Friday, April 3, 2015

Saudi in Yemen; It’s personal now

Finally, the U.S. got what it wished for: Arab countries are dealing with their own problems. This week Saudi Arabia is leading an Arab centric international coalition to battle the Houthis in Yemen. But the U.S. should be careful what it wishes for. Now that Arab states have successfully formed a front to fend off a shared threat, there is no stopping them and enemies abound in the neighborhood. This is a recipe for disaster in a region that is already teetering on the brink of spontaneous combustion.   

By leading this unexpected military action, Saudi Arabia is signaling a new regional posture. Instability in Yemen is not new, begging the questions, why a military option and why now? In public, Saudi has always spoken softly, leaving the tough job of wielding the stick to the American military, allowing Riyadh to adhere, for the most part, to its announced noninterventionist orientation. 
Riyadh’s military action in Yemen coincides with a number of dynamics which share one common denominator, the Iranian threat. As a prolific terror sponsoring state, no longer does Tehran limit its overt operations to the Fertile Crescent and Gulf regions. Rather, it has been expanding the politically grounded Sunni-Shiite fault line, somewhat successfully creating a belt around Saudi Arabia, all the while agitating the grievances of Gulf’s Shiite population. The sphere of Ayatollahs’ influence is choking a weary Sunni Gulf, particularly in Saudi where an estimated 20 percent Shiite population is concentrated in the oil rich eastern province. Iran’s presence across the Kingdom is almost ubiquitous; on the opposite shore of the Persian Gulf to the east, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the north, and now Yemen to its south. Yet, the urgency by which Saudi Arabia’s new King, Salman, acted is not necessarily warranted by events on the ground (the situation to the north being much more dire and pressing in Iraq and Syria). Saudi’s move is less about tactical strategy and more about the personalities in charge.
Saudi prides itself for being a “country of men.” In the true sense of the word, Salman the new King embraces that expectation, making sweeping changes. His dramatic decisions since he assumed the throne in January indicates his previous planning for this moment. Infusing the second generation of royal family members in the composition of his government is evident of this proactive posture. His son, Mohammed bin Salman, the young minister of defense recently installed is perceived to have the King’s ear. This is not to diminish the reputation Salman has earned over the years as a person who thrives on a good challenge. Nevertheless, the symbolic visuals of the young Muhammad sending his even younger brother to the front lines to stand by for possible battles with the Houthis shows how the family sees this conflict as worthy of sacrificing their own blood if need be; a serious message that Iran needs to take to heart. The U.S. also needs to incorporate in its calculations for the Middle East the fact that Saudi’s enmity with Iran is a personal one. 
As the U.S. continues to negotiate with Iran over the nuclear question, this administration fails to understand the existential threat Iran’s neighbors feel. This is not only a Saudi issue, but also an Israeli issue prompting Netanyahu to resort to theatrical measures in his attempts to woo American policy makers. Secretary Kerry’s anticipated deal with Iran over its nuclear program is no more than a “truce” by which Iran is offered more time and a wider margin to wreak havoc in the region. The nuclear deal does not stop Iran from pursuing its hegemonic designs for the region. To think that these designs are sectarian is to fall directly into the trap of rhetoric. This strategy is reviving a historic glory of the great Persian Empire; this time around being presented in a Shiite iteration.
It behooves the U.S. to not be complacent. Favoring such an ill-fated strategy as to pacify the region is indeed a colossal failure in capturing the tectonic movements that are taking place, shifts that have the propensity to engulf the region and perhaps the world. If the U.S. should get its wish for the Arab world taking on its own issues, undoubtedly this would jeopardize the leverage U.S. has enjoyed. Losing the current foothold spells disaster for the Mideast and the U.S. stands to pay a price.
Jawad is an columnist and a conflict analyst and resolution expert. You can follow him @walidaj 

Published first by The Hill