A renewed Iranian nuclear programme, a faltering war in Yemen, and an increasingly vulnerable Saudi Arabia reshaped the Middle East this year.
Saudi Arabia’s strategic position looked increasingly precarious this year. Iran’s development of new long-range air-breathing weapons and cultivation of allies in Arab countries has given it the ability to attack the kingdom from the north, south, and east, making the job of the Royal Saudi Air Defense Forces (RSADF) extremely challenging. Indeed, the RSADF maybe the unidentified customer for a EUR210 million (USD232 million) contract that Rheinmetall announced in October: the highly automated short-range air-defence systems involved require much less vigilance from their operators to intercept UAVs and cruise missiles.
The threat may also have been somewhat mitigated by the arrival of US Patriot air-defence systems, but the US deployments also highlighted the gravity of the situation as US officials stated that Prince Sultan Air Base (PSAB) in the centre of Saudi Arabia had been selected as their primary location because it is beyond the range of some Iranian missile types. The US military also practised moving regional air operations from Qatar’s Al-Udeid Air Base to South Carolina: an apparent admission that bases on the Gulf coast will be vulnerable during a war with Iran.
More bad news for Saudi Arabia came when the United Arab Emirates announced it was withdrawing most of its forces from Yemen, saying it had achieved its objectives of securing Aden and much of the Red Sea coast and would now give peace talks a chance. This prompted speculation that the UAE wanted its troops back home as tensions with Iran escalated. Sudan, which provided thousands of frontline troops for UAE operations, was also reported to be pulling out of southern Yemen.
This meant that Saudi Arabia, which has only tentatively sent its own forces across the border, had to backfill the UAE forces in southern Yemen. It is unclear if this has included the RSADF sending precious Patriots to replace the ones that protected the UAE’s bases, which would further undermine Saudi Arabia’s air defences.
By withdrawing from Yemen the UAE may also have sought to distance itself from a war that has seen such egregious collateral damage in airstrikes that several European states, including the United Kingdom, have frozen defence exports to the Saudi-led coalition. The Trump administration even declared an emergency in May to bypass normal Congressional oversight of 21 defence sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These included an agreement under which Raytheon bomb guidance kits will be assembled in Saudi Arabia. The situation appears to have further spurred indigenisation efforts, with the UAE armed forces announcing during the Dubai Airshow in November that it had placed a USD980 million order with Emirati guidance kit manufacturer Halcon Systems.
The war in Yemen appeared to be going badly in September, when the Houthis released videos showing Saudi and allied Yemeni soldiers retreating and surrendering in large numbers, apparently after rebels infiltrated behind them to cut off the only road back through the mountains to the Saudi border. However, the situation was not as dire as it seemed, as the footage was from a major but largely unreported battle at Wadi Abu Jubarah the previous month, during which the audacious Houthi manoeuvre was defeated by Saudi airpower.
Fighting simultaneously flared in Aden between UAE-backed southern separatists and Saudi-backed government forces. The UAE even admitted carrying out airstrikes against ‘terrorists’ – probably a reference to Islah party Islamists fighting for the government – who threatened the city’s airport. With both sides diverting forces away from the struggle against the Houthis, the Saudis brokered a ceasefire and hosted talks that resulted in a new power-sharing cabinet, at least temporarily heading off further fragmentation of Yemen.