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The war in Yemen: A modern-day Vietnam for the Saudi-led coalition

Three years after the start of Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen, the Saudi dream of reviving the greatness of the kingdom has turned into a nightmare

It's now been a full three years since the start of the Yemen war. In spite of the grandiloquent declarations of the coalition officials, Riyadh and its allies are bogged down in a military and humanitarian catastrophe.

When the war in Yemen began in late March 2015, Saudi-led coalition leaders thought it would last a few short weeks. Confident in its military might, and eager to confirm its role as the undisputed leader of the Arabian Peninsula - considered the inviolable preserve of the al-Saud dynasty - the oil monarchy went around tooting its own horn, as major changes were occurring at the highest levels of the dynastic hierarchy.

It was a time of celebration for the recently appointed defence minister, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who had enjoyed a meteoric rise and was now in charge of military operations. MBS was the new face of the kingdom determined to enhance its standing throughout the world.

Riyadh's humiliation

The intervention did not go according to plan, however. Indeed, though certain Saudi authorities claimed the whole thing would be over in a matter of weeks, the track record today - three years later – tells a very different story.

In the first place, militarily, because the Houthi militia – dragged through the mud because of its ties with Iran – has not been defeated. And even worse, the armed movement regularly takes the liberty of aiming ballistic missiles at the Saudi kingdom, casting terror in the very heart of the Saudi capital.

Not only are the Houthis anything but broken, the kingdom is now incapable of even ensuring its own safety

The humiliation of Riyadh was again made clear during the night of 25 March, when a number of Houthi missiles caused widespread panic in parts of the kingdom. In a "celebration" of the war's third anniversary, the Houthi militia launched a large-scale operation to prove its stepped-up ability to do damage, and this despite the 36 month-long "carpet bombing" campaign of Saudi-UAE air forces.

For Riyadh it is a terrible loss of face - not only are the Houthis anything but broken, the kingdom is now incapable of even ensuring its own safety. Though hundreds of billions of dollars have been injected into ultra-sophisticated military technology, more than a few Saudi citizens must be questioning the credibility of a power which declared victory from the start but that seems incapable of stamping out the rebellion- despite the total blockade imposed on Yemen, which is increasingly making a laughing stock of the oil monarchy in the eyes of the world.

A catastrophic situation

In terms of human cost and the kingdom's image, the reputation of al-Saud dynasty has also taken a heavy toll. The conflict has killed more than 10,000 people; 40,000 have been wounded and nearly 2.3 million displaced.

Furthermore, the re-emergence of illnesses from the past, like cholera, has jeopardised the lives of nearly a million children. In a country where nearly 30 million inhabitants live in dire poverty, the war has exacerbated the suffering and brought the population to a general standstill.

While famine is rife in much of the country, nearly 10 million people are in need of emergency food assistance. The catastrophic situation has led humanitarian NGOs to call the Yemen humanitarian crisis the "worst in the world".

Despite the denials emanating from the Saudi-UAE coalition, which recently launched communications events and operations to "sell" their war strategy to Western public opinion, the reality of the crisis can no longer be denied.

Beyond the disastrous impact in terms of image, we can only wonder at the amateurishness of those governments bent on making such indiscriminate use of hard power in order to establish their regional supremacy.

The rise of Tehran

For though Saudi policy in the past three decades seems to have been guided by the overriding desire to "contain" the influence of Iran - and even more so since King Salman came to power in February 2015 – choices made during the past three years have undoubtedly had the opposite effect.

Before the war, the Houthis were in fact indirectly linked to Iran. But the conflict has cemented their ties to that country and the Yemeni militia now plays a pivotal role in Iran's struggle with Riyadh. And Tehran's rise is palpable in conflict zones throughout much of the Middle East.

Yemeni child suspected of being infected with cholera receives treatment at a hospital in Sanaa on 15 May 2017 (AFP)
The Qatar blockade, which many saw as a serious strategic error that threatened the very existence of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has in reality consolidated the presence of Iran in the Gulf region, due to Doha's rapprochement with its more powerful neighbour to the north.

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In addition to Lebanon, where the shallowness of Saudi diplomacy outdid itself with the psychodrama of Saad Hariri's forced resignation last November, Iran is gaining grounds in Syria and Iraq, two key actors in the region's strategic balance.

Three years after the start of Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen, the Saudi dream of reviving the greatness of the kingdom has turned into a nightmare.

But the worst may well lie ahead, since Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who in all likelihood will be the short-term sovereign of the world's leading oil power, doesn't seem to realise that the route of military might is a dead end. His war has turned into Saudi Arabia's Vietnam.

In Yemen, and elsewhere, his compulsive nature combined with the disproportionate dreams of grandeur of his mentor, Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, risk plunging the Arabian Peninsula - and the entire Middle East - into a period of instability and great uncertainty.

- Nabil Ennasri is a doctor in political science and the director of the Observatoire du Qatar. He is the author of L'énigme du Qatar (Armand Colin). You can follow him on Twitter: @NabilEnnasri

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This story originally appeared in the MEE French edition and was translated by Heather Allen.

Photo: US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis pressed Mohammed bin Salman, considered the initiator of the military intervention in Yemen, to pursue efforts for peace in Yemen, on 23 March, 2018 (AFP)

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