International pressure on Saudi Arabia is mounting to end the war in Yemen. However, four years after the launch of Operation Decisive Storm, such pressure is largely absent at home.
Many reasons explain this discrepancy. One is the patriotic narrative that highlights the sacrifices of Saudi soldiers defending the kingdom. This is helping to overcome any criticism of the war. High-profile visits to the Yemen border led by Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, media reporting, and national campaigns are sustaining such an approach, especially in big cities far from the fighting. Meanwhile, in places where the sacrifices are actually taking place, namely in southern Saudi Arabia, government money and religious rhetoric are being used to reinforce the official line.
Discussions over compensation to Saudi soldiers stationed on the Yemen border began as early as April 2015. In June 2015, the council of ministers established the Fund for Martyrs, Injured, Prisoners of War, and Missing in Action, over which the crown prince presides. In November 2016, a new law unified and codified disparate decisions and preexisting regulations on compensation to all military personnel and civilians. The law mandated compensation to a maximum of $267,000 for each family of whom a member was killed or handicapped, and the equivalent of $80,000 for families of those who were partially incapacitated.
More broadly, the families of those killed or handicapped receive lifelong salaries, pensions, jobs, medical treatment, housing benefits, debt payments, and other financial and social inducements. The newly codified privileges add to the increase in permanent and occasional bonuses and social spending bestowed by the king and crown prince on soldiers fighting at the border. Criticism from some quarters against new privileges, such as relief of mortgage payments to the state and debt to private banks, have been condemned.
The laws to honor Saudis defending the kingdom, particularly media coverage of this, have highlighted the rewards provided by the palace more than the sacrifices themselves. It is difficult to estimate the total number of Saudi casualties. Some experts estimated the numbers in the “several hundreds” during the first eighteen months of the Yemen conflict. Other sources with whom I have spoken have estimated the number of military deaths at between 1,500 and 3,000 for the four-year period, and the number of injured as high as 20,000. Skeptics and the Houthis have also estimated high numbers, despite the defensive nature of the Saudi soldiers’ involvement in the war.
A Saudi newspaper, Al-Riyadh, reported that regional princes and officials had offered condolences to the families of 69 soldiers since the start of 2019, a number that appears to be low. Those were mostly enlisted soldiers and were reported because of the presence of princes or prominent officials at the ceremonies. Just over half of them came from the southwest of Saudi Arabia, namely Jazan. While Al-Riyadh reported an average of ten deaths per month, southern locals using WhatsApp messages and Twitter reported higher numbers of military and civilian casualties during the same period.
Compensation to soldiers and their extended families is politically important in the impoverished south, from where most of the soldiers serving originate. Financial assistance alleviates war fatigue and maintains, when it does not increase, appetite for military service. This comes at a time when the buildup and restructuring of Saudi Arabia’s military power is a priority for the leadership.
The military compensation comes on top of reparations the state is providing to thousands of displaced civilians affected by the current Yemen war and that of 2009, in addition to the cost of damaged infrastructure and airport shutdowns.
Previously, civilians had mobilized against forced displacement imposed by the state and delays in reparations after successive evacuations near the border. The government’s recognition and responsiveness to all delays is now being reported in newspapers. Additional development projects in the south continue an old strategy of alleviating war fatigue among civilians who have not earned compensation, but have more generally suffered from the consequences of war.
Religious rhetoric has also been used to boost patriotism and promote sacrifice, in stark contrast to the way such rhetoric has been downplayed elsewhere in the kingdom to allow for social liberalization. High-profile Saudi clerics have adopted religious language in addressing the war during their visits to the southern border and in sermons at home.
Earlier this month, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs organized a training course for imams near the border on how to counter Houthi “doctrine,” promote the “doctrine of monotheism,” and advance the “features of Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahab’s proselytism.” Saudi soldiers have been designated nationally as Al-Murabitoun (Sentinels), a religious reference to the high status and rewarding of soldiers protecting borders against breaches (thoghour) by infiltrators. Protection of the kingdom is regularly equated with “jihad” in defense of the “doctrine,” “Muslims,” and the “the land of the two holy mosques.” Zaydi Houthis are identified as “majus,” the term for Zoroastrians, therefore non-Muslims. They are also called “moushrikin,” or polytheists, with historical and religious ties to the “safawis,” in reference to the Persian Safavids, and “rafidah” meaning rejectionists, a reference to the Twelver Shi‘a.
Such designations strip the Houthis of any ethnic or religious connection to the Saudi soldiers, and make it a religious duty to fight them. They also distinguish the military confrontation with the Houthis from a war against Yemen, with which many southern Saudis have family and confessional ties. This radical sectarian discourse has been building up in the south since the Yemen war of 2009. It raises the pressure on southern tribes, as well Isma‘ilis and those who have had distinct relations with the Houthis. Those tribes are under political and social pressure to constantly prove their patriotism to compensate for the questioning of their religious doctrine.
The religious narrative and financial policies not only contribute to the absence of domestic pressure to end military operations in Yemen, they actually normalize the rising number of deaths in defense of Saudi Arabia. However, such policies challenge the social and economic transformations the kingdom has been trying to implement. So far, increasing Houthi attacks, tight government control over information, and the kingdom’s vast resources have allowed for a reinforcement of the Saudi sense of patriotism while simultaneously permitting the authorities to contain the challenge posed by the conflict to the south.