Saudi Arabia’s UK-supplied Eurofighter Typhoons are playing a central role in Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen.
While Syria’s and Iraq’s wars ground on, the Saudis would dramatically open up a new front in the regional war: Yemen.
State authority and security in Yemen had rapidly deteriorated over the course of 2013-14 as the political stalemate continued. Armed skirmishes broke out across several fault lines. The Houthis fought against Islah-affiliated Islamists, while Hirak southern secessionists fought with the Yemeni army. AQAP seized considerable territory, while unidentified forces (often blamed on Saleh) escalated attacks on oil pipelines and infrastructure. Through all of this, the UN’s Jamal Benomar continued to doggedly pursue a National Dialogue, which would provide the foundation for a legitimate new Yemeni constitution which might finally put its fractured pieces back together.
That process ended abruptly in September 2014, when Houthis swept down from northern Yemen into the capital Sanaa and seized power. President Hadi, placed under house arrest, announced his resignation as president, but then rescinded the resignation after his escape to Aden. Hadi evocatively described the Houthi takeover of Sanaa not only as an attempted coup but also as identical to the ISIS seizure of Mosul. He blamed the Houthi advance on the support of Iran, an argument widely shared by the GCC leaders who had backed Hadi’s government. The Houthis continued their advance far beyond their natural home, seizing Aden too. Hadi barely escaped and was smuggled into exile in Riyadh. The carefully managed Yemeni transition lay in tatters. Saudi Arabia took in Hadi and defended his legitimacy as Yemen’s president, vowing to resist the Houthi advances.
How did the Houthis end up in Sanaa? There was far more to it than simple Iranian expansionism. The Houthi coup, as it came to be termed in much of the Arab media, followed directly from a series of long-recognized fatal flaws in the GCC transitional framework. The amnesty granted to Ali Abdullah Saleh left him free to scheme against his successor, a role he played with customary ruthlessness and brilliance. The National Dialogue over federalism posed a direct threat to Houthi core interests. And the exclusion of protestors and youth voices undermined popular consent to the Hadi government.
The nearly year-long National Dialogue, led by UN Representative Jamal Benomar, made real efforts to include Yemen’s many stakeholders and constituencies, and involved frequent, long consultative sessions. In contrast to the hastily arranged 2012 presidential election, the National Dialogue was an extended, sincere effort to construct a consensus around a long-fragmented Yemeni polity. When it reached its decision point in January 2014, it had made significant process on a wide range of difficult issues. The timeline stipulated one year for the implementation of the recommendations, setting January 2015 as a critical deadline.
But it had failed to resolve one key issue of contention: Hadi’s determination to establish a new regional federal structure for Yemen. Hadi reportedly believed that such decentralization would be the best way to break Saleh’s networks of patronage, and, secondarily, to respond positively to Houthi and southern complaints of domination from the center under Saleh. In practice, the federal provisions seemed to threaten the autonomy and resources of the provinces. The proposed new federal regions divided the constituencies of the Hirak and the Houthis alike, while creating the conditions for the central government to exploit oil revenues and to divide potential opponents. The proposed National Dialogue framework intersected with local and regional interests in ways which should by now sound familiar. The old elite which had grown wealthy and powerful under Saleh worried about any changes which might threaten their privileges. This made them easy prey for the machinations of Saleh, who was keen to prevent Hadi from consolidating his authority over a new institutional structure. Saleh himself retained vast wealth and a network of associates spanning the Gulf (and the globe), which could underpin a challenge to the shaky new Yemeni government.
The Houthis took a dim view of calls for their disarmament. As the Crisis Group succinctly summarized their views in the spring of 2014, “With their foes . . . determined to violently halt the peaceful spread of their ideas, they insist on retaining their weapons, at least for now, to prevent a state controlled by their enemies from crushing them.” This is the same logic which motivated Libya’s Revolutionary Brigades, Syria’s armed opposition, and other similarly positioned groups. In the months following the conclusion of the National Dialogue, the Houthis expanded their position on their home by winning a series of battles against the Yemeni army and local competitors. They also attracted some degree of political support beyond their local base by positioning themselves as avatars of discontent with the machinations of the traditional Yemeni elite. They had unequivocally rejected the November 2011 GCC agreement, which granted immunity to Saleh, a position popular with many revolutionaries.
Their expansion increased hostilities with an alarmingly wide range of Yemeni political actors. It also set off warning lights in Riyadh, still fuming from its humiliating defeat at Houthi hands in 2009. Talks between Abd al-Malik al-Houthi and President Hadi in April 2014 went nowhere. The Saudis were fiercely opposed to any suggestion of compromise. Riyadh had always viewed Yemen as well within its sphere of influence (whether or not Yemenis agreed), but now increasingly viewed it within the wider regional arena as part of the struggle with Iran.
For the Saudi agenda to succeed, however, the Houthis needed to be stripped of their revolutionary identity and successfully framed as a Shi’ite movement backed by Iran. Only that would allow Riyadh to assemble not only a regional coalition, but also a viable grouping of Yemeni forces, ranging from the Islah movement to southern secessionists, in support of their “legitimate” president. Saleh’s efforts on this front had always failed, but by 2014, in the shadow of Syria and the coming nuclear deal, the regional context had changed dramatically and sectarian labels had become far harder to escape.
Whatever the case, in March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia began a major military campaign against the Houthis under the American-style tagline “Operation Decisive Storm.” This campaign was driven in part by the shocking events on the ground in Yemen. It was also, to some degree, an extension of the UAE-Egyptian cooperation on air strikes against Libya, which some Gulf officials viewed as a successful test run for a viable test of a model of effective Arab action and the construction of a joint Arab force, discussed at the March 2015 Arab Summit.
But it was also intimately related to the Iran nuclear agreement. The Lebanese journalist Ghassan Cherbel tellingly tagged it “Operation Restore Balance.” Gulf officials viewed it as essential to respond to the potential nuclear deal by demonstrating power and resolve elsewhere against Iran’s regional aspirations—and, crucially, to compel the United States to demonstrate its support for the campaign as a signal to Iran of its continued commitment to the Gulf alliance. As the well-connected Saudi pundit Nawaf Obeid explained, “Ever since the Obama administration embarked on its disastrous policy of rapprochement with Iran, Saudi Arabia has been working to establish a new defense posture whereby it can use its own military assets—not those of traditional allies like the US, UK or France—to defend its interests. Thus, when Iran attempted to overthrow the democratically elected government in Yemen, a key ally of Riyadh, Saudi-led forces were deployed.”
The media component to this war bears attention. Saudi Arabia fully mobilized its formidable media assets to support the campaign, with al-Arabiya in particular broadcasting a ceaseless barrage of positive news and opinion. Many Saudi journalists embraced their role supporting the campaign rather than as neutral observers. For instance, in April, the leading Saudi journalist Daoud Shriyan observed that “from the start Decisive Storm has faced propaganda from regional media supportive of the Iranian project. How can we respond to these lies?” The notion that the media’s role might not be to support the government’s war was not even raised.
The air campaign diverted most of the GCC participation from the ISIS campaign and devastated Yemen’s cities. It nonetheless soon proved inadequate. Month after month of air strikes and naval blockade created mounting humanitarian catastrophe but little political or military progress. Recognizing the need for manpower, the coalition reached out to multiple potential sources of troops. Saudi Arabia worked assiduously to mobilize the tribal and personal networks which it had cultivated over decades in order to put together sufficient local forces to fight and then to control liberated territory.
Egypt seemed to many in the Gulf the obvious source of an effective ground force, but Cairo deflected requests about entering the Yemen war. While Saudis argued that Egyptians should be the most eager to join their war, Egyptians did not seem to agree. The calls for Egyptian participation in the Yemen war provoked an unusually sharp public divide in the Sisi-era political elite. While the military regime understood well the extent of its dependence on its UAE and Saudi backers, it faced considerable public skepticism about a military role in Yemen. The historical memory of the disastrous Egyptian war in Yemen in 1962-67 had long hovered in the back of the Egyptian national narrative. Terrible memories of Egyptian conscripts dying pointlessly in Yemen’s mountains had scarred a generation, albeit with little public commemoration or acknowledgment. It was not common in the tightly controlled and highly nationalist post-coup media to see headlines as openly critical of Sisi as those which began appearing about Yemen.
The timing of the GCC pressure on Egypt to join the Yemeni war could not have been worse. Egypt’s uneasy rulers were facing deep political instability, an escalation of the long-running insurgency in the Sinai, the collapse of next-door Libya, and a troubling growth of low-level attacks and assassinations in Cairo itself. Even worse from an Egyptian perspective was the inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islah movement in the Saudi Yemen war coalition, and the general easing of Saudi hostility to the Brotherhood under King Salman. The well-connected Saudi journalist Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed ominously grumbled about Egyptian reticence towards the Yemen war: “Egypt is big but it should remember that it needs regional friends.” With Egyptian forces not forthcoming, the coalition turned to the Sudan. President Omar Bashir was happy to offer some ten thousand troops to serve as peacekeepers, presumably in exchange for Gulf help in easing his international isolation. The role of an indicted war criminal did not seem problematic.
In early August, the Saudi-led coalition scored its first major victory by establishing a foothold in Aden and facilitating the temporary return of the Hadi government to Yemeni soil. In a major departure for its traditional military policy, the UAE landed some three thousand of its own forces for the battle, and then left a substantial presence in place to police the newly liberated territory. Accounts of a delirious reception by grateful Adenis and the flying of Emirati flags were eerily reminiscent of the Libyan welcome for Qatari forces in early 2011. Few who remembered Qatar’s Libyan trajectory could be optimistic about the enduring popularity of the UAE’s presence in Yemen.
Advancing towards Sanaa proved every bit as challenging as critics of the war had warned. Despite the cheerful parade of propaganda about impending victory, the reality was that the Saudi coalition’s advances stalled. Liberating Aden from a widely hated Houthi occupation was one thing, but moving into contested or Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen was far different. To compensate, the coalition escalated its air strikes, causing tremendous damage to little evident military purpose. The humanitarian toll of the Saudi-led campaign was daunting indeed—and put a stark spotlight on Saudi rhetoric about Syria, for those who cared to draw the comparisons.
By September, it was obvious to a growing number of thoughtful Saudis and Emiratis that the war had bogged down into a quagmire. The independent-minded Emirati political scientists Abd al-Khaleq Abdulla, in the course of defending the war, acknowledged that many had come to “warn against an unwinnable war in the poor, unstable and sharply divided tribal Yemen, where a military victory is a mirage. Even if the UAE and the Saudi-led coalition liberate Sana’a and the legitimate government is restored to power, the military victory comes at an unbearable human cost and a bitter political defeat.”
This is the way of quagmires. It is always easier to get in than it is to get out, and the Saudis were now discovering yet again ancient lessons about the limits of military power.