NEW YORK (Dispatches) -- From the beginning of Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, it was Prince Muhammad’s war.
Prince Muhammad bin Salman, then 29 and in his third month as defense minister, was shown in official photographs surrounded by generals, poring over maps, inspecting a helicopter and even wearing a pilot’s headset while riding in the back of a military transport plane.
Four years later, the war is lodged in a stalemate and Prince Muhammad’s signature fight has become a quagmire, the New York Times says, citing diplomats and analysts. A steep pullout by his key ally, the United Arab Emirates, they say, raises questions about Saudi Arabia’s ability to lead the war on its own.
"Emboldened by the hawkish comments of Trump administration officials, Prince Muhammad is now hoping Washington will help make up the difference with new American military support,” the paper said, citing what it described as diplomats with knowledge of the conversations.
But congressional opposition to the war makes that highly unlikely, leaving the prince with some potentially humbling choices, it added.
"It hurts him because it injures his credibility as a successful leader,” said Kristin Smith Diwan, an analyst at the Washington-based AGSI institute. His personal investment, she said, could motivate him to search for some partial accommodation he could label a victory.
"Not many people in Saudi Arabia feel this is a wise investment for the future,” she added.
The Saudis launched the campaign in 2015 to try to return a former government to power. The war has killed thousands of civilians and put more than 12 million people at risk of starvation but has failed to dislodge the Houthis from control of the capital and much of the country.
While the Saudis have fought almost entirely from the air, Emirati officers, weapons and money played an equally critical role in holding together a fractious alliance of mutually hostile Yemeni militias, which have already begun jostling to fill the power vacuum left by the Emiratis.
As a result, analysts said, the Emirati exit makes the prospect of a Saudi military victory even more remote.
Since the Saudi intervention began, the Houthis have fired more than 500 missiles and sent more than 150 explosive-laden drones into the kingdom, Saudi researchers say.
Some Western and United Nations diplomats hope that the Emirati withdrawal will push Prince Muhammad to negotiate a deal with the Houthis, potentially trading an end to the Saudi-led air campaign for some measure of security on the long border. He already faces mounting criticism in Congress and across the West for over the war’s devastating impact on the civilians population.
Yet the Emirati drawdown has also severely weakened the Saudis’ bargaining power, raising the potential cost to Prince Muhammad of any negotiations to end the Yemen war.
Boxed in, he has asked for more aid from the United States. The Americans already provide logistical support and sell weapons to the Saudis. The Saudis are hoping for at least greater sharing of American intelligence and possibly the deployment of special forces teams or military advisers, diplomats said.
But Washington, the Saudis complain, has sent mixed messages about its support for the war. To the surprise of the Saudi leaders, outrage over the Saudi killing and dismemberment last fall of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who lived in Virginia and wrote for The Washington Post, prompted American lawmakers to look more skeptically at the war in Yemen.
Congress passed legislation this year demanding an end to United States military support for the war, including arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
"Pentagon officials, meanwhile, have concluded on their own that the war has degenerated into an unwinnable quagmire and have urged the Saudis for months to try to negotiate an end to the fighting,” the New York Times wrote.
Mustafa Alani, a scholar at the Saudi-backed Persian Gulf Research Center who is close to the royal court, recommended that the Saudis take a blunter approach to convincing Washington that the Houthis were an American problem: withdraw completely and let the United States deal with the anti-Western forces he says would overrun Yemen.
Asked about Saudi plans to fill the void left by the Emirati drawdown, an official of the Saudi Embassy in Washington said last week that the kingdom would rely more on Yemeni allies.
But the Yemeni militias have already started disagreeing about who will take charge in the Emiratis’ absence, underscoring the fragility of the alliance.
Some of them are the sworn enemies of the former Yemeni president sponsored by the Saudis, Abd Rabbuh Monsour Hadi.
"The problem for the Saudis today is that in contrast to the Emiratis, their main client is quite weak and ineffective,” said Emile Hokayem, a scholar at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, referring to Hadi.
Whatever happens now, Hokayem added, "whether they like it or not, the Saudis own that.”