Gas masks lie abandoned among rusting debris in a shell-pocked Saudi military outpost on the border with war-torn Yemen, an enduring flashpoint in more than two years of fighting against Houthi militias.
The post in Al Khubah, a deserted village framed by barren mountain ridges, is one of several border guard bases the militias have targeted since a Saudi-led coalition began its military intervention in Yemen in 2015.
The Iran-backed insurgents’ hit-and-run incursions and rocket barrages have not jeopardized Saudi control of the vast frontier, but they have underscored how the raging conflict in Yemen is spilling across the border, threatening scores of villages like Al Khubah.
“The Houthis thought we will withdraw,” Saudi border guard Colonel Mohammed al-Hameed said as he gave this news agency a rare tour of the battered base.
“But we are still very much in control,” he added, broken glass and bullet casings crunching under his feet.
The base showed signs of close-range combat. The scorched walls were scarred with shrapnel and the metal ceiling was pitted with bullet and shell holes. A cat prowled behind a mountain of wrecked furniture.
Gas masks had been procured for fear of potential chemical attacks, Al-Hameed said.
He described the Saudi base on the edge of the frontier as an “arrowhead”, directly exposed to Houthi mountain posts on the other side that give the militias a strategic vantage point.
The militias, well-versed in the region’s rugged topography, have mounted numerous cross-border raids in retaliation against Saudi air strikes on their Yemeni strongholds.
Saudi Arabia led a 2015 intervention in Yemen to prop up the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi after Houthi militias forced him into exile.
It has also been hit repeatedly by the militias’ cross-border incursions, raising fears the conflict could drag out yet further.
“It’s been extraordinarily difficult to prevent Yemeni infiltrations across the border,” Lori Boghardt, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said.
“The Saudis are not just trying to protect civilians and... infrastructure from the tens of thousands of projectiles and ballistic missiles being launched over the border,” she said.
“There’s also the broader strategic issue of trying to secure the basic territorial integrity of the kingdom.” The militias have posted numerous propaganda videos purporting to show their incursions into Saudi territory, including one inside Al Khubah showing border guards beating a hasty retreat.
“The Houthis are liars, liars, liars,” Al-Hameed said, claiming there had only been a handful of Saudi casualties and no fatalities in militia assaults at the site.
Saudi Arabia does not officially disclose military fatalities, but state media has frequently featured funeral notices for “martyred” soldiers.
Unofficial figures show that cross-border attacks by militias have killed at least 140 soldiers and civilians in Saudi Arabia since March 2015.
Given Saudi Arabia’s large military presence along the border and its superior air power, the Houthis would struggle to hold any territory they might seize.
Ordinary Saudi civilians have also been affected by the fighting. Thousands of residents have been evacuated from border towns across the southwest to create a buffer zone.
(Edited by Al Arabiya English)