Saudi War in Yemen Amid Malaise and Confusion

by Emile Nakhleh

Much has been written about the reasons behind the Saudi military strikes against Yemen, and many pro-Saudi writers have touted the so-called Arab and Muslim coalition against the Houthis of Yemen. No clarity, much confusion, and a touch of mystery have surrounded the launching of the so-called Operation Decisive Storm. Unfortunately, media reports indicate that the United States—for equally vague and incomprehensible reasons—has supported the strikes by providing the Saudis with intelligence and targeting information.

Not much in-depth analysis, however, has been offered about the recent history and context surrounding the newly found Saudi military bravado and the Sunni muscular show of force against beleaguered Yemen. Unless this context is addressed rationally and strategically, Yemen will descend into utter chaos, destruction, and potential dismemberment. The region as a whole could be dragged into more disastrous wars. Like Iraq, Syria, and Libya, Yemen is on the verge of becoming a failed state. The widening Saudi military operations will likely push Yemen over the edge.

The Saudi-lead coalition represents repressive Arab autocracies, not Arab citizens or publics. The “Arab Spring” calls four years ago for justice, dignity, freedom, and reform have been all but forgotten. The Sunni autocratic regimes that number most of the Saudi coalition partners joined the fight under the dubious threat of Shia and Iran, using the banner of sectarianism. The real objective, of course, is to deepen their grip on power, preserve autocratic tribal and family rule, and quell all public aspirations for democracy. This is one of the principal reasons behind the Egyptian president’s support of the Saudi military adventurism in Yemen.

“Operation Decisive Storm” will not restore stability or order to Yemen. Nor will this “coalition of the willing autocrats” heal the fissures in the Sunni Arab world, kill off the Shia, or defeat Iran. The sense of religious-nationalist grandeur that Saudi Arabia and some of its Sunni Gulf partners are basking in as they deploy their American-supplied sophisticated aircraft is fleeting. Bombing sorties, no matter how destructive, will not erase the malaise sweeping across the Arab world or the bewilderment the new military alignments—regional and international—are generating.

Regardless of the outcome of the battle against the Houthis, Saudi Arabia will not likely emerge as a force for stability in the region. Its vision of a regime-focused, Saudi-led Sunni order that denigrates Shia citizens in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and elsewhere and dismisses the legitimate role of Iran as a regional partner is a recipe for continued conflict and instability. Destroying Yemen will not enhance the security of the Saudi ruling family or the Saudi people.

Saudi Arabia claims that the threat from Iran and its Houthi proxies instigated the air campaign against Yemen. This threat, in fact, is manufactured. The real threat has come primarily from al-Qaeda and its affiliate al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) on the kingdom’s southern border and from the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in Iraq and Syria. Both groups espouse a radical Sunni ideology with deep religious roots in Saudi Arabia. The Alawite Assad regime and the Zaydi Fiver Houthi rebellion are at best Shia lite and are significantly different from the Twelver Shia sect of Iran.

A Brief History

When Saudi Arabia fought against the Egyptian military intervention in Yemen in the 1960s, it sided with the royalists who, like today’s Houthis, were Zaydi Fivers. The Saudis at the time railed against Arab nationalism but made no mention of the Shia threat. The Saudi-American-engineered agreement in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, which included the return of former dictator Saleh and the ascendancy of Hadi to the presidency, did not reduce the Shia threat. The secessionist movement in the south and the Houthi rebellion in the north were viewed as serious challenges to Yemen’s domestic territorial integrity. Again, it wasn’t the Shia or the Iranians that undermined the rule of law or contributed to the central government’s inability to extend its legitimacy and authority beyond the capital Sanaa. The government’s own ineptitude, ineffectiveness, and corruption led to its loss of legitimacy.

That failed agreement is the fundamental cause of the conflict in Yemen today. Washington and Riyadh allowed former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh to return to the country as part of the deal, with most of his regime remaining intact. Since then he has conspired in conjunction with the Houthis and other groups, including the Sunni Islah party, to undermine Hadi’s rule. For years Saudi Arabia claimed that Iran was helping the Houthis in their rebellion, but the US government, according to media reports, found no credible evidence to substantiate the Saudi claim. Furthermore, the Saudis were aware of Saleh’s machinations but did nothing to thwart him.

The conflict in Yemen has never been about the Houthis or about Sunni-Shia sectarianism. For years, America has waged a relentless overt and clandestine counterterrorism military campaign in Yemen against al-Qaeda and its affiliate AQAP. The Houthi rebellion in the north was correctly viewed as an internal matter manipulated by Saleh and other centers of power in the country. Nor was that rebellion viewed as a Shia movement against the larger Arab Sunni world.

The Way Forward

The Saudi operation will end with more destruction inflicted on Yemen without alleviating either the internal factors that are making Yemen an ungoverned state or the perceived Iranian threat. On the contrary, the air attacks and a possible ground incursion would exacerbate regional conflict and proxy wars in the name of religion. Nor will Saudi Arabia emerge as the pre-eminent regional power.

Once the dust settles, the United States and Saudi Arabia should have a serious discussion about how to create a relatively stable region. States must not allow their competitiveness to devolve into military confrontations. Whether “condominium or equilibrium,” as Jim Lobe has written, regional states should strive toward accommodating each other’s interests peacefully.

Despite the rising power of the Saudi king’s young son as minister of defense, the Saudi leadership will realize at the conclusion of the Yemen operation that diplomacy in the long run would be more productive in containing Iran’s perceived regional ambitions than destroying one of its presumed proxies. Perhaps Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and Interior Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef should have another conversation with the king’s young son, Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman about how to live with Iran as the Gulf’s other regional power.

A Saudi-Iranian partnership, post-Yemen and post-nuclear agreement, could be the engine for a grand strategy and new policy architecture for the region. If there is any silver lining in the Saudi military operation in Yemen, it is that Saudi foreign policy has transited from a traditional approach into bold activism. It would be sad, however, if the Saudi leadership fails to channel its newfound activism in the direction of prosperity and dignity for all the peoples of the Arab world.

Photo: Yemeni soldiers from First Armored Division

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. Thanks for the knowledge, truth and judgment from Emile Nakhleh, except I suspect that the Saudi “bold activism” is simply & happily taking orders from Uncle. Meanwhile the Saudi bombs are creating more anti-Saud feeling in Yemen, which is what they get for facilitating the infantile US foreign policy of bomb first, and then profit from the instability.

  2. Basically all air forces especially the USAF like to fly and bomb. It keeps their proficiency up, it uses up bombs (which have a shelf life), and nobody in the planes (usually) gets hurt if the bombing is done on third world countries, which is always the case. Countries with substantial air defenses don’t get bombed, as Syria has demonstrated. And in this case the Saudis are using US planes so the USAF learns something from that. It’s a no-lose situation, from their viewpoint, plus the pilots can brag that they were “in combat” and will get more ribbons.

  3. Good post Mr Nakhleh & golly Don, nothing like being blunt, as I’m want to say. Of course, what else is going on in the clusterf**k of all Clusterf**ks? Better call Saul? Oh wait, isn’t he Israeli? How did we evwer get to this point!

  4. Good post Mr. Emile Nakhleh. There are a few strategic points that should also be considered which are more than likely in the minds of Saudis, Egyptians, Europeans and finally Americans!
    1. Saudis don’t want to have a constant source of troubles by Houthis on their southern borders
    2. The Houthis will drive out Al Qaida, the friendly crowd to the Saudis, into the Africa consolidating the terorist group there.
    3. Persian are currently in control of Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. The Straits of Hormuz is the life line of the oil companies in the west. And it can be closed for sometimes should a war breaks out in the Persian Gulf. That is no no for every country in the region and the oil companies.
    4. The other water choke point is Bab El Mandab by Yemen. Should this water way gets closed out by the Houthis then the Suez Canal becomes useless for the duration and it can devistate Egypt’s economy.
    5. Bab El Mandab is the backup water way for the oil companies and other commercial traffics should the Straits of Hormuz gets closed out.
    1. Should the Houthis take over Yemen they may cooperate with the Iranians for their own protection from the Saudis. Also for keeping out Al Qaida which is a common interest of both the Houthis and Iranians
    2. The Shiites would be in control of both water way choke points, Straits of Hormuz and Bab el Mandab. That would be considered very threatening to the world Economy.
    3. Houthis take over will disengage Saudis from the Persian Gulf Council shifting their focus to their own souther region and in Arabian Sea
    4. Saudis will have to have military presence in the Arabian and Red Seas

    The best thing that is happening right now is that the Saudis are becoming more preoccupied with Yemen lessening their support to their beloved proxy groups like Al Qaida and ISIS. Also they will become a less of a factor in Syrian equation! The curtains are pulled and the show has begun!!

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