Abdel Bari Atwan says Saudi Arabia has embarked on a dangerous adventure in Yemen and should have left this hornets’ nest undisturbed.
The new King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz, sent 100 fighter planes to bomb Houthi targets inside Yemen on Wednesday night.
The Saudi action is supported by a coalition of ten other countries including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states.
Saudi Arabia is usually slow to act, favouring deliberation and restraint, but when its own interests are so directly threatened it strikes at once.
But the Saudi action is fraught with risks and the results are by no means guaranteed.
The Saudis say they are ready to mobilize an army of 150,000 soldiers, and there can be no doubt that they are militarily superior to the Houthi brigades and have a sophisticated arsenal that includes the latest US-made fighter planes and bombers whereas its opponents have only the most primitive weaponry.
Indeed, the Saudis have spent the past three years accumulating planes and tanks from America and Europe at a cost of more than 150 billion dollars – equivalent to Yemen’s budget for the next forty years, or possibly more.
Military superiority is not a guarantee of victory in modern warfare, and air strikes can have limited impact – as we have seen in the airborne attempts to smash the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq.
The Syrian regime, supported by a strong, well equipped army, still remains unable to prevail over the opposition, or the Islamic State, and has lost control of many towns and cities.
Yemen is a rugged country – and not only in terms of its landscape. Its people are hot-headed and proud and Sanaa is the only Arab capital that has not been occupied by a foreign power, having faced off the Ottomans, the Portuguese and the British.
The Saudis and Yemenis have been at war before, in 1934 when the Saudi Kingdom was still young. The two Kings were at odds over ownership of Najran, Jizan and Asir on the southern border of Saudi Arabia regional South and North Yemen at the beginning of each of the Saudi state.
The Saudis, who had better weapons, seized control of the areas listed above but relinquished Hodeida and the Yemeni coast; they were unable to make an attempt on Sanaa as they intended because their armoured cars and tanks were unable to cross the mountains.
Yemenis are diehard fighters, whether Houthis or their enemies, the Sunni tribes. Saudi Arabia has hastily formed a coalition of Arab and Muslim countries, including Egypt, Sudan, Jordan and Pakistan. The Houthis meanwhile have very dangerous friends themselves, in the regimes of Iran, Iraq, Syria and the BRICS countries.
Inside Yemen, the alliance between the Houthis and deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh is highly flammable. Saleh is Yemen’s longest-ruling leader, he is a shrewd manipulator and still enjoys a lot of support from the Yemeni Army.
The Saudi Alliance is backing a weak President lacking experience or charisma – Saleh’s former friend and right hand man, Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi. There is an undeniable element of Shakesperian revenge in this crisis.
The Saudis say that their air (and probably soon to be ground) intervention is to support the “legitimate” President Hadi but the whole concept of legitimate rule in today’s Middle East has gone haywire. Saudi Arabia has a de facto, unelected system of governance of the type imposed by Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak and Colonal Muammar Ghadaffi, for example.
The electoral process the US insists it favours brought President Morsi to power in Egypt, but the Saudis and the US enthusiastically embraced the military coup which unseated him and ushered in today’s President Sisi, a preferable regional actor.
Iran v Saudi
We do not wish to enter the maze of what constitutes legitimate rule or the volatility of standards in this respect, what interests us is the future of Yemen and, indeed, of Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries in the aftermath of the current crisis.
We must recognize and understand that Saudi Arabia has not only declared war on the Houthis – it has set up a direct challenge to its regional nemesis, Iran.
The Saudis have been increasingly provoked by America’s rapprochement with Iran over its nuclear aspirations and by the resilience of the Syrian regime which is shored up by Iranian-backed militias, weapons and other forms of support.
Iran is in direct or indirect control of four key Arab States – Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon- as well as part of Palestine (Hamas and Islamic Jihad). Will Saudi Arabia’s bold new step bring it prestige and reduce Iranian influence in the region?
Mr. Aladdin Boroujerdi, head of Iran’s National Security Committee, said that the Saudi strike would ricochet and hit them back because “the war is not confined to one place only.” He warned that the sectarian aspect of the crisis would revolutionize Shiite minorities in eastern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Gulf countries.
We must also remember that Nato’s airborne intervention in Libya may have helped topple Gadaffi but resulted in unprecedented chaos: Libya is now in bloody chaos with rival militias fighting for power, two governments, and Islamic extremist groups such as al-Ansar, al-Qaeda and now, the Islamic State (IS), seeking to exploit the security vacuum to seize territory.
The same is true in Iraq and Syria – why would Yemen be any exception? IS already has a branch in Yemen which bombed Shia mosques last week killing 147 people.
Last night’s air raids are reminiscent of America’s Desert Storm, led by General Schwarzkopf against Iraqi after it invaded Kuwait. That Storm signalled the beginning of a regional engagement by the US and its allies which has lasted 25 years and which has brought no victory and no resolution but only deepening chaos, insecurity and opportunities for increasingly extremist jihadist entities.
Saudi Arabia has embarked on a dangerous adventure, in one of the most volatile environments in an immensely volatile region. It would have been best to leave this particular hornets’ nest undisturbed.