This post is based on an article published in the December/January issue of Survival, authored by David B Roberts and Emile Hokayem.
The states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the UAE – have spent over $1 trillion on defence procurement since the millennium. Their arsenals thus contain many of the most advanced weapons for sale anywhere in the world. According to traditional realist and neorealist schools of thought, this means that their military power should be significant. This is because such schools posit a strong correlation between basic metrics like military spending or the size of a state’s population and their military power. Such logic is often criticised, however, with many arguing that weaker states defeating nominally stronger ones is far from an unusual occurrence and that financial, geographical, or material advantage alone is not enough to understand military power. Such conclusions are reflected in the widespread critiques of the ultimate military power of the GCC states that is frequently seen as deeply lacking despite many obvious advantages. The Saudi and UAE-led intervention in Yemen, which started in 2015, offers an interesting case study that both confirms and challenges parts of such long-held assumptions.
A surprising intervention
That Saudi Arabia and the UAE would launch such a venture at all is, in many ways, surprising. The GCC states are seldom overtly associated with deploying their military forces. Rather, it is assumed that they see their close relations with allies like the US, the UK, and France as offering de facto deterrence or even defence against regional concerns. In this light, much of the procurement over the decades is seen as a way to maintain these kinds of links and to make these (and other) states continually interested in the long term stability and security of the GCC states in their current form.
While this may be a reasonable generalization, there are some interesting exceptions that have emerged in recent years. In particular, the UAE has increasingly been deploying its military forces in recent years. From Kosovo in the early-1990s to, on a far larger, more dangerous, and complex scale, Afghanistan with NATO forces. Subsequently, the UAE and Qatar supported NATO operations in Libya, before the UAE also supported the bombing campaign against Da’esh in Iraq, and unilaterally supported its proxies in Libya. Nevertheless, even taking into account the UAE’s increasingly assertive use of military force, it was difficult to foresee the scale and ambition of the Saudi and UAE-led intervention in Yemen.
Road to war
Some see the intervention in Yemen as a knee-jerk reaction of the coming to power of the young Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud. Certainly, the timing was curious with the largest war in Saudi’s modern history being launched within months of the young, new minister taking power in the Ministry of Defence. But, in reality, this confrontation was brewing for some time. The Houthis, an indigenous Zaydi insurgent group based in northern Yemen, had for some years been expanding their power out from their traditional heartlands. They took the capital, Sana’a in September 2014 and the key port city of Aden in early 2015.
Saudi Arabia and other GCC states were particularly concerned about this as they feared that if the Houthis managed to consolidate a grip on Yemen’s key cities, then they could present a more powerful, on-going threat to their interests. Specifically, the GCC states see Zaydi Islam as analogous enough to Shia Islam to have forged key links between the Houthis and Iran. There is some truth to these claims of links. Certainly numerous Iranian ‘fishing boats’ have been caught attempting to smuggle weapons into Yemen. But, the ultimate strategic importance of these links and such support is questionable. Yemen is one of the most armed nations on earth and the Houthis, while they might share sympathies with Iran, are a bonafide indigenous group with their own rationales and raison d’état. Nevertheless, the GCC state fear that, whatever the bilateral relations between Iran and the Houthis, they simply cannot take the chance that the Houthis could transform into some kind of Hezbollah-on-the-Arabian-Peninsula.
The war in Yemen
The Saudi-led coalition launched Decisive Storm on 25 March 2015. It was heralded by a large-scale air campaign aimed primarily at knocking out high-value military targets under Houthi control like the Yemeni air force and ballistic missile launchers. Despite quick announcements from the coalition that its key objectives had been met, that they had taken out air fields and the missile launchers, this proved not to be the case. Indeed, an enduring issue for the Saudis has proven to be the continued Houthi ability to launch missiles deep into Saudi territory with relative impunity. Another low point was the missile strike on an Emirati camp that killed 45 Emiratis, 33 Yemenis, and 4 Bahrainis: by far the worst loss of life in combat for the UAE in its history. The tragedy of this event mirrors the repercussions of the coalition bombing campaign. With so few verifiable, direct military targets, the campaign soon switched to a wider coercive mentality. Civilian casualties spiralled and infrastructure was widely destroyed, presaging profound problems for whatever post-conflict state emerges.
In the south of Yemen, the UAE led a successful amphibious landing near Aden that led to the recapturing of the city and the wider southern region. This technically difficult venture was particularly impressive as it was done without US assistance; US planners refused to help believing that the Emiratis were insufficiently trained to conduct the operation.
The coordination of the overall campaign was, in a technical sense, often quite impressive. All GCC states bar Oman along with Senegal, Morocco, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, and Eritrea provided troops or aircraft for operations. There were, however, notably absentees. Given the level of support that the GCC has showed Egypt in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, many (likely including the leadership in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi) expected a sizable Egyptian presence, but little was forthcoming, and in particular, no ground troops were offered. And it was exactly the same for Pakistan: a state long financially supported by Saudi Arabia, when it came to it, again, no material support was offered. This is a key lesson for the GCC states: it seems that you can only rent, not buy, an alliance.
Despite the efforts of the combined coalition, the Houthis, though they were pushed out of the south, remain lodged in central regions and in the north, their homelands. Though their areas have taken an astonishing bombardment, they have not been pressured to the point of capitulation. The rounds of peace talks have failed as both sides remain far apart. In light of this failure, it appears that the coalition ran out of ideas. It resorts to bombing a selection of targets, with occasionally terrible civilian consequences, in lieu of any systematic plan or strategy to pressure the Houthis.
Thus, while this intervention has ushered in a new era of Gulf-led interventionism, the difficulties that they have faced are stark. Many of the core goals of the campaign remain unrealised; the Saudis still cannot really control their own border, and they have struggled to translate obvious technical and materiel superiority into military power and into victory.
Image: Yemeni tribesmen await remains of one of their own killed in clashes -Khawlan al-Tyal – a tribal area east of Sanaa – Sept 2015. Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.