Yemen and a new direction in Saudi foreign policy

Yemen and a new direction in Saudi foreign policy
Comment: Saudi Arabian foreign policy has changed considerably under its new king. It is now more realistic, and likely to restore Riyadh's influence in the region, argues Mohammad Abu Rumman.
5 min read
21 Apr, 2015
The new king has charted a new course in Saudi foreign policy [AFP]

Although the air raids on Yemen have not yet forced the forces of the Ansar Allah movement (known as the Houthis) and their allies to retreat from any of the cities they have occupied, there has still been a significant change in the balance of power in the country.

The Houthis, supported by forces loyal to deposed Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, are now on the defensive.

The air war is, of course, still in its early days and only just entering its second stage. However, everyone is awaiting the sequel, in the form of a ground war, the elements of which have still not clearly taken shape.

What next?

Saudi Arabia's enemies in the region are betting that it would become bogged down in a major war of attrition.

The Saudi Arabian plan for dealing with the consequences of the aerial campaign they are leading against the Houthis and the so-called "deep state" of Ali Abdullah Saleh has not been revealed.

From the outset, Saudi Arabia's enemies in the region were betting that the kingdom would not be able to go the whole way in Yemen, and that it would become bogged down in a major war of attrition.

It does not have an army trained for this kind of foreign war, and there are major doubts its allies would agree to fight such a war on its behalf.

These assumptions were strengthened by the Pakistani parliament's rejection of participation in such a war, by hints of a similar rejection from Turkey and by the heated debate currently taking place in Cairo "against Saudi policies".

Such assumptions have not only been made by Riyadh's adversaries.

They have also, apparently, been made by its Arab allies, who are questioning the feasibility of this war and are concerned it will undermine the current strategy of the conservative Arab camp - Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Jordan.

That strategy was predicated on considering the war on terrorism as its first priority and the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as Isis) as the major threat, lumping moderate Islamic movements in the same category as terrorist groups, and downgrading the threat posed by Iran.

The Arab countries reluctantly agreed to announce they had joined Operation Decisive Storm. The differences between the new Saudi leadership and the other Arab countries began to emerge soon after, as Saudi Arabia insisted on excluding Saleh from any political solution.

Saudi insistence on Saleh's exclusion demonstrated Riyadh's about-face regarding the "counter-revolution" in Yemen.

The difference in perspective between Saudi Arabia and the other Arabs is no longer an academic question. Recent statements by Jordan's King Abdullah are the first "implied disclosure" of such a difference.

Adopting a seemingly conciliatory tone toward Iranian regional influence, he said the solution to the Yemeni situation was political, and emphasised that the priority in Syria was to fight IS, not the Assad regime.

He also said Jordan was the only country remaining in the global war on terrorism in Iraq and Syria.

This was an important statement that allowed no room for doubt regarding the clear difference in perspective between Jordan and the UAE on the one hand and Saudi Arabia on the other. The Egyptian position in particular remains unclear and includes contradictory signals and messages.

However, recent indications give credence to the possibility Abdel Fatah al-Sisi will participate in the expected ground campaign.

The well-known Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi did not ignore the fears of Saudi Arabia's Arab allies over the reversal of the Saudi position. He recently gave credence to such fears, saying that Riyadh had backed down on "the erroneous reading" that led to the Gulf Initiative in Yemen.

That initiative was based on a preference for stability over supporting the younger generation's revolution, which overthrew Ali Abdullah Saleh.

"The correct reading of history is that the legitimacy the kingdom backs and wishes to restore in Yemen is not limited to President Hadi, who is simply a transient symbol of that legitimacy," he added. "The February 2011 revolution is the backbone of that legitimacy."

Previously, Khashoggi tweeted that Saudi Arabia and Qatar shared the same position, and he and the rest of the political and media elite had called for the alliance with Turkey to be strengthened.

Those tendencies would have propelled Saudi policy onto a very different course from the one it has followed since the military coup in Egypt and the subsequent reshaping of the conservative Arab camp's strategy.

The question is: are there problems arising from Saudi Arabia's involvement in the current Yemeni war? The answer is yes.

The question is: are there real problems and fears arising from Saudi Arabia's involvement in the current Yemeni war? The answer is yes.

However, the gains scored by the new Saudi leadership far outweigh its expected losses.

At the internal level, the leadership has gained a great deal of popularity by emphasising its willingness to confront major challenges to Saudi national security. It has also managed to ease the pre-existing domestic tensions surrounding the official clergy and reformists' response to Saudi Arabia's previous foreign policy.

The new Saudi foreign policy

Lebanese historian Ridwan al-Sayyed said he believed the Saudi leadership was experiencing an historic moment. It is regaining strong popular support in the wake of an internal crisis and widespread frustration over the decline of Riyadh's regional role as Iranian influence grows in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

According to Sayyed, Saudi Arabia is redrawing its foreign policy realistically, revising previous strategies that completely paralysed the ability of the Arab region to confront challenges and dangers, and excluded it from the circles of real influence and power in the region.

The dangers and doubts in the Arab region still exist, because the Yemeni war is still in its early stages and the real tests have yet to begin.

However, what Saudi Arabia's Arab friends do not realise is that, for the new Saudi leadership, this battle will shape the kingdom's fate both internally and externally.

Hence, efforts to achieve victory cannot slacken or weaken, and stopping midway is not an option.

Mohammad Abu Rumman is a researcher and author based in Jordan. His books include The Salafists and the Arab Spring and The Islamic Solution in Jordan.

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.