Yemen operation is good test run for an Arab army

How the Saudi-led coalition conducts itself in Yemen is expected to predict the fate of a unified Arab army, writes Theodore Karasik.

The UAE has contributed personnel and jets to a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. WAM
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It’s been more than a week since a Saudi Arabian-led coalition launched air strikes against Houthi rebel targets in Yemen. Operation Decisive Storm is made up of 10 Sunni states.

The coalition has launched hundreds of sorties and destroyed multiple Houthi-related targets. It has targeted ballistic missiles that had been seized by the Shia militant movement, and air defence and ammunition storage facilities. Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s military assets and supporters are also being targeted.

Interestingly, the Saudis’ coordination of the air, land and sea operations is being kept fairly opaque. The command centre is said to be at Prince Sultan Air Base with fighters flying out of King Khalid Air Base but there’s no certainty about that. And yet, Saudi Brigadier General Ahmed Bin Hasan Asiri, who is described as a “consultant” at the ministry of defence, is giving daily press briefings. This shows that Saudi Arabia knows how to disseminate information, which is a plus in today’s interconnected world. It is also unprecedented for the kingdom.

Now that we are on the cusp of the formalisation of an Arab military alliance, the lessons of Operation Decisive Storm will be especially important. The complexities of the Yemeni operations equal those of some others that might happen in the Middle East and North Africa region in the forseeable future. Some say an Arab alliance will have to tackle Libya in a year’s time.

Saudi Arabia is leading the ongoing operation in Yemen with a hundred aircraft. These are likely to include fighter planes such as F-15S Strike Eagles. Bahrain and Qatar are flying up to 12 of their F-16s and Mirage 2000s. The UAE is supplying 30 aircraft, while Morocco and Jordan have deployed six F-16s each. Kuwait has sent 15 F/A-18 Hornets.

The use of air power to achieve strategic and tactical goals is grounded in American and Nato operations. Egypt’s aerial contribution has been unclear so far. It seems to be focused on maritime security and potential land operations. Sudan is the most surprising of the participants, with three Sukhoi Su-24 Fencers. This is the point at which interoperability issues come to mind, with Russian-made aircraft in a joint operation with western-manufactured fighter planes. This issue is likely to be key in any future Arab military alliance.

But for the most part, the coalition seems to be working well together, so far. We need to remember that many of the 10 Sunni states have participated in bilateral and multilateral exercises over the past few years, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring. For example, the joint Saudi-Pakistani Al Samsam 5 military exercises. A year ago, Saudi Arabia held the Abdullah Sword military exercise, which featured at least 120,000 troops and a parade of ballistic missiles. Importantly, leaders of the current Arab Sunni coalition were also present.

The Arab military alliance’s structure is being tested now in live operations. The plan is for Saudi Arabia to organise and fund the alliance under the so-called Salman Doctrine, which the well-networked Saudi commentator Jamal Khashoggi has described as the King’s decision “that Saudi interest comes first” and that it cannot link its fate to the alliance with the US. The doctrine also embraces Saudi’s more proactive “alliance with its brothers and friends from the Arab and Muslim world,” Khashoggi says.

Riyadh is to be the headquarters for any Arab military alliance, much like Brussels is for Nato. Personnel will be an important test of engagement and Saudi Arabia will provide 50 per cent; Pakistan 15 per cent; Egypt 10 per cent; the UAE, Jordan and Morocco five per cent each; Sudan four per cent and Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar two per cent each. The total number of soldiers is still subject to debate but could be anywhere between 7,000 and 100,000.

Doctrinal issues will be paramount in the new Arab alliance if and when it comes into being and begins to operate. Arab militaries historically learn doctrine and tactics from western and Russian institutions. Now, there is a push for doctrinal manuals in Arabic. That said, regardless of western and Russian influences, the Arab approach to warfare is distinct and will be evident. By taking the lead, Saudi Arabia will be seen to be putting together a unified force that re-establishes the historical greatness of Arab armies.

It goes without saying that it is not just a big step forward for Riyadh but a huge lunge into the future. King Salman is not only the custodian of the two holiest mosques in Islam, but Saudi Arabia is seen as defender of the Sunni Arab realm. The military alliance, therefore, will send a powerful message and win over hearts and minds in Arab capitals, especially as the Mena region is roiled by upheaval.

Some may argue that Operation Decisive Storm will not lead to Arab unity because disagreements between alliance members will become more apparent if Yemen becomes the Saudi equivalent of what Vietnam is to the US.

This is always a possibility but there’s no sign of that in the second week of the operation. If the coalition achieves some measure of success, it will be an important lesson and a key stage in the evolution of a joint Arab army.

Dr Theodore Karasik is a Dubai-based analyst on the Gulf with a specific focus on Saudi Arabia