Into the quagmire: Saudi Arabia’s failed war on Yemen

In March 2015, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of its regional allies — mainly the united Arab Emirates and Jordan — started a war against Yemen with the declared aim of crushing the Houthi Ansarullah movement, who had taken over from the staunch Riyadh ally and fugitive former president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, while also seeking to secure the Saudi border with its southern neighbor. Three years and over 600,000 dead and injured Yemeni people later, the war has yielded little to that effect.

At the onset of the war, which began as an aerial campaign and never really went beyond that, Saudi rulers and the kingdom’s then defense minister, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, were confident that their clear military advantage would provide for an easy victory, which would in turn cement Riyadh’s position as a formidable force in the Middle East region.

After all, the regime had spent billions of dollars on the latest offerings from American and European arms manufacturers and it was time to put the huge inventory into good use.

The military extravaganza

Much to the delight of Saudi commanders, who had no real combat experience, some of the weapons even came with the necessary training courses.

In 2011, the US government approved a $29.4 billion deal to provide the Saudi Royal Air Force with 84 new F-15SA fighter jets and modernize an additional 70 F-15s the regime was already operating.

The deal also included “munitions, spare parts, training, maintenance and logistics,” according to US officials.

This, coupled with more than 120 British-made Eurofighter Typhoon and Panavia Tornado warplanes on active duty, guaranteed — at least on paper — an easy victory over the minimally-trained militia that were the Houthis and their allies in Yemen’s tribal south.

It is worth noting that there was no functioning army in Yemen when the war began since almost all of the commanders and their troops had either defected or pledged allegiance to Hadi, leaving the country further vulnerable to foreign aggression.

The American and British support for the Saudi military continued over the course of the war in the form of more arms deals as well as pilot training and target intelligence.

In addition to soaring aircraft purchases, Saudi Arabia’s thirst for British weapons prompted London to send nearly $6.2 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia in the first two years of the war, a 457-percent increase compared to the $7.8 billion that was exported between January 2008 and April 2015, according to the UK-based Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT).

Perhaps Saudi rulers felt proudest last year, when, during US President Donald Trump’s debut foreign trip, they agreed to buy $110 billion in weapons from Washington.

The war, and the resulting hike in Riyadh’s military budget, reportedly turned the oil-rich kingdom to the fourth country by military expenditure in 2015 ($63.7 billion) and the third a year later ($76.7 billion). To put it into perspective, Russia spent $61.2 billion in 2017 and the UK $50.7 billion.

A costly war

This extravagant spending has cost cash-strapped Saudis dearly, probably one of the reasons why the kingdom reportedly sold off $1.2 billion of its $9.2 billion holdings in European equities by the end of 2015.

The rulers in Riyadh have been keeping the costs of war a secret, but various estimates have been put forth by different sources and news organizations in recent years.

A Harvard study has concluded that the war costs the Saudi-led coalition some $200 million a day.

Monthly, according to estimates by the Brookings Institute, Riyadh is pouring $5-6 billion into the military aggression.

Reuters put the monthly cost for airstrikes at around $175 million plus another $500 million for ground incursions.

Various unofficial reports indicate that by mid-2017, the war had cost Saudi Arabia anywhere from $20 billion to $660 billion.

But has that huge military show of force succeeded in fulfilling Saudi Arabia’s declared goals? The short answer is no.

Lack of combat experience

All the potential firepower and the absolute air superiority that Saudis enjoy over Yemeni fighters, who only rely on ancient and often ineffective air defenses to keep off state-of-the-art fighter jets, have failed to give Riyadh the edge they thought they would have in the war.

In a clear sign of frustration with the constant failures, bin Salman, who is now next in line to the throne, fired the army’s chief of staff and replaced the commanders of the ground and air defense forces with no explanation in late February.

One miscalculation that the inexperienced Saudi commanders made in preparation for the war was that they underestimated the combat skills of Houthis and other Yemeni fighters, who had much more experience in guerilla warfare, despite lack of formal military training.

It was that very advantage that allowed Houthis to make the best use of the mountainous and rugged terrain in border areas and bypass the enemy’s crippled defenses to enter southern Saudi territories.

These incursions have on many occasions allowed the Yemeni fighters to attack Saudi military bases and inflict heavy casualties.

Saudi casualties and the proxy war

That brings us to another question which Riyadh adamantly refuses to answer. What is the total number of casualties Saudi Arabia has sustained over the course of the war?

Although Riyadh has on several occasions acknowledged the death of its soldiers, it basically keeps mum on the total casualty count.

Local reports suggest that Yemeni snipers have on many occasions managed to take out Saudi border guards and return to their bases unharmed.

The Saudi-led coalition has said that it will not release the number of military casualties until after the war. But the number of Saudi military deaths is estimated to be in the hundreds and even thousands. During the first year of the war alone, diplomats suggested that around 400 Saudi soldiers and border guards had lost their lives.

While Saudi Arabia has long laid siege to Yemen by blockading its aerial and maritime borders, Riyadh has steered clear of a direct ground offensive and has hired proxies and mercenaries to carry out that task.

The lack of combat ability has stopped the Saudi military from moving past the aerial phase of the operation and staging a full-scale ground incursion into Yemen to fulfill its longtime dream of capturing the country’s northern parts.

Even on that front, little has been achieved as Yemeni fighters have proven more powerful vis-a-vis a mostly militant force that lacks coordination and is dogged by division in its own ranks.

Allies’ secret interests

While at the outset, almost all of Riyadh’s regional allies were making symbolic contributions to the military campaign, the UAE stepped up its participation by deploying a military brigade, along with tanks and other armored vehicles into Yemen’ Aden.

The move by the Emirati sheikhs has largely been viewed as being part of a larger attempt by Abu Dhabi to ensure the security of the Bab el-Mandeb, a narrow strait that separates Yemen from the Horn of Africa and acts as a main gateway for the UAE’s oil and gas exports.

There is also the fact that participation from such oil-poor countries as Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan in the war is rather an attempt by their governments to keep the Saudi petrodollars flowing.

All in all, Saudi Arabia’s incompetent and unmotivated military force coupled with Riyadh’s uncommitted allies have caused the military campaign to fall flat on its face against a resilient Yemeni resistance, prompting the Saudi air force to keep up its indiscriminate bombing campaign against Yemeni infrastructure and civilian targets.

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