Why Yemen’s civil war is personal for Mohammed bin Salman – Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen explained
Fifteen years ago Abdullah al-Hakem and Mohammed bin Salman were two 18-year-old men leading very different lives on either side of the Saudi-Yemeni border. Abdullah, a scrawny young man little more than five feet tall, was a primary-school teacher in Dahyan, a hamlet on the outskirts of Sa’dah city, the capital of a backwater province in the remote north of Yemen. What little infamy he had came from his proximity to Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, a charismatic and controversial cleric and a vocal critic of Yemen’s then-president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Abdullah al-Hakem had become an enthusiastic participant in his movement.
Mohammed, who was studying business at university in Riyadh, was just another Saudi prince, one of the estimated 1,000-plus grandchildren of the kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud. His father, Salman, was governor of Riyadh and in the running to be king in the future. As the fifth son of a senior royal from the prominent Sudairi branch of the family, Mohammed was not exactly a nobody – but was hardly seen as a future political heavyweight.
There was little to suggest that within the next 15 years these two men would be squaring off against one another in one of the most brutal conflicts of recent times.
Abdullah would go on to oversee the Houthis’ triumphant capture of the Yemeni capital of Sana’a and Mohammed would spend billions of dollars attempting to halt his progress. Today Abdullah and Mohammed represent the two sides of Yemen’s civil war, which has left 22 million people – three-quarters of the Yemeni population – in need of humanitarian aid and protection.
Wars in the Middle East are often seen through the lens of identity, ideology and geopolitics – clan versus clan, Sunni versus Shia, Iran and its proxies versus the US and its allies. But the motivations of many of those involved in the region’s civil conflicts are often much more personal, opaque and rooted in individual experiences, and can defy the logic of sect or rational battlefield calculations. Understanding the personalities and motivations of Abdullah al-Hakem and Mohammed bin Salman takes us some way towards explaining the intractable nature of the bloody war in Yemen.
Abdullah: perpetual Houthi warrior
Abdullah al-Hakem, also known by the nom de guerre ‘Abu Ali’, emerged into the public consciousness in Yemen over the course of a few months in 2014 when he led a group of rebels from the Ansar Allah (Partisans of God) movement out from their stronghold, the northern province of Sa’dah, and seized, in quick succession, Amran governorate, the base for the group’s biggest ethnic rivals, and the capital city, Sana’a.
Ansar Allah is also known as the Houthis, named for its founder Hussein al-Houthi. A theological movement affiliated with the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam, this offshoot of a revivalist movement began in the early 1990s and evolved into a highly efficient militia over the course of six wars with the central government between 2004 and 2010. After the Houthis forced the government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to sue for peace in 2014, effectively handing them control of the capital, they spread out south, east and west, precipitating the current civil war.
Local media reports and the Yemeni rumour mill pointed to one man, a shadowy military commander who had spent much of his adult life at war, as the architect of the southwards drive to Sana’a. Abdullah al-Hakem was, a Houthi-supporter friend told me at the time, “the big fucker” in the movement, not just the top military commander but also the main strategist for the Houthi takeover of government institutions, a fierce warrior who also oversaw day-to-day management of hospitals and schools and clashed regularly with the so-called “moderate” political wing of the Houthis.
I was based in Sana’a during the Houthi takeover of 2014 and Abdullah was a blurry image who finally came into sharp focus when we met face to face in late September of that year, a few days after the Houthis had seized the capital. The group’s media people had invited journalists on a tour of the 1st Armoured Division headquarters, the military base of Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a Sunni Islamist general who had led the battle against the Houthis in Sa’dah. Once known as the “Iron Fist” of the Saleh regime, al-Ahmar – who split from the regime in 2011 – had fled the capital as the Houthis closed in on his base.
Abdullah has been fighting since he was 19. It is all he knows”
In a sports hall on the southern edge of the facility, a small group of Houthi fighters arrived and was soon swamped by local photographers and journalists who recognised one man in particular. In the middle of the group, appraising the scene with a practised eye, was Abdullah, a man so small and slight that from some angles he looked more like a teenage boy than a top military commander. His face was mobile, inquisitive, his gaze sharp and searching. Notorious for his distaste for journalists – he is said to have threatened to cut out and burn the tongues of journalists who were critical of the Houthis – he permitted me a few questions but despatched them swiftly, his eyes boring into mine. The Houthis, he said, would follow “the people’s will” and put an end to corruption. He avoided questions about former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis’ one-time nemesis who, it was becoming increasingly clear, had cut a deal with the group that had eased their path into Sana’a. He was not going to give anything away. But his new position in the spotlight did not appear to faze him; he radiated ease in his role.
Abdullah is a member of a prominent Sayyid family – descendants of the prophet Mohammed who made up Yemen’s ruling class under the Zaydi Imamate that prevailed for the better part of a millennium until a republican revolution in the 1960s. He was known from a young age as someone who harboured strong beliefs and stronger emotions. He became involved in the Believing Youth, a revivalist movement for the Shia Zaydi doctrine that was a peaceful precursor to the Houthis’ armed insurrection. A Zaydi religious scholar and early member of Believing Youth laughed when I inquired about Abdullah. How, I asked, had someone who had been a primary-school teacher come to occupy such an important position in Yemen? “That guy is crazy,” he said simply.
Abdullah, who is rumoured to have spent a short stint in the military before returning home, was never going to settle for teaching children their alifs, bas and tas. I was told by another Houthi supporter that he was set from an early age on restoring Zaydi Sayyids to what he saw as their proper place in Yemen’s political order. His ambitions were bolstered by his abilities as a battlefield commander, which became evident during the six wars between the Houthis and the Saleh regime. Abdullah, writes Marieke Brandt, a leading scholar of the Houthi movement, is “known for his intelligence, his brilliant strategic skills and his relentless heavy-handed approach to his opponents… Because of his powerful position and his swift strategic moves, some people likened him to the queen piece in a chess game.”
Starting as a local field commander during the early days of the Houthis’ ragtag insurgency, Abdullah rose through the ranks, going on to oversee the movement’s most significant battlefield victories, often demonstrating a hyper-aggressive, winner-takes-all mentality. Yemen has a deep history of ethnic mediation in conflict, a set of traditions that translates into a rulebook for fighting, which Abdullah has repeatedly ignored. During fighting in 2008, he is said to have rejected overtures from members of the al-Hamati people for a deal to end fighting in their area, telling them, in Brandt’s account, “If you are men, we meet on the battlefield.”
Later, he allegedly used the death of a clan leader – which would usually lead to a temporary truce to allow for funeral preparations – as an opportunity to seize the clan’s town. He is renowned within the movement for his fallings-out with his fellow commanders, including Abdelmalek al-Houthi, the Houthi leader, who fought alongside Abdullah as a field commander during the early Sa’dah wars. He’s also known for his dislike of politically oriented members of the movement, who counselled a more consensus-based approach including participation in broadly inclusive peace talks in Sana’a between 2013 and 2014.
“Abdullah has been fighting since he was 19,” says someone with ties to the Houthis who asks not to be named because of the sensitivity around discussing the group’s inner workings. “It is all he knows. He spent six years fighting the government, hiding in caves and living on bread and water, and carrying on because of the strength of his convictions. He has been imprisoned, tortured and had the Saudis try and kill him repeatedly. War is all he has known.”
Frequently reported to have been killed during Yemeni and Saudi airstrikes, Abdullah was briefly captured by the Saleh regime, but escaped from a Sana’a prison in 2006 along with other Houthi leaders before going on to become the movement’s battlefield supremo.
In August 2017, Abdullah was named the head of the general intelligence authority in Sana’a. A few months later, former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had allied with the Houthis in 2014 in the hope of returning his family to power, decided to break from the alliance. It was Abdullah al-Hakem who oversaw the fight with the Houthis’ rival-turned-ally-turned-rival-again, who was killed on 4th December 2017, within 48 hours of announcing the split. He was subsequently promoted to commander of the Republican Guard, the elite military unit seen as one of the main instruments of Saleh’s power.
The Saudis had hoped that Saleh’s split from the Houthis would be the group’s undoing. In the days before the former president was killed, both Saleh and Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the Saudi-backed commander of anti-Houthi forces, made calls to leaders of the so-called ‘collar tribes’ who surround Sana’a, urging them to turn on the Houthis. Shortly after Saleh died, footage emerged of Abdullah talking calmly with the same group of clansmen. His message, I was told, was a simple one: if you betray us, we will besiege your homes and destroy them and you; remain neutral and you will be well compensated. Ultimately, Abdullah’s words carried more weight than those of either Saleh or Mohsen, who for much of his lifetime had been the most feared man in Yemen.
“Abdullah is now almost the most powerful man within the movement, second only to Abdulmalek al-Houthi, and is probably the more important decision maker when it comes to strategic decisions,” says a security analyst with close ties to the military establishment in Sana’a. Fifteen years on from his days as a primary-school teacher in Dahyan, Abdullah has tens of thousands of men under his command and receives a significant cut from Yemen’s thriving war economy. He is also likely to have an important say, if not the final word, on any deal to end the war.
Mohammed: the “young prince in a hurry”
On the other side of the border, Saudi Arabia’s king, Salman, who came to power in 2015 at the age of 79, had long harboured plans to shake up the status quo of the al-Sauds’ absolute monarchy. As the internal enforcer of family order during his 48 years as governor of Riyadh – which included running a private jail for misbehaving princes – Salman had become disillusioned with a system that relied on consensus among an ageing set of royals. They seemed interested in little more than amassing power and wealth as the country remained almost entirely dependent on oil exports and stubbornly resistant to reform. As he aged, however, Salman recognised that he needed a younger man to implement his plans. He looked to his favourite son, Mohammed, to act as his avatar and eventual successor.
While Mohammed’s name had not been much discussed around the royal court or in diplomatic circles, he had been, in the words of a longtime Saudi-watcher, “hiding in plain sight” for much of the decade before his father’s accession to the throne. An increasingly influential adviser to Salman, he nurtured major ambitions and had inherited his father’s assertive and direct nature.
A story often told in Riyadh – and denied by the Saudi government – involves Mohammed in his youth sending a civil servant a plain envelope containing a single bullet after the official refused to transfer a parcel of land to the prince.
Mohammed, often referred to as ‘MbS’, is also decidedly Saudi. He did not study abroad, has cultivated ties to the kingdom’s ethnic groups rather than to foreigners and reveres Abdulaziz, the kingdom’s founder, seeing himself as being made in the same mould – an iconic nation-builder who did not seek help from outside.
“He sees himself as a man of destiny, someone who will improve and change things,” says Professor Bernard Haykel, a Middle East expert at Princeton University who has close ties to the Saud family. “The country was sclerotic and running towards a disaster, incapable of making decisions. MbS sees the country as unsustainable if unreformed. He sees the [George W] Bush decision to invade Iraq and the disaster that followed, the Obama administration that just wanted to cosy up to Iran and the abandonment of [deposed former Egyptian president] Hosni Mubarak as signs that Saudi Arabia is on its own. He decided that Saudi Arabia needed to be able to look after itself and defend itself.”
"He wants to push back Iran, make Saudi Arabia great again and to rule for the next generation or two"
“MbS sees himself as a great man, the next version of Abdulaziz,” adds a European diplomat with lengthy experience in the Middle East. “He wants to push back Iran, make Saudi Arabia great again and to rule for the next generation or two.”
With his father’s blessing, Mohammed has shaken things up while consolidating an unprecedented level of power around himself. In June 2017 King Salman removed Mohammed’s cousin from the line of succession, making his 31-year-old son crown prince. Mohammed has restructured the government, sidelining potential rivals and placing the country’s intelligence, security services and military under his direct control. In October 2017 he ordered the arrest of dozens of high-profile businessmen, accusing them of corruption and imprisoning them in the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh until they handed back what he saw as their ill-gotten gains.
Mohammed has cut benefits and civil service pay, reduced government subsidies and introduced VAT. He planned to take Aramco – the state-run oil company and main driver of the Saudi economy – public, although this now appears to be on hold, and has adopted an aggressively hawkish foreign policy stance. As well as escalating Saudi involvement in the war in Yemen, he has taken a leading role in a blockade of neighbouring Qatar, temporarily placed the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri under house arrest and quietly reached out to Israel in the hope of building a new regional order. Most recently, in August 2018, he severed diplomatic relations with Canada in response to Ottawa’s criticisms of Saudi treatment of human rights activists.
Some worry that the “young prince in a hurry” is moving too fast, overstretching himself and not being realistic about the prospects for success of many of his initiatives. Saudi, Yemeni and western officials point to Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemen war as a cautionary tale. Mohammed was defence minister when, in March 2015, Saudi Arabia began bombing Houthi rebels, which it saw as fighting a proxy war on behalf of its major regional opponent, Iran. The kingdom launched a massive series of airstrikes against Houthi positions and announced the formation of an international coalition comprised largely of Sunni Arab countries. Saudi officials predicted a quick war of a few weeks or months at most. In March 2018 Saudi involvement in the conflict entered its fourth year, with no end in sight.
Without Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Houthis would have won the war quickly, and they would control Yemen”
Ostensibly, the Yemen war is being fought between the Houthis on one side and the government of ousted Yemeni president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi on the other. But the reality is more complicated. Anti-Houthi fighters are drawn from a wide array of groups on the ground, few of them particularly loyal to Hadi. Funding for the different groups comes from Saudi Arabia and the UAE while air support provided by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi has been crucial in keeping the Houthis at bay in Yemen’s northern highlands.
“Without Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Houthis would have won the war quickly, and they would control Yemen,” says a member of Islah, a Sunni Islamist party that has played a leading role in the anti-Houthi war effort. While UN-led mediation efforts have focused on brokering a truce between the Hadi government and the Houthis, diplomats are clear in saying that Saudi Arabia has the final veto on any deal, and that Mohammed bin Salman is the ultimate decision maker. But Mohammed is said to see a Houthi surrender, or outright military victory, as the only acceptable outcome.
The cost of peace
In 2018 the focus for diplomats working to broker an end to the war has been on Hodeidah, a port city on Yemen’s western Red Sea coast. The Houthis have held the city since late 2014, and it has become an increasingly vital economic lifeline for the territory they control in the northwest of the country, as well as a major part of the war economy. At the start of the war, the Saudi-led coalition tried to blockade the port, which accounts for some 70 percent of all food imports into Yemen, but was convinced by the UN to allow ships to enter after it set up a monitoring system to prevent arms from being smuggled in.
In 2016 the UAE, the Saudis’ main partner in the war, mooted an amphibious assault on the port and requested support from the US: the US refused to help and warned Abu Dhabi against the move. Since early 2017, UAE-backed Yemeni forces have been moving their way up the coast towards Hodeidah. In June, they arrived on the outskirts of the city. The battle for Hodeidah, which began on 13th June 2018, looked from the start to be the bloodiest of the war to date.
Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy tasked with ending the war in Yemen, tried to avert a fight for Hodeidah. The response to his efforts was telling of the attitude of both Abdullah and Mohammed to any suggestion of a climb-down. In June, Griffiths was able to extract a concession from the Houthis to hand over the port of Hodeidah to the UN, although not the city. The offer came after internal consultations within the Houthi movement in which Abdullah is said to have been a vociferous opponent of compromise of any kind. In meetings with Mohammed bin Salman, diplomats were told that the crown prince would accept nothing less than a complete Houthi withdrawal from the city if a battle were to be averted.
Bin Salman’s main aim is to consolidate himself as the centre of power in Saudi Arabia, and Saudi as the central power in the region; Yemen is just a subplot”
International-relations academics talk about how so-called “mutually hurting stalemates” are often a precursor to a peace deal. “Any theory of conflict resolution will say that the parties need to get to a point where they recognise there is more to be gained from peace than war. In the first weeks of a war, it’s unlikely that you are going to agree to that,” says Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation and an expert on peace processes. Ordinarily, the longer a conflict lasts, the more likely it is that it will be “ripe” for peace. On paper Yemen’s war – which has lasted years, eviscerated the Yemeni economy, killed tens of thousands, led to mass outbreaks of cholera and has seen the Houthis launch dozens of missile strikes on Saudi Arabia, which in turn has suffered reputational damage for its role in a humanitarian disaster – would to be ripe for peace.
But that assumes a relatively simplistic calculus on the part of men like Mohammed and Abdullah, the respective powers behind the thrones of Saudi Arabia and the Houthis. “For Mohammed bin Salman, this is not his primary game, it’s his secondary game,” says de Waal. That is to say, bin Salman’s main aim is to consolidate himself as the centre of power in Saudi Arabia, and Saudi as the central power in the region; Yemen is just a subplot. And a man who wants to lead his country for the next two generations might not want to blot his reputation by fighting the first war he entered to a draw, particularly given that he sees the hand of Iran behind the Houthis’ rise.
What, after all, would the Houthis’ warrior chief be without war?”
According to a person who knows the crown prince: “In terms of what would be acceptable to MbS, my feeling – and this he won’t say – is that there are enough Yemenis willing to fight the Houthis as mercenaries and proxies that the war can continue forever, until the Houthis are weakened or the population is willing to rise up against them.”
For Abdullah, says de Waal, any deal will also be assessed within the context of his own personal goals. What, after all, would the Houthis’ warrior chief be without war – particularly if one of the conditions for a peace deal is giving up heavy weapons after 14 years of no-holds-barred battle for survival and then domination?
In September 2018 the UN’s envoy Martin Griffiths tried to bring together representatives of the Houthis and the Hadi government in Geneva, in the hope of kickstarting a peace process that has been largely moribund since talks in Kuwait collapsed in 2016. Neither Mohammed nor Abdullah was present. Without the say-so of a prince and a former primary-school teacher who share a resolute determination to keep fighting, there is little prospect that the war will soon be brought to an end.