Saudi Arabia’s Yemen Intervention: A High Risk Gamble?
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 20
Saudi Arabia’s ongoing armed intervention in Yemen, which began overtly in March with airstrikes in support of Yemen’s internationally-recognized president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, has since become a coalition effort, although the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has emerged as Saudi Arabia’s major military partner in the intervention. On balance, the coalition campaign to oust the predominately Zaydi Shi’a Ansar Allah (Partisans of God—a.k.a. the Houthis) movement and their allies, which include forces loyal to Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, has made strong progress. Saudi Arabia’s daily air strikes on the Houthis and their allies in the country’s capital of Sana’a and in other Houthi-dominated areas in Yemen’s western highland region are degrading the Houthi alliance’s conventional military forces (al-Arabiya, September 28; al-Arabiya, September 5).
Concurrently, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait have landed troops in the southern city of Aden, the former capital of South Yemen, and are using the city to assist local, southern tribal militias organized under the broad network of al-Muqawama al-Sha’biya (Popular Resistance Committees). This has succeeded first in pushing the Houthis and their allies back from the city and pressuring Houthi-held areas around the city of Taiz in the country’s southwest and in the mainly desert region of Mareb, to the west of Sana’a (The National, September 7; YouTube, July 3; YouTube, June 17; YouTube, June 8; YouTube, June 5; YouTube, May 31; Khabar News Agency [Taiz], April 21; YouTube, April 21; al-Arabiya, March 26).
In spite of these successes, Houthi and allied forces continue to maintain strong control over northern Yemen, including Sana’a, and Houthi forces have launched consistent attacks on several areas of southwestern Saudi Arabia that border Yemen, particularly in Najran and Jizan Provinces (YouTube, June 9; YouTube, May 29; YouTube, May 5). For instance, on September 18, two Bangladeshis were killed when mortars fired from Yemen struck a hospital in Samtah, a town in the Saudi Red Sea coastal province of Jizan that is only a few miles from the Yemen border (Daily Star [Dhaka], September 19). Earlier, on September 14, Saudi Arabia announced that one soldier had been killed in an attack on a border post in Jizan, (SPA, September 14). A day earlier, four soldiers had been killed in another cross-border attack in Najran (SPA, September 13). This stream of attacks, while not seriously jeopardizing Saudi control of the area, is nonetheless almost constant, placing considerable pressure on civilian populations in the region, particularly through the Houthis’ use of indiscriminate rocket attacks.
A further challenge to Saudi Arabia is the latest risk of the conflict with the Houthis igniting long-dormant tensions in Najran and Jizan. Local politics in these provinces is significantly driven by sectarian and tribal loyalties that uneasily coexist with the Saudi state. Najran and Jizan, which have only been formally governed by the al-Saud dynasty since 1934, retain a strong territorial identity of their own, often in conscious opposition to the forcibly-imposed sterner al-Saud/Wahhabist traditions of central Arabia. In addition, there are strong cross-border ties between tribes in Najran and Jizan, and with the core areas of Houthi support in northern Yemen (YouTube, March 29; al-Akhbar [Beirut], November 12, 2014). 
Suggestive of Saudi awareness of these potential tensions, early in the coalition’s campaign in Yemen, the Saudi government deployed a strong, and highly symbolic, Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) force to its southwestern provinces that border Yemen (YouTube, April 27). Najran, which historically had a majority Ismaili Sh’ia Muslim population and also a significant Zaydi Shi’a population with historic socio-cultural ties to areas of northern Yemen presently controlled by the Houthis, has previously been the site of significant protests against the Saudi regime, as well as inter-sectarian violence between Sunnis and the Shi’a sects (YouTube, April 27; YouTube, April 27; Okaz [Riyadh], April 1; al-Riyadh, April 1; AP, May 12; Okaz [Riyadh], April 1; al-Akhbar [Beirut], November 12, 2014; BBC, April 25, 2000).  Apparently concerned with demonstrating the loyalty of the local Najrani population, Saudi media showed footage of elaborate local, tribal welcoming ceremonies for SANG forces, especially from the Bani Yam, the most important Ismaili tribal confederation in the governorate (YouTube, April 27; YouTube, April 26; YouTube, March 28). Saudi Arabia’s Minister of the National Guard, Prince Mu’atib bin Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the son of the recently deceased King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud and a powerful player within the Saudi royal family, also personally travelled to Najran to participate in festivities marking the SANG’s deployment with the region’s powerful local tribes (YouTube, June 14). These efforts can be understood as an attempt to bolster local loyalties to the Saudi state, to spread a wider message that the area is calm and also to show SANG forces protecting the local population against the Houthi threat.
In addition, there have previously been unverified reports—mainly from Iranian state media sources—of local opposition forces emerging from Najrani tribes who were deeply dissatisfied with Saudi Arabia’s air campaign in Yemen. Most strikingly, in mid-June, reports by Iranian media, and media produced by Iran’s allies in Syria, claimed that an armed opposition organization called Ahrar al-Najran (Free Ones of Najran) had been formed in the region by these local, anti-Saudi tribal forces (Shaam Times [Damascus], June 18; Fars News [Tehran], June 15; YouTube, June 15). Pro-Iran media also claimed that the movement had captured a military base, shot down a Saudi helicopter, engaged in numerous clashes with government forces and also set up an organization called “The Youth of Najran” (Fars News, July 2; Fars News, July 1). In addition, these media sources claimed that the Saudi Air Force was conducting air strikes against Najrani armed opposition groups belonging to the Ahrar al-Najran movement (Fars News, July 22; Tasnim News Agency [Tehran], July 2). There has been no independent corroboration of any of these events, however. Moreover, since summer, Iranian claims of domestic Saudi opposition forces in Najran have tailed off. This suggests either that such forces, if they existed, have become less active, or that Iran’s government decided that promoting such propaganda were no longer in its interests.
South Yemeni Secession Threat
Further complicating the Saudi-led coalition’s efforts in Yemen is the re-emergence of an emboldened Southern Yemeni secessionist movement. This is primarily being driven by local anti-Houthi Popular Resistance Forces, stylizing themselves as the Southern Resistance; these forces are more loudly seeking support for the independence of South Yemen, which was forcibly reunified with North Yemen after the country’s 1994 civil war, through the assistance of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, even if this move runs contrary to the Saudi-led coalition’s aim to restore a strong, pro-Saudi national government in Sana’a (al-Jazeera, November 29, 2014; YouTube, December 23, 2013; YouTube, March 19, 2013).
As the Saudi and UAE-led coalition seeks to build a Houthi-resistant, quasi-national government structure in southern Yemen, these local calls from prominent southern Yemeni actors for secession (and a growing rejection of President Hadi, a unitary Yemeni state or even a devolved federalism structure), present a growing policy dilemma for Saudi Arabia (Aden al-Ghad, September 16; Aden al-Ghad, September 8; al-Akhbar [Beirut], January 30; YouTube, March 25, 2013). As the necessary local partners for the Saudi and UAE-led coalition against the Houthis and allies forces, the Southern Resistance militias and the overall southern secessionist movement, which is generally strongly anti-Houthi, and anti-Saleh, cannot easily be dismissed, and are reportedly being engaged actively at least by pragmatic policymakers in the UAE, who understand the need to address southern pro-separatist sensibilities and related grievances (al-Youm al-Saba [Aden], September 15; Yemen Akhbar [Aden], September 14; Ababiil [Aden], September 3; YouTube, September 23, 2014). Saudi Arabia, therefore, finds itself in a quandary in southern Yemen too: it needs to build up southern forces to counter the Houthis; however, by doing this, the strength of southern separatists, whose long-term goals run counter to its own, is increased.
The new Saudi monarch, King Salman, has embarked on a high-risk gamble in launching a military intervention to defeat what Saudi Arabia perceives as Iranian expansionism in Saudi Arabia’s traditional client state, and to reinstall Hadi as president. Thus far, the Saudi-led coalition has succeeded in driving the Houthis out of Aden and many areas of southern Yemen. It has faltered, however, in its broader aims of removing the Houthis from the capital, while also being hampered by the continued Houthi pressure on Saudi Arabia’s southwestern border regions and by the South Yemen separatist movement’s renewed activism as a result of the Saudi-led intervention.
Saudi policymakers therefore find themselves at a crossroads. On one hand, they are clearly tempted to continue to press boldly, and potentially dangerously, towards Sana’a in hope of restoring Yemen as a unitary, centrally-ruled Saudi client state, with President Hadi at its helm. However, the potential unwillingness of the Southern Resistance militias to advance into northern Yemen to displace the Houthis, seems likely to severely limit these ambitions. Adding to the pressure are the Houthi cross-border attacks and the potential for a prolonged conflict to reignite long dormant tribal, regional and sectarian irredentist feeling in southwestern Saudi Arabia.
As a result, if Saudi Arabia wants to end the conflict quickly, unless the government is willing to commit large numbers of their own forces in north Yemen, or to find some other way to mobilize significant Yemeni forces against the Houthis, the Saudis may have to recognize some form of Houthi self-rule in the north, and a significantly devolved form of government in southern Yemen. Alternatively, and even more radically, they may have to acquiesce to an independent South Yemen that may be favored by some pragmatists in the UAE government, and which would at least secure them a strong pro-Saudi bastion in southern Yemen.
None of these options are particularly palatable to Saudi Arabia, which is loath to see a de facto Houthi state on its southern border, or to set a precedent of partitioning a fellow Arab state along quasi-sectarian lines, with all the implications this holds for Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. The most obvious alternative, however, is for the Saudi military to plunge deeper into the Yemeni morass, and to take on the battle-hardened and highly capable Houthi guerrillas on their own turf, with all the risks this entails to Saudi Arabia’s finances, to its military and to its regional and international prestige.
James Brandon is a political and security risk analyst. Nicholas A. Heras is a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and an associate fellow for The Jamestown Foundation.
1. Madawi al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pgs. 266-267.
2. For more information on Ismaili Shi’a protests in Najran, and the Saudi state security forces’ harsh reaction, see: “The Ismailis of Najran: Second-Class Saudi Citizens,” Human Rights Watch, September 3, 2008, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/saudiarabia0908web.pdf.