The Saudi response in Yemen: An 'expected surprise'

The Saudi response in Yemen: An 'expected surprise'
Comment: Increased Saudi resolve to confront Iran around the region lies behind the kingdom’s recent move against the Houthis in Yemen.
6 min read
30 Mar, 2015
Saudi has spent billions on weapons to protect itself from Iran [Getty]

Although the attack itself was surprising, the Saudi response to the Iranian violation in Yemen is very similar to how other countries behave in the time of the crisis: They resort to power when they are unable to protect their interests in less costly ways.

When a conflict starts posing a direct threat to the interests of any party, wars by proxy are no longer efficient and a direct military intervention becomes a must. This is what Iran did in Iraq after the Islamic State group took control of most of Iraq's northeast, and this is what Tehran has been

     The US is preoccupied with the nuclear negotiations with Iran.

doing in Syria for three years.

Surprisingly, it took the Gulf countries, whose very existence is also at risk - not just their interests - a long time to do the same thing.

Indeed, had the Gulf countries successfully run a war by proxy with Iran which swallowed up their external security belt one country after another, they would not have embarked on the recent attack to defend themselves in the face of Iran's invasion.

This is why the Saudi intervention in Yemen came as a surprise to many, especially Iran and its allies in Yemen.

Iran and its allies have always been under the impression that the Gulf countries, namely Saudi Arabia, are too weak to engage in a direct military confrontation in a country like Yemen. This impression was strengthened by the stereotypes about the Gulf states as relying on western or Arab support to face Iran.

Speaking of the West, the US is preoccupied with the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and the question of a confrontation with Iran or its allies is out of the question.

The Arab cover for the Gulf states has become very fragile after the collapse of Iraq and Syria and with Egypt's regional role fading away. In 2011, Peninsula Shield forces entered Bahrain to rescue the regime from a possible Iran-backed uprising, but this scenario cannot be implemented in Yemen, because Bahrain is the size of a small city in Saudi Arabia.

So how did Saudi Arabia become so determined to launch the Decisive Storm operation?

The death of King Abdullah was a turning point in Saudi politics. King Salman seems more dynamic and willing to confront the Iranian expansion tightening its grip on the kingdom from the north in Iraq and Syria and from the south in Yemen.

Once he finished arranging the situation within the Saudi royal family, the new king devoted his time to reorganising his country's foreign relations and reassessing the threats and risks it is facing. Riyadh has thus become less hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran tops the list of threats posed to the kingdom and the Gulf countries.

In less than one month, Salman restored allies that the kingdom had once lost for little reason. He received the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif. He sent an invitation to Sudanese president Omar Bashir one day before the announcement of operation against the Houthis.

Saudi Arabia has long refused to receive Bashir over his relations with Iran. But his visit to Riyadh resulted in the breaking of Sudan's ties with former Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the closure of Iranian missions and groups in Sudan.

In addition, Bashir joined the coalition of regional allies to support the legitimate government of Yemen and back the Saudi-led airstrikes.

After arranging his country's foreign relations, Salman called on 21 March for a pivotal meeting at his residence in al-Awja, the historical capital of the Saudi royal family. Attended by senior officials from all Gulf countries except for Oman, the meeting shaped an action plan giving priority to political and diplomatic action to resolve the Yemen crisis by re-launching dialogue. The attendees suggested holding the dialogue in Doha instead of Riyadh which the Houthis and former President Saleh rejected.

The meeting also discussed Plan B, which was to interfere directly. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal warned that the GCC countries would do whatever it takes to stop the aggression on Yemen if the political solution fails. Immediately, Saudi Arabia started mobilising its forces on its southern border with Yemen, before King Salman launched the Decisive Storm operation the next day.

The Saudi military action was coupled with remarkable diplomatic move. Saudi ambassador to the United States announced the launch of the intervention from Washington, in alliance with nine other countries. Saudi Arabia wanted to signal that its move was coordinated with Barack Obama's administration.

The US and Saudi Arabia

But in fact, the White House was apparently compelled to accept the Saudi move and cover for Riyadh's war on the Houthis, just as Riyadh had provided cover for the US-led international coalition's airstrikes against IS in Syria and Iraq. The confused US position appeared clear from its initial announcement that it was informed of the operation and that it would provide logistic and intelligence support without interfering in the military course of action. The White House has gone so far as affirming that its primary concern in Yemen is al-Qaeda, not anything else.

The White House has gone as far as affirming that its primary concern in Yemen is launching a war on Al-Qaeda, not anything else.

The US wants to play both sides. On the one hand, it does not want to anger the Iranians and negatively affect the nuclear negotiations which have reached a critical stage. On the other hand, it did not want to anger Saudi Arabia and its other allies in the war on IS and make them feel betrayed, in light of growing Gulf and Saudi concerns over US commitment to the security of its allies.

Obviously, the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, are no longer able to overlook the continued Iranian violations threatening their very existence. But at the same time, their moves should be examined and calculated as for the first time ever, they are engaging in a direct confrontation with the enemy. The Gulf countries should not allow Iran and its allies in Yemen to lure them into a war of attrition. One can recall in this regard the experiences of the United States and Russia in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Saudis, who know Yemen well, should cling to the slogan of supporting legitimacy and patch up their alliances, which were severed in the post-revolution period. They should manipulate these alliances and turn them into a combating force to face off the Iranian-Houthi scheme. Their role should be confined to military support by providing this power with an aerial over and remain ready to face any wide-scale Iranian intervention by controlling Yemen's airspace and maritime border until the Houthis lose hope of foreign support and yield to calls for settlement and a political solution based on the Gulf initiative.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.