While Saudi Arabia and its Gulf ally Qatar have been losing the Syrian proxy war since Russia’s direct intervention in autumn 2015, the disastrous Yemen conflict is a much greater drain on the Kingdom’s prestige at home and abroad. For many months, Yemeni Houthi militants and their Saleh loyalist allies have been bringing the war waged by Riyadh against their country home via ballistic missile attacks and guerrilla incursions on Saudi territory. Hours before Air Force One touched down on the tarmac in Riyadh, Houthi/Saleh forces released video that they claim shows them firing a ballistic missile against the Saudi capitol. The Saudis claimed they successfully intercepted the rocket west of Riyadh, though in the past, Patriot and other US/NATO sold Saudi anti-missile defenses have missed incoming warheads:
Over the weekend, tens of thousands protested against American and British aided Saudi aggression in the Yemeni capitol of Sa’naa, which is controlled by the Houthis and Saleh loyalists. PBS News Hour reported that the humanitarian situation in the country has grown desperate, with mass hunger and malnourishment driving a cholera outbreak. While Yemen has been dependent on food imports for decades as its population swelled, many Shi’a Yemenis view the near-famine as a deliberate Saudi policy to punish the civilian population which supports the resistance against GCC occupation.
On Sunday May 21, the pro-Shi’a Lebanese al-Sahat TV posted video footage purportedly showing Yemeni forces shooting down or damaging a Royal Saudi Air Force F-15 jet with a surface to air missile. The alleged location of the shoot down was inside the Kingdom’s Najran province, possibly targeting a jet descending to a lower altitude. The pro-Hezbollah Al-Manar TV had reported the shoot down earlier in the week. If the footage is confirmed and the Yemenis did manage to down or force the plane to crash before it could return to King Khalid Air Base, then the Saudis will likely plea for more direct American military assistance in hunting down Yemeni SAMs that pose a threat to their pilots -- who’ve hitherto bombed civilians from above MANPAD range with impunity. The Houthis had previously taken credit during the two year-old war for downing Saudi Blackhawk and Apache helicopters, as well as an F-16 of the Saudi-allied GCC coalition air forces (the RSAF itself doesn’t fly F-16s). The reported F-15 downing came on the heels of numerous roadside ambushes of Saudi security forces in the border Najran and Jizan provinces.
The Houthis’ slogan: “Death to America. Death to Israel. God put a curse on the Jews”
Disturbingly, Trump’s speech condemning Iran as the alleged leading sponsor of radical Islamist terrorism, when that dubious distinction is owed to his Saudi hosts, is likely to convince Riyadh it can count on further American support in the Yemen war. Although mainstream media have been reluctant to report on the humiliation of the bloated and ineffective Saudi military at the hands of the Houthis, the media’s disdain for Trump as well as a humanitarian catastrophe that has skeletal Yemeni children dying of starvation could lead to more and better reporting from areas not controlled by the Saudi-led coalition.
Trump’s speech condemned Iran for arming and training militants and accused Tehran of fueling the fires of sectarian conflict, despite the Saudis being the leading sponsor of the anti-Assad jihadists in Syria including (as revealed in the WikiLeaks dump of Hillary Clinton’s emails) ISIS. It’s also unclear whether the Kingdom’s infamously opaque budgeting and potential borrowing binge in the capital markets can sustain the massive spending on armaments inherent in blowing $100-300 billion on weapons. That is, arms which Saudi forces can’t competently use against a guerrilla force like the Houthis and which Iran can in case of war nullify via asymmetrical means.
One thin reed of hope for the Saudis is that they can slowly pull back their own troops from the Yemen war, while attempting to rely on local tribal proxies fighting on behalf of the deposed Hadi regime. However, as the Soviets and later Americans discovered in Afghanistan, local proxies are often unreliable, chock full of informants for the insurgents and as the expression goes, “You can rent a Yemeni, but you cannot buy him”. There is a reason that Yemeni missile strikes tend to hit Saudi bases when they’re crowded with more troops or equipment, and it’s almost certainly very good intel coming either from insiders or antennae just across the Bab al Mandeb strait at the Chinese base in Djibouti. If the Saudis have any sense and can drop the illusion of holy war with Iran despite their failing to kill or capture a single Iranian soldier or Revolutionary Guards adviser inside Yemen, then perhaps a peace plan pushed by the United Arab Emirates and the Egyptians, who both have significant economic stakes in the Maritime Silk Road port of the Aden, can be moved forward.
Some portion of the massive sums the Saudis plan to spend to bribe Washington’s military industrial complex, with Riyadh’s bloated military budget already larger in dollar terms than that of the world’s leading nuclear power the Russian Federation, would probably be better spent on building a Trump and Israel-approved border wall to keep out marauding Houthis. If nothing else, wall building would give many otherwise unemployed or low skilled unemployable Saudis something to do instead of idling and marinating in discontent with their lot.
Full Trump speech in Riyadh, May 21, 2017: