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Saudi Arabia is trying to leave Yemen as quietly as possible

It was a sorry day in the history of the United Nations Human Rights Council as its members voted, last Thursday, to end a monitoring mission in Yemen. A resolution, proposed by the Netherlands, would have extended the original four-year mission by another two years, had it not become the first Human Rights Council resolution in the organisation’s 15-year history to be voted down. As the decision was announced, the Dutch ambassador told delegates: “I cannot help but feel that this council has failed the people of Yemen.”

The block was led by Saudi Arabia’s close ally, Bahrain, which was joined by Pakistan, China and Russia among others. Despite having tried and failed to join the Council last year, Saudi Arabia’s presence loomed large over the vote.

Saudi Arabia stands to gain the most from the mission’s departure. Since launching its military intervention into Yemen in 2015, Riyadh has become bogged down in a bloody and stagnant conflict that has brought untold suffering to the Yemeni people. It has also seriously damaged Saudi Arabia’s reputation abroad at a time when its de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, has made serious efforts to improve his country’s brutal, antediluvian image. But his hard-fought attempts to redeem Saudi Arabia in the eyes of the world, by reopening cinemas and permitting women to drive, have been offset by images of maimed and starving Yemeni children, victims of a Saudi-led bombing campaign that has morphed into multiple humanitarian crises.

The absence of the UN mission gives the Saudi forces a bit more breathing room, perhaps enough to step up its bombing sorties against the Houthis to pressure the group into negotiations.

Saudi Arabia is no longer trying to win the war, at least in any meaningful sense. After six years of fruitless fighting the war has come to be known – predictably – as “Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam”. Despite having uncontested air superiority and by far the highest-funded army in the Middle East, the Saudi forces cannot seem to dislodge the Houthi rebels from their southern flank.

For the past year at least, Riyadh has known that their ally, the Yemeni government led by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, cannot win the war and, as unpalatable as it might seem, the Saudis are prepared to accept some kind of Houthi presence in Yemen if they can be reassured that it poses them no direct threat.

To this end, talks have opened up between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It shows how much things have changed in the region since the start of the war: The wave of rapprochement that has swept over previously adversarial states has led Saudi Arabia to turn to the very country it was trying to counter when it began its Yemeni campaign in the first place.

For numerous reasons, including the United States’ pivot away from the Middle East, the Arab Gulf states have turned on a dime in the last few years, replacing their belligerent regional policy with a far more diplomatic one. The Arab bloc as a whole seems to have come to the conclusion that, for all its military strength, it is suddenly terribly overstretched and vulnerable to attack; its main adversaries, Turkey and Iran, are arguably more robust but skint and equally keen to mend fences.

So Saudi Arabia is turning to Iran for a way out of Yemen. And it is likely Iran, which has no real strategic interest in Yemen other than antagonizing the Saudis, will take the opportunity to win concessions elsewhere by lending a hand. What ability Iran has to rein in the Houthis and bring them to the negotiating table, however, remains to be seen.

Saudi Arabia knows just how high the stakes are. This is the second time it has backed the losing side in Yemen, having also intervened in the North Yemeni Civil War of the 1960s. Arguably, though, the biggest loser in that war was Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, which won a pyrrhic victory at the cost of 26,000 of its soldiers killed and irreparable damage to the regime’s legitimacy. (This war also came to be known as “Egypt’s Vietnam”, although former Israeli ambassador the US, Michael Oren, quipped that the conflict was so bad that it would be more accurate to refer to the Vietnam as “America’s Yemen”.)

But however the Saudis look for a way out, whether it’s through unappealing backroom deals with their nominal enemies, or ramping up their brutal bombing campaign in a UN monitor-less Yemen, it is at least clear that they will do whatever they can to keep it quiet. Whatever happens next will be a truly ignominious moment for Saudi Arabia and it would rather nobody was there to see it.

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