Creating new perspectives since 2009

What is behind Saudi’s military failures?

October 10, 2019 at 10:41 am

Saudi Arabian armed forces seen during a training excercise [AHMED FARWAN/Flickr]

The recent attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and devastating retaliatory attacks by Yemeni forces exposed Saudi military vulnerabilities. Assaults should not come as a surprise, as it was just a matter of time, when, how and where the Houthis would strike. However, the results of these attacks are more than staggering, as they reveal the incompetence of Saudi military structures and the inability of the kingdom to protect its core infrastructure and defend its troops and territory.

So, why have Saudis experienced one humiliating defeat after another?

Speaking for MEMO, Bruce Riedel, former senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East to the last four presidents of the United States in the staff of the National Security Council at the White House and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, said: “The main reason for Saudi Arabia’s military debacle in Yemen is the poor judgment of Muhammed Bin Salman [MBS] who recklessly started the Saudi intervention with no strategy to defeat the rebels. MBS has no training or experience in the military and completely misjudged the challenges of fighting a popular movement in very difficult terrain.”

Despite being one of the world’s largest military spenders, Saudi failed to defeat Houthi rebels in Yemen or even to score a minor victory over them in more than four years of conflict; exposing serious weaknesses against much stronger adversaries like Iran.

Tore Refslund Hamming, researcher at the Danish Institute of International Studies and scholar at the Middle East Institute, pointed out that military superiority is not guarantee for military success. The US and allied nations experienced this in Afghanistan and in Iraq and obviously forgot the hard taught lesson learned in Vietnam.

Defence analysts suggest that recent attacks have revealed multilayer structural and organisational problems in the kingdom’s defence.

READ: Najran could well be Saudi Arabia’s fault line as much as its front line 

First of all, Saudi sophisticated military arsenal is suitable for fighting conventional wars and not deterrence of asymmetrical attacks and proxy wars.

Many suggest that Saudi military is simply too large but inadequately organised and with personnel who have received insufficient training.

According to Philippe Droz-Vincent, a professor of political science and international relations at the Grenoble Institute of Political Studies, the paradox of Saudi huge military expenses – often focused on infrastructure, procurements and salaries, rather than training – have resulted in poor capabilities of deployment and misleading projections.

It has been also reported that many Saudi officers have built their military careers based on family status and good connections with the royal family rather than their knowledge and military expertise.

Furthermore, Brian Downing, a US journalist and political commentator, told Press TV that there are a lot of tribal factions within the Saudi military. “They don’t work side by side together very well, they don’t trust one another and that’s going to hurt the unit combat ferocity.”

US military analysts also noticed that Saudi pilots considerably lack consistent training which is necessary to maintain and improve their flying skills. This was evident in the early months of Yemen war, when the Saudi Airforce, despite total air dominance, could not achieve satisfactory results as their attacks on ground targets were often inaccurate and performed from high altitudes, leading to high civilian casualties.

Afterall, the air strike campaign has proved to be largely unsuccessful, as Saudis have not been able to accomplish any of their declared goals.

Saudi quagmire in Yemen - Cartoon [Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

Saudi quagmire in Yemen – Cartoon [Carlos Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

On the ground, they have faced a highly motivated well-trained enemy, who was fighting on its own terrain. As Saudi Arabia has not deployed many troops in Yemen, many presume that Saudis also lack logistical equipment and the experience needed to undertake such a complex task. Recent Houthi attacks clearly suggest that Saudi ground troops would suffer great casualties, and many doubt their ability to effectively perform large scale combat operations.

According to Droz-Vincent, there is a new trend toward improvement, the search for capabilities pushed forward by MBS, in line with the UAE. The latter is considered more effective especially its special forces, but with obvious manpower limits. After UAE’s decision to partly withdraw from Yemen, it outsourced the fight to Southern Yemeni militias, Sudanese militias and Colombian mercenaries. Saudis, on the other hand, have been far less successful in this segment.

Refslund Hamming observes that the fragmentation within the Saudi supported factions within Yemen and the emerging tensions among external actors involved in the military coalition also largely contributed to Saudi’s failure in Yemen. “The Saudi leadership did not manage to unite these internally divided factions on the ground and the effects could not be averted solely through military superiority,” he told MEMO.

The attacks have also brought into question the quality and suitability of US arms. Despite the US analysts’ claim that that nothing is wrong with US-made equipment and all the failures should be attributed only to Saudi military mismanagement, the frequent attacks on Saudi targets, throughout the kingdom and inability of Saudis to respond effectively to these attacks has triggered debate about heavy realignment on US-made anti-aircraft systems. Some even said that that missile and drone attacks have broken the myth of US arms superiority which only existed in Hollywood blockbusters.

READ: Saudi Arabia will not go to war against Iran on its own 

It has been noticed that Russian multilayer air defence in Syria, for example, has been much more successful in taking down missiles and drones. However, the simple switch or integration of different defence systems produced in other countries is not an easy task as it would pose a logistic nightmare and probably trigger a political crisis with leading NATO countries, especially if Saudis decide to follow Turkish footsteps and try to acquire Russian weapons.

September’s attacks also raised the question of responsibility for the obvious flaws in Saudi’s expensive but ineffective military. Although military mismanagement could be addressed, it is unclear to what extent recent defeats will shake the ruling elite and the prince’s throne. While Saudi interference in the Yemeni war has already affected the foreign perception of the Saudi kingdom, Refslund Hamming does not believe this would have any critical impact on MBS besides increased political pressure that he will withstand.

However, according to Droz-Vincent, recent developments may affect political equilibriums and “blatant failures, such as one in Yemen, can impact and delegitimate.” On the other hand, he observes that new Saudi nationalism promoted through “rally around the flag” may also trigger “new support for a new military assertiveness, and rulers can also argue that difficulties are the child of improvement.”

However, September’s assaults have shown that Saudi Arabia is not a “desert warrior” and it is heading to disaster as the war continues. In order to save itself from further catastrophe and embarrassment it is time to silence the guns, open the dialogue with the Houthis and Iran and try to achieve by diplomacy what it constantly failed to achieve with its incompetent military.

As ancient Chinse general and military strategist Sun Tzu said: “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.