Yemen in Focus: Houthis escalate attacks, infiltrate Saudi kingdom

Yemen in Focus: Houthis escalate attacks, infiltrate Saudi kingdom
This week we look at Houthi claims of infiltrating the Saudi kingdom, Riyadh's ballistic missile programme, a pause in Saudi-Iranian rivalry, and of course, Eid.
7 min read
07 June, 2019
Rubble of houses destroyed in a recent airstrike carried out by coalition warplanes [Getty]
After weeks of cross-border missiles that were met with more deadly airstrikes in response, Yemen's Houthi rebels escalated their attacks on Saudi Arabia by infiltrating the neighbouring kingdom.

The rebels said they seized more than 20 positions inside Saudi Arabia, with rebel officials promising to release video footage of the daring attack later this week.

Houthi spokesman Yahya Sarei told the rebel-run SABA news agency that fighters crossed over the border to seize Saudi military positions in the kingdom's southwestern Najran province. 

Houthi forces carried out a "surprise attack along three separate axes" over a 72-hour period, Sarei said, claiming that 200 Saudi troops were killed in the offensives and that military equipment was seized by the rebels.

"We have extensive video footage of the operation which will be broadcast later," Sarei said, according to Al Jazeera.

The attack came after Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - viewed as the architect of the Saudi-led coalition intervention in Yemen - visited troops on the border earlier this week.

While there has been no independent verification of the claims, recent events have shown not all Houthi claimed attacks are mere hearsay. 

Last month the Houthis released footage from a drone attack on Abu Dhabi International Airport that was conducted last year, after months of denials from UAE authorities.

At the time, Abu Dhabi airport said in a tweet that there had been an "incident involving a supply vehicle" but that the airport remained fully operational.

The UAE maintained that no drone attack had taken place at the airport.

The Houthis, however, have repeatedly warned that they have the capability to strike locations as far from Yemen as the Saudi capital Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Read also: Middle East drone wars heat up in Yemen

Saudi nuclear ambitions

Over in the kingdom however, the Saudis are cooking up more than it seems.

Reports this week revealed how China has helped Saudi Arabia develop its ballistic missile programme, according to intelligence given to Washington.

US intelligence says the kingdom, currently deadlocked in a war in Yemen, now has enough ballistic missiles to keep it on track with any regional arms race with the help of China according to a CNN report.

US intelligence says the Saudi kingdom now has enough ballistic missiles to keep it on track with any regional arms race with the help of China

American analysts believe Saudi Arabia's missile arsenal has put it way ahead of regional and ideological rival Iran in the arms race.

"Saudi Arabia needn't race Iran to produce or procure ballistic missiles. It already has a significant conventional military advantage," Behnam Taleblu of the Washington-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies told CNN.

Riyadh's efforts to heighten its ballistic missile programme is seen as a breaking point in decades-long effort to constrain missile proliferation in the volatile region.

Earlier this year, satellite images discovered that there may be a ballistic missile factory in Saudi Arabia.

The suspected facility was discovered at a missile base in al-Watah, near the capital Riyadh. It was unclear from the satellite images whether the facility was completed or functional.

If in operation, the suspected factory will enable the kingdom to manufacture its own ballistic missiles.

All three missile experts who reviewed high resolution images of the site in January said the photographs showed a rocket engine production and test facility, probably using solid fuel.

The alleged factory was discovered after Saudi Arabia spiked concerns when Crown Prince and de-facto leader Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) said Riyadh would be more than willing to acquire nuclear weapons if Iran had them - a move that some US lawmakers are trying to resist.

US Senators take on Riyadh.. again

Meanwhile, US lawmakers have been outraged over the Trump administration's eagerness to send nuclear technology and expertise to Saudi Arabia - again skirting the normal US process as Riyadh has not signed a so-called Section 123 agreement to guarantee peaceful use.

"President Trump's eagerness to give the Saudis anything they want, over bipartisan congressional objection, harms American national security interests and is one of many steps the administration is taking that is fuelling a dangerous escalation of tension in the region," Senator Tim Kaine, who pressed the Energy Department for more detail on the transfers, said in a statement.

Saudi Arabia, the world's top crude exporter, has launched an ambitious, $80 billion plan to build 16 nuclear reactors. But MbS has raised concerns by saying the kingdom would seek a nuclear weapon if Iran obtains one.

While the Saudi's beef up their arsenal, US Senators once again moved to block US President Donald Trump's plan to sell $8.1 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies as lawmakers' frustration with the kingdom soars.

US Senators once again moved to block US President Donald Trump's plan to sell $8.1 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies as lawmakers' frustration with the kingdom soars

Senators from across the political spectrum made the attempt after the Trump administration last month said it would use emergency powers to defy Congress and provide $8.1 billion in munitions, aircraft maintenance and other military components to Saudi Arabia along with the United Arab Emirates.

Lawmakers believe the weapons could be used to kill civilians in war-ravaged Yemen, where the Saudis and Emiratis are mounting an offensive and millions are at risk of starvation.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who is usually in lockstep with Trump, voiced hope for "strong bipartisan support" in preventing the sales.

"While I understand that Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behaviour of Mohammed bin Salman cannot be ignored. Now is not the time to do business as usual with Saudi Arabia," Graham said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the administration would not follow the usual process of submitting the sales to Congress due to an emergency caused by Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival which has backed the Houthi rebels who control much of Yemen.

The senators nonetheless said they would go ahead and introduce resolutions of disapproval - as they could for sales that are formally submitted - for each of the 22 arms deals, which also include a transfer of US arms from the United Arab Emirates to Jordan.

The chances of success are uncertain as Trump could veto any disapproval resolutions, with the Senate and House of Representatives both needing two-thirds votes to override him.

In April, Trump vetoed a resolution that would have ended US military support for the Saudi-led forces in Yemen.

Pause in rivalry

In odd news from Yemen this week, it seems the Saudi-Iranian rivalry took an unexpected pause...

On Tuesday, the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said it evacuated a crew member from an Iranian ship off the Red Sea port of Hodeida "for medical reasons", amid simmering regional tensions.. and decades of arch-rivalry.

The crew member was allegedly airlifted for treatment in a military hospital in the southern Saudi city of Jizan, coalition spokesman Turki al-Malki was quoted as saying by the official Saudi Press Agency.

Malki said the rescue happened after the kingdom received a distress call from the "suspicious" Iranian vessel "Safiz", adding that it also received a formal request for assistance from Iran's mission to the United Nations.

Maliki last week alleged "Safiz" was supplying the Houthis with naval mines, a growing menace in Yemen's four-year conflict.

Last month, an Iranian tanker was forced to seek repairs at a Saudi port after suffering "engine failure and loss of control", the Iranian oil ministry said, in a rare docking in the regional foe.

The staunch rivals have had no diplomatic relations since Riyadh broke off ties in 2016 after protesters angry at its execution of a top Shia cleric torched its diplomatic missions in Iran.

But despite it all, Yemenis across the war-torn country were sure to take part in this week's end of Ramadan Eid celebrations, as was shown in this blog post from a festive Yemen.

More news from Yemen, same time, same place – next week.

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino 

Yemen In Focus is a new, regular feature from The New Arab.

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