Saudi Cash Can’t Buy Military Cloutby
In Yemen, hardened rebel fighters uncowed by Saudi bombing
Kingdom’s bid to impose will on region founders in Syria too
Saudi Arabia has better weapons than its enemies in Yemen, no surprise in a war that pits one of the richest Arab countries against the poorest. And still the Saudis are struggling to impose their will.
Several months after his political bosses declared that the campaign in Yemen was almost over, Colonel Massoud Ali al-Shwaf’s border guards come under regular attack. Al-Shwaf is responsible for operations along the frontier in Najran province, where expanses of desert and mountain ravines make it challenging at the best of times to stop infiltration and smuggling. Now he’s also confronted by Yemeni rebels who fire rockets from portable launchers, then bury them under rocks to escape retaliation.
“There’s always engagement,” the colonel said at the Beer Askar base, about 10 miles from the border, adding that his forces had repelled a cross border attack a day earlier. “From the start of the war the threat changed and increased,” al-Shwaf said. “We have the casualties to prove it.”
The wider challenge for Saudi Arabia is to translate oil wealth into greater regional clout, something the country’s youthful leadership has vowed to do. There were few signs of success last year. The Yemen war grinds on; in Syria, Saudi-backed fighters were driven out of their stronghold in Aleppo; Egypt, kept afloat by Saudi Arabia’s dollars, has sometimes seemed reluctant to fall in line with its foreign policy.
And that policy is expensive, when the kingdom is imposing austerity at home as it seeks to rebalance an energy-dependent economy after the oil slump. The government doesn’t disclose the price-tag of its Yemen war, or the extent of support for opposition fighters in Syria. But the conflicts have been a growing burden at a time when plummeting oil revenues have led to a $200 billion decline in Saudi net foreign assets over the last two years. Requests for comment from the Saudi Foreign Ministry weren’t immediately answered.
“The war is costing them financially, at a time that they need to focus funding on restructuring and diversification of their economy,” said James Dorsey, a Saudi specialist and senior fellow in international studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
The conflict in Yemen wasn’t supposed to drag on this long.
Saudi Arabia intervened in March 2015, leading a coalition that’s carried out intensive airstrikes and deployed a limited number of ground troops. It’s trying to reinstate a Yemeni government that enjoys international recognition yet lost control of much of the country to Shiite rebels, known as Houthis and said by the Saudis to have ties with the kingdom’s chief regional rival, Shiite-ruled Iran.
Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince and architect of Saudi transformation plans, said in a March interview that the warring parties in Yemen were making “significant progress” toward resolving their conflict. Since then, peace talks have repeatedly collapsed.
“It’s hard to describe this Saudi intervention as a success,” said Stephen Seche, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen who’s executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “The Saudi bombing campaign has not managed to bring the Houthis to their knees. It has inflicted enormous damage on Yemen’s infrastructure and enormous suffering on the people of the country.”
More than 10,000 Yemenis have been killed or wounded, according to the United Nations, and UNICEF said last month that 2.2 million children are acutely malnourished.
The war’s impact on neighboring Saudi Arabia is minor by comparison. Still, it’s visible in Najran province. The airport remains closed, the thud of artillery is routine, and schools have been closed during the conflict. Houthi missiles regularly strike the city center.
“Their rockets can hit neighborhoods but not targets,” said Border Guard Major Mohammed al-Qahtani, who’s moved his family out of the city for their safety.
The government has spent money on new roads to allow troops to move to the front faster, and new bases to prevent Houthis from attacking Saudi territory.
The war’s public image has changed too. It began just as Prince Mohammed was emerging as the most powerful royal, and commanded widespread support among Saudis happy to see their country play a more assertive role. Government propaganda played up that theme: Billboards in the capital showed fighter jets flying past images of the 31-year-old prince, and state TV broadcast military maneuvers. Such images are rare now.
Even so, “support for the Saudi intervention and the war in general does remain high among the Saudi public,” said Fahad Nazer, who’s a political consultant to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, though he doesn’t speak on its behalf. While there’s “wide sympathy” for Yemen’s humanitarian plight, there’s also a feeling that “the callous disregard that the Houthis have shown for civilians in the kingdom, and in Yemen itself, required a strong response,” Nazer said.
Saudi Arabia says it’s fighting to halt the spread of Iranian influence. Yet the rebels in Yemen -- whose connection with Iran is disputed -- still control much of the country. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian ally, is recapturing territory from Saudi-backed Islamist groups. Egypt may be tilting toward Assad. Even within OPEC, Saudi Arabia’s U-turn in November, agreeing to pare production, won’t be followed by Iran -- which is authorized to boost its own output under the deal.
In Yemen, the Houthi rebels aren’t the only enemy the Saudi forces are fighting. Parts of the Yemeni army take orders from former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who’s formed an alliance with the Houthis, rather than from his Saudi-backed successor. Some of those troops were trained by Americans to combat al-Qaeda, and they’re used for “special missions” against the Saudis, al-Qahtani said.
The Houthis are tough opponents too: They’re seen as skilled and xenophobic mountain fighters, often hooked on the mild narcotic khat, or on amphetamines and whiskey. Houthis have a sideline in drug-smuggling, generating revenue from routes across the Saudi border that helps fund their war effort, Colonel al-Shwaf said.
In the parts of Yemen that Saudi clients do control, Islamic State and al-Qaeda pose a growing threat. An Islamic State suicide bomber killed more than 50 soldiers in the southern city of Aden on Dec. 18.
Saudi allies are expressing unease about the conduct of the war and concern about civilian deaths. After U.K. lawmakers urged a review of the weapons trade with the Saudis, the kingdom announced on Dec. 19 that it will stop using British-made cluster bombs. Last month, the U.S. halted some arms sales: Instead of providing Raytheon-manufactured missile guidance systems, the Americans will focus on improving Saudi targeting practices. And in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is being pressured to cancel an $11 billion deal to sell combat-vehicles to Saudi Arabia.
Secretary of State John Kerry, in the Saudi capital last month, said it’s urgent to bring the Yemen war to a close. Yet there’s relatively little international effort in that direction, by contrast with the multiple though largely unsuccessful attempts at peace in Syria. That leaves Saudi Arabia exposed.
“I am certain many in the Saudi leadership have sleepless nights on Yemen,” said Paul Sullivan, an adjunct professor of security studies at Georgetown University in Washington. “The worst situations are those that drag on and have heavy costs, and no clear solution or ending. War is hell, and Yemen is an especially bad hell.”