How Yemen’s Crisis “awakened" Saudi Arabia
When the Arab Coalition led by Saudi Arabia launched their military campaign in Yemen against Houthi rebels and forces loyal to former president Saleh, combatant parties including president Hadi hardly expected such a quick and forceful response. This marked a break from the conservative Saudi Arabia known for its defensive play in international politics. Within hours, the coalition had full control of Yemen’s airspace preventing Saleh and Houthis from using Yemen’s air capabilities, destroying their arsenals and restricting their fighting capability in general.
It's likely that the Saudi kingdom had prepared for this war long before the formal plea of President Hadi for Arab intervention after Houthi forces were advancing to Aden- the temporary capital that Hadi had taken after he fled his house arrest in Sanaa. Today after almost 1 year since the first coalition first airstrike, Saleh and Houthi forces are still fighting but this time not for control but for stronger negotiating position in a forthcoming political deal.
The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen was an early indicator of a more assertive Saudi foreign policy under the newly crowned King Selman. In Yemen, the Saudi leadership was buying loyalties of local actors to keep things under check. Generous cash returns was given to both the regime and the tribal leaders. The leverage that Saudi Arabia enjoyed in Yemen enabled it to broker the power transfer deal in 2011 known as the “GCC Initiative”. However the big shock came to kingdom when pro-Iran Houthi seized the capital Sanaa in coordination with their once-firece enemy Saleh. Houthis known for their anti-Saudi sentiments carried out military maneuvers near Saudi borders in their stronghold city Sadaa.
The Houthis were also quick to sign deals with Iran including running over 20 flights per week. That was the point when the kingdom felt that Yemen’s internal crisis have consequences on their national security and the more they wait the faster the Houthis consolidate their power and the harder it would be to reverse their seizure of power.
Although the extent to what the campaign has been successful in Yemen is debatable, there’s little doubt that it was full of lessons. First, international institutions are not necessarily reliable in ensuring peace. Although the security council had blacklisted Saleh and Houthi leaders for their destabilizing actions in the country, this did not stop them from overthrowing Hadi regime. Hadi enjoyed a tremendous international support as the interim president in 2012. However nobody could save his office except the Saudi-led Decisive Storm operation.
For the Saudi Kingdom, Yemen is not a place where they can just pack their suitcases and leave if civil war erupts. It shares a long border with Yemen that extends longer than 2000 km and the border treaties are not final yet. Also sustained political chaos in Yemen could bring security threats such as increased activity of smuggling, uncontrollable workforce migration and terrorism. But the most immediate concern for the Saudi kingdom is that Houthi rebels are not only a local player with anti-Saudi sentiments. They’re directly linked to Iran and Hezbullah. Moreover the Saudi leadership felt disappointed with the West rapprochement with Iran with the last deal without settling the core issues that led to the sanctions in the first place. Saudi Arabia fears that economically stronger Iran will be more able to finance their proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and other places.
Moreover, the realist notion of self-help international system is a lesson that Saudis had to learn the hard way. The Saudi-led initiative of Islamic counter-terrorism alliance is a step in this direction. The Saudis are now more aware that their own security can only be ensured with their own hands. While the US-Saudi relations is less likely to strain due to recent developments, the Saudis will look for alternative alliances to bolster their position and relative power. Also, the Saudis will deal more assertively with other regional issues from now on. Closing their embassy in Tehran, threatening to send ground troops in Syria and cutting military aid to Lebanon are all messages that Saudi Arabia will not spare any effort in this endeavor.
It’s hard to guarantee that the Saudi decisiveness will be maintained as Saudi politics is still largely depended on personality of its leaders. However with Saudi Arabia playing a more active role in the region, it may be able to dictate the conditions for peace as the region’s new hegemon.