By W. R. (Bill) Collier Jr. – Saudi Arabia’s defense budget has climbed up to around $63 billion, while revenue for the government has fallen from around $170 billion down to around $150 billion- this has caused the Saudis to run deficits, for the first time, to the tune of 20% of their GDP. While falling oil revenues are partly to blame, the shift to massive defense spending is largely owing to the morass that has come of the Saudi war in Yemen against the Houthis.
One of the biggest gambles the newly minted King Salman has undertaken, concommitent with the war in Yemen, is a shift away from the massive subsidies provided to regular citizens to cover their water, oil, and electricity costs. A program of privatization and what is euphemistically referred to as “re-pricing”, could see costs shift away from government toward consumers. The retreat in oil prices, and therefore revenue, coupled with the skyrocketing costs of the war in Yemen, has led the king to take such measures, thus dangerously undermining one of the key props to Saudi power over much of the Arabian Peninsula.
The war in Yemen is costing the Saudis diplomatically, as well as the UN, tentatively backed by the US itself in a volte-face from supporting the Saudi war, is looking into the 2700 plus civilian deaths since the war began in March 2015. The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has charged the Saudi-led coalition with a majority of those deaths. In fact, the US formally invited the Commissioner to give Security Council on the subject, a move that no doubt shocked the Saudi delegation as many of the bombs and missiles used were sold by the US to coalition members and the US shares intelligence with the Saudi government.
While the US has approved $1.9 billion for new weapons, the growing frustration with civilian deaths has become an open split on the diplomatic front as US officials are leaning on the Saudis to “wrap this up.”
But, offended as the US Administration may be, the split doesn’t only involve Saudi Arabia, it also involves Egypt, Morroco, Jordan, Sudan, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain. Lined up against this coalition are the Houthis, supplied by Iran. For the Arab coalition, this fight is seen as a battle to prevent the Iranians from setting up a satellite on the Arabian Peninsula.
Militarily, the Houthis control a region in the western coast of Yemen, save for a small sliver on the southwestern coast, but including Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. It is believed the Iranians are supplying the Houthis and their “Revolutionary Committee.” Meanwhile, around 20% of the country, bisecting the regions controlled by pro-government forces, is controlled by Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaeda. And so two Salafist forces, one Sunni (Al Qaeda) and on Shia (Houthi) are fighting off a considerable Arab coalition and holding them off.
The US is urging peace talks, backed by the UN, but the Arabs are practically aghast- they are being asked to cometo terms with, on one hand, an Iranian effort to establish a satellite on the Arabian Peninsula and, on the other hand, al-Qaeda itself. However, it must be noted, that the Saudis actually BACKED al-Qaeda forces, giving them US weapons according to some reports, to use them against the Houthis: thus strengthened they have proven impervious to attempts to re-take their territory. Ironically, they now control Aden, the port where Salafo-Islamist terrorists attacked the USS Cole.
While the Saudis have claimed their military goals have been achieved and that they have now entered the phase of seeking a political solution, the two most vital areas of the country remain in hostile hands, air strikes and the naval blockade continue, and peace talks have been fruitless. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula has a secure base for planning further attacks against the West that is far better than their former base in Afghanistan, which is remote by comparison.
The morass does not look to be breaking up any time soon, and with the US essentially seen as diplomatically inching more in favor of the Iranian position (though by no means sympathetic), Saudi Arabia’s war could be far more costly than hoped for in March of 2015. Like the US, the Saudis and their Arab coalition are finding that defeating Islamist militants in their own environment is never a simple matter.