By Sumaya Almajdoub
The Yemeni Red Sea port of Hodeida came under Houthi control soon after the rebel group took over the capital Sanaa in 2014 and forced President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi to flee the country. Today, the military coalition led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and eight Arab allies aiming to reinstate Hadi is preparing to launch a military offensive to retake Hodeida, which they hope will cripple the Houthi rebels and force them to negotiate. The operation, however, will neither be a swift military victory nor bring the Houthis to the negotiating table any faster. Rather, attacking Hodeida will only exacerbate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and further prolong the conflict.
With superior military and air-force capabilities, the coalition assumed victory in Yemen would be easy. Yet more than two years later the war rages on as the Houthis use their alliance with Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s wealthy former President, and various militias and tribes in Northern Yemen to hold off the Saudis and their allies. The coalition is targeting Hodeida in an attempt to pressure the Houthis to come to the bargaining table. The last round of UN-brokered peace talks collapsed in August 2016. By taking Hodeida, the coalition hopes to cut off the revenue the Houthis generate from the flow of goods, aid, and weapons – including arms shipments from Iran – through the valuable port.
The coalition has long spoken of its plan to take over Hodeida, but now it’s finally finding a responsive US ally. While the Obama administration provided the coalition with logistical and intelligence support, it pushed back against targeting Yemen’s ports and reportedly rejected an Emirati proposal to attack Hodeida late last year. The Trump administration’s military-centric approach in Yemen, coupled with its view of Yemen as a key battleground in curbing Iran’s regional influence, has been interpreted as a green light to the Saudis and Emiratis to proceed against Hodeida.
Seizing Hodeida will not be easy. While the coalition has superior air power, the Houthis have the advantage on the ground. Even if airstrikes succeed in pushing the Houthis off of the coastline, the coalition will still need to move its ground forces through surrounding Houthi-controlled cities including Hays, Zabid, and Bayt al-Faqih. The Houthis control most of Hodeida’s neighboring provinces, which gives them an advantage due to their familiarity with the local landscape and their use of landmines.
Aside from the military challenges, the battle for Hodeida will have disastrous humanitarian costs. The port handles 70 percent of Yemen’s food imports and foreign aid; this is vitally important for a country that imports 90 percent of its food supplies and in which over half of its 27 million people are currently food insecure. According to UNICEF, over 1.5 million Yemeni children suffer from malnutrition, and horrifying images have already emerged of famine-stricken children all over Yemen. An attack on Hodeida will cause these numbers to increase and will further hamper international aid agencies’ ability to deliver supplies. The United Nations is reportedly preparing a humanitarian contingency plan that would use the ports of Aden and Mocha as alternatives to Hodeida. But these two ports are both smaller in capacity and located further from the more populous north, making them insufficient replacements for Hodeida.
Should the coalition secure Hodeida smoothly, the disastrous humanitarian costs will hinder any support for a political solution. It took coalition forces almost three months to reopen the Mocha port after it was recaptured last January. An effort to reopen Hodeida would likely take longer, further limiting food supplies. If the Yemeni people blame Hadi and his regional backers for exacerbating the famine crisis, it could cripple his ability to claim legitimacy and stabilize the country.
Furthermore, it is unclear if an offensive on Hodeida would force the Houthis to make serious concessions in a new round of peace talks. The Houthis have been reluctant to negotiate in the past, in part because without governing responsibility, they can endure larger economic and political costs than their conventional state opponents in the coalition. Indeed, the Houthis may actually benefit from prolonging the conflict, as it helps them expand and consolidate their relative power in Yemen. While cutting off a port as valuable as Hodeida could push a state actor to come to the negotiating table, the Houthis would not have the same incentives to negotiate.
The Hodeida offensive is a highly risky operation with little return. With such uncertainty and the possibility of exacerbating famine in Yemen, do the Saudis and the Emiratis really want to achieve a victory at such high human cost? Pressuring the Houthis to concede at the negotiating table will be necessary to reach a political settlement to the conflict, but simply bombing Hodeida will not achieve that outcome.
Sumaya Almajdoub is a Middle East Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). Sumaya expects to receive an MA in Middle East Studies from George Washington University in 2017.