The US’ Declining Influence Over Yemen

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Jonathan Fenton-Harvey*

Hopes for peace in Yemen became revitalized after President Abed Rabbuh Mansur Hadi announced from exile in Saudi Arabia that he would stand down and give power to a transitional government. Simultaneously, the United Nations announced that it had brokered a two-month ceasefire for Yemen, a significant move in the country’s war. 

The two moves have raised hopes among observers, particularly as international attention has been focused on the crisis in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion in February, meaning that Yemen inherently received less attention. 

However, Yemen’s the conflict has largely run its course and the warring factions, particularly the Houthi rebels, have failed to gain the upper hand on the other, suggesting that a sense of battle-weariness has arisen. And despite the United States’ ostensibly looking to play a more diplomatic role in Yemen, its efforts have not been substantial enough to forward peace efforts. 

Brokering peace

President Joe Biden’s administration apparently aimed to end Washington’s unconditional support for the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention. After all, the US’ vast military backing and arms sales to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had gained scrutiny from Congress and various anti-war campaigners within the US over how it enabled the war in Yemen. 

Thus, on February 4, 2021, Biden announced an end to “relevant” arms sales to Saudi Arabia, after stating in his presidential campaign that “America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.” Biden also said that America must “end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.”

Despite these strong words, the US did continue some military support to Riyadh while it did not pressure the UAE to end its involvement in the war. While Biden arguably aimed to appease domestic pressure against US involvement in Yemen’s war, his administration did indicate that Washington would no longer unconditionally support Riyadh’s involvement in Yemen, in the way that Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump had done.

This however gave the Houthi rebels a boost, as it indicated the US was backing away from its involvement in Yemen, and that Saudi Arabia would consequentially be in a weaker position. The Houthis’ role is important to consider, as their renewed offensive on Marib – the last Yemeni government stronghold, escalated after Biden’s announcement in February 2021. This plunged Yemen into a new stage of war, as the faction subsequently expanded eastwards and southwards, thus prompting both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to contain the Houthis’ advances. 

However, as the US continued some support for the Saudi-led coalition, it sent a message to the Houthis that the US was still at war with Yemen. Moreover, the US did not pressure Saudi Arabia to end its blockade on Yemen’s land, air and seaports, which worsened Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and continued to act as an obstacle for peace. The Saudi-imposed blockade effectively aimed to starve out the Houthis and weaken them, such as through preventing them from profiting from fuel exports. 

With these mixed messages that boosted the Houthis but allowed the Saudi-led coalition’s continued involvement in Yemen, Biden’s response had enabled the conflict in Yemen to continue rather than ending it. 

The Biden administration has also dispatched senior officials to the Gulf region to help broker a peace solution for Yemen. On March 28, US special envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking visited the Gulf region to advance peace talks for Yemen. Following the ceasefire, Lenderking claimed it came due to a transformation in the war’s dynamics and the Houthis realizing they cannot win militarily. 

Indeed, the Biden administration’s sour relations with the Houthis and weakened leverage over Saudi Arabia meant Washington had not played a substantial role in the last agreement, and the ceasefire came largely because the war had faltered. 

US interests in Yemen

However, the US may still look to play a role in Yemen, even if the war ends. The US sees Yemen through the lens of Saudi Arabia’s position in the conflict, since Washington mainly prioritizes upholding its partnership with Saudi Arabia, to ensure it can maintain influence in the Gulf and control over the Bab al Mandeb, which is important for global trade. Around 10 percent of the world’s trade passes through this small strait. 

The US Navy announced on April 13 that it would continue patrolling the Red Sea in response to previous Houthi attacks. This indicates that the US is still clearly keen to continue a presence around Yemen for the sake of preserving global trade.

The US is also concerned over Iran gaining a foothold in Yemen, as Tehran has backed the Houthis rebels and relations between the two have tightened throughout the war. Washington also has highlighted security concerns from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its alleged links to Al-Shabab in Somalia, although the faction currently remains isolated and weakened in Yemen.

Amid the governmental shift in Yemen following Hadi’s resignation, the US will look to continue taking Saudi Arabia’s side, given that this has acted as an important measure for protecting Washington’s interests in the Gulf and surrounding areas. 


Despite these positive moves for peace in Yemen, the US has not played a substantial role in the latest developments. Its stance has also weakened Washington’s position as a powerbroker, while its policies have enabled the conflict to continue.

While the Yemen war has evidently waned for now, the humanitarian crisis is still worsening. Moreover, continued instability in the country could enable future domestic violence to emerge. The US should therefore take a more proactive role in ensuring that peace could continue, including giving more of a platform for the conflict’s actors.

This may however be more of a challenge for the US. Following Russia’s war in Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have indicated they are less warm to the Biden administration, having refused to explicitly denounce Russia and communicate with Washington over oil output.

Even if Washington backs out of Yemen’s war, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have already established stronger ties with Russia and China – meaning they could acquire further support for involvement in Yemen. Given this rift between Washington and the Saudi-led coalition, the US’ future influence over Yemen could be limited. 

*British Writer and Analyst 

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