Saudi Arabia sacks military leaders as war in Yemen flounders

Shake-up of armed forces aimed at tightening Crown Prince Mohammed’s grip on power

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the graduation ceremony of the 93rd batch of the cadets of King Faisal Air Academy, in Riyadh on February 21st. Photograph: Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Court/Reuters

Saudi Arabia has dismissed its top military commanders as the kingdom's war in Yemen, launched nearly three years ago, remains stalemated and relations with its campaign partner the United Arab Emirates come under serious strain.

On the recommendations of his son, defence minister and crown prince Mohammed, King Salman summarily sacked the chief of staff and commanders of the air, land, and strategic missile forces as well as interior ministry officials. The generals’ successors will be under pressure to win the Yemen war and overhaul the kingdom’s poorly performing military.

The sweeping changes are meant to tighten the crown prince’s grip on power by realigning the kingdom’s armed forces and appealing to the younger generation of Saudis, for whom he says he has initiated his social, political and economic reform and liberalisation programme.

The shake-up in the military follows last year’s arrests and shake-down of billionaire princes, ministers and businessmen in an anti-corruption drive steered by the crown prince.

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The Saudi-Emirati air and land offensive against Houthi rebels in Yemen, the region’s poorest country, was launched by the crown prince at the end of March 2015 in the expectation that victory would be achieved within weeks. This was a major miscalculation as the Houthis are veteran fighters and they were reinforced by northern units of the Yemeni regular army.

The Saudi-Emirati objectives were to drive the Houthis from areas of the country they had occupied and return to the capital the Saudi-backed Yemeni president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The Shia Houthis are traditional Saudi antagonists and also allied to Shia Iran, the kingdom's regional rival.

Aden takeover

Meanwhile, Yemen’s southern port of Aden has been taken over by UAE-trained fighters who have besieged the Saudi-supported government based there and advanced on Yemen’s other coastal cities. The UAE has also aligned with the Southern Transitional Council, which vows to secede from the union formed in 1990 by the north and south.

This has put the UAE on a collision course with both Saudis and Houthis, who strive to maintain the unity of the war-shattered republic.

Sources in the UAE told The Irish Times the Emirati public, particularly in Dubai, is sharply critical of the Yemen war due to the large number of fatalities among Emirati troops and its rising cost.

While the Saudi crown prince continues to consolidate his authority, King Salman or members of his entourage have assumed responsibility for dealing with the kings of Jordan and Morocco, the ruler of Kuwait and the sultan of Oman, with whom Saudi relations have soured since Salman assumed and throne and ceded power to his son.

A Saudi envoy has also visited Lebanon this week and met with previous prime ministers and incumbent Saad al-Hariri, who is expected in Riyadh where in November he was detained and forced to announce his resignation, which he revoked on his return to Beirut.

The Saudis clearly want to made amends ahead of Lebanon's parliamentary election in early May as Hariri's Future Movement, long financed by Saudi Arabia, is the leading Sunni party in the country and a likely constituent of a new coalition.