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How has the military intervention in Yemen destabilised the domestic security of Saudi Arabia?

By Sajad Abedi, Sirous Amerian and Khalid Al Abri 


After two years of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) military campaign in Yemen, which was intended to bring a ‘swift’ end to the Shiia Houthi rebellion, no end to the conflict appears to be on the horizon. Saudi Arabia is suffering an increase in troop casualties both in Yemen and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) itself through Houthi rocket attacks and cross-border skirmishes. This essay will argue that the military campaign in Yemen has created further security challenges for the Saudi Kingdom, where unforeseen factors brought on by the intervention may unite certain sections of Saudi society to openly call for regime change.

The essay will be comprised of two sections. The first will begin with a brief overview of the Yemeni conflict and the formation of the Saudi-led intervention. A discussion on the domestic objectives of the military campaign aimed to achieve for the KSA will follow, where the authors will highlight how two main objectives, namely bonding a divided nation, and uniting a fractured royal family, are entwined together to meet one over-arching goal; that is to legitimize King Salman’s authority to rule based on a tribal tradition where loyalty to leadership is gained through a demonstration of military skill on the battlefield (Stensile, 2016).

The second section will discuss two pressing security concerns for Saudi security authorities. The essay will begin by discussing the potential of the Shiite minorities in the southern and eastern region of the kingdom rising up against the Saudi authorities in an effort to claim equal rights from the KSA. The report will then highlight how the intervention has empowered Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to rally like-minded Islamists within Saudi Arabia against the next generation of the Al-Saud monarchy. This report will demonstrate that the military intervention in Yemen has the potential of having the opposite effect that Saudi authorities had planned initially. So Instead of strengthening the position of the young Crown Prince who is effectively in charge of running the campaign, the lack of an apparent victory, and pressure on Saudi economy, has casted doubts on the country’s new leadership. A recent leak of e-mails (Swisher & Hirst 2017)[1] showing Mohammad Bin Salman’s desire to leave the Yemen conflict and even giving the go ahead to negotiate with Iran, could be a signal that the Saudi goals of entering Yemen are out of reach and they don’t want to be hurt any further.



An Overview of the Yemeni Conflict

In 2014, Houthi militia advanced across Yemen and seized the capital Sanaa, effectively removing President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi from power. On the 25th of March 2015, Hadi wrote to the United Nations Security Council requesting a resolution authorising foreign intervention to remove the Houthis (BBC News, 2015). On March 26th, in response to this request, Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes on the Houthi held positions in Yemen. The airstrikes, named operation ‘Decisive Storm,’ were supported by the GCC members (except Oman) and a coalition of several Sunni Muslim countries (Shabaneh, 2015). According to Saudi Arabian officials, the goal of Decisive Storm is to protect the legitimate government of Yemen and to protect the Yemeni population from the Houthi rebel forces, deemed by the Saudi monarchy as a terrorist organisation (Adaki, 2015). After two years of conflict, which have killed 8000 people, displaced a further 3 million, and left 7 million facing starvation, the intervention has been unable to restore the internationally recognised government (BBC News, 2017).

Some analysts argue that for the KSA the intervention into Yemen’s civil war had the geopolitical objective of confronting Iranian expansionism in the region (Abbas, 2015, McDowall, et. Al, 2016). Although this was also a reason put forward by the Saudi-led coalition in justifying the military intervention, this discourse arguing for regional security as the primary motivation fails to account for the domestic dynamics of Saudi Arabia when the campaign was launched. This essay moves away from this geopolitical security concern of another proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia within the region. Instead, it will highlight the domestic reasons behind accusations that Iran is emboldening and sponsoring Houthi rebels who seek political change through an armed uprising. On the domestic front, the military intervention has two main objectives for the KSA, which is to unite the nation and the fractured royal family.


Uniting a Divided Nation

The Al-Saud monarchy has a long history of dividing the Saudi population along sectarian, regional, gender, and ideological lines. The strategy behind this division is to prevent a single common goal amongst the people from ever gaining strength and toppling the Al-Saud domination of power (Al-Rasheed, 2013). There is, however, one factor that does unite many within Saudi Arabia’s society; the (supposed) threat of Iranian expansion into Arab lands. Several attempts have been made by Saudi Arabia to curtail Iran’s growing influence in the region, most notably through the support for Syrian opposition groups, including Islamic State who seek to destabilize, and further remove Iran’s major ally in the region, Bashar Al-Assad. In addition, Saudis launched a separate economic campaign to slash the oil prices to further pressure Iran’s economy[2], which was already hit by crippling sanctions. It is possible that Saudi efforts were primarily motivated by their concern with then President Obama’s attempt to peacefully resolve Iran’s nuclear conundrum. It is possible that Saudis were particularly concerned that the U.S. will abandon the defense of the kingdom. Saudi military intervention in Bahrain, and Yemen bears witness to this assumption.

These examples of some of the failures in both the proxy wars and diplomatic approaches in competing with Iran for regional hegemony may be interpreted within the kingdom as nothing but embarrassing defeats for the monarchy. This increases public perception of domestic insecurity, while also giving opportunities for dissenting voices to unite in denouncing the monarchy as incapable of protecting the kingdom from Iranian expansion into the region.

The tenuous link that the monarchy made between Houthi rebel calls for political change in Yemen, and Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, provided King Salman a risky solution to prevent opposition groups against the monarchy uniting. Al-Rasheed notes that the Saudi monarchy has spun the military intervention into “a revival of the Muslim duty – in particular, the Saudi duty – to purify religion from the Persians, the Safavids and the heretic Shiites (Al-Rasheed, 2015). Al-Rasheed concludes that this hyper-nationalism, in the short term, will unite the Saudis against a common threat. Ramani (2016) also argues that the war in Yemen is motivated more by domestic political considerations than the kingdom’s rivalry with Iran.

According to Ramani, Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen has rallied the Saudi public against a common Shiite enemy. Ramani argues that “the Yemen war, combined with escalated repression at home has entrenched the Saudi monarchy’s stability and has durably increased the importance of foreign policy as a guarantor of regime legitimacy” (2016). I agree that this would be the case if the conflict in Yemen had been concluded in a timely and victorious manner, either through a military victory or by getting Houthi leaders to the negotiating table. Two years on, however, Saudi forces are experiencing increasing casualties in Yemen and an escalation in number of cross-border attacks from Houthi rebels. These factors have led to rising doubts within several Saudi institutions regarding the leadership of King Salman and his Crown Prince (Miles, 2015). Due to the longevity of Houthi resistance, the monarchy is now beginning to look a lot less durable than anticipated at the beginning of the campaign. Far from guaranteeing the regime’s legitimacy, the decision to lead a military coalition into Yemen now has the potential to destabilise the monarchy and the domestic security of the KSA itself.


Unite a Fractured Monarchy

Stensile (2016) explains that succession is the key challenge to stability in any dynastic monarchy. As the royal household must agree on one leader which tests the unity of the elites when making a decision on who is to rule. If unity is unattainable then the stability of this type of regime is greatly undermined. The Al-Saud family is all too familiar with the dangers a disagreement between family members over succession can bring. The second Saudi state which ruled between 1824-1891, disintegrated due to frictions between the brothers Abdullah bin Faisal and Saud bin Faisal. Consequently, the Saud family were exiled and forced to wait for a generation before reclaiming the throne in 1932 (Aarts and Roelants, 2016).

The death of King Abdullah in 2015 and the planned succession of Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, led to the reshaping of the monarchies institutional leadership. Claims of internal disputes and power struggles over who should become the next king prior to King Abdullah’s death were made by some observers (Hearst, 2015), but due to the secretive nature of the Saudi monarchy, are difficult to prove. Tensions within the family, however, were more publicly displayed when King Salman appointed his son, Mohammed bin Salman, as deputy crown Prince and military leader of operation. Decisive Storm over far more experienced members of the royal family (Mazzetti and Hubbard, 2016).

The Shiite Houthi rebel takeover of Sanaa provided King Salman an opportunity to place his son in charge of a military campaign that could elevate him to the same level of military achievement as his more experienced cousins. Such as Prince Mohammed bin Naif, who led a successful counter-terrorism campaign against al-Qaeda that had attempted to create a foothold within Saudi Arabia (Kerr, 2016). And Khalid bin Sultan, who although heavily criticized for his role in the earlier military intervention of Yemen in 2009, had successfully led joint Arab forces in the first Gulf war (Seale and Sultan, 1995).

This decision by King Salman to replace military experience with the youthful enthusiasm of his son is important to note because within the tribal culture of Saudi Arabia, personal qualities that are highly esteemed, and help in the turbulent times of a succession, include success in battle, generosity in victory, and wisdom in mediation (Stensile, 2016, p.119). Cleveland and Bunton point out; however, that loyalty to a leader who shows a capacity as a victorious commander can be quickly withdrawn when a reversal of military fortune becomes apparent. For King Salman, a quick victory against the Houthi’s could not only settle the rivalry between various royal figures but cement his son’s legitimacy among the people as a rightful heir to the throne. Yet in contrast, questions are emerging concerning the decision of the intervention in Yemen.

Domestically, several anonymous Princes have publicly raised concerns over the deputy crown Prince’s tactical decision making and lack of a long -term goal for the campaign (The Guardian, 2015). While internationally Mohammed bin Salman’s credentials as a leader are also raising concerns because of his impulsive and risky decision making (Reuters, 2015). With no apparent Saudi Arabian victory for the deputy crown Prince on the horizon, and with Saudi civilian and military casualties increasing, there exists a potential for a domestic backlash. Rather than unify both the royal family and the nation as originally intended, the intervention could destabilise the KSA your years to come.



The Potential Domestic Backlash for the Monarchy of Saudi Arabia

The following section will illustrate the two main security priorities facing the KSA that are a direct result of the military intervention in Yemen. The first priority relates to the marginalised Shiite minorities living near the Saudi Arabian and Yemen border, and how these communities are reacting to the Saudi security forces attempts to secure this border against Houthi aggression. The second security priority is resurgence in AQAP activity within Saudi Arabia. The power vacuum in Yemen caused by the Saudi-led campaign has enabled AQAP to gain a foothold where attacks into Saudi Arabia can me planned and launched with impunity.


The Saudi and Yemen Border: A History of Aggression.


Saudi Arabia has had issues in maintaining the security of its southern border with Yemen in the past. In November 2009, Saudi Arabia intervened militarily on its southern border with Yemen when Houthi rebels crossed into Saudi territory killing a Saudi border guard and wounding 11 others in retaliation for allowing Yemeni government troops into Saudi territory to fire back on rebel-held positions (Winter, 2012). Subsequently, Saudi forces backed by the Yemeni government launched operation ‘Scorched Earth’ in an attempt to clear the region of ‘infiltrators’. What was intended to be a quick operation turned into a major ground and air offensive, lasting for 3 months and leading to the deaths of over 100 Saudi soldiers (Yamani, 2009). Although there were no reports of Saudi civilian deaths during the border war, hundreds of border towns were evacuated and in some cases demolished in order to remove safe havens for Houthi forces. The 15,000 inhabitants evacuated from these towns were compensated for their upheaval with new residential units in Jazan under King Abdullah’s housing project (Arab News, 2015). Although they still suffered from material hardship and government marginalisation.


The main difference between the incursion in Yemen in 2009 and the current military intervention is the rising number of civilian and military casualties within Saudi territory. This is due to Houthi rocket attacks into military outposts positioned near the border towns of Jaznan and Najarn which are located in the Najarn region. Saudi authorities claim that these attacks have led to over 500 civilian deaths in the south western border since March 2015 (Boghardt and Knights, 2016). In an effort to widen the buffer zone, border towns are once again being evacuated and demolished. With the estimated billions of dollars already spent on the war effort in Yemen, coupled with low oil prices and austerity measures in place to bolster the economy (Hussain, 2016), it remains to be seen if these residents will be compensated for their loss as they were back in 2009. This could potentially increase discontent within Saudi population that is used to extravagant government spending.



Dissenting Voices amongst the Shiite Minority: Ismailis of Najran.


Historically, the Ismailis Shiite inhabitants of the Najran region of Saudi Arabia have been subjected to economic, social and religious discrimination by the Sunni authorities (Human Rights Watch, 2008). Anger has been simmering away for years within this region, yet the forceful removal from their homes, as a military tactic to safeguard the interior of Saudi Arabia, may be the tipping point for open opposition against Riyadh’s intervention in Yemen. The legitimacy of King Salman’s authority over the south western region could be challenged if the Ismailis of the southern border attempt to connect themselves to the Houthi cause and call for secession of the Najran region from the KSA. This might, in turn, transform a predominantly political conflict in Yemen into a sectarian one within Saudi Arabia.

Late in 2015 the Ahrar al-Najran movement publicly announced their independence from Saudi Arabia (Shakdam, 2015). This resistance movement amongst the tribes of Najran, who have historical tribal ties to Yemen, are angry at the deaths of Yemeni civilians, caused by the Saudi air campaign, and are using this as an opportunity to rally together against Riyadh to call for political change. A report by Boghardt and Knights (2016) points out that in order to prevent this opposition against the war effort from escalating, Saudi authorities have begun to arrest and incarcerate those who speak out against the Kingdom’s war effort. This reliance on the use of force on its own civilians to quell dissent by Saudi security authorities may have worked in the past, but previous rulers have had the luxury of money to placate the opposition to their rule and helped balance the use of force. With the war in Yemen draining the financial resources of the kingdom (Al-Khatteb, 2015), the ability to buy off opposition may no longer be an option.


The verbal threat of sedition, to date, has not eventuated into an armed struggle within the KSA, but the crackdown on opposition against Saudi intervention into Yemen from the Najran region may lead to a violent backlash towards the Saudi authorities. It is this type of backlash that groups such as AQAP have been attempting to create within Saudi Arabia for many years, but without much success, as they have been unable to unite the Sunni population towards a common goal. The military intervention in Yemen, however, has strengthened AQAP’s position in the Arabian peninsula and the organization now has several opportunities to unite the Sunni majority to rally together, against the al-Saud family claims to rule.



A Resurgence of Violent Extremist Activities: AQAP.


Saudi counter-terrorism practices have, in the past, been very adept at disrupting violent extremist activities within the Kingdom, through a combination of hard and soft counter- terrorism tactics (Boucek, 2008, Gendron, 2010). Accordingly, by 2008 Al-Qaeda cells within the KSA had been forced to regroup in Yemen as a result of mass arrests, detentions and de-radicalization initiatives of the Saudi security forces. Nevertheless, because of territorial gains that AQAP have made in Yemen due to the civil war and bombing campaign over the last two years, the group now has ample opportunity to destabilize Saudi Arabia through an increase of terror attacks designed to deepen the sectarian divide. As pointed out by Evans-Pritchard (2015), AQAP can plan terror strikes against Saudi targets from Yemen with cumulative impunity, as it has become the chief beneficiary to the power vacuum that has been increasingly difficult to fill by either the internationally recognized Yemeni government or by Houthi rebel forces.

Violence could further destabilize King Salman’s position as the legitimate ruler, if AQAP manages to tap into long-standing domestic grievances within the KSA. This could be achieved by linking its mission to the monarchy’s inability to protect Mecca or the Sunni population from Shiite aggression spreading across from Yemen. Beyond the rocket attacks on the underbelly of Saudi Arabia, recent long-range missiles have been launched towards Taif and Jeddah (Associated Press, 2016). These missiles have a range of 800 kilometres and, although it seems unlikely Houthi rebels would launch a missile attack on Mecca itself, which is situated between these two cities, the ramifications would be devastating for the Saudi monarchy, which are charged with the responsibility of protecting the holy site.


In conclusion, this essay continues the discussion on the domestic reasoning behind the elites of Saudi Arabia’s decision to lead a military intervention into Yemen’s civil war. This paper argues it was primarily used to legitimise the succession of King Salman and his son Mohammad Bin Salman as rightful heirs to the throne, through a ‘decisive’ victory in battle. The evidence, however, has shown that Operation Decisive Storm may very well be having the opposite effect.

The research also identifies two new domestic security concerns for the KSA to address, which are directly linked to the intervention. The first priority is the potential of the Shiite minorities in the southern region of the KSA rising up against the Saudi authorities. The second is how the intervention has empowered the AQAP to rally like-minded Islamists within Saudi Arabia against the Al-Saud monarchy.

The military intervention continues to occupy Saudi forces in Yemen with no clear end-game. In the meantime, the violence within Saudi borders, could reach a tipping point where calls for a regime change, may undermine the inexperienced Crown Prince’s authority. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to provide policy recommendations, nevertheless, it has provided areas of domestic concern that should be carefully addressed. This should be done in a way that does not marginalise the Ismailis population any further, or feed into the violent extremist narratives that are attempting to create a sectarian civil war within Saudi Arabia.


Sajad Abedi is a Resident Research Fellow at the National Security and Defense Think Tank. He obtained his Ph. D. degree in National Security from the National Defense University, Islamic Republic of Iran. His research interests pertain to Arab-Israeli studies, Cyber Security Studies and National Security.

Sirous Amerian is a PhD Candidate and Graduate Assistant at the Centre for Defence & Security Studies, Massey University.

Khalid Al Abri is an RBAF CSC graduate



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