The Houthis and Their Missiles

How much longer before the Saudis agree to negotiate a way out of Yemen?

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Saudi Arabia’s leaders did not commemorate the passage of 1,000 days since they began their war on Yemen. But the main target of that war, the Houthi Ansarallah movement, was never going to let the occasion pass without commemorating it in it own way. It launched a missile against the Saudi capital Riyadh, targeted at the al-Yamama Palace where the Saudi monarch King Salman holds court and manages the affairs of state.

For the Houthis, this was a celebration of 1,000 days of steadfastness. The missile was timed to strike while the Saudi monarch was chairing a cabinet meeting to adopt the kingdom’s annual budget prior to unveiling it to the public. Ansarallah leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi declared: “After 1,000 days of steadfastness, the palaces of the Saudi regime and its petroleum and military installations have come within range of our missiles” – implying that more will be on their way.

There are conflicting accounts of whether or not the latest missile reached its target.

The official Saudi story is that it was intercepted and destroyed by Saudi air defences. Videos were posted as evidence to support this account.

But other reports – including in the American journal The National Interest – suggest Saudi Arabia’s US-made Patriot missiles failed to down the projectile, just as they failed to intercept the one launched by the Houthis on 2 November against Riyadh’s international airport. According to some experts, the latest missile exploded before landing due to a defect, but was not blown up in mid-air by Saudi air defences as claimed.

There has been much talk in Western military and strategic publications in recent weeks about the deficiencies and failings of the much-vaunted and hugely expensive Patriot anti-missile system. This may be why Saudi Arabia is said to be looking to buy the reputedly more reliable Russian S-400.

When the first Houthi missile targeted Riyadh in November, Saudi air defence forces fired seven Patriots against it.  Five Patriots were launched to intercept the second missile on Tuesday. Their failure in both cases – certain in the first, probable in the second — is a cause of deep alarm for the Saudi and US governments.

According to Saudi Arabia’s Al-Akhbariya TV channel, the Houhtis have fired a total of 81 missiles against Saudi cities – including Mecca, Jeddah, Khamis Mushait and latterly Riyadh – and military installations since Operation Decisive Storm began in 2015. Taking the latest cases as guidance, and assuming an average of five Patriots were fired against each incoming rocket, that means around 400 Patriots have been used to intercept them. These do not come cheap. It is estimated that, taking the associated costs into account, Saudi Arabia has paid anything between four and seven million dollars for each missile used so far.

There is a growing conviction in Western military circles that the Houthi missiles are part of a strategy aimed not at inflicting actual damage on the kingdom’s infrastructure as such, but at achieving two other objectives:

First, to deplete Saudi Arabia’s stockpile of Patriots as fast as possible. Procuring further large-scale supplies of these sophisticated weapons takes time.

Secondly, to take the war inside Saudi Arabia, bring the Yemen war home to  Saudi citizens, and make them feel that so long as it persists, they cannot take for granted the safety and security to which they have been accustomed in the 80 years since the Saudi kingdom was founded.

Ordinary Saudis heard the sounds of the explosions caused by both of the Houthi missiles that targeted Riyadh. Shrapnel from one of them fell into the yard of the famous actor Abdallah al-Sadhan – meaning they could fall on any Saudi home or installation in future.

As for the Americans, if their Patriots – the pride of their defence industry – cannot cope with the Houthis’ supposedly ‘primitive’ home-made projectiles, what match can they be for the much more sophisticated missiles the North Koreans might send their way?

The US’ Arab allies, meanwhile, managed to use the opportunity to score yet another own-goal.  Several Arab governments issued statements condemning the Houthi missile launches. These triggered a flood of criticism on Arab social media, wondering why these governments never saw fit to condemn the slaughter of thousands of Yemenis and the misery inflicted on millions by Operation Decisive Storm.

The best way to bring a halt to these missiles would be to open direct talks with the Houthi Ansarallah movement to achieve a settlement acceptable to all sides that ends the war and restores security and stability to Yemen.

The Saudis and their Emirati allies eventually opened secret talks with their arch-foe Ali Abdallah Saleh, the former Yemeni president, after refusing to do so for three years, resulting in a political deal that led to his death a few days later. They did the same with the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islah party after similarly hesitating.

So why wait longer – and sustain many more losses — before finally negotiating with the Houthis? Ultimately there can be no escape from negotiations, sooner or later.