When Saudi Arabia in March 2015 decided to involve itself into the then only a week old civil war in Yemen on the request of the country's president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, it certainly did not expect to find itself, almost three years later, still embroiled in a bloody conflict which hardly be classified as a net victory for the Gulf kingdom. Quite the opposite: the intervention in Yemen led by Saudis (which also includes a number of other nations and is supported by the United States) could be interpreted as a failure on all fronts. First and foremost, it is undoubtedly a humanitarian disaster. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia's military performance has been a disjointed, disappointing affair., a blow to the Saudis who have spent an enormous amount of money on the conflict without it resulting in a decisive geopolitical victory they desired.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OSHA) has stated that the malnutrition crisis in Yemen is of "immense proportions“. The United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Lowcock said that Yemen faces "the largest famine the world has seen in decades“ while The Economist has described Yemen "the most wretched place on earth“, and The New York Times wrote an article about how Yemen is experiencing a "slow death“. Such statements and headlines may seem like sensationalism but a look at the raw numbers paints a stark picture that the situation in Yemen is disastrous.
Even before the war, Yemen was an economically underdeveloped, struggling nation. Its economy was heavily dependent on oil production, although its oil reserves were insignificant to begin with (3 billion barrels compared to, for example, Saudi Arabia's 268 billion barrels), and production was steadily declining for years. The second largest part of the economy was agriculture. According to OSHA, after two and a half years of fighting and economic blockades imposed by the Saudi regime, 20.7 million Yemenis (in a country of around 27 million) need some kind of humanitarian or protection assistance. More than 3 million people are displaced and an estimated 17 million people are food insecure. Around 4.5 million children and pregnant and lactating women are acutely malnourished. In addition to these problems, a cholera epidemic is ravaging Yemen with more than 900 000 suspected cases as of November 2017, making it the worst cholera epidemic in modern history.
The dire medical situation in Yemen is compounded by the fact that Saudi-led coalition has damaged more than 270 health facilities in the country, including a Doctors Without Borders hospital killing 11 and wounding 19 people. More than half of Yemen's 3500 health facilities are not functioning, leaving more than 8 million children without healthcare.
Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has imposed a harsh blockade of Yemen's ports. Given that Yemen imports 85% of their food and medicine, the consequences of the blockade have been devastating. The total losses from the destruction caused by war and the devastation caused by the blockade added up to $14 billion as of August 2016 and are now most certainly even higher. Only recently has Saudi Arabia agreed to ease the blockade of Yemen's ports, but the international community is worried that it might be too late for such actions.
The amount of money Saudi Arabia spends on its military is staggering. The kingdom's military budget for 2016 has been estimated to be around $63.7 billion, the fourth largest military budget in the world behind the United States, China and Russia. This is a 20% increase from their military budget in 2007. If one looks at the percentage of the military budget in the GDP of the country, Saudi Arabia takes the second place just behind Oman with their military budget taking 10% of their GDP.
There had been significant media hype surrounding Donald Trump's visit of Saudi Arabia earlier this year, and the accompanying $110 billion arms deal allegedly signed between the United States and the Gulf Kingdom. Later analysis, however, has indicated that, contrary to Trump's boasting, a significant part of the weapons deal refers to letters of intent, and not actual sales contracts. A few months later, the US Senate voted against parts of the Trump weapons deal, presumably pressured in part by the ongoing onslaught on Yemen. Protests against selling weapons to Saudi Arabia have been raised in Greece, as well as in the United Kingdom, which sold £4.44 billion worth of weapons to the kingdom since the war in Yemen began, over ten times the amount they have sent as aid to Yemen.
Despite the military and financial investments, the Saudi-led coalition has not had significant success in Yemen. The Houthi militia, supported by Iran (by means of weapons supply) and Hezbollah (by means of training Houthi fighters), has been giving the coalition multiple headaches on the frontline. Over the years, footage has frequently surfaced online before being taken down, including the ones which show Houthis storming a basically undefended Saudi military post, and a number of videos where Houthis are destroying poorly defended Saudi M1 tanks on an open field with ATGM's. One of the arms deals signed with the US reveals that Saudis have lost at least 20 main battle tanks in Yemen on top of suffering several hundred casualties. One of the most significant contributors to the Saudi-led war effort, Sudan, has recently disclosed that it has suffered 412 casualties, including 14 officers, while having refusing to comment on the number of wounded soldiers. Other casualties among coalition forces include Latin American mercenaries which the United Arab Emirates have employed and trained to fight on the behalf of the Saudi-led coalition.
Parallel to the military setbacks and lack of significant military accomplishments against the Houthis in Yemen (despite overwhelming military power), Saudi Arabia has found itself to be engaged in a conflict on their own turf. The Houthis have attacked and seized Saudi military outposts in the southern provinces of Saudi Arabia, conducted successful ambushes, and at times even held portions of Saudi territory along the border. Only recently have the Saudi opponents shown a sign of division and danger of fracturing when at the end of November 2017 clashes amongst Houthis and followers of Ali Abdullah Saleh erupted in Sana'a leaving more than a dozen dead after Saleh stated that he was open to talks with Saudi Arabia. Two days later Houthi fighters published a video in which they apparently show the body of the murdered Saleh.
The Houthis were not willing to play Saleh's game of negotiating with the Saudis, and the murder of Saleh sends a strong message that they would continue with their military campaign at any price.
However, this scenario could unfold in the future. The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and all the eventual gains or losses that Saudi Arabia suffer have to be observed within the context of regional and even global politics. The Saudi fight for regional supremacy is clearly the most important piece of the puzzle and it is a story in which Iran has been on the other side constantly. Both sides have financed and/or directly helped opposing sides in the Syrian Civil War and are embroiled in a constant diplomatic and information-media war against each other. The two states are clear contenders for the position of regional leader (with Turkey being the only other state in the region with the capability and aspiration for such a role) and are quite open about it. Qatar is another interesting case of a regional player whose influence and ambitions far outgrew its size as well as Saudi Arabia's tolerance. The Saudi response to Qatar's ambitions in Syria and the region - when compared to its mild stance towards Iran - has been vicious and uncompromising.
Thus, the Saudi efforts in Yemen can either be understood as an effort to destroy Iranian influence in Yemen (although the Houthis themselves would be the first to claim far greater autonomy from Iran than the Saudis imagine) or an effort to contain Iranian influence in that part of the region. If the first option is true, Saudi efforts have been woefully inadequate. If the latter is true they did have limited success, but at what price? Along with a drop in oil prices, the war has been a significant drain on the Saudi economy, and despite the kingdom's best efforts, Iran seems to still have the upper hand in the Middle East, despite Saudi Arabia's extensive efforts to deter Iranian expansion. Saleh's recent change in rhetoric which resulted in his death could have changed the course of war and channelling it towards a result more acceptable to the Saudis. Nonetheless this would not change the fact that Iranians have in Houthi insurgents a very cost-effective option for undermining Saudi hold over Yemen which is becoming more costly for the Gulf kingdom with each passing day of the war. When the disruptive presence of Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Penisula in the country is factored in, it is clear that a full victory in Yemen may still be quite far away.
Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince and the Defence Minister have recently gone on the offensive. A few months after the Qatar blockade, Salman went further in an attempt to stifle regional opponents and instigated an event which was interpreted by a vast majority of experts as basically a kidnapping or detainment of Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hariri (a Saudi ally) who had been mentioning the possible cooperation of his own Future Movement with a coalition which includes Hezbollah. It is not improbable that Salman concluded that such a cooperation between Saudi Arabia's man in Lebanon and the leading ally of Iran is unacceptable. Together, Hezbollah and Iran have helped President Bashar al-Asad to stay in power in Syria while helping to train and arm Shia militias in Iraq, all in opposition to Saudi moves in the region.
A further move made by Salman inside the kingdom was the detainment of several wealthy and influential Saudi princes in what seems to be an attempt to consolidate power. Many are now worried that Salman's moves inside the kingdom, as well as a series of increasingly bolder moves in the region (an apparent cozying up to Israel being one of them) is a sign that Salman has been given free reign by Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son in law and Senior Advisor who has been announced by Trump as the man to lead the charge in brokering a new peace deal in the Middle East. It is unclear where such a concentration of power and influence in Kushner's hands leaves Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State and the person which should nominally be one of the leading voices in the White House on such matters.
Perhaps a question worth asking is whether Salman understands the state of chaos which has engulfed the White House in the last 10 months, particularly given the increasingly mixed signals the region has been getting from the Trump administration, with statements from various branches of the government contradicting themselves, sometimes within a few hours of statements being made. If he does understand it, and if he is of the opinion that the house of cards built by President Trump and his staff with increasingly apparent Russian help is soon to fall down in a spectacular fashion, maybe he also understands that the 'rule of Trump' presents a limited window of opportunity during which he can try and aggresively mold regional politics in a fashion he prefers while keeping US military power and logistics on his side. Short-term gains of such a strategy are clear but it is questionable if it is feasible in the long run. Salman should not mistake the chaos in US politics for elevated support and if the Democrats secure the presidency after the Trump Presidency and establish a foreign policy more critical of Saudi regional influence and more open to negotiations with Iran, his whole gamble could fail.
While implying that the rise in Saudi aggressiveness as being due to the lack of coherence in US foreign policy would be an oversimplification, it cannot be dismissed altogether. Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel now seem more than ever united against a common enemy, Iran, and Saudi Arabia is attempting to exploit the decline in US authority and sense of direction in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen against a force partially consisted of Iranian allies, their anti-Hezbollah move in Lebanon, the increased rate of Israeli strikes against Hezbollah and Iranian targets inside Syria and the aggressive US rhetoric on Iran, including the refusal of Donald Trump to recertify the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action implies that the three countries are willing to engage Iran and its allies more strongly than ever. If the price of that is the destruction of Yemen with bombings, drone strikes, famine and disease, that is a risk they seem to be willing to take.