The balance of combat power has shifted in the last six months as the government lost a lot of their ground troops. This was because the UAE (United Arab Emirates) withdrew most of its forces in late 2019 because of disagreements with Saudi Arabia over strategy, and fears in the UAE that Iran might attack. The UAE has less population and fewer troops than Saudi Arabia. The UAE is also smaller and closer to Iran.
Since January all the Sudanese troops have left. In 2015 the recently deposed Sudan president (dictator) Omar al Bashir ordered the Sudanese military to send 15,000 troops and a small air force detachment to Yemen to serve with the Saudi-led anti-Iran coalition. The Saudis paid well for this. In April 2019 Bashir was removed from power and the new government decided to get the troops out of Yemen. By January 2020 all the Sudanese troops were gone. The Sudanese played a largely defensive role but that was important as it prevented the rebels from regaining many large and thinly populated areas they had been pushed out of. The UAE ground forces were smaller but better armed, trained and capable of offensive operations. As of these withdrawals, the Arab Coalition lost about half its ground forces in the last six months. By the end of 2019, the rebels were taking advantage of this and launching offensive operations in areas where they had long been on the defensive, and even retreating. The Saudis have not come up with a solution to this problem.
The Saudis have many reasons to fear Iran. Historically the Iranians have always been more effective militarily and that factor is still present. While the Iranians have a tradition of recruiting the most capable men to be officers, the Saudis, and Arab governments in general, are wary of professional military personnel, especially officers. It’s mostly about fear of a military takeover and the Saudis have crippled their own military by valuing loyalty over competence when it comes to officers, and many troops as well. As a result, the Saudis do not have a lot of troops they can trust to do well in a foreign war. Air Force pilots are another matter but you cannot win a ground war from the air. On the ground, the lack of more talented and experienced ground commanders in Yemen has hurt the Saudis in ways they won’t admit.
The Saudis have a bigger problem with the fact that the rebels are backed by Iran which continues to pay whatever it takes to smuggle in some weapons despite Saudi efforts to tighten the sea, air and ground blockade. Yemen is unique in that is a nation with a disproportionate number of skilled smugglers, many of them willing to work for whoever will pay.
A Difficult Situation
This new situation puts Saudi Arabia in a difficult position. Efforts to negotiate an end of the Yemen war proved unsuccessful as Iranian control over the Shia rebels could not be reduced. The Iranians are determined to maintain their presence in Yemen and on the Saudi border. From there the Iranians can continue to launch attacks on the Saudis, who do not want to commit the ground forces necessary to take control of the adjacent Yemeni provinces that are the homeland of the Shia rebels. The Saudis also have to maintain sufficient forces in northeast Saudi Arabia, where most of the oil is and the Iranian threat has been a problem for decades. At this point, the best thing the Saudis can hope for is that the religious dictatorship that has ruled Iran for decades will collapse and be replaced by a friendlier and less threatening government. That is a growing possibility that the Saudis are helping along by increasing oil shipments during the current economic recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Economic activity, and oil demand, in many countries, has driven the oil price lower and lower. A major weakness of the Iranian dictatorship is its overwhelming dependence on oil income. In 2013 oil was selling for $100 a barrel but then North American fracking became much more efficient and within a few years, the U.S. was once more, for the first time in decades, a major oil producer and exporter. Within a few years, the oil price fell by about fifty percent. This came just when a 2015 arms control treaty with Iran got economic sanctions lifted. Iran could now export all the oil it could pump and import whatever it wanted. That ended in 2017 when the Americans revived the sanctions because they had caught the Iranians violating the arms control treaty. Since 2017 the oil price has risen to about $60 a barrel but Iran was only able to smuggle out a third of what it normally exported and the smuggling effort meant the oil was sold at an even lower price. Now the Saudis are forcing the oil price down towards $20 a barrel. In the meantime, Iran was hit hard by the coronavirus, especially among religious leaders and their key associates. Many Iranians see this as divine retribution against an already unpopular and unsuccessful government. But the religious leaders have a large force of well-armed, trained and fanatic loyalists willing to make any uprising extremely bloody. However,the Yemen war ends, it won’t be easy or painless.
Disarming The Food Weapon
The two major donor nations (U.S. and Britain) for Yemen aid are reducing food and other aid because the Shia rebels refuse to eliminate restrictions on auditing and supervising what happens to aid in rebel-controlled areas. American aid for rebel-held areas is stopping at the end of March. The UN continues to document rebel practices that involve destroying, diverting or delaying the distribution of aid in rebel-held areas where the local civilians will not cooperate with the rebels. For over a year now the rebels have been recruiting teenagers for their combat forces and many families and tribes will not cooperate. Other tribes continue to oppose the rebels for any number of reasons. No food or medicine for these either. A growing number of hostile tribes are cooperating with the rebels to avoid starvation. What it came down to was that the aid was prolonging the war. In response, a lot of the aid is being halted, at least for the rebel-controlled areas.
This rebel misuse of aid had been going on for years and the rebels continue ignoring the UN and donor complaints. The Shia tribes have never accepted the authority of any national government and feel justified in doing whatever it takes to maintain their independence or at least autonomy. To achieve this goal the rebels must prevail in their war against Saudi Arabia and the Sunni majority in Yemen. Stealing more and more foreign aid has become essential to keep their rebellion going and the donor nations have run out of options to deal with this.
The rebels also get some aid from Iran, but this must be smuggled in. Shia Iran also makes demands. So for over a year, the Shia rebels have been imposing more and more religious restrictions on people living under their control. This includes many Sunni tribes. The rebels have even been shutting down cafes and restaurants that cater to groups of women. These gatherings are considered un-Islamic by religious conservatives.
In late 2019 the Shia rebels also shut down most public Internet access in the areas they control. This was to limit reports of how civilians were being mistreated in rebel-controlled areas. The rebels want more control over the news coming out of areas they control. This is more important than ever since the food aid is being sharply cut and the rebels can fight back by publicizing the suffering of Yemenis denied food. It is important not to let the hungry Yemenis speak out and explain that they had little access to food aid even before the donor nations halted shipments.
March 17, 2020: In the northwest (south of the
Red Sea port of Hodeida), the Shia rebels launched two
remotely controlled boats armed with explosives in an effort to destroy an oil tanker or cargo ship coming through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which is the entrance to the Red Sea. The naval blockade force detected this and destroyed the two boats. The rebels are trying to disrupt Red Sea traffic, which is essential for Saudi Arabian imports and even more critical for Egypt. Nearly 20,000 ships a year pass through the Red sea headed for the Suez Canal, which earns Egypt nearly $6 billion a year in transit fees.
In a TV interview, the commander of the Shia rebels boasted of how he was able to coerce more and more neutral or hostile tribes to fight for the rebels.
March 16, 2020: In central Yemen (Marib province) Shia rebels continue to advance but are encountering more resistance on the ground and a lot more Saudi airstrikes.
March 15, 2020: The Shia rebels admitted that they had destroyed 160 tons of foreign aid wheat stored in Taiz province for distribution to needy Yemenis. The local Yemenis would not cooperate with the rebels so the wheat was set on fire.
March 14, 2020: The Shia rebels proposed that aid groups pay a cash fee if they want to supervise the distribution of food in rebel-controlled areas. The rebels would control the size of the fees, meaning the rebels could increase the fees to levels the aid donors could not or would not pay.
March 13, 2020: The UN effort to demilitarize the Red Sea port of Hodeida has been abandoned. The rebels refused to cooperate, while simultaneously saying they would.
March 9, 2020: In the north (Jawf province), government forces pushed Shia rebels out of Khub Walshaaf, an area on the Saudi border the rebels had briefly occupied. Jawf is the eastern neighbor of the Shia home province of Saada and has long been subject to Shia influence and pressure. This fighting has been going on for a month and the Saudis have contributed lots of airstrikes in support of Yemeni government forces and pro-government tribal militias resisting this latest Shia offensive in Jawf. The rebels still hold Hazm, the provincial capital.
Jawf is in the north, just east of Saada province, the Shia tribal homeland. North of Jawf is Saudi Arabia. The rebels feared a major uprising in areas they controlled or had disputed (with the government) control. The other provinces are not as crucial to the Shia rebels. The harshest punishment is to withhold relief supplies and foreign aid in general. This has contributed to the collapse in sanitation services and a population more vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious diseases like dengue fever, cholera and malaria.
March 7, 2020: In the northwest (the port village of Salif, north of Hodeida), Saudi warplanes bombed harbor buildings where the Shia rebels assembled remote-controlled boat bombs.
March 3, 2020: In central Yemen (Marib province), Shia rebels advanced into northwestern Marib and occupied an area controlled by two tribes who agreed to switch sides and avoid fighting for control of the area.
In the southeast (Mahra province), AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) Islamic terrorists apparently used four remotely controlled boats armed with explosives in an effort to destroy an oil tanker. The attack failed. The shipping channel north is close to the Yemen coast and the port of Nishtun. AQAP is seeking revenge for the recent killing of its leader.
March 2, 2020: The Shia rebels demanded that foreign aid delivered to several million people in areas under rebel control must be free of any foreign control or interference. That means the UN and other foreign aid groups must withdraw their personnel and just hand aid over to the rebels to distribute or, as is often the case, sell to raise cash for their military operations.
March 1, 2020: In the north (Jawf province), the Shia rebels have advanced and taken control of the entire province. The rebels appear to be preparing for an advance into neighboring Marib province. The rebels have sought to get the major tribes in Marib to surrender peacefully with assurances that the rebels could do what the Arab Coalition could not and get the oil fields in Marib operating again.
Jawf province is east of the Shia rebel home province Since mid-2019 the Shia rebels have been retaliating against Yemenis suspected of disloyalty in the provinces of Jawf, Sanaa, Dhamar, Taiz, and Bayda. The rebels have arrested hundreds of local and kidnapped dozens where an arrest was impractical. The rebels also set up more road checkpoints.
February 26, 2020: In the northwest (south of the
Red Sea port of Hodeida), government forces shot down another rebel UAV armed with explosives and aimed at government troops. This was the fifth such UAV shot down in the last week.
February 25, 2020: The UN renewed, for another year, its arms ban on weapons imports to Yemen. The ban has been in force since 2015 and Iran has been the primary source of illegal weapons smuggling.
February 23, 2020: AQAP confirmed that an American missile had killed their leader, Qassim al Rimi, at the end of January. Khalid Batarfi was named the new AQAP leader.
February 22, 2020: In the northwest (outside of the
Red Sea port of Hodeida), Shia rebels began to block UN supervised food and other aid shipments to the millions of Yemenis living under rebel control. The rebels are demanding more control over the aid.
February 20, 2020: In the north, outside the rebel occupied capital Saana, several Iranian ballistic missiles were launched at targets in southwest Saudi Arabia. The Saudis said they intercepted the missiles which caused no damage to the cities and oil facilities they were aimed at.
February 17, 2020: In the southeast (Mahra province), Saudi troops clashed with armed members of the local Mahra tribe near the Oman border. Marah province borders Saudi Arabia in the north and Oman in the east. The fighting today took place outside the town of Shan when the Saudi troops tried to force their way in but were repulsed. Saudi troops have been in Mahra province since 2017 to deal with the Iranian arms that were being smuggled to the Shia rebels via nearby ports in Mahra and Oman.
February 14, 2020: In the north (Jawf province), a Saudi Tornado fighter bomber crashed during operations against Shia rebels. The rebels claim they used an Iranian anti-aircraft missile to bring the warplane down. That was not the case as the Tornado went down because the two-man crew had problems with their oxygen supply plus a fire in the cockpit. The pilots ejected and were later picked up by a Saudi helicopter.
February 9, 2020: In the Arabian Sea (the northwestern Indian Ocean between India and Arabia), an American destroyer halted and searched a dhow because of information indicating smuggling. A search of the cargo revealed a large number of Iranian weapons (anti-tank missiles) and key components for larger Iranian missiles and UAVs as well as remotely controlled bomb boats. The cargo was apparently headed for Yemen, where final delivery would probably be made by fishing boats carrying cargoes of weapons rather than recently caught fish. There are so many of these fishing boats off the Red Sea coast of Yemen that not all can be searched and the smuggler boats seek to appear less suspicious than the actual fishing boats. Iran pays what it takes to get this smuggling done and there are plenty of skilled smugglers in Yemen looking for work, no questions asked. Such cargoes used to be sent to Gaza on a regular basis but the Israeli-Egyptian blockade is tighter than ever and it is difficult to even get individuals or suitcases of cash into Gaza.
February 8, 2020: International shipping companies warned their ships that naval mines, of the contact type, were floating into the Red Sea from Yemeni to the south. That coast is off the Shia rebel home province of Sadaa and the rebels have released these mines periodically to try and disrupt Red Sea shipping traffic to and from Saudi Arabia. The currents generally flow north in this part of the Red Sea. The floating contact mines are a 19th century development that has been improved on for over a century and is still used because it is cheap and effective. Iran has provided the Shia rebels with these mines which are normally kept in place by a cable or chain between the mine and an anchor on the sea bottom. The Shia rebels cut the cable and let the mines drift into the Red Sea.
February 5, 2020: In the Red Sea, an Egyptian fishing boat, while in international waters, was destroyed a Yemeni Shia rebel naval mine. Three of the crew died in the 2 Am explosion and three others were rescued by nearby ships. The Arab Coalition, which Egypt is part of, maintains a naval patrol along the Yemen Red Sea coast to block weapons smugglers and to keep the Red Sea clear of these mines, some of which are Iranian made while the rest are assembled in Yemen from components smuggled in from Iran. Since 2015 the Arab Coalition has found and disposed of 153 of these mines.