The Saudi Town on the Frontline of Yemen's War

  • Najran, few kilometers from frontier, regularly hit by shells
  • Saudis defy budget squeeze to build border reinforcements

In Najran, the thump of artillery reverberates all day across a valley ringed by desert mountains along Saudi Arabia’s southern frontier with Yemen.

Najran, Saudi Arabia

Source: Marka/UIG via Getty Images

Security guards at an archaeological site outside the city barely register the blasts as Saudi land forces fire shells across the border. Like many in Najran, they’ve gotten used to the daily reality of a war that most Saudis only see on their TV screens, if at all.

For most of the nine-month conflict, the frontlines have been far south of the kingdom’s borders, around cities like Taiz and Aden, where the Saudis and their coalition partners pushed out Houthi rebels seen as allies of Iran. On the Saudi side, it’s only in Najran -- even if on a far smaller scale -- that war is having a direct impact.

The city’s airport is closed, forcing residents to travel almost 300 kilometers (186 miles) to the nearest alternative. Schools open then shut again, depending on the fighting. Once-busy markets are empty. Across the border, swaths of Yemen have been heavily bombed, leaving thousands of civilian casualties and refugees.

Failed Talks

“None of the people in Najran like this war,” said Hassan al-Wadee, a 57-year-old man whose shop sells the curved Yemeni daggers knowns as jambiyas. “We want this war to end.”

Efforts to halt the fighting have made little progress. UN-brokered peace talks resumed this month but a cease-fire quickly broke down, like earlier attempts, with each side accusing the other of breaching it. Another round of talks is due to start on Jan. 14 in Ethiopia.

The war is also a political test for the kingdom’s coming man, Deputy Crown Prince Prince Mohammed bin Salman. As defense minister, he’s in charge of it and stands to lose face if it fails.

For Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, the fighting is hampering efforts to rein in spending, with crude prices barely a third of their 2013 average. Saudi rulers are burning through savings to maintain economic growth, and will probably run a 20 percent budget deficit this year, according to the International Monetary Fund and economist surveys.

Lion’s Share

The coalition is spending $200 million a day on air, ground and sea operations in Yemen, David Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington, estimated this month. While there’s no official data on how costs are split up, outside observers suspect the Saudis -- the driving force behind a coalition that also includes the United Arab Emirates, as well as other nations playing a lesser role -- pick up the lion’s share.

QuickTake Yemen’s Fault Lines

On the highway between Najran and Abha, to the northwest, war spending is evident. Information Ministry employees point to dozens of new army encampments, built to stop the Houthis from attacking border posts. Trucks pulling military vehicles crawl up the steep passes, as forces rotate along the frontier area.

Across the border in Yemen, local resident Mohammed Ismail says the Saudis are shelling almost every hour.

“The Houthis are responding with mortars,” he said by phone. “They sometimes carry out attacks inside Saudi territory but withdraw under heavy shelling and airstrikes.”

Frankincense Trade

Najran is only a few kilometers from the border, and the other side is held by Houthi rebels and tribes loyal to them. Skirmishes have occurred since the war began in March and are now routine.

Rockets fired by the rebels regularly land in Najran’s center, eight months after the coalition’s spokesman said that most of the Houthi’s ammunition had been destroyed and their missile capabilities neutralized. Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri described attacks on the border as “isolated operations.”

Southern Saudi Arabia offers “the charm of heritage, monuments and pristine nature,” according to tourist brochures. But hotels are empty and there were no visitors at the ancient city of al-Ukhdud, where frankincense traders once passed on their way from Yemen to Mecca, Medina and the Levant. It’s mentioned in the Koran as the site of a massacre of Christians in 525 AD.

“We don’t have tourists any more, none at all,” said Mohammed Hussain, the manager of Najran Tours.

Yemeni Customs

A resident of Najran with a jambiya tucked in his belt.

Photographer: Glen Carey/Bloomberg

The city, its population and its mud-brick architecture are as much Yemeni as Saudi. Local dress codes are different from Riyadh: the traditional white robe is less in evidence, and people wear jambiyas tucked in their belts. The staple food is Yemeni, too: Aseed, a dumpling-like dish made from flour and spices.

Najran was home to one of the peninsula’s Jewish communities, about 200 strong, before the Saudis captured it in 1934 -- with the help of a loan from Standard Oil of California, which Saudi leaders used to buy weapons and form a regular army, according to “The History of Saudi Arabia” by Alexei Vassiliev. By 1949, the Jewish population had fled -- to Yemen.

Misfer al-Wadee

Photographer: Glen Carey/Bloomberg

In his shop, al-Wadee pointed to a few older daggers he said were made by Jewish artisans. Sales are down, he says. For his 18-year-old son Misfer, being out of school is a disruption that his father uses to teach him his trade. “One week I’m at school, the next I’m at the shop,” he said, resigned to his changed routine.

Al-Wadee said he hopes the Saudis win the war, defeating what he says is Iranian aggression across the border. “I am asking God to help the Al Sauds,” he said.

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