Saudi Arabia’s $200 million a day fails to conquer Yemen

Saudi Arabia has essentially been booted from Yemen after four years of bankrolling mercenaries at the cost of $200 million a day to crush impoverished desert tribesmen.

As of mid-June, the Yemen Civil War that began in 2015 had seemingly settled into a stalemate after about 39,700 battles and the loss of about 91,600 lives, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). But even with much less military movement, there were 4,900 armed incidents and 11,900 dead in 2019.

Located in the southwest and comprising about 12 percent of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen has a population of 28.7 million people and gross domestic product (GDP) of $31.3 billion, or about $2,500 per capita.

That compares to Saudi Arabia with 33.1 million residents and a GDP of $686.7 billion, or about $54,500 per capita, according to the CIA Factbook. Saudis are not known for their work ethic, with half getting substantial monthly welfare checks. The number of employed Saudis peaked in 2016 at 11.6 million, but shrank to 10.9 million last year. 

The Zaidi Shia-Muslim Houthi insurgency began in 2004 when the Sunni-Muslim Yemeni government tried to arrest Houthi religious leader and parliamentarian Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi by putting a $55,000 reward on his head. But Houthis took the capital and President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi fled to the Saudi Arabian capital in 2015.

Yemen has very little natural resources or industry, but it controls the 31 miles long by 16 miles at its narrowest Bab el-Mandeb, known as the “Gate of Tears” that serves as the only southern Red Sea exit for Saudi Arabia’s oil tankers headed to Asia.

Armed with Western military equipment, Saudi air bases carried out saturation bombing against the Houthis’ North Yemen homeland with American F-15s, British EF-2000 Typhoons, and Panavia Tornado fighters; plus American Apache and Black Hawk helicopters.

The Saudis lined the Yemeni border with American Abrams and French AMX 30 tanks, reinforced by at least five types of Western-made artillery guns to bombarded Houthi rebels, as U.S., French, and German model attack ships enforced a naval blockade.

To reinstate deposed Yemen President Hadi, while avoiding casualties among its its citizens, Saudi Arabia bankrolled ground troops from Yemeni tribes, mercenaries, the United Arab Emirates, Senegal, Sudan, Morocco, and Qatar. Thousands of U.S. Green Berets and French Parachutiste D'Infanterie de Marine special forces covertly also pitched in.

With about 200,000 poorly armed rebels, aided by some Iranian smuggled weapons and missiles, the Houthis continued to hold on to their homeland, capital city of Saana and key ports along the Red Sea narrows. More importantly, the Houthis successfully shot a few missiles at Saudi Arabian cities and a couple of Red Sea oil tankers.

But after the botched October 2018 murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi Arabia embassy the American public became suspicious of Saudi Arabia's behavior in the Yemen Civil War. President Trump vetoed several attempts by both Houses of the U.S. Congress to slash Saudi military support, but the public dissension is not going away, according to Geopolitical Partners.

There had been occasional strategy disagreements between the Saudi Arabian and UAE partners, but winnability of the civil war became a bigger issue to the UAE after the Khashoggi affair. When the United Nations organized a Yemen Civil War ceasefire in May, the UAE said it was repositioning its forces away from the front lines.

The UAE met with Iranian officials in July to supposedly negotiate cooperative fishing rights between the two Persian Gulf-facing nations. But ten days later the Southern Transitional Council tribes, UEA’s allies in Yemen, overthrew the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and took the capital city of Aden.

Saudi Arabia now faces hundreds of thousands Houthi rebels armed with Iranian-supplied missiles on its southern doorstep. With no major partners willing to supply ground forces for what appears to be an unwinnable civil war, there has not been a patriotic rush by Saudis to volunteer for infantry combat duty in Yemen.