by Graham E. Fuller
The domestic crisis in Yemen, once quite containable, now bids to veer out of control as external players threaten to exacerbate an explosive situation. Apart from their rhetorical statements, what are the chief factors driving these players in this complex situation?
Saudi Arabia: Riyadh is determined to keep Yemen supine, weak and under its control—the one state on the Arabian Peninsula that has been regularly willing to sharply challenge the Kingdom in the past. Riyadh seeks to crush the Houthis –not really because they are Shi’ite (as half of Saudi allies there have been over time), and not even because of recent Iranian assistance to the Houthis (which has not basically determined Houthi success), but because of the negative regional symbolism of Yemeni forces that are no longer under the Kingdom’s control and may now be in the hands of self-declared reformers. Riyadh is also demonstrating new muscle flexing in preparation for assuming greater clout in the Gulf.
Iran: Whatever others may think, Iran actually views itself as an “Islamic” power, not a Shi’ite power. It rarely invokes Shi’ism in its geopolitical statements. But when Shi’a in the region are oppressed, Iran will speak up for them, as it has done about the oppressed Shi’a in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. When Iran is challenged, and verbally attacked as a “Shi’ite threat” then it feels compelled to defend its position, yes, as a state that is Shi’ite. If Saudi Arabia decides to declare war against Shi’ism then Iran is required to respond in the same sectarian manner. But Iran’s real threat lies more in its revolutionary, semi-democratic, populist character. Yet at present Iranian statements make it very clear it wants an end to Saudi bombing in Yemen and calls for a political settlement that involves power sharing in Yemen.
But the ante has now gone up. Riyadh is now bombarding Yemeni cities. With other Gulf states joining up at least rhetorically with Saudi Arabia against the Houthis, and the US supplying military advice to Riyadh, Iran has taken a bold, potentially risky step: the dispatch of two Iranian ships off Aden. There they have joined a flotilla of other interested foreign powers including the US and China. Tehran is clearly signaling its interests in the Yemeni crisis. It almost surely seeks to demonstrate too, in the aftermath of its tentative agreements with the US on nuclear issues, that, despite its major concessions, the world should not think it has been humbled by the West in those negotiations and that it can still think and act robustly. Hence a flashing of the naval flag. But remember, Iran had little if anything to do with the origins of this Yemeni crisis—it is one that Riyadh decided to brand as a direct challenge from Iran.
The US: Washington is in a bind among competing interests and has few good options. It has almost no agenda in Yemen, sadly, other than counterterrorism; it has been driven by intelligence operations against al-Qa’ida and its drone wars that have won it many enemies. Its former ally in Yemen Ali Abdullah Salih who ran Yemen for over 30 years was overthrown three years ago and his successor now routed by the Houthis. At this point the US is in retreat, but is advising Saudi Arabia tactically and providing intelligence support in the Kingdom’s campaign against Yemen. Yet Yemen’s Houthis are themselves keenly hostile to ISIS and al-Qa’ida and represent potential allies in that struggle. Washington additionally is likely to be uncomfortable with aspects of Riyadh’s newly adventuristic policies, but fears that if it does not offer at least nominal support to Riyadh it will lose its strategic position in the Kingdom entirely. Washington may also calculate it can rein in some of the new Saudi king’s (especially his son’s) more impulsive moves. Washington additionally needs to “prove” to the Gulf rulers that the US has not abandoned them in spite of the strategic game changer in its normalization process with Tehran.
Pakistan: Riyadh seeks to augment its scheme for creating a wide Sunni bloc against Iran by recruiting even Pakistan to join in. Riyadh’s financial aid to Pakistan over the years has helped buy it close ties there. Riyadh has also exported Wahhabi doctrines to Pakistan for decades, buttressing local Pakistani Sunni radical Islam. Pakistan’s military has long assisted Riyadh as a reserve force ready to back Gulf security needs. Yet Pakistan also borders on Iran, always a very important neighbor and now moreso. Islamabad has long sought to build a much needed gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan (and beyond to India and maybe even to China.) Pakistan may offer token support to Riyadh in Yemen, but almost surely it does not want to be drawn into an anti-Iranian alliance, especially given its own troubled domestic sectarian struggles.
Turkey: Turkey too, seems to have decided it now needs to mend fences with Saudi Arabia—a more recent potential ideological rival. (Ideological rival due to their widely differing visions: Turkey has sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood, favors democracy, an open and secular society, and religious tolerance; Riyadh hates the Brotherhood, fears democracy, preaches intolerance, rejects secularism, and practices a narrow rigid form of Sunni Islam—Wahhabism). Turkey in the end cannot really afford to throw away its important ties to Iran, its most important neighbor, simply to lend solidarity to Riyadh’s shaky Yemen adventure. All Ankara really shares with Riyadh is a common burning desire to overthrow Syria’s Asad.
China and Russia: Whatever differences in style and approach between them, both these states share a basic desire to constrain US exercise of unilateral military power and interventionism at will in the region. In this case however, US interventionism is not a major factor in the present Yemen crisis, but both Moscow and Beijing find their interests generally better served by not choosing sides in regional conflicts and by not supporting divisive coalitions. Both states have taken a neutral policy towards the Yemeni conflict and seek a negotiated settlement. They do share with the US a desire to eliminate the violent extremism of USIS and al-Qa’ida, but wish to avoid direct military engagement to that end in the Arab world. China is already demonstrating its determination to be a new strategic player in the Gulf that cannot be ignored.
In all likelihood the Yemeni crisis is headed for a major Saudi setback. Even the Gulfis may grow uncomfortable with Riyadh’s military intervention in Yemen as it becomes more suggestive of a new and greater Saudi military activism in the region in which the Gulf states themselves could one day find themselves on the receiving end. And for all Riyadh’s money and weight in the region, its efforts to forge a huge coalition on the basis of a spurious “Iranian threat” is not likely to endure. But Yemen in the meantime can sadly still get very messy indeed.
This article was first published by Graham E. Fuller and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright Graham E. Fuller.