Yemen a test for newly assertive Saudi foreign policy

Yemen a test for newly assertive Saudi foreign policy
Analysis: Though the strategic gains Saudi Arabia has made during its air campaign in Yemen are unclear, the damage and the humanitarian cost has clearly been huge.
4 min read
23 April, 2015
The month-long Saudi-led air campaign caused immense suffering in Yemen [Mohammed Hamoud]

A statement issued by a Saudi Defence Ministry spokesman declared the Saudi coalition had "successfully managed to thwart the threat to the security of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and neighbouring countries".

The Saudis stated that, as their military objectives had been achieved, a political solution must now be sought. A sea change is under way as Operation Decisive Storm is renamed Operation Restoring Hope.

The Saudis announced a halt to a month of devastating air raids, even though the forces of the Ansar Allah movement (known as the Houthis) are still in control of the capital, Sanaa.

Does this mean the Saudis are conceding the defeat the Houthi leadership had foretold? Has the West and the Arab allied coalition plan failed? Were these alliances simply opportunistic? Why were other options involving talks among all stakeholders not countenanced from the outset?

Why choose the military alternative, when it was little more than the brutal extension of political power given primacy, given that it would lead to a grave humanitarian crisis and extensive devastation? What was the military objective of the Saudi coalition?

The Houthi-Iran axis

A sea change is under way as Operation Decisive Storm is renamed Operation Restoring Hope.

The international community is said to have been taken by surprise by the Houthi movement's taking of Sanaa, and many analysts blame alleged support from Tehran to be behind the armed Shia group's success.

But Bernadette Meehan, spokeswoman for the US National Security Council, disagrees. "It remains our assessment that Iran does not exert command and control over the Houthis in Yemen," she told reporters.

This assessment casts doubt over the allegations of those opposed to the Iran nuclear deal - pro-war US Senators and Gulf Cooperation Council members who play up Iran's regional aspirations.

But the National Security Council's assessment did not prevent the US from providing covert and even overt military support to the Gulf coalition in its aggression in Yemen.

US warships stationed in the Gulf of Aden are preparing to stop Iranian ships heading toward Yemeni waters, allegedly to supply arms to the Houthi movement. Is this not another case of the military asymmetry in the Middle East?

Iran welcomed the end of the airstrikes and is calling for talks.

The humanitarian cost

Oxfam CEO Mark Goldring described the end of the air raids as "a ray of hope".

He said the fighting had achieved nothing, adding that the air raids did not bring peace but had caused further suffering to civilians.

"Yemen is a chronically poor country. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced. There is a real problem with food security and food access, most of which is imported," he said.

"The priority was to get the ports and borders reopened. We can't reach the hundreds of thousands without peace. One of our warehouses [was] destroyed - having given the coalition all the references to where the aid supplies were through the UN mechanisms."

Caught between pro and anti-government forces, among them al-Qaeda militants, will Yemen become another failed state?

Ironically, Saudi Arabia recently offered to meet in full the $273.7 million UN emergency aid appeal for Yemen. The kingdom was not only able to sustain the cost of its own military aggression, but also willing to pay for a humanitarian crisis of its own making.

Riyadh's formidible armed forces

Saudi Arabia spends ten percent of its GDP on defence, a staggering $80.8 billion.

However, this $273.7 million is but a drop in the ocean compared with Saudi Arabia's defence budget.

Figures published by the Institute of Strategic Studies show Saudi Arabia spends ten percent of its GDP on defence - a staggering $80.8 billion.

The Saudi military is probably one of the most powerful, outside of Israel, in the Middle East. It includes more than 400,000 servicemen, 225,000 army personnel, 125,000 National Guard personnel, 30,000 navy personnel and 30,000 air force personnel.

The sophisticated Saudi military machinery consists of, among other things, F-15 and F-16 fighter planes from the US and advanced precision-guided missiles.

The US Defense Department oversees arms deals worth billions of dollars in a sustained effort to balance the competing national interests of regional states. It sells weapons of greater or lesser sophistication and quantity - depending on who the buyers are - primarily to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

According to a senior US official, this is "not just to boost Israel's capabilities, but also to boost the capabilities of our Persian Gulf partners so they, too, would be able to address the Iranian threat - and also provide a greater network of coordinated assets around the region to handle a range of contingencies".

US military spending is also aimed at thwarting other types of security risks, such as threats posed by militant groups - Islamist or otherwise - and the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq.