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Yemen and the Alliance of the Deaf

From Iraq to Syria and Yemen, U.S. and Saudi policymakers seem to have learned very little.

August 14, 2015

From Iraq to Syria and Yemen, U.S. and Saudi policymakers seem to have learned very little.

No concept has proven to be as strategically shortsighted as the assumption of military superiority. It merely leads powerful nations to give into the temptation to bomb their way out of a problem — as if anyone could.

While that lesson is still sinking in in Washington, Saudi Arabia, the U.S.’s major Gulf region ally, seems to have learned nothing from the ill-fated U.S. strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is very surprising for a number of reasons: The Saudis have not only had a front-row seat to observe America’s presumable “overwhelming” force. They also have much more at stake, given their keen interest in preserving stability in the region.

However, the Saudi way of handling of the slow-burning crisis in Yemen shows that they are operating far too much in America’s footsteps.

The case of Iraq showed conclusively that none of the U.S. superiority in terms of military materiel ultimately translated into any sustainable advantage on the ground.

All that happened was that the United States managed to break the “china” faster – with the result that it then owned all the ensuing debris.

Misunderstanding the core problem

As regards Yemen, Saudi Arabia has ample reason to be nervous about the quality of governance and economic performance of its very poor neighbor on its southern border.

Terrorist bases, narcotics networks and mass unemployment represent a serious risk on the ground in Yemen that could easily undermine Saudi Arabia’s desire for regional and domestic stability.

Given the nature of those challenges, what could possibly be the point of buying – and deploying – ever more defense goods? That certainly is not the right strategy to deal what essentially is a human problem – and a socio-economic development issue of large proportions.

The only ones for whom Saudi Arabia’s current strategy is good are defense contractors and arms merchants. However, pleasing them and their mercenary interests will come to haunt Saudi Arabia’s government.

Does anyone seriously need a reminder of the possible consequences of delivering more significant arms and military vehicles to a failed state? We have only just watched ISIS scoop up U.S.-supplied armaments abandoned by Iraq’s Army.

Such a scenario in Yemen is obviously the last thing that Saudi Arabia, a giant who stands on clay feet, needs to foster in its immediate vicinity.

Let’s not forget the fact that Yemen already has the second-highest gun ownership in the world.

Flawed rationale

Now, the Saudis find themselves committing 1,500 ground troops. But to what end? The official rationale is to make sure that equipment they delivered to local fighters untrained in using them can be brought to bear.

This “rationale” puts the country on the slippery slope toward full-scale involvement in what was believed to be, and sold at home as, an “easy” air war.

Taking this next step is the inevitable consequence of the Saudis falling for another American mistake in the preparation of its Iraq invasion – overselling the outcomes, while underselling what it really takes in terms of blood and treasure to succeed (if, and that is a very big if, “victory” can even be had).

The belief in the curative powers of “air superiority,” shared by the United States and Saudi Arabia, is not at all helpful to their ultimate cause. Its only result in the real result is a serious misleading of one’s own domestic population.

Far from the false “sugar high” of being able to begin bombing at a moment’s notice, what is really needed is to lay down a strategy that serves the region’s medium and long-term interests.

All the wrong moves

In this context, the Saudis have plenty of reasons to be nervous, but they need to be strategically smart.

Yemen’s population – at about 27 million – is nearly the same size as Saudi Arabia’s (32 million), even though the former’s territory is only one-quarter the size of its much richer neighbor to the north.

The real challenge, though, is contained in this set of numbers: Yemen’s per capita income – at $1,370 — is only one-twentieth of Saudi Arabia’s ($26,340).

If the Saudi goal is to establish a friendly and stable government in Yemen, the war has gone terribly. U.S.-style “shock-and-awe” tactics yielded nothing of lasting benefit.

In fact, Houthi forces, even though they are theoretically outgunned and outmatched, have made net territorial gains.

Aden has only been retaken with tremendous effort and ground forces. Is that a success of any kind? Not when 20 million people (!) are now without adequate drinking water.

Hundreds (if not thousands) of civilians have been killed in airstrikes that have frequently been absurdly off-target, underscoring the lack of skill of the Saudi air force.

Make no mistake about it: If anything, the Saudis’ course of action so far has created disillusionment among Yemen’s population about either Saudi Arabia’s intentions or capabilities. Stunningly, that is true even among those Yemenis who had initially hoped for Saudi Arabia to become a stabilizing factor.

In conclusion, the presumed wealth advantage of the United States and of Saudi Arabia, respectively, over Iraq and Yemen does not serve either country well.

This wealth tempted them to go for attack mode, deluding them to have “won” the battle, while ignoring that the war is being lost.

The United States at least had the excuse of being an outsider to the region, The Saudis, who live on the Arabian Peninsula with their Yemeni neighbors, can’t tap into that (weak) excuse.

Editor’s Note: The piece was originally published in Aljazeera


Saudi Arabia’s current strategy is good only for defense contractors and arms merchants.

Saudi Arabia is a giant who stands on clay feet.

US and Saudi Arabia’s belief in “air superiority,” is not helpful to their ultimate cause.

Saudi’s course of action so far has created disillusionment among Yemen’s population.