Saudi Arabia’s Quagmire

On his second day of taken on the office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed visits Liberia.

Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed (SRSG and Head of UNMEER) in a meeting at the Ebola Operation Center (EOC) in Liberia.
 
Monrovia, Liberia, on 6 January 2015
Photo: UNMEER/Simon Ruf

by Thomas W. Lippman

Three months after Saudi Arabia rounded up a few allies and began an intensive bombing campaign against the rebels known as Houthis across the border in Yemen, a conventional wisdom has developed. “It has not worked,” as The New York Times put it in a front-page article, and it probably can’t work because the strategic goals are too murky, the factions are too entrenched, the rivalries are too intense, and the conflict is too complicated to be resolved by a simplistic solution.

After the predictable failure of UN-brokered cease-fire talks in Geneva last week, there is no end in sight to the conflict. UN special envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, a Mauritanian diplomat, will visit Saudi Arabia and Kuwait soon to seek a draft peace proposal that might be presented to the Houthis, a UN spokesman told reporters on Friday. Even as he spoke, the bombing campaign continued, without any greater clarity about its objectives and timetable.

This is one time when the conventional wisdom is probably correct. It seems clear that the Saudis and their partners cannot achieve their stated objectives in Yemen through the air campaign. But they have no other strategy, or at least none that is visible from the outside. Those unhappy facts have now led some analysts to assess the conflict through a wider lens. Given that the Saudi endeavor was fraught with strategic and political risk from the beginning, some analysts now think that in undertaking it the Saudis walked—or flew—into an Iranian trap.

Much Pain, No Saudi Gain

The Houthis’ military advances coincided with developments across Saudi Arabia’s northern border, in Iraq, where the Baghdad government has increasingly deployed Iran-backed Shiite militias in the struggle against the Islamic State. As a result, according to Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA analyst, “the Saudis exaggerate the degree of Iranian control and influence over their Shiite brethren in Iraq and Yemen. The Houthis are not Iranian pawns and Iraqi Shiites are not under Iranian occupation. But in Riyadh’s estimate the Iranian gains are the biggest successes for their Persian rivals since the shah’s fall [in 1979]. The Saudis also fear the Iranians with Iraqi help may try to stoke tensions and violence in Bahrain next.”

Thus with minimal investment of cash, weapons, and personnel in Yemen, Iran took advantage of Saudi Arabia’s profound anti-Iran phobia to lure Riyadh into a prolonged, risky, and very expensive conflict that has inflicted widespread devastation on what was already the poorest Arab country, killed thousands of civilians, and created a humanitarian crisis, to little if any apparent Saudi gain.

“In terms of return on investment,” one Washington analyst says, “Iran is far ahead.”

Far from being subdued, the Houthis have shown recently that they are still capable of taking the conflict across the border into Saudi Arabia itself, with artillery strikes and attacks on police posts. After the Houthis killed three Saudi soldiers last week, a report from the Center for American Progress in Washington observed that “the Houthis seem intent on dragging Saudi into a ground incursion,” which would force the Saudis to confront the Houthis in the rugged, mountainous terrain of their homeland.

Yemen’s Descent

As the Atlantic Council’s Gulf States Analytics newsletter noted, “As a neighboring country, Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in Yemen’s stability, yet the coalition’s ongo­ing military campaign is destroying the vestiges of that very stability.”

A complete breakdown of social order and public services in Yemen could prove disastrous for Saudi Arabia if desperate Yemenis in large numbers fled across the border. A senior United Nations official warned last week that just such a crisis appears imminent.

“Innocent civilians in Yemen are paying a terrible price,” Stephen O’Brien, under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said in a press statement. “They face daily airstrikes, shelling and fighting while medical supplies, fuel and food are running out, and basic services have collapsed…The humanitarian situation in Yemen has been progressively deteriorating by the day.” O’Brien said that “the collapse of basic services and extreme shortages of food and fuel have had a devastating impact across the whole country. More than 21 million people—that’s 80 per cent of the population—now need humanitarian assistance. Health facilities report that over 2,800 people have been killed and 13,000 injured since the violence escalated in March. At least 1,400 civilians have lost their lives; these numbers are likely to be significant underestimates.”

Without specifying to whom he was referring, O’Brien said that “The parties to this conflict show an utter disregard for human life, repeatedly attacking civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, power stations and water installations,”

Even with oil priced at $60 a barrel, Saudi Arabia has the resources to keep up the air campaign indefinitely, especially with material and logistic support from the United States. But to what end? Yemen, one Washington analyst said at a no-attribution closed meeting the other day, “is never going to be a unified Westphalian state.” The only way to stabilize the country, he said, is to pay off or neutralize the tribal leaders who control the various military factions “rather than pretending there is a unitary state.”

At this point it is hard to disagree with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who observed recently, “There is no logic to the [Saudi] operation at all in the first place… Mainly, the problem of Yemen is within Yemen.”

The Disadvantages of Intervention

The original Saudi announcement of the start of the bombing campaign made no mention of Iran. It said that the operation was undertaken at the request of the “legitimate government” of Yemen, headed by President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled Yemen and took refuge in Riyadh after escaping from Houthi captivity. The purpose of the “limited” air campaign was to restore that government to power, the Saudi announcement said. It denounced the Houthis as “a violent extremist militia” and put all the blame for the conflict on them.

But by convincing themselves that the Houthis, who are Zaydi Shiites, were able to seize control of most of Yemen only because they are proxies of Iran, the Saudis misread the situation on the ground, many analysts in Washington and in the Middle East now say. They oversimplified a complex, shifting conflict that is actually several wars at once, involving more than just the Houthis and government forces. The Houthis have the support of rogue Yemeni military units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom Riyadh once supported. At the same time, the Houthis are battling secessionist forces from southern Yemen and the Sunni Muslim extremist group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is also deeply hostile to the Saudi regime.

The current air campaign is not the first time Saudi Arabia has used its air power against the Houthis. A smaller-scale effort in 2009, mostly confined to the border region, did not go well for the Saudis: they took more casualties than they expected and did little to curb the insurgency, which is now far stronger.

Had Saudi Arabia stayed out of the conflict this time, the Houthis might have prevailed over their many rivals to become rulers of Yemen, only to find themselves responsible for governing a country that is destitute and still facing dug-in rivals from assorted Sunni Muslim groups and factions. Yemen has no path to prosperity. Its very young population—65 percent of Yemenis are 24 or younger—is growing fast, and the country was running out of water even before the current conflict began. The Saudis might have been able to watch in satisfaction as the Houthis struggled to provide for a traumatized Yemeni public, most of whom are Sunni Muslims, and cash-strapped Iran found itself obliged give them extensive help.

Instead, as a Reuters dispatch put it, “Riyadh may soon have to face an unpalatable choice: accept the de facto control of its foes over Sanaa and cut a deal, or keep fighting with the risk of Yemen sinking into total chaos, becoming a permanent threat to Saudi security.”

The Saudis have said they are seeking implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2216, adopted in April. That unusually detailed and extensive resolution called on the Houthis to relinquish all territory they seized by force, including the capital, Sanaa. It also insisted that they “relinquish all additional arms seized from military and security institutions, including missile systems,” and “cease all actions that are exclusively within the authority of the legitimate Government of Yemen,” headed by the ousted Hadi. But as long as the Saudi-led bombing campaign and blockade of Yemen’s ports continue, the Houthis have little incentive to comply. And even if they did, the other components of this multi-party war might well continue fighting.

The Risks for the Saudis

Saudi Arabia is one of the best-armed countries in the Middle East. For decades it has used its oil wealth to stock up on advanced military equipment, aircraft, and missiles, mostly purchased from the United States. But before the current Yemen campaign, the kingdom had hardly ever used its armed forces in large-scale engagements outside its own borders.

Now that it is doing so, military analysts say, it is exposing its weakness.

“The Saudis have the weapons and the technical capacity” to project force outside their borders, one said, “but they don’t have the strategic and logistical capabilities.”

The air campaign is a reflection of “a strategically immature Saudi leadership,” said another. Both were speaking under ground rules that precluded identification by name.

The reference to “immature” leadership was directed at Saudi Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a young son of the king who was installed in the post in January after Salman succeeded the late King Abdullah. Prince Mohammed’s age is somewhere between 29 and 34, and he has no military experience. The Yemen campaign, which began on March 25, is the ambitious prince’s first big test.

Eight other Arab nations are participating in the bombing campaign in limited ways, and the United States is providing intelligence and logistical support as well as rescue assistance for downed pilots. How long these partners will stay with the Saudis in the face of political stalemate and humanitarian crisis is not yet clear. Also unclear is how long the Saudi public and officers of the Saudi armed forces will remain supportive in the face of proliferating online videos showing Sunni Muslim casualties in Yemen. The longer the air campaign continues without visible benefit for the kingdom, the greater the risk for King Salman and his favorite son that allies will drop out or their citizens will turn against them.

Photo: Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed

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Thomas Lippman

Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than four decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, and also served as that newspaper's oil and energy reporter. Throughout the 1990s, he covered foreign policy and national security for the Post, traveling frequently to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. In 2003 he was the principal writer on the war in Iraq for Washingtonpost.com. Prior to his work in the Middle East, he covered the Vietnam war as the Washington Post's bureau chief in Saigon. Lippman has authored seven books about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S. – Saudi relations.

4 Comments

  1. Saudi Arabia feels they are cornered and are flailing politically and militarily. Their friends are under pressure from their own people or the extremists. Iraq is gone, Egypt is in shambles, Libya has become a failed state, Jordan is in danger, Bahrain is on the brinks, Yemen is lost, Syria is destroyed and possibly taken over by extremists, IS/AQ are advancing, and their own young population are dissatisfied and on the edge. Saudi king and princes may see the writing on the wall, that their time may be coming to an end. They could be very dangerous and cause much more mayhem and misery to the region.

  2. In fact what these analysts have failed to say is that the Saudis have fallen in Nathanyawho’s trap! Iran has been accusing the Saudis that they’ve been in Zionist’s pocket for many years even before Nathanyawho became the so called PM of Israel. But with Nathanyawho’s lies and false claims against Iran the Saudi relationship with Israel could no longer be in secret and in the back room specially with their cooperation of creating the ISIS to fight Shias in Iraq, Syria and the war against Yemenis Huthies!

  3. I find it laughable when I read comments like: “some analysts now think that in undertaking it the Saudis walked—or flew—into an Iranian trap.”
    Really! “Analysts” in this field are like economist, in my opinion. They change their tune on a day-to-day basis depending on how the blind blows. Well, at least economists look at the numbers before they inform us with their new outlooks. The “analysts” here seem like they are just clutching straws because they can’t find any other explanation. Blame the easy target, Iran.

    I also frowned when I read: “The Saudis also fear the Iranians with Iraqi help may try to stoke tensions and violence in Bahrain next.” Hmm. yes, is that the follow-up tension initially created by a grass-roots movement of the people of Bahrain to have more say in their local politics? Which was then quashed by the Saudi military invasion? I guess Obama isn’t interested in spreading democracy in that area like his predecessor was.

  4. Interesting. Now west is twisting this Saudi paranoia of Iran as the confirmation of Iranian malice ,intrigue,deception ,and abuse of a situation that according to west never threatened Saudi. All these observations are correct excepting that paranoia was forced on Saudi by the west . This also applied to Saudi fear of Iran nukes .itis western politicians,think tanks,and media who have been raising the possibility that Saudi would be nervous . Lo and behold ! Saudi became nervous . Partly out of persuasion,partly pressure from west to make Iranian threat not an Israeli one and partly fear of Saudi royal of losing influence both domestic and international.

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