Foreign intervention in Yemen’s chaos has dramatically raised the stakes in the Arabian Peninsula, threatening to expand what is already a civil war into a conflict pitting Iran against Saudi Arabia and an Arab coalition. The Saudis launched Operation “Decisive Storm” last Wednesday with dozens of airstrikes in an effort to blunt the advance of Houthi militia and allied army units on the port of Aden — and to protect the last bastion of Yemen’s internationally-recognized President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi… Many analysts were surprised at the speed and scale of the Saudi air campaign, which the Kingdom said would continue until the Houthis — a Shia minority that has swept across the country in the last six months — retreated and laid down their arms. (“Yemen in freefall: How chaos could spiral into all-out regional war,” CNN, March 30, 2015. )
A few days ago, the potentates who rule the lives of the people of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and Pakistan entered into a pact to eliminate by force the Houthi regime which has been governing most of Yemen – at least, to the extent that anybody has ever governed this lawless corner of Arabia – since the end of last year. The Saudi-led coalition has a so-far-silent partner in the United States, which is assisting with intelligence and logistics.
Recent Political History of Yemen
Performance on behalf of citizens has never mattered much in politics of the Arabian Peninsula. According to the impartial judgment of Transparency International in 2009, the Republic of Yemen under Ali Abdullah Saleh, its dictator/President since 1990, ranked 164 out of 182 countries surveyed for degree of honesty in government. What did matter was that this out-and-out kleptocracy served the interests of the neighboring Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which kept Yemen afloat through great gifts of money made directly to the chiefs of the major tribes—together with other great gifts of money that kept the religious and educational institutions equipped to inculcate the Wahhabi vision of Islamic society and government.
Saleh was forced out of his palace in March, 2011, the early days of the Arab Spring. The uprising was initially about unemployment, economic conditions, and corruption, as well as against the government’s proposals to modify the constitution so that Saleh’s son could inherit the Presidency. What has gone on since then is so chaotic that it cannot be made to fit anybody’s definition of a civil war. On 23 November 2011, Saleh flew to Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia, to sign on to a plan under which his office would be transferred to his deputy, Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Predictably, the dictator soon returned to Yemen and has spent his best energies ever since trying to claw back his former powers.
Late last year (2014) military units following the leadership of Abdul Malik al-Houthi, leader of the most disciplined of the tribal gangs that rule most people’s lives in Yemen, decided that the time had come to punish all the politicians for their persecution of the Shia minority – to which they belong. Houthi forces suddenly took control of the capital, even shelling the President Hadi’s private residence and placing him under house arrest, until the whole government resigned in January 2015; thereupon, the Houthis dissolved parliament and devolved all power upon a Revolutionary Committee. At this point, ex-President Saleh attached his campaign for restoration to the Presidency to the Houthi side. The latest bulletin regarding Saleh is that he was flown out of Yemen’s capital Sanaa on board a Russian aircraft sent there for the purpose of evacuating diplomats.
The Shiite Houthis look for spiritual, economic, military and political guidance to Iran, a majority Shiite nation. Through its support of the Houthis, Iran seeks to start up inside Yemen a civil war that will spill over into Saudi Arabia and become another theatre in the war between Shia and Sunni alongside the war in Iraq, Syria and Bahrain. (See, “Iranian ship unloads 185 tons of weapons for Houthis at Saleef Port, “ wnbglish.alarabiya.net, March 23.) Iran has begun calling upon the Houthis to strike against government facilities, oil tankers, industries inside Saudi Arabia and against Saudi vessels and facilities in the Strait of Hormuz — and also to attack other Sunni regimes and assets in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain.
The Larger Picture
As usual, Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum (www.danielpipes.org) is ahead of the pack in discerning the broad, long-term significance of what is happening here. Pipes writes:
Through Israel’s early decades, Arabs dreamt of uniting militarily against it but the realities of infighting and rivalries smashed every such hope. Even on the three occasions (1948-49, 1967, 1973) when they did join forces, they did so at cross purposes and ineffectively. How striking, then that finally they should coalesce not against Israel but against Iran. This implicitly points to their understanding that the Islamic Republic of Iran poses a real threat, whereas anti-Zionism amounts to mere indulgence [my emphasis.] It also points to panic and the need to take action resulting from a stark American retreat. (Daniel Pipes,” Why Yemen Matters,” Washington Times, March 28, 2015.)
This political turn-around reflects the re-examination by all the parties of all of their priorities. Of perhaps great consequence to all of us –it exposes a willingness by these Muslim powers to review in their hearts and minds the relative threat to their lives and their values of the continued existence of the Jewish state.
Needless to say, no hint of such thinking appears in the public utterances of these worthy leaders. The official line for now and undoubtedly to the end of time is that the existence of the Zionist Entity is the cause of all unhappiness in the Arab world. But until this moment, it had equally been a cardinal point of Arab politics that war to the death against the Jewish state is the cause that Allah gave to the Arab nation as its one sure unifying principle. Without saying so out loud – the Sunni kingdoms have moved that cornerstone to the side.
Arabia Hates “Persia” – and Vice-versa
Each of the potentates heading up the two camps in this war – the King of Saudi Arabia and the Ayatollah of the Islamic Republic of Iran – regards the other as having no claim to the name of Muslim. On the website of MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute, memri@m,emri.com), we can hear Senior Iranian Ayatollahs denouncing the Saudi regime before their fanatical audiences as “a takfiri [that is, heretic, gang] … acting against Islam and the Muslims, in cooperation with the U.S., Israel and Zion.” Long before the crisis caused by the Houthi uprising and the Saudi King’s response to it, the official voice of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, Iran’s military elite, was crying out publicly for “a decisive and crushing response [towards King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia].. [and] operations … that should start on the street leading to King Abdullah’s palace in Riyadh… If Saudi Arabia continues to equip and arm the terrorists of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) and several other groups like Ansar Al-Sunna, every operation that the Shi-ites will carry out against Saudi facilities and centers will be legitimate.”
It is important to grasp that vitriolic hatred if this quality is not a monopoly of the Muslim princes. It draws upon, and in turn feeds, a deep toxic contempt that all Shias everywhere have for all Sunnis everywhere. [I have developed this theme at greater length in two essays published on this site www.thebayviewreview.com): “Civil War Has Begun in the Heartland of Islam: The Shia /Sunni Feud,” April 11, 2014; and “A Toxic Family Quarrel,” May 24, 2014.] A recent BBC News Documentary, “Freedom to Broadcast Hate,” gives us access to this increasingly mad world of Shia versus Sunni. From mosques and before great outdoor crowds we hear, via satellite television and internet websites, Sunni preachers declaiming coldly against Shias: “Their heads should be smashed as the head of a snake… Shia is a cancer attacking the Muslim religion.” From the Shia preachers we hear: “We do not believe a Sunni will be considered a Muslim in the afterlife…. Shia Islam is the only Islam.” Sunni clerics weep as they call upon Allah to “punish the Shia… [to] freeze the blood in their veins … They have insulted the wives of the Prophet…. Shi’ism is not true Islam. It is worse than cancer.”
We know that we have reached a turning-point in regional history when we find Saudi Arabia’s King and Iran’s Ayatollah each declaring that the principal adversary of mankind is not Zionism, not the Jews, not the Great Satan (the USA), presently embodied in that defector from Islam, Barack Obama, but his own diabolical local rival – who calls himself a Muslim but is instead a cunning traitor.
An Opportunity for Re-examination of Priorities by the United States and the Western World
The bottom line is simply this: what is tearing the Middle East apart today is the fact that the Muslim powers hate each other more than they hate us. This is not necessarily a comfort. But it does make clear that we have a range of responses that otherwise would be beyond consideration.
The rallying of the Arab potentates to meet the crisis caused in Yemen by the Houthis, their Iranian sponsors, opens up an unprecedented opportunity for the U.S. and Western nations to do the Arab nations a great favor to them and to us all by getting the “Arab-Israeli conflict” off the active agenda of world politics.
President Obama will not let go of the fantasy that seized Bill Clinton when the Oslo Process stared up twenty years ago – that he could secure the legacy of a Presidency that would otherwise have little to commend it, if he could all by himself secure resolution of the outstanding issues dividing the people of Israel from the People of Palestine — the lying-down-together of the lion and the lamb.
By contrast, the Arab Princes do not see the Israel-Palestine conflict as the key to anything important – and certainly not as the key to world peace. They have more urgent priorities. It is not that Israel has ceased to interest them; rather it is that they have begun to see that in geopolitical matters Israel has much in common with the Arab princes.
According to Michael Yaari, an expert on Saudi foreign policy and a lecturer at the Open University in the U.K.:
The biggest enemy for both countries [Israel and Saudi Arabia] is Iran, and there are also the radical terrorist groups like ISIS [Islamic State] that threaten the regional order in the Middle East. It is this overall framework that has created the conditions for cooperation between Jerusalem and Riyadh. The changes that the Middle East has experienced in recent years have created a set of joint interests between the two countries….Despite this convergence of interests, Israeli-Saudi cooperation will likely remain hush-hush as long as the Zionist-Arab conflict remains unresolved.” (Analysis: Secret Israeli-Saudi ties likely to continue despite Abdullah’s death,” Jerusalem Post, January 25, 2015.)
Well out of view of their own citizens, the governments in Jerusalem and in Riyadh have for several years been cooperating to improve each other’s defenses against the latest incarnations of Islamist terror — including Hezbollah and Iran’s many other terrorist proxies, as well as ISIS. And now, in recent weeks, we have been getting the broadest of hints that Jerusalem and Riyadh are determined to cooperate in even bolder ways than ever to rollback the growing menace of “Persian imperialism.” In November, 2014, Saudi Arabia’s petroleum minister, Ali al-Naimi, stated “His Majesty King Abdullah has always been a model for good relations between Saudi Arabia and other states,” Naimi told reporters in Vienna, “and the Jewish state is no exception.”
It is clear that, to the Arab rulers, dealing with the challenge from Iran is the most urgent issue in world affairs today. The rest of us do not have to agree with this calculation. But it does not take much imagination to see that in this light the Arab nations have absolutely no interest in keeping that old tiresome issue of Palestine at the top of the world’s diplomatic agenda. (See my essay, “Has the ‘Palestinian cause’ been demoted in the higher counsels of the Arab world?” Bayview Review, July 8, 2013. )
Meanwhile, just as all realistic students of world affairs everywhere are discovering the fact of convergence of geopolitical interest between the Arab nations and Israel, the largest obstacle standing in the way of a recalculation of diplomatic possibilities in the Middle East may well prove to be the determination of the President of the United States and his Secretary of State to keep on the world’s agenda the hopeless issue of resumption of the Peace talks between Israel and Mahmoud Abbas.
We have to wonder how much longer Barack Obama and John Kerry will go on snubbing the freshly-elected Prime Minister of the only democracy in the Middle East, while continuing to smile upon the man whose tenure of office of the President of the Palestine authority ran out six years ago and who now qualifies fully as a dictator of the familiar Arab sort.