (p.72). Therefore, the Saudis are playing a role also on the Yemeni side of the border: along the frontier, security hybridization assumes an original feature, mixing local security actors, and chains of command, with foreign ones. This military role adds to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s “direct supervision” over the implementation of the military arrangement included in the Riyadh Agreement (Annex II) in the south (Aden and Abyan), and over the Saudi military presence in Mahra, the closest governorate to Oman.
Two Scenarios, One Priority
Given this background, labelling the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization, as the Trump administration is considering to do as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, would generate counterproductive effects, first of all for Saudi Arabia. In fact, the Saudis are directly present on the border and, according to the Riyadh Agreement, de facto responsible for Security Sector Reform in the South.
From that moment on, a political compromise on Yemen would become a mirage, with the Houthis likely escalating border attacks and forcing Saudi Arabia to retaliate. Not to mention that the “terrorist” label would further push the Houthis into Iran’s orbit. This choice would also complicate the role of the fragile internationally-recognized government, and aid delivery to the Houthi-controlled areas, thus worsening food insecurity and, in certain territories, famine.
In case the diplomatic scenario should prevail, addressing the stabilization of the Yemeni-Saudi border would still be a priority, especially for Riyadh. In the case of political disagreements or stalemate in the formation of the transitional government, the Houthis could easily resume asymmetric attacks against the kingdom, pushing Saudi Arabia to restart airstrikes on Saada and Houthi-controlled territories.
In all these cases, containing the Houthi-Saudi border battle, and working for de-escalation, has never been so decisive, and timely, for the fate of Yemen’s peace process, as well as for regional security.