Saudi Arabia's Yemen War Unravels

Yemen seems doomed to remain a pawn in the ever-worsening Saudi-Iranian cold war.

Riyadh—Saudi Arabia's plunge into the civil war next door in Yemen to keep Iranian-backed factions from taking over is hugely popular at home right now, and the general public mood is decidedly hawkish. But after more than five weeks of a daily bombing campaign, some Saudis are beginning to wonder privately whether the declared goal of restoring their ousted allies to power is a step too far.

After whipping up nationalistic and anti-Iranian sentiment to a fever pitch, the government has toned down somewhat media touting of the Saudi-led intervention by eight Arab states and also forbidden any public questioning of a pounding air war that has provoked a nationwide humanitarian crisis and thousands of casualties.

Even some of the government's staunchest supporters have been shaken by the initial erratic shift in Saudi military strategy from an all-out bombing campaign, to a sudden halt and then an immediately resumption of it. These doubts have been exacerbated by the fact that a general uprising of Yemeni tribes hostile to the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels has failed to materialize.

"Where are the tribes?" asked one Saudi academic closely following the Yemeni war.

The stakes in Yemen are very high for King Salman, who only took over in late January when his 92 year old predecessor, Abdullah, died. The stakes are especially high for Salman’s son, Mohammed, whom he appointed defense minister at the age of only 29 despite having no military experience.

The stake are also high for Saudi Arabia's bid for leadership of the Sunni Arab world and its determination to show it can become a military counterweight to Shiite Iran, its main rival and the foreign backer of the Shiite-related Houthis, who still control most of Yemen including its capital, Sanaa.

So far, the new breed of Saudi "hawks" who have come to the fore to carry out the first major projection of power beyond the kingdom's borders seem to have widespread public backing. During a recent ten day visit, I heard scores of Saudis echoing privately the same sentiments as those voiced publicly by the Saudi ambassador in London, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf. In an interview with Reuters news agency on April 22, he emphasized “we have to assert ourselves" and show that "we can deal with our own problems." He also expressed another view widely shared within the majority Sunni population here, namely that "Iran should not have any say in Yemeni affairs" because "they are not part of the Arab world."

Most importantly to the Saudi royal family is that the ultra-conservative Wahhabi religious establishment, its most important domestic constituency, is solidly behind the intervention in Yemen. It regards the Houthis, who belong to the Zaidi sect of Shiism, as apostates. Even before the Saudi-led air war began on March 26, the Saudi grand mufti, Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, was denouncing the Houthis as heretics who wanted “to eliminate Islam.” 

The main Saudi concern is that Yemen is headed toward becoming another Lebanon of fragmented religious communities and independent foreign-backed militia like the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah militia, which is widely viewed as Iran's proxy there. "Having another Lebanon, another Hizbollah, is out the question for us," said Khalid al-Khalil, a Saudi foreign policy commentator. "We will not allow it happen no matter the cost."

Only in the kingdom's Eastern Province, where the minority Saudi Shiite community is concentrated, do you hear dissenting views. There, the situation below a surface calm is "tense," according to one Shiite leader, because Saudi Shia are suspected of harboring sympathies for Shiite Iran and the Houthis. Residents there note an increase of anti-Shiite sentiment coming from bloggers and Tweeters including calls for the execution of the local religious firebrand, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimer. He has been tried and sentenced to death for proposing the secession of the oil rich Eastern Province and stirring up Shiite resentment against the ruling Saudi family.

The Saudi government has not allowed any public debate, questioning of its strategy or of the two princes who are leading the campaign—Defense Minister Prince Mohammed, King Salman’s youthful son, and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef. The Saudi embassy in Kuwait is even suing a Shiite member of the Kuwaiti parliament for criticizing its Yemeni campaign as an insult to the kingdom.

As for where things stand in the first major Saudi projection of military might beyond its borders, there remains a wide gap between diplomatic achievements and battleground victories so far.

On paper, the U.N. Security Council resolution passed almost unanimously (Russia alone abstained) represents a total victory for Saudi diplomacy. It demands that Houthi rebels and their allies withdraw "from all areas they have seized, including the capital Sana’a" and recognize the legitimacy of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government, which they overthrew in September.

However, on the ground after more than a month of steady bombing by the Saudi-led Arab coalition, the Houthis and army units still loyal to Hadi's predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, still control all the cities and territory they previously held.

The Saudi government has portrayed its initial "Operation Decisive Storm" a total success, sighting the large-scale destruction of the Houthi's arsenals and surface-to-surface missiles and securing the Saudi border with Yemen. It has launched a second stage called "Operation Restoring Hope" aimed at helping its Yemeni allies to regain lost ground and forcing the Houthis into negotiations on the basis of the U.N. Resolution.