What do you see as the United States valuing in Saudi Arabia and what do you see as Saudi Arabia valuing in the United States?
Saudi Arabia will always have a very special status in the Islamic world. Its rulers and sheikhs will always have some kind of influence over public opinions in the Islamic world thanks to the country’s status, its financial resources, and its huge state-controlled media empire.
Second of all, Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest economies in the world and it is still a swing producer on the oil market. It is also one of the biggest humanitarian donors in the world. It has investments across the globe. So we are talking about a country that has a global outreach that the United States is actually benefiting from. Despite all of its weaknesses, Saudi Arabia is still a political, religious, and economic trendsetter in the Middle East and North Africa.
On top of all that, in terms of geopolitics and geography, Saudi Arabia is crucial to all US military plans in the Middle East. The price, privilege, and the primary access that the US military gets from cooperation with Saudi Arabia is significant. Saudi Arabia occupies three-quarters of the Arabian Peninsula, which is highly strategic for the security of the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb. So a country with this geographical, political, economic, and financial status is important for the United States. At the same time, only the United States can provide Saudi Arabia with the security umbrella needed to preserve its status, security, stability, and economic prosperity. If you look on the other side as to why the Saudis need the United States, you will read a lot about the pact of oil for security, meaning Saudi Arabia provides oil to international powers in exchange for US protection. A few months ago, when Saudi Arabia decided to flood the oil market, we saw the kind of impact it had on the oil market inside the United States. So this pact of oil for security still stands to some degree, and the Saudis do need US protection, even if there is no large US military presence in Saudi Arabia like there used to be.
There was a newly established ceasefire proposal in Yemen that Saudi Arabia played a large part in developing. Given how historically many of the ceasefires between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia have not held up, why do you think Saudi Arabia suggests this proposal? How do you foresee this ceasefire from the Saudi perspective?
First of all, this is not the first time that Saudi Arabia has declared its readiness to implement a ceasefire. Every time it was the Houthis who violated the ceasefire that was unilaterally declared without a prior agreement with Houthis. The Saudis have always had a problem with strategic timing: they are very bad in choosing the time to act. Today, they are doing this at a time when Houthis feel that they are winning militarily and that they can have more concessions from not only Saudi Arabia but also the United States and the international community, than before. The idea behind this new ceasefire is to prove to the world that the Saudis are ready to end their campaign in Yemen and show the world, especially Congress, that if the war does not end, it is solely on the Houthis. Also, Saudi Arabia can no longer count on the United States’ support in this war. One of President Biden’s first decisions after coming to the White House was to cut any kind of US support to the Saudi war in Yemen and the absence of US support puts Saudi Arabia in an even weaker position militarily and politically.
Riyadh wanted to prove to the administration that Saudi Arabia is serious about ending the war. The situation is very complex in Yemen, and Saudi Arabia cannot end the war and just leave Yemen on its own. It needs US mediation with the Houthis. Originally, Saudi Arabia had a list of goals for its military campaign—one of which was to restore the legitimate Government of Yemen. Today, all of its objectives have been reduced to having a secure border with Yemen, which shows how much the situation has changed.
A ceasefire is also hard to implement because there are many factions within the Houthis today, so one faction accepts but the others refuse. There are also other parties to this war in addition to Saudi Arabia and the Houthis who need to accept and participate in the peace process. A ceasefire cannot solve the Yemen problem immediately.
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This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Dr. Yasmin Farouk is a visiting fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in Saudi Arabia and regional foreign relations. Prior to joining Carnegie, Yasmine was based in Egypt where she taught political science. Her previous research and publications cover Egyptian and Saudi foreign policies, international relations in the Arab world, and social participation in policy and constitution-making. Dr. Farouk studied political science at Cairo University, Sciences Po Paris, and was a Fulbright Fellow at Yale University during her postdoctoral studies.