Missiles fall. But for many Saudis, war in neighboring Yemen is an afterthought.
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RIYADH– A war laps at Saudi Arabia’s borders, in Yemen, less than five hundred miles south of this capital city, in Yemen.
Yet the menace feels distant, the carnage reduced to abstraction by the time it reaches Riyadh, a city riveted by its own dramas — social changes and crackdowns, economic shifts and palace intrigues.
Missiles, fired by a Yemeni rebel group, fall so infrequently in Riyadh that during one recent attack, no one bothered to sound air raid sirens. Discussions of the war, beyond the missile strikes, are sporadic too, despite the Saudi military’s leading role in a bombing campaign in Yemen, directed from a buzzing control center the capital, where feeds from drones are projected on television screens.
A barrage of incoming missiles last month interrupted the city’s rhythms, but only slightly. One plunged into the bedroom of Abdul Mutalib Ali, an Egyptian laborer, killing him and injuring three of his relatives. It was the first death in the city from the missiles and drew an outpouring of sympathy from many Saudis.
But it hardly broke their stride.
“It doesn’t affect us,” said Abdullah al-Youssef, a businessman, as he entertained visitors on a recent evening and discussions turned to a soccer game on television. People were sorry about what happened to Ali, he said. As for the war, he added, “Nobody talks about it.”
In Yemen, there is no getting away from it. Assassins, airstrikes and artillery fire stalk the residents of its largest cities. Food is scarce in the countryside, the poorly-stocked hospitals hard to reach. The death toll from the violence – more than 10,000 people — barely describes the scope of a crisis that has left 8 million people, or a third of Yemen’s population, facing famine, according to the United Nations.
But here in Riyadh, the war competes for attention in a city enthralled by other things, including the comings and goings of its restless and charismatic crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. As he travels abroad, Saudi twitter feeds and broadsheets track his every meeting with world leaders and celebrities, every deal he strikes on behalf of the country.
Its soaring ambition is measured by Riyadh’s endless development projects, by the hotels that fill each week with international businesspeople flocking to suddenly abundant economic opportunities, as if to a gold rush. Once-feared religious police, stripped of the power to enforce moral codes, cruise the city with hangdog expressions in a sign of change.
When it came to the war, there was not much to say. Many people agreed with the government’s argument that Saudi military intervention in Yemen three years ago had been necessary to defend the country’s borders against a rebel group allied with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival. There was no need to second-guess that decision, or question why it was taking so long, they reasoned.
And for Saudis critical of an intervention that has earned the country international rebuke for killing thousands of civilians with airstrikes, there are a few, if any, public avenues to publicly express those views.
As their rivalry with Iran heats up, Saudi leaders have stoked an unaccustomed sense of nationalism at home, and a conviction among many that the armed forces can both defend the country and project power beyond its borders.
The missiles fired at the country are intercepted, Saudi military leaders assure the public. The Saudi army, if it were to ignore the potential harm to Yemeni civilians, could vanquish its enemies in a matter of weeks, they say.
Whether true or not, such statements have instilled a sense of calm.
Yuel Habtom, 19, who lives across the street from Ali’s house, recalled a terrifying night of smoke and fire when the missile landed, the jarring sight of his neighbor’s body as it was pulled from the house. Two days after the missile strike, his nerves had quieted.
“We don’t feel this war,” he said. “We are comfortable here.”
On the night the missiles fell, residents posed for selfies with a fragment that landed in the median of a roadway. In another spot, crowds gathered to search for the impact site where a missile interceptor had gone awry, plunging harmlessly into a sandy lot near a construction site.
Two days later, a café near the lot was full and the waiting list long. People recalled the missile strike as a moment of nervous spectacle rather than a brush with death.
Meshary al-Assiri, 36, a first-grade teacher, who came to the cafe with his motorcycle club, said the strike had not made him any more worried about the course of the war in Yemen. “It’s my country. If I thought there was a danger, I am the first to go to fight,” he said.
But there was no need. “We are strong. And when you are strong, you don’t worry about small things,” he said.
In the house where Ali, the Egyptian laborer was killed, more than a dozen other Egyptian workers who were his housemates said they too were largely unconcerned with the war, but only because they did not have the luxury of dwelling on it.
The sweeping modernization policies in the kingdom had been especially hard on immigrant laborers. As Saudi citizens were encouraged to join the work force, costs had soared for foreigners. Hundreds of thousands are said to have left.
The Egyptians questioned how long they would be able to remain in Saudi Arabia. Their roommate, Ali, “was very kind,” said one of the workers. His clothes, including a grey jacket and jeans, still hung on hooks on the wall in his crushed room.
“We heard something about a war in Yemen,” the worker added. “We don’t know much.”
The last time missiles hurtled towards Saudi Arabia, from Iraq in 1991, they set off air raid sirens in an emptied Saudi capital most every night.
Saud al-Bishi had turned his Dodge van into a mobile bomb shelter, stocking it with supplies and sealing shut the doors to ward off a possible chemical attack. Government cars patrolled the streets, warning residents to take shelter, as public service announcements, set against an alarming red background, flashed on television.
“It was terrifying,” Bishi said.
Saudi Arabia — dependent on the United States for its defense, despite its oil riches — was vulnerable.
The Saudi foray into Yemen has been intended to send a different message – one of power and self-reliance. The United States continues to provide critical support to the Saudi effort, including aerial refueling.
The message has been aimed squarely at Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, which is allied with the Houthi rebels. But it is also part of a broader attempt to foster a new sense of nationalism at home, rooted in a commitment to the military, according to Kristin Smith Diwan, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
The Saudi effort was less advanced than that of its neighbor and coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates, which has introduced mandatory military conscription and rallied citizens around a sense of shared sacrifice, including by erecting a sprawling war memorial, she said.
Saudi leaders have also highlighted the war effort but in far more limited ways. Both countries have kept a tight lid on any critical discussion of the war.
“You never want to appear weak, least of all in front of your population,” Diwan said. It was expected that the Saudi government would seek to tightly control the narrative of the war. But without a free press, “they have more tools to be able to do that,” she said.
Away from Saudi Arabia, the narrative was harder to steer. In Yemen, Saudi commanders readily concede that the conflict was more complex than they had anticipated.
The crown prince, during his recent trip to the United States, seemed to bristle at question about the war during an interview with the Atlantic Monthly magazine. “We want to be asked about the economy, our partnerships, investment in America and Saudi Arabia,” he said, according to a transcript of the interview.
“We don’t want to spend our lives arguing about Yemen. This is not something about choice here. This is about security and life for us.”