No Exit for Saudi Arabia: The Kingdom’s War in Yemen

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 22

Members of the Royal Saudi Land Forces (Source: CNN [Arabic])

It has been more than two and half years since Saudi Arabia began its war in Yemen. The campaign named “Operation Decisive Storm” was supposed to be a short, sharp operation to defeat — or at least cow — Yemen’s Houthi rebels and reinstall its government in exile, but it has failed to achieve either of these objectives.

Yemen’s impotent and largely discredited government continues its exile in Saudi Arabia, while the Houthis and their allies have retained control of northwest Yemen. The Saudi-led war has succeeded only in devastating a nation of 26 million and greatly empowering al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which wields growing influence in southern Yemen. Ironically, the Saudi-led war is the glue that keeps the alliance between the Houthis and their former enemy, Yemen’s ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, together.

Apart from the extraordinary damage done to Yemen and its people, the war may well produce blow-back that endangers Saudi Arabia and its ruling family.

History Repeats Itself?

Saudi Arabia and its primary collation partner, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are discovering what the Romans, Ottoman Turks and Egyptians before them learned from their own ill-conceived invasions: Yemen is an abyss for invaders. Yemen’s cultural and physical geography defies and confounds foreign military forces. In their 1962-1967 invasion of North Yemen, the Egyptians deployed in excess of 50,000 soldiers, backed by armor and air force. Despite the overwhelming technical superiority of their forces, they lost at least 20,000 men and were forced to retreat.

In contrast, Saudi Arabia has committed few ground troops to Yemen. It, like the UAE, is largely reliant on mercenaries and proxy forces. Operation Decisive Storm relies on aerial bombardment, but that has achieved little in terms of degrading the military capabilities of the Houthis and their allies, which include many of the best trained units of the Yemeni Army.

A blockade of Yemen’s ports and airspace is also a core part of the Saudi strategy (al-Jazeera, November 9). Like its aerial campaign, the blockade has failed to diminish the martial capabilities of the Houthis and their allies. However, it has produced what is currently the world’s most significant humanitarian crisis. More than 80 percent of Yemen’s population is in urgent need of humanitarian aid, and an epidemic of cholera is raging across the country (Middle East Eye, November 10).

Yemen has long been viewed as a problematic neighbor by the House of Saud. Saudi Arabia’s autocratic rulers have long viewed Yemen’s large and well-armed population, as well as its veneer of democracy, as threats. For years, the House of Saud pursued a careful policy in Yemen that preserved Saudi Arabia’s influence—largely through cash payments to tribal and political leaders—and sought to ensure that Yemen remained stable yet weak. In March 2015, largely at the behest of now Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, years of covert— and at times masterful — manipulation were replaced with overt action in the form of Operation Decisive Storm. There is nothing decisive about the campaign, however, and the only storm is the one threatening Saudi Arabia itself. Having destabilized the country and set back Yemen’s development by decades, the blowback from the war in Yemen may well have grave consequences for the House of Saud and the kingdom they rule.

Storm Clouds Over the Kingdom

Between 1962 and 1967, then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser’s disastrous campaign in Yemen exacted a tremendous toll on his country’s army and air force. Both morale and readiness within the military were compromised, and the Egyptian treasury was drained. Yemen is called Egypt’s “Vietnam” for good reason. Furthermore, compelling evidence suggests that it’s Yemen intervention led to Egypt’s crushing defeat by Israel in the Six Day War (June 1967). [1]

Much like the Saudi and Emirati forces that are now engaged in Yemen, the performance of the Egyptian armed forces was closely watched by its rival, Israel. By comparison with Saudi and Emirati forces—including their many proxies—Egyptian forces were often tenacious in the face of withering Yemeni attacks and counter-attacks. Still, the weakness of Egyptian forces was on full display in Yemen. The Egyptian military learned little from its war there, but its enemy, Israel, learned a great deal.

Now, Iran and its allies are learning about the weakness of their rivals in the same way. The Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF) have largely proceeded from failure to failure in and out of Yemen. Not only has the RSLF failed to make any headway inside Yemen, it has also failed to secure Saudi Arabia’s southern border with the country. Retaliatory cross-border attacks by Houthi and allied Yemeni army forces that reach deep into Saudi territory continue on a weekly basis. The under-performance of the lavishly funded and equipped RSLF mirrors its 2009-2010 defeat by Houthi fighters who, at that time, were few in number and poorly equipped.

Despite frequent claims to the contrary, the Houthis are far from being Iranian proxies, yet Iran undoubtedly has a relationship with some in their leadership. There are almost certainly information exchanges between the Houthis and various divisions within Iranian intelligence on, among other subjects, the tactics and performance of the Saudi and Emirati militaries.

Just as Israel learned about the Egyptian military’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities, Iran is learning as much as it can about Saudi Arabia’s vulnerabilities. At the same time, the Iranians are happy to sit back and watch the Saudis sink further into the abyss of an unwinnable war in Yemen, just as the Israelis were with the Egyptians.

Creating What They Fear Most

In a recent interview, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman said that the war in Yemen would continue because Saudi Arabia would not allow a “Hezbollah” on its southern border (Majalla, November 3). The irony of this is that by continuing the war, the Saudis risk creating what they fear — an organization that evolves into a proto-state, like Hezbollah, with a formidable hybrid warfare capability. For now, the Houthis are not Iranian proxies nor are they directed by Hezbollah. Instead, the Houthis are a distinctly Yemeni group that is narrowly focused on nationalist concerns, namely defending the country against the two pronged threat of Saudi aggression and a resurgent al-Qaeda in the south. Of course their leadership is also determined to protect and, if possible, expand their political influence and growing economic interests.

By continuing the war in Yemen, the Saudis ensure that the unlikely but pragmatic alliance between the Houthis and loyalists aligned with former president Saleh remains in place. It should be noted that Saleh waged six brutal wars against the Houthis before he resigned as president in the wake of popular protests in 2011. This alliance would likely fracture without the threat of Saudi aggression. At the very least, it would be reconfigured and the authority and influence of the Houthis, whose power base does not naturally extend beyond parts of three governorates in northwest Yemen, would be curtailed. [2] The Houthis’ popularity in northwest Yemen, if one can call it that, derives mainly from their indubitable courage on the battlefield. Without a potent enemy, much of their raison d’etre would dissipate.

The Saudi war in Yemen is not only helping to keep this unlikely alliance together, it is providing the ideal training ground for an already capable organization to perfect its hybrid warfare capabilities. The alliance between the Houthis and what are the best-trained and equipped parts of the Yemeni military — most of which remained loyal to Saleh and his sons — has allowed for a fertile cross-pollination between conventional methods of warfare and guerrilla tactics. The Houthis were already masterful practitioners of guerrilla warfare, but now they have incorporated numerous field grade officers — many of whom have trained at Western and former Soviet staff colleges — into their ranks. These men bring with them an in-depth understanding of conventional tactics and heavy weapons systems.

This melding of conventional and guerrilla tactics is already evident on the battlefield where the Houthis and their allies utilize small units of highly mobile fighters backed up by equally mobile light and medium artillery forces. The small units and artillery forces coordinate their attacks by using a range of surveillance drones, most of which are re-engineered commercial versions or indigenously produced variants.

As the war in Yemen grinds on, it is likely that a somewhat limited relationship between the Houthis and Iran will develop, along with the Houthis’ military capabilities. Iran can only be delighted by the fact that Saudi Arabia is mired in a war that it cannot win. There is little doubt Iran will want to prolong this at limited cost to itself. After all, the Saudis and Israelis did the same thing to the Egyptians when the Egyptians invaded Yemen. Both countries, along with Iran, which was then governed by the Shah, aided and armed Yemen’s royalist forces so that they could continue their fight against the Egyptian military. The strategy worked and Egyptian President Nasser’s expansionist aims did not survive the war.

By continuing its war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia risks generating blow-back just as profound as that experienced by Nasser 50 years ago. The Saudi effort in Yemen may well end up creating exactly what they fear — a Hezbollah-like organization that is capable and has deep societal and political roots.

No Exit

Muhammad bin Salman set out to show the region and the world that the Saudi military was a formidable force that could quickly rein in a group of rag-tag rebels. After months of unrelenting aerial bombardment, a devastating blockade and billions of dollars spent, Saudi Arabia and its allies have achieved none of their objectives. The Houthis and their allies show no signs of giving up the fight, al-Qaeda is resurgent across the south, millions of Yemenis are even more impoverished than they were, and at least 10,000 Yemenis have died in the war (al-Jazeera, January 17). The only real beneficiary has been Iran.

Despite all of Saudi Arabia’s bluster about the threat posed by Iran, its policies, at least in Yemen, have done nothing to mitigate that threat. On the contrary, continuing the war in Yemen may well enhance what is now limited Iranian influence there. Muhammad bin Salman clearly has no exit strategy for his country’s involvement in Yemen and no means to secure his objectives. This does not portend well for the House of Saud, the people of Yemen or the region.

The current turmoil within the House of Saud cannot be separated from the country’s failed efforts in Yemen. Muhammad bin Salman has much to prove and is not likely to back down, but the young prince could cost the House of Saud dearly in terms of blood and treasure. The Saudis should heeded the words of the Kingdom’s founder, King Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, a man as calculating as he was cautious, who purportedly said on his deathbed: “The good or evil for us will come from Yemen.” [3]



[1] See: Jesse Ferris, Nasser’s Gamble: How Intervention in Yemen Caused the Six Day War and the Decline of Egyptian Power, Princeton University Press (2015).

[2] See: Marieke Brandt, Tribes and Politics in Yemen: A History of the Houthi Conflict, Oxford University Press (2017).

[3] Christopher Van Hollen, “North Yemen: A Dangerous Pentagonal Game,” Washington Quarterly 5(3), 1982, p.137.