Political Analysis

WSJ: Saudis See Time on Their Side in Yemen War

Houthi fighters rode in the back of a patrol truck Thursday as they secured a site near the Yemen capital of San’a for a tribal gathering. PHOTO: KHALED ABDULLAH/REUTERS
Written by Staff

Some in the kingdom argue a premature deal could be more dangerous for Saudi Arabia’s domestic consensus, writes Yaroslav Trofimov.

WSJ, RIYADH — To the many critics of Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s 16-month-old intervention in Yemen has morphed into a messy quagmire. But the view from Riyadh is far more upbeat: On balance, officials here say, the war was worth it and time is working in the Saudis’ favor.

It is the biggest campaign that modern Saudi Arabia has launched and the first in which it leads an international coalition, one cemented by common hostility to Shiite Iran. The kingdom so far hasn’t clinched its proclaimed war aim: ousting the pro-Iranian Houthi militias from the capital, San’a, and re-establishing nationwide authority of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

But over the past year, coalition and loyalist Yemeni forces have been able to reconquer large parts of the country, especially in the south and east, and reached within 30 miles of San’a. Thanks to a Saudi-enforced blockade, the Houthi-run administration there is on the verge of running out of money, Western officials say, just as the Yemeni factions engage in the latest round of so-far fruitless peace talks in Kuwait.

Such a stalemate is far better than what would have happened if Saudi Arabia and its fellow monarchies in the Gulf Cooperation Council had allowed the Houthis to overrun the entire country last year, said Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of the Gulf Research Center, a Saudi think tank.

“The Houthi militia were trying to copy what Hezbollah had achieved in Lebanon by establishing a satellite state under Iranian control. From that perspective, the GCC states under the leadership of Saudi Arabia have achieved part of their strategic objective,” Mr. Sager said. “The operation in Yemen established a new rule in the Middle East that Iranian expansionist and interventionist policy in the Arab world will no longer be tolerated.”

The Saudi-led bombing campaign has also caused numerous civilian casualties in Yemen and destroyed vital infrastructure, something that sparked widespread international condemnation. The ground operations proved challenging too. The Houthis and their allies, supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, are putting up formidable resistance, inflicting frequent casualties on Saudi forces and launching rockets deep into Saudi territory.

That resistance, however, hasn’t altered Saudi calculations. “The cost to the Saudis is surprisingly negligible and there is very little sense in Saudi Arabia that there is a war going on. That being said, the Houthis retain an ability to strike across the border, which allows them to continue to be a nuisance,” said Adam Baron, Yemen specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

More than a year of combat against a guerrilla-type force such as the Houthis, has also spurred significant change in the Saudi military, until recently rarely tested in battle.

“Every day you fight, you learn,” said Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Aseeri, spokesman for the coalition and adviser to Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi defense minister. “The armies in the region were formed to be conventional armies. You have to adapt your training, your force, your structure, to this kind of combat.”

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center, shown here with air force officers in the border city of Najran last month, is widely seen as the Yemen intervention’s main architect. PHOTO: BANDAR ALGALOUD/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center, shown here with air force officers in the border city of Najran last month, is widely seen as the Yemen intervention’s main architect. PHOTO: BANDAR ALGALOUD/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Gen. Aseeri pointed out that Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies such as the United Arab Emirates, in addition to pushing out the Houthis, in recent months also ousted al Qaeda from the strategic port city of Mukalla and other parts of Yemen.

“We achieved in one year against al Qaeda, killed a number of al Qaeda members, more than was achieved since 2008 by airstrikes by our Western partners,” he said. “We need to be helped, not to be criticized.”

These achievements, however, fall short of what many Saudis expected last year, when patriotic fervor was widespread and news about the Yemen war—now rarely mentioned—dominated the kingdom’s newscasts. Complicating matters, the expensive Yemen engagement coincided with the country’sambitious economic restructuring plan, championed by Prince Mohammed, that has slashed subsidies on fuel, water, and electricity.

“There is disappointment, there are worries,” acknowledged Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi commentator and general manager of the planned Alarab satellite TV news network. “The government austerity measures are blamed by some on Yemen, even if they had to be made in any case because there was a need to fix the economy and end the waste.”

Still, Mr. Khashoggi, other Saudis and foreign diplomats here agreed that whatever popular discontent exists remains limited in scale. Riyadh, they said, isn’t under any significant domestic or military pressure to end the Yemen war before the country’s main goals are met.

To the contrary, some argue, agreeing to a premature or unfavorable deal could be far more dangerous for Saudi Arabia’s domestic consensus—and for the standing of Prince Mohammed, widely seen as the intervention’s main architect.

“Yes, the war is expensive, but we should finish it well. If we stop it without getting San’a and disarming the Houthis, it will be a historical and military catastrophe,” warnedIbrahim al Marie, a retired Saudi colonel and a political strategist and commentator. “It would be a problem for the confidence between the government and the people, and the decision makers in the kingdom know this very well.”