The Saudi military have lost about 120 dead in three months fighting Yemeni rebels. Nearly 30 percent of those losses have come in the last two weeks, most of that coming from the discovery of the bodies of 23 Saudi soldiers who had earlier gone missing. The Saudis have tried to reduce their losses by hiring another Yemeni tribe, traditional enemies of the Houthis (which most of the rebels belong to), but their hired Yemenis proved to be neither effective nor reliable. Meanwhile, the Yemeni rebels continue to deny any relationship with al Qaeda, and no physical evidence of such a relationship has been found yet.
But Yemen has been collecting a lot more evidence of al Qaeda activity, as terrorists are killed or arrested, and documents captured. It's believed that a dozen or more American al Qaeda recruits, most of them men who converted to Islam in prison, were in Yemeni al Qaeda camps to learn how to carry out terror attacks. There are also supposed to be several al Qaeda female suicide bombers, who look, or are, Western, and are being trained. There's no hard evidence for any of this, just chatter extracted from a captive suspect, or rumors from locals. Most of the known American prison convert al Qaeda recruits have been inept and difficult to train. Has al Qaeda brought a team of elite ex-cons to Yemen? No one really knows. The search goes on.
The Yemeni rebels are mobile enough to avoid the attempts by larger Saudi and Yemeni forces to corner them. The rebels are fighting in their own backyard, and know all the hiding places. But the constant attacks from the air, and inability to stand up to the firepower of the soldiers (especially the Saudis), is wearing the rebels down, and they have made it known that they would like to make a deal. The Saudis refuse to negotiate, and the Yemeni government is thinking about it.
The Yemen revolt is a reminder to the world that there are still two Yemens. Along the coast, there is more moisture, and seaborne commerce. Here are the towns, a few ports and most of the population which, for thousands of years, have been connected to the rest of the world. The interior is thinly populated, and controlled, by dozens of equally ancient tribes, who know each other, and little else. The two Yemens have never gotten on well, and the current unrest is the latest example of this.
The Yemenis have more serious long-range problems. The country is poor, and that is largely due to a lack of education. Half the population is illiterate, and because of the Islamic conservatism among the many tribes, the illiterate are disproportionately women. So kids grow up with at least one illiterate parent, and often are not encouraged to put a lot of effort into education. The male children are usually taught a trade, but that is often something low tech, like tending herds or subsistence farming. As is common throughout the Arab world, the combination of illiteracy, ignorance and poverty makes al Qaeda a popular vision of the future. Worldwide Islamic government would make everything better, or so the fable goes. It's an illusion many are willing to die for, if only because their reality offers so little.
But at least the Yemenis have an incentive to work. The Saudis, particularly their soldiers, do not. Over half a century of oil wealth has made the Saudis soft and inept. During that time, most of the work force has been imported, and attempts to reverse that have not gone well. Saudis will not do work that is "beneath their dignity." That includes learning to be good at modern combat. This has always been a major problem with training pilots, and many aircraft have been lost because some well connected kid insisted on being a fighter pilot, but lacked the aptitude, or fortitude, to succeed at the training. While many foreigners are still used to maintain the air force jets, the Saudis pilots vary enormously in ability. The few who are good at it are worked hard, and the worst are kept out of the way these days. But on the ground, poor leadership and haphazard training are making the Saudi troops easy meat for the combat experienced Yemeni tribesmen.
The rebels insist that their leader, Abdul Malik al Houthi, is alive and well and was not injured in an air strike last month. At first the government thought they had killed Houthi, or at least seriously injured him. The rebels showed videos of Houthi, but these could not be dated, so the rebel leader may indeed be wounded.
The fighting has caused nearly 200,000 civilians to leave their homes, to avoid all the Saudi firepower, or rough treatment from soldiers or rebels. Most of these refugees are sitting in government camps, waiting for peace.
The Saudis have pledged over a billion dollars in development aid, but there are not enough educated people, with the proper skills, to put that much money to work quickly.
January 23, 2010: The Saudis launched over a dozen air strikes on Yemeni rebel targets, in addition to using rockets and mortars. On the border, a Saudi patrol captured three al Qaeda members.