Saudi Arabia has a sizeable, well-equipped army and National Guard. It also has a new king who is celebrating the first 100 days of his reign by projecting a new, aggressive image.
And indeed, since the kingdom stepped into the Yemen war in late March, the Saudi Air Force has led massive air strikes to stem the advance of the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Yet Saudi boots, except for a small handful, have yet to touch the ground of their embattled southern neighbor.
This hasn’t stopped official military spokesmen in Riyadh from talking up their extravagant capabilities and fearsome fighting momentum.
Tuesday, May 12, Saudi TV reported portentously that a “strike force” is massing near the border with Yemen amid escalating clashes in the region. Columns of army tanks are also being “mobilized.”
Saudi authorities had no official comment on its size, the broadcast went on to say, adding that reinforcements capable of fighting in rugged mountains are being deployed.
On May, 3, Riyadh announced the “deployment of around 100 ground troops in Yemen’s port city of Aden.”
Then, after uninterrupted Houthi mortar fire on the Saudi border town of Najran, Saudi ground troops were sent into Yemen, said another broadcast.
It was quickly followed by a Saudi denial that a large-scale ground operation was underway.
Impressive Saudi Army – on paper
On April 27, the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) was ordered to deploy in the Najran region to help defend the kingdom’s border with Yemen. The force included a mechanized infantry brigade as well as artillery, air defense, reconnaissance, engineering, logistics and anti-armor units. An official video followed showing a large SANG convoy arriving in Najran with numerous General Dynamics Land Systems Light Armored Vehicles.
As far as we know, this force was still firmly positioned this week on the Saudi side of the border, along with the “strike force” which reportedly joined it on May 12.
Hardly anything was happening on the ground to support official Saudi hyperbole.
Indeed, according to DEBKA Weekly’s military sources, only a very small segment of Saudi Arabia’s nearly 300,000 ground troops has been sent to the Yemen border, least of all to cross it.
The National Guard alone is estimated at more than 200,000 strong fully-operational, front-line, active-duty personnel, as well as commando forces, while the smaller national army musters around 75,000 ground troops.
So why isn’t Riyadh sending them across the border to challenge the Houthis in direct combat?
Army divisions in bad shape, National Guard unwilling
There are two principle reasons for this restraint.
1. Riyadh counted heavily on its traditional ally Pakistan, which put up military aid, expertise, air crews and troops in the kingdom’s defense from the 1960s, to continue providing military support when the Saudis intervened in Yemen. It was promised and then fell through after the Saudi offensive against Yemeni insurgents was underway.
Partly owing to this reliance, most of the Saudi regular army’s divisions, brigades and battalions are in no shape to fight a war or even take part in local skirmishes. The official personnel figures are impressive on paper but unreal: absenteeism among officers and men is rife and morale is low. Most of their equipment is not maintained to operational standards.
2. The National Guard, whose first duties are to defend the crown and the oil fields, is in much better shape than the army. Its operational units are combat-ready – even outside the kingdom. At the same time, notwithstanding the directives handed down by the king, SANG has avoided getting embroiled in the Yemen conflict for three reasons:
Rivals hope for King Salman and son’s comeuppance in Yemen
- SANG and the national army are historic rivals, constantly scrapping over budgets, manpower and new weapons. National Guard commanders are looking forward to the army getting stuck in the Yemen war and left high and dry.
- Royal infighting is another factor. King Salman’s radical government reshuffle elevated Prince Mohammed bin Nayef to crown prince and his own son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to defense minister. The SANG commander, Prince Mitab bin Abdullah, son of the late king, expects the new defense minister to try and squeeze him out and reduce the powers conferred on him by his late father. Mitab would therefore not be too unhappy if the new rulers got their comeuppance in Yemen.
- The new defense minister, who is still in his thirties, is being criticized in Riyadh as headstrong and reckless for taking the kingdom into the Yemen war without first weighing the whole complex of state interests.
Important factions of the royal house were against entering the Yemen war, but did not dare air their views in the hearing of the king, his father.
Among the leading war opponents is one of the world’s richest tycoons, Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, as well as former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal, who is Chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies and one of the highest ranking royals, his brother, the long-serving former Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, and the incumbent Director of General Intelligence Prince Muqrin bin Abdelaziz.
These high-ranking princes and many others, like the late King Abdullah’s dispossessed or demoted appointees, are just waiting for Defense Minister Prince Mohammed to slip and break his neck in Yemen.
Collateral damage spreads
The Saudi Air Force, in contrast to its ground forces, put up a commendable performance in Yemen. Its warplanes hit a high proportion of military targets. In the first weeks of the campaign, the small payloads (500-2,000lb) of precision munitions, heavily focused on GPS and laser-guided gravity bombs, caused little collateral damage. Bombardments in any case targeted military installations far from civilian areas – starting with Yemeni Air Force facilities, ballistic missile sites and ammunition dumps, as well as Houthi military convoys and large concentrations of fighters.
But as the war wore on, and the air campaign began running out of clear military targets, the air strikes became less precise and more civilian areas took the brunt.