Stakes getting dangerously high for Saudi Arabia and its young prince

As the war in Yemen resumes after a short humanitarian truce, the stakes are getting higher for Saudi Arabia’s princes. 

The Royal Saudi Air Force and its allies resumed their bombing campaign this week after a five-day cease-fire to allow humanitarian supplies into Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s 29-year-old Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman has staked his future and his country’s on achieving some kind of victory in the kingdom’s war in Yemen. A truce that leaves Sanaa under the control of what the Saudis claim is an Iranian protégé regime is clearly not a decisive victory for the royals.

Instead — after weeks of air attacks on the Zaydi Shiite Houthi rebels and their allies — the prince’s war looks like a stalemate. The immense damage done to Yemen’s weak infrastructure has created considerable bad blood between Yemenis and their rich Gulf neighbors that will poison relations for years. Yemenis always resented their rich brothers, and now many will want revenge. Iran is scoring a victory on its Gulf rival without any cost to Tehran and with only limited Iranian assistance to the Zaydis.

King Salman appointed his son defense minister on January 23, 2015, after serving as chief of his royal court for two years. Mohammed bin Salman had no previous military experience or military education. Less than two months later, the Saudis began Operation Decisive Storm to coerce the Houthis to restore the government of President Hadi back to power. The Saudis gave Washington three hours’ notice of the first air strikes. Prince Salman immediately became the face of the war appearing endlessly in the Saudi media directing operations and trying to find allies to join the campaign.

The Salmans also immediately sought experienced combat tested ground forces from Pakistan to take the war into Yemen. The Pakistanis came away from meetings in Riyadh convinced the king and his son had “panicked” and jumped into the war without a viable strategy for achieving victory; the Pakistanis refused to join the war effort and leaked their worries to the press. The young prince was portrayed as “untested” and unprepared for the job. This from a Pakistani leader, Nawaz Sharif, who spent years in exile in the kingdom and knows the royals better than any other outsider.

There are mutterings around the Gulf states now that the Saudi leadership is impulsive and rash. The Saudis have traditionally been very conservative and risk averse. From Faysal to Abdullah, Saudi Kings were cautious and careful. Now there is hushed talk of a team out of its depth with no plan for an endgame.

For their part, the Houthis seem determined to bait the Saudis. They have launched artillery and mortar attacks across the border at Saudi towns and cities like Jizan and Najran, and have mounted small ground incursions. The Houthis are pressing their offensive to take Aden in the south. They are determined to stay in power and stymie the Saudis.

The Iranian press is scathing in its depiction of the royals and especially the young prince. Iranian leaders have labeled the Saudis as “ignorant” and “inexperienced.”  They have predicted the fall of the House of Saud will follow a lost war in Yemen, a case of wishful thinking, no doubt. The Saudis have been compared to both Saddam’s Iraq and Netanyahu’s Israel as arrogant and barbarous. The Iranians seem almost gleeful.

Saudi rhetoric is also getting more extreme. While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Mohammed bin Salman were at Camp David filling in for the king, the king was meeting with ultra-conservative members of the Wahhabi clerical establishment who have proclaimed the war a holy mission. After snubbing the president, the king spent his time with clerics who back slavery, object to modern astronomy, and regard Shia as unbelievers. They too are pressing for victory.

For now the Saudis are learning the limits of their power. Despite spending five times more on defense than Iran and acquiring scores of modern aircraft from the United States and the United Kingdom over many decades, Riyadh looks unable to get its way in Yemen.