Yemen – Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam? (HAFEZ)

DR HAFEZ – 18th April 2016

Following a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on the 25th of March 2015, a military operation – initially essentially aerial and naval strikes (operation ‘decisive storm’) but rapidly including land elements also (operation ‘restoring hope) – was launched with Saudi Arabia at the helm.

Officially, the strikes were to enable the Yemeni government of al-haadi to regain control over the houthi rebels. In reality, this conflict opposed Saudi Arabia and its allies against Iran, whose support of the Shia rebels had been suspected for a long time but never conclusively proven. This forgotten conflict is potentially explosive: not only is Yemen strategically important (gulf of Aden, Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbour etc) but any other result than a quick victory for the GCC troops could spell out the beginning of serious political rifts developing between the member states. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia risks losing face and a considerable amount of regional influence to Iran. In this quagmire, Europe’s position should be clear: an Iranian or Saudi (over)domination of the region is counterproductive – better to encourage a balance of power in the region and to create commercial, educational, strategic links with all parties.

One year on, the NGOs are howling

It would be an understatement to qualify the GCC’s action in Yemen as heavy handed: according to the UN, civilian casualties numbered over 8000 in January 2016, a high number considering the remoteness of many of the villages, whilst MSF has claimed to have treated over 20 000 wounded as of January 2016, often in very difficult conditions with health centers being on the receiving end of many an airstrike. Jason Cone, director of MSF USA has specifically stated that the Saudi led coalition treat civilian and combatant as one and the same. Surely the civilian death count is stupendously high when compared to the official figures of combatant casualties: according to a recent report by the UN’s OCHA entitled “ state of crisis: explosive weapons in Yemen”, the percentage of civilian casualties is between 93% and 97%, which in turn signifies that only between 3% and 7% of the casualties are actual combatants. Needless to say that the prolonged anarchy reigning in Yemen only heightens the desperate plight of the country as a whole, already among the poorest in the region.

Saudi Arabia faces economic and political problems back home

So Saudi Arabia’s war is not going as planned – on top of this, the current political and economic situation back home is not rosy either. Indeed, whether it be the dip in oil prices, which have contributed to a record loss in profit and increased budget deficit, the social tensions threatening to boil over especially with regards to unemployment and the rights of minorities, or indeed the increased frailty of Saudi Arabia’s standing on the international scene (human rights, wahabism to name but a few) suffice to say that Riyad is currently relatively weak and could do with a morale boost. However, far from providing that desired lift, the current Yemeni war is fast transforming into a nightmare right on the kingdom’s own doorstep. What is more, as every day of continued warfare comes and goes, the expectation and pressure mounts steadily on the Saudi government, both internally and from its GCC allies, some of whom were already skittish with the idea of waging war on Yemen. At the same time however, anything less than a comprehensive victory would be disastrous for Riyad, both in strategic terms but also with regards to their image. In short, Saudi Arabia (and its increasingly unsure GCC allies) has now only one option – to win, fast.

Iran’s strategy in Yemen – the magician’s classic trick of distracting the audience

From a Saudi Arabian’s point of view, what could be more infuriating than to see the regional enemy score kudos points in the area? Indeed, whether it be the recent Geneva negotiations concerning Iran’s nuclear program, Iran’s perceived role fighting Daesh, or indeed the mouth-watering potential market that has western entrepreneurs salivating at the mere thought, Iran is currently in a upward phase strategically. Moreover, Iran’s perceived meddling in Yemeni affairs can only be beneficial, if its primary goal is to madden the Saudi adversary. Yet perhaps what is more impressive is the way Iran goes about doing this: though some experienced observers have warned of Iran’s interfering on the Arab peninsula (and certainly there have been several tense episodes involving ‘merchant’ ships) so far, the main focus of the world’s media has been on Iraq and Syria. In that scenario, Iran, though it has bloodied its hands with Syrian civilian blood by aiding the Assad regime in the brutal repression of its people since 2011-2012, still benefits from a remarkably positive image as the world focuses on Daesh. This in turn leaves Iran with freedom to conduct more devious policies on the Gulf peninsula to further weaken the Saudi foe.

Europe – where is your strategic thinking?

From a European viewpoint, the Yemeni war is potentially catastrophic – not only is the whole of the Red sea (and thus the economic umbilical cord to Asia) under threat, but the anarchy could very well spill over and infect frail (Oman) or failed states (Somalia). On a strategic level, the idea of having a power struggle between two major oil producers could be beneficial to Europe, if both turn to it for guidance and advice. Likewise however, it could be very dangerous. Finally, though the old adage of “divide and conquer” is most definitely out of place in this context, the prospect of Iran acting with impunity and growing more and more confident in the region, matched by a weakening Saudi Arabia should not be considered as optimal. Indeed, far better to boost Saudi Arabia’s confidence (and dependence) by voicing our support in the name of regional stability, whilst at the same time calming Iran’s immediate aspirations of cockiness. Were such a fine balance and delicate equilibrium found by Europe’s diplomat, then Europe itself would most probably position itself as a key arbitrator between these two regional heavyweights.

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