On 25 March 2015, Saudi Arabia, leading a coalition of about ten Sunni Arab countries, launched a major military operation in Yemen to restore President Mansour Hadi to power after he was overthrown through a Houthi (Shia mountain people) rebel insurgency.
It was a 29-year-old Minister of Defence, Mohammed Ben Salman (MBS, now Crown Prince), who embroiled the Kingdom in this adventure. He called it “Decisive Storm”.
A month later, this Arab adventure received another official name: it became Operation Restore Hope. It continues to this day. With three million displaced and eleven million hungry, the Yemeni people have suffered a storm. In what way was it decisive? What hope has it restored? It’s very difficult to answer.
Militarily, the Houthis still hold the capital Sanaa. These fighters in sandals did not falter in the face of the strikes of the hunter-bombers of the Arab petromonarchies. From a humanitarian point of view, the population has suffered severely from the various embargoes put in place by the Arab coalition. And from the disruption of the usual distribution channels as a result of the least “surgical” bombardments in contemporary military history. Cholera has appeared. More than ten thousand civilians died under bombardments that did not give them any “hope”.
Politically, the disaster is total. Aden, the great port and former capital of the South, is in chaos.
On Saturday, August 10, the presidential palace and three government barracks were taken by independence militiamen who demanded a return of South Yemen (a country that existed from 1967 to 1990). These armed men belong to the “Cordon de sécurité” force, which is trained, equipped and financed by the United Arab Emirates, a petromonarchy supposed to be the Saudi’s best ally. The Houthis must be rubbing their hands in glee…
Living in Saudi Arabia, President Mansour Hadi denounced the Emirates as responsible for Aden’s “coup d’état”. But who can take seriously an internationally recognized Yemeni government that no longer controls any of its territory?
In this last decade, Saudi Arabia has suffered three foreign policy fiascos. There was its support, in dollars and arms, to the Sunni Islamist rebels in Syria, which lasted from 2012 to 2016.
In 2017, there was its failure to subdue its little Qatari neighbour, in spite of a total embargo imposed together with its Emirati ally.
But the Yemeni fiasco is by far the worst for the Saudi dynasty. While Yemen runs along their entire southern border, the Saudis have shown the impotence of their army and their visible strategic weakness. Some may have forgotten that the Saudis had had to call on the French gendarmerie to subdue an Islamist insurrection in Mecca in December 1979; that they had gone into a total panic on 2 August 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, pleading with the US to come in and establish military settlements in their country.
At the time, the idea had not even crossed their minds that they might take up the fight to help their Kuwaiti cousins who had been attacked… In his adventures against Yemen and then Qatar, it is not impossible that the young MBS was instrumentalized by the formidable strategist that is MBZ (Mohammed ben Zayed, Crown Prince and Minister of Defence of Abu Dhabi). Indeed, the strongman of the Emirates is pursuing his own strategy of building a regional thalassocracy.
Like Venice in the Adriatic, MBZ is seeking to build dedicated trading posts beyond the Straits of Hormuz. Even without taking Aden into account, the Emiratis already have a broad presence in the Horn of Africa – in the ports of Assab (Eritrea), Berbera (Somaliland) or Bosasso (Puntland). If Aden secedes, the Emiratis will form an alliance with this new South Yemen and leave Saudi Arabia to fend for itself with the Houthis.
Together with China, they will then put together a great power axis that has become the greediest on these eastern shores…
Strategically, the Saudi fiasco in Yemen is not good news for the West. It weakens, both at home and abroad, a young prince who is determined to reform his society.
Since the beginning of August, Saudi women have been allowed to travel without the permission of a guardian. This is a crucial step forward. It may herald even more significant changes in school curricula.
In the 100-year war imposed on it by the jihadists, the West needs a self-confident MBS more than a prince in thrall to Wahhabi Mullahs.
This article was first published in Le Figaro. Picture by Felton Davis.