Running around in circles: How Saudi Arabia is losing its war in Yemen to Iran
On March 1, the Iran-backed Houthis took control of the city of al-Hazm, the capital of al-Jawf Province, after weeks of fierce clashes with local tribes and Yemeni government forces. The Houthis launched a major offensive in mid-January, making swift gains in Nehm, a major frontline about 40 miles east of the capital city of Sanaa, before putting almost all their military forces into capturing Jawf. Six weeks on, the fighting has displaced at least 25,000 families so far, and the fate of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who made Jawf their home over the past few years remains grim. Incompetence, lack of unified leadership, and the absence of a military strategy by the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition have played into the hands of the Houthis.
Jawf is located about 90 miles northeast of Sanaa and is the fourth-largest governorate in the country.Its strategic importance lies in the fact that it shares an extensive border with Saudi Arabia. By capturing Hazm city, the Houthis can open a corridor allowing them to quickly send fighters from all over the north through al-Ruwaik desert to the Safer oil facility, enabling them to seize Marib’s oil and gas and take the city, the Yemeni government’s last stronghold. This escalation marks a significant military development that could be a game changer in Yemen’s war. The Houthis’ military move is strategic. They have also been mobilizing their forces and escalating an offensive on several fronts, including Dhale and Abyan in the south, as well as Hodeidah city on the west coast. If it is not stopped, the rebel group might be able to expand its control throughout the entire country again, an outcome that would be a major setback and a serious threat to the prospects for peace in the country.
Jawfis remain resentful of both the Yemeni government and the Houthis. In the mid-2000s, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh named Jawf along with Marib and Shabwa the axis of evil, accusing them of harboring terrorists. The province was prioritized in USAID’s 2010-12 Yemen country strategy as a result. Jawf tribes are largely perceived by urban Yemenis as violent thugs and bandits. Historically one of the most marginalized and neglected areas in Yemen, Jawf was deprived of basic services. During my visits to the province between 2006 and 2013, I saw no sign of civilization with the exception of the narrow highway that runs through the governorate, connecting it with Sanaa and Saudi Arabia. There were no police, no courts, no hospitals, no electricity, no water supply, no hotels, no restaurants, no sign of modernity whatsoever. Crossing from Sanaa Governorate into Jawf felt like jumping centuries back in time. My late friend Ali al-Ajji, a tribal sheikh who was killed in a revenge killing in 2013, would send an escort to pick us up at the Jawf intersection that connects Sanaa with Marib and Jawf, because it was not safe to travel by ourselves.
“Saleh destroyed Jawf with three things: poverty, revenge killing, and ignorance,” said Hameed al-Ukaimi, whose brother was killed trying to stop the Houthi incursion into Jawf last month. His tribe, al-Shulan, has been fighting the Houthis since 2008 and has had a 40-year-old conflict with the Hamdan tribe. In my visits to the province in 2008 and 2009, tribal leaders told me that the Houthis had been receiving support from Saleh. “Saleh would send ammo to Hamdan to fight us and also give ammo to parts of my tribe to fight the Houthis. This way he divided us in half. In one day, we lost 13 men fighting the Houthis and another six men fighting Hamdan,” Ukaimi added.
Tribes were caught in the power struggle between Saleh and his political opponents, between the Houthis and Islah, and between the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition. Several rounds of fighting between the Houthis and local tribes took place between 2011 and 2014, during which hundreds of tribesmen were killed. Saleh supported the Houthis against local tribes to weaken the Islah Party, which had a strong influence in the province.
“We have been in agony since 2011 and no one cared. We faced the Houthis and Saleh’s Republican Guard since 2011. The state did not intervene to protect us,” says Saleh al-Rawsaa, a local journalist and a tribesman from Jawf who was injured in the fight to push the Houthis out of his province in 2016. “In 2014, the minister of defense [in the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi] refused to support us against the Houthis,” Rawsaa added. In my recent visit to Jawf, Shaja’a al-Ajji, a local tribesman from al-Rawf village, bitterly remembers when in September 2014 government fighter jets killed three men and left many others with permanent injuries, including himself, as they tried to stop the Houthis’ incursion Tribesmen resent the fact that the state, under both Saleh and Hadi, opted to cut deals with the Houthis instead of protecting its constituents from their aggression.
Jawfis and many Yemenis feel a deep sense of betrayal. During the war, Jawf and Marib emerged as two pockets of stability in the country, but the government and the Saudi-led coalition failed to protect them from the Houthis. According to local authorities, Marib and Jawf became home to over three million IDPs from across Yemen, many of whom escaped harsh conditions in the north and Houthi prosecution. I visited Marib and Jawf a dozen times during 2018 and 2019 and was astonished at the incredible transformation the two provinces went through as local authorities took charge of governance after the central government collapsed. The end of the rule of the Sanaa elite offered an opportunity for much-needed development.
By 2018, Jawf had a functioning police force that successfully established security. For the first time in its history, Jawf had a court that solved around 1000 cases, most of which were about land.Jawf also opened its first public university as well as a private university with unprecedented female enrollment of over 700 female students. The local authorities used local taxes to pay for salaries and administrative costs for the police, court, university, and health facilities among other services. Local civil society groups run by young men and women emerged and are actively engaged in advocating local authorities and security forces to improve services and governance. Thanks to IDPs and the relative stability achieved, Hazm city also had a vibrant market and small factories. The local authority has created a town plan and street paving was underway. While Yemen remained in darkness, Jawf was the only province that had a 24/7 electricity supply. Jawfis feel very proud that when the central government fell, they offered a safe haven for many of Yemen’s civilians.
College of Education, al-Jawf University. (Photo courtesy of the author)
The Houthis’ military takeover of Jawf threatens to reverse these gains and is the reason why many tribesmen have picked up arms and fought to stop them. Since 2008 and as they expanded into the province, the Houthis have employed harsh tactics against their tribal opponents in Jawf, including executions, forced disappearance, destruction of homes, besiegement of villages, and displacement of residents. The Houthis carried out widespread arrests, blew up houses with explosives, set public facilities on fire in recently captured areas, and looted Jawf university and the local hospital. “We fight for our dignity, to protect our home and land,” said Ukaimi. His brother was killed during the recent fight to stop the Houthis’ incursion into Jawf, and his father is a prominent sheikh and the governor of Jawf. “We want peace but were forced to fight. The Houthis came to us. If they want peace, we are people of peace. If they want war, we are also good fighters,” he added.
The Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition failed to provide sufficient military support for local tribes to fend off the Houthis. While the Houthis possess sophisticated heavy weapons, such as ballistic, heat-seeking, surface-to-air, Scud, and anti-ship cruise missiles, as well as tanks, the tribes and Yemeni forces use mostly basic weapons that are no match for the Houthis’ arsenal. “In one day, the Houthis burned 41 vehicles and we lost 33 men. They have the weapons to cause a lot of damage to us. We rely on airstrikes to help but an airstrike can bomb one or two Houthi vehicles,” a local tribesman told the author. “You do the math,” he added Moreover, civilian casualties as a result of airstrikes create resentment against the government and the coalition, playing into the hands of the Houthis. Last month, a coalition airstrike in Jawf left at least 31 civilians, including 19 children, dead. “Instead of helping the tribes, the coalition is pushing them toward the Houthis with these airstrikes,” said a local tribesman in Jawf.
Incompetence, lack of unified leadership, and the absence of a military strategy by the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition played into the hands of the Houthis. In a letter to the minister of defense, the head of the six military regions in Jawf mentioned that two government brigades refused to engage with the Houthis. Local contacts in Jawf told the author that the government did not send any significant reinforcements to Jawf, leaving the tribes to face the Houthis by themselves for about 45 days. “They left us high and dry and to face the Houthis alone,” said Abdrabuh al-Shaif, a tribal leader from Jawf. An officer in the 155 Brigade in Jawf believes that disagreements between the coalition and the government contributed to the fall of Hazm. “We were surprised that as the fighting escalated, coalition air support did not intervene as before and, right before sunset, the coalition withdrew their weapons from the center of the governorate, which caused confusion among soldiers and citizens in the city,” he said.
The Houthis’ military advance in Jawf is the result of a much deeper problem. Saudi Arabia entered the Yemen war with a stated objective of defeating the Houthis, but it did not have a strategy or an exit plan. The coalition’s response to the Houthi threat has been mostly reactive and lacked coherence. Saudi Arabia and the UAE had divergent agendas that have caused divisions within the different anti-Houthi forces, with the UAE supporting the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the forces of Tareq Saleh against Hadi and Islah. President Hadi and the Saudis failed to unify the Yemeni government forces to fight the Houthis. More seriously, there seems to be a deep rift between the Saudi-led coalition and the Yemeni government that translated into serious fragmentation of Yemeni forces, which played right into the hands of the Houthis. As the former head of the Moral Guidance Department in the Yemeni Ministry of Defense Major General Mohsin Khosroof explained, “We don’t know who is the decision-maker anymore. The Yemeni army has become paralyzed. No unified leadership. The command-and-control concept is absent. There are different heads with different allegiances inside the Yemeni army.” As the recent Yemen Panel of Experts report indicates, the “Coalition has, on occasion, undermined the Government of Yemen. Overall, Coalition support to regular forces of the Government of Yemen has been inadequate, leading to an incapacity of the Government to conduct significant military operations.
It’s been almost five years since the Saudi-led coalition launched its military campaign in Yemen. Desperate to end the war, the kingdom has recently started negotiating with the Houthis. The Saudis have the leverage to shove a hasty political agreement down the throat of Hadi, his government, and, more importantly, Yemenis. But such an agreement would risk enabling the Houthis to seal their military victory with international political recognition, which would incentivize violence and push Yemen further toward a more intense cycle of conflict. Ending the war in Yemen would necessarily require strengthening and unifying the command and control structure of the Yemeni forces to counter and curb the Houthis’ appetite to expand beyond the north. The Saudis need to use their leverage to achieve that. Serious action must be taken immediately and urgently to stop the Houthis’ military advance toward Marib. If it is not stopped, Saudi Arabia risks a more destabilized and fragmented Yemen where an Iran-backed militia will continue to pose a threat to its own southern border and the wider region.
Nadwa Al-Dawsari is a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute. Before joining the institute, she was the Yemen Country Director for Center for Civilians in Conflict, a Senior Non-resident Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, and a founding Director of Partners Yemen, a local affiliate center of Partners Global. The views expressed in this article are her own.