Caveats!  “Bad” on this website is rarely used for moral condemnation.  So there’s that.

“Bad” here refers to the fact that Saudi Arabia cannot win its war in Yemen.  Best case scenario is they escape with their tails between their legs.  Worst case?  The cracking of the Saudi state and chaos beyond imagining.

But let’s do some wayback and remember how we got here in the first place.

The cliff notes!

  • Yemen is the only Arabian country with enough rainfall to sustain farms, which means it has a bigger population than the rest of Arabia and a much older civilization as well.
  • Being on a route between India and Europe meant getting all the ideas and religions of the traders who passed through, including Shi’a Islam, which eventually changed into the Yemeni Zaiydi.
  • This contrasts sharply with the regimes now invading Yemen, who are universally Sunni, run far newer states, and have, minus Saudi, much smaller populations.
  • This all adds up to invariable defeat for the Saudi-led coalition, but the question remains how much blowback they must suffer.
  • The brittleness of their political systems is what should cause worry, since they can’t absorb geopolitical shocks like military defeats as well as democracies, and that may end up leading to some terrible chaos.

So, Yemen, eh?

Once, Arabia was green; then the ice age ended, and it went to sand.  But not the highlands of Yemen, whose mountains capture just enough moisture to sustain farming.  This means urban civilization in Yemen is very, very old: many of the early Muslim soldiers during the Islamic conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries were Yemeni.

Yemen’s highlands ain’t bad. (Source: wikimedia.org)

But owing to its highland status, Yemen has often been difficult to unify, with the northwestern highlands hosting independent tribes that sweep down into the south to upset whoever’s applecart happens to be in Aden.  The southeast, meanwhile, is open, desert, and full of Bedouin, who have never been inclined to rule things.  Out there al-Qaeda in Yemen operates most freely.

Since Yemen has long sat on trade routes between India and Europe (via Oman), it’s long had funny ideas stopping by and occasionally staying.  One of those was Zaiydi Islam, a Shi’a variant, which now makes up a full third of Yemen’s large population.

Such geographical and social diversity has made for endless instability in Yemen, which isn’t so well off that it can empower a state to set order to its chaos for very long.  Yemen is alas victim of many an intervention: from the Romans to the British to the Egyptians in the 1960s, Yemen rarely is left alone for long, sitting as it does on that now ever-vital strategic trade route that eventually leads to the Suez Canal.

And that must be contrasted with its would-be conquerors, none of whom have the chops to control Yemen.

The GCC is extremely wealthy and well-armed, but it’s forces are overpaid and undertrained, with only elite units capable of operating.  That’s a deep disadvantage against the long-warring tribes of Yemen, who have forgotten more civil wars and regular wars than GCC soldiers remember of training exercises.  While the Yemeni are not well-armed, they are well-honed in guerrilla warfare, and the Houthi forces are no exception, as noted when the Houthis struck an Emirati base last week and killed an unprecedented 45 UAE soldiers.

To fully control Yemen would require a commitment of cash and troops beyond the GCC.  While Saudi Arabia has a large army and population base, no other GCC state cracks the 2 million native population mark; states like Qatar and the UAE are utterly dominated by foreign labor.  While there’s plenty of debate over the ratio of soldier to citizen for an effective occupation against an insurgent army, if one is generous and say it’s 10 to 1, you’d still need around 2.5 million troops to really consolidate control of Yemen’s 25 million.  Saudi Arabia’s army is only 227,000 troops.

Obviously, the GCC coalition is aware of these deficiencies, which is why their strategy is to restore the most recently ousted president, Rabbuh Mansoor Hadi, back in Sa’naa.  Ideally, they’d then let him and his faction do the heavy lifting while they supported him with a much lighter touch.

Like that’ll happen.

The newness of GCC states shouldn’t be lost in this discussion.  None of the GCC states have much experience in war, which of course translates to debacles like the attack last week.  But worse than that, GCC states have very little idea how much political blowback they’ll receive from their citizens as the bodies start rolling home.  GCC propaganda around Yemen is very thin: most can see it’s a powergrab by Saudi Arabia, who is forcing its vassals in the GCC to send tokens of loyalty in the form of troops and warplanes.  This war is meant to send a message to Iran, and victory should scare Iran off from getting ambitious elsewhere.

If we learned anything from the 1990s, it’s that you can’t use your air force to win a cheap win. (Source: Businessinsider.com)

The humanitarian disaster of the war is obvious; the strategic gains for most GCC states is almost nil, since their security is guaranteed not by Saudi Arabia (who they have reason to fear) but the United States.  It’s anybody’s guess how long it will take for most GCC citizens to see this a war for their rulers and not for them, but I’ll venture it won’t be long, especially in more advanced countries like the UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar.

And that’s where it could get ugly.

GCC citizens are kept loyal by cradle-to-grave benefits, but will they accept that social contract should they have to start jumping into the grave sooner?   If humanity is any guide, such sacrifice can’t be taken for granted forever.  GCC citizens’ sense of nationhood has grown in leaps and bounds over the past 40 years, and the moment is rapidly approaching where people will stop thinking their rulers are the nation and that they can get along just fine without them.  That moment will come sooner when their leaders make blatant mistakes, as the war in Yemen now is.

Within the UAE, where seven royal families federate the country, such instability could be channeled into a royal swap for the country’s presidency: Abu Dhabi’s Al-Nayhans who have double downed on the war could be usurped by Dubai’s al-Maktoums, for instance.  Other countries have fewer options: there is no Saudi Arabia without the House of Saud.

That last bit is the scariest, for Saudi Arabia is a brittle place that is having a hard time adapting to the 21st century.  To a certain extent, its benefiting from the existence of the Islamic State, as its toughest conservative forces are being siphoned to the battlefields of the caliphate, leaving Saudi Arabia just a bit more moderate.  Saudi Arabia is, after all, pushing elections for later this year: meaningless elections, but elections nonetheless.

Should a large chunk of Saudi subjects decide the royals are wasting their lives in the highlands of Yemen, a spark could be lit that might burn the whole kingdom.  Deflated oil prices, largely because Saudi Arabia is determined to kill off shale oil in America, makes it all the harder to slather oil cash on dissent.  Differences within the kingdom, long held at bay through bribery and a handful of elite security services, could come roaring into the open, and Saudi Arabia is not prepared for such a day.

Will Yemen be the graveyard of the GCC?  Perhaps not, but they will not escape without dire consequence.

Either the GCC will be discredited as a military force, emboldening its Iranian and jihadi enemies and forcing the U.S. back into the breach, or the blowback will be so severe it will break up the GCC itself.  There is no win for the Saudi and the GCC, just less terrible ways of losing.

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6 thoughts on “Saudi Arabia’s No Good, Very Bad War in Yemen

  1. Iran threatens other GCC countries as much as Saudi Arabia, and their Sunni citizens as much as their rulers. So, it appears to me, the Sunni GCC citizens have as much reason to support an attemted rollback of the Shia in Yemen as do their rulers. (I don’t know how much reason that is, though.) Do they not think this way in your opinion?

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    1. I see the problem in two ways: both regimes, Saudi and Iranian, are oppressive, so for many ordinary citizens on both sides of the Gulf, the question is whether they’d like their oppressor to be Shi’a or Sunni. I very much understand many Sunni citizens would prefer a Sunni ruler in most circumstances, but I think in practice there isn’t a huge amount of difference between rulers and ruled in Saudi and Iran. (Other GCC states, like the UAE, are very different.)

      That being said, it’s hard to see Iran gaining much strategic leverage in a chaotic and unstable country like Yemen, even if the Houthis retain control of the capital. If anything, Yemen could well become yet another open sore in Iranian strategy much like both Syria and Iraq, where Iranian allies are unable to control the whole country and Iran must spend great deals of wealth and blood to prop them up.

      In my mind, Saudi Arabia and the GCC should have kept the Yemen war to a proxy level, not beginning a full invasion. By launching a ground invasion, the GCC now owns the conflict, and anything but total victory will diminish both their soft and hard power. Alas for them, as I wrote, a total victory for the GCC is impossible.

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      1. The Houthis, as proxies of Iran, represent a mortal threat to the Saudi Arabia, which will not be tolerated. Everyone underestimates the Saudis. The fact is that the Saudis have decided to solve the Houthi problem once and for all and completely expel all Iranian influence from the Arabian Peninsula regardless what it takes. They have an air and sea blockade of Yemen and using air power they are slowly wearing down Houthi forces by destroying irreplaceable heavy weapons, ammunition, etc. The ground war, which has been going on for less than 75 days is progressing in the Coalition’s favor. The Houthi forces are beginning to be crowded into the Northwest corner of Yemen around Sanaa and Sadaa. As their territory shrinks the Coalition airpower will become even more effective. Recently, the Coalition has captured major ports along the Red Sea coast, which will start limiting food and fuel to the Houthi population and decimate them. The Saudis are prepared for the long run and will keep up the pressure militarily, as well as on the civilian population until the Houthis are totally defeated, their leaders and their Iranian advisers captured. They will face enhanced interrogations, trials and executions.

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      2. This sounds too much like GCC propaganda; unfortunately, half-successes are not the same thing as success, and the Kingdom lacks the power to settle accounts in Yemen in its favor permanently. Should they dispose of the Houthis – unlikely, but should they – another anti-Saudi force will emerge as soon as they withdraw. Regardless, to defeat the Houthis will require an ideological war that Saudi Arabia is not prepared to wage, not can it afford to even if the King really wanted to.

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