Some retrospection is useful. In Buying Yemen, I offered that one of the several motivations for the current Saudi use of the oil weapon is to keep Iran too poor to compete in the bidding for tribal loyalties. In Saudi, Houthis, Yemen & Pirates of Penzance, noting a lack of success in the buying, I wrote, “The unlimited money of the House of Saud, and evident inability to use it to cause the Sunni tribes to coalesce, is itself a debacle.”
Although Saudi airstrikes are the visible part of Saudi support, the checkbook is again vindicated. Regaining of Aden by Saudi-friendly forces, which means those friendly to Yemen president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, indicates that Saudi money has bought some success. But checkbook power is not unlimited. If it were, the Saudis would have bought off the Houthis, and there would presently be no war. It’s like scissors-paper-rock. Religion is the scissors; money is paper, and rocks are bullets.
Money works where a fault line can be exploited, and fault lines are what enabled the conflict to grow right through the hard religious boundary of Sunni/Shiite antagonism. In November, 2011, following the “Arab Spring” event in Yemen, the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, ceded power to Hadi. Hadi seemed well on the way to unifying the country, when the Houthis seized on the practical problems of extreme poverty with a demand of universal appeal, restoration of the fuel subsidy. This activated a fault line among the Sunni tribes, among whom Saleh commands a considerable loyalty, and, at the time, the largest militia. In politics, the slogan “cheap gas” works almost anywhere.
In Buying Yemen, I speculated that the Saudis might buy Saleh himself. The result would have been widespread collapse of the rebellion, and the likely retreat of Houthis back into their native territory. But Saleh could not be bought. Plausibly, Houthi promises of political power were more important to Saleh, though he did not broadcast his allegiance until the Saudis bombed his house. In May ’14, Hadi’s National Dialogue Conference claimed transformational progress, with one of the goals disarmament of the militias. This would have been fatal to Saleh’s conception of existence, of tribesmen with guns, bound by personal loyalty to him. A business suit does not a Western outlook make.
Although alliances shift like blowing sand dunes, it was a surprise to find Saleh on the Houthi side, because under his presidency, the Houthi movement’s attempt to fracture Yemen resulted in repression of the movement. The founder, Hussein al-Houthi, was killed by Saleh’s forces in September, 2004.
With a little education on the issues, a little persuasion from overhead, and a little grease on the palm, a Sunni soldier in Saleh’s militia might become skeptical of promises of prosperity in a new Yemen shared by Houthis with a blood grudge. A few defections were first reported in May, but lacked the implication of a fundamental shift. The taking of Aden provides that implication.
The Aden supply line runs through the port of Aden, so it cannot be interdicted by the Houthis. The risk at sea is small, subject only to hypothetical piracy or Iranian pot shots. The compactness of Aden and the security of the rear facilitates force concentration. This asymmetry favors the Saudi backed forces in the vicinity of Aden. But as the Saudi backed forces attempt to extend their pocket, with the eventual objective of Sana’a , the asymmetries turn against them. Aden is on a coastal plane. Beyond the plain, rugged terrain favors the defender and the harasser.
But the capture of Aden lowers the buy-price for desertion of Saleh’s men. Since Aden is the principle port, the Saudis can now offer, in addition to the abstraction called money, the lure of tangibles, such as gas, food, bottled water, and little luxuries as well. Perhaps they can buy enough loyalties to disintegrate Saleh’s tribal patchwork.
Life in Yemen is indescribably hard. Every man has his price. What’s yours?