Marieke Brandt: The hidden realities behind Saudi Arabia’s Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen

In recent weeks, as part of Operation Decisive Storm, a military coalition of ten predominantly Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia has been shelling military installations, arms stockpiles, airports, streets, bridges, and infrastructure throughout Yemen. The collateral damage is estimated as one thousand deaths and a multiple of injured. These were mainly attributable to the bad habit of Yemen’s leaders to bunker vast quantities of weapons in the midst of the cities or in their immediate vicinities. Pictures of powerful explosions and grievously mutilated victims flooded social networks. On April 20 a gigantic explosion on the nearby mountain Faj Attan shook Sana’a, which was probably caused by the direct hit of a bunker-busting bomb on a stockpile of missiles. Several died, many were injured, houses were destroyed, and windows throughout large parts of the capital city were shattered; people’s nerves were on edge. When amid heavy air raids Saudi Arabia announced the end of Operation Decisive Storm on April 21—without ceasing the bombing for even a minute—a Yemeni television newscaster collapsed in front of the camera from a hysteric fit of laughter. Despite the official end of the operation, the nightly air strikes continue.

Operation Decisive Storm was the response of a Saudi-led military alliance to the occupation of the capital Sana’a and the brutal conquest of further parts of the country by the so-called Huthis or Ansar Allah. The Huthis are part of a Zaydi-Shia movement originating from the northern governorate of Sa’dah adjacent to the Saudi border. The Huthis agitate against the economic marginalization of their northern region in general and of the Zaydi minority in particular, the spread of radical Sunnism in Yemen promoted by Saudi Arabia, and the cooperation of the Yemeni government with the United States. Since 2001 the movement has been led by the eponymous al-Huthi family, which hails from the social stratum of the sayyids (descendants of the Prophet). Their supporters are mainly composed of northern Zaydi tribes. From 2004 until 2010 the Sunni-oriented government of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh waged six intermittent war episodes against the Huthis, the so-called Sa’dah Wars. In 2010, during the sixth Sa’dah War, the Saudi Air Force implemented a ceasefire between the Huthis and the Yemeni government. The Yemeni army carried out these six wars with such brutality and incompetence that the Huthi movement continuously grew in size and fighting capacity, gaining sympathy from many northern tribes who had suffered in the wars.

After their defeat in 2010, the Huthis quickly got back on their feet, stronger than ever. In 2011, they took advantage of the power vacuum caused by the upheavals of the Arab Spring, the friction within the security forces, and the resignation of President Saleh forced by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to expand from their northern strongholds southward. In 2013, they began to ally with their former nemesis Saleh and his loyal security forces against interim President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who had been installed by the GCC initiative. In this way, in September 2014, Sana’a fell to the Huthis almost without a fight. Under virtual house arrest and incapable of action, Hadi resigned in January 2015 and later on fled to Aden. In February, when his tenure as interim president had officially elapsed, he retracted his resignation. When Hadi was attacked in Aden by the Huthis, who carried out a brutal assault on the city, he fled to Riyad. In view of this dodgy situation, there may be different views about whether Hadi is the legitimate president of Yemen. But it will go down in history that the exiled interim President Hadi called for Saudi Arabia to bomb his country and people, resulting in unprecedented destruction.


In March 2015, air raids targeted a cave in the Saada province where the leader of the Huthis was believed to have been hiding. (Image via Yemen-Press)

The Iran narrative
The official narrative of Operation Decisive Storm, led by Saudi Arabia, is to restore Hadi’s “legitimate” government and to preserve “Arab” capacity to act against the perceived Iranian-Shiite expansionism. The Saudi Kingdom’s official doctrine is to deter Iran from meddling in the affairs of its neighbors. Regardless of doctrinal differences between Yemeni Zaydism and Iranian Twelver Shia, the Saudis choose to see the Huthis as proxies of Iran. Interestingly, the military intervention began just days before a vital deadline for the international diplomatic effort to rein in Iran’s nuclear program, and analysts interpreted it as a warning: even as Sunni Arabs publicly expressed cautious support for a nuclear deal with Iran, they demonstrated that they would not shy away from confronting what they see as “Iranian expansionism” in the Middle East.

The allegation of direct substantive cooperation between Iran and the Huthis is difficult to prove—which does not mean that it does not exist.The allegation, however, is as old as the Huthis themselves. During the Sa’dah Wars, Saleh tried to wrangle out maximum material benefits in the form of weapons and money from Saudi Arabia and the United States—weapons that in 2014 fell almost exclusively in the hands of the Huthis. As Saleh constantly reminded the US government of the Huthis’ anti-Americanism (“We are fighting your war”), he scared up the Saudis with the alleged rise of a Shia crescent, extending from Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq to Yemen. WikiLeaks cables of 2009 confirm that both the United States and the Saudi Arabia well understood Saleh’s material calculations and strongly doubted Iranian influence in Yemen. Simultaneously, however, both realized the benefit of the Iranian narrative for the legitimation of their own geostrategic objectives.

A contested boundary
In March 2015 Saudi Arabia used the Iranian boogeyman to forge a coalition of the willing, including US intelligence assistance, against the conflict-ridden and impoverished Yemen. Yet the offensive against Iranian expansionism and the support of a controversial presidential legitimacy in Yemen are only one side of the Saudi coin. As a social anthropologist who has spent the past few years exploring the tribal communities along the Saudi–Yemeni border, I am inclined to see another aspect of Operation Decisive Storm, namely its connection with securing the contested Yemeni–Saudi boundary. This aspect can complete our picture of Operation Decisive Storm and help us to better understand its complex motivations.

Yemen and Saudi Arabia share a contested boundary of more than 1,200 kilometers. The Saudi–Yemeni boundary dispute covers a period of almost eighty years, in which it repeatedly threatened peace and stability in the region. The boundary dispute’s main point of contention has been the entitlement of both states to the provinces of Najran, Asir, and Jizan, which temporarily fell to Saudi Arabia through the Treaty of Taif in 1934 after the Saudi–Yemeni War, and permanently in 2000 through the Treaty of Jeddah. Yemeni irredentist claims still advocate the annexation of these “lost” territories on the grounds of common tribal affiliation and prior historical possession, be it actual or alleged.

Saudi Arabia has been heavily involved in Yemen politics for decades, and the border issue is a recurring theme through all Saudi military interventions in Yemen. The area along the so-called Taif Line (the boundary segment from the Red Sea to Jabal al-Tha’r near Najran) is mountainous and inhabited by strong tribes, without whose cooperation the securing of the border is almost impossible. Since 1934, therefore, Saudi policy in this barely controllable borderland region therefore has focused on the financial co-optation of tribal leaders, which in return played a crucial role in securing the border and thus enforcing Saudi security and territorial interests.

Saudi Arabia is acutely aware of the dangers that can arise from the most populous and poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula at its southern border. The Kingdom has always intervened militarily in Yemen when the boundary and thus the integrity of the Saudi territory were under threat. For instance, whereas Saudi Arabia at first considered the 1960s civil war between Royalists and Republicans a “domestic affair” of Yemen, the situation dramatically changed in the aftermath of the November 1962 Egyptian air attacks on Saudi border towns, which revealed the Kingdom’s extreme vulnerability to events and developments in Yemen. Subsequently, Saudi Arabia supported the Royalists whose strongholds were situated in hard-to-access regions near the common border.

In 1992, two years after the unification of the two Yemens, Saudi–Yemeni relations reached a new low by the threat of the Yemeni government to withdraw from the Treaty of Taif, which led to maneuvers of Saudi troops for several days near Haradh in the Tihamah lowlands. In addition, as a counter to unified Yemen’s growing power potential, the Saudis actively supported southern secessionists in the 1994 Yemeni civil war, which led to a severe crisis that brought both countries to the brink of war in December 1994, when Saudi Arabia amassed troops in the provinces of Jizan and Asir.

Yet, since 1998, the Saleh government has been assisting the Saudi enforcement of various border policies directly. These ultimately led to the signing of the Treaty of Jeddah in 2000 in which Yemen, despite the objections of some opposition parties, permanently gave up its claims to the “lost provinces” Jizan, Asir, and Najran. Since then, Saudi Arabia has been planning to demarcate the boundary physically through the construction of a border fence. The construction works have been delayed by violent resistance of the local tribes, however, who insist on their legal right of free border crossing as guaranteed by the Treaty of Taif and reconfirmed in the Treaty of Jeddah.

Since 2004, the border has come under threat as never before. The concern over al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) infiltration across the borders became a serious issue and made the control of the border an even more pressing issue. Furthermore, the rise of the Huthis was, in many ways, even more worrying for the Saudis and posed a real threat to their territory and security—perhaps the first concrete threat since the 1962 Egyptian air attacks. Since the third Sa’dah War (2005–2006) heavy fighting between the Yemeni government forces and the Saudi-hostile Huthi rebels has been taking place along the border. During the sixth Sa’dah War, in the fall of 2009, the Saudi Air Force officially intervened when Huthi fighters crossed the border in the Razih area.

The Huthis consider Saudi policy in Yemen the basic cause of all problems in Sa’dah and beyond. They blame the Saudis for the spread of radical Sunnism in the heartland of Zaydism and for thus fueling sectarian conflict. They see the system of patronage of selected tribal leaders, which the Kingdom has installed in the borderlands since 1934 (accompanied by Yemeni government patronage since the 1970s), as the cause of the glaring unequal distribution of income, resources, and political participation. It is therefore not surprising that the Huthis expelled such heavily co-opted shaykhs from their tribal constituencies in the course of the Sa’dah Wars and their aftermath. The expulsion of its allies dealt a hard blow to Saudi Arabia as it left the vulnerable border unprotected. When the Huthis began to dominate the political landscape in 2014 and replaced the Hadi government by a Revolutionary Council, an incredibly Saudi-hostile group thus rose to power, which expanded aggressively toward the south and also kept Saudi border guards along the Taif Line on constant alert. Saudi Arabia has been extremely attentive to shifts in power and opinion in Yemen since the spillover potential of violence and instability became evident during the 1960s civil war. As a natural outgrowth of this line of reasoning, securing the loyalty and cooperation of the respective governments was and is their central objective in Yemen. From this point of view, Operation Decisive Storm can also be seen as an act of desperation by the Saudis, who—due to miscalculations and clumsy maneuvering in recent years—had virtually lost influence on the political landscape in Yemen and saw their border in acute danger. Consequently, they did everything to bring Hadi, who was installed by the Saudi-dominated GCC, back to power.

The situation on the border reveals bleak prospects for a possible Saudi ground offensive in Yemen, which may follow the aerial warfare. Since the Treaty of Jeddah in 2000, the Kingdom has been investing in physical border fortifications that have alienated its allies among the local shaykhs and tribes, many of whom make their fortunes in trans-border smuggling. Local sources report that since 2000 Saudi Arabia has deducted half the monthly salaries of shaykhs and instead channeled these funds to former President Saleh. Saudi Arabia has only maintained the relationship to a handful borderland shaykhs, who are now exiled in Sana’a and therefore useless. Operation Decisive Storm’s continuous bombardment of infrastructure, farms, and settlements in border regions and the almost complete destruction of Sa’dah city, including its historical parts, has alienated many allies among the tribes and turned some into bitter enemies.

Egypt and Pakistan, official allies in Operation Decisive Storm, have refused to send ground troops to Yemen. Embarrassingly, only Sudan and Senegal (apparently heavily bribed) offered the deployment of a battalion each. Thus, most of the dirty work of a ground offensive would have to be done by the proud Kingdom itself, instead of outsourcing it, as usual, to foreigners. And this will be a tough job. Sa’dah’s terrain is partly mountainous and inaccessible, and the local tribes are heavily armed. After weeks of endurance under heavy aerial bombardment the border tribes are extremely eager to physically wrestle down the enemy. The aerial war is seen as dishonorable, as is every fight not conducted face to face. The Huthi leadership has entrenched itself in the natural fortresses of Matrah and al-Naqa’ah in al-Safra, which resemble the mighty caves of Tora Bora in Afghanistan. They are invulnerable from the air and almost impregnable to ground forces. During the 1960s civil war, the Egyptians used toxic nerve gas in this area to flush Royalists out of the caves.

For the time being, the Saudis are trying to bypass the bloody battle on the border and weaken the Huthis by a separation of Yemen in a northern and a southern part and by arming the Huthis’ internal enemies. But these actions will leave the boundary unprotected. Sooner or later the struggle between the Saudis and the Huthis will focus on the Taif Line high in the north. Who will attack whom? For now the Huthis and the Saudi Kingdom are watching each other along the border and occasionally engage in provocations and skirmishes. Eventually, Saudi Arabia will report that the Huthis have attacked the border, forcing them to strike back.

Despite the Saudi aerial warfare, the Huthis conquered new territories, and in the east of Yemen, al-Qaeda (undisturbed by Saudi Arabia) benefits enormously from the nationwide chaos. Nothing can be gained in this war, except further radicalization of all stakeholders. The danger, as locals from Sa’dah’s borderlands say, is that after the end of the military operations, the Huthis will be entrenched in power and less compromising than ever, eager to confront the Saudis as much as the Saudis will seek to confront them.

Marieke Brandt is a postdoctoral researcher in Social Anthropology at the Institute for Social Anthropology (ISA) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna. Her research focuses on the tribal societies in southwest Arabia, especially Yemen. She is currently completing a monograph entitled “The Tribal Narrative: Tribal Politics during the Huthi Conflict in Northwest Yemen.”

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Cite as: Brandt, Marieke. 2015. “The hidden realities behind Saudi Arabia’s Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen,” FocaalBlog, May 15,