SANAA – As Saudi soldiers drive armored vehicles around Aden, the port in southern Yemen they helped recapture from rebels, young men clap and children flash the V-for-victory sign.
“The coalition came here to help us,” said Omar Abdullah Saleh, a Yemeni militia fighter, as he patrolled among collapsed buildings and bullet-riddled walls. “We are happy with their presence.”
There are reasons for the Saudis to wonder how long the warm welcome will last — especially if they recall that U.S. troops in Iraq were also greeted as liberators, at first. Local allies have their own agenda; public expectations of a swift return to normal life will be tough to meet; and in much of Yemen the rebels still hold sway and enjoy grassroots support.
All that means the Saudi engagement in Yemen may still be in its early stages, poised to inflict a growing humanitarian cost in a region that’s already seen a mass exodus of Syrian refugees. There are also economic risks for Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest crude exporter, which is having to dig deep into its savings after the oil slump.
The Saudi-led coalition suffered its worst losses so far when at least 45 soldiers from the United Arab Emirates, a key member, were killed in a missile attack in Yemen’s Marib province earlier in September.
“Casualties will mount as the ground presence increases,” said Jesse Ferris, author of “Nasser’s Gamble,” a study of the failed Egyptian intervention in Yemen’s civil war in the 1960s. “It is very difficult to win a counterinsurgency in mountainous terrain against a hostile and fractious population.”
The capture of Aden in July marked the first real victory for the coalition, achieved after a four-month bombing campaign and a largely unacknowledged deployment of ground troops.
It enabled Yemen’s Saudi-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansur Hadi, driven into exile by the rebels early this year, to return to his country for the first time in months. From his new base in Aden, he’s promising to recapture the rest of Yemen from the Houthis, too — including the capital, Sanaa, still held by the Shiite rebels and their allies, supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
But even in Aden, where the Saudi intervention is popular, there’s limited support for Hadi and many people would prefer to break away.
“I want the south to be separate from the north,” said Ehab Khamis, a 49-year-old militia fighter with a machine gun slung over his shoulder. Khamis lost his son in the battle for Aden. “The northerners aren’t good people, none of them,” he said.
That sentiment is widespread in Aden, the capital of a separate state of South Yemen before unification with the north in 1990. Children sing patriotic songs about the south. Southern flags fly on most government buildings, and they’re painted on walls around the city. Only on a lighthouse built by the British in colonial times, next to the bombed-out presidential palace, could the national flag be seen fluttering.
There’s also a sectarian divide that overlaps the regional one. Saudi Arabia says the Houthis, Shiites from north Yemen, are puppets of Iran and must be defeated to stop the Islamic Republic from gaining a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula, though Western diplomats have questioned the level of Iranian involvement.
The Saudis and their local allies shared the goal of freeing Aden, “but now the agendas are different,” said Majed al-Mathhaji, an independent analyst based in Sanaa. As for the north, “even with their military might, it will be difficult for the coalition and Hadi to make any progress in areas where they are not welcomed.”
Some southerners blame Hadi personally, for fleeing to a Saudi exile when the Houthis arrived in Aden. Mohammed al-Sadi, a neurologist who helped organize the resistance, said he holds that against the president.
“We went to the mosque and called for people to defend the city,” he said. “Every street was defended by its residents. Now, we need electricity, salaries, health care and better basic services.”
When Hadi visited Aden this month, he was guarded by coalition forces at the al-Qasr Hotel. Its exterior looks like one of Dubai’s five-star hotels, and also recalls the Green Zone set up in Baghdad by the U.S. army.
Coalition troops and armored vehicles stand guard outside the al-Qasr, and there are large sandbags by the front gate. The interior is out of step with the rest of the battered city. Gold chandeliers hang in the lobby, and Filipinos flown in from Abu Dhabi staff the cafeteria.
‘Who’s With You?’
The Gulf states began their Yemen campaign as an air war, but now their footprint is all over Aden. Apache and transport helicopters are parked outside the airport’s main terminal, with tanks and Humvees behind them. In the city’s northwest, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates operate a large base with barracks, storage facilities and lines of military vehicles.
“We have no intentions but to help the Yemeni people,” Staff Col. Abdullah bin Suhayan said outside the base. “We are here to support the legitimate government of Yemen.”
Yemen’s Prime Minister Khaled Bahah told reporters in Aden that “the social fabric in general has been damaged” and repairing it will need international help. The Saudis and their allies say that the Houthis must disarm and pull back from territory they seized, including Sanaa, before U.N. peace talks can resume.
Graffiti all over Aden shows how hard reconciliation will be. “Death to the Houthis” is a common slogan, while others describe the city as a “cemetery” for Shiites. Meanwhile in rebel-held areas farther north, the growing civilian death toll from Saudi bombing has undermined support for any compromise.
Yemen’s “intensely local and tribal” politics will make life tougher for the Saudis the deeper they get involved, said Ferris, the historian of an earlier civil war. “You really don’t know who is with you and who is against you, and for how long.”