Saudi Arabia’s No Good, Very Bad War in Yemen

The failing intervention in Yemen could soon start undermining the social contract in Arab states.

Caveats! “Bad” on this website is rarely used for moral condemnation. So there’s that.

“Bad” here refers to the fact that Saudi Arabia cannot win its war in Yemen. Best-case scenario is they escape with their tails between their legs. Worst case? The cracking of the Saudi state and chaos beyond imagining.

But let’s do some wayback and remember how we got here in the first place.

The cliff notes!

  • Yemen is the only Arabian country with enough rainfall to sustain farms which means it has a bigger population than the rest of Arabia and a much older civilization as well.
  • Being on a route between India and Europe meant getting all the ideas and religions of the traders who passed through, including Shia Islam, which eventually changed into the Yemeni Zaiydi.
  • This contrasts sharply with the regimes now invading Yemen who are universally Sunni, run far newer states and have, minus Saudi, much smaller populations.
  • This all adds up to invariable defeat for the Saudi-led coalition but the question remains how much blowback they must suffer.
  • The brittleness of their political systems is what should cause worry since they can’t absorb geopolitical shocks like military defeats as well as democracies and that may end up leading to some terrible chaos.

So, Yemen, eh?

Once, Arabia was green; then the ice age ended and it went to sand. But not the highlands of Yemen whose mountains capture just enough moisture to sustain farming. This means urban civilization in Yemen is very, very old: many of the early Muslim soldiers during the Islamic conquests of the seventh and eight centuries were Yemeni.

But owing to its highland status, Yemen has often been difficult to unify, with the northwestern highlands hosting independent tribes that sweep down into the south to upset whoever’s applecart happens to be in Aden. The southeast, meanwhile, is open, desert and full of Bedouin who have never been inclined to rule things. Out there Al Qaeda in Yemen operates most freely.

Since Yemen has long sat on trade routes between India and Europe (via Oman), it’s long had funny ideas stopping by and occasionally staying. One of those was Zaiydi Islam, a Shia variant, which now makes up a full third of Yemen’s large population.

Such geographical and social diversity has made for endless instability in Yemen which isn’t so well off that it can empower a state to set order to its chaos for very long. Yemen is alas victim of many an intervention: from the Romans to the British to the Egyptians in the 1960s, Yemen rarely is left alone for long, sitting as it does on that now ever-vital strategic trade route that eventually leads to the Suez Canal.

And that must be contrasted with its would-be conquerors, none of whom have the chops to control Yemen

The GCC is extremely wealthy and well-armed but its forces are overpaid and undertrained with only elite units capable of operating. That’s a deep disadvantage against the long-warring tribes of Yemen who have forgotten more civil wars and regular wars than GCC soldiers remember of training exercises. While the Yemeni are not well-armed, they are well-honed in guerrilla warfare and the Houthi forces are no exception, as noted when the Houthis struck an Emirati base last week and killed an unprecedented 45 UAE soldiers.

To fully control Yemen would require a commitment of cash and troops beyond the GCC. While Saudi Arabia has a large army and population base, no other GCC state cracks the two million native population mark; states like Qatar and the UAE are utterly dominated by foreign labor. While there’s plenty of debate over the ratio of soldier to citizen for an effective occupation against an insurgent army, if one is generous and say it’s ten to one, you’d still need around 2.5 million troops to really consolidate control of Yemen’s 25 million. Saudi Arabia’s army is only 227,000 troops.

Obviously, the GCC coalition is aware of these deficiencies which is why their strategy is to restore the most recently ousted president, Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, back in Sana’a. Ideally, they’d then let him and his faction do the heavy lifting while they supported him with a much lighter touch.

Like that’ll happen

The newness of GCC states shouldn’t be lost in this discussion. None of the GCC states have much experience in war which of course translates to debacles like the attack last week. But worse than that, GCC states have very little idea how much political blowback they’ll receive from their citizens as the bodies start rolling home. GCC propaganda around Yemen is very thin: most can see it’s a power grab by Saudi Arabia which is forcing its vassals in the GCC to send tokens of loyalty in the form of troops and warplanes. This war is meant to send a message to Iran and victory should scare Iran off from getting ambitious elsewhere.

The humanitarian disaster of the war is obvious; the strategic gains for most GCC states is almost nil since their security is guaranteed not by Saudi Arabia (who they have reason to fear) but the United States. It’s anybody’s guess how long it will take for most GCC citizens to see this a war for their rulers and not for them but I’ll venture it won’t be long, especially in more advanced countries like the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar.

And that’s where it could get ugly

GCC citizens are kept loyal by cradle-to-grave benefits but will they accept that social contract should they have to start jumping into the grave sooner? If humanity is any guide, such sacrifice can’t be taken for granted forever. GCC citizens’ sense of nationhood has grown in leaps and bounds over the past forty years and the moment is rapidly approaching where people will stop thinking their rulers are the nation and that they can get along just fine without them. That moment will come sooner when their leaders make blatant mistakes, as the war in Yemen now is.

Within the UAE, where seven royal families federate the country, such instability could be channeled into a royal swap for the country’s presidency: Abu Dhabi’s Al Nahyan who have double downed on the war could be usurped by Dubai’s Al Maktoums, for instance. Other countries have fewer options: there is no Saudi Arabia without the House of Saud.

That last bit is the scariest, for Saudi Arabia is a brittle place that is having a hard time adapting to the twenty-first century. To a certain extent, its benefiting from the existence of the Islamic State as its toughest conservative forces are being siphoned to the battlefields of the caliphate, leaving Saudi Arabia just a bit more moderate. Saudi Arabia is, after all, pushing elections for later this year: meaningless elections but elections nonetheless.

Should a large chunk of Saudi subjects decide the royals are wasting their lives in the highlands of Yemen, a spark could be lit that might burn the whole kingdom. Deflated oil prices, largely because Saudi Arabia is determined to kill off shale oil in America, makes it all the harder to slather oil cash on dissent. Differences within the kingdom, long held at bay through bribery and a handful of elite security services, could come roaring into the open — and Saudi Arabia is not prepared for such a day.

Will Yemen be the graveyard of the GCC? Perhaps not but they will not escape without dire consequence

Either the GCC will be discredited as a military force, emboldening its Iranian and jihadi enemies and forcing the United States back into the breach. Or the blowback will be so severe it will break up the GCC itself. There is no win for the Saudi and the GCC, just less terrible ways of losing.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, September 8, 2015.