What is happening on the border of Saudi Arabia and Yemen?
The 25-million-strong Yemen is desperately poor. GDP PPP per capita is $2,700. Actually, the “solid” industry and the main source of foreign currency (70% of the budget) are oil production and processing. Oil production peaked in early 2000s and is now shrinking as the oil fields are exhausted. In 2013, the oil recovery shrank more than 4.5-fold as compared to the peak year. All this is happening amid an exemplary baby boom – birthrate in Yemen is about 5 children per woman. Evidently, a political crisis in the country was a matter of time.
The problem for Washington, Riyadh and other sponsors of the notorious “Arab Spring” is that along with the “right” progressive rebels spoon-fed by the Department of State, there have been “wrong” regressive radicals in Yemen from the very beginning.
Zaidi Shiites – representatives of one of the most moderate Shiite branch with minimum theological differences from the Sunni orthodox version - compose about one-third of the population of Yemen. However, one of the specific elements of the Zaidi doctrine is to revolt against the vicious ruler. Moreover, it is not an abstract theory for them. For instance, a Zaidi imam led the anti-Turkish uprising at the beginning of the last century, which resulted in restoration of the independent Kingdom of Yemen under Zaidi dynasty that ruled up to the 1962 coup.
It is not surprising that an evident anti-American and anti-imperialist movement emerged in such an environment (the slogan of the founder of the Hussites – a sect that, in fact, was an ordinary political grouping – was “Death to America, Death to Israel”). The ‘sect’ had no evident ethnic or confessional belonging; it described itself as a general Muslim sect.
This greatly helped the Hussites to “conquer” the country. For the time being, the Saudis and the coalition in general are fighting against a normal army, not rebels. The army comprises mainly units of the regular army and National Guard that joined the Hussites. A vivid example of that is the large-scale attack by ballistic missiles on targets in Saudi Arabia earlier last month. The total number of the ‘rebels’ is nearly 200,000 people.
Now, let us have a look at other side of the border. Saudi Arabia cannot ignore the situation in its underbelly, not least because the number of the population of the problematic Yemen is already comparable to the number of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). The situation will just get worse with due time. Riyadh has another headache – the old territorial and confessional conflicts in the southeast. It is noteworthy that the “historical” Yemen (within the borders of the Turkish vilayet of the same name and before) occupied a larger territory than the Kingdom had later – including Najran, Asir and expanded to the north up to Mecca that is of high value for the Al Saud. The borders were successfully “corrected” by Saudis in 1920s – 1930s. However, together with the territory, the dynasty received a population very different from the Arabian “standard” – “radical” Shia Ishmaelites and Zaidi.
Yet, the kingdom is not as unified as it may seem at first sight. Along with evident Shia in the oil bearing east, there are also significant differences inside the Sunni community. Wahhabis that dominate in KSA reside mainly in the core of the country – Najd, Shammar. Ḥijāz is mainly populated by classic Sunnites. Yet, historically, Sufis - marginal for the Islamic radicals – has had a significant influence there. In other words, there have always been and, perhaps, will always be preconditions for separatism in KSA.
As to Zaidi, Riyadh’s conflict with them started at least in 2004 and continues by present, spiraling into hostilities from time to time.
In other words, KSA had more than significant reasons to interfere into the Yemen crisis, and did it quite successfully, at first sight. Formally, the forces of Yemen and Saudi Arabia are incomparable. KSA’s military budget for 2006-2010 alone increased from $31 billion to $45 billion. In 2012, it was $52.5 billion. Now, the military budget of the kingdom has reached $67 billion. For comparison, Yemen’s GDP in 2011 was estimated at $33.76 billion.
KSA’s land forces comprise 75,000 manpower, about 1000 tanks (including about 300 Abrams tanks), 1270 armored vehicles (including 400 Bradleys), 370 self-propelled guns. Air Force among others comprises the highest number of US-produced heavy fighter aircrafts ever deployed outside USA: 154 F-15, leaving aside Typhoons (72 pieces) and Tornado.
Yemen can counter that armada with 126 T-72 and T-80, leaving aside the extremely outdated T-55 and T-34, T-62 and some 50 M-60 and 25 relatively modern self-propelled guns. Yemen lacks advanced air defense systems: only C-75 and C-125 that proved completely impotent against advanced fighters during the war in the Gulf and about 24 Mig-29 fighters, some 30 Mig-21 and 10-13 Tigers.
One would think Saudi are able to reach Sana, but in practice they cannot even protect their own territory. As to the air strikes, they are far from being perfect, given the Scud systems easily being moved in broad day-light.
The situation is repeating. The way Americans recall their Saudi allies of the period of “Desert Storm” resembles evident contempt. The previous clashes with Zaidis proved quite painful for the Saudi army in view of “absurd” losses.
The point is that the land forces of Saudis lack financing. Open data show the extremely “optimized” spending on the military training and lack of large-scale drills. Tactical skills are at extremely low level.
Abrams tanks do not participate in battles, unlike outdated AMX-30 that were to be written off. Judging by the number of the U.S. vehicles in the reserve, probably, they have not managed to use them. Eventually, the Saudi units have turned into targets for Hussites.
Generally, KSA despite the inflow of oil dollars and seeming civilization is even more archaic a country than Yemen. The system of government (including the military one) not just suffers but consists of all types of feudal and clan vestiges. In fact, the country with pre-industrial mentality uselessly tries to keep the army of the 21st century.
The military impotence of Saudi Arabia will have inevitable consequences. The Shia population in the countries of the Gulf will become more “active” and it will be necessary to find common ground with Iran, which they failed to overbalance just with financial flow and arms import. In addition, the Saudi will need a military cover – Egypt. This will not be “mercenarism,” but mutual dependence. Finally, Riyadh should so far forget about its claims for regional hegemony and the dream about neo-caliphate. In other words, paradoxically, the crisis in Yemen may make the region more stable.
EADaily Middle East editorial bureau