Since March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition with the United Arab Emirates to accomplish many of their strategic goals in Yemen. In the forefront of these goals is the return of ex-President Hadi and the removal of the new National Salvation Government, sometimes called the Houthis. For the past four years, Saudi Arabia has viciously bombarded Yemen’s cities and blockaded Yemen’s ports, practically preventing any humanitarian aid from reaching millions of starving Yemenis in need. Regarding the blockade (a.k.a sanctions), the United Nations concluded that it has had “devastating effects on the civilian population” as the Saudi coalition’s airstrikes have targeted Yemen’s food production and distribution and blocked any aid-based substitutes to enter.
Despite the horrific outcomes of the sanctions imposed on Yemen for several years, the National Salvation Government does not seem to have capitulated an inch. In fact, sanctions of all kinds seem to frequently be unsuccessful in achieving the desired ends of the sanctioning party, whether the sanctioned are Yemeni, Iranian, or Syrian. This is especially the case if the sanctioned government enjoys popular support. Robert Pape, an international security expert, explains in “Why Sanctions Do Not Work” that the most successful type of sanctions (by a margin) are ones meant to destabilize nations, and even then, they’re only successful 52% of the time. Governments with strong popular support are not as vulnerable to destabilization attempts as unpopular ones. However, the Saudi coalitions goals are far more complex and institutionally invasive than simple destabilization, so the possibility of their regional projects’ success is actually way lower than 52%. Saudi Arabia is intending to permanently influence domestic policy and select the head of state. This task requires major popular support that they do not have. Unfortunately, the victims end up being millions of innocent Yemeni civilians.
Another reason for the sanctions in Yemen being a strategic failure is that they relay an ugly image of Saudi and its allies. It presents the coalition and its supporters as the main causers of suffering. Most Yemenis know the sanctions are a direct cause of the Saudi blockade. In retaliation, Yemenis may side with the National Salvation Government just to spite the sanctioning parties (the Saudi coalition). Again, it becomes clear that sanctions are a losing strategy, even assuming the perpetrators are heartless knaves with no regard for human life (which may so be the case).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, advocates of sanctions forget the public choice aspect. Sanctions are supposedly meant to diminish the ability of enemy factions to respond militarily, as the assumption is that less resources will be allocated to defense due to the sanctions. However, this assumption is frequently false. The last venue of public expenditure government officials under perceived threat of invasion will decrease allocation to is military efforts. So, you’re only forcing civilians to starve, because the political elite naturally prioritize resource allocation to what they see as necessary national defense.
The arguments above present the case for why sanctions are weak strategies and why the blockade should be ended for reasons beyond humanitarian. The problem for the Saudi coalition is that continuing the war after removing the blockade would give the National Salvation Government a new marginal advantage that it has not had before. In reality, the Saudi coalition is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The best option is for the coalition to recognize its strategic defeat and attempt to diplomatically reconcile with the National Salvation Government as best as it can at this fractured stage.
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