Can a Young Saudi Prince End the War in Yemen?
Khalid bin Salman is working full time to extricate Saudi Arabia from the disastrous conflict begun by his brother. Some regional and U.S. officials are cautiously optimistic.
Four and a half years ago, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman led a military coalition against a Houthi insurgency in Yemen, drawing Saudi Arabia into the most disastrous war in its modern history. Now, he is looking to his little brother, Khalid bin Salman, to get him out of it.
Last week, Khalid bin Salman traveled to Muscat, Oman, for a meeting with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said to prepare the groundwork for high-level talks with the Iranian-backed Houthis, who seized control of Yemen’s presidential palace in January 2015, forcing the Saudi-backed president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to flee the capital of Sanaa. The meeting marks the culmination of more than three years of highly discreet, mostly secret direct talks between Saudi and Houthi officials.
The prince’s diplomatic mission to Oman sends a “strong signal” of a shift in Saudi Arabia’s war policy, reflecting “a commitment to a final comprehensive peace … and a realization that there is no military solution to the conflict,” said Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, a former Yemeni foreign minister. “I believe Prince KBS hopefully has come with a new vision to put an end to a costly war which has created great regional stability.”
The younger Saudi prince has been charged by his brother with negotiating an end to the war, which began nearly five years ago, at a time when the political, military, and humanitarian costs of the conflict have become increasingly unsustainable and Iran is stepping up military cooperation with the Houthis, even as Riyadh is straining to hold its own in a regional struggle for power with Tehran.
The effort to wrap up the Yemen war has gathered steam in the wake of a series of attacks on Saudi soil, including brazen mid-September drone and missile strikes against two Saudi oil installations, temporarily cutting the kingdom’s crude production in half and exposing the fragility of the oil-rich kingdom. The Houthis have taken credit for the attacks, but Saudi Arabia, the United States, and other Western governments say Iran either conducted the pinprick strikes or supplied the Houthis with the weapons and training to carry them out.
The war has plunged Yemen, already the poorest country in the Middle East at the start of the conflict, into a virtual hellscape, with over 10 million people at risk of famine and over 80 percent of the country’s population—some 21 million—in need of humanitarian assistance. The conflict, along with Saudi Arabia’s extrajudicial execution of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi last year, has shredded Riyadh’s relationship with the U.S. Congress and undercut the crown prince’s effort to portray the Gulf kingdom as a vital, modern country, capable of implementing the cultural, economic, and religious reforms he envisioned by the year 2030. It has cast a cloud over his plans to stage an initial public offering for the state-owned Aramco, the world’s most profitable oil company, and to showcase a modern Saudi Arabia at high-profile diplomatic events, such as the G-20 summit, which will be hosted in Riyadh for the first time in November 2020.
New to the Game
The diplomatic initiative poses a test for Khalid bin Salman, a young, relatively inexperienced peacemaker who was appointed Saudi ambassador to the United States in April 2017, when he was still in his late 20s, but whose tenure in Washington was overshadowed by his handling of the Saudi response to the Khashoggi murder. The Washington Post characterized his repeated, and ultimately false, denials of Saudi culpability as an “epic campaign of lies.”
“He is relatively new at the game,” said Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen. “He is reasonably intelligent and personable, clearly he is very close to his brother, and that I think is his real raison d’être—and the fact that he speaks for both his father and his brother.”
In February, he was appointed deputy defense minister, assuming responsibility for managing Saudi Arabia’s No. 1 security priority: the war in Yemen. He must deliver a deal to extricate Saudi Arabia from a damaging war while portraying any pact as a political victory for his older brother, according to more than a dozen diplomatic observers, U.S. and foreign officials, and experts who spoke to Foreign Policy for this story.
Earlier this month, Khalid bin Salman notched his first key diplomatic achievement, overseeing a power-sharing arrangement in Yemen that aims to end fighting between the Saudi-backed Hadi government and the United Arab Emirates-backed secessionist Southern Transitional Council. The Saudis are betting that the deal can patch up Saudi Arabia’s relations with the UAE, so they can concentrate their attention on countering the Houthis.
Khalid bin Salman, who trained as a fighter pilot in the United States, is viewed among some U.S. officials as a thoughtful political operator who is keenly aware of Western standards.
“He actually listens,” said one senior U.S. administration official. “Whereas some people their listening is just waiting to talk again, he seems like he is taking onboard what you are suggesting, in some regards using it, and maybe even adjusting his own thinking.”
Others see him as something of a political neophyte whose influence lies primarily in his membership in the Saudi royal family.
One senior Persian Gulf official compared the Saudi prince unfavorably to scions of royal families in Jordan and Morocco, whom he saw as savvier at governance and international diplomacy.
“He is very, very young, but he is empowered by his name,” the official said.
But Khalid bin Salman’s reputation in Washington was tarnished by his reported contacts with Khashoggi in the lead-up to his murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. In the weeks following Khashoggi’s disappearance, Khalid bin Salman launched a campaign of feverish denials that the Saudi government had anything to do with the journalist’s disappearance, all of which were undercut when details of his brutal murder at the consulate later emerged.
The chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time, Republican Sen. Bob Corker, said the young Saudi ambassador had “zero credibility” after the episode. Khalid bin Salman left his post this February, amid outrage on Capitol Hill that has yet to pass.
His role in handling the Saudi Embassy in Washington’s response to Khashoggi’s murder hasn’t diminished his reputation in Saudi Arabia, however, or even in parts of Washington: Senior Trump administration officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have continued to meet with Khalid bin Salman this year.
Groomed for Leadership
Khalid bin Salman grew up in the shadow of his older brother, who was named crown prince in June 2017 by his father, King Salman. He charted a very different course than the elder prince: He earned a bachelor’s degree in aviation sciences from King Faisal Air Academy before joining the Royal Saudi Air Force. He trained to fly military fighter aircraft in the United States, eventually piloting U.S.-made F-15 jets against the Islamic State and in the war in Yemen before a back injury forced him out of the cockpit.
Ever since his brother’s rise, Khalid bin Salman has been groomed to play a leadership role. After ending his flying career, he was appointed a senior civilian advisor in Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Defense. In 2016, he moved to Washington to work at the royal embassy and study at Georgetown University. After he was tapped as U.S. ambassador to the United States, one of the most important diplomatic postings for the sheikdom, he brought the luxury of a royal upbringing to Washington with him, moving into a lavish $12 million mansion outside of the city and reportedly racking $8 million in expenses during his first year in the job.
As ambassador, Khalid bin Salman was responsible for all of Saudi Arabia’s interaction with the United States, but he was particularly focused on Riyadh’s Yemen policy. When he assumed the role of deputy defense minister earlier this year, the war became his foremost priority.
In his discussions with U.S. officials over the controversial war, Khalid bin Salman was “receptive” to concerns raised by American lawmakers about U.S. military involvement, said a senior Trump administration official. But he argued that Hezbollah on the border is an “existential threat” and Riyadh’s “No. 1, 2, and 3 priority.” Helping the United States with its counterterrorism mission against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula always came fourth, the official said.
Congress over the last several years has repeatedly raised objections to U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen, including the sale of U.S. precision-guided missiles to the Saudis and Emiratis and U.S. refueling support to the coalition. This has led to a series of high-profile showdowns between the White House, reluctant to cede any ability to support Saudi Arabia and confront Iran, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers seething over Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen and in Khashoggi’s murder. Washington halted refueling assistance to the Saudi-led coalition in November 2018, but it still provides limited intelligence support and advice on how to prevent civilian casualties, the administration official said.
Khalid bin Salman is less concerned with the on-the-ground impact of Congress voting to pull the remaining U.S. support, which would be minimal, than the political message it would send, the senior Trump administration official said.
“A bipartisan, veto-proof majority [vote] that we are cutting off U.S. support to the Saudis, that sends a political message that the Saudis are doing something wrong,” the official said.
But Khalid bin Salman has always made clear to U.S. officials that even if Washington pulls its support for the war in Yemen, Riyadh will not stop its campaign, because “this is its biggest threat,” the official stressed.
For years, Saudi Arabia weathered waves of international criticism for its handling of the war in Yemen, including its air campaign, its indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, and a blockade of the country that fueled the humanitarian crisis. But it wasn’t until the recent attack on Saudi’s oil reserves that the kingdom began to energetically push for peace, diplomatic observers say.
The attack exposed Saudi Arabia’s growing vulnerability from an air war that had until recently imposed limited human costs on Saudi citizens. But Riyadh’s position has become increasingly untenable with the decision of its key military partner, the UAE, to withdraw its troops and make peace with the Houthis and their Iranian backers. Sudan—which provided some 40,000 troops to the Yemen campaign—has recently withdrawn several thousand troops, mostly members of its paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, from Yemen. Another coalition member, Morocco, already withdrew its troops from Yemen earlier this year.
The Houthis, with Iran’s backing, have demonstrated an increasingly successful capacity to take the war to the Saudi capital and to its oil fields, launching a missile attack on an international airport in Riyadh in March 2018. This September, drones were used to take Aramco’s Abqaiq and Khurais oil installations offline, sending shockwaves through global oil markets and temporarily cutting the kingdom’s oil production by half. The Houthis claimed credit for the attack, though U.S. and Saudi officials believe the attack originated north of Saudi Arabia and came directly from Iran.
After the attack, the Trump administration opted against using military force to respond to Iranian threats against its Gulf allies. This surprised and unnerved some Saudi officials, according to some experts.
“The fact that the United States didn’t respond strongly to any of those provocations signals to the Saudis and the Emiratis that they really couldn’t rely on the United States to ensure their security and therefore need to find a way of ratcheting the tensions down,” Feierstein, the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, said.
The United States’ nonresponse to the Aramco attack, combined with U.S. President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, has increased the pressure on Riyadh to wrap up the proxy war in Yemen, the senior Trump administration official said. Saudi officials have even taken steps in recent weeks to reach out to the Iranians directly to try to reduce tensions, the official said.
“Their prime objective now is to lessen their involvement in Yemen, to get the Houthis to stop being some version of a proxy, so they can deal directly with Iran,” the official said. After the Aramco attacks, the official said, the Saudis calculated that Riyadh, not Washington, would bear the brunt of Trump’s economic campaign against Tehran.
The Back Channel
Since the beginning of the war, Saudi Arabia has been reluctant to engage directly in talks with the Houthis, deferring to a succession of United Nations mediators to pursue talks between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the Houthis.
The Saudis have largely fallen back on an April 2015 Security Council resolution that recognized President Hadi as Yemen’s legitimate leader and demanded the Houthis surrender territory they had claimed and hand over any weapons they had captured during their military takeover of Sanaa.
Over time, however, it became “obvious, not only to the Saudis, but even to the five permanent members of the Security Council, that [Resolution 2216] was unrealistic … and unimplementable,” said Qirbi, the former Yemeni foreign minister.
The Saudis, meanwhile, quietly established a discreet back channel to reach out directly to the Houthis when the need arose.
Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed al-Jaber, opened discussions with the Houthis’ chief negotiator, Mohammed Abdul Salam, on the sidelines of U.N.-brokered peace talks in Kuwait in 2016.
Those talks resulted in an agreement to cease hostilities and the establishment the De-escalation and Coordination Committee in the southern Saudi Arabian town of Dhahran al-Janoub, where Houthi and Yemeni officials were to monitor compliance with the cessation of hostilities.
But the arrangement quickly unraveled after Houthi forces launched a missile attack on the facilities in January 2017, effectively putting the diplomatic channel on ice.
The United States and Britain, meanwhile, continued to press the Saudis and Houthis to reopen talks as the war dragged on and humanitarian crisis worsened. The U.K. ambassador to Yemen, Michael Aron, has been passing messages back and forth between the Saudis and the Houthis, according to three diplomatic sources who detailed the contacts.
Khalid bin Ali al-Humaidan, the director-general of the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate, continued to exchange WhatsApp messages with Salam, the Houthi negotiator.
In September, the Houthis’ de facto deputy foreign minister, Hussein al-Ezzi, traveled by land to the Omani capital of Muscat, which had served as an informal diplomatic base for the Houthis, according to one diplomatic source.
The British government, meanwhile, helped arrange a flight to Amman, Jordan, where Ezzi met with Humaidan’s deputy, the source added. The British and Saudi governments declined requests for comment. Shortly after the Amman meeting, on Sept. 20, the Houthis announced they would halt all cross-border atacks against Saudi Arabia and pledged to make it permanent if the Saudis promised to halt airstrikes. The Saudis have not agreed to halt airstrikes, but they dialed down the number of air attacks against Houthi targets. For their part, the Houthis continue to mount attacks against Saudi interests. For instance, Houthi forces recently seized a Saudi vessel, along with two other ships, in the Red Sea.
The Houthis and Saudis have been in regular contact by video conference for the past two months, according to a report by the Associated Press. The report said that the two sides are discussing the possibility of reopening Yemen’s main airport in Sanaa, establishing a buffer zones between Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen and the Saudi border, and seeking a Houthi commitment to distance itself from Iran.
Two diplomatic sources said that senior Saudi and Houthi officials held face-to-face talks in Muscat, along the sidelines of Khalid bin Salman’s meeting with the Omani sultan, underscoring how seriously they are now taking negotiations.
“Why would a senior Saudi leader go and talk to [Sultan] Qaboos about Yemen if they weren’t considering something big diplomatically?” added Elana DeLozier, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank.
The Saudi outreach has been welcomed by its allies, which are growing weary of fighting a war without end and feel it is time to strike a bargain with the Houthis.
“They got to this point because the Saudis and UAE are facing a series of unexpected obstacles in the Yemen intervention … including the simple fact that there’s been no military progress to change the status quo in their favor,” said Philippe Nassif of the human rights organization Amnesty International.
An agreement “must take account of the legitimate aspirations of all parts of Yemeni society. That includes the Houthis,” Anwar Gargash, the minister of state for foreign affairs for the United Arab Emirates, recently told reporters at a political conference in Abu Dhabi. “Houthi militias have wreaked havoc on the country, but they are a part of Yemeni society and they will have a role in its future.”
The back channel has rattled some officials in the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, who have been largely frozen out of the talks.
They have also sidelined the U.N. mediator, Martin Griffiths—though Griffiths has largely supported the process on the grounds it could help lend momentum to his own mediation efforts.
“The Yemeni government has been pushed out of the picture and in my opinion this is very dangerous,” said a senior Yemeni source, adding that it was crucial to maintain the U.N.’s role as the principal mediator. “If you don’t do everything in partnership with the Yemeni government you will end up [sliding] deeper and deeper into conflict.”
“Any attempt to derail the U.N. process … will end with us all jumping into the abyss,” the source said.
U.S. officials remain more upbeat about the prospects for peace. But they are unwilling to predict a diplomatic victory.
“Nobody wants to be too optimistic, but I think everybody I know is saying it’s going in the right direction,” said the senior U.S. administration official.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch
Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman