Almost two months into its war against Yemen – one change of strategy and two ceasefires later – and Saudi Arabia appears nowhere near achieving any of its goals in this poorest and certainly most unruly nation of the Arabian Peninsula. But since the Kingdom was never clear on what it is it wanted to see happen on the backdrop of its bombing campaign, the world is none the wiser.
Indeed, how can one fails if no goals were ever set? But then again maybe Riyadh had the foresight of leaving enough room on the table to stage an acceptable withdrawal from Yemen’s quagmire.
However poor, technologically backward and overall chaotic Yemen might be, its people are fiercely attached to their lands and have proven to be not just worthy but mighty opponent when confronted.
Just like Brigadier General Yehia Mohammed Saleh – nephew to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and former Commander in Chief of the Central Security Forces – warned from Beirut, Lebanon in an interview with an Arabic TV network earlier in March “Yemenis have a habit of rallying against foreign invaders … many have come, few have been able to live standing on their two legs.”
And indeed, not so long ago – 1962 – thousands of Saudis, Egyptians and Pakistanis learned that Yemenis are not so easily subdued, no matter one’s military superiority. At the end of the day, wars will be won by men not machines, and as it happens, Yemenis are made of a metal empires have yet to break – and many tried!
But Yemenis are not just independent to a fault, they are also rowdy. In a country where negotiating is not just a national sport but a way of living, politics is a tough field to navigate. President Saleh was not kidding when referring to his ability to dance on the head of snakes!
If Al Saud Royals assumed that Yemen would dance to the tune of its petrodollars, it miscalculated Yemeni politicians’ chronic inability to reach any form of consensus, especially now that the country corridors of power appears to have been deserted, ready to see rise the next generation of oligarchs.
And though many political parties within Yemen: Al Islah (Sunni radical group acting an umbrella for faction such as the Muslim Brotherhood or other loose Salafi outfits), Al Harak (Southern Secessionist Movement, or the JMP (Joint Meeting Parties: a coalition of the former opposition against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh), have expressed some degree of unity in view of their opposition of the Houthis (tribal group organized under the leadership of Sheikh Abdel Malek Al Houthi), none so far have proven capable of finding enough common political ground with each other to establish a cohesive opposition body. Worse, most of those political denominations have splintered into sub-groups and opposing sub-parties, leaving the Saudis to play puzzle with an increasingly complex political map of Yemen.
Embroiled in a war it cannot win from the air, no matter how much lead it unleashes onto this poorest nation of Arabia; and incapable of manifesting enough political will to send troops on the ground, the Saudis are quite literally stuck in between a rock and a hard place. If for now they have managed to play victors before the media, it is evident no country within this Saudi-led broad coalition wants to commit its troops to a war which could likely end up in catastrophic failure.
Pakistan, Malaysia and Egypt politely decline the privilege of fighting the Kingdom’s war. This vastly unreported affair very much equate to a rebellion if one cares to compute the repercussions such a refusal entails. Saudi Arabia no longer compels regional political submission, especially when standing against the backdrop of the rising Iranian and Russian’ star.
And if the Kingdom cannot find the strength to rally at its side a cohesive military coalition, then how long before it proves unable to defend its own territories? And that’s a theory the Houthis have been keen on testing.
Little known to mainstream media, the Houthis have regularly crossed onto Saudi Arabia’ southern provinces — Najran and Gizan — to carry out military operations since early April. On several instances military outposts were overrun, cities were bombed and weapons warehouses were raided.
Interestingly and quite tellingly, the Houthis have limited their raids to those territories which until 1994 belonged to Yemen. As Abdel Malek Al Houthi warned in his latest address – May 20, 2015, “Yemen will see its territorial sovereignty restored in full.”
As warned by countless experts, Yemen could be to Saudi Arabia what Afghanistan has been for the United States – a momentous military embarrassment and an expensive draw on Saudi resources.
Nothing so far has gone the way it should – The Houthis have managed to rally the military to its cause, tribes have pledged their allegiance to the war efforts against the Saudis and northerners have refused to disavow the one group which actually proved to be willing to stand for tangible change.
If anything, since March 25, the Houthis, backed by the military and Yemen’s elite forces have extended their hold over Yemen — Hadhramawt, Abyan, Aden and Taiz have all lost territories to the Houthis.
And although most of South Yemen remains intent on pushing back the Houthis, that is not to say that this lot is pro-Saudis or pro-Hadi (the once resigned, twice runaway former President of Yemen).
Safe from the few exiled Yemeni politicians in Riyadh, Al Saud have lost the ears of those powers in the country which actually matter. And even there, cohesion within the ranks is lacking.
According to sources in Riyadh, Hadi is locked in a bitter battle with his “newly” appointed Prime Minister Khaled Bahah (a former manager at an Oil company) and Abdel Karim Al Eryani, President Saleh’s former senior adviser and once prime minister. Left with shallow politicians to mastermind the next Yemeni transition of power, the Kingdom is drowning in Yemen’s quicksand.
How long before the whole edifice comes tumbling down?
In this new game of thrones the Kingdom is trying to engineer, Al Saud could lose more than they ever bargained for; especially since the Houthis and their allies have nothing to lose – and this makes them extremely powerful indeed.
Catherine Shakdam is the Associate Director of the Beirut Center for Middle Eastern Studies and a political analyst specializing in radical movements, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.