By The Economist
Apr 4th 2015
SAUDI ARABIA’S recently enthroned King Salman pulled off a striking diplomatic coup last month when he gathered a ten-country coalition of Sunni states to bomb the upstart Shia rebels in Yemen known as Houthis. Even Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, rivals in regional politics, put aside their differences to confront a perceived Iranian proxy. Egypt sent planes and ships. Countries as far apart as Morocco and Pakistan pledged help, too.
Saudi Arabia is usually shy about speaking loudly and taking part in military action. Its uncharacteristic assertiveness may be a sign of the influence of the new king’s son and defence minister, Muhammad, who is in his 30s. Sunni states no doubt want to draw a line against further encroachment by Iran, which exerts strong influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. But Saudi Arabia, which treats the Arabian Peninsula as its backyard, is particularly sensitive about trouble in Yemen.
Politically nimble as King Salman’s team may be, the real test will be the outcome of the military action and whether it can stabilise his poor, tumultuous southern neighbour. Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth and custodianship of the two holiest sites in Islam, Mecca and Medina, give it a central place in the Sunni world. But the kingdom also has a reputation as a blunderer. Its attempt to unseat Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, by supporting rebel groups has been stymied by the backing that Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hizbullah, gives him.
Saudi Arabia has long relied on America for its own security. Its army has many weaknesses. “The military has some excellent niche capabilities, but it doesn’t yet reflect the country’s massive defence budget,” says Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British-based think-tank. During its latest foray into Yemen, in 2009, the Saudi army achieved a draw at best against the Houthis, then confined to their northern stronghold. A leaked American cable called Saudi strikes “imprecise”.
On March 30th an air strike hit a camp for displaced people in northern Yemen, killing at least 29. A day later, a bomb hit a dairy factory near Hodeida, killing 23. The Saudis have not admitted to any mistakes.
Saudi Arabia and its allies have bombed airfields, arms dumps and missile launchers in the hands of the remnant of the Yemeni army loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has allied himself with the Houthis (see article). Ships are blockading Yemeni ports to stop arms deliveries. But the Houthis still appear to be advancing. “Bombing from the air is unlikely to do much more than inflict pinprick damage,” says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen of Rice University in Texas.
A land intervention is a different matter. The Houthis are renowned as fearsome fighters. And any ground force might also have to contend with al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups that have expanded amid Yemen’s chaos. Who else would offer ground forces? Egypt, which has a large army, still remembers Yemen as its “Vietnam” from the days it fought there in the 1960s. Pakistan is reluctant to be drawn into a war when it is fighting its own militants, the Taliban; it also fears exacerbating its own Shia-Sunni troubles.
Ultimately Yemen will have to be pacified by a political agreement. King Salman seems bent on reinstalling Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the internationally backed president and, it is said, on excluding the Houthis. Saudi imams are said to be under orders to denounce them as “enemies of Islam”. The trouble is that Yemen’s Zaydis represent only about 40% of its population, so the Houthis will be hard to exclude. Mr Hadi, moreover, is discredited among many Yemenis, and has fled the country. As America has discovered in recent years, ending a war is harder than starting it. Saudi Arabia’s enemies would not be sorry to see it bogged down: Iranian comments on social media already talk of Yemen being the “Saudis’ Afghanistan”.