Gulf Armies Are Doomed in Yemen

Despite the poor record of their armies, an emerging Arab alliance worries both Iran and Israel.

Sunni Arab Gulf states have great wealth, spend immense amounts on defense, and command large numbers of troops. They have nonetheless depended on foreign powers, chiefly the United States, for their security. Paradoxically, their arms purchases seek to obligate Western powers to defend their big Arab customers, as they try to build competent militaries.

This was made clear when the startling rise of the Islamic State (IS) last year led to proclamations and bravado from Sunni Arab capitals, but little of military significance. The bulk of the forces fighting IS in Iraq are Shia soldiers and militias and Western fighter pilots.

The Sunnis are trying to change this dependency by building an international force of land, sea, and air units to deal with the Houthi rebels in Yemen. What will come of this coalition in Yemen? What does it portend for the Middle East?

The Rise of the Houthis

Yemen has been continuously rent by conflict and civil war for decades. Political unity has proven short-lived. The recent Houthi offensive is simply the most recent war between the north, which was governed by the Ottoman Turks, and the south, which was a British colony.

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Sunni capitals are in considerable alarm over the rise of the Houthis. The Houthis are seen as proxies of Iran and a vanguard of Shia expansionism. This concern is widely repeated in the U.S. Congress but is not well-founded. U.S. intelligence, for example, sees Iranian influence in Yemen as recent and not especially large. The driving forces behind the Houthis come from inside Yemen.

Sunni perceptions of events in Yemen are shaped by sectarian outlooks and enmities, and the danger of Iran and Shiism is overstated. Sunnis also see Shia power on the rise in the region, though it has clearly declined rather precipitously in Syria and Iraq owing in part to the rise of Sunni jihadis. Nonetheless, the Sunnis are building a military force to respond to Iranian-Shia power.

Sunni Military Power

Thus far, the Sunnis have only launched airstrikes and directed naval artillery on the Houthis, destroying arms caches in the north and halting Houthi forces in Aden and in the south. This has taken away Sunni assets from the campaign against IS in Syria and Iraq, though that has been overwhelmingly conducted by U.S. aircraft. Airpower alone will be of only limited usefulness against the Houthis. As the saying goes, “no aircraft has ever taken or held ground.”

The ground troops of the Sunni Gulf powers are lavishly equipped and appear impressive in promotional footage. However, their training programs are lax compared to those of Western counterparts, and they are largely untested in battle. Observers with Saudi units in the First Gulf War, the most recent sizable deployment, were not impressed.

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Sunni Arab armies are made up of soldiers from disparate tribes with little history of protracted cooperation and long histories of fighting or competing with each other for greater disbursements from their princes. Soldiers looking at their fellows see not fellow countrymen, but rival tribesman. Further, as they look up the chain of command they do not see accomplished professionals, only political appointees and well-connected scions.

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In the aftermath of repressed reform movements over the last five years, many in the rank and file might well wonder why they should risk their lives for an aged family clique. The princes will be reluctant to see their troops questioning why in the middle of a costly war.

The Sunni Gulf monarchs have conspicuously gone outside the Gulf to bolster the credibility of their ground troops by garnering support from Egypt and Pakistan, two countries with large, experienced armies. The Saudis are calling in markers for all the subsidies bestowed upon Cairo and Islamabad over the years.

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