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Gregory R. Copley

Gregory R. Copley

Historian, author, and strategic analyst — and onetime industrialist — Gregory R. Copley, who was born in 1946, has for almost five decades worked at…

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Saudi Arabia’s Biggest Geopolitical Error


War is inherently risk-intense, and therefore is not by any to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly. The more comprehensive the engagement the less predictable the outcome. So it is with the Saudi Coalition’s present intervention in Yemen.

Nothing is more important than having clear, strategically valid goals and absolute imperatives before engaging in warfare. Moreover, given its unpredictability, direct conflict should be initiated as a course of last resort.

Any power initiating a physical war automatically engages target and contextual factors beyond its control, quite apart from the mastery which an initiator must have over its own population, resources, and capabilities.

Factors of strategic, geographic, and industrial depth, and coherently managed willpower increase in significance as the scale of the conflict increases. And the nature, duration, and scope of a conflict and its ramifications mostly evolve in ways little considered at the outset.

Few wars, however, are begun consciously and deliberately. Rather, they stem from an accretion of events which lock into what become predictable trajectories, usually before planning even begins. So wars are rarely begun as the result of an exhaustive examination by the initiating power of its specific goals, and of all its own options and resources. Most significant are the “moral” factors (as Napoleon Bonaparte termed them): the psychological factors, of which willpower, legitimacy, and prestige are paramount.

Still less does an initiator ever fully chart those options and resources — human as well as physical — which are at the immediate command of its target. Nor are those factors which the initiation of war may later cause to be made available to the adversary, the target of the aggression. And rarely is the area of broader strategic context — including history, current global trends, and other things — comprehensively examined or understood.

Failure to give respect to the risks of warfare could not have been more clearly dramatized than in the case of the war which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia formalized against elements in Yemen in 2015. By that time, longstanding Saudi concerns and prejudices regarding the various (and diverse) Yemeni socio-political landscapes had already predisposed Riyadh to certain courses of action, shaped even before the Saudi- Yemeni war of 1934 (which resulted in the Saudi annexation of portions of Yemeni territory). The North Yemen Civil War of 1962 to 1970 also entailed a significant amount of direct and indirect intervention by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as the USSR and Britain.

And the merger of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR: North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY: South Yemen) into the Republic of Yemen in 1990 was, as much as anything, not the result of a common desire for a unified Yemen as much as it reflected the coup in the PDRY in January 1986 and the declining ability of the USSR to support South Yemen.

The unraveling of Yemen could easily take parts of it back to before the creation on February 11, 1959, of the Federation of Arab Emirates of the South, which grew to become the 15-state Federation of South Arabia on April 4, 1962, adding the Aden Colony on January 18, 1963, before the Upper Aulaqi Sultante built the Federation up to include 17 sovereign states. The day that sovereignty was subsumed when, on November 30, 1967, the People’s Republic of Southern Yemen was formed (becoming the PDRY in 1970). What is significant is that many of these sovereign members of the Federations did not acquiesce, and go quietly into history. Some of the royal families of the Hadhramaut and other areas of what was “South Yemen” wait in exile — many in Saudi Arabia — as insurgency movements fight to restore local autonomy.1

“Ownership” of the Yemeni political space thus became confused, but there was no doubting the reality that Riyadh felt a sense of suzerain authority and a fear that Yemeni republicanism, on the one hand, and resurgent Zaidi influence on the other could challenge Saudi primacy on the Red Sea littoral. But it was more than that.

There was also the question of the evolution of a sense of infallibility within some of the Saudi hierarchy. A sense of “I am rich, therefore I must be smart.” The Yemenis were poor, therefore they must play supplicant to Riyadh. Related: Houthis Accuse Saudi Coalition Of Blocking Oil Ships From Yemen’s Ports

All of that may merely be window- dressing to the reality that Riyadh was happy to intervene increasingly in the Yemeni troubles which followed the removal from office of its President, Field Marshal Ali Abdullah Saleh, on February 27, 2012. But this paternalistic engagement by the Saudis in Yemeni affairs compounded with the death of Saudi King ‘Abdallah bin ‘Abd al-’Aziz al Sa’ud on January 23, 2015, and the sequence of events — heavily supported by the US Barack Obama White House — of the supplanting of King ‘Abdallah’s line in the Saudi power structure.

The leadership of the Kingdom slipped from the weakened grasp of whatever adults remained in the palace.

The new King, Salman bin ‘Abd al-’Aziz al Sa’ud, who had been Minister of Defense, was already suffering from the onset of age-related mental decline, and his youngest son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), was not only vaulted into the post of Minister of Defense, but also into effectively running the Kingdom in his father’s name, although he lacked the years and experience to do so.

On April 30, 2015, I noted:

Saudi Arabia’s leadership succession restructuring and Cabinet reshuffle on April 29, 2015, offered important clues for the strategic shape of the region in the coming few years, and these may not be positive for the Kingdom.

The leadership changes pulled the Kingdom back into its historically conservative shell — even though the changes were billed in the media as bringing youth to the succession process — and this will serve to further alienate the Nejdi, Wahhabist Sunni ruling group from the Kingdom’s Shi’a population in the East and South of Saudi Arabia. Rather than moving to represent all of the Kingdom’s communities, the Crown has reasserted its model of top-down leadership. Much of this is a result of Saudi Arabia’s indirect war with Iran and Shi’ism, which the House of Sa’ud regards as an existential competition.

The change in the Saudi succession line-up also reflected a profound internal success for the Sudairi side of the Royal Family, and a success for US Pres. Barack Obama, who had strenuously opposed the rise of King ‘Abdallah’s designated second-in- line, Prince Muqrin bin Abd al-’Aziz.

Thus, the only clear strategic objective in the minds of the Kingdom’s de facto decisionmaker, MBS, was to somehow deter any growth in Iranian dominance over the region. And it was more belief than intelligence that Iran was driving the revival of the Zaidi adherents among the mainly North Yemeni tribes. This seemed of greater concern to MBS’s Riyadh than the fact of the possible break-up of Yemen. Perhaps he would welcome that, but certainly no coherent strategic goals have been articulated publicly.

A “desire to help end the Yemeni civil war” might seem admirable, but to intervene only to exacerbate the problem throws that goal into doubt.

Poor intelligence and comprehension of the overarching strategic framework meant that Saudi Arabia’s creation of a Coalition to challenge the Zaidis on the basis that they were merely forces controlled by Iran actually caused the Zaidis to turn increasingly to the Iranians for military support.

Saudi Arabia’s posturing ensured that former Pres. Saleh was replaced by his Vice-President, Maj.-Gen. (rtd.) Abd al-Rab Mansour al-Hadi, a Sunni (nominally) from the former South Yemen. The recognition of Hadi as the legitimate leader of Yemen — and causing all Saudi allies to accept him — essentially overturned the victory of North Yemen in the conflict which led to the creation of a unified Yemen in 1994.

And the more that the Yemeni military (that is the mainly North Yemeni units which found themselves out of Yemeni Army with the removal of Pres. Saleh) succeeded in resisting the Saudi Coalition’s forces, the more that it behooved Riyadh to claim that the Saudi failures were the product of Iranian support for the Houthis (the Zaidis).

MBS’s persistence in continuing a war without purpose has largely been a matter of ego, and the very real fact that a perceived massive failure of his expensive war (at a time of declining Saudi economic fortunes) would greatly encourage his enemies within the House of Saud, has meant a downward spiral of coherent military and political strategic thinking in the Kingdom.

The real enemies, for MBS, then, are those who would challenge his credibility and legitimacy. This was very much at the heart of the thinking when he, or those he trusted to do his bidding, took the decision to abduct — and murder, as it transpired — a well-placed Saudi who had become a dissident, a supporter of the Ikhwan (Muslim Brothers), and sometime journalist, Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. Related: The Real Implications Of The New Permian Estimates

What is ironic is the reality that the assassination of Khashoggi may have shaped international public and political opinion against the Saudi Crown Prince even more than the deaths of as many as 200,000 Yemenis, possibly 12,000 due to the direct and the rest to indirect effects of the conflict, and the several million displaced Yemenis sent into profound suffering (along with the entire country) because of the Saudi Coalition’s actions.


Meanwhile, peace talks between Yemeni factions began in Sweden on December 6, 2018, as a result of a call by US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, on October 30, 2018, for a ceasefire in the war, and for the start of peace talks. But the real driver for the talks is the growing weakness of MBS and of Saudi Arabia. The war has taken an increasing amount of the declining Saudi economy, and the fact that Saudi forces cannot significantly impact the situation in Yemen as well as MBS’ growing international isolation over the Khashoggi case means, collectively, that it is time for Riyadh to reconsider its sponsorship of the war.

It is assumed that Saudi Arabia’s key allies (the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain) will follow whatever Riyadh does. This all may leave Iran with an advantage in the region, but it is an advantage which is the result of Saudi ineptitude. In any event, it is the siege of Saudi Arabia, both economically and because of its hubris in the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, which is driving events.

The question is what is next for Yemen? Saudi Arabia may well attempt to keep much of the country intact under Gen. al-Hadi, but he commands little grassroots support. Is it possible that we could see a coherent state emerge in the north, once again, under the Zaidi? Is it possible that we can see the re-emergence of the pre-1959 sovereign monarchies of the Hadhramaut and “South Yemen”?

Of considerable concern is that Saudi Arabia’s own cohesiveness comes increasingly into question.2 Where does all this leave the US in the region, bearing in mind that US Pres. Donald Trump has come under severe pressure for not condemning the Saudi killing of Khashoggi?

The reality is that the US is now so disadvantaged in the Middle East that it cannot, geopolitically, afford to lose Saudi Arabia. Without the Kingdom, it loses most of its leverage in the region. Its ties to Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman would not compensate for the loss of Saudi Arabia. Neither do US ties to Israel, and its now more correct ties with Egypt. Washington has burned its bridges with Pakistan, and the golden days of the Shah’s friendship with the US were destroyed by US Pres. Jimmy Carter’s hubris and the malign influence of his Ambassador to Iran, W. H. Sullivan.

Saudi Arabia may manage its decline by replacing MBS, but the region itself has now fundamentally changed. The changes are very directly related to the failures of the Saudis, particularly since 2015 or so, but over many decades, and by the US since the end of the Richard Nixon Administration in 1974.

Is it too late to plan for a new future? Indeed it is not. But it will be a very different future, whatever happens, and it will require a clean sheet of paper, and a real understanding of history.

By Gregory Copley via Defense and Foreign Affairs

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  • Mubarak Abd Allah on December 10 2018 said:
    As a retired senior officer (from the region) I really find this piece of art in analysis quite amazing. The writer is providing the concerned parties with a strategic roadmap. To minimize human suffering on the ground, I sincerely hope they read this. Well done sir.
  • Mamdouh G Salameh on December 11 2018 said:
    Leaders of many countries around the world hardly learn from history. Saudi leaders are no exception.

    The Saudi war on Yemen is not only the biggest Saudi geopolitical mistake but is one of a series of mistakes committed since Prince Mohammed bin Salman became the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia. If he read history books he would have learnt that even the British Empire left North Yemen to its own devices and only established a presence in Aden to avoid entanglement in a country whose topography doesn’t lend itself to military campaigns.

    The late Gamal Abdul Nasser sent troops to Yemen in the early 1960s to support the republican regime there but was forced to withdraw having lost some of his best troops. His fiasco in North Yemen was one of the reasons for his loss of the 1967 war against Israel. To quote Mr Gregory R. Copley, “there was also the question of the evolution of a sense of infallibility within some of the Saudi hierarchy. A sense of “I am rich, therefore I must be smart.” The Yemenis were poor, therefore they must play supplicant to Riyadh”. This didn’t differ from Hitler attacking the USSR in World War II. While there were economic, geopolitical and ideological reasons for Hitler’s attack on the USSR, there was also an element of vanity as well. He wanted to prove to the world and also history that he can succeed where Napoleon Bonaparte failed. May be Prince Mohammed bin Salman wanted to prove to the world and also history that he can succeed where Jamal Abdul Nasser, the idol of the Arab people, failed.

    The Saudis have always known that the Yemenis have a grievance against them since the loss of part of their territory to the Saudis in the 1934 war between them. So they have been a thorn on the side of the Saudis. However, the root of recent Saudi involvement in Yemen is the escalating tension with Iran over its nuclear programme and its growing influence in the Middle East. The Saudis claimed that Iran was supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen against them.

    However, I venture to suggest that the United States is the actual root of trouble for Saudi Arabia not only in Yemen but also in Syria, Iraq, Iran and the whole Middle East. The Americans have honed the Saudis against Iran. They have formed an unholy US-Saudi-Israel axis against Iran culminating in the withdrawal of the United States from the Iran nuclear deal and the re-introduction of Sanctions against Iran.

    Since the discovery of oil in their territory in 1938 by US oil companies, the Saudis have been satisfying US addiction to oil, financing their wars and doing their bidding. It would then be no surprise to detect the invisible hand of the US (and sometimes not too invisible) behind the Saudi entanglements in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and their escalating war of words with Iran.

    Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s list of setbacks include the withdrawal of the IPO of Saudi Aramco which is the jewel in the crown of the Saudi Vision 2030 because of risk of American litigation over the 9/11 attack on the world trade centre in New York and question marks about the real size of Saudi proven oil reserves. They also include his feud with Qatar and the murder of the Saudi journalist in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. But his real potential problem is the leadership succession once King Salman leaves the scene.

    Saudi Arabia has no alternative but to disentangle itself from the fiasco in Yemen. It is a war it can never win with the extra cost of debilitating its finances.

    It should also end its escalating conflict with Iran. Iran doesn’t threaten vital national interests of Saudi Arabia and therefore, it is not a Saudi war. It is Israels’ and the United States’.

    And with the end of the civil war in Syria is nigh, Saudi Arabia should end its involvement in Syria and join the winning side in helping to rebuild the country. This may atone for its contribution to the huge damage inflicted on Syria.

    Finally it should end its siege of Qatar. The conflict with Qatar has exposed the haplessness of Saudi Arabia and the resilience of Qatar.

    Whether Prince Mohammed bin Salman could survive all these setbacks is debatable. Still, it is far better for Saudi Arabia to disengage from the United States. For Saudi Arabia, the United States is not part of the solution but part of the problem.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London

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