Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world, bereft of resources, fractured by tribal divisions and religious sectarianism, and plagued by civil war.
Many Saudis maintain that the mullah-ruled Iran only backs down through the use of force, not through diplomatic reconciliation
By Abdul Rahman Alrashed
Via Arab News
While US President Barack Obama was trying to ease the anger of Gulf leaders at Camp David, Iran was keen on sending a threatening message to Saudi Arabia through the commander of its ground forces. On Thursday (May 15), Obama met the Gulf leaders to assure them that they “do not have to worry about the nuclear deal with Iran.” They replied that he did not take into account the security of their countries.
Tension throughout the region has become a serious problem. It has reached its peak in Syria, Iraq, and more recently in Yemen, where Iran continues to defy United Nations Security Council resolutions, and insists on breaching the naval blockade formed by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition to prevent the armament of the rebels.
Iran has dispatched a ship escorted by its navy, claiming that it was only carrying humanitarian aid. However, it seems to be a new attempt to support the rebels with arms. What made it suspicious is that Iran did not allow the United Nations forces, based in neighboring Djibouti port, to inspect the ship. In addition to that, the destination of the ship is the Yemeni port of Hodeida, which is controlled by Houthi rebels known to be allied to Tehran.
Iran has previously tried to do the same thing. It dispatched a ship two weeks ago — under the same pretext — but after the United States warships rushed to inspect it in the Red Sea, the Iranian ship made a U-turn and returned home. This time, the ship was escorted and protected by a number of Iranian warships. The Iranian military threatened to attack Saudi Arabia if coalition forces inspected/intercepted the ship.
The Iranian bullying embarrassed Obama’s administration, which seems to be desperate for a deal with Tehran on its nuclear program. This despite the fact that the Iranian regime is supposed to need the deal the most but has yet to demonstrate its good intentions and behavior.
It is clear that Iranian threats against Gulf countries are a direct message to the White House, which is trying to reassure the parties that the concept of reconciliation with Iran is different from its actual interpretation, and that the United States does not have to be engaged in the protection of the Gulf in light of the nuclear agreement.
Unfortunately, the history of the mullah-ruled Iran has been full of tension. It only backs down through the use of force, not through diplomatic reconciliation. A year ago, Iran tried to send what it said was a humanitarian aid ship to Gaza, but when Israeli commandos attacked and inspected it, they discovered arms covered by cement bags. Iran did not dare to do anything except verbal condemnation.
Iran seeks to keep the war raging in Yemen by urging its allies to reject reconciliation and supporting them with more arms, as it is doing in Syria. Iran believes that by igniting more wars — after Lebanon, Gaza, Syria, Iraq and Bahrain — it will impose itself as the dominant regional force. For that reason, we are not as positive about the nuclear agreement as Obama envisages us to be, because we are sure that it will only stimulate the evilness of the Iranian regime.
This article first appeared in Arab News, a leading English language daily of Saudi Arabia. Click here to go to the original.
The Saudi version of the war is that Shiite Iran is trying to take over Sunni Yemen using proxies — the Houthis — to threaten the Kingdom’s southern border and assert control over the strategic Bab-el-Mandeb Strait into the Red Sea. The Iranians claim they have no control over the Houthis and no designs on the Strait. They maintain that the war is an internal matter for the Yeminis to resolve.
The Saudis have constructed what at first glance seems a formidable coalition consisting of the Arab League, the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Turkey, and the United States. Except that the “coalition” isn’t as solid as it looks — in fact, it’s more interesting for whom it doesn’t include than whom it does.
Friends Like These
Egypt and Turkey are the powerhouses in the alliance, but there’s more sound and fury than substance in their support.
Since Saudi Arabia supported the Egyptian military’s coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government and is propping up the regime with torrents of cash, Riyadh may eventually squeeze Cairo to put troops into the Yemen war. But the last time Egypt invaded Yemen, in the 1960s, it suffered thousands of casualties. And the country’s already bogged down by an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai.
While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also pledged Ankara’s support for “Saudi Arabia’s intervention” and demanded that “Iran and the terrorist groups” withdraw, Erdogan was careful to say that he “may consider” offering “logistical support based on the evolution of the situation.”
Erdogan wants to punish Iran for its support of the Assad regime in Syria and its military presence in Iraq, where Tehran is aiding the Baghdad government against the Islamic State. He is also looking to tap into Saudi money. The Turkish economy is in trouble — its public debt is the highest it’s been in a decade, and borrowing costs are rising worldwide. With an important election coming in June, Erdogan is hoping the Saudis will step in to help out.
But actually getting involved is another matter. The Turks think the Saudis are in a pickle — Yemen is a dreadfully difficult place to win a war, and an air assault without ground troops has zero chance of success.
When the Iranians reacted sharply to Erdogan’s comments, the president backpedalled. Iran is a major trading partner for the Turks, and, with the possibility that international sanctions against Tehran will soon end, Turkey wants in on the gold rush that is certain to follow. During Erdogan’s recent trip to Tehran, the Turkish president and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif issued a joint statement calling for an end to the war in Yemen, and a “political solution.” It was a far cry from Erdogan’s initial belligerence.
The Arab League supports the war, but only to varying degrees. Iraq opposes the Saudi attacks, and Algeria is keeping its distance by calling for an end to “all foreign intervention.”
Even the normally compliant GCC, representing the oil monarchs of the Gulf, has a defector. Oman abuts Yemen, and its ruler, Sultan Qaboos, is worried the chaos will spread across his borders. And while the United Arab Emirates has flown missions over Yemen, the UAE is also preparing to cash in if sanctions are removed from Tehran. “Iran is on our doorstep, we have to be there,” Marwan Shehadeh, a developer in Dubai told the Financial Times. “It could be a great game changer.”
Pakistan Drifts Away
The most conspicuous absence in the Saudi coalition, however, is Pakistan — a country that’s received billions in aid from Saudi Arabia and whose current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was sheltered by Riyadh from the wrath of Pakistan’s military in 1999.
When the Saudis initially announced their intention to attack Yemen, they included Pakistan in the reported coalition, an act of hubris that backfired badly. Pakistan’s parliament demanded a debate on the issue and then voted unanimously to remain neutral. While Islamabad declared its intention to “defend Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty,” no one thinks the Houthis are about to march on Jeddah.
The Yemen war is deeply unpopular in Pakistan, and the parliament’s actions were widely supported, with one editorial writer calling for rejecting “GCC diktat.” Only the extremist Lashkar-e-Taiba organization, which planned the 2008 Mumbai massacre in India, supported the Saudis.
Pakistan has indeed relied on Saudi largesse and, in turn, provided security for Riyadh. But the relationship is wearing thin.
The Saudis, with their support for the rigid Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, are also blamed for growing Sunni-Shiite tensions in Pakistan.
Second, Islamabad is deepening its relationship with China. In mid-April, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to invest $46 billion to finance Beijing’s new “Silk Road” from western China to the Persian Gulf. Part of this will include a huge expansion of the port at Gwadar in Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan province, a port that Bruce Riedel says will “rival Dubai or Doha as a regional economic hub.”
Riedel is a South Asia security expert, a senior fellow at the centrist Brookings Institution, and a professor at Johns Hopkins. Dubai is in the United Arab Emirates and Doha in Qatar. Both are members of the GCC.
China is concerned about security in Baluchistan, with its long-running insurgency against Pakistan’s central government, as well as the ongoing resistance by the Turkic-speaking, largely Muslim Uighur people in western China’s Xinjiang Province. Uighurs, who number a little over 10 million, are being marginalized by an influx of Han Chinese, China’s dominant ethnic group.
Wealthy Saudis have helped finance some of these groups, and neither Beijing or Islamabad is happy about it. Pakistan has pledged to create a 10,000-man “Special Security Division” to protect China’s investments. According to Riedel, the Chinese told the Pakistanis that Beijing would “stand by Pakistan if its ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates unravel.”
The U.S. and Israel
The U.S. has played an important, if somewhat uncomfortable, role in the Yemen War.
It’s feeding Saudi Arabia intelligence and targeting information and re-fueling Saudi warplanes in mid-air. It also intercepted an Iranian flotilla headed for Yemen that Washington claimed was carrying arms for the Houthis. Iran denies it, and there’s little hard evidence that Tehran is providing arms to the insurgents.
But while Washington supports the Saudis, it has also urged Riyadh to dial back the air attacks and look for a political solution. The U.S. is worried that the war-induced anarchy is allowing Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to flourish. The embattled Houthis were the terrorist group’s principal opponents.
However, the Obama administration is unlikely to alienate the Saudis, who are already angry with Washington for negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran. Besides aiding the Saudi attacks, the U.S. has opened the arms spigot to Riyadh.
Meanwhile, the Iran nuclear agreement has led to what has to be one of the oddest alliances in the region: Israel and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is on the same wavelength as the Netanyahu government when it comes to Iran, and the two are cooperating in trying to torpedo the agreement. According to investigative journalist Robert Parry, the alliance between Tel Aviv and Riyadh was sealed by a secret $16 billion gift from Riyadh to an Israeli “development” account in Europe, some of which has been used to build illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories.
The Saudis and the Israelis are on the same side in the Syrian civil war as well. And for all Riyadh’s talk about supporting the Palestinians, the only members of the GCC that have given money to help rebuild Gaza after last summer’s Israeli attack are Qatar and Kuwait.
Kingdom of Fear
How this all falls out in the end is hard to predict, except that it is clear that, for all their financial firepower, the Saudis can’t get the major regional players — Israel excepted — on board. And an alliance with Israel — a country that’s more isolated today because of its occupation policies than at any other time in its history — is not likely to be very stable.
Long-time Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk says the Saudis live in “fear” of the Iranians, the Shia, the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, U.S. betrayal, Israeli plots, even “themselves, for where else will the revolution start in Sunni Muslim Saudi [Arabia] but among its own royal family?”
That “fear” is driving the war in Yemen. It argues for why the U.S. should stop feeding the flames and instead join with the European Union and demand an immediate ceasefire, humanitarian aid, and a political solution among the Yemenis themselves.
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