Saudi High Command fired by King over Yemen Quagmire

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Saudi cabinet, chaired by King Salman, on Monday evening fired army chief of staff and several prominent officers, forcing them into retirement. The government offered no explanation for the seismic upheaval in the Saudi officer corps, but it was widely believed that the palace is impatient with the quagmire in the three-year-long Yemen war, which has created a the worst humanitarian crisis in the world in that country.

Yemen has become such a scandal for the Saudi royal family that crown prince Muhammad Bin Salman, widely thought to be the real power behind the throne, has not been able firmly to set a visit to Britain, allegedly because his publicity flacks fear massive demonstrations in London against his prosecution of the Yemen War. MbS himself is thought to have launched that war in spring of 2015. He then went on vacation in an island location and cut off his communications, leaving the US Department of Defense unable to contact him with urgent questions. The Saudi intervention was impelled by the coup made in fall 2014-winter 2015 by the Helpers of God (Houthi) guerrilla movement and its attempt to take over all of Yemen in partnership with troops loyal to the deposed former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Some reasons for which the Saudi war effort has so far failed:

1. Muhammad Bin Salman thought that he could wage an air war against a rural guerrilla movement. In other words, he is insisting on repeating all the mistakes of the US military in Vietnam all over again. And at least the US did send in 500,000 troops. The Saudis and their allies have sent in very few.

2. Although the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates were welcomed in Aden, where people are Sunni and many are left of center, and where the Houthis were seen as northern conquerors in 2015, they haven’t been nearly as welcome in the north of the country. Many Sunnis in north and northwest Yemen belonged to the Islah Party, which is more or less the local version of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Saudis have been collaborating with Egypt to annihilate the Muslim Brotherhood. Likewise, many Sunni tribes in north Yemen were allied with the Houthis against outsiders.

3. The Yemen army split, with the crack troops remaining loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, deposed as a result of the Arab Spring protests, in early 2012. Saleh in turn allied with the Houthis until recently, when he split with them and they killed him. By now what’s left of the old national army is pretty tattered.

4. The United Arab Emirates is now backing a different faction than Saudi Arabia, and the two Yemeni factions on the ground have clashed in the south, so that the invaders do not have a common front.

Yemen had been split into a Communist-ruled south and south-east and an Arab nationalist north and northwest in 1967-1990. When the Cold War ended, the two halves merged, but the south, which is heavily Sunni and Sufi with some strong progressive traditions in cities like Aden, remains resentful of the north, which is disproportionately Zaydi Shiite and tightly connected to the government and the army through the capital, Sana’a. The Zaydis are not Shiites on the Lebanese, Iraqi or Iranian model (the latter are Twelvers) and are famously closer to the Sunnis on many issues. In the 1990s and after the Saudis launched a massive missionary effort in the Zaydi north to convert them to the hard line Wahhabi branch of Islam, which is to the right of Sunnism though nowadays often counted part of the latter. Resentments over this Saudi missionary push and attempt at political hegemony brought the Houthi movement into being, which rebelled against the central government for having let the Saudis run riot in the country.

The Saudis blame the successes of the Houthis on Iran, but Iran can’t be proved to have been significantly involved in Yemen, where the Saudis and their allies control the seas and the major ports and the Yemeni border. Saudis and their allies in contrast have spent billions bombing the country back to the stone ages and creating a cholera epidemic from which some one million of Yemen’s 24 million have suffered.

The Russian Federation vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to criticize Iran for sending arms to the Houthis, since the UNSC has an arms embargo on Yemen. Presumably the Russians felt that the Iran contribution is small potatoes (it is) whereas Trump is selling billions to the Saudis and UAE in weapons that are actually being used on a massive scale in Yemen.

Hence, heads have just rolled in the upper echelons of the Saudi officer class. We’ll see if the new war commanders have more success than their predecessors. If this war goes on and millions who are on the verge of starvation do actually starve, the long term consequences for Saudi Arabia’s elite will be enormous and possibly even fatal.


Bonus video:

CNC: “UN Security Council adopts Russian-drafted resolution on renewal of Yemen sanctions”

14 Responses

  1. You truly do need a “score” card to keep track of this war and you’ve done an admirable job of providing it. given the country is in ruins, you do have to wonder why the S.A. keep fighting there. Really, it might be all about whose side each side is on, but what is there left to fight about? these people have to be nuts. The country is in ruins, the people are dying, what is there left to fight about or is this just a place for other countries to try out their weapons.
    Firing the heads of the armed forces isn’t going to solve anything unless S.A. simply pulls out. Don’t waste all the money the Americans did in Vietnam.

    Its just another war which seems crazy to keep going. There just isn’t anything left to fight about and you do have to wonder where is the U.N. Perhaps its time to scrape them also. Its not like they’re doing much of anything anywhere. its a big fat waste of money.

  2. Cole: “The Russian Federation vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to criticize Iran for sending arms to the Houthis, since the UNSC has an arms embargo on Yemen.”

    I believe that Iran was criticized for _not blocking_ arms going to the Houthis as opposed to supplying the arms in the first instance.

  3. Professor, you seem to have discounted a possible plot by these military officers to overthrow the King and his regime. Military coups seem to be fairly common and Turkey comes to mind in this regard. With all the generals that Trump has surrounded himself by, it might even be conceivable that the USA could have some kind of military coup as far as foreign and military affairs is concerned.

  4. Juan, you point out that Trump is selling billions worth of weapons to the Saudis and the Emirates that are then being used on Yemen. I’m sure you intended that as shorthand – Trump is continuing what his predecessor was doing before him.

  5. It could be a good deal more than impatience with the intractable situation he has created in Yemen that disturbs his slumber. He is not an experienced leader and he doesn’t appear to be a good one either. All those sophisticated planes will have pilots, educated scions of the upper echelons of Saudi society, many doubtless related to those he recently rounded up for public fleecing. Internally he must feel himself closely watched, perhaps even vulnerable. Letting Saudi women drive and even serve in the military, while playing footsie with Netanyahu, is not enough. He needs a remarkable achievement and he just isn’t getting one. Wellington said that a good General needs to know when to retreat, and have the courage to do so. Firing a few generals is not going to turn Yemen into any kind of a success for him. It may even be be too late. No one is going to come to his aid. Trump certainly won’t. I suspect he begins to see that.

  6. The goal of Yemen war is pretty clear at this point: genocide. Saudi Arabia wants full control of Yemen, its geographical position and its resources. The poor Yemenites don’t have a close enough ally to help them fight off the Saudis or even feed themselves. The Yemen War will be remembered as a war crime, like the slaughter of the Armenians, in which both the United States and Great Britain played leading supporting roles.

    Saudi Arabia has been lured into a war which is consuming its oil wealth and fostering civil tension at home. Yet another Middle Eastern country on its own road to self-destruction. The faces of thousands of dead Yemeni civilians and children rise up like a spectre to haunt us.

    • The geographical position probably matters in the context of “securing” everything on their side of the start line in a much bigger war the Saudis have been planning against Iran. It’s like Hitler having to delay his plans to invade Russia because his ally in Yugoslavia suddenly got deposed, and because his Italian allies collapsed in Greece and North Africa. Those little fiascoes cost him dearly in the big push to get to Moscow before winter.

      • You may be right, in terms of a guy with MbS level of experience predictably viewing geopolitics as nothing more can complicated than a game of RISK.

  7. Surely everyone is noticing that on-the-ground success or not is one issue, but the continuation of the war, bombings and arming of various groups in and of itself is a goal and a successful one at that.
    As long as the Saudis are bombing, the French and the US “contractors” are selling weaponry and business is good. The transfer of oil funds to the military-industrial complex continues.

  8. Saudi crown prince Muhammad Bin Salman goes on vacation, Trumpetty goes golfing. And the Saudi military generals and scion pilots play their pointless war games, leaving towns without electricity, running water, garbage collection after demolishing all buildings, benches, sidewalks, streets. No place to live, sit, eat, crap nor sleep.

    What do such wars accomplish? Appears that many rulers are fumbling, bombastic egomaniacs.

    It’s the rulers, generals, pilots that need to be demolished or left to do their own home cleaning and reconstruction.

    Who to arm? What idiot to follow? What ideology to adopt and follow?

    Bigger bombs for big messes and richer millionaires, billionaires, trillionaires.

    Bomb the rich bastards and use their wealth to educate and support all citizens equally, not the corrupt rich rulers.

    Capitalism is failing

    • Very well Nobody, you express well the general pessimism towards the current social arrangements, which comes from mostly rational people looking at our mostly irrational socio-political-economic arrangements.

      There are clearly three big problems. 1, climate change driven by economic systems that disregard the costs of the billions of tons of carbon dioxides and methanes and other heat-trapping gasses, which threatens the extinction of our grandchildren. 2, the large number of nation-state regimes based on various degrees of totalitarianism, dictatorship and autocracy, which deprives citizens of freedoms and choices, and looks likely to aggravate the climate change problem at every opportunity, and 3, the ever-increasing global income inequality which threatens all sorts of negative outcomes if we somehow manage to escape the horrors of problems 1 and 2.

      Neverthless, I’d like to expand on a few things you say.

      “What idiot to follow? What ideology to adopt and follow?”

      In my writings elsewhere, I try (without using the word “idiot” ) to show how your first question is absolutely the basis of all human political choices, which all humans are making all the time every day. I also try to show how the study of our simultaneous human thoughts and actions in the areas of psychology, philosophy, politics and economics can be fruitful. I say that every human has the ability to be their own best social scientist, figuring out the “best” thoughts and actions to be taken in any particular circumstance. And while I haven’t stressed it in my published writings, I am pretty sure that ideologies are mostly useless, a relentless study of the human facts of your circumstances (and your humane, realistic goals) is generally what should be used instead of ideologies of any sort in any situation.

      “Capitalism is failing.” Yes it indeed failing to meet the needs of billions of persons worldwide, yet I believe it also remains at the roots of how over 90% of populations understand economics: I WANT MINE.

      And in the abstract, consider a modified Marxist/Schumpeterian viewpoint in which capitalism is “succeeding” in its historical destiny: either or both of “concentrating all wealth in the fewest possible number of hands” and “creating so much destruction (in search of imagined creativities) that all other normal/productive social arrangements are destroyed as well.” We’ll need a lot talk to get to any other mass socio-economic arrangements.

      “Bomb the rich bastards and use their wealth … (for good).” Not going to happen. We need huge quantities of real work, getting out and talking to our fellow citizens who may not agree with us, not fantasy-land daydreams.

      Final note, in the last few weeks I’ve come to hope that the totally negative energy that seemed to overcome the world with Trump’s ascendancy, has begun to retreat: Hope is Possible. One has to really work for it to happen, though.

      • Philosophical Ron, you are correct in all your comments on my rant. When I said Bomb the rich, I meant to say take their wealth and use it for the masses–don’t know how to take their wealth.

        I have little faith in the American voting system especially since money controls the elections. The supreme court justices that approved unlimited donations should be in jail since they knew what would happen.

        Yes, America needs “a lot of talk to get to any other mass scocio-economic arrangements.” But it’s the rich that control the mass news media which the average American watches or listens to without thinking. Thus, get the money out of politics and out of the news media.

        Sorry Ron, I don’t have the intelligence nor ability to help. I’m not a Patrick Henry.

        My main concern is how to change the freeway speed limit of 65 MPH versus the “accepted limit of about 75 MPH” in Northern California.

  9. .
    And just a few years ago,
    the biggest problem Yemenis had was that there wasn’t enough water to drink.
    Some blamed the diversion of water to growing the narcotic “khat,” perhaps their most important agricultural export.
    Maybe that was the biggest part, but it was more than that.
    My one and only Yemeni friend, an American citizen, said that he never wanted to return – though he also said that, if he did, he would not be allowed to return to the US again.
    The ties that bind the Arab Nation seem to fray when it comes to helping brothers / Umma in Sudan, Somalia (yes, many people from both claim Arab identity) and Yemen.

  10. .
    who could stop this war ?
    King Salman and his son, obviously.
    Donnie Trump, if he were to devote serious attention to that end state.

    I don’t think any Yemenis are in a position to stop it.
    the notional President, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, was selected by President Obama’s CIA and/or Secretary of State, and installed by the GCC, but has never been elected by the Yemeni people at large (though he has a fiercely loyal niche following.)
    He has almost no military forces under his command, save for his personal security detail. He is de facto a puppet of KSA.

    Factions on the ground who are being attacked by the GCC and “Friends of Israel” cannot stop the attacks they are suffering, and they are not likely to think that laying down their arms would lead to favorable outcomes,
    so there is nothing they can do to stop the war.

    Iran isn’t a party to the war. They can’t stop it.
    I conclude that these 3 people that could stop the war do not want it to end.

    People who want the war to end need to act to change the calculations of one of these 3 people.

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