There’s a positive new development in the Yemen War that could move the conflict closer towards peace. The European Union has passed an arms embargo resolution against Saudi Arabia, which began bombing Yemen in early 2015. Notably, this measure does not technically compel member states of the EU to act, but it is a step in that direction.
Currently, the War in Yemen is one of the most severe, and least discussed, humanitarian crises in the world. The Saudi-led bombing and blockade, has led thousands of deaths and it is estimated that 81% or 21.2 million Yemenis are in need of humanitarian assistance. Saudi Arabia initially intervened in Yemen in an attempt to reinstall the former dictator/president, after he was removed from office by a successful armed rebellion. The leaders of the rebel movement are known as the Houthis, which subscribe to a form of Shia Islam. Because Iran’s leadership is also primarily Shia, Saudi Arabia, and many American hawks, have attempted to blame Iran for the Houthi uprising. But there’s little to no evidence of significant links between the two.
Although the toll of the bombing in Yemen has been substantial, the military progress of the Saudi campaign seems to have largely stalemated. The Houthis still hold the capital of Sana’a and many other areas, This lack of progress, combined with the backing of the US and UK, seemed to suggest the bombing would continue for many months to come. The new embargo has at least a chance of cutting that timeframe short.
Prospects for Success
This embargo resolution from the EU is one of the first instances of criticism on this war from the international community. Previously, human rights groups have written reports about the catastrophe. But since it hasn’t been in any major nation’s interest to threaten Saudi Arabia over Yemen, these reports have basically fallen on deaf ears.
Meanwhile, the US has been supporting the Saudi policy on Yemen, and has been reluctant to criticize its longtime ally. Many commentators view our acceptance of the Yemen War as an attempt to rebuild the relationship with Saudi after the Iran Deal negotiations. Readers will recall that Saudi sees Iran as a regional rival and thus was sharply opposed to any move towards normalized relations between Iran and the rest of the world. Put another way, the US made peace with our ex (Iran) and Saudi Arabia got jealous; so we’re helping them bomb a random third country to make it up to them. If that doesn’t make much sense to you, you’re not alone.
Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that sanctions and embargoes tend to be highly ineffective tools for changing policies. The evidence for this can be found in virtually any recent conflict. Sanctions against Iraq in the 90’s got a lot of innocent people killed, but it did not change Saddam Hussein’s policies. Similarly, sanctions against Iran over its nuclear energy program did not stop it from dramatically expanding its (safeguarded) uranium enrichment capacity. So, it’s clearly reasonable to question why this latest embargo should be a cause for optimism at all.
In our view, there are two key differences. First, Saudi Arabia is actively involved in an aggressive military conflict right now (while the countries above were not). And second, Saudi’s armed forces are intensely dependent on foreign allies to supply weapons and expertise, especially the US and UK. Saudi Arabia has little in the way of a domestic defense industry. So if the foreign supply of weapons can be cut off, it has a chance to almost end the war by default. The embargo against Saudi Arabia doesn’t need to influence the political decisions of Saudi Arabia. Rather, it just needs to deprive them of the ammunition needed to continue the bombing. That is a much easier task. And it’s why this embargo has a higher chance of success than its predecessors.
We’ll have to wait and see how many EU countries ultimately honor the call for an arms embargo with Saudi Arabia, and the UK’s decision is the most important of all. But it is undeniably good news that Saudi’s Yemen policy is receiving the criticism it deserves from international institutions. Hopefully, this will prove to be the first step towards ending the conflict.