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The Saudi Intervention in Yemen: Struggling for Status

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 large-scale 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.

The Saudi Intervention in Yemen Struggling for Status


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. 

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.

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

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 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 photo shows the divided state of Yemen and areas of control within the country.  Shutterstock (Modified)

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

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 region

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 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 decisions 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


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. MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP / Getty Images

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 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.

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

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 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 structure.


Due to the clashes between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels, many Yemenis have been forced to leave their homes. STRINGER / AFP /Getty Images

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 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 

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 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.

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

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 target. 

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 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 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

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

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 sentence.

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 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 long-term 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 assistance.53

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 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 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, 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

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4. Ian Black, “Saudi King’s Son Drives Reforms and War in a Year of Anxiety and Change,” The Guardian,
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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, 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, 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).

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10. Mai Yamani, “Saudi Arabia Goes to War,” The Guardian, (November 23, 2009), retrieved December 20, 2017, from

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

13. Brian M. Perkins, “Yemen: Between Revolution and Regression,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism,
40, No. 4 (2017), pp. 300-317.

14. Maria-Louise Clausen, “Understanding the Crisis in Yemen: Evaluating Competing Narratives,” The International Spectator, 50, No. 3 (2015), pp. 16-29.

15. “Yemen at War,” International Crisis Group, (March 27, 2015), retrieved from

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Yemeni Tribes and Al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula,” Project on Middle East Diplomacy, (2018), pp.
27-29, retrieved November 17, 2017, from

17. “King Salman Vows to Continue Yemen Campaign,” Al Arabiya News, (March 28, 2015), retrieved November 29, 2017, from

18. “Council of Senior Scholars: Decisive Storm Is a Support for Legitimacy in Yemen [in Arabic],”
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