Saudis’ Yemeni headache won’t go away if and when the guns fall silent
By James M. Dorsey
Edited remarks at Stand with Yemen Symposium and Exhibition 23 February 2019
These are tough times for Saudi Arabia.
The drama enveloping the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the brutal way in which it was carried out have captured public attention. In reality, however, Saudi Arabia’s real problems began earlier as a result of its conduct of the Yemen war.
Saudi interference in Yemen that culminated in military intervention predates the four-year-old war. Yemen has long been perceived by Saudi Arabia as a threat. That threat went far beyond current Iranian support for the Houthis. In fact, it was Saudi divide-and-rule tactics in Yemen, changing Saudi attitudes towards the Houthis and Saudi Arabia’s global campaign to promote anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian strands of ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam that helped pave the way for the current Yemen crisis.
It is only half a century ago that the Houthis were part of a Saudi effort to confront Arab nationalism. As an aside, Saudis and Israelis cooperated already then with Israeli military aircraft dropping weapons for the Saudi-backed rebels that included the Houthis. The deterioration in Saudi-Houthi relations accelerated just after the turn to this century when the Saudis funded the opening of a Salafi centre on the outskirts of the Houthi capital of Saada.
The centre constituted not only a challenge to the Houthis but also to the power of the Houthi leadership. It successfully appealed to the socially disadvantaged as well as youth who were attracted by Salafism’s egalitarianism, resented the power of the older generation and saw puritan Islam as a vehicle to challenge the traditional hierarchy. Fear of the Wahhabi/Salafi encroachment fuelled the Houthi’s armed fight against the government of then President Ali Abdullah Saleh, his Saudi-backed successor Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, and ultimately the Saudis themselves, which led to the kingdom’s military intervention in Yemen in March 2015.
To initially counter the threat, the leadership of the Houthis, Zaidis who are Shiites with practices more akin to Sunni Muslim ritual, turned to Iran for support in religious education, a development that further angered the kingdom, and laid the groundwork for a war that has devastated a country that already ranked as one of the world’s poorest.
The Saudi intervention was, however, about more than just confronting an Iranian proxy on its doorstep. For one, if anything, it was the intervention that really drove the Houthis and Iranians closer to one another. Even so, the Houthis remain an opportunity in a far broader Saudi-Iranian rivalry rather than a strategic target for the Iranians.
The Salmans, the king and his son, have since coming to office and despite the emergence of Donald Trump, taken to new heights a far more assertive foreign and military policy that was initially crafted by their predecessors in response to the popular Arab revolts in 2011. Make however no mistake, Saudi Arabia’s new assertiveness is not a declaration of independence from the United States even if the kingdom is expanding its international relations as is evident in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent tour of Asia.
On the contrary, Prince Mohammed made that very clear in multiple interviews. His goal was to force the United States to reengage in the Middle East as the best guarantor for regional stability. The Saudis appear to be operating on the basis of Karl Marx’s Verelendungs theory: things have to get worse to get better. That is the part of the backdrop of the stalled military intervention in Yemen. Dangling Iran as the real threat emanating from Yemen serves the Saudis’ purpose.
In doing so Saudi Arabia, has proven to be driven. It is a drive that is fuelled by a perception that Iran poses an existential threat to Saudi Arabia. In fact, that may not be incorrect, certainly from the perception of the monarchy and its ruling family.
Saudi Arabia dazzles with the billions of dollars gained from oil exports that it is able to invest overseas and the investment opportunities it creates in the kingdom itself. But the truth of the matter is that long-term Saudi Arabia’s future is not that of a regional hegemon.
Saudi regional leadership, even if it has been tarnished in Yemen in military and reputational terms, amounts to exploitation of a window of opportunity rather than reliance on the assets and power needed to sustain it. Saudi Arabia’s interest is to extend its window of opportunity for as long as possible. That window of opportunity exists as long as the obvious regional powers — Iran, Turkey and Egypt — are in various degrees of disrepair. For now, punitive economic sanctions and international isolation take care of Iran.
And that is what bites. Iran may not be Arab and maintains a sense of Persian superiority, but it has like Turkey and Egypt assets Saudi Arabia lacks: a large population base, an industrial base, a huge domestic market, a battle-hardened military, a deep-rooted culture, a history of empire and a geography that makes it a crossroads. Mecca and money will not be able to compete.
Add to all of this two factors. The Islamic regime came to power in a revolution that preceded the 2011 Arab revolts by 32 years. Moreover, the Iranian revolution toppled a monarch not a president and an icon of US power in the Middle East.
Perhaps, more importantly, if one disregards the sanctioning of Iran, it is Iran rather than Saudi Arabia that is likely to shape the future energy architecture of Eurasia. Oil, in terms of demand is a diminishing commodity. If the long-term future is renewables, the medium term will be shaped by gas. Iran has gas, Saudi Arabia does not, at least not the kind of gas it can export. In fact, Iran, has the world’s second largest gas reserves. Again, disregarding the sanctions, Iran would have in the next five years 24.6 billion cubic metres available for annual piped exports beyond its current supply commitments.
If, indeed, Iran poses an existential threat to the rule of the Al Saud family that it cannot eliminate and at best contain with the support of the United States, the question is what Saudi Arabia’s goal in Yemen is as well as in its broader rivalry with Iran. There are those who coherently argue that Saudi Arabia’s goal in Yemen may have initially been the roll-back of Houthi advances with their occupation of the Yemeni capital Sana’s and large parts of Yemen, destruction of Houthi power and forcing them into a situation in which they would have had to accept a Saudi-dictated end to the war.
Four years into the war, that is not a realistic goal. Short of that, the question is how sincere Saudi and for that matter UAE interest is in finding a way out of the war. It is conceivable that short of outright victory, Saudi Arabia would want to keep Yemen weak and the Houthis militarily on the defensive. That is at best only sustainable in the short term. Fact of the matter is that the reputational damage Saudi Arabia has suffered is starting to hurt witness measures taken by the US Congress and Germany’s decision to halt arms sales to the kingdom. Conflicts are only ended, if not resolved if the pain of continuing the conflict is greater than the pain of ending it. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia could well be nearing the inflection point.
The problem is that even if the United Nations mediated peace talks ultimately produce an end to the war, Yemen, if anything, will pose in the post-war era an even greater and more real threat. Yemen for much of post-World War Two history has been an after thought in the international community if it sparked a thought at all. Yet, what a post-war Yemen will represent is a devastated country that largely needs to be rebuilt from scratch, a country whose traumatized population has suffered one the world’s worst humanitarian disasters and will need all the after-care that goes with that.
Beyond the taking care of the most immediate humanitarian issues, there is little reason to believe that investors and governments with massive aid packages and offers of reconstruction will be knocking on Yemen’s doors. Like in Syria and Libya, the risk is of the emergence of a generation that has nothing to look forward to and nothing to lose. In Yemen, that generation is likely to deeply resent what it perceives Saudi Arabia has done to their country. If Saudi Arabia, long saw Yemen as the Gulf’s most populous nation with a battle-hardened military that needed to be managed, that new generation is likely to put flesh on the skeleton.
Its not a pretty picture to look forward to. And it is one in which the damage has already been done. Having said that, its never too late to try to limit the damage, if not reverse affairs. That however would take the kind of courage and vision that Prince Mohammed and others in power elsewhere in the Middle East have yet to demonstrate.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom