The War Nerd: Bentleys for Houthis!
The Saudis are finally getting some bang out of all the bucks they’ve spent on weapons over the past 50 years, with Saudi planes bombing Yemen for more than a month now.
There was a short, very short, break in late April, when the campaign was supposed to shift gears to a more “political” phase, but that lasted, oh, a few hours. Literally a few hours. The break was announced on April 21, and on April 22, the inevitable headline appeared: “Saudi-led Coalition Resumes Air Strikes.”
The instant dissolve of the ceasefire shouldn’t have surprised anybody. The half-life of a Yemeni ceasefire is as short as those elements born in a particle accelerator. This is a typical 21st-century war, slow, small, chronic. Casualties have been fairly low, compared to the mass slaughters of the previous two centuries, with about a thousand people officially killed, a few thousand more officially wounded. Unofficial dead and wounded would probably double that number, but even so, this is not Stalingrad or Gettysburg. This is a Saudi Air Force attempt to do surgical strikes.
It’s a lot harder to put a bomb in the right place than the video games make it look, especially in urban combat. The USAF, whatever its other problems, is damned good at this; the Saudi Air Force doesn’t seem to have the same degree of finesse. It’s not entirely the pilots’ fault; they’re working with munitions designed to be used in NATO’s mythical Armageddon, all-out war between Warsaw Pact and Western armies. They went for maximum splatter effect back then. In a sense, we’re seeing how badly these weapons work in our weird form of warfare, where you can lose big if you kill too many people.
The bombing hasn’t accomplished anything much, except to slow down the Shia (Houthi) advance on Aden. But there was one big fringe benefit for Saudi pilots: free Bentleys. Yes, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, previously known for offering luxury cars to the Kingdom’s winning soccer team, Tweeted a promise to buy 100 new Bentleys for the 100 Saudi pilots who were bombing Yemen.
It was a straight-up, one-per-customer deal, one Bentley for one pilot, no second Bentley for extra missions as far as I know, no fine print about throwing in a Kia Rio for extra civilian kills or any such complications.
He deleted the Tweet a little later, of course, because it didn’t go over so well—a bunch of naysayers whining about how he hadn’t pledged one lousy riyal to rebuild the hospitals Saudi pilots were quasi-accidentally demolishing in Yemen, that sort of negativity—but by the time the Prince deleted his Tweet, it was already viral, and I’m sure every pilot in the Saudi AF will be running to the front door like a kid on Christmas every time the bell rings for the next few months. After all, this is the way people inside and outside the Magic Kingdom want to see the Saudi elite, as wacky but generous hicks, scattering largesse.
The real Saudi elite is much less wacky, much less hick-ish, and much grimmer than their goofy rep. They may splash out for the occasional stunt like this Bombs-for-Bentleys deal (though I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were a Saudi pilot), but most of the time, the Saudis spend money on military gear in a strange but rational manner.
And in the context of Saudi military spending, a crummy little Bentley, average price around $225,000 brand new, is nothing at all.
The Kingdom is one of the biggest defense spenders in the world, tossing out more than $80 billion per year on weaponry. When you break down military spending per capita, Saudi is easily the biggest spender of all.
The only countries spending more on military procurement are the US, China, and (maybe) Russia. When you consider that there are only 30 million Saudis, compared to 310 million American, 1.3 billion Chinese, and 146 million Russian citizens, the Saudi defense budget stands out as ridiculously huge. One out of every seven dollars spent on imported weaponry comes from the Saudi treasury.
Of course Saudi citizens don’t feel the pinch of these huge expenses. Taxes in Saudi Arabia are zero-point-zero. That’s the deal the Saud family made with its people: “No taxation for no representation.” The money to buy all this fancy tech is siphoned right out of the oil that is the personal property of the Saud family, who are the official owners—not just rulers, but owners—of the country.
And the Saud family has been spending this kind of absurd amount on weapons for decades, with no real thought of ever using them. In fact, the Saudis usually had to rely on foreign tech assistance from the US or Pakistan to field their new buys, like the AWACS.
The one time the Kingdom faced what our hysterical Israeli buddies like to call “an existential threat”—when Saddam Hussein swarmed Kuwait, the Saudis’ little cousin-statelet, in August 1991—they barely even pretended to handle the threat with their own military, going direct for the “Call the Americans” strategy (to the annoyance of a tall skinny dude named bin Laden, with subsequent repercussions here’n’there. But then, bin Laden was Yemeni, a feistier type than yer true Saudi).
The Saudis spread their cash around the world, with a giant slice landing in the vicinity of Washington D.C., but plenty left over to scatter over the official precincts of Paris, London, and Islamabad. In fact, the Pakistani Army and its ultra-sleaze core, the ISI, has been one of the biggest cash dumps for Saudi over the last few decades. The Saudis thought they were buying Pakistan’s promise to supply cannon fodder in the event of a nasty war like the one going on in Yemen. After all, the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was a guest of the Kingdom for years after being deposed.
But Pakistan did something that shocked and outraged the Sauds. On April 7, the Pakistani Parliament voted unanimously not to send any troops to Yemen.
You can imagine the outrage in Riyadh. All the money they spent on those legislators, and the ingrates had the sheer gall to refuse to send cannon fodder on request!
It was democracy in action, or at least one of the ways you can use the appearance of democracy to avoid doing something you didn’t want to do in the first place. Nobody in Pakistan is dumb enough to send ground troops to fight the Yemeni Shia on their home turf, but a lot of people way up in Pakistan’s real elite, from the PM on down, owed the Saudis a favor. How do you get out of an awkward request from somebody whose bribes put your kids through private school?
The answer is beautifully simple: Blame democracy! If Pakistan were still an outright military dictatorship, the ISI/Army wouldn’t have any excuse for wimping out on the Saudis’ request, but now that there’s a parliament, you can pass the word to the MPs, warn them that ground troops to Yemen has always been a very bad idea (just ask the Ottomans) and blame your wimp-out on that pesky Western virus, representative democracy.
If Nawaz Sharif had actually wanted to send troops, he could have done it without even asking Parliament:
Under Pakistan’s constitution, the resolution is nonbinding, because the prime minister has complete authority over the country’s armed forces. But Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said this week that he planned to leave the matter to Parliament.
But much, much better to pull the ol’ “What can I do? My hands are tied!” routine.
It was a beautiful moment in the history of double-crosses, and it couldn’t happen to a more fitting sucker than the Saudis, who’ve always had a horror of democracy in any form. When their Pakistani officer liaisons shrugged and said, “It’s those damn MPs!” the Saud princes must have nodded grimly. They always knew no good could come of this human-rights crap.
I can imagine the laughter in the Pakistan parliament after this magnificent farce was over. One thing that distinguishes South Asian Muslims from the Peninsula Arabs is that people from the Subcontinent love to crack each other up. The Saudis tend to worry about their dignity way too much to laugh. It used to kill the Pakistanis in Saudi, the deadly earnestness of the Saudis. As one of them used to say, “These people must have iron in their necks!” Rodney Dangerfield’s original tough crowd. So, if you can’t make ’em laugh, make ’em a laughingstock. And Pakistan did it beautifully.
Of course, there had to be a face-saving concession from the Prime Minister, who owes his career to Riyadh. So Sharif went to Saudi and promised that in the event that the Houthi swarm north, into Saudi proper, then hey, man, Pakistani troops would be there to help.
That scenario isn’t entirely far-fetched. All the hype about Iran, and a proxy war between Iran and Saudi, is, as one sane commentator pointed out, “nonsense.”
This is an entirely Arabian problem; Iran doesn’t need to do a thing but watch and eat pistachios (from Fresno, probably).
And if it ever came down to Yemeni Shia forces heading north, into Saudi, there’s not much the Saudi Army and Border Police could do to stop them. Like a lot of countries, Saudi’s armed forces are full of parallel structures (Army vs. National Guard) designed to counterbalance each other, and focused on squashing any internal threat, rather than dealing with foreign invasions. A Saudi police station is a terrifying place, but a Saudi army base is a lot more relaxed. The US military is the real armed force of the Kingdom, and Saudi soldiers and officers know that perfectly well.
Of course that doesn’t make for Prussian military discipline, or PLA-level morale. If the Yemeni Shia ever crossed into Najran or Jizan provinces, the Saudi Army would probably execute a tactical withdrawal, using their ultimate weapon, the Smartphone, to order some air-to-ground takeout from the USAF.
Any ground combat between the Saudis and Houthis would be, as they say, one-sided. The Yemeni highlanders have been fighting all their lives, and have very little to lose, while the typical Saudi officer has way too much.
It’s that imbalance, wobbling along an undefined border, that makes Riyadh so frightened now. The luck of the petrochemical draw made them absurdly rich while the Yemenis, once the smart, worldly traders, have lost everything. People like that are always going to be more ready to die than a Saudi officer whose real obsession is how many Dolce & Gabbana knockoffs his sweatshop in Guangzhou is turning out per week.
When you consider how much money the Saudis have invested in bribes over the past century, and how spotty the returns have been (as shown by the Pakistani refusal to send troops), you have to wonder if it’d be cheaper just to bomb the Yemeni Highlands with cash. I mean literally, just parachute wads of $20 bills down on Saada Province, give the Shia down there something to lose.
It’s a strategy whose time has to come sooner or later, the cash-bombing campaign. It’s been tried in various indirect ways, but nobody’s had the balls to just take it to the utter literal level, actual wads of cash on little parachutes fluttering down on Yemeni villages where $15 per month buys you a house.
“Give ’em something to lose” is probably the best counter-insurgency slogan you could come up with, the only one that seems to work. Never mind giving Bentleys to Saudi pilots who’d probably rather have a 1970 Barracuda anyway. Send the Bentleys over the border, to the Shia provinces of Yemen. Bomb ’em with Bentleys! Or better yet, just drop the cash on them. Less likely to cause collateral damage, and I’m pretty sure the Yemeni are smart enough to spend the cash on a sensible buy like a Land Cruiser instead of those stodgy old Rollsez.