Welcome to EssayHotline!

We take care of your tight deadline essay for you! Place your order today and enjoy convenience.

The Saudi intervention in Yemen-struggling for status.

2018 Sprıng 125
ABSTRACT On March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes on Yemen
with the aim of restoring the rule of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi
and destroying the Houthi movement. Scholars and policy analysts moved
quickly to examine the Yemen war as a sectarian struggle and a byproduct
of Saudi-Iranian rivalry in the region. However, these traditional explanations
fall short of unravelling the Saudi motive behind launching a largescale
operation in Yemen, its severely weakened and politically divided
neighbor. This paper offers an alternative explanation for the abrupt Saudi
aggressiveness toward Yemen. It argues that this intervention is driven by
a non-material need: Saudi leadership aims to assert the Kingdom’s status
as a regional power in the Middle East.
On March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes on Yemen with the
aim of restoring the rule of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and
eliminating the Houthi movement. Located on the Bab al-Mandab Strait
at the southern entrance of the Red Sea, Yemen has always constituted a cornerstone
of Saudi foreign policy. Since the Kingdom’s foundation in 1932, the
Saud family (al-Saud) has striven to expand its control over its southern neighbor
and prevent it from threatening its interests. In 1934, the first modern war
broke out between the two Arabian states. The 1934 Treaty of Ta’if put an end to
this military confrontation, ceded the three provinces of Asir, Najran and Jizan
to the army of Ibn Saud, and established a peaceful coexistence between the two
countries.1 Since then, the Saudis have avoided open, large-scale confrontation,
and have instead maintained a precarious stability in Yemen through meddling
in its internal politics, backing certain local groups against others, using Yemeni
guest workers as leverage, buying off tribal leaders, and conducting limited, occasional
military operations, especially over border disputes.
The Saudi Intervention in Yemen:
Struggling for Status
* Durham
University, UK
Insight Turkey
Vol. 20 / No. 2 /
2018, pp. 125-141
DOI: 10.25253/99.2018202.08
126 Insight Turkey
Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi-
led intervention in Yemen that
began in March 2015, constituted
a break with this decades-long
peaceful coexistence. Although
Saudi Arabia had spent substantial
resources on military procurement
and training over the last two decades
–especially after the 1991 Gulf
War2– never before had the Saudi
Kingdom, or any of the Gulf States,
so proactively and aggressively deployed their military forces or engaged in
a large, offensive mission such as the operation in Yemen. The intervention
in Yemen has unveiled a new era in Saudi foreign policy and appears likely
to overshadow Gulf politics for years to come. This paper attempts to explain
the abrupt aggressiveness in Saudi policies toward Yemen while situating it in
a more comprehensive understanding of the Kingdom’s foreign policy in the
region as an emerging regional power fighting for status.
Saudi Arabia’s motivation in the Yemen offensive arguably reflects a Kingdom
that is starting to rely on its own resources in fighting for and asserting its
status as a leading power in the region. Scholars, commentaries in the Arab
media, and government officials have often characterized the war in Yemen as
part of a larger struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran over influence in the
Middle East. From this perspective, the war is a reaction to the influence of
Iran’s expansion in the Arabian Peninsula through its alleged proxy, the rebel
Houthi movement.3 A proxy war with Iran, along the Sunni-Shia divide, became
a central trope in Saudi state-owned media. Meanwhile, other scholars
and commentaries focused on personalities at the expense of more structural
factors. In particular, the ascendancy of King Salman al-Saud to power in January
2015, and the parallel rise of his ambitious son, Prince Mohammed bin
Salman to the position of Minister of Defense, are often considered to be the
origin of this intervention.4 Many scholars have explored the evolution in the
decision-making process in the Saudi Kingdom that followed the passing of
King Abdullah, and attributed the Yemen war to the centralization of decision-
making power in the office of the crown prince.5 Despite the importance
of individual decision makers, however, preparations for the operation in Yemen
began in response to the Houthi takeover of Sanaa in September 2014, an
event which preceded Salman’s reign by several months.6
This paper offers an alternative explanation for the Saudi intervention in Yemen
and argues that this aggression is driven by a non-material need: the Kingdom’s
will for status. In the post-2011 order, the Saudi Kingdom has fought for its
status as a regional power at both the regional and international levels. In this
The Saudi armed forces failed
to defeat or even weaken the
Houthi rebels, raising doubts
about the military effectiveness
of the Saudi armed forces
despite their vast technological
2018 Sprıng 127
context, the Saudi leadership responded to the regime change in Yemen with a
violent intervention in order to assert and confirm its status as a leading power
in the region. The paper starts with an overview of the Yemen crisis while outlining
the current developments in the war. The second section explores the
drivers of the Saudi intervention in Yemen; it argues that this aggressive strategy
can be considered as status-seeking behavior, and it contextualizes this explanation
within the International Relations literature. The last section presents an
assessment of the overall performance of Saudi forces in the war and, further,
draws out the implications of the intervention on the Yemen crisis and its ramifications
for the evolving role of the Saudi Kingdom in the Middle East.
The Road to Yemen
Yemeni politics are complex and often plagued with shifting alliances at both
the domestic and regional level. Saudi Arabia has historically seen Yemen as a
source of threat, and its stability is inextricably connected to the security of the
Arabian Peninsula. Whether this threat is real or imagined, the Saudi Kingdom
has employed several measures to control politics in Yemen. Mainly, until recent
times, it relied on Ali Abdallah Saleh, president of North Yemen from 1978
and later of a unified Yemen from 1990 until 2012, to maintain stability. Fears
of Yemen’s instability peaked with the appearance of Ansar Allah (Partisans of
God), a movement headed by the Houthi family, in the mid-2000s. The movement
emerged as a result of economic and social grievances in northern Yemen,
especially in the governorate of Sa’dah.7 The movement challenged the authority
of the central government in Yemen, and started an active rebellion in northern
Yemen against the government of Ali Abdallah Saleh.8 In 2009, Saudi Arabia
openly entered the fight against the Houthi movement and launched a military
operation on its southern border –the first Saudi unilateral operation in decades.
9 This operation was far from successful. The Saudi armed forces failed to
defeat or even weaken the Houthi rebels, raising doubts about the military effectiveness
of the Saudi armed forces despite their vast technological superiority.10
The current crisis began during the 2011 Arab uprisings. The story of the uprisings
in Yemen was not different from that in Tunisia or Egypt. The diffusion
of protests against authoritarian regimes across the Arab world reinvigorated
Yemen’s marginalized social movements and united different geographical and
political factions in Yemen, such as the northern Houthi movement and the
southern secessionist movement Hiraak.11 In 2011, mass-based revolutionary
movements demonstrated against the regime of then President Ali Abdullah
Saleh and demanded both political and economic reforms. The Houthis and
their main party militia found in the uprisings a new outlet for their discontent
against the central government.12 They dropped their weapons and joined the
peaceful protests.13
128 Insight Turkey
The Yemeni uprisings, like most
other uprisings in the Arab region,
did not succeed in consolidating a
genuine democratic transition due
to the lack of reforms and the interference
of regional actors.14 The
Saudi Kingdom, along with other
Gulf monarchies, swiftly designed
a transitional plan for the country
to ensure that Saleh would be replaced
with a friendly government.
The Saudis negotiated the ousting of Ali Abdullah Saleh and supported then
Vice-President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi in a one-man election. Following
this flawed political transition, Yemen descended into a conflict between different
groups, which pushed the country to the edge of a civil war.15 Four years
after the uprisings, in September 2014, the Houthis took military control of
the capital Sanaa and the state collapsed into various power centers. Yemeni
security forces became divided between two camps. The first is loyal to Hadi,
who still has support in the south. The second is loyal to Saleh, who allied with
the Houthis in the north. The picture is further complicated by the presence of
other groups who have benefited from this divide to expand their influence in
Yemen, namely al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as well as a Yemeni
affiliate of the ISIS.16
In January 2015, President Hadi resigned. The collapse of the government led
to the outbreak of violence between the two opposing camps. At the end of
February, Hadi fled Sanaa to Aden and announced it as his new capital. On
March 22, 2015, the Houthis marched to Aden, seized the international airport,
and bombed Hadi’s headquarters. When the Houthis started their assault
on Aden, Hadi fled the country and called for external intervention. Within
days, the Houthis expanded to the south, took Taiz –the country’s third-largest
city– and seized al-Anad, where the U.S. military base was located. On March
25, 2015, Saudi Arabia unilaterally launched an attack on Yemen under the
name “Operation Decisive Storm,” with the announced aim of restoring the legitimate
government of Hadi and preventing the Houthis and their allies from
taking control of the country. Hours later, eight Arab states –Egypt, Bahrain,
Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Sudan, and Morocco– announced
their support for the Saudi intervention, in what can be conceived
as the largest coalition of autocrats the Middle East has ever seen. The United
States, the United Kingdom, and France have also backed the coalition, providing
diplomatic and logistic support.
The Kingdom officially announced that the goal of its intervention was “defending
the legitimate government in Yemen” and “saving the Yemeni people
The Saudi-owned media and
religious authorities portrayed
Yemen as a battlefield for
the Saudis to fight the Shias,
perceived as a threat not only
to Yemen but to the entire
2018 Sprıng 129
from the Houthi aggression.” During the 26th Arab League summit in Sharm
al-Sheikh (March 28-29, 2015), King Salman vowed: “the campaign will continue
until it achieves its goals for the Yemeni people to enjoy security.”17 Another
narrative evolved quickly as the primary rationale behind the Saudi
decision –that of a war between the Kingdom and the allegedly Iran-backed
Houthis, who belong to a Shia sect. In this context, the Saudi-owned media
and religious authorities quickly portrayed Yemen as a battlefield for the Saudis
to fight the Shias, perceived as a threat not only to Yemen but to the entire
region.18 King Salman accused the Houthis of being backed by Iran and of
causing sectarian division in Yemen.19 In other words, the Kingdom attempted
to portray its interventions in Yemen as being at the center of a Sunni regional
effort to counter the threat of Iran and the expansion of Shiism in the Gulf.
Scholars and analysts quickly picked up this line of argument to portray the
conflict in Yemen as a struggle between the Saudi Kingdom and Iran, in which
divisions within Islam mark the fault lines of the conflict.20
Describing the Yemen war as a proxy conflict along sectarian lines, however, is
erroneous and misleading. First, the Iranian role in Yemen has been exaggerated
and even deliberately distorted by the Saudis to legitimize their military
intervention. No evidence points to any Iranian involvement in Yemen before
2014. Moreover, the Houthis evolved domestically as a genuinely rebellious
movement that cuts across sectarian lines. The Houthi movement is a tribal
group that is embedded in the Yemeni political context, and the group’s deci-
The photo shows
the divided state
of Yemen and
areas of control
within the
130 Insight Turkey
sions and political goals are rooted in its local Yemeni leadership.21 In fact, Iran
does not enjoy any command over their decisions or actions. U.S. intelligence
officers have disclosed information that further casts doubt on the claims that
the Houthis are a proxy group fighting the Kingdom on behalf of Iran.22 For
example, Iranian representatives warned the Houthi rebels against taking the
capital Sanaa, but the Houthis ignored this advice and took over the city in
September 2014.23
Some evidence does suggest that Iran’s links to the Houthis might have increased
at the end of 2014.24 Yet this evidence remains suggestive at best. The
UN Panel of experts on Yemen stated in January 2017 that there was “no sufficient
evidence to confirm any direct large-scale supply of arms from the government
of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”25 Indeed, it is important to note that
the Houthis have received military support from their most important ally,
the former President Saleh, whose army was equipped with U.S. weapons. The
UN Panel also reported that almost 68 percent of the stockpile of the Yemeni
military has been lost to date during the war; some of this cache was destroyed,
but significant weapons remain under the control of the Houthis.26 Hence, the
alliance with Ali Abdullah Saleh was far more significant for the Houthis than
the presumed alliance with Iran. In other words, the crisis in Yemen is more
complex than a mere proxy struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Instead,
the conflict is rooted in domestic political grievances and social inequalities.
As Kendall succinctly states, “with or without Iran’s involvement, the underlying
structure of the conflict would likely be the same.”27
The political struggle in Yemen is more complex than a mere sectarian binary.
It is true that many members of the Houthi movement belong to the Zaydi
sect, a branch of Shiism. Nevertheless, it is wrong to assume that the Yemen
crisis is driven by primordial identities.28 Zaydism is distinct from the “Twelver
Shiism” found in Iran both in doctrine and in practice. In fact, the theological
difference between both Zaydi and Twelver Shiism leaves the Zaydis closer to
Sunni Islam. The Zaydis present themselves as a separate sect, distinct from
both Shiism and Sunnism. It is also worth noting that Saleh’s supporters from
the Yemeni army fighting with the Houthis are Sunnis.
Paradoxically, the Houthis were previously Saudi Arabia’s ally. In the context
of the Arab Cold War, which dominated the region in the 1950s and 1960s, the
struggle in Yemen became a true proxy war between Egypt, which supported
the Republic, and the Saudi Kingdom, which supported the monarchy.29 In
1962, a group of Yemeni officers staged a coup d’état in Sanaa and overthrew
the monarchy to establish a republic. The ousted monarch Imam Muhammad
al-Badr retreated to the north of Yemen where he gained the support of the
Zaydi tribes –the same tribes from which the Houthi movement emerged in
the 1990s. Following the Egyptian intervention in Yemen to support the coup
2018 Sprıng 131
d’état, the Saudi Kingdom provided the Zaydi forces,
which were allied with al-Badr, with weapons and
support. After the war, the Saudis marginalized the
Houthis. Since the 1980s, the Saudis have launched
campaigns to spread Wahhabism in Yemen. Against
this marginalization and the despotism of Saleh,
the Houthi movement evolved into an insurgency
against the regime in Sanaa.
It is in this context that the recent crisis in Yemen
can be viewed as a civil war between groups in a political
struggle; the image of a Sunni-Shia proxy war
in Yemen is only a distorted narrative presented by
the Saudi Kingdom to legitimize its aggression. Furthermore,
this sectarian narrative fails to account
for decades of persistent inequalities, economic dependence, and oppressive
patrimonial rule in Yemen. Similarly, the notion that the Houthis are Iranian
pawns ignores the groups’ marginalization and its participation in the Arab
uprisings. This narrative further downplays the role of the Gulf Cooperation
Council (GCC), and Saudi Arabia in particular, in hindering the transition of
Yemen to a democratic government, which led to the outbreak of the civil war.
Finally, this narrative ignores the crucial step in the outburst of this violent
conflict, namely the destructive, full-scale military operation led by the Saudi
Kingdom. The following section aims to transcend these sectarian accounts,
and offers an alternative explanation of the war as a struggle for status.
The Saudi Struggle for Status in Yemen
Scholarship on interventions has tended to focus on structural, material explanations.
Most realist theories share the assumption that states seek survival in
an anarchic international system that produces external threats, such as shifts
in relative power distribution, alignments, and the balance of power. From this
perspective, the decision to intervene or not is based on a rational cost-benefit
analysis.30 Other strands in the scholarship on interventions focus on domestic
characteristics and leaders’ causal beliefs.31
In contrast to predominant realist explanations of war, some scholars argue
that symbolic, non-material motives –status in particular– are crucial in explaining
states’ recourse to armed strategies, including military interventions.
Lebow provides one of the strongest arguments in this vein, stating that,
“honor and prestige [are] even more important than wealth and security.”32
He further argues that symbolic dimensions have been the driving motives
for 62 percent of wars since 1648.33 These symbolic factors can better explain
The post-2011 order
has provided the
Kingdom with the
opportunity to actively
assert its status as a
regional power able to
shape outcomes in its
132 Insight Turkey
momentous shifts in foreign policy decisions than conventional readings that
emphasize strategic calculations. Max Weber argues that states accumulate
military power to acquire power prestige (machtprestige), defined as “the glory
of power over other communities.”34 Morgenthau defines prestige as “the reputation
for power,” claiming that a state can go to war to “impress other nations
with the power [its] own nation actually possesses, or with the power it believes,
or wants the other nations to believe, it possesses.”35
Along these lines, this paper argues that the al-Saud’s decision to go to war
in Yemen in 2015 finds its origins in a struggle to assert the Kingdom’s status
as a regional power in the Middle East. Status in international relations is a
standing or rank in a community. Status also denotes identity, such as “status
of a major power,” or “status as a regional power.”36 Actors, operating in a social
system, acquire an identity that includes a definition of who they are and
where they stand in relations to others. Status has an intersubjective nature; as
actors develop a narrative of their self and their rank within the community,
they expect others to share a similar belief about their status. In this sense,
actors are in constant negotiation for status within their surrounding social
Status concerns often emerge when states develop a certain expectation about
how much status they deserve, and particularly when they are accorded a lower
status than their expectation. As status usually confers influence, actors can
perceive such a mismatch as a threat to their material ambitions. When status
The damaged
presidential palace
in Sanaa, after an
air strike carried out
by the Saudi-led
coalition targeted
the` Yemeni capital
which is under the
control of Houthis.
AFP / Getty Images
2018 Sprıng 133
concerns are triggered, states attempt to shift their position in a hierarchy. In
the case of a failure to change the current hierarchy, states resort to conflict and
violence.37 The initiation of a violent military conflict is usually considered to
be a ‘status-altering’ event, designed to compel the international community to
change its beliefs about the actor’s standing in the hierarchy.
For decades, the Saudi Kingdom has relied on its religious status as the ‘Custodian
of the Two Holy Mosques,’ and on its oil wealth to promote its pan-Islamic
identity narrative and its regional status as the leader of the Sunni and
Muslim worlds.38 The post-2011 order has provided the Kingdom with the
opportunity to actively assert its status as a regional power able to shape outcomes
in its neighborhood. No other Arab country is capable of achieving the
status of a dominant or sole regional leadership; Egypt has become focused on
its domestic problems and Syria has fallen into a civil war.
The Saudi intervention in Yemen has followed a gradual escalation in the use
of armed forces in the region.39 The Saudi military intervention in March 2011
in Bahrain to help suppress the demonstrations, as well as the Kingdom’s indirect
support for the coup against the Muslim Brotherhood and the restoration
of a military regime in Egypt, gave the Saudis confidence in asserting their
status as a regional power.40 Nevertheless, regional and international actors did
not support the claimed Saudi status. I argue that this status mismatch is at the
origin of what many observers qualify as a shift from a traditionally cautious
foreign policy toward more assertive, aggressive behavior.41
Due to the
clashes between
the Saudi-led
coalition and
Houthi rebels,
many Yemenis
have been forced
to leave their
Getty Images
134 Insight Turkey
In the context of Arab uprisings, the Saudis have attempted to assert their status
as a leader in the GCC. This attempt has taken several forms. In 2011,
the Saudis sent troops to support their Bahraini ally, King Hamad al-Khalifa,
against internal protests, which signaled Saudi determination to take the lead
in protecting the Gulf from the effects of the Arab uprisings. Along these lines,
Saudi Arabia proposed that the GCC be expanded to include Jordan, Morocco,
and Egypt, an idea that was not welcomed by all GCC members. The Saudi
Kingdom has constantly insisted on the institutionalization of an expanded,
tighter, and greater union of the GCC under their command. However, King
Abdullah’s proposals for greater political integration in the Gulf collapsed
with Oman’s opposition and Kuwait’s reluctance; in December 2013, Oman
opposed Saudi plans for a unified command structure for the armed forces of
the six states. Kuwait refused to sign a GCC internal security pact, arguing that
it would compromise its political liberalism and its exceptional constitutional
principles within the Gulf. The emergence of Qatari-Emirati animosity over
Libya and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt provided additional obstacles to
Saudi ambitions. The most important, enduring challenge to the Saudi attempt
to acquiring preeminent regional status in the Gulf is Qatar’s foreign policy,
which explicitly opposes Saudi policies in Egypt and Syria, and which led to
the outbreak of the recent crisis with Qatar in 2017.42
The Saudi claim to regional leadership received another hit as the Kingdom
failed to build a coalition against Iran. The Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria,
and Lebanon exposed the Kingdom’s failure to act as a regional power able to
influence outcomes in its neighborhood. Relying on its Islamic identity, the
Kingdom attempted to place itself at the center of a regional coalition (or in
sectarian terms a “Sunni” coalition) to counter its long-lived Shia enemy, Iran.
Despite this effort, all of the GCC states except Saudi Arabia and Bahrain approved
the interim nuclear agreement between the U.S. and Iran in November
2013 and received Iran’s foreign minister. Furthermore, Oman secretly hosted
the initial preliminarily deals between Iran and the United States, which led
the nuclear talks, and Turkey, which seemed a natural member of a “Sunni”
coalition against Iran, challenged the Saudi Kingdom’s policies towards the
Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In this context, the Saudis felt that regional
actors did not “appropriately” recognize their claim to regional leadership,
particularly as they had accumulated significant military capabilities over the
recent decades.43 As Khalid al-Dakhil, a prominent Saudi sociologist and commentator,
stated, “During King Abdullah, we did not have a foreign policy, and
just watched events unfold in front of our eyes.”44
The Arab uprisings challenged not only the Kingdom’s regional status as the
leader of Sunni Islam but also the credibility of its identity narrative. The rise of
the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt in 2013 constituted an important
challenge to the Kingdom’s narrative as the leader of Sunni Islam. The Kingdom
2018 Sprıng 135
tried to build a regional coalition against the Brotherhood
by labeling the group as a terrorist organization
and pressuring others to follow suit. However,
many states –Qatar, Kuwait, Morocco, and Jordan–
explicitly refused.45 Similarly, the Kingdom’s quest
to place itself at the center of a regional coalition to
counter the ISIS did not resonate in the region.
At the international level, the Kingdom felt that its
regional interests and ambitions were met with “disrespect,”
especially from the United States. Since its
foundation, the Kingdom had relied on external
powers, first the British, and then the United States,
to ensure its security. During the Iran-Iraq war
(1980-1988), the Kingdom supported Iraq in its war
against the Islamic Republic in Iran. In 1990, the
Saudis called on the United States to protect them
from Saddam Hussein, who had invaded and annexed
Kuwait. During the 2000s, the Saudis pursued
their interests in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon through
proxies. Following the 2011 uprisings, the Saudis became convinced that the
divergence between Riyadh and Washington was hindering the Kingdom’s
regional interests. Following the U.S.’ reluctance to intervene in Syria after
accusations of chemical weapon use in 2013, the Saudi Kingdom discarded
its traditional defense doctrine and attempted to rely on its own resources for
security. The Saudis perceived Obama’s policies in the region not only as an
abandonment of the U.S.’ historical responsibilities towards preserving the
Kingdom’s security, but also as a clear disrespect to the Kingdom’s interests.46
When the United States concluded the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, the
Saudis felt betrayed by the administration’s lack of transparency during the
negotiations, and concluded that they were justified in pursuing their own
interests assertively.47 In this context, the Kingdom urgently required a strong
message to assert its status in the region, and Yemen seemed to be the perfect
The accession of King Salman to the throne after King Abdullah’s death in
January 2015 was followed by significant changes in both domestic and foreign
policymaking. King Salman appointed his nephew, Interior Minister Mohammed
bin Nayef as crown prince, and his son Mohammed bin Salman as Defense
Minister and deputy crown prince. This ascendant branch of the Saudi
ruling family appears to be willing to compensate for what they conceive as
Abdullah’s failure in acquiring the Kingdom’s status.48 By using its accumulated
military capabilities in the war in Yemen, the Kingdom aims to assert its position
as a regional power more effectively. Yemen –a weak failed state– seemed
When the United
States concluded the
nuclear deal with Iran
in 2015, the Saudis
felt betrayed by the
administration’s lack
of transparency during
the negotiations,
and concluded that
they were justified in
pursuing their own
interests assertively
136 Insight Turkey
a perfect target to implement the Saudi status policy. In fact, the Saudi regime
has announced that any change in a friendly government will no longer be tolerated,
thereby following the classical strategy of attacking the weaker to teach
their opponents a lesson.
Assessment and Implications
Assessing the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen is a challenging task due to the
lack of independent sources in Yemen and the opacity of the operation. That
being said, a critical mass of information has been published in UN reports,
interviews with Gulf policy makers, and various experts’ reports and analyses.
After three years of incessant shelling by air, land, and sea, the Saudis are learning
the limits of their military power in Yemen. No fundamental victory can
be observed as the advances of the Houthis and their supporters did not cease.
Until now, the intervention has done nothing to change the balance of power
between the different forces on the ground.
The first phase of the intervention involved a tight air and naval blockade to
prevent weapon supply from reaching the Houthis. This phase also included
airstrikes to destroy Yemen’s air and costal defense and ballistic-missile capabilities.
After destroying the initial military targets, the coalition widened
its scope to take out the infrastructure to hinder the Houthis’ mobility.49 Yet
this air war had high costs. The collateral damage, including civilian casualties
Yemen’s exiled
President Abd
Rabbo Mansour
Hadi arrives for the
opening of ‘Riyadh
Conference for
Saving Yemen and
Building Federal
State’ on May 17,
AFP / Getty Images
2018 Sprıng 137
and the resulting humanitarian crises,
has been acute, which has led to
condemnation of the intervention
in international forums. Despite the
coalition’s coercive attacks against
the Houthis, the movement has
shown resilience as evidenced by a
constant barrage of ballistic missiles
fired over Saudi borders. More recently, the Houthis have fired ballistic missiles
toward Riyadh.50 Furthermore, the ground operation in Yemen has led to
the exposure of the coalitions’ forces to attacks by the Houthis and their allies,
which has led to substantial losses in the Saudi armed forces.51
In Saudi calculations, however, the potential costs of the intervention are overshadowed
by the Saudi will to gain the status of a regional power. This motive
is manifested in the daily press conferences, held with briefings on developments
in the battlefield, which have been given by the Saudi Ministry of Defense
since the beginning of the intervention. These events have become an
opportunity to proliferate the image of a regional power that decided to protect
its interests aggressively while adding to its own sense of status. In the first
few months of the intervention, Brigadier General Ahmad Asseri highlighted
the Saudi forces’ assumedly successful strikes by displaying photos, videos, and
other images. These briefs have particularly focused on detailing Saudi Arabia’s
military capabilities –including warplanes, attack helicopters, tanks, and
armored personnel carriers. The Kingdom has imposed tight control over the
media to avoid any revelation that the operation has so far failed to defeat the
Houthis. Furthermore, the Kingdom has used a heavy hand in prohibiting any
challenge to the official narrative of a “just” and “necessary” war. Any Saudi
national who criticizes the war risks significant fines and a perennial prison
The intervention has dangerous implications for both Yemen and the Kingdom.
The war between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels is bringing
Yemen to the brink of collapse. Although the Saudi intervention aimed to
destroy the capabilities of the Houthis, it seems to be stirring the group’s antagonism
and enmity towards the Kingdom rather than deterring it. The Houthis
do not show any signs of weakening, nor are they likely to give up on their
resistance. Furthermore, the longer the war continues, the more vulnerable to
Iranian influence the Houthis are likely to become out of necessity.
Another presumably unintended implication of the war in Yemen has been
the expansion of al-Qaeda and the ISIS, especially in eastern Yemen. Amid the
chaos created by the collapse of the government and the clashes between the
Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis, these groups have found fertile ground
The Arab uprisings challenged
not only the Kingdom’s regional
status as the leader of Sunni
Islam but also the credibility of
its identity narrative
138 Insight Turkey
for expansion; they have acquired territory and increased
their influence.52 As these groups have their
own agenda and fight both the Saudi-led coalition
and the Houthis, the resolution of this conflict is becoming
increasingly complicated. In short, this war
has further fragmented the country, created longterm
instability, and allowed extremists to thrive.
Whereas analysts consider the expansion of these
groups as the most dangerous development of the
Saudi war in Yemen, the greatest danger to the Kingdom
comes from the humanitarian crisis caused by
the war. Since March 2015, the sea, air, and naval
blockades over the country imposed by the coalition
have sparked a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.
The airstrikes have targeted the infrastructure –airports, roads, factories,
and power stations– in a country that was already unable to maintain basic
functionality without foreign aid. The attacks have targeted civilians, refugee
camps, schools, places of worship and residential buildings, and have dramatically
increased the war casualties and atrocities. Despite the announced cease
in military actions and change of tack toward a political process under Operation
Restoration Hope on April 21, 2015, the military campaign has continued.
What the Saudis have predicted to be a short-lived campaign seems to have
turned into a long war of attrition. According to the United Nations, from
March 26, 2015 through March 26, 2017, the war has left more than 13,045
civilians dead, 2 million displaced, and 18 million in need of humanitarian
The prolongation of the war and the increasing humanitarian cost risk undermining
the Kingdom’s claim for status at the regional level. The Saudi identity
narrative officially embraces the ideals of Islam, which prescribe solidarity and
fraternity among Muslims and prohibit fighting or causing harm to brotherly
Muslim people. Although the Kingdom portrays the Houthis as Shia “Others,”
the humanitarian crisis is affecting the entire Yemeni population, which is constituted
of a Sunni majority.
Ultimately, the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen is an example of pursuing
a risky military intervention to attain status in the region. The intervention
has proven to be flawed. The costs of the operation continue to mount for the
Saudi Kingdom, and no agenda has emerged to minimize the costs. Despite
the escalating political, economic, and military costs, the Saudi elite persists
Although the Saudi
intervention aimed
to destroy the
capabilities of the
Houthis, it seems
to be stirring the
group’s antagonism
and enmity towards
the Kingdom rather
than deterring it
2018 Sprıng 139
in this failing intervention. Their perseverance in this catastrophic war reflects
the Saudi leadership’s aversion to perceived losses, especially in terms of status,
and any attempt to solve the conflict without conveying the image of a Saudi
victory is unlikely to succeed.
1. Asher Orkaby, Beyond the Arab Cold War: The International History of the Yemen Civil War, 1962-68,
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 37-41.
2. Joseph Kechichian, “Trends in Saudi National Security,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 53, No. 2 (1999), pp.
232-253; Ian Davis, Dan Smith, and Pieter Wezeman, “Armed Conflict and Instability in the Middle East
and North Africa,” in SIPRI Yearbook 2017: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2017), retrieved December 15, 2017, from https://www.sipri.org/node/4282.
3. Salman al-Dosary, “Iran Finally Admits to Regional Interference,” Asharq Al-Awsat, (April 17, 2015),
retrieved December 20, 2017, from https://eng-archive.aawsat.com/salman-aldossary/opinion/
4. Ian Black, “Saudi King’s Son Drives Reforms and War in a Year of Anxiety and Change,” The Guardian,
(January 20, 2016), retrieved December 15, 2017, from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/
20/saudi-royals-best-of-the-worst-yemen-king-salman-saudi-arabia; Mark Mazzetti and Ben Hubbard,
“Rise of Saudi Prince Shatters Decades of Royal Tradition,” The New York Times, (October 15, 2016),
retrieved November 17, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/16/world/rise-of-saudi-princeshatters-
decades-of-royal-tradition.html; Ahmed al-Omran and Asa Fitch, “Young Saudi Royals Rise as
Kingdom Tries to Assert Regional Leadership,” The Wall Street Journal, (April 29, 2015), retrieved
November 30, 2017, from http://www.wsj.com/articles/saudi-arabias-king-salman-changes-line-of-succession-
5. Umer Karim, “The Evolution of Saudi Foreign Policy and the Role of Decision-Making Processes and
Actors,” The International Spectator, (June 7, 2017), pp. 71-88.
6. Emile Hokayem and David B. Roberts, “The War in Yemen,” Survival, Vol. 58, No. 6 (2016), p. 164.
7. For more details on the rise of the movement, see Noel Brehony, “Yemen and the Huthis: Genesis of
the 2015 Crisis,” Asian Affairs, Vol. 46, No. 2 (2015), pp. 232-250.
8. Christopher Boucek, “War in Saada: From Local Insurrection to National Challenge,” (Carnegie Endowment
for International Peace, 2010).
9. “Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb,” International Crisis Group, (2009), retrieved December 15,
2017, from http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/middle-east-north-africa/iraq-iran-gulf/yemen/086-
10. Mai Yamani, “Saudi Arabia Goes to War,” The Guardian, (November 23, 2009), retrieved December
20, 2017, from http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/nov/23/saudi-arabiayemen-
11. For more details on the movement and its development, see “Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern
Question,” International Crisis Group, (October 20, 2011), retrieved November 21, 2017, from
12. For background on the evolution of the Houthis post-2011, see “The Huthis: From Saada to Sanaa,”
International Crisis Group, (June 10, 2014), retrieved November 17, 2017, from https://www.crisisgroup.
13. Brian M. Perkins, “Yemen: Between Revolution and Regression,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism,
Vol. 40, No. 4 (2017), pp. 300-317.
14. Maria-Louise Clausen, “Understanding the Crisis in Yemen: Evaluating Competing Narratives,” The
International Spectator, Vol. 50, No. 3 (2015), pp. 16-29.
140 Insight Turkey
15. “Yemen at War,” International Crisis Group, (March 27, 2015), retrieved from https://www.crisisgroup.
16. Yara Bayoumy, Noah Browning, and Mohamed Ghobari, “How Saudi Arabia’s War in Yemen Has
Made Al Qaeda Stronger and Richer,” Reuters, (April 8, 2016), retrieved November 30, 2017, from https://
www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/yemen-aqap/; Nadwa al-Dawsary, “Foe Not Friend:
Yemeni Tribes and Al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula,” Project on Middle East Diplomacy, (2018), pp.
27-29, retrieved November 17, 2017, from http://pomed.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Dawsari_
17. “King Salman Vows to Continue Yemen Campaign,” Al Arabiya News, (March 28, 2015), retrieved
November 29, 2017, from http://ara.tv/wx9xd.
18. “Council of Senior Scholars: Decisive Storm Is a Support for Legitimacy in Yemen [in Arabic],”
Al Arabiya, (March 26, 2015), retrieved July 27, 2017, from http://ara.tv/4b6yw.
19. Moaz al-Omari, “The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Warns against Sectarianism [in Arabic],”
Al-Hayat Newspaper, (November 5, 2015), retrieved November 27, 2017, from https://goo.gl/bEsS9U.
20. Jeff Colgan, “How Sectarianism Shapes Yemen’s War,” The Washington Post, (April 13, 2015), retrieved
November 17, 2017, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/04/13/howsectarianism-
21. Joost R. Hiltermann and April Longley Alley, “The Houthis Are Not Hezbollah,” Foreign Policy,
(February 27, 2017), retrieved July 27, 2017, from https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/02/27/the-houthisare-
22. Gareth Porter, “Houthi Arms Bonanza Came from Saleh, Not Iran,” Middle East Eye, (April 23,
2015), retrieved November 15, 2017, from http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/houthi-armsbonanza-
23. Ali Waktin, Ryan Grim, and Akbar Shahid Ahmed, “Iran Warned Houthis against Yemen Takeover,”
The Huffington Post, (April 20, 2015), retrieved July 20, 2017, from http://www.huffingtonpost.
24. W. Andrew Terrill, “Iranian Involvement in Yemen,” Orbis, Vol. 58, No. 3 (2014), p. 438; Thomas
Juneau, “Iran’s Policy towards the Houthis in Yemen: A Limited Return on a Modest Investment,”
International Affairs, Vol. 92, No. 3 (2016), p. 657.
25. “Final Report of the Panel of Expert on Yemen,” UN Security Council, (January 27, 2017), retrieved
February 18, 2018, from http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-
26. “Final Report of the Panel of Expert on Yemen,” p. 34.
27. Elizabeth Kendall, “Iran’s Fingerprints in Yemen: Real or Imagined?” Atlantic Council, (October
2017), retrieved January 26, 2018, from http://pushback.atlanticcouncil.org/papers/irans-fingerprintsin-
28. Anna Gordon and Sarah Parkinson, “How the Houthis Became ‘Shi‘a,’” Middle East Report Online,
(January 27, 2018), retrieved January 27, 2018, from http://www.merip.org/mero/mero012718.
29. Malcolm Kerr, The Arab Cold War: Gamal ’Abd Al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970, (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1971).
30. James D. Fearon, “Rationalist Explanations of War,” International Organization, Vol. 49, No. 3 (1995),
pp. 379-414.
31. Elizabeth Nathan Saunders, Leaders at War: How Presidents Shape Military Interventions, (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 2011).
32. Richard Ned Lebow, A Cultural Theory of International Relations, (Cambridge University Press, 2008),
p. 284.
33. Richard Ned Lebow, Why Nations Fight: Past and Future Motives for War, (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2010), p. 171.
34. Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, (New York: The Free Press, 1964), p. 160.
2018 Sprıng 141
35. Hans Morgenthau, Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, (London, New York:
McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1948), p. 89.
36. Jonathan Renshon, Fighting for Status: Hierarchy and Conflict in World Politics, (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2017), p. 33.
37. Renshon, Fighting for Status, pp. 22-24; Sven-Eric Fikenscher, Lena Jaschob, and Reinhard Wolf, “Seeking
Status Recognition through Military Symbols: German and Indian Armament Policies between Strategic
Rationalizations and Prestige Motives,” in Christopher Daase, et al. (eds.), Recognition in International
Relations: Rethinking a Political Concept in a Global Context, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp. 86-
103; Thomas Lindemann, Causes of War: The Struggle for Recognition, (Colchester : ECPR Press, 2010).
38. For more details of this status-identity as a regional power, see Mustafa al-Labbad, “The Saudi Narrative
at the End of 2014 [in Arabic],” As-Safir Newspaper, (December 22, 2014), retrieved November 20,
2016, from http://assafir.com/article/391546.
39. Karen Young, “The Emerging Interventionists of the GCC,” LSE Middle East Centre Paper Series, (LSE
Middle East Centre, December 2013).
40. Oz Hassan, “Undermining the Transatlantic Democracy Agenda? The Arab Spring and Saudi Arabia’s
Counteracting Democracy Strategy,” Democratization, Vol. 22, No. 3 (2015), pp. 479-495.
41. Nawaf Obaid, “A New Generation of Saudi Leaders – and a New Foreign Policy,” The Washington Post,
(March 26, 2015), retrieved July 16, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-newgeneration-
42. “The Qatar Crisis,” POMEPS, No. 31, (2017), retrieved from https://pomeps.org/2017/10/12/theqatar-
43. Gasser al-Gasser, “Saudi Arabia without Decorations [In Arabic],” Al-Hayat, (February 18, 2015),
January 26, 2018, retrieved from https://goo.gl/KVRZxz.
44. Al-Omran and Fitch, “Young Saudi Royals Rise as Kingdom Tries to Assert Regional Leadership.”
45. May Darwich, “Creating the Enemy, Constructing The Threat: The Diffusion of Repression against the
Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East,” Democratization, Vol. 24, No. 7 (2017), pp. 1289-1306.
46. David Kenner, “Iran Deal Threatens to Upend a Delicate Balance of Power in the Middle East,”
Foreign Policy, (April 2, 2015), retrieved July 20, 2017, from https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/04/02/
47. David Kenner, “Iran Deal Threatens to Upend a Delicate Balance of Power in the Middle East.”
48. Abdullah Hamid al-Din, “Saudi National Identity [in Arabic],” Al-Hayat, (September 22, 2014),
retrieved July 15, 2017, from https://goo.gl/7QLEja.
49. Michael Knights and Alexander Mello, “The Saudi-UAE War Effort in Yemen (Part 2): The Air
Campaign,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, (2015), retrieved July 15, 2017, from http://
50. Patrick Wintour and Saeed Kamali Dehghan, “Saudi Arabia Shoots down Houthi Missile Aimed at
Riyadh Palace,” The Guardian, (December 19, 2017), retrieved January 26, 2018, from http://www.
51. “Saudi General Killed on Yemen Border While ‘Defending Country,’ Army Says,” The Guardian,
(September 27, 2015), retrieved November 20, 2017, from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/
52. “Yemen’s Al-Qaeda: Expanding the Base,” International Crisis Group, (February 2, 2017), retrieved January
26, 2018, from https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/
53. “Yemen’s Humanitarian Catastrophe,” BBC News, (March 28, 2017), retrieved January 27, 2018, from
Reproduced with permission of copyright owner. Further
reproduction prohibited without permission.

© 2024 EssayHotline.com. All Rights Reserved. | Disclaimer: for assistance purposes only. These custom papers should be used with proper reference.