Monday, October 14, 2019
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Posted at: Oct 4, 2019, 6:48 AM; last updated: Oct 4, 2019, 6:48 AM (IST)

Drones and the ‘forgotten’ war in Yemen

Niraj Srivastava

Niraj Srivastava
The Houthis, an Islamic Zaidi Shia political and armed movement active in Yemen, have been fighting a war against Saudi Arabia and the UAE for more than four years. The Saudis and the Americans have blamed Iran for the Sept 14 attack on the Saudi oil processing plant at Abqaiq, even though the Houthis have claimed responsibility for it. Drones have been a tipping point in the Yemeni war.
Drones and the ‘forgotten’ war in Yemen
Living by the gun: The asymmetrical warfare fought by the Houthis appears to have brought Saudi Arabia to its knees.

Niraj Srivastava
Former ambassador

THE world was taken by surprise on September 14, when the largest Saudi oil processing plant at Abqaiq was hit by a ‘swarm’ of around 25 drones and some cruise missiles launched by the Houthi rebels in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world. The attacks caused extensive damage to the plant knocking out 60 per cent of the Saudi oil production and triggering a 20 per cent spike in oil prices. And the world’s attention was thus suddenly focused on Yemen and the Houthis, an Islamic Zaidi Shia political and armed movement, which has been fighting a ‘forgotten’ war against Saudi Arabia and the UAE for more than four years.

The Yemeni war began in March 2015, when Saudi forces invaded the country to intervene in what was essentially a domestic dispute between the Houthis and the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The Saudis invaded Yemen because they viewed the Houthis as Iranian proxies, both of them being Shia. The Houthis defeated the forces loyal to Hadi and captured Sana’a, the country’s capital, in September 2014. In January 2015, Hadi resigned and later fled to Saudi Arabia, where he presently lives in exile.

The Saudi decision to invade Yemen was taken by Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), the present Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. To attack Yemen, the Saudis mobilised a coalition that included the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. But essentially, it was the Saudi and Emirati forces that were involved in the invasion, which was also supported by the US and the UK. They provided weapons, logistical support, and targeting information to the Saudis.

The Wahhabi Saudis wanted a government in Yemen that was not controlled by the Zaidi Shia Houthis. They also wanted to control Yemen’s oil and a pipeline from their oilfields to a harbour in Yemen, which would have enabled them to avoid the Iran-dominated Strait of Hormuz.

The Saudis and the Emiratis expected a quick victory against the Houthis, who were a rag-tag bunch of fighters without an organised army or sophisticated weapons. However, they were highly motivated, agile, innovative and knew the terrain well. The Saudis and the Emiratis, on the other hand, were poor fighters, accustomed to the comforts of life. They could not match the Houthis on the ground and soon resorted to indiscriminate bombing from the air, killing thousands of civilians.

According to reliable estimates, around 2 lakh Yemenis have died in the fighting, including 1 lakh children under the age of five from famine and a cholera epidemic. On some occasions, international aid was prevented from reaching the Yemeni people by blockading of the ports by the Saudis and their allies. And, notably, the self-styled global ‘custodians’ of human rights were complicit in this genocidal war. For this reason, it became a ‘forgotten’ war, receiving very little media coverage. The United Nations has called it the biggest humanitarian crisis on the planet.

However, the situation began to change in May 2019, when the Houthis launched drone attacks against some Saudi oil facilities. That was followed on August 17 by a multiple drone attack on Shaybah, a massive Saudi oil and gas field which is around 1,200 km from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen. The drone attacks demonstrated the vulnerability of the Saudi oil infrastructure to the attacks by the Houthis, and the range of their drones and missiles.  Neither the Saudis nor the Americans currently have any missile or air defence systems that can offer protection against such attacks.

It is clear that drones have been a game-changer in Yemen. One expert has called them “the most disruptive military technology yet conceived.” They are cheap, costing only a few million dollars, compared to the Saudi arsenal costing hundreds of billions of dollars. The Houthis are now making their own drones based on Iranian designs and technical advice. They are also probably importing drones and cruise missiles from Iran.

The Saudis have suffered another reversal in Yemen. Their major ally, the UAE, pulled out of the war a few months ago when the port of Aden, in the South, fell to the Southern Transitional Council, a separatist group backed by the UAE. This has infuriated the Saudis but they have not been able to do much. 

The Saudis and the Americans have blamed Iran for the September 14 attack on Abqaiq instead of the Houthis, who have claimed responsibility for it. Iran has denied any role in the attack. The US is unlikely to attack Iran but if it does, it could set the whole region on fire. That could adversely affect almost seven million people of Indian origin who work in the Gulf and remit billions of dollars to India.

On September 20, the US announced that it was sending troops and more missile defence systems such as Patriot and THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence ) to Saudi Arabia. However, they are unlikely to be effective against low-flying drones, which can only be stopped by short-range Russian systems such as Pantsyr-S1 and the BUK-2, which the Russians have used to defend their base in Syria against similar attacks.

On September 28, the Houthis dealt another blow to the Saudis by launching a ground attack within Saudi territory near Najran, in which three Saudi brigades were defeated and hundreds of soldiers were either killed, wounded, or captured. The operation demonstrated that Saudi Arabia was vulnerable to air and ground attack by the Houthis.

The asymmetrical warfare fought by the Houthis appears to have brought Saudi Arabia to its knees. The Wall Street Journal reported on August 28 that the Trump administration was preparing to initiate negotiations with the Houthis to end the war in Yemen. It remains to be seen when, or if, that happens. But one thing is clear: The war in Yemen is no longer ‘forgotten’.


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