Despite the current humanitarian ceasefire, Saudi Arabia’s military operation in Yemen is now in its second month with no end in sight and no sign that any of the parties are willing to negotiate. The intervention has caused devastating destruction in Yemen, a deepening of divisions between already divided Yemeni factions, a large number of casualties and refugees and has done nothing to stabilize the country.
Militarily, Saudi Arabia has not achieved its goals. However, to understand the rationale behind the intervention, Saudi Arabia’s actions must be seen in a wider context that includes both its domestic and regional goals. From this perspective, this military incursion serves the present interests of Saudi Arabia in a number of ways, regardless of the military outcome.
The Saudi-led intervention that began with “Operation Decisive Storm” on March 25 had two explicit goals: to restore the “legitimate” government of Yemen under President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi and to push back against what it considers Iranian encroachment in Yemen by defeating the Houthis, whom Saudi Arabia sees as little more than Iranian puppets. While these are its stated goals in Yemen, two other objectives have been the real engines of Saudi domestic and foreign policy since the Arab uprisings: to secure the stability of the regime and to crush anti-regime movements in the region that can endanger that stability. It is in light of all four of these goals – two stated, two implicit – that we must assess the Saudi military intervention in Yemen.
Although the Houthis should not be seen so straightforwardly as Iranian puppets, Saudi Arabia and other Arab governments have clear reasons for portraying them that way. The specter of an Iranian threat is more important than the truth of one: Its constant reiteration by Arab governments creates its own political reality. Because of recent events in the region, especially Iranian support of various actors in Syria and Iraq, Saudi Arabia is both primed to overreact to such a threat and to instrumentally exaggerate it to bolster its domestic legitimacy and to justify its regional ambitions. From the Saudi perspective, Iran is the big winner since 2011: Their ally in Syria is still hanging on to power; Hezbollah is strong; Iran is needed in the fight against the Islamic State; and it is finally reaching a nuclear agreement with the United States. The center of political gravity is pivoting toward Iran. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia was shaken by the Arab Spring and its own uprising in the Eastern Province, which makes the regime particularly attuned to potential threats.
The seemingly hastily planned Saudi intervention and the devastation it is causing in Yemen is a particularly sad turn of events given that, according to the ex-U.N. envoy in Yemen, Jamal Benomar, Yemeni factions were close to a negotiation before the recent hostilities broke out. And Saudi Arabia knew it.
Why then did Saudi Arabia intervene when it could have helped facilitate and influence the outcome of the negotiations, especially at a time when the Houthis faced strong domestic opposition? Because it wanted a war. It did not want a negotiated settlement where the Houthis remained part of the regime; for that would have robbed them of an opportunity to become a real military player regionally. Saudi Arabia has always been a financial powerhouse, but, despite enormous military spending, even the Houthis defeated them in the previous decade. Whether the Houthis are Iranian puppets or not does not matter: Bombing the Houthis is Saudi Arabia’s signal to Iran that it is willing to fight Iranian proxies in the region.
It is telling that the Saudi government is downplaying the role of exiled Yemeni military leaders – including former president Ali Abduallah Saleh’s onetime friend and current biggest foe, General Ali Muhsin – as well as other Yemeni officials in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia wants to be the face of this war. However, that does not mean that it is willing to forgive its allies for not complying with its demands. Saudi Arabia threatened to delay aid to Egypt after the Egyptian government hesitated over the possibility of a ground invasion. The Saudi government seems to be playing a hedging game where it wants to take the credit for the war but leave room to blame any potential negative outcomes on unwilling partners.
Domestically, this intervention has already paid off for Saudi Arabia, at least for the moment. The two biggest problems facing Saudi Arabia are its young, unemployed population and, until a few weeks go, its aging leadership. Its young population was a serious concern for the regime during the uprisings of 2011 because it feared that they would imitate their counterparts in neighboring countries. Saudi Arabia’s interventions in the region since the start of the uprisings should be examined with this fear in mind. However, five years since the Tunisian revolution, it is hard to imagine that after the turbulence and often disappointing outcomes of the Arab uprisings that the young Saudi population has an appetite for democratic reform. The sorry state of affairs in many Arab countries should in itself act as a deterrent against mobilization in Saudi Arabia.
More than a direct deterrent against mobilization, then, the war in Yemen has greatly stoked Saudi nationalism and rallied the population around the flag. Of course, given that public opposition to the war could send one to jail, it is difficult to measure true popular sentiment. However, anti-Iran rhetoric has run high in Saudi Arabia for decades, and both traditional and social media seem to portray strong support for the intervention and pride in the actions of the king. Three regular critics of the regime whom I interviewed recently have voiced strong support of the war in Yemen. Moreover, the absence of ground troops allows the Saudi population to remain removed from the cost of the conflict, which puts less pressure on the regime to stop, despite the doubtfulness of military success. This relatively low-cost strategy to boost nationalist sentiment may help to stave off the possibility of agitation among its younger citizens.
But perhaps the most important domestic outcome of Saudi Arabia’s Yemen adventure is that it has allowed King Salman to carry out some of the most drastic realignments in history at the top leadership in Saudi Arabia. The precarious situation in Yemen, U.S. reservations about the war (despite its continued provision of intelligence and naval blockade), the (often exaggerated) Iranian threat and the reluctance of the coalition allies all served to also rally the elites around the king. As a result, King Salman was able to quickly remove the crown prince and to replace him with the minister of interior, Mohammed bin Nayef, and to name his own young son, Mohammad bin Salman, as deputy crown prince. This is the first time that the line of succession moves to the grandsons of the original king, Abdulaziz. Just as importantly, both of these men, like King Salman, belong to the Sudairi family, the family of Abdulaziz’s favorite wife. Known as the “majestic seven,” the Sudairi sons have long enjoyed disproportionate power in Saudi Arabia. The fact that these appointments seem to have been made not simply by royal fiat but by a decision of the council of princes lends them greater legitimacy.
These two princes are the architects and strongest supporters of the war in Yemen, as is the new (and first non-royal) foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, who until now had served as ambassador to the United States. The king has therefore solved three separate issues: the issue of succession and aging leadership was resolved by appointing younger princes and naming a deputy crown prince; the pro-intervention stance was consolidated; and appointed individuals – especially bin Nayef and Jubeir – are very close to top U.S. officials, further solidifying the kingdom’s relationship with the United States. At a time when Saudi Arabia feels threatened by Iranian encroachment and the nuclear deal, these are politically astute moves. As the current meeting with Gulf leaders at Camp David shows, Saudi behavior has put it on top of the U.S. agenda, and the supposed “snub” of King Salman not attending the meeting personally has caused some anxiety in the Obama administration. Saudi Arabia’s tantrum in Yemen is getting the attention it intended to generate.
All signs seem to suggest strongly that Yemen will continue to be a disaster for the foreseeable future. But, in many ways, Saudi Arabia has already achieved its goals: It has signaled to Iran that it will fight its proxies (real or imagined). It has signaled to the Arab public that it will back regimes against movements aimed at overthrowing them. And, most important, it has stoked nationalist sentiment and solidified the regime. Having achieved its real domestic goals and successfully signaled its international intentions, it would be wise for Saudi Arabia to stop the bombing now and allow for a negotiated settlement with all Yemeni factions. If it continues the bombing without any tangible military wins, the deterrent power that this intervention may have for future Iranian involvement will be diminished. Saudi Arabia is taking a gamble – which it likely knows – that Yemen will not be (too) unstable in the long run, but the longer the bombing continues the riskier that gamble becomes. Saudi Arabia should quit while it is still ahead.
Silvana Toska is a PhD candidate in political science at Cornell University, with a regional focus on the Middle East. She is writing her dissertation on the causes of revolutionary waves.