How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
With the intervention in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s military is trying to kill several birds with one stone. In the near term, it is safeguarding the country from what Riyadh perceives as an immediate military threat posed by advancing pro-Iranian Houthi rebels. In the medium-term, it is asserting its leadership of the Arab world and consolidating its control over what has recently been a tension-ridden Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In the long term, it is redressing what it sees as a geopolitical imbalance in the Middle East between itself and Iran. In recent years, power has tilted heavily toward Iran, in no small part due to U.S. retrenchment.
The Kingdom is in a good position to kill the first two birds. And if it plays its cards right, it could make progress against the third and, as a result, shore up its status in the region at a time when other traditional powers such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria are bleeding influence thanks to domestic conflict, political turmoil, and economic implosion. There is no shortage of risk in Saudi Arabia’s strategy, and a lot could go wrong. But the new Saudi leadership has decided that the alternative—inaction— carries intolerable costs.
Yemen has been a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia (and other Arab Gulf countries, including Oman) since the latter was founded in the 1930s. The threats of Marxism, populism, and recently, Islamist extremism with the rise of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have made Yemen a high Saudi national security risk. Today, Saudi Arabia sees danger in the Shia Houthi rebel takeover of much of Yemen, particularly territory near the Saudi border. Last week, to drive back the Houthis, Saudi Arabia, in coordination with nine other countries (Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar, Sudan, United Arab Emirates) launched a sustained air campaign and is blockading the Yemeni coast.
Saudi Arabia, which itself warned Washington about the limitations of air power in the fight against al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, knows that airstrikes alone will not fix Yemen or stop it from falling apart. But it does believe that limited military action will help neutralize the Houthi security threat by destroying the group’s offensive military capabilities—including strategic missiles, weapons depots, tanks, and fighter jets that it has seized from the Yemeni military and might use against Saudi interests—and restore the elected government of President Abed Mansour Hadi in at least part of the country, especially in the south around the port of Aden and the air base at al-Anad.
Saudi Arabia also is hoping that the use of force will gradually alter the internal balance of power in Yemen and compel the Houthis, who receive military, logistical, and intelligence support from Tehran, to come to the table for peace talks with the elected government and other Yemeni factions, including the Separatist Southern movement, the General People’s Congress headed by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the Saudi-backed Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Al-Islah).
If Riyadh’s political-military approach proves effective, the need for a risky ground invasion will be drastically reduced. Key to the success of this two-pronged tactic, however, is the methodical dismantlement of the alliance the Houthis have formed with Saleh’s forces. This will require, among other things, a set of political and financial incentives, which Riyadh is already preparing.
The desire and ability of a large and well-resourced Houthi movement to fight a long war should not be underestimated, especially should Iran decide to double down in Yemen and drag Saudi Arabia and its other adversaries into a war of attrition. But it is likely that Tehran, whose major interests lie primarily in Iraq and Syria, will decide to deescalate and push its local allies to seek a political solution that would earn them a bigger piece of the pie (which may end up being one of the six provinces defined by the draft constitution, although without access to the sea). It is also unlikely that the Houthis would go it alone in this conflict, since this would mean waging war with most other factions in Yemen.
For his part, Saleh has denounced the Saudi-led “Operation Storm of Resolve,” but perhaps with appropriate compensation and a guarantee of political survival, he might break ranks with the Houthis. But Riyadh has shown little interest in entertaining quid pro quos from Saleh and his son, who according to Saudi-owned Al Arabiya, approached Saudi authorities two days prior to the launch of the military campaign offering to turn against the Houthis in return for immunity for himself and his father.
The outcome of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen will have repercussions that go beyond both countries. Should Riyadh manage to pacify Yemen, it will cement its leadership in the Arab world and send a strong message to its Arab Gulf neighbors that it remains the indispensable nation within the GCC. If Yemen goes to hell, Saudi power and prestige will take a big hit. As a result, Riyadh’s ability to steer the GCC will dramatically decline.
That would not bode well for Saudi Arabia’s plans to check Iran’s rising influence in the Middle East. Saudi failure in Yemen would most probably further embolden Iran and encourage it to continue with its expansionist policies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and elsewhere. Saudi Arabia still enjoys a robust partnership with the United States against Iran, but the feeling in Riyadh and other Gulf capitals is that Washington has offered the Middle East to Tehran on a golden platter in return for a nuclear deal. It is a baseless and ridiculous conclusion, but that’s the perception in the region, which is now finding application in official policy.
Many have argued that Saudi Arabia should not have escalated or engaged in excessive militarism that could make matters worse for the Kingdom and the entire region. But the reality is that Saudi Arabia’s Yemen strategy—which is designed to use military force for the purpose of a political re-engineering—is more measured than its critics claim, and Iran’s reach in Yemen is more extensive and threatening than it is often assumed to be. A firm presence in Yemen could allow Iran to grab Bab El-Mandeb, a strategic gateway for shipping energy between the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Suez Canal. With Iran already exercising some control over the Strait of Hormuz, through which nearly a quarter of the world's petroleum passes, one can imagine the devastating consequences for Gulf security and the global economy. Instead of criticizing Riyadh, Washington should take caution.
None of this makes Riyadh’s approach less risky, but it is something that the Saudis, who are historically risk-averse, are willing to tolerate given the very costly alternative and the high potential rewards. As one prominent Arab Gulf ambassador privately summarized it, “the Houthis do not have nuclear weapons, but this is Saudi Arabia’s own Cuban Missile Crisis. Would Washington tolerate the stationing of ballistic missiles by an adversary next door that could target American cities?” It certainly helps that Saudi Arabia is not alone in this conflict, with nine other nations joining the fight. Make no mistake about it, though: this is Saudi Arabia’s war, and the result could either make or break the Kingdom.