Humphrey and Stephan Richter
Arabia’s war in Yemen against various rebel factions has come to involve ground
troops from the UAE, Qatar, Egypt, Sudan, as well as various countries’ jets. A
recent ceasefire seems doomed to fail.
And yet it
has taken a full year for the Saudi government to present even the flimsiest
explanation of its reasons for undertaking the war to begin with or to mount a
public defence of the war’s course.
It came in
the form of an ungrounded, feel-good propaganda piece by Ambassador to the
United States Prince Abdullah Al-Saud in the pages of the Wall Street Journal
in March 2016.
Prince admits that it was hardly obvious to the public – or to himself! – Why
the Kingdom launched the war in the first place:
I was out
of government service when the operation was launched. So like many Saudis, I
wondered why the kingdom had taken this unusually bold action.
despite an incoherent raison d’être, the Saudi-led coalition operates with
substantial logistical and munitions support from the United States. And
despite the potent weaponry brought to bear, as we projected last year, the
campaign has failed to re-take much beyond a (fragile) southern beachhead.
There A Plan B?
Saudi coalition have a backup plan if a broader takeover failed? A possible
solution, to Saudi planners, appears to be splitting the country up.
intended outcome may sound exaggerated or alarmist. However, those who are
familiar with Yemen’s history over the last several decades would not be
surprised if it emerges that an unacknowledged goal of Saudi Arabia’s war is
very poor country that was widely seen before the war as a paradigm for a
failed state, sits across a 1,100 mile long border from wealthy, powerful Saudi
population – about 27 million – is nearly the same size as Saudi Arabia’s (26
million), even though the former’s territory is only 1/4th that of its much
richer neighbour to the north. Meanwhile, Yemen’s per capita income is only
1/20th of Saudi Arabia’s.
root, Yemen’s challenges are socio-economic in character. Attempting to bomb
them away, as Saudi Arabia has tried for some time now, are doomed.
Yemen’s Saudi-imposed post-Arab Spring political solution was overthrown, the Saudis
decided in March of 2015 to plunge themselves into the conflict in Yemen.
the Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond, they counted on the superiority
of their armaments and war technology to win the war quickly – and finally
resolve that persistent problem next door.
real effect of the Saudi air campaign, however, has been to destroy whatever
little infrastructure Yemen had before.
bridges, ports, even water pipelines have been sacrificed by Saudi
policymakers, putting Yemen’s future economic potential ever deeper into a
introduction of ground troops from a constellation of Arab countries did little
to improve the picture. As this campaign unfolds, Yemen will only be more
broken and unable to generate any realistic prospect for jobs or wealth.
did Saudi Arabia pursue such a strategy? The conventional wisdom is that it
simply followed the U.S. path – unwisely overestimating the power of high-tech
But the Saudis,
famed for their interest in preserving regional balance, have long had a
front-row seat to the rather disastrous unfolding of America’s strategy in the
region. They may be stubborn, but they certainly are not stupid.
the argument that Saudi Arabia just followed the U.S. example does not account
for the extent of the physical and human devastation from Saudi raids and naval
blockade. Thousands of people went hungry for half a year or more and 20
million lack safe drinking water.
of civilians have been killed in very poorly targeted airstrikes, including
many by Saudi aircraft flying too high for accurate bombing to be possible.
the widespread destitution that was already present in Yemen before any Saudi
actions, it is incomprehensible what the shattering devastation produced in the
past year should possibly yield, with regard to the stated goal of intervening
to stabilize Yemen.
explanation for the bull-in-a-china-shop approach the Saudis have taken in
Yemen to date is this: Saudi Arabia would rather demolish and break up Yemen
into its former two halves again than have it remain united. After all, the
latter scenario might entail dealing with a potentially hostile state. Split
into two parts, Yemen might be much less of a problem.
the historic dimension in support of this hypothesis: First, Saudi Arabia never
supported the amicable unification of north and south Yemen in 1990, under
North Yemen’s leadership.
the Saudis had tried to prevent this event from happening repeatedly in the
preceding decades. They also made efforts to undo it throughout the 1990s,
mainly by supporting southern Yemeni leaders and secessionist groups.
this involved the Saudis delivering more arms to one faction or another – which
contributed to Yemen becoming the country in the world that ranks second only
to the United States in per capita gun ownership.
the Saudi ambassador to the United States insisted, in his op-ed, that “The Saudi
government has been the largest supporter of successive Yemeni governments.”
Yemen’s Saudi-installed “transitional government” – which was established in
February 2012 and which the Houthis ejected in 2015, triggering the
intervention – was filled with southerners from Aden. It replaced the
northern-dominated regime that had unified the country in 1990.
Saudi Arabia has concentrated its war efforts on recapturing and (not very
successfully) securing Aden, the former southern capital. The Saudi
intervention did not begin after the rebel takeover of Sana’a, the country’s
capital in the north, but rather the fall of Aden.
northward have been made, the bulk of foreign military attention has been on
former South Yemen regions.
tellingly, Saudi-armed local ground forces are actually called the “Southern
Resistance” and include southern secessionists. Pro-Saudi demonstrators outside
a 2015 White House summit with King Salman openly displayed South Yemeni flags.
ultimate point to be raised in support of the partition thesis is this: If
partition is the ultimate goal, then the “strategy” pursued by the Saudis in
Yemen is not cruelly incompetent — but rather quite effective, albeit brutal.
Yemen from the air and invading parts of it may be a path toward a permanent
partition. Thus, whether by accident or design, Yemen’s unification is being
reversed 26 years later.
that align with the interests of the United States? In short, it does not. U.S.
policy, right or not, has been that preserving existing borders at all costs is
the way to maintain regional stability.
contrast, Saudi Arabia – a nation of formerly nomadic peoples in a theocratic
system that never cared much for earthly borders – seems to prefer a
such a Saudi strategy – particularly in Yemen – would be even more devastating
and short-sighted than the approaches pursued in the region by the United
States at its worst, most strategically short-sighted moments.
assuming this “grand” strategy were to “work,” in the sense of successfully
splitting up Yemen, all it would really achieve is the genesis of another
ISIS-style group, this one grown in the lawless Yemeni hinterland incubator
that once grew an al Qaeda affiliate into the main branch.
hardly in Washington’s interest. Nor is it really in the Saudis’ interest. And
yet, that may be precisely what is happening.
from Libya’s Past
need look to Libya’s recent past to see where this strategy will lead. Consider
it Yemen’s prologue under the current course. In Libya, Egyptian and UAE
bombardments have not re-united the country’s historic rival halves. Rather,
they hardened the partition between them.
And in that
Libyan breach, ISIS established its most active “provinces” outside of the
scenario next door in Yemen is the last thing that Saudi Arabia, a giant who
stands on clay feet, needs to create. U.S. interests’ demand that the Obama
administration does not let the Saudis, no matter how important an ally they
are, go unperturbed about its evidently disastrous – and inhumane – strategic
Bill Humphrey is a senior editor at The Globalist and a candidate for
Massachusetts Governor's Council.
Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist.