“Tell him Sanaa is far, Riyadh is getting closer” is what Yemenis call out whenever their capital city is targeted by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes.
The ‘him’ in this battle cry refers to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), who launched the six-year aggression against the Arab world’s poorest nation.
After every Saudi hit on Sanaa, this phrase floods social media, imploring the Yemeni resistance to retaliate directly against Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital city.
As the Saudis and their dwindling allies pound Sanaa relentlessly in the last days of their failed war, one wonders why they don’t yet comprehend the retaliatory firepower they are inviting in response.
It started like this …
In March 2015, one year after Yemen’s resistance movement Ansarallah took control of the capital, a 10-nation coalition was formed led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and backed logistically and politically by both the US and UK. Shortly thereafter, fighter jets and ground forces began conducting operations across provinces surrounding the capital.
More than ten thousand airstrikes were reported by the close of 2016, with Sanaa taking the lion’s share – 2,600 raids – equivalent to one airstrike every 3.5 hours, every day for two consecutive years.
In parallel with the non-stop air operations, coalition-led land forces – mainly Yemeni mercenaries and Sudanese soldiers – wrested thousands of square kilometers from Ansarallah’s control.
Ansarallah, which found itself governing populations for the first time in its short history, had only secured their authority in Sanaa one year before the aggression. The movement had not yet had the time or resources to build their infrastructure, economy, military power, and foreign policies/connections.
A game-changing 2018
By 2018, the war that was ‘supposed to take weeks to months at most’ – and according to MbS himself, just “a few days” – had become long, directionless, and costly, especially after Saudi/UAE hostilities against Qatar surfaced and blew up Gulf cohesion.
The 10-nation military alliance against Yemeni independence, once consisting of Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Morocco, Senegal and the Gulf states (except Oman) shrank overnight to two: the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
By 2018, Saudi-backed militias were entrenched in Sanaa’s west (Hodeidah) and east (Marib), and on Saudi Arabia’s southern borders, adjacent to Ansarallah’s stronghold in northern Yemen’s Saada Province. The UAE had its own undisclosed interests, and moved its militias primarily to the south, both for protection and to control Yemen’s strategic ports and waterways.
Ansarallah had already absorbed the shock of three years of foreign aggression, and gained valuable experience in both combat and military tactics. Its weapons manufacturing (mainly ballistic missiles and drones) capabilities and technological advances had steadily grown within the landlocked environs of Sanaa – under siege by the coalition and its western allies since the onset of war.
So, by 2018, Ansarallah was primed and ready to change the direction of the war from a purely defensive one to launching proactive hit-and-run battles.
The game changer in the Yemen war came in 2019, fast and hard. After four years of defense, Ansarallah began launching a series of operations named ‘Balance of Deterrence.’ The first of these, on 17 August, was the first operation where Yemen’s resistance launched homemade and modified ballistic missiles alongside tens of suicide drones at targets 1200km distance away, equivalent to the distance between London to Madrid or New York to Miami.
The targets were Saudi Arabia’s ARAMCO Sheba oil fields and refineries on the Saudi–UAE borders.
The second operation, which took place on 14 September, hit ARAMCO facilities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern-most territories, in Dammam. This time the strikes were on a spectacular scale and caught the world’s attention in a big way; photos and videos flew across social media before the Saudis had time to bury the details.
It took another five similar operations to discipline the Saudis to understand that targeting Sanaa would trigger a retaliation into the strategic depth of Saudi Arabia. In the aftermath of Ansarallah’s retaliatory strikes, air raids on Sanaa dropped from around one strike every three hours to three strikes per year.
The war’s final chapter looms
After rapid advances in 2018 and targeted retaliatory strikes in 2019-20, Ansarallah regained most of the territories they had lost, leaving only Marib, the last stronghold of the Saudis in Yemen’s east, which is expected to be liberated imminently.
Last month, Saudi and Emirati-backed militias and mercenaries fled Hodeidah – the last Saudi stronghold in Yemen’s west – after Ansarallah announced plans to liberate the city and target the territory of the UAE.
With that stroke, the Saudis lost their footing in Yemen. Militarily speaking, foreign land forces have already lost the war and now pose zero threats to the Ansarallah-led government.
Worse yet, in 2021, for the first time in the six-year war, Yemenis in coalition-controlled provinces launched multiple public protests, complaining that the quality of life in Ansarallah-ruled areas was superior than theirs, with lower crime rates, a stable currency and cheaper raw materials available to those citizens.
Rather than scurrying to carve out a face-saving exit from this certain defeat, Riyadh has instead begun to escalate air raids on Sanaa and Marib in a ‘throw the kitchen sink at the problem’ attempt to weaken Ansarallah, consequences be damned.
This brings us to 19 November 2021 when Ansarallah made its 8th Balance of Deterrence statement (mentioned above) and launched strategic retaliatory strikes against military targets in Riyadh, Jeddah, Abha, Jizan, and Najran to remind the Saudis of its red lines.
The Saudis, irrationally, continue to pound populations in Sanaa with little regard for the retaliatory consequences or the global perception of this brutality. On 23 November, coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki even tried to justify bombing densely-populated areas by alleging that Ansarallah’s “military sites have taken hospitals, organizations, and civilians as human shields.”
The war is as good as over, so why these unnecessary air raids on Sanaa? Why would Saudi Arabia deliberately provoke and invite military strikes against Riyadh and ARAMCO? Why not instead exit Yemen overnight, in much the same way the US did in Afghanistan? Embarrassing as it may be, a quick, unpublicized retreat would at least keep Saudi cities protected.
This last-ditch escalation has nothing to do with war strategy, leverage-building or domestic politics.
A country of 2.1 million square kilometers boasting a population of 20 million nationals and 10 million foreigners with large oil and mineral reserves, Saudi Arabia has no parliament, no elections, and no democratic processes whatsoever.
All internal and external policies are made by one man, Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, deputy prime minister, minister of defense, chairman of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, and chairman of the Council of Political and Security Affairs.
MbS is a punisher. He ordered the murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He kidnapped and beat up Lebanon’s former prime minister Saad Hariri before forcing him to broadcast his resignation from Riyadh. He besieged Qatar, destabilized Iraq, and boycotted all of Lebanon because of a single comment on the Yemen war. The list goes on.
A few years back, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor of former US president Barack Obama, recounted a chilling story during his boss’s farewell visit to Riyadh. As Obama protested the recent execution of 47 dissidents in the kingdom to King Salman, the then-deputy crown prince MbS stood up from his spectator’s seat and lectured the US president thus:
“You don’t understand the Saudi justice system, he said. He argued that the Saudi public demanded vengeance against criminals, and those who had been beheaded had to be killed for the sake of stability in the kingdom.”
MbS may simply have reverted to ‘punisher’ mode in these last weeks and months of his very personal war in Yemen. ‘Vengeance’ for his defeat is merited; and killing is “for the sake of stability in the kingdom.”
But bombing Sanaa will also justify ‘Balance of Deterrence 9,’ a new set of advanced retaliatory strikes yet to be announced by Ansarallah.
Undoubtedly, ARAMCO and major Saudi cities will be targeted in the period ahead. Every ballistic missile reaching the kingdom of sand will result in a weaker Saudi Arabia and stronger Yemen, giving Ansarallah a reason to discipline the Saudis at present, and perhaps, to invade them in the future. Thus, the quote “Sanaa is far, Riyadh is getting closer” was born.
Under the command of MbS, the Saudis are unlikely to leave Yemen alone even if the war concludes – it will try to do what it has always done in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Qatar, and Syria, dividing populations with money and weapons.
But Yemen is different. Ansarallah will implement their own institutions, unlike those other nations where the US and its regional allies remain to engineer laws and policies to ensure a country’s dependence and stagnation once they depart. Yemen, after the war, will be more like Iran in its hostility towards and determination to break with externally-imposed agendas.
Buckle your seatbelt. Retaliation and revolution is about to be unharnessed in the Arabian Peninsula.