North Africa, West Asia

Can the Saudi-led coalition win the war in Yemen?

Those deciding for war in March 2015 gave little thought to Yemeni realities, military, logistic, topographic, social or political, human cost, or an exit strategy. But questions are being raised.

Helen Lackner
28 January 2016
Defence Minister Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, April 2014.

Defence Minister Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, April 2014. Wikicommons/Mazen AlDarrab. Some rights reserved.In 1934 the newly established Kingdom of Saudi Arabia went to war against Imamate Yemen, resulting in the Saudis taking control of the provinces of Aseer, Jizan and Najran.  King Abdul Aziz withdrew his forces as soon as he had achieved his basic goal. 

When challenged about his prompt withdrawal at a time when his forces were clearly in the ascendant, his reply was “You know nothing about Yemen; it is mountainous and tribal. No one can control it. Throughout history all those who tried to control it, failed. The Ottoman state was the last of the failed invaders. I don’t want to embroil myself or my people in Yemen.” 

Ten months into the current Saudi-led war in Yemen, it is clear that this advice has not penetrated the consciousness of Mohammed bin Salman, current Defence Minister, Deputy Crown Prince and grandson of Abdul Aziz or of his father, the current King. 

A bit of background

Among the many questions which deserve to be examined is the rationale for Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the current Yemeni conflict. The 2011 uprisings resulted in the election of a new President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, chosen in February 2012 to replace Ali Abdullah Saleh who had ruled the country since 1978. The Agreement[1] sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the international community included a 2 year transition during which a National Dialogue Conference and military restructuring would lead to a new regime which many hoped would reflect the aspirations of the hundreds of thousand Yemeni men and women who had determinedly and peacefully demonstrated throughout 2011 and beyond.  

This did not happen. The internal situation in Yemen deteriorated rapidly after the completion of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) in January 2014 as it failed to solve the main political issues of the time, including the number and borders of the regions in the proposed federal state and the distribution of power between the contending political forces, most of which participated in the NDC: Saleh and his General People’s Congress, the Huthi’s Ansar Allah, the part-Islamist Islah and the multiple Southern separatist factions.The democratic youth movement and women were marginalised.

As a result, 2014 was marked by the gradual takeover by the Huthis of the northern parts of the country including Sana’a, culminating in the resignation of the ‘legitimate’ transitional government in January 2015, promptly followed by a military move southwards by what is now usually described as the Huthi/Saleh alliance. 

As usual, it is worth reminding readers that none of the factional leaders have, for a single moment, given any thought or consideration to the impact of their actions on ordinary Yemenis or the worsening living conditions brought about by their self-serving pursuits. Thus, in early 2015, Saudi Arabia and other GCC members and their western allies were faced with the prospect of complete defeat of the transitional mechanism they had put in place, and the consequent victory of an alliance between the Zaydi revivalist Huthi movement [Zaydis are a branch of Shi’a Islam, rather close to Sunnis] and the ousted previous ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, a former ally who had by then become enemy number one. 

A new regime in Riyadh

This, at a time when yet another elderly king had just inherited the throne in Riyadh.

Unlike his cautious predecessors, Salman promptly overturned the previously agreed order of succession and installed his favourite young son [about 30 years old] as Minister of Defence and Deputy Crown Prince. He even dumped the crown prince selected by his deceased brother in favour of the son of another member of the ‘Sudairy seven’.

To sustain this new order of succession and, indeed, possibly to enable his own son to become crown prince, new assertive international policies seemed like a good idea, creating popular support at home by demonstrating military capability and independence from the US and other western allies. It would also address increased Saudi concern at what they saw as US dereliction of duty. For decades, the unwritten agreement was that Saudi Arabia would say little or nothing about Israel, provided the US supported its dominance elsewhere in the Arab world. In 2015, not only was the US failing to support the Islamist Syrian opposition factions favoured by the Saudis, but it was about to reach agreement with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival, not to say enemy, in the region. 

These, unlike internal economic policy, are issues on which the views of the regime and the people coincide. Careless or deliberately provocative statements by some factions in Iran strengthened widespread fear and concern throughout the Peninsula: one such was the Iranian claim to control four Arab capitals, once the Huthis had taken over Sana’a in September 2014.

So the new Saudi leadership decided on a show of force, and Yemen seemed the perfect opportunity to achieve all these objectives with apparently minimal risk. The regime it supported was about to be ousted by what could be described as an alliance between a Shi’a faction and an ex-president who had been internationally sanctioned by the UN. They challenged an agreement sponsored by the GCC, the United Nations and the major powers. Although the latest United Nations Security Council Resolution [2216] did not formally condone military intervention, it did not forbid it. 

A coalition was promptly put together and air strikes were launched on 26 March 2015, with the stated intention of restoring the legitimate authority to power and ousting the rebels. It is likely that those who took that decision gave little thought to Yemeni realities, whether military, logistic, topographic, social or political, let alone the human cost of their actions.

The war

Ten months later, air strikes are continuing on a daily basis throughout the country. There are ground troops in Yemen from many of the coalition states: a few Saudis, Emiratis [including Colombian and other South American special forces, led by an Australian who may or may not be on site], Sudanese, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, supported by Moroccan and Senegalese troops on the Saudi side of the border and Egyptian naval forces. The overall military situation has reached stalemate. The official death toll had risen to 6000 by end 2015 with over 28,000 wounded. The humanitarian situation is at UN emergency level, with 21.2 million of the 26 million population in need and only 8.8 million reached in 2015 with the UN humanitarian appeal having been funded at 56% for the year.

Since the liberation of Aden in August 2015, the city has remained completely unsafe with daily attack by a range of factions: different southern separatist groups, Aggressive Armed Islamists under a variety of names, including Al Qaeda, Daesh, and other Salafi groups, as well as simple ordinary thieves and bandits attacking banks, institutional payrolls, security and other officers; they managed to kill the Governor less than two months after his appointment. Aden was named temporary capital in March 2015, and President Hadi who returned there in November 2015 lives in his mountain stronghold palace and only ventures out on short helicopter sorties. On 25 January 2016, Vice President and Prime Minister Baha arrived for the third time since its liberation, claiming that this is his definitive return; his previous visits were short-lived. Many ministers are still based in Sana’a.


The military stalemate shows no immediate sign of ending. Claims of liberation of various areas are challenged by regular ongoing airstrikes in the same areas: Midi and Haradh on the Red Sea coast near the Saudi border, around Mareb east of Sana’a, and in Shabwa, al Baidha and Dhala’ governorates. For the past 6 months, the main and most intense fighting has taken place in and around Taiz, the country’s third city where the balance of land forces is fairly even and where the most obnoxious tactics are being used. 

Taiz city has now been under siege for months, with the Huthi/Saleh forces controlling the main roads and preventing the arrival of any supplies, water, food, medical equipment and consumables and all basic necessities. The city itself is divided between the majority who are just trying to keep alive and the forces loyal to one or the other side.  

Half or more of the population have left when they could, and current estimates of the remaining population range from 200,000 to 600,000. Those remaining have to search for water and food while under fire from the Saleh/Huthi group on the one hand and the aerial bombardment from the Saudi led coalition on the other. 

The lack of progress of either side in Taiz does raise questions: the main military force in support of the legitimate authority is led by an Islahi commander, hence assumed to be a Muslim Brother. Given the hostility of the UAE towards this organisation (though Saudi Arabia has reconciled itself with the Islah), is the coalition failing to support his forces adequately? Why have the main Islahi military leaders been in Aden for over a month? Why have the coalition forces air dropped so little military material to their allies, let alone food and medical supplies for all? Is there a strategy to exhaust the Saleh/Huthi forces by a long struggle in an area where they have less popular support than in the Sana’ani highlands?

Peace negotiations

The negotiations which took place in Geneva in December fulfilled everyone’s expectation of achieving nothing. Since then the UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould al Shaikh has been trying to get some basic agreements for a second round of talks, which were due to start mid-January. These have been indefinitely postponed. Only the least significant of the agreed so-called ‘confidence-building measures’ have taken place: the three senior prisoners kept by the Huthis/Saleh have not been released and there are considerable doubts about a fourth, Islah leader Mohammed Qahtan, who may well have been killed. Internationally, it is clear that the efforts to resolve the Syrian situation have relegated the Yemen crisis far down the list of priorities. 

Alongside the competing disasters in Syria and elsewhere, the lack of spectacular events on the ground has limited media coverage. The only ‘positive’ development has been the increasing concern emerging about British and US advisors providing technical support to the coalition’s targeting of air strikes, as well as the continued supply of weapons and ammunition to their forces. 

At long last, these are being questioned in the legislature, by legal experts[2] and in civil society, focusing on respect for humanitarian law, as well as the Arms Trade Treaty which has come into force in Britain in 2014, though the US has only signed and not ratified it. 

As for the quality of British and US technical targeting, observers are left to wonder about their competence or real influence given that four Médecins Sans Frontières medical facilities have been bombed in recent months, in addition to over 60 other medical facilities seriously damaged or destroyed, let alone other cases of ‘friendly fire’. 

The latest report from the UN Sanctions Committee blames the coalition for violating international humanitarian law by ‘targeting civilians and civilian objects… including buses, civilian residential areas, medical facilities, schools, mosques, markets, factories and food storage warehouses and other essential civilian infrastructure, such as the airport in Sana’a, the port in Hudaydah and domestic transit routes.”[3]

This has raised the profile of the issue significantly, with the Labour Party demanding an independent inquiry in UK’s arms exports policy to Saudi Arabia and the ‘advisory’ role of British personnel.   The same day Downing street reported a telephone conversation between Cameron and King Salman during which, with respect to the situation in Yemen “the Prime Minister and King agreed on both the need for a political solution and for international humanitarian law to be respected at all times.”

What next?

So with stalemate on the ground, no military victory in sight, and the absence of any noticeable progress in negotiations, what are the prospects for the Saudi-led coalition? Most of its members do as little as they can without jeopardising the financial support they get from the GCC states, Saudi Arabia in particular. 

There are political differences between  the United Arab Emirates who consider anything remotely resembling a Muslim Brother as little more than the devil incarnate, and Saudi Arabia which supported the Muslim Brothers for a long time, had a temporary falling out around the Arab spring period and, in the case of Yemen at least, are now reconciled to working with Islah, its local incarnation. The dramatic drop in oil prices has forced the Saudi regime into deficit budgeting for the first time in decades. The USD 200 million a month it spends on the war is a significant contributory factor.

The easy and decisive military victory anticipated last March is further away than ever, thus affecting both the new Saudi leaders and their plans for domestic dominance as well as increasing the likelihood of challenges not only within the Saud family but beyond, among the many Saudis whose living conditions are affected by the reduced subsidies and new taxation. 

Whoever has read recent history will notice what happened to the thousands of Egyptians sent to support the republican regime in the 1960s, a major reason why Egypt has been reluctant to send its own troops.

Mohammed bin Salman and his colleagues would be well advised to recall the advice of his grandfather and seek a way out, ideally one which would establish a just and equitable regime in Sana’a. Meanwhile they should show some respect for international humanitarian law and put an end to the airstrikes which are killing and maiming civilian men, women and children, as well as destroying medical and other civilian facilities throughout the country. Their allies and supporters in the UK and the US should demonstrate that they are not simple tools and agents of the Saudi regime.

[1] See earlier OD pieces on the NDC, the transition and other aspects of the situation


[3]  The Guardian, 27 January 2016

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