Hoping for Peace With Houthis, Saudis Keep Low Profile in Red Sea Conflict

After Iran-backed rebels took over the capital of Yemen in 2014, a 30-year-old Saudi prince named Mohammed bin Salman spearheaded a military intervention to rout them.

With American assistance and weapons, Saudi pilots embarked on a bombing campaign called Operation Decisive Storm inside Yemen, the mountainous nation on their southern border. Officials expected to swiftly defeat the rebels, a ragtag tribal militia known as the Houthis.

Instead, the prince’s forces spent years mired in a conflict that splintered into fighting between multiple armed groups, drained billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia’s coffers and helped plunge Yemen into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Hundreds of thousands of people died from violence, hunger and unchecked disease.

Saudi Arabia and its main partner, the United Arab Emirates, eventually scaled back their military involvement — partly because of American pressure — and Saudi officials entered peace talks with the Houthis, who secured control of northern Yemen.

Now, the war in Gaza has thrust the Houthis — whose ideology is driven by hostility toward the United States and Israel and support for the Palestinian cause — into an unlikely global spotlight.

The militia is creating chaos in the Red Sea by lobbing missiles and drones toward Israel and at commercial ships, and the United States has marshaled an international maritime coalition to try to deter them and is weighing other measures to confront the group.

Saudi Arabia, however, would rather watch these latest developments from the sidelines, with the prospect of peace on its southern border a more appealing goal than joining an effort to stop attacks that the Houthis say are directed at Israel — a state the kingdom does not officially recognize and which is widely reviled by its people.

Crown Prince Mohammed is now the de facto Saudi ruler, and he is uninterested in getting dragged back into a conflict with the Houthis, according to Saudi and American officials.

“To have a stable region, you need economic development in the whole region,” Prince Mohammed said in a television interview in September — shortly before the war in Gaza began — when Saudi officials hosted a Houthi delegation in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. “You don’t need to see problems in Yemen.”

As the prince rushes to make progress on his sweeping plan to try to transform Saudi Arabia into a global business hub by 2030, he has been working to calm conflicts and tensions across the Middle East, including through a rapprochement with the kingdom’s regional rival, Iran.

Saudi officials and analysts say that the return of Houthi missiles soaring over Riyadh or striking southern Saudi towns — a relatively common occurrence at the height of the Yemen war — are the last thing the prince needs as he seeks to convince tourists and investors that the Islamic kingdom is open for business.

“Escalation is in nobody’s interest,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister, said in a television interview this month. “We are committed to ending the war in Yemen and we are committed to a permanent cease-fire that opens the door for a political process.”

Saudi officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The new Saudi strategy in Yemen — which leans away from direct military action and toward cultivating relationships with Yemeni factions — is driven by the reality that after eight years of war, the Houthis effectively won. As fighting has quieted down, the militia — which espouses a religious ideology inspired by a sub-sect of Shiite Islam — has settled into power in northern Yemen, where it has created an impoverished proto-state that it rules with an iron fist.

As they face the prospect of conflict with the United States with undisguised delight, the Houthis are drawing on their expanded military capabilities and an apparent fearlessness that was honed in their clashes with the Saudi-led coalition.

If the United States sends soldiers into Yemen, its troops will face a conflict worse than its drawn-out wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the militia’s leader, threatened in a televised speech on Wednesday. The Houthis are “not afraid” of battling the United States directly, and in fact would prefer that, he declared.

If the Houthis say they want war with America, they also appear to have seized on the Gaza conflict as a chance to further a central aim.

“Death to America, death to Israel, a curse upon the Jews” is part of the group’s slogan, and the Houthis have portrayed their attacks on commercial ships as a righteous battle to force Israel to end its siege of Gaza.

The Houthis are also an important arm of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance,” which includes armed groups across the Middle East — although Yemeni analysts and Saudi officials say they view the militia as a complex Yemeni group rather than a purely Iranian proxy.

In his speech on Wednesday, Mr. al-Houthi demanded that other Arab countries step aside and “let the Americans and Israelis enter a direct war with us.”

“If you want to dance on the bodies of victims, dance,” he said — a veiled reference to a string of recent concerts in Saudi Arabia, including a performance by Metallica. “But don’t participate with the Americans in a war against us.”

For the Houthis, such a war would be a “golden opportunity for them to fulfill their narrative, enable them to easily recruit and gain credibility from people,” said Shoqi Al-Maktary, a Yemeni senior adviser at Search for Common Ground, a Washington-based organization that works to resolve conflicts.

That is particularly true as Israel’s bombardment of Gaza — launched in response to the deadly Hamas attacks on Oct. 7 — sparks grief and anger around the Middle East, aimed not only at Israel, but also the United States, its main ally.

Before the war in Gaza began, the Houthis were on the verge of signing an American- and Saudi-backed peace deal that would potentially entrench their position in power and allow the international community to declare the beginning of the end of the war in Yemen.

At least so far, the Houthi response to the Gaza war does not appear to have diminished Saudi Arabia’s appetite for a deal over Yemen, analysts said.

“The war in Gaza didn’t undermine the talks between the Houthis and the Saudis — on the contrary, it brought them together even closer,” said Ahmed Nagi, a senior Yemen analyst at the International Crisis Group.

In an interview with The New York Times Times in late September, Ali al-Qahoom, a member of the Ansar Allah Politburo, the political arm of the Houthis, said that negotiations with Saudi Arabia had been “full of seriousness and optimism.”

Mr. al-Qahoom said that they had discussed how to facilitate salary payments for public servants — who have gone uncompensated for years — and the potential reopening of airports and ports, steps that could ease the suffering of millions of Yemenis in desperate need of aid.

“Our views were pretty close,” Mr. al-Qahoom said. “What hinders reaching an agreement is the disavowal of obligations by Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Britain and America to address the destruction caused by eight years of war and other issues like reconstruction and reparations.”

That appeared to be a reference to monetary compensation that the Houthis expect to receive from Saudi Arabia as part of an incentive for any deal.

The Saudi government, analysts say, is likely to include some form of payment to get the deal done.

Amid these negotiations with the Houthis, Saudi Arabia has also continued to cultivate a warmer relationship with Iran, its longtime foe. President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran made his first visit to Riyadh in November.

This week, the United States announced a naval task force to address the threat posed by the Houthis in the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were not among its members; the only Arab nation to join was Bahrain, where the move sparked popular anger.

Saudi Arabia “is not interested in any Western efforts to protect Israel,” Sulaiman al-Oqeliy, a Saudi political commentator, wrote on the social media platform X. Many pundits in the Gulf have also expressed frustration with the U.S. in recent days, arguing that American policy toward the war in Yemen helped the Houthis thrive.

The United States respects that some countries might have “domestic reasons” for staying out of the task force, John Kirby, the White House national security spokesman, told reporters.

American military planners have prepared preliminary Houthi targets in Yemen, should senior Biden administration officials order retaliatory strikes, two U.S. officials said. But military officials say the White House has shown no appetite for responding militarily to the Houthis and risking a wider regional war.

“Sometimes in the Middle East, you don’t have good decisions and bad decisions,” Prince Mohammed said in an interview in 2018, when asked about the war in Yemen. “Sometimes you have bad decisions and worse decisions.”

Ahmed Al Omran, Shuaib Almosawa and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.