Saudi intervention in Yemen is not going to end any time soon. Instead, there will be a war of attrition for Saudis and Iran will do its best to keep it going as long as possible. Its implications could reach as far as east Africa; the Muscat negotiations failure is just a first step.
The Saudi joint action to create a multi-nation coalition against the Houthis was backed by the Arab League at the summit in Cairo last March. The coalition includes five of the Gulf Cooperation Council members – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain – but not Oman, which declined to take part, in addition to Egypt, Jordan and Morocco. It was designed to prevent Yemen from falling into Houthi militias and to support the legitimate Yemeni government and the president, who asked for this intervention.
However, the Saudi campaign did not achieve these objectives. It has instead precipitated a much more dangerous war that has now spread to Saudi Arabia itself. Since the beginning of the war in March 2015, Houthi militias and Ali Abdullah Saleh–the former Yemeni president and an ally for the Houthis—has gained more ground and seized big cities like Taiz and Aden. Additionally, the Houthis and their allies launched a number of rockets into Saudi Arabia’s Jizan province while also launching an assault on three military bases in southern parts of the Saudi Arabia/Yemen border. These attacks are considered a message to Riyadh, that there will be a price to pay for the continued bombardment of Yemen and that Houthi militias are stronger than they were during Operation Scorched Earth in 2009.
This war is important for several reasons. It’s the first war for Saudi Arabia since the Gulf war of 1991. This war also began two months after the appointment of King Salman’s son, Mohamed bin Salman, as defense minister. Mohamed bin Salman had no previous military experience or military education, yet became the face of the war, with seemingly-constant appearances in the Saudi media directing operations. Some consider it the beginning of a process to install Mohamed bin Salman as the future king for Saudi Arabia.
Second, the Saudi campaign agitated the humanitarian crisis that has existed since 2011. The fighting has displaced thousands of Yemenis and produced waves of refugees who have fled to east Africa. According to UN reports, more than 20 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and more than a million have been displaced since March. In addition, governmental services like healthcare have declined. Yemen has become a failed state—just like its neighbor, Somalia.
Third, the political chaos has allowed terrorists to proliferate in Yemen, particularly the jihadists of Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The latter, al-Qaida’s most powerful franchise, has succeeded in seizing territories in east Yemen–including Yemen’s fifth-largest city, Mukalla–and freed as many as 300 prisoners in the coastal city, including a senior leader of the group. Southerners in Aden have formed local militias to fight off the Houthi advance. This could attract radical Gulf citizens to Yemen to attack Iran, US and Saudi targets. ISIS has already claimed responsibility for bloody suicide bombings in Houthi mosques in several cities including Sana’a.
Fourth, the Houthis’ links to Iran has turned Yemen into a battleground between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Many analysts consider it part of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran over regional influence and power. Others describe it as a Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict, as Houthis belong to a Shiite sect linked to Tehran’s theocratic regime and the Sunni-Shiite split characterizes Saudi-Iranian tensions.
Both theories contain some elements of truth. Yemen has always been a strategic base for control of the Arabian Peninsula and the Saudi royal family is aware of this. Yemeni history tells us how Persian empires targeted Yemen in order to control the maritime trade routes and establish bases in the Red Sea: the Sassanid Empire’s seizure of Yemen allowed them to control the Arabian Peninsula and defeat the Roman Empire and their ally, Abyssinia.
Furthermore, the recent negotiations between the US and Iran to reach a nuclear deal has made the Gulf monarchies and Saudi Arabia pessimistic about their future cooperation with the US. The results of Camp David meetings between Obama and Gulf leaders, negotiations between US and Houthi representatives in Muscat, and what is considered to be American air power support of Iranian-backed Shia militia attacking Islamic State forces in Iraq has all had a negative impact on the Gulf monarchies. They believe that the US now aims not only to solve the nuclear problem, but also to establish a new Middle East where the US and Iran share a sphere of influence in the region.
This has made Saudi Arabia uninterested in ending the Yemen crisis; instead it continues to bombard the Houthi militias without consequence. The primary Saudi aim now is to stop Iran from controlling Yemen and to send them a powerful message to cease interfering in the Arab countries and threatening Saudi Arabia. For Iran, the war is useful and low cost. It keeps the Saudis under pressure and distracted from their regional struggle. With fronts in Syria and Iraq and increasing political roles for Iran-backed allies and militias there, in addition to its influence in Lebanon and its relations with other gulf countries like Qatar and Oman, the war in Yemen significantly increases its regional power.
Fifth, the Saudi campaign has suffered from the moment it was established. It has no UN cover; some countries refused to join like Oman and Pakistan; others decided to join but are not active at all, like Turkey and Morocco. Even Egypt refused to send ground troops to Yemen, instead sending the troops to “defend the Saudi land from any attacks” and some naval ships to prevent the Houthis from threatening the maritime rotes and Yemeni islands in the Red Sea. Riyadh is disappointed that it has not received support even from countries it has helped financially and diplomatically in the past.
As in Syria, it seems no actor in the Middle East is interested in stopping the military campaign in Yemen. To make matters worse, drone strikes and air power campaigns never bring victory in war: lessons from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq tell us that troops can achieve the victory on the ground. ISIS, for example, expanded its control over land, seized cities in Iraq and Syria and gained land and weapons in spite of US campaigns and drone strikes. Saudi Arabia has now spent over two billion dollars on the war and there is no end in sight. If those with influence in the Middle East do not stop it now or try to reach an agreement, Yemen could be another Syria.
Amr Ismail is a writer specializing in international affairs and the Middle East.