The Russian invasion of Ukraine has a “telling precedent”, says Patrick Cockburn in the I newspaper. In 2015, another “wealthy and well-armed” power invaded its “smaller, poorer and less well-equipped neighbour”, fully expecting the mission to be over in days – only to be thwarted by fierce local resistance. This was the Saudi-led intervention in neighbouring Yemen, a conflict that has since left almost 400,000 Yemenis dead and the country “effectively destroyed”. The parallels between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Vladimir Putin are striking. Their “vast revenues” from energy exports – Russia and Saudi are the world’s two biggest oil exporters – allow them to pour money into any project, endlessly, until they “get what they want”. They can rule as dictators, buying off dissent and using state resources to reward the elite for their loyalty.
Yet both men, and both countries, have similar weaknesses. A state run as a “looting machine” is never as strong as it seems, and there are certain things it should never do – chief among them, going to war. Loyalty in such a system has its limits: people are happy to profit from oil wealth, but not willing “to die for it”. Hence why both Putin and MBS have tried to “outsource the bloodier business of war”, to the Wagner Group in Ukraine, and to 10,000 Sudanese soldiers in Yemen. This should help keep their own people happy – but may not be enough to end the respective battlefield stalemates.