Yemen campaign sparks patriotic wave in Saudi Arabia
Riyadh - A strong sense of national pride has consumed Saudi Arabia since the start of the Yemen military campaign. In the evenings, cars and SUVs carrying the Saudi flag or posters of King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, with slogans like “May God grant us victory”, are everywhere on the streets of Riyadh and Jeddah.
Cafés, where Saudis usually congregate to meet friends and watch football matches, are filled with spectators fixated on the large-screen plasma TVs to hear the latest developments of Operation Decisive Storm. “In their homes, Saudis are watching both the pro- GCC media and the media organs affiliated with Iran, which are mostly Lebanese-based news channels like Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV,” said Turki al-Dossary, a Saudi health-care worker in the Eastern province.
Additionally, and as a consequence, a good number of Saudis are defending Operation Decisive Storm on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and in many occasions the exchanges are ugly.
The Saudi official who has seen his popularity skyrocket courtesy of Decisive Storm is new defence minister and son of King Salman, Mohammed bin Salman. The kingdom’s airwaves have been dominated with coverage of the events in Yemen, with a significant amount of attention allocated to the new defence minister. Images of Prince Mohammed meeting with soldiers, army officers and international officials have been a staple of Saudi news reports since the start of military operations in Yemen.
Moreover, the prince’s popularity has spread to social media, with memes of the prince, juxtaposed with the Saudi flag or Saudi soldiers, traded by Saudi users. Furthermore, the hashtag “Decisive Storm” saw more than 2 million tweets on the day the operation started.
“Although the majority of Saudis are overwhelmingly supportive of the operation in Yemen, I think most of them are hoping for a quick and decisive victory,” said Ahmed al-Tunisi, a Jeddah-based businessman. “Generally, people are supportive of their country, however this is a bit different for Saudi youth. The last time Saudi Arabia participated in a war was in the early ’90s and you have an entire generation that were too young to remember those events, or were not even born.”
Saif al-Mutairi, a 31-year-old documentary filmmaker in Jeddah sees the current situation in Yemen as an international failure. “After the ‘Arab spring’ where was the international community? Where were the United Nations, NATO, anybody? What’s happening in Yemen did not happen overnight and the only country that has to deal with the fallout is Saudi Arabia.”
Al-Mutairi echoed a popular sentiment among Saudis, according to whom there is no difference between the Houthis, the Islamic State (ISIS) or al-Qaeda. “They all have the same agenda, which is to destabilise the region and Saudi Arabia in particular. Many at home, in fact, view Ali Abdullah Saleh as another Saddam Hussein,” he said.
It is too early to tell what kind of economic impact the events in Yemen will have on Saudi Arabia. At the start of military operations in Yemen, oil prices, which had been steadily on the decline due to increased Saudi oil production, saw a 6% spike, but have since returned to their previous levels.
Furthermore, the kingdom’s stock market tumbled 5% on the first day of military operations and fell more than 4% on the morning after. But analysts quoted by the Reuters news agency say that even a drawn-out conflict will have little fundamental impact on Gulf economies if it remains confined to Yemen’s territory.
Speculating about the short- and long-term effects of the conflict on the Saudi economy, Robin Mills, an analyst at the Dubai-based Manaar Energy Consulting, told The Arab Weekly: “There are possible risks of interruption of the transit of oil and other commodities through the Bab el Mandeb, although such fears have not yet materialised. Also, there is the wider deterrent effect to foreign direct investment of a war in the region.”
Asked whether a quick and decisive war would be a likely best-case scenario for the Saudi economy, Mills said, “I am not a military expert, but a short and decisive war seems unlikely given the situation in Yemen – more likely a drawn-out conflict, or a negotiated solution.”
“The Houthi situation is not new and Saudis have been worried about it for quite some time,” Mohammed Al-Harbi, a Saudi political scientist and commentator told The Arab Weekly.
“You have the situation on the Yemeni border, while on the Iraqi border you have a potential security problem with ISIS, courtesy of the failure of the Iraqi security apparatus. When you take these variables into consideration, you understand why Saudis consider the issue of security as paramount.”
Al-Harbi emphasised that Saudi Arabia is looking for stability and to protect its interests and that in 2009 the Houthis transgressed into Saudi territory and ambushed and killed some of its people. “That incident within itself underscores their intentions, and until today their own tribal leaders have trouble maintaining control over them,” he said.
“This is a war on a militia trying to take over the country on behalf of a foreign entity and a vengeful ex-dictator who cannot let go of power,” said Al-Harbi.