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Saudi Arabia’s War in Yemen: Purchasing Power Does Not Equal Military Power

Saudi's military power in the war in Yemen
Saudi military forces stand ready to fire  into Yemen from the border town of Jizan, in Saudi Arabia, 13 April 2015. Photo Carolyn Cole

“At night, the Houthis send donkeys with flashlights tied to their necks across the border. The Saudis start shooting at the donkeys and the Houthis attack them from the side.” Mohammed, a young Kuwaiti teacher, chuckles when he tells the story, which he heard from friends in Saudi Arabia. “They cannot win that war.”

Mohammed is Shiite and has no sympathy for the ten-month Saudi military campaign in Yemen that was launched in March 2015. But whether he is biased or not and whether the donkey story is true or not, he may be right about the Kingdom’s military chances. What was proclaimed as a quick and decisive show of military superiority has turned into a show of weakness.

Why? Not because the Saudi army is underequipped or underfunded: in 2015 alone, Saudi Arabia has spent almost USD 50 billion on military equipment, ranking among the top five military spenders worldwide. And it is not planning to slow down on spending, despite low oil prices.

Nor is it not for lack of manpower. The Saudi army has about 250,000 active-duty military personnel, from a population of about 20 million Saudi citizens. In comparison, the Netherlands, with a population of roughly 17 million, has about 43,000 active-duty army personnel.

The problem, according to military analysts such as Norvell De Atkine, is that Arab armies are not good at conventional warfare. He notes a culture of mistrust, class and sectarian divisions, paranoia, avoidance of competition, lack of information-sharing, and an unwillingness on all levels to take responsibility for mistakes and failures.

Furthermore, when it comes specifically to the Saudi army, it has hardly any fighting experience. The few times it has been in combat, its performance has not been impressive. On-and-off wars against the Houthis between 2004 and 2009 resulted in no appreciable military success, and the performance of the Saudi troops in the 1991 Gulf War was mediocre at best.

On the other hand, history shows that the Arabs are good at unconventional warfare. De Atkine says, “The Arab guerilla usually had leadership sharpened by battle as well as experience and exuded the confidence that motivated others to follow him—as opposed to a conventional unit commander most likely picked by the regime for political reasons.”

It would explain the problematic Yemeni situation. On the one side, there is a well equipped but non-functioning and questionably motivated conventional army. On the other, there is a less well equipped but still heavily armed, ragtag group of highly motivated men, who know the alleys of their cities and the goat trails of their mountains.

Fighting an unconventional army with a conventional one is difficult if not impossible, even with a well trained and organized conventional army: recall Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. What the Saudis are trying to do in Yemen is even more difficult—fighting an unconventional army with a medicore conventional one.

This sounds like an impossible task. Rather than asking how the Saudis can win this war, one should ask why they started it. But that is water under the bridge: they gave it a try, and now there is no way back, because going back means a major loss of face, both inside and outside the Kingdom.

So Riyadh continues its desperate military show from the skies. Fighter jet after fighter jet drop their bombs over Yemen. Saudi ground troops do not seem to be part of the plan.

“The Saudis do not want one soldier to be killed by a Shiite,” a former head of Kuwaiti security forces says. The few soldiers that were actually sent into Yemen were mostly Emirati, Bahraini, Sudanese, and even Colombian.

Saudi soldiers may not want to go into Yemen, but they cannot stop Yemen from coming to them. Since the beginning of the war, the Houthis have been carrying out cross-border attacks, notably in the southern provinces of Jizan and Nazjran. This is another thorn in the Saudis’ side.

A businessman in Jidda confesses that the authorities force companies to keep shops and restaurants open, in order to avoid stirring panic among the population. “But Jidda is already full of people who fled the south.” Furthermore, it is hardly a sign of confidence that tiny neighbour Kuwait decided—or was politely asked—in December 2015 to send troops to help Saudi Arabia defend its borders.

All in all, the military situation looks bleak and the Saudi coalition looks weak. Have they achieved nothing at all? Well, they have managed to strike numerous Houthi weapons depots and other strongholds, and the southern city of Aden has been taken back from the Houthis. But that did not bring the Saudis any closer to the official goal of the operation, the restoration of stability in Yemen and of the internationally recognized government of President Hadi.

In January 2016 the capital Sanaʿa is still under Houthi control, and Aden, although “liberated,” is now spinning out of control. Its streets have become the chaotic battlefield of militias, from competing factions of the Southern Movement to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to groups affiliated with the Islamic State.

Has it brought the Saudis any closer to the unofficial goal of the operation, teaching a lesson to Iran, which is widely believed, in Riyadh, to be behind the Houthis? It seems unlikely that Tehran is impressed. This may explain the most recent show of force from Riyadh. If the point cannot be made through the Houthis, it must be made through the execution of a Shiite cleric. At least one doesn’t need an army for that.

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