How Saudi Arabia got its Yemen campaign so wrong

Houthi followers in Sanaa rally against the Saudi offensive. Reuters/Mohamed Al-Sayaghi

Among Yemen’s myriad misfortunes, its greatest has been being Saudi Arabia’s neighbour.

Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, thought Yemen so unpredictable that he warned his sons that they had to tame it in order to remain secure. Saudi Arabia is now embarked on its largest ever effort to “tame” Yemen, but it has already been a disaster: thousands are dead, and the unspeakable destruction wrought by the unprecedented Saudi intervention has undone decades of cautious and under-the-radar meddling.

Ever since Saudi Arabia became a state in 1932, it has been quietly but actively involved in Yemeni politics. Saudi money has been the most important source of revenue for the Yemen Arab Republic for decades, even as Riyadh has tried to stop the emergence of a strong central government by funding other groups, including powerful tribes and the sheikhs of Yemen’s most important tribal confederations.

But in the past couple of decades, Saudi-Yemeni relations have become even more complicated. Multiple points of friction emerged after the 1990 unification of Yemen, after which it drew up a democratic constitution and refused to vote for a UN-backed intervention against Saddam Hussein after he annexed Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, was pursuing a policy of outright cultural colonialism in an area near the blurred Yemeni-Saudi border, which was historically populated by Shia Zaydi tribes. When the border was finalised at the start of the 21st century, it prevented those tribes from moving freely, restricting their animals’ grazing routes and threatening their livelihoods. This ultimately gave birth to the Houthi nationalist movement.

Blame game

In most Western narratives, the Houthis are the “bad guys” in Yemen; Yemenis who live in Aden and other areas around Southern Yemen would mostly concur. Iran, which has been vocal in its condemnation of Saudi Arabia and in its support for the Houthis, has also been condemned.

In fact, Western diplomats have been busy trying to prove that Iran has provided training, arms and other support to the Houthis, making their takeover possible.

The scene as Qatari aid arrives in Aden. Reuters/stringer

This is simplistic in the extreme. To account for the war we must first look at the original takeover of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, by Houthi forces, which as Iona Craig has shown was far too easy.

The events of the takeover in September 2014 indicated the reconfiguration of internal Yemeni power politics, with the Houthis bolstering their position along with the machinations of ex-President Saleh. Saleh is currently the Houthi’s main ally within Yemen – he has disastrously been allowed to remain active in Yemeni politics despite having to give up the presidency after the Arab Spring.

By March 2015 Saleh’s successor, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, was placed under house arrest. The Houthi and Saleh forces started marching towards Aden, indicating that the tentative peace agreement they reached in September 2014 had finally broken down.

The start of the Saudi campaign in March 2015 was not a measure of the new Saudi king’s strength or strategic acumen. It simply demonstrated that the new king and his young defence minister had lost a considerable amount of the influence Saudi Arabia had once held over Yemen, possibly leaving the door open for Iran. They panicked, and responded unwisely – no doubt partly in response to their forefather’s warning.

A Saudi debacle

Recent reports from the front line of Saudi Arabia’s war will superficially be encouraging to Riyadh. Coalition forces have taken over Al-Anand airbase; a tank brigade from the UAE has joined the effort. The Houthis have been pushed out of several of their positions in Aden, though the fighting has intensified and shows no signs of waning.

The latest success should not detract from the fact that the Saudi army did very badly in Yemen. It has proved unable to coordinate with Yemeni forces loyal to Hadi in Aden and in the South – indeed, on many occasions it has apparently dropped bombs on them by mistake.

Things aren’t looking good back in Saudi Arabia either. The defence minister in charge of the war, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is flailing. He is mocked as “the little general” because of his disastrous war, especially since he ignored warnings from his advisers that a war in Yemen would be a huge debacle for the Saudi Army.

The hapless Mohammed bin Salman. Reuters/Charles Platiau

His decision to kick off the war with his father’s backing was less an attempt to rescue Yemen from Houthi and Iranian influence than the panicked reaction of an inexperienced prince with too much to prove.

The commitment of Saudi Arabia’s coalition forces to a ground offensive is not good news. The expectation is that this will lead to a protracted conflict with foreign troops bogged down in Yemen’s ragged terrain.

Above all, we should not lose sight of the effect of the war on Yemen’s internal power-politics. The longer the war, the more difficult it will become to predict, contain and control Yemeni stakeholders in the hope of stabilising Yemen and securing the Saudi homeland.

Endless war

The other complicating factor in the Saudi campaign is the West. The UK and the US have both been quick to condemn the Houthis, and are supporting the campaign wholeheartedly – even accelerating arms sales to the kingdom and providing it with targeting assistance.

The only condemnation of all sides to this conflict has come from the European Parliament, which is powerless in this context.

More than 3,000 Yemenis are dead, according to the most recent figures – at least 1,600 of whom were civilians. An unnecessary naval blockade has driven food prices up at least by 400% and strikes have been launched against civilians targets that have been characterised as war crimes.

Powerful international actors ought to reconsider their role in the war and their complicity in the atrocities committed by their allies. But Western support for the Saudi debacle in Yemen seems as solid as ever. That will only continue the escalation of the conflict, heightening the Saudis’ feelings of impunity and condemning Yemenis to endless war and increasing hardship – all at the hands of a cocky prince who, unlike his cautious forefathers, has proven to be ineffective and heavy-handed.