Is Saudi Intervention in Yemen a Turning Point?

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    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen has many observers expressing concern that, given the complexity of the situation and the various alliances in the country, an already difficult environment could become more unstable. The Saudis are characterizing their role as defenders of order and security and, to be sure, Riyadh and those who support them in the region fear the consequences of doing nothing in Yemen. It is equally clear to many, however, that the current impasse cannot be resolved militarily; the Houthis must be convinced to come to the negotiation table. Whether they will chose to do so depends very much on the advice and support they get from Iran and the pressure they receive from the Saudis.

Commenting on the deteriorating economic, social and security conditions, in the country, National Yemen’s Esra’ AlNajjar expresses concern for the on the country’s youth: “The events that Yemen is going through at the moment have had a negative impact on teenagers. At the time when teenagers around the world are living their lives to the fullest potential, Yemeni teenagers are watching the news day and night. The news, which is generally terrible, burdens them with negative feelings and demolishes their hopes for a better future. Teenagers also fear the actions made by decision-makers because they believe that those decisions cause more chaos and paralyze them further….The current situation doesn’t seem to be improving; parents as well as teenagers are worried. Anxiety is spreading and it is getting harder to feel hopeful again. “

It is clear that something must be done about the situation in Yemen. But What? For example, in an op-ed for Al Arabiya, Manuel Almeida tries to balance the need for a military and political solution: “The very mention of an intervention in Yemen sounds like a bad idea. It is hard to think of a more complex crisis with so many intervenients and so many competing political and territorial loyalties, adding to a complicated terrain and geography…. Yet for any deal to happen, their leadership needs to be confronted with some hard power to go back to the negotiations table….The alternative is a terrible scenario. Various local groups will try to fight Iran-backed Ansarullah in a very complex civil war, with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’s local franchise taking advantage of the chaos.”

For now, it appears that at least in the initial stages, the preferred option of Yemen’s neighbors is a military one. The Saudis have been very careful to cast themselves, as Al Arabiya’s Faisal Abbas also does, as liberators fighting in the name of humanity: “Having been a victim of several atrocious terrorist attacks itself, Saudi Arabia has always been a key ally in the war against terror and has been relentlessly pursuing al-Qaeda and ISIS militants in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. However, while Yemen’s proximity as well as the despicable crimes committed by Houthis against innocent Sunni men, women and children were all factors which led to the Saudi decision to use force; one needs to remember that Saudi Arabia and its allies are waging this war in the name of humanity, civilization and on behalf of the whole world….Furthermore, given the historical, cultural, religious and even family ties that the Saudis and Yemenis enjoy; there is undoubtedly a sense of duty to help Yemen stand back on its feet, prosper and live in peace”

Asharq Alawsat’s Mshari Al-Zaydi believes that the harsh pushback against the Houthis on the part of the Saudis must be seen in the context of a desire from all of the countries in the region, with the possible exception of Iran and one or two other countries, to see the conflict contained: “What is currently happening in Yemen is not the first problem Saudi Arabia has faced with respect to its neighbor to the south. But the current problems don’t just concern Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom is of course the most affected out of the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, but it is by no means alone in being impacted….Saudi Arabia is the country most affected by the current Yemeni crisis, due to its geographic proximity to Yemen and the nature of the terrain on the borders between the two countries, from mountains and valleys to plains and steppes—not to mention the close links that exist between the peoples of these two countries….A storm is brewing in the southern Arabian Peninsula, heading northwards and outwards. Stopping it from spreading is no longer a choice.”

If history is a guide, the Saudis must tread carefully when it comes to Yemen. Yedioth Ahronoth’s Roi Kais believes Saudi officials are aware of it, which is why they have pursued the diplomatic option:   “The Saudi leadership was working in the highest ranks and consulting other Gulf states on ways to intervene in Yemen in order to help President Hadi maintain his constitutional legitimacy, which is decreasing from day to day….While Yemen is Saudi Arabia’s backyard, and it definitely doesn’t want to see its major Shiite rival – Iran – settling down there, Riyadh hasn’t forgotten the lesson Egypt learned in Yemen. In the 1960s, in the Gamal Abdel Nasser era, Egypt intervened in the civil war in Yemen and emerged beaten and injured. Confronting Iran’s allies is also something which should be considered very carefully before taking action.

No wonder then that the Khaleej Times editorial points out that the only sustainable solution to the conflict will ultimately be a political one: “The Houthis, the state-centric beleaguered army and Al Qaeda-cum-Daesh have their axe to grind, which has slid the country into anarchy and bloodshed. The rise of Houthis, though surprising, is now one of the most debatable issues of geopolitics in the region….Foreign Minister Riad Yassin has called for the Gulf Cooperation Council support, in an earnest attempt to save the country from being completely Balkanised at the hands of the Houthis and Al Qaeda….The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who have adopted a proactive role in the crises, especially in fighting the Daesh in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere, will have to seriously study the Houthi factor and respond to the exigency….The heterogeneous composition of Yemen cannot be fought militaristically, and it has to have a political solution sooner than later.”

For that political solution to materialize, writes Saudi Gazette’s Ali Al-Ghamdi, the Houthis themselves must be convinced that taking the diplomatic route will be a beneficial one: “All these measures and procedures announced by the Houthis were rejected by political groups and most of the tribes in Yemen as well as by the international community….The Houthis should realize that they are the minority and that it is not possible for them to rule the country by themselves. They have to reconcile themselves to the fact that they must live up to the aspirations of various sections of the Yemeni people, in addition to serving the interests of their brothers and neighbors in the GCC states, especially Saudi Arabia.”

Among the regional actors, Iran has an important role to play, but as National Yemen’s Harun Yahya suggests, they and the Saudis ought to be careful not to escalate the conflict: “There is no need to see Iranian-made weapons or Iranian Revolutionary Guards in order to comprehend the influence of Iran in Yemen. The way that the Zaidis, not in dispute with the Sunnis in Yemen until recently, turned into an armed political group under the name of Ansar Allah following Badr al-Din al-Houthi’s visit to Iran speaks volumes….All these links are considered as the product of Iran’s strategy of controlling the head of the Red Sea after the Persian Gulf. If that happens, Saudi Arabia, which Iran regards as its mortal foe, will also be surrounded from the south. Saudi Arabia is not standing idly by in the face of this objective of Iran’s…. No matter what their nature or where they take place, any initiatives that exacerbate the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia will harm both countries.”

Finally, it ought to be the Yemenis who decide their future, to avoid becoming a pawn in a regional chess game between the Iranians and the Saudis:  “In order for this support and investment to have a positive impact on Yemen, great care needs to be taken over two matters. The first is that the assistance and support program must not be restricted to the area under Houthi control. The other is that the investment and support must not be sabotaged by those opposed to the Houthis….All Muslims in Yemen should greet and talk to one another. They must be tolerant of one another. Sectarian or tribal disagreements must come to an end. And all Muslims must work together, in tolerance and humility, to draw closer to God and perform greater service for His faith.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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