The Saudi regime is notoriously adept at funding wars, but exceptionally poor at fighting them.
On March 25, a massive aerial bombing campaign began against Zaidi Houthi rebels who had recently assumed control of Yemen’s capital and forced its U.S. and Saudi-backed president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, to flee first to the southern port city of Aden and then to Riyadh.
This is the second Saudi attack on Yemen—the Arab world’s poorest country bordering one of its richest—in less than six years. “Operation Scorched Earth” was launched by the Yemeni government against the Houthis in August 2009. In November of that year, Saudi troops amassed on the border and began shelling Saada governorate in northwest Yemen where the rebels were based.
The Saudi offensive creased tens of thousands of internally displaced civilians, teeming refugee camps and rampant malnutrition. The Houthis, in the face of overwhelming firepower and far worse off then than today, nevertheless kept Saudi troops at bay and inflicted higher than expected causalities on their forces. Six years later and with nearly all Arab countries aligned against them, they are doing so again.
To put Yemen’s current predicament in context some background history is helpful.
The Zaidi Shia form at least a quarter of Yemen’s population and are concentrated in the north of the country. This area was once ruled by Hashimite Zaidis (those descended from the line of the Prophet Muhammad) for more than 1,000 years until they were overthrown in 1962 by an alliance of nationalist military officers who then founded the Yemen Arab Republic. Zaidi Muslims are nominally categorized as Shia Muslims although they are actually closer to the Sunni schools of jurisprudence.
The rebels were first led by Zaidi cleric Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi—from whom the Houthis derive their name—and his Shabab al-Momineen group who fought the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Their dispute dates to June 2004 when Saleh, the Saudi-backed strongman, charged the Houthis with sedition and claimed their true aim was to revive Zaidi Shia Imamate rule deposed four decades earlier. For their part, the Houthis sought to reverse the systemic political and socioeconomic marginalization their community faced as well as stem the rise of Salafi/Wahabi ideology and the al-Qaeda presence it fostered, both of which had gained an increasing foothold in the country.
Hussein al-Houthi was killed by the army in September 2004 and his brother, Abdul Malik assumed leadership. He now leads the Houthi movement under the group Ansarullah. Worried that the Houthis could transform into a Hezbollah-like organization, the Saudis attacked in 2009. Then, as now, this was done with U.S.-supplied advanced weaponry including surface-to-air missiles, Apache attack helicopters and Phantom jet fighters. Despite their sophisticated arms, Saudi Arabia lost an unusually high number of soldiers in the campaign.
The Houthis persevered; their resilience and desire for equitable representation in government led Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Gulf Cooperation Countries (with the exception of Oman) to attack in March of this year when “Operation Decisive Storm” began. Predictably, its pretext was the tired canard of curbing Iranian influence in the Arabian Peninsula. Direct, material support for the Houthis by Iran has never been clearly demonstrated however.
The real motive for the assault and the process it intended to disrupt was revealed by former U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar in an April interview with the Wall Street Journal. Benomar remarks, “When this campaign started, one thing that was significant but went unnoticed is that the Yemenis were close to a deal that would institute power-sharing with all sides, including the Houthis.”
The Saudi offensive led by the young defense minister and newly-appointed deputy crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, has again exacted a tremendous humanitarian toll: 1,200 killed and more than a quarter of a million people displaced. In 2009, the Saudis were accused of using white phosphorus (as the Israelis had been in their wars on Gaza). Today, they are charged with using cluster bombs (as the Israelis had been in their wars on Lebanon). Human Rights Watch said in a statement, “Credible evidence indicates that the Saudi-led coalition used banned cluster munitions supplied by the United States in air strikes against the Houthi forces.”
Even after all tools of war were placed at their disposal by the West, the House of Saud still pleaded with Pakistan to send (Sunni-only) troops to fight for them. The regime has blockaded the port at Aden and has even resorted to bombing Sanaa’s airport to prevent the delivery of needed relief supplies.
All of these measures have failed to halt the Houthi advance.
Only a political solution will end Yemen’s bloodshed. The GCC though prefers to frame the conflict as an existential one pitting Arabs against Iranians, Sunnis versus Shias. This serves to stoke the sectarian flames already engulfing the region and makes a practical resolution near impossible.
The war has been a disaster for the Yemeni people from the start, both politically and on the most basic humanitarian level. Al-Qaeda now has the potential to flourish as Yemenis are pitted against one another based on sect; the possibility of a just compromise and representative government without Saudi Arabia’s hand-picked man at the helm well forestalled.
Will the Saudi regime find themselves in a military quagmire? The Houthis show no sign of withering under relentless bombing. Or is a decisive ground invasion in the works? There are early signs this may yet occur. But as in Iraq and Syria, the monarchy appears content with the status quo, ensuring chaos, instability and sectarianism prevail.
Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on Middle East affairs.