The Intervention in Yemen: A New Era for Gulf Security and Gulf Militaries?

TIME: 18:00-19:00, Wednesday 29th June 2016

VENUE: Room C, Houses of Parliament, 1 Parliament Street, SW1A 2LW

SPEAKER: Dr David Roberts, Lecturer, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London and former Director, Qatar office of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies

CHAIR: Paul Scully MP

Paul Scully:

Well thank you very much, everybody, for coming and your forbearance while we were waiting to get into this fantastically appointed room. It’s going to be a bit of a tight squeeze, hopefully it won’t get too stiffly while we’re here. I’m really looking forward to David’s talk because I was fortunate enough to go with the delegating to the east to Dubai and Abu Dhabi where we were talking about a range of things, primarily business and bilateral relationships, but also we did touch on accounting how they are tackling counter-extremism and also we were discussing Yemen and their contribution to what’s happening in Syria in America’s world. So, I don’t know that David is going to be widening his talk beyond simply Yemen. But I should’ve said I’m Paul Scully, I’m the Member of Parliament for Sutton and Cheam in South London. I’m a new MP so, it’s nice to actually look at something else other than Brexit and leaderships and these sort of things at the moment, look a little bit internationally for a while – for an hour at least. Now, I’ll introduce you to Dr David Roberts. He joined the defence studies department at King’s College in October 2013, where he lectures at the royal college of defence studies, and at the UK defence academy. Prior to that he was a director of the Qatar at Royal United Services Institute as security studies and his primary research interest focus is on the foreign and security policies of the Arab Gulf States. He’s got a book which I’m sure is at all good book stores, is it not? ‘Qatar securing the global ambitions of the city-state’, which seeks to understand the core rationale for Qatar’s recent flurries in the world of international relationships. Otherwise, Dr Roberts is interested in wider Gulf international relations and domestic political issues as well as questions about future Gulf security architecture, energy relations – particularly with East Asia, and emerging military strategy and doctrine in the Arab Gulf studies. You have been on BBC, on CNN, and a few other known things, so, he’s got a fantastic credentials and it’s a privilege to be listening to you David, and I’m really looking forward to what you have to say.

David Roberts: 

Thanks, so much. Well, everyone, thank you for coming. Thanks to Paul for hosting me, and to Henry Jackson as well. I always enjoy these occasions to talk through some research, get some ideas, and learn something now as well. if I’ve learnt anything in following the Gulf (inaudible) quite a long time now is that there’s always plenty that you don’t actually know, and these conversations tend to be pretty (inaudible). So, I’m looking at the Gulf States through the lens of Yemen, if you will. So, in using Yemen as almost a case study to examine what looked like may be significant change in security orientation, if you will, of the Arab Gulf States. So, I’m mostly going to be talking about Saudi and the UAE at the moment, because they’re involved so heavily in past, leading operations to (inaudible) in Yemen as of last year. And, the way I’m coming at this at the moment is the (inaudible), if you will, is that perhaps Yemen means something really quite interesting for the Gulf States. Perhaps we can see the beginnings of quite profound changes, if you see what I mean. Maybe it is showing us something new. So that’s sort of the way I’m looking at this, and I’m going to take two approaches. I’m talking about the Gulf States and their approach to security and defense, approach to their military, I’m talking about it in two contexts, in two ways. There will to use their forces, their meaningful desire to actually build military forces and actually deploy them and use them. This context of will, I’ll take about this again and again, and then about the skill part, if you will, the ability to actually deploy and do something meaningful with their forces. These will be the two themes that I go through as well. So, my sort of exam question, (inaudible) academic I can’t help but put it in this sort of a way: can we (inaudible) decisive (inaudible) something interesting our perceptions of how the world in a scale, does show that something has changed? Is there a paradigm shift, if you will? I’m going to, before I go into that, I think I need to make the case at the beginning, talk about the status quo ante bellum, if you will. So, talk about the received wisdom. Last year, as it were, and for recent history, as to what are the Gulf States like with their skill and their will. With the ability to deploy and use their forces and their desire to have a meaningful military force, to deploy it and to use it. I’ll then go on to how the operations in Yemen might challenge that; how they look initially, like they are going to challenge that, and then we’ll talk about it a bit more. So, this will part- again this is the will to establish, to trade to actively use their military- this is what I’m talking about. The received wisdom was that no, they don’t really have militaries to really actively use them in this kind of way. It’s not necessarily what the gulf militaries are for. This is the received wisdom, in terms of meaningfully deploying them. And there are a few reasons for this. Part of the argument went, well maybe that’s not necessarily what the role of GCC citizens is actually for. Maybe, you know, it’s to do with the (inaudible) nature of the economy and the political economy gave them a certain character, if you will, where joining the military was more an instance of a way to redistribute rent, it’s to do with the nature of the relationship between the rule and the ruled. But, you’re not necessarily joining as a soldier to defend your country existentially, this was the received wisdom to a degree. Over the decades, you know in the 20th century, there’s been a certain deliberate weakening of the GCC forces by the elites themselves. They don’t necessarily want a particularly strong force. This is very well articulated in the literature. It’s in a couple of contexts, it’s the idea of coup-proofing. If you are the King, do you necessarily want an army or a part of your military that’s really strong under the control of maybe a different brother or something like this? Is that what you want? This is a strategy that’s been employed across the Arab world and further afield. So, Saudi’s example was the King didn’t necessarily trust that something couldn’t transpire into a war, as it were, with the army or the other forces. So, they created an entire fourth force, the National Guard. There’s a praetorian guard. Again, this is about, what are the militaries actually for? Do they have a desire to use them or the opposite, in some ways? Procurement rationales, I hear you cry “what is the point in spending these tens and hundreds of millions of pounds on all this kit, if they don’t really have the will, the desire, to use their kit to use on the proverbial military battlefield?” There are other rationales afoot. Obviously enough to a degree this is about making (inaudible), forcing security orientated international relations. The logic’s fairly clearer I think. The idea about tying in the US, France, Britain, whomever, into the continuing safe political economy of whatever state we’re talking about. That’s how you secure security, not by building up your armed forces and creating a credible forces, necessarily. Otherwise, there’s what was called the glitter factor. This is Anthony Cordesman’s phrase, now Anthony Cordesman has written more on GCC military forces than anyone else ever, pretty much. He produces enormous, great anthologies looking at the GCC forces. And he talks about some of the (inaudible) decisions were curious. They seemed to belie any objective rationale in terms of, you know, it fitted in with that military doctrine. They had the training pipeline to supply that particular platform. It seemed not to make sense. And so you talked about purchases an important factor in purchases is about local and regional prestige, one-upmanship and these sorts of ideas. In terms of skill, again I’m talking about the skill to capably, offensively use military force, to actively deploy it. (inaudible) the idea was, pretty much up until Yemen to a degree, of painting something of a broad brush picture, but there was something of the idea of ‘no, they don’t really have the skill, the armed forces broadly don’t have the ability, literal ability, skill, to undertake serious large-scale, important bill of commissions’. And this is for a variety of reasons. People said royals were promoted, meritocracy was not encouraged enough, a chap called Kenneth Pollack wrote an exhaustive study looking at Arab military forces in the 20th century. He looked at the empirical data of the numbers of tanks on this side, and people on that side and typography, and he said “in the 20th Century, Arab forces lost far more than they should”. Why do Arab forces keep seeming to lose? That’s a weird thing. And looking at differing campaign examples over the 20th century, he devised these four or five conclusions. These are core repetitive problems in Arab military, that’s how he described it. this is pretty old, don’t get me wrong, 20 years or so, but you still see many little vignettes popping up of (inaudible) or whatever it may be, to this day. This is another author, he wrote an article about bashing square pegs into round holes. This was an American military colonel. He’d been trained in Gulf forces for decades and he found it very difficult. Ultimately, the end product at the end of the course to his understanding, this skill levels weren’t there. And he said ‘well this is probably something to do with Western military training or at the nature of our kit or maybe it’s our training methodology”, something like that. This sails extremely close to the wind in becoming pretty orientalist stuff. I wouldn’t write this stuff myself necessarily, but we need to look at it. If he does have decades of experience and he is making these conclusions, he’s trying to rationalize it subsequently, there’s something empirical; in there somewhere. So, as I said, that was something that was something of a broad brush at the status quo, the desire of the GCC states, the gulf Arab states, to use their military forces and even (inaudible) as I said, that’s what we’ve been looking at. Initially, the 2015 onwards operation decisive storm, it appears, it looks like it really challenges these assumptions. It looks like maybe we really need to rethink some of these ideas that I’ve just noted, if you see what I mean. So, I’ll go through those briefly now. In terms of skill for example, we have a couple little vignettes here, if you will. So, joining in the coalition warfare. So, lots of states involved, but at the moment I’m just referring to the air components. There were 8, 9 countries involved that donate, not donated, that’s not the right word, contributed fast jets, that were based in Saudi Arabia at 2 paces, and the flew sorties over Yemen. This is from Morocco, a lot of the Gulf States, some support from Pakistan and MIGs from Sudan. My point here is quite a boring technical point, really. I’m going to come on to the results of the sorties later, and judge whether they were a good thing or a bad thing, if you will, I’ll say something about that. But in a boring, technical way, the Gulf States did exceedingly well here. Getting this multinational coalition together, and getting a lot of sorties through. It was a purely in a technical, logistical way, it was an impressive thing. It was a surprisingly impressive thing, in fact. I’m getting this sorted inside your head. This is just one small point, and then operation golden arrow. so, this is in July last year, the Emiratis said, ‘right, we want to retake Aden from the Houthis, so what we want is amphibious landing, put our kit on a ship and sail it Aden, then liberate it South to North’. The Emiratis didn’t have this piece of equipment, they didn’t have a ship like this. They went to the Americans and said, ‘please can we borrow yours or could you drive for us?’ or whatever the phrase is, and the Americans said ‘no, we don’t think that this will work. We don’t think you have the capability to do this on any end, we think, to be honest, if you manage to get Aden, rebel Houthi controlled Aden, it could be a complete mess’. The Americans said no. So, the Emiratis said fair enough and went to Australia and bought (inaudible). This is a former, essentially, military roll-on roll-of ferry. So, they just bought one, sailed it to the gulf and did it. It’s as simple as that. It was a very coordinated action, they had from the water their coalition, sort of with artillery in a coordinated manner with Emirati Special Forces who went in, they were dropped in, to a corner of Aden. They played a certain bridgehead. this ship that they just bought a couple weeks before, arrived, delivered ultimately dozens of mine resistant vehicles, quarter of (inaudible), tanks, Main Battle Tanks, a quarter of all Emirati tanks, I’m told. And, it was ultimately successful, this operation was ultimately successful. Aden was liberated and the push further north went on. And this was, I do believe, an important part of it. So again, this was really surprising. A number of NATO people, who know far more about these things than me, and they tell me that this is genuinely something curious. That in the sense of, NATO would struggle to do something like this without the US, really struggle. This is a very impressive thing, as it were. So we need to reconsider part of this skill conception, if you will. The will, the desire, to use forces, to put them into action, if you will; a few things here. The scope and scale was unlike anything that any of the GCC states have ever attempted. It was enormous. The Houthis were, maybe in Q&A we can come back to it a bit more in Yemen specifically, I’m just pulling out random examples as I go to try and focus on the Gulf States. But to say that they wanted to, as I said their goals at the beginning were not limited at all. They wanted to push the Houthis south to north, right back to (inaudible), which is obviously on the border with Saudi. They wanted to get them out of the political process, they wanted to get rid of their heavy weaponry. This was astonishing. So, they had a vision, it was unusual. But more than that, they deployed troops to try and achieve their vision. Actual gulf soldiers were on the ground in Yemen. This is an astonishing development, pretty much. The scale, everything. There’s nothing that compares to it really. Not even the battle of Kanji in 1991. Nothing even then really, I don’t think. This was quite something. So again, we are seeing a new, what definitely looks like, a new approach. Not exactly unilateral, but together lead by the UAE and Saudi. A new kind of approach. And they took casualties. They took a huge number of casualties. In one instance, 40 something Emiratis were killed when a scud hit their base. This is a stunning development, that Emeriti soldiers, Gulf national soldiers would die on foreign battlefields is something that’s a bit stunning, I think. From the received wisdom, hitherto. So again, this Yemen campaign, maybe this is really challenging our existing understandings, if you see what I mean. So, let’s look at their motivations just briefly. Why did they intervene in such an unusual way? They were in a very bad place for their US relations. They didn’t trust the Americans since the second invasion of Iraq. They warned exactly what would happen, but the Americans went ahead anyway. They didn’t like that. And the Arab spring, the Americans supported, didn’t support I should say, Hosni Mubarak. It didn’t look like they were giving enough support to the al Khalifa in Bahrain. These things, not irritated, they angered the Gulf States desperately. The US has lessening oil dependency, maybe this is in their somewhere, and of course the coup de grace: the fact that the Americans are handing Iran a nuclear. The Gulf States are sick of America at this point. So, it’s like fine. (Inaudible) have created an unmitigated mess in the region, we shall clean it up. That is the idea. so, on the back of these difficult American relations with, as I said the nuclear Iran, and then you’ve got this kind of component as well, you have the rise of the Houthis, who are seen as no more, no less than Hezbollah in the southern Arabian peninsula. That is what they’re seen as; an Iranian proxy that have control of ports, had control of ports, had control of capital, it has medium range missile studs and a miniature air force that didn’t very long. But those were the motivating issues for this coalition led by, again, Saudi and the UAE. So, as I said, it seems like the received wisdom is challenged somewhat, but we need to dig a bit deeper, naturally. So let’s go back to Will, and examine these a bit more. What does the nature of the war say about their will? How did they prosecute their war? Maybe that will tell us something about how interested they were in it. They pursued a stand-off warfare doctrine. That’s not really the right way to put it. That is the way they approached it. At arm’s length. The air campaign was the centerpiece. Like in Britain, like in Washington, they had astonishing hope, dreams and everything in the magical effects of an air campaign. It can do a certain amount, but also is very limited, we are all learning. But nevertheless, that was a key component to what they were doing – the arm’s length, at arm’s length kind of idea. And then, I’ll talk about proxies in just a second actually. The casualties, they took casualties as I said, which is something really unusual. But, I don’t think, in their worst nightmares, the Emirati leadership suspected that they would take 40 odd casualties in one go, for example. I think this was beyond the realms of comprehension. I think they were desperately unlucky with the nature of the hit, of the attack hitting a -I presume- it was an arms cache within the thing, but we’ll talk about that after hopefully. It was very unplanned for. They didn’t withdraw immediately, by any stretch, it didn’t do what Regan did after Beirut in 83. But there was a certain amount of disquiet in the UAE after this. Where are the majority of the Emirati solders from? They’re from the northern emirates. The northern emirates, it’s 7 emirates of course – Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the most famous- the richest if you will. But most of the soldiers are form the north. There’s a certain economic disenfranchisement to a degree. Very different living standards between the two. So there was a certain bubbling feeling that, you know, if this is a war from Abu Dhabi and it’s the soldiers from the northern emirates that are suffering, it’s difficult for internal dynamics. Nothing too drastic but (inaudible) for filtering around. And ultimately, within a few months we started having the rotation of Emirati troops. So, they were rotated out, how many came back? Not that many, I think. Rotation is something of a misnomer, I think it was more like a phase withdrawal. So, we need to think about that. And again, going back to this thought of the forces used, the type of forces used. So, UAE are quite famous for using their special forces. they have  a very good reputation and they are quite a point of things in the Yemen at the moment, but by far the majority of forces in any sort of contact, I suppose, as the phrase may be, with the Houthis, there’s a variety of proxy forces. There’s a big variety. From local Yemeni tribal confederations that they try and bring on side, from trying to form different local groupings into military regional command. The Emiratis in certain areas, I think, have taken over effective training, equipping and directing of Yemeni police and Yemini regular soldiers; again suing them as a proxy force. The UAE finally deployed their mercenaries that have been stuck in the desert in Abu Dhabi for a few years now; precisely what these South American and Australian mercenaries are doing, I don’t really know. It’s very opaque. In the same way we have coalition forces, there are thousands of soldiers from Sudan and Senegal, 400 from Eritrea seemingly according to the UN, they’re in there somewhere. It seems they’ve kind of defended the Sudanese, or allegedly defending parts of Aden airport and things like this. But specifically what their roles are is unclear. But again, it’s about trying to keep a certain arm’s length, I think, from the fighting. And what’s not actually on here, is that there are no large Egyptian or Pakistani troop numbers. This was a big hole in their plan, that I’ll come back to at the very end, but I think they planned on having significant numbers of soldiers from those countries. Saudi forces, Saudi forces are curious by their absence from Yemen, aside from the border, and again, we’ll come back to border politics in a minute. So, skill, so we’ve talked about the amphibious landing, for example. That was a very skillful operation, basically. But, you know, we need to look at it a bit further and more to the point, you know, one amphibious landing does not an entire campaign make. If we look elsewhere there, other exhibitions of what we might loosely describe as unusual skill or ability. I’m open to ideas, but not really- is my punchline. The air war has not been prosecuted particularly effectively. Saudi pilots have been flying extremely high, it is reported. To be safe from anti-aircraft fire and the like, Emeriti pilots somehow have the skill or ability or the technical knowhow to fly a bit lower. But of course, the key problem of trying to fly too high is massive collateral damage because you can’t see what’s going down, or where at least. And most importantly, in terms of the nature of the campaign, the type of air campaign, initially, obviously, it was military, critical infrastructure, so you hit the obvious military stuff. So, you if you take anti-aircraft, you take out the Houthi aircraft or the Yemeni air force and so on, but if you do that, but that target list runs dry very quickly, ran dry very quickly. So, they moved on towards, essentially, a coercion based and retaliatory based mordus operandi. It’s not clever, as it were. It’s not, sort of, a wonderful example of skill. It’s just a really blunt instrument. Otherwise, on reflection indeed. so, there’s something here we need to acknowledge with the Emeriti forces and with this idea at mind that maybe something has changed, some other ideas, some other examples from the past, I think, they come into focus a bit more. so, this sort of skill, as it were, that’s been demonstrated on occasions, particularly by the Emeriti air force, particularly by the Emeriti special forces for example and with this amphibious piece. The emirates have been doing a lot of training. In the 1990s in Kosovo, in places in East Africa, notably with ISAF forces in Afghanistan. This is where, this is where the UAE Presidential guards saw action, as it were. They’re not necessarily on the front lines, but they’re in Afghanistan. It was a pretty dangerous place back then; I suppose it still is. The operation unit (inaudible) protected the Emeriti military and the Qatari military joined with NATO there. 2014-2015 the emirates joined in famously with the bombings of some ISIS targets in northern Iraq. And in 2015-2016 the Emeriti air force, again, where unilateral in attacking locations in Syria, excuse me, Libya via Egypt. A bit of logistical support from the Egyptians, but this is, in hindsight at least, a noteworthy practice and improvement of experience, as it were. Something like that. Saudi Arabia, is there an equivalent? Not really, so far as I can see, to be perfectly honest. Some increased multilateral training in the last, kind of, 7 or 8 years. Though they have been replacing the elite, the top ranks, with royals, with people who rise in the ranks given the more sort of genuine experience. But, otherwise, I don’t really see, there isn’t really any sort of Saudi forces bloodying themselves, or whatever the phrase may be; gaining experience in conflict, there’s nothing like that. Lots of US logistical support. There’s nothing wrong with US logistical support, of course, but if we are looking at them through the lens of how good are they? Are they able to sustain these operations by themselves? The answer is no, they’re not. Huge support reliance on the US. It is way more than 500, I couldn’t find a specific figure, so I just chickened out and just put a bit more than 500. Air to air refueling from the Americans, a huge amount of intelligence help, targeting and, of course, munitions. The air campaign would have been vastly different, I think, without US support, and British support. A number of those facets I should add as well. For Saudi Arabia, the lessons of 2009 were not learnt, really. I don’t see any evidence of it. So, in 2009 there was a border war between the Houthis and the Saudis. Broadly speaking, the Saudis lost. They had to sue for a slightly humiliating peace at the end of the day. The border is not an easy border, it’s desperately mountainous. It’s the perfect terrain for an insurgent group. There’s nothing easy about it, don’t misunderstand me, but nevertheless, the Saudis couldn’t spend their losses, they couldn’t stop losing solders that were held hostage and they had to sue for a peace. Today, ineffectual might be a bit harsh, I suppose, but there’s still an issue. I think, the border is very difficult to secure, of course, as I say, but at the same time this is, I think, where the Houthis again, huge amount of leverage. 400-500 Saudis have been killed at least, that’s an economist estimate, in and around the border. Cities, kilometers, 50 odd km in, have had their airports stopped because of, again, Houthi fire. The border is a real problem area for the Saudis, and they can’t seem to quell the Houthis there, and that gives the Houthis a certain advantage (inaudible). And so, a couple of concluding thoughts. Looking at Yemen, maybe we can talk about something like asserting uniqueness – forgive the terrible English- of the nature of the challenge and the timing of the challenge. I mean this in terms of, there was a huge amount of international, concern on the international level, a real peak, real anger with the Americans, with the Iranian nuclear deal. Maybe that was fueling a certain policy conception in these states. The new emerging regional context was, of course, Iran, again. More importantly the domestic, well not domestic but, regional in the sense of: if on the border there’s nothing abstract about an emerging Houthi threat, it is on the border, it is over the border, it is into Saudi territory and there’s a reasonable amount of evidence for Iranian support of the Houthis. Going back to the Hezbollah kind of logic, there’s no way that the Saudis, or the Emeriti I guess, would want a proverbial, what they see at least as Hezbollah, to gain an indelible politically based footprint in the new political process in Yemen while they have scuds and everything else, and ports and so on. That wasn’t going to happen, otherwise, ultimately was this successful campaign? If we looked at it militarily, well as I say, some operational accomplishments. There is some success with the Houthis, they were removed from Aden, and they are semi-removed from the capital, slowly going north. But that’s strikes me as relatively low hanging fruit. Let’s not forget, of course, that the Houthis are from the very Northern border, they’re from the north. They don’t have any indigenous support in the south. The locals in the south, as a general rule, were more than too happy to help this force, any force, get rid of them. That wasn’t easy, I don’t want to nay say that, but that’s relatively low hanging fruit. And when it became difficult, and when the Houthis were pushed up to the central highlands, this is where we are, broadly, today, I guess. This is where things slowed down, as it were. The border is still a problem I think. Basically the use of proxies is necessary, as adept as Iran. I don’t know, maybe in the Q&A we can delve a bit into that, I look forward to seeing the input from audience there if there’s anything. And of course, there were huge gains at least last year for AQAP al Qaeda on the Iranian peninsula. Massive gains. With the collapse of the central state, the coalition forces struggling to get Aden and so on, they didn’t care about the massive gains, the structural gains nearly, that al Qaeda was making out in the east. That wasn’t a problem. As my students say: the nearest canoe, nope, the nearest crocodile to the canoe was the Houthis; that’s what they had to focus on. AQAP would come later, but at the time it created a very bad sort of image that they were trying to help them come along. As I say, more recently, in recent months the UAE, in particular it seems, seemed to have taken a counter-terrorist approach. There’s some kind of success. It’s a very vocal counter-terrorist approach at the very least. And there’s significant dependency on the US. Humanitarian: it’s been an unmitigated disaster. We kind of know the numbers, I suppose the raw figures. Attribution is always somewhat difficult, I guess. In terms of when the heavy civilian casualty figures where coming in summer last year, Amnesty put a report at the end saying this is coming from Houthi anti-aircraft fire and the likes. So, attribution is difficult, but, you know, the nature of the air campaign, as I say, it’s coercive. There’s nothing subtle about it. It’s hitting a lot of infrastructure. And ultimately that will be a problem, as I not at the end. Politically: success or not? Well, you know, the President is notionally back, but the Houthis are a still key block. The Houthis arrived at the talks in Kuwait a few months back, and they had literal red carpet treatment. They were an official, they were a de facto power in Yemen, don’t get me wrong. But now, I think in some ways it’s legitimized them even more regionally. And negotiations are very difficult, and they fall apart every now and then gain. But it strikes me as it were, we’re at the situation where we were a couple of months before the Iran nuclear deal. Whereas some experts put it to me on the deal that we’ve came far too far, too much has is invested now in the negotiations, for them to fail. I don’t think anyone really sees any alternatives. Very much a hurting stalemate and the issue of future problems made words. And this is the last slide I think. In terms of lessons: coalition warfare is pretty difficult. Riyal Politik will only get you so far. Again, just to emphasise this point, Pakistan and Egypt were expected to commit thousands of ground troops for this war. Egypt, because of the nature of the GCC, well the Saudi and Emeriti and Kuwaiti led financial help during the Arab Spring. Pakistani, because the Saudi/Pakistani relationship has been incredibly close for a very long time. The third largest city in Pakistan is called Faisalabad, after King Faisal changed the name in 1997. You know, that’s a symbiotic relationship there. Or, so the Saudis thought. When they tried to call in the marker, the decades of Aden investment, nothing. So, that I think was a real setback. And there were problems with the UAE and Saudi as well, prosecuting the same way. They’re operating very different spheres of the country, doing different things and allying with different people. This is a real problem. The Emeriti have a visceral dislike of Islamists, as is evident throughout the Arab world. And it’s not that much different in the UAE. Now they’ve tried to be pragmatic but there are differences here, in terms of who’s the VP and so on and so on, that are difficult. Realistic goals alludes to something that I did mention but at the beginning of the, I didn’t mention it briefly I suppose, the beginning of the campaign the Saudis had preposterously grandiose aspirations. After the first or second day of bombing, their general Al Asiri was on… we get this press conference saying “oh yeah, it’s all kind of done, all the scuds, they’re all taken out, the airports secured and everything else”. The scuds have been raining in for the last 9 months so it just sounds a bit silly. So, maybe there’s a lesson learn there. And ultimately, I think is a certain issue of limitations on both power projection. I don’t think it’s remotely gone as smoothly as expected. But, I’ll leave it there. Thank you very much. [Clapping]

Paul Scully:

David, that was excellent. Over to you guys. It would be really helpful if you can just say who you are, and which organisation – if any – that you represent. That will give us an idea to organise questions.

Question one:

(Inaudible). Would it be fair to say that Iranian activity in the region has resulted in warmer relations between the Gulf States and Jerusalem?

David Roberts:

That’s interesting because, of course, one of the key things I always mention when it comes to the idea that religion is such a fundamental part of politics and, you know, Island and the Jewish states and all this kind of an idea; is it even in post-1979 with Khomeini himself in power. Iran had fantastic relations with Jerusalem, because they get their parts after the Americans wouldn’t give them to them. So, that gives the light of that idea. Riyal Politik is crucial. So, yes they both see a certain commonality there. I think that Qatar is a bit of an outlier here. Qatar and Oman, as you know, they’ve tried to boost their relation with Israel for a number of years, but the Qatari has had a trade-off that’s 96-08 eventually close then. They tried to reopen it again subsequently but regional pressure precluded that. Oman, I don’t think have tried to reopen theirs. There’s been lots of talk because the Abu Dhabi hosts IRENA, a UN body that the Israelis have a presence in in Abu Dhabi. At this UN body where (inaudible) equally that will double as a de facto (inaudible) or something. And so, that’s old news, that’s sort of 9-12 months, I guess. So, there is a commonality there and my only hesitation comes from, I don’t necessarily think they needed great Iranian pressures to come together. I think a lot of leadership in the Gulf are extremely pragmatic. I think if they look at the situation Israel-Palestine, they’ll probably think that well, isolation has got us nowhere. So, I think that a lot of them have a surprisingly pragmatic (inaudible), even though the politics that you allude to might make it easier.

Question Two:

(Inaudible). Based on, UK are taking that the Houthis is just an excuse for fighting with Arabia (inaudible) and then has to find another cause for this fighting, for example, Syria. Do you agree the Houthis are just an excuse or?

David Roberts:

Not really. No, the Houthis are a very important part of the Yemen, obviously. They present a de facto, obvious threat of sorts. The level, we can disagree on certainly. To the GCC states, to Saudi in particular and there is some evidence of the Iranians shipping some kind of support to the Houthis. I think it’s relatively limited to be honest. I don’t think it’ particularly crucial. But, you still do have Iranian generals, kind of flying to (inaudible) and we have 4 Arab capitals today, isn’t this great news? And that doesn’t go down very well in the Gulf. That seems vindicate everything they fear, of course. So, I think there are real reasons for the conflict, as it were. It’s got its own merit. You can’t divorce it from the wider geo-politics, but there are enough reasons within it, if that makes sense, if I’ve answered your question.

Question Three:

(Inaudible) from the very first question, coming at it from a slightly different perspective. There’s been discussions in congress for the last 3 years about re-equipping the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia with more sophisticated planes. How do you see, as we approach the first stage of elections and in relation to this particular (inaudible)? Do you see, actually some more pressure coming on, that perhaps we should help them a little bit more?

David Roberts:

Well, as you know there’s been a certain idea that because of the problems I alluded to with the GCC US relationship, that Obama sort of washed his hands with Operation Decisive Storm in the sense of, ‘we’ll give you logistical support – a huge amount of support. We’re not really going to question it. You go and do what you will.’ So, under that rubric, if you see what I mean, if they’re angry at us for wrecking Iraq as they would  put it, as the Gulf States would put it, and for letting Iran out the box. They need to be mollified, in some way, and therefore, the congress may be more forthcoming with these sort of plane deals, or whatever the phrase it. In reality, you know that makes sense to me, there’s a logic to it. But I think that congress is a beast unto itself. I think geo-politics and the politics I think about is immensely divorced from the realities, the rationales of footing congress. So, I’m not sure that the link is as natural as we might, as articulated. I think we could articulate nicely, lots of footnotes, if you see what I mean. It would be a compelling structural case, but I think that the congress kind of belies that really.

Question four:

Thank you. My name is (inaudible) from Saudi Arabia. I want to follow up on what you said about Iran’s role. I mean realistically, would you agree or what would you think about the fact that Iran’s role is highly exaggerated in terms of Yemen? And the fact is I wanted to know from your perspective, I mean you alluded to the fact that the GCC countries are upset about the result of the nuclear deal, to what extent would you say that is the primary motivating factor? Because the nuclear deal at the same time reduces a great deal of threat that would actually come from Iran by denying the Iranians access to nuclear weapons and things like that. The (inaudible) says that what in your presentation regarding, for example, various factors, would you say that part of Saudi motivation in prosecuting (inaudible) has to do with the internal power struggle going on inside Saudi Arabia and they’re using Iran as a scapegoat to side-track the issue?

David Roberts: 

That last point’s very interesting. I think there’s some mileage in there in the sense that the context here is the coming to power of a new king, the rise of the minister of defence who is 29 years old, who had basically no relevant experience. He’s now the most important man in the country, one of the most important non-Kings in the history of Saudi Arabia. His rise is a stunning, stunning thing. And if you are a new minister of defense with very little on your CV, there’s perfect logic to the idea of a quick win in a war, General Galtieri style. It would go down quite well. How much of an actual role that played, I can’t begin to tell or to guess. I think that played some role because personalities are important. I think that the key personalities that we’re talking about here are Mohammed bin Salman, this young minister of defense that I’m talking about, and Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi, who are very, not backwards but going forwards individuals. Aggressive would be too far, but assertive I suppose is the word. His rise is a stunning, stunning thing. And if you are a new minister of defence with very little on your CV, there’s perfect logic to the idea of a quick win in a war, General Galtieri style. It would go down quite well. How much of an actual role that played, I can’t begin to tell or to guess. I think that played some role because personalities are important. I think that the key personalities that we’re talking about here are Mohammed bin Salman, this young minister of defence that I’m talking about, and Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi, who are very, not backwards but going forwards individuals. Aggressive would be too far, but assertive I suppose is the word. So, I think that’s an important part. As to whether the Iranian role is over-exaggerated-

Question Four:

Can I just. Iran (inaudible) is a regional super power. It has always been that. There’s not additional factor that hasn’t changed, you know. And so while you should, for example, (inaudible) sort of cherry picked it this time in order to exaggerate the role of Iran

David Roberts:

There’s an unfortunate confluence of timings here, with the nuclear issue on one side and the internal Yemeni peace on the other. So, you have the Houthis taking control, coming south, exerting their natural power, as it were, and I don’t necessarily think at all they were supplied by Iran to do that. I don’t think there was an Iranian plan for them to do that, but there’s just a really unfortunate confluence of timings here. And Iranian generals really often don’t help themselves saying all these sorts of things which, as I say, (inaudible) as far as the (inaudible) are concerned. So there’s that point, but as to whether the idea that an Iran with a nuclear deal is less dangerous, I might subscribe to that, but if I lived in Riyadh and I saw what’s going on in Syria and to a degree what I hear is going on in Yemen, the proxy relationships that Iran has created and supported over the decades is pretty clear. And the Hezbollah analogy is technically entirely cogent. As I say, I think it’s missing commander control. I don’t think there’s any commander control whatsoever from Tehran or something. I think it’s missing crucial game changing weaponry. But equally, there have been quite a few ships that have been stopped that aren’t full of fish. So, there is definitely some fire with the smoke.

Paul Scully:

Thank you. At the back, yes.

Question five:

(Inaudible). In 2009 not even the Saudi Specials Committee thought there was much Iranian influence on the Houthis. They thought that (inaudible) was basically bigging it up to try and turn (inaudible). Saudis still went in to (inaudible), so there’s something of part from Iran in that it possibly has to do with (inaudible). (Inaudible) so in terms of getting across the beach it was-

David Roberts:

Thank you. (Inaudible). Very Useful.

Question six:

Going on from the point you made there, you mentioned the character, MBS. If his father dies and there is a realignment of the royal family, (inaudible)?

David Roberts:

As I wrote last year about the succession in Saudi, the history of Saudi Arabia is very cruel to the sons of Kings who pass away. And so, this is what Mohammed Bin Salman has been doing. Furiously grabbing as many critical portfolios as humanly possible. So it started off Minister of Defence, or it started off even chief of the Court or something. That was (inaudible) call was merged with his father’s, the King. Minister of Defence. (Inaudible) was voiced and he squashed all the (inaudible), creating one central money committee. As sense that he took that on. And now he’s the public face of the kingdom, anywhere and everywhere. It’s pretty stunning to be honest. And so, I don’t know how one is supposed to examine this because it does break taboo after taboo. A 29 year old, a 30 year old doing these things, getting away with it, as it were. It is a bit discombobulating of what one might expect. We all knew there would be a generation jump down, but that’s Mohammed Bin Nayef, the 50 something year old Minister of the interior. He’s been there for a very long time, very reputationed. If the father shuffles off this mortal coil soon, I calculate the odds (inaudible) and yes I guess Mohammed Bin Salman will, I think he has enough power to stick around; enough fingers in enough important pies to stick around. And let’s not forget that in the 80s we had a King and a Crown Prince, where the King was entirely happy with the Crown Prince doing all the work effectively. That was entirely fine. And, to be honest, are we actually seeing that now? I mean whether he is overtly happy with it, or he just accepts it, the fact remains that Mohammed Bin Nayef is letting, as it were, can’t stop – another way to put that – Mohammed Bin Salman become the central face of the Kingdom and announce astonishing reform after astonishing reform. So, I wouldn’t expect a palace coup but I wouldn’t have expected a 29 year old to become so important then.

Paul Scully:

We’ve probably got time for one more question, if anybody’s got… Yeah, please.

Question seven:

(Inaudible). How can we explain the absence of Pakistan and Egypt and their (inaudible) representation? (Inaudible) participation in any way.

David Roberts:

Not entirely sure, is the honest answer. James can check in perhaps.


Egypt fought in the early 60s, 62-63, (inaudible) a really miserable campaign. At one stage they had about 70,000 retreats in Yemen. It’s probably why they lost 67 (inaudible) in Yemen. So, the only thing that’s left to fight is the Israelis (inaudible) in the reserves. They were asked in 2009 to send troops against the Houthis. Pakistanis know what the country’s like. They know because they (inaudible) in exactly the same thing and their line was if the Houthis attack the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, actually very much like the Senegalese (inaudible) who were regarded (inaudible). That’s the bottom line. We are not going into those mountains.

David Roberts:

And you’ve seen a similar thing in Egypt recently. So, the idea of Egypt giving back those islands to Saudi Arabia, Sisi signed that off and the judge stopped it. I think that speaks to not chauvinism but a nationalism which is to say, ‘you’re critically important and you together with your GCC allies have given us $10-15 billion. Thanks so much that’s really important, but there’s a line. But no, you’re not having the islands’. And equally I think the logic from Sisi was he couldn’t swing it internally, for other reasons.


They still don’t know how many troops they lost.

Paul Scully:

That’s amazing. Thank you. Thank you so much. David, fascinating talk. Really good question and answers, thank you so much. You know, it’s clear that, as you say, the orthodoxies are evolving so quickly and changing so quickly at a time when we have renewed interest in a wider part of the Middle East ourselves and we are looking for Gulf Cooperation to fit our programme, but of course they do have their own challenges which you’ve articulated particularly well. So, David, thank you so much for addressing us. And Henry Jackson Society, as ever, thank you very much for putting this on, coming I to host and bring everybody together. Always appreciate your help and your involvement. And thank you very much. So, all the best. Well done.


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