There is running joke in Yemen that casts Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman as an Iranian secret agent. This is because almost everything he has done in the last three years has aided—rather than hurt—Iranian interests. Chief among these is the young prince’s disastrous war in Yemen. Ironically, the brutal war is in danger of creating what Saudi Arabia fears most: a determined and capable Iranian influenced proto-state like Hezbollah on its southern border.
For nearly 32 months, Saudi Arabia, backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and with the support of the United States, has tried to bomb and starve Yemen into submission. The unrelenting airstrikes and blockade of Yemen’s ports and airspace have devastated Yemen’s population of 26 million. More than 80 percent of its population is in dire need of aid and cholera is sweeping across the impoverished country. Yet the country’s Houthi rebels—who are aligned with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and much of the Yemeni military—remain defiant and fight on. Saudi Arabia’s intense aerial campaign has done little to diminish the Houthis’ and their allies’ military capabilities.
Saudi Arabia launched “Operation Decisive Storm” on March 26, 2015 with the intention of defeating the Houthis, which it views as Iranian proxies. The secondary objective of the campaign was to re-install Yemen’s already compromised and deeply unpopular president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The war has failed to achieve either of these objectives. Hadi and his government remain in exile and the Houthis and their allies are more capable than ever.
The war has helped solidify an unlikely and still fragile alliance between the Houthis and their former enemy, Ali Abdulla Saleh, who still commands the loyalty of much of the Yemeni Army. As president, Saleh fought six vicious wars against the Houthis but the Houthis battled his forces to a standstill. While there is much bad blood between the Houthis and Saleh, the two have temporarily put aside their history to come together to fight the Saudis and their allies. The Saudi led war in Yemen is the glue that holds the alliance together. If Saudi Arabia were to end its war in Yemen, it is likely that this alliance would quickly fall apart.
The Houthis are admired in Yemen for one thing: their tenacity and courage as fighters. Beyond this, their popularity in northwest Yemen is limited and will wane without the persistent threat of Saudi Arabia and its motely mix of proxy forces. This is not to say that the Houthis will not continue to be a force in Yemen. They will. The Houthis will be a part of any political solution in Yemen and some of their leaders will demand at the very least token positions within any future Yemeni government. There is nothing Saudi Arabia can do to stop this. However, by ending its war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia can prevent the Houthis from becoming another Hezbollah.
If the war continues in Yemen, the Houthis—who are currently not Iranian proxies—may well seek out closer ties with both Iran and Hezbollah. Given the fact that the war is draining Saudi Arabia’s treasury and taking a toll on its already ineffective armed forces, the Iranians will likely oblige. Aiding the Houthis and their allies will be an extremely cost effective way for Iran to counter Saudi Arabia’s own attempts to arm and train a host of militant Salafist forces across the Middle East. The difference, however, is that the Houthis are highly capable and becoming more so by the month.
This increasing capability is not—as Saudi Arabia would have the world believe—due to Iranian aid. There is little evidence that Iran or Hezbollah is directly aiding the Houthis. Long before the start of Operation Decisive Storm, the Houthis were already some of the world’s best guerrilla fighters. With limited numbers of men and few weapons, the Houthis bloodied Saudi forces in 2009-10 when Saudi Arabia sent a limited number of special forces troops into northern Yemen.
Now the Houthis are allied with the best trained and equipped parts of the Yemeni military, namely the Republican Guard. The Houthis have incorporated numerous well-trained field-grade officers into their ranks, many of whom were trained at staff colleges in the West and the former Soviet Union. As often happens during war and during times of deprivation, a fertile cross-pollination of conventional and guerrilla tactics is taking place in Yemen.
This cross-pollination extends beyond tactics to the development of re-engineered and modified military hardware like the missiles that the Houthis and their allies have launched toward Saudi Arabia. Before the war, Yemen possessed a considerable stockpile of short and medium range missiles that it had purchased from the former Soviet Union and North Korea. While most of these weapons systems are antiquated and many are in disrepair, the Yemeni Missile Brigades, which are the units within the army charged with maintaining and launching the missiles, possess a wealth of expertise with a wide variety of durable systems.
As with many other parts of the Yemeni Army, officers and NCOs are accustomed to improvising and re-engineering needed parts for weapons systems due to a persistent lack of funds and shortages. The engineers, NCOs, and officers within the Yemeni Missile Brigades are more than capable of re-engineering the kinds of missiles that are being used to target—though so far, none have hit their targets—Saudi Arabia. They do not require Iranian aid for this and if such aid were being rendered, it is unlikely that the missiles would be missing their targets. A recent leaked confidential UN report dismisses the claims that the missiles are the work of Iran.
While the missiles that are being launched from Yemen toward Saudi Arabia have yet to hit their targets, the fact that the Houthis and their allies are able to re-engineer and launch such missiles points to the very real threat that Saudi Arabia faces if it continues its war. The longer the war continues the stronger the alliance between the Houthis, Saleh, and a considerable part of the Yemeni military becomes. The alliance between the Houthis and the military in particular will continue to spur development of an ever-more acute understanding of hybrid warfare. While up until now Iranian aid to the Houthis—if it exists at all—has been limited, this may change if Saudi Arabia becomes even more overt in its attempts to counter what it views as growing Iranian influence in the region.
Saudi Arabia can mitigate the threat posed by the Houthis by simply ending its war and reverting to its tried and true policy of buying influence in Yemen. For decades Saudi Arabia’s rulers kept hundreds of Yemeni tribal elites and political figures on its payroll. The Saudis were quite adept at keeping Yemen off balance just enough to ensure that it did not pose a threat to the Kingdom while not destabilizing the entire country. This policy was a reflection of the Kingdom’s overall approach to foreign policy: cautious, considered, and wherever possible, covert.
Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has dispensed with this approach and replaced it with one that is overt, reckless, and dangerous. Nowhere is this more evident than in Yemen where the prince’s war may create what it most fears: a highly capable and determined proto-state on its border that is open to Iranian influence.
Michael Horton is a senior analyst for Arabian affairs at the Jamestown Foundation. He is a frequent contributor to Jane’s Intelligence Review and has written for numerous other publications including: The National Interest, The Economist, and West Point’s CTC Sentinel.