Although the Yemen conflict looks more successful from a Saudi perspective than it did a few months ago, it is still a stalemate. A de facto southern entity had arguably been in existence since Yemeni unification in 1990, but the Saudi-led war in Yemen has deepened the dissolution of what remains of the Yemeni state and, in effect, created two capitals. The nominal Yemeni president, Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, who had been heading a government in exile from Saudi Arabia, has been in Aden since Eid al-Adha in late September 2015. It remains to be seen whether Hadi has enough Saudi support and loyal armed men to remain in the south for much longer.
Saudi Arabia sees Iran as responsible for all its security threats, including the Houthis in Yemen. As it argues, by restricting Sunni groups’ strategic options in Yemen and elsewhere in the region, Iran makes the Islamic State and al-Qaeda more attractive to locals. This is partly a problem of perception. Saudi Arabia overstates Iran’s capacities and does not believe its own propaganda that it is able to counter it. It is also partly a problem of Saudi Arabia’s own making. The kingdom has no strategic approach to national security, preferring short-term tactical alliances and the comfort of familiar, ill-researched, and exaggerated assumptions about what Iran and its allies are up to—and what they ultimately want. These tactical motivations encourage shifting alliances that can alienate friends and create bigger problems for the kingdom, in Yemen and elsewhere.
The current Saudi leadership has been more decisive regarding Yemen than other major foreign policy issues such as Syria and Iraq. Yet it is still not clear what the ultimate goal of the Saudi-led air war over its southern neighbor actually is. Over the six months since the Saudi-led coalition began its military campaign in March, even the official goals the Saudi military spokesman announces to the world’s media have changed. Saudi Arabia’s key stated aim is still to back Hadi as president and consolidate his control over the entire country—but it seems that the Kingdom now envisages a loose, albeit somehow unitary, state that accommodates but does not appease the Houthis or the secessionist Southerners with whom Riyadh has a temporary alignment.
In the meantime, this focus on President Hadi—and the concurrent vacuum created by the Saudi intervention—has allowed al-Qaeda, a force with a greater proven ability than the Houthis to hurt Saudi Arabia, to gain territorial strength in Yemen. And if, as Saudi Arabia plans, the Houthis are forced to retreat from Sanaa, oil-rich Marib, and Taiz back toward Saada, the Houthis will also become the border threat Saudi Arabia claimed they were before their ground invasion of Yemen in 2009–10.
The Saudi air force cannot even secure its primary goal, maintaining Hadi in power in either Aden or Sanaa. And if Saudi ground troop numbers in Yemen remain limited—likely given troops’ modest fighting experience and the domestic political backlash from casualties—this war could run on and on without defeating the Houthis, leaving them to pose a real danger to Saudi southern border security. Even if Emirati and Qatari troops, and possibly some Egyptian forces, join the limited numbers of Saudi troops, they will remain focused on defending Hadi and his allies rather than eliminating the Houthis as a military force. Egypt is believed to have sent approximately 700 ground troops to Yemen, but its willingness to do more on the ground is constrained by its cool relations with Riyadh over the Muslim Brotherhood and Syria. Neither former King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud nor his close friend Abdel Fattah el-Sisi really thought through what their shared commitment to a joint Arab regional fighting force would mean in terms of how many Egyptian soldiers would be required to fight in Yemen, and both subsequently backed away from having a large number of Egyptian troops in Yemen or anywhere else in Arabia.
Prior to the Arab Spring, Riyadh was close to the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islah Party. But in March 2014 King Abdullah declared the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) Saudi Arabia’s public enemy number one, wherever they existed, seeming to portray the MB as an even greater threat than Iran. This helped solidify Saudi relations with the Egyptian military, which had forcibly taken over the reins of power from the Brotherhood. But applying a uniform anti-MB policy weakened Saudi Arabia’s weight in Yemen. The al-Ahmar family, who held significant leadership positions in Islah and within the Hashed tribal federation, went from being the recipients of Riyadh’s generous patronage to being personae non grata. Under King Salman, a necessary pragmatism toward the MB throughout the region ensued, although it has only had a substantial impact in Yemen, where the MB is both a strong armed and political force. So when the Saudi-led war began, Islah and the Hashed leadership were back on Riyadh’s payroll.
Saudi Arabia’s aerial war in Yemen and its provision of armored vehicles to pro-Hadi forces do not come cheap. Although Saudi Arabia has easy access to bonds and international credit lines, oil revenues continue to be relatively low while the large, young population maintains high expectations for government spending. Reports suggest capital expenditure is already drying up and that the January 2016 budget will better reflect these fiscal realities. Perhaps surprisingly, anecdotal evidence also suggests that spending on big-ticket military items is not happening.1 Mohammed bin Salman—the defense minister, deputy crown prince, and favored son of the king, in charge of Saudi Arabia’s campaigns in Yemen—has other things on his mind, and is concentrating efforts on issues that (to him) matter most.
Some members of the Saudi elite discreetly criticize Mohammed bin Salman’s war strategy (or lack of it) in Yemen.2 Most security strategy is coordinated by the new Council of Political and Security Affairs, formed in January 2015 and headed by his cousin Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, also the interior minister. The council, which also includes Mutaib bin Abdullah, the head of the National Guard, meets fairly regularly to discuss political and security affairs. Ostensibly Mohammed bin Nayef heads this body, making him a kind of undeclared prime minister (a title formally held by the king). However, while he retains great power over domestic security (and international and domestic respect for his role in it), he does not seem to have the authority, despite being heir apparent, to direct Saudi external policy, particularly over Yemen. In Syria Mohammed bin Nayef seems to retain the authority that the United States encouraged him to assume over the funding, arming, and intelligence of rebel groups, but a key security and intelligence ally was sacked recently and it is not clear if he can retain even tactical weight in this file. He certainly is not able to coordinate strategy, whether in Syria, Iraq, or Yemen.
Mohammed bin Nayef is widely believed inside the Kingdom to have opposed the Saudi decision to launch an air war in Yemen. But there is little to suggest that the crown prince will think it worth trying to influence the king against his favorite son, so Mohammed bin Salman’s short-sighted policies in Yemen are likely to persist. Riyadh will continue to “keep on keepin’ on”—both in this hot war in Yemen and with fighting several proxy conflicts at the same time.
Neil Partrick is the editor of and main contributor to Saudi Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation (IB Tauris, forthcoming January 2016).
1. Interview with a reliable insider
2. Based on author’s interviews