Saudi Arabia’s security-oriented approach to Yemen has foundered. The Saudi-led coalition has failed to defeat the Houthis militarily or to restore the government the group toppled. Moreover, Saudi militarization of the border with Yemen has damaged the Yemeni economy—with negative consequences for Saudi Arabia. Crucially, Saudi Arabia’s security is contingent on Yemen’s stability and economic prosperity. As such, Riyadh should contribute to reviving Yemen’s moribund economy, both in the borderlands and in the inland agricultural sector.
- Yemenis have long nursed historical grievances against Saudi Arabia. The loss of Asir, Najran, and Jizan occurred nearly a century ago but continues to breed resentment today. The Houthis have proven adept at capitalizing on such resentment as well as on that generated by Saudi Arabia’s military campaign and related policies.
- The Saudi tendency to view Yemen through a security lens increased following the Houthis’ capture of Sanaa in 2015. The subsequent Saudi-led military intervention failed to achieve its goals and hastened the collapse of the Yemeni state.
- Riyadh’s militarization of areas on either side of the Saudi-Yemeni border, restrictions on the entry of Yemeni goods into Saudi territory, and clampdowns on Yemeni nationals in Saudi Arabia have disrupted cross-border communal and economic life, and done little to improve Saudi domestic security. Divorcing the Yemeni border areas from their hinterland, which the Saudis are attempting to do, is futile.
- Instead of continuing or even intensifying its failed all-consuming security approach, Saudi Arabia should pivot toward a strategy that has as its aim the economic revival of the borderlands. Reactivating and strengthening the economic committees that were formed when the Treaty of Jeddah was signed in 2000 would make for a good start, as would the creation of a free-trade zone.
- Investing in Yemen’s agricultural sector is imperative. It would serve the triple purpose of propping up the Yemeni economy, encouraging Yemeni farmers and skilled workers to remain in their country, and providing the Saudi market with goods that are more affordable than those imported from elsewhere.
- If Yemen’s agricultural sector is revitalized and once again employs a significant portion of the population, Riyadh can afford to ease entry requirements for Yemenis, as those who would want to move to Saudi Arabia would be unskilled, not skilled, laborers. Riyadh relies on unskilled foreign workers for construction, of which massive projects are underway, and there is no reason why Yemenis cannot once again fill the jobs in this sector.