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The Gulf's Failure in Yemen

How Regional Apathy Bred Local Conflict

Smoke rises during an air strike on an army weapons depot in Sanaa, April 20, 2015. Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

Since late March, a Saudi Arabia-led military coalition has been bombing Yemen extensively in an attempt to push back the Houthis, an insurgent Shia group, and their ally, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The coalition’s goal is to force the Houthis to retreat and to weaken Saleh’s hold on power. But so far, the only definitive outcome of the war is civilian devastation: At least a thousand Yemenis have died, thousands more have been injured, and hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee their homes.

Even if the Gulf countries do eventually succeed in driving out the Houthis, their intervention in Yemen is actually a sign of their failure, particularly Saudi Arabia’s. In effect, the richest country in the Arab world has had to bomb the poorest one to change its political dynamics. One might even go as far as to say that the current crisis in Yemen is a direct result of regional inaction over the last few years, if not decades.

In 2011, the Arab Spring pushed the country to the brink of civil war as protestors sought to oust a stubborn Saleh. The United Nations intervened by crafting a model for a peaceful transition with the support of six countries from the regional Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The initiative led to a successful handover of presidency from Saleh to interim leader Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, but at that time, the Gulf States were not deeply invested in the process and only played a limited role in the power turnover. They had other preoccupations. Saudi Arabia, for example, was consumed with supporting Egypt’s own leadership change, and other Gulf countries were attempting to topple President Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria. 

These same countries watched from the sidelines as this UN-administered GCC project unraveled. After Saleh’s exit, the gradual power transition focused on building consensus among Yemen’s elites. Hadi proved an incompetent leader, unable to provide either physical or economic security to

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