Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden took two steps in the Middle East. The first was that he notified Congress of his intention to remove the Houthis fighting in Yemen from the government’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. The second was that he said the U.S. would end its support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen and would review its relationship with Saudi Arabia over concerns about that country’s human rights record. In and of themselves, these two actions have little meaning. Viewed together, they may represent a radical shift in U.S. Middle East policy. The question, of course, is how and even whether this shift will affect the reality of the region. As I have so often written, policy is the list of things we wish for. Geopolitical reality is what we get.
The Houthis are a major faction in what seems the eternal Yemeni civil war. They are aligned with Iran, facing off against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The war in Yemen has to a great extent morphed from a civil war into a war between other countries’ proxies. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been carrying out airstrikes and providing some support on the ground in the fight against the Houthis. Iran, on the other hand, has been providing missiles to the Houthis (or Houthi-appearing Iranian forces), which have been fired into Saudi Arabia.
Yemen is a strategic country. It can project force into Saudi Arabia and Oman, or allow more powerful allies to do so. More important, from Yemen’s location a hypothetical, stronger power could close the Bab el Mandeb strait, and in doing so close the Red Sea. Access to the Red Sea is vital: In 1967, Egypt closed the Tiran Straits, blocking Israel from the Red Sea and triggering the Six-Day War.