The Saudi Arabian Military Coalition’s Blockade in Yemen: A gross miscalculation for political capital?
By Tasneem Ghazi
It is perhaps ironic that in the very day and age when robots hold citizenship rights (such as the infamous Saudi ‘Sophia’), over seven million people remain starving, stranded, and bombarded daily in an arid, barren desert. Save the Children predicts that in Yemen, an estimated average of 130 children are dying daily from malnutrition alone. This humanitarian disaster is a direct result of the Saudi Arabian Military Coalition’s decision to enforce a naval and aerial blockade on the 25th March 2015; a strategy aimed at crippling their opponents, the Houthi-led insurgents backed by Iran. The blockade has prevented all humanitarian aid and basic resources (such as food and water) from entering the afflicted Houthi-dominated areas. As it stands, Yemen is now the ‘largest humanitarian crisis in the modern world’ and yet, America, Russia, Great Britain and neighbouring countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have turned a blind eye. Regardless of whether the Saudi Arabian-led Military Coalition’s intervention into the Yemeni civil war may be morally justified, civilian plight has reached an unprecedented level and is only worsening. The blockade has also been unable to prevent the Houthis from arming themselves with long-range ballistic missiles and firing them at Riyadh (e.g., on 4 November 2017). These developments beg the question–is the blockade really an effective strategy or a gross miscalculation by the Coalition?
The devastating causalities in Yemen have been caused by the ongoing strife that begun during the 2011 Arab Spring. As initially clarified, the extraordinary scale of this humanitarian crisis is because of the Saudi Arabian Military Coalition’s decision to enforce a naval and aerial blockade. Publicly, the Coalition announced that this blockade would severely undermine their opponents, the Houthi-led insurgents, by preventing them from receiving weapons and ammunition from their ally and patron, Iran. Yet, it has done anything but this. Amnesty International, alongside most humanitarian and relief agencies, has declared that the blockade has prevented aid and resources from reaching the afflicted civilian and Houthi areas. Most recently, the blockade has closed the major entry ports of Hodeidah and Saleef, in addition to the airport in the capital Sana’a, blocking all access and entrapping the impoverished areas more than ever before. Matters have been exacerbated by the worst outbreak of cholera in modern history, which stands at 1 million cases and counting, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Save the Children predicts that because of this deadly epidemic, one child is being infected with cholera every 35 seconds. Even if we are to place the Coalition’s airstrikes aside, Amnesty International predicts that in Yemen, 18.8 million people, out of a total population of 28 million, are in need of basic supplies as well as medical and humanitarian aid. These figures are rising daily and this simply will not cease until the blockade ends.
After two years of ongoing fighting, the situation in Yemen remains at a stalemate. Houthi forces have managed to retain control of the majority of the Western coast, bordering the Red Sea, as well as the capital Sana’a. If the blockade were really as successful as the Coalition’s news outlets have claimed, it would have choked the Houthis and prevented them from receiving arms and ammunition, let alone missiles. The reality, from a strategic perspective, is that it has failed. As long as 32 months after the blockade’s primary enforcement, the Houthis fired a Scud-type missile with a range of more than 800km at Riyadh. If this is the case, why then, have the Coalition’s policymakers chosen to enforce such a costly and ineffective policy?
The ‘Warrior Prince’
The answer arguably lies in the objectives and stakes of a young Arab leader, who political commentators have identified as being responsible for the consolidation of the Saudi Military Coalition and the rigorous enforcement of this blockade. Namely: The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. Publicly, Bin Salman has made quite clear that the Coalition is staunchly committed to prolonging the conflict until a victory is secured. After tightening the blockade in November 2017 , following the missile strike on Riyadh, Bin Salman received much praise as the ‘Protector of the Gulf’. Indeed, Bin Salman’s policy objectives merit inspection in light of his unexpected and dashing arrival into regional and national politics. It is no secret that he has used the war to consolidate his public image as the young ‘Warrior Prince’ and rightful heir to the Saudi Arabian throne. In March 2015, barely a month after forming and leading the Coalition for his conquest into Yemen, the unexperienced 30-year-old was made Deputy Crown Prince, instead of many of his older, more qualified relatives.
Since Bin Salman’s swift rise to power, political commentators have rushed to make sense of his extraordinary policies. These include imprisoning 150 of his relatives (even well-known philanthropists such as Al Walid Bin Talal), planning a completely robot-run city, and granting citizenship to the computerized Robot, ‘Sophia’. Famously, on 24 October 2017, he delivered a speech in which he vowed to return Saudi Arabia to an age of ‘moderate Islam’ .This speech is laden with dark irony, as ‘moderate Islam’, or mainstream Islam for that matter, would not endorse a blockade that is starving disease-stricken civilians, the vast majority of whom are Muslims. This is crystal clear in the Qur’anic verse: “Whoever slays (or is responsible for killing) a soul … it is as if he had slain mankind altogether (5:32)”.
It is clear that Bin Salman’s policies are not theologically founded, at least, not in the traditional Islamic sense. However, his recent momentous speech reenforces his desire to appear moderate in order to attract the West’s backing and investment. Leading the effort in Yemen, as well as imprisoning any contenders to his position and becoming the first to bestow citizenship rights upon a robot reveals a common thread in his policies–to steal the limelight and paint a striking public image. These actions have little to do with the good of the Saudi state. Indeed, philanthropists of the Al Saud dynasty who held the good of the Saudi state at heart are now in cuffs and the Saudi Arabian budget is being further depleted by the costs of this war. What may be commonly ascertained from Bin Salman’s policies is that his public image is his highest priority. He desires to be seen in the West as a young modernizing ruler and in the Middle East as a ‘Warrior Prince’. Some have even claimed that his policies in Yemen are painted with Machiavellian brushes. For in Chapter 8 of The Prince, Machiavelli contends that ‘conquests by criminal virtue’ may be justified to establish a Prince’s power. Likewise, Bin Salman clearly boosted his popularity back home through this blockade and hopes of a smashing victory abroad.
From this angle, we might venture to say that Bin Salman’s policies in Yemen have been successful in securing his political credibility. Credibility here is not limited to Saudi Arabia, but neighboring states in region, such as the UAE, with which he has strengthened and secured ties. On a personal level, analysts say that his actions have commanded the respect of Arab leaders such as Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed and the King of Bahrain. This is also because he is achieving the long-standing political and ideologically-rooted objective of weakening Iran’s support in the region, by fighting their allies, the Houthis. The ideology subscribed to by most of the Al Saud dynasty is one that the rulers of the UAE and Bahrain publicly condone. This ideology is the neo-conservative Salafi-Wahhabi ‘takfiri’ school of thought that labels Shi’a and all non-Wahhabis or non-Salafis as ‘heretics’. It is encapsulated and based upon Mohammed Ibn Abd Al Wahhabb’s Nullifiers of Islam (Nawaqid Al Islam) . In Yemen, the Houthis (being Zaidis) are non-Wahhabis. According to this ideology, Zaidis (like all non-Wahhabis) are branded ‘heretics’ that ‘must be killed’ if they do not submit to Salafi-Wahhabism. The Houthis represent 40% of the Yemeni population and they have been most affected by the causalities in areas such as Mocha. However, in Bin Salman’s eyes, Yemen is a ‘two birds with one stone’ opportunity. Not only has the blockade allowed him to embellish his public image and secure credibility, but his actions are additionally justified from an ideological, Wahhabi perspective.
Another Sunni-Shi’a Conflict?
Nevertheless, it would be far too simplistic to reduce the entire conflict to a mere extension of the sectarian Sunni-Shi’a strife that dominates the region. It is true that on one side, for the Saudis this is to some extent an ideological, and perhaps, a theologically-rooted crusade. However, for the rest of the Coalition (e.g., Egypt and Jordan) who are not Wahhabis and are traditional ‘usuli’ Sunnis, the war has no religious justification whatsoever. This is even more true for the Houthis themselves, who despite being supported by Iran, are not Shi’a per se. In fact, from an Islamic, theological perspective, traditional Zaidism is far more similar to traditional Sunnism, and specifically Hanafi ‘usul’ (traditions) that are practiced across the majority of the Levant, as opposed to Twelver Shi’ism that is practiced by the majority of Iran. This is precisely why it is debatable whether the Zaidis are Shi’a at all, and why historically speaking, sectarianism has never been a problem in Yemen until this point.
Whilst bitter sectarian rhetoric remains at the heart of the conflict, notions of a religiously justified war have been augmented by the media. Yemen is certainly a manifestation of the Saudi-Iran power struggle for regional hegemony. Recent developments such as former President Saleh’s death and desertion of the Houthis have fueled the fire ignited by Sunni-Shi’a rhetoric even further. The vacancy left by Saleh’s death means that there is no significant, internationally known Yemeni figure supporting the Houthis. This, in turn, has reinforced the portrayal of the Houthis in the Arab press as no more than Iran’s ‘Anti-Sunni’ puppets. However, despite this, Yemen should not be confused with a religious war or large-scale sectarian strife, like the situation in post-2003 Iraq. More importantly, the civilian plight that exists can be alleviated in a manner that does not hinder both factions from fighting one another. Yemen is primarily a proxy war. For the Houthis, Iran is a strong, loyal, and convenient ally. As for the Saudis, the Houthis pose a threat at their borders, both ideologically and strategically speaking. But, as far as the majority of Yemeni civilians are concerned, nothing matters except being able to survive.
A more detailed understanding of theological nuances teaches that the situation in Yemen extends far beyond a ‘Sunni-Shi’a’ conflict. History corroborates this even further; despite Al Saud’s longstanding commitment to Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia has previously set aside its ideological differences in Yemen. In the early 1960’s, King Faisal intervened by supporting the Houthi Royalists against the Communist rebels backed by Pan-Arabist Jamal Abd Al Nasser. Furthermore, when this intervention failed, King Faisal went to great lengths to reestablish peace in Yemen through the Tai’f Conference in 1965. Thus, it would be foolish to presume that Bin Salman cannot emulate his truly moderate uncle in one way or another.
A Different Approach
An alternate strategy with regards to the blockade does not mean that the Saudis would abandon their military campaign, however morally dubious this may be. It simply entails the adoption of a different approach towards Yemeni civilians. This would consist of lifting or loosening the blockade in civilian-dominated areas such as Mocha and letting humanitarian agencies in with Saudi protection. This strategy would cost just as much as the blockade has cost. If well publicized, this could also boost the popularity of Bin Salman and the Coalition in Yemen. After all, tightening the blockade in November 2017 allowed Bin Salman to make yet another mark as the ‘Sunni Strongman’ of the Gulf. Realistically speaking then, even if the rest of the Coalition wanted to loosen the blockade, Bin Salman will not budge unless he is convinced that this new approach will benefit him personally.
If efforts were to be disguised as ‘concern’ for Yemeni civilians, this would allow Bin Salman to create a well-rounded public image in the Middle East as a figure who can do no wrong–merciful towards civilians and concerned for their livelihoods. In the long run, this would be instrumental for mustering the support of local Yemeni tribes. Particularly in light of the late President Saleh’s defection and death by the Houthis, a massive humanitarian campaign has the potential to encourage Saleh’s supporters and grateful civilians to switch sides. During the beginning of the conflict, many civilians were Houthi sympathizers merely because Houthi forces did not disrespect local tribes or wreak havoc in the rural areas that they captured. Local tribes appreciated this, in contrast to the ‘Scorched Earth Approach’ adopted by the Coalition and their de facto allies on the ground– the Colombian mercenaries hired by the UAE and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as well as Ansar Al Sharia’a. In fact, this is why Houthi forces command much more support than many would like to admit. Their tactics, as far as civilians are concerned, are relatively speaking, not nearly as brutal.
In short, loosening the blockade and disguising humanitarian efforts as the Coalition’s ‘concern’ would be a much more effective strategy on many levels. By saving millions of lives, the Coalition would earn the gratitude and loyalty of the afflicted civilians: Sunni tribes and Zaidi’s alike. This move would undermine the core strength of the Houthi-led insurgency. Such a campaign would be taking advantage of the fact that the Zaidi’s have neither the means nor the infrastructure to cure cholera, diphtheria, and other epidemics, in addition to famine.
Regardless of whether the blockade stands, Iran will still supply the Houthis with weapons and ammunition as proved by the Houthi’s intermittent missile strikes. Partially lifting the blockade to allow aid in will not, therefore, be severely detrimental to the Coalition’s military position. In fact, this approach might even bolster the Coalition’s standing in Yemen and turn the tables in their favour by giving local tribes reason to shift allegiances, as Saleh notably did before his death. The starving, disease-stricken civilians are mainly Zaidi’s and traditional usuli Sunnis, both of which have no religious or ideological commitment to fight the Coalition or Wahhabis per se. Although a decent amount are Houthi sympathizers, the afflicted are not majorly concerned with regional politics. Indiscriminate airstrikes and letting these civilians starve and suffer is a grim, slow manner of securing a win for the Saudi-led Coalition.
A more effective strategy in the long run would entail saving millions of lives by Saudi Arabia allowing aid in and disguising this as ‘concern’ for Yemeni children. The ambitious ‘Warrior Prince’ could even use this to ameliorate his popularity and amass Yemeni allies and support for a new post-conflict government in the future. However, the reality is that it is, perhaps, easier for the Coalition to use the excuse of sectarian strife to prolong the conflict rather than save millions of Zaidis. After all, neither America nor Britain has entangled themselves in the conflict yet so why should the Coalition worry about aggravating the largest humanitarian crisis in the world?
Tasneem Ghazi reads Politics, Philosophy and Law at King’s College London. She is an editor at the King’s Student Law Review (KSLR) and is also one of the founding editors of the Politics, Philosophy and Law Journal (KSJPPL). Tasneem is a contributing writer to a number of academic journals and media outlets. Her areas of expertise and interest include the Arab Spring in the Levant, the dynamics of sectarianism in the MENA, the influence of religion and socio-economics on political systems in the MENA and countering violent- extremist thought in the MENA. She is also trilingual and works as a freelance translator.
Niccolò Machiavelli, ‘The Prince’ (London: Penguin Books, 1988), Chapter 8.
 Vincenzo Olivetti, Terror’s Source’, The House of Islam p.16
 Mohammed Ibn Abd Al Wahabb (‘The Nullifiers of Islam’) ‘Nawaqid Al Islam’
Vincenzo Olivetti, ‘Terror’s Source’, The Salafi Ideology Doctrines and Tenet, p.33
 Ibid, p.15
 Ibid, p.16